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Sanity in battle over looted art

BOOK REVIEW

Loot The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World; Sharon Waxman; Times Books/Henry Holt: 416 pp., $30

November 25, 2008|Wendy Smith | Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Journalist Sharon Waxman's "Loot," a cogent survey of the conflict over classical antiquities, is notable for its common sense, a rare quality in a debate generally characterized by high-pitched rhetoric. As Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey attempt to reclaim ancient artworks, their government officials depict Western museums as predatory institutions working hand-in-glove with tomb robbers, crooked dealers and shady collectors to strip vulnerable nations of their patrimony. In response, the beleaguered directors and curators of the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum proclaim that they are repositories of universal culture, the places best qualified to conserve masterpieces that, if returned to their countries of origin, would languish in institutions that no one visits.

There's truth in each position, but each is, in Waxman's assessment, self-serving. She's well qualified to make such judgments. A Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times and the author of "Rebels on the Backlot," Waxman formerly covered Middle Eastern and European politics and culture and holds a master's degree in Middle East studies. This varied background serves her well as she skillfully interweaves lucid historical accounts with savvy contemporary interviews in four sections tracing the odysseys of paradigmatic ancient treasures.

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Pillaging colonies

Some, like the Elgin Marbles and the zodiac ceiling of the Temple of Denderah, were openly pillaged by freebooting archaeologists and diplomats in the 18th and 19th centuries, when weak regulations rarely prevented imperial powers from doing as they liked in colonized territories. The British Museum and the Louvre, where these works have been exhibited for about 200 years, are under pressure to repatriate them to Greece and Egypt. Others, like the Lydian Hoard at the Met and a spectacular Macedonian gold wreath in the Getty collection, were clearly illegal acquisitions, purchased after the UNESCO convention of 1970 banned the transfer of looted cultural property. They were returned to Turkey and Greece after considerable foot-dragging by the American museums.

Are these masterpieces the exclusive property of the lands in which they were found, or do the foreigners who brought them to the world's attention have a legitimate stake? There is no simple answer, Waxman reveals as she travels the globe. In Western museums, her scrutiny of display cases and exhibition catalogs exposes shameful obfuscation about how these objects were acquired "during decades of unchecked looting," as she bluntly puts it. In Egypt and Greece, she visits monuments scarred by the brutal removal of decorative elements intrinsic to their meaning. But she also visits dilapidated museums unable to coherently inventory their holdings, many of which are disintegrating unseen in basement storage.

The Western case against repatriation got an unpleasant boost in 2006, when a Turkish newspaper reported that the most valuable artifact in the Lydian Hoard had been stolen from a museum in Usak, and the museum's director was arrested as a suspect. In the five years before the theft, only 769 people had visited the Usak museum, an aging one-room facility in a provincial town. But Waxman also found the modern museums of Turkey's cities virtually empty, as was a well-curated, beautifully maintained Egyptian museum located a stone's throw from the Temple of Luxor.

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On their high horses

The millions of tourists who flock to the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty each year buttress those institutions' contention that they make great works of art accessible to a broader public. Yet Thomas Hoving, who admits he knowingly bought looted art when he was director of the Met, dismisses the idea that big audiences justify the retention of expropriated works. "The number of people who see something has nothing to do with the significance of art," he tells Waxman. "The great masses seeing it doesn't make them or it any better."

The author doesn't necessarily agree, but she allows Hoving his say, just as she lets recently retired Met director Philippe de Montebello defend the notion that "museums with encyclopedic collections are a way to understand the whole of human history in a cross-cultural environment."

She also gives ample space to angry journalists and archaeologists who have exposed looting and the complicity of major museums, as well as to the sad, complicated case of former Getty curator Marion True, now on trial in Italy for buying looted art. True certainly engaged in ethically dubious, possibly illegal acts, but Waxman persuasively argues that she was scapegoated for misconduct prevalent among museum personnel, a pawn in the Italian government's game of chicken with the Getty over disputed antiquities.

This wide-ranging narrative limns a multifaceted problem with no single solution. Facing facts would be a good place to start, Waxman concludes. Western museums should publicly acknowledge that many of their antiquities came to them through plunder. Nations demanding repatriation should admit that they do not always have the resources to properly conserve these treasures. Both sides should get off their high horses. "The only realistic path forward," she writes, "is one of collaboration between poorer source countries so rich in patrimony and the wealthy industrialized nations that have the cash and expertise to preserve that patrimony." Readers of her intelligent, well-informed book can only hope that such an eminently reasonable point of view will prevail.

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