Friday, April 22, 2011

Looted Art: The Neverending Story

Josh Rothman in the Boston Globe summarises the recent article ('Art in the Time of War') by British historian Richard J. Evans in The National Interest. This covers art-looting through the ages from ancient Byzantium, through Napoleon and the Nazis, up to modern Iraq and Egypt.
Evans begins in antiquity, when the looting of art objects in war seemed perfectly natural -- just a way of showing that you'd won. The general assumption was that the victorious nation had proved its essential superiority, and would be better able to appreciate the art anyway. Thus, when Napoleon conquered Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, thousands of artworks were brought to the Louvre "in a Roman-style triumphal procession, accompanied by banners that read: 'Greece relinquished them, Rome lost them, their fate has changed twice, it will never change again.'" (The loot included artworks which had, in turn, been looted by the Italians from all over Europe; included in the haul were "live camels and lions, and the entire papal archive.")

At Napoleon's defeat, cooler heads prevailed: Wellington insisted on returning stolen artworks to their original owners, and, in the American Civil War, the Union Army adopted an official policy of leaving art alone, putting museums and libraries in the same class as hospitals.

These enlightened policies however were swept away by the increased firepower and savagery of twentieth-century warfare which led to the wholesale destruction of cities and the collections they contained by bombing and shelling.
The Nazis looted art on a massive scale never before seen in history, and squabbled among themselves over the gems of Europe's museums and private collections. There was so much stolen art that it was often treated carelessly -- the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had to be reprimanded by a Nazi art historian "for hanging a painting by Leonardo da Vinci above a radiator."

A surprisingly large amount of the art displaced by the World Wars has been returned, not necessarily to its owners, but at least to its country of origin.

Evans notes, the looting and destruction of art continues with every new conflict, as we saw in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with its shocking images of the looting and destruction of the museum and library collections there.
The looting of art continues apace; if it's no longer motivated by nationalist fervor, it's still driven by personal greed. By 2005, four thousand of the 15,000 artworks looted from the Baghdad Museum in 2003 had been found. A thousand were found in the United States, and 600 in Italy. Many of them, Evans writes, were "pillaged by order from private collectors and their agents."

Photo: Looted art in WW2: Image Caption: American soldiers look at a piece of Nazi-looted art by the impressionist painter Edouard Manet (Keystone)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Iraq Calls for Discussion of Regulation on Repatriation

Iraq is reportedly seeking a new international agreement protecting antiquities as a response to the ongoing looting of saleable antiquities from archaeological sites there (Radio Free Europe, 'Iraq Seeks International Treaty Protecting Antique Artifacts', April 20th 2011).
Iraq wants to conclude a new international agreement that will designate the dealing of antique Iraqi artifacts a crime, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports. Iraqi officials said the goal is to preserve the country's heritage from thieves and smugglers. Baha al-Mayyah, an adviser at the Iraqi Tourism and Historic Monuments Ministry, [...] criticized the international community for not doing enough to deter smugglers and looters. He said Iraq wants to abolish the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property [...] Iraq plans to convene an international conference at the end of this year in Baghdad to discuss the creation of a new international organization. "Its task would be to push for the cancellation or the amendment of the 1970 convention," al-Mayyah said. "It would have as members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage."
This would be a very interesting move. It is quite clear that a convention discussed and written in the late 1960s cannot possibly be applied to the changed antiquities market (especially in its dominating no-questions-asked variant) that has developed since the mid 1970s and then was again completely transformed in the mid 1990s by internet trading. It is totally inadequate to the task.

Iraq suggests that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property "treats Iraq unfairly":
The 1970 convention urges signatory states to take all measures to prevent their museums from acquiring artifacts or art works illegally. It also urges countries to return such treasures to their country of origin. "But these measures are applicable only to cases that occurred after 1970," al-Mayyah said. "As for objects obtained before that date, these countries are allowed to keep what they acquired, even if it was done illegally."
This is why Iraq plans to convene a conference attended by members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage.

There seems to be a blurring of the distinction here between two things. the first is taking more effective measures against the ongoing looting and entering of freshly-looted items onto the international market, which we should be fighting in the interests of protecting the finite and fragile archaeological resource (the archaeological record, or what now remains of it). The second is the entirely different matter of objects dug up and which entered the market (and foreign museums) many decades ago, before there was global awareness and concern about looting.

Should we now create retrospective international laws forcing entities (individuals, museums, states) to return items taken a long time ago irrespective of the mechanisms of acquisition? What would that achieve? What problems would it produce? Would it be applied to every artefact, or just selected ones, and on what would the selection be based? Is the aim of the organizers to be the total dismantling of the antiquities market (and foreign museum collections with "universal" pretensions)? Obviously some countries have strong opinions about large swathes of their ancient cultural heritage being held by foreign collectors, they do not see this as beneficial to them, they do not see it as any kind of 'mark of respect', but as another form of expression of dominance and domination. Nobody, surely, can deny that it is their right to hold such opinions. Merely labelling it pejoratively "cultural property nationalism" (or "retentionism") by collectors is hardly helpful and avoids the question why these collectors want to hang on to it despite all. We will all watch the development of the plans for and discussion round this conference with great interest.

Vignette: British Museum Aidan McRae Thomson's photostream

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The obligation to repatriate

There is an opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian by Lily Yu (is an English major from West Windsor, N.J.). She had previously been an intern at Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2009. It is replying to a retentionist article by Aaron Applebaum in the paper a week earlier:
In his column last Tuesday, Aaron Applbaum argued for keeping antiquities in European and American museums regardless of how they got there. Looting should be eliminated, he wrote, but “the returning of already acquired artifacts should not be expected.” [....]

Applbaum is incorrect in claiming that repatriating antiquities would mean removing them from museums and reducing public access to them. Many of the countries requesting repatriation, including Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Italy and China, have excellent museums of their own. His description of these countries as “geographical and cultural ghettos” is condescending and inaccurate. Repatriation requests are often motivated by a country’s desire to make its cultural heritage available to its own people. In most countries that have suffered and continue to suffer extensive cultural theft, relatively few people can afford to travel to the American and European museums where major pieces of their heritage are on display. In 2010 the per-capita gross domestic product of Great Britain, where the Rosetta Stone is displayed, was $35,000; in Egypt, it was $6,200. The plane ticket between these countries is likely to be more affordable in one than the other. A long-term loan of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt would permit, without loss to the British Museum, millions of Egyptians to view a cornerstone of their history for the first time.

One of the stronger arguments against repatriation is that the security and means for preservation in the requesting countries are sometimes subpar. During the recent revolts in Egypt, archaeological sites and magazines at Saqqara, Abusir and Memphis were looted, and several museums in Cairo were attacked. But our responsibility to these security failures should not be to pat ourselves on the back for wisely refusing to return their antiquities. It is easy to approach the problem of preservation from a paternalistic point of view. But it is better to offer freely, when and where it is needed, our help in safeguarding a country’s museums and archaeological sites, by monitoring the traffic of antiquities over national borders, donating security systems and equipment or sending experts in conservation. By doing so we would discourage looting, improve cultural institutions around the globe, strengthen our relations with other countries and contribute to the maintenance of our world’s cultural heritage.

In this postcolonial world, we must recognize the sovereignty of other states not only in self-government but also in the management of their cultural patrimonies. While recognizing the importance of the legal acquisition of antiquities by museums, we cannot forget our obligations to those countries that have been plundered of their pasts, and we ought, where it is legally or ethically required of us, to repatriate — to render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s.

Some good points here to counter those of the cultural property retentionists who would like to see the world's heritage split up and scattered - as long as a goodly proportion of it is in "universal" museums in their own country.

Photo: General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, 1st Baronet GCB GCVO GBE KCMG DSO TD
(1861-1953) Governor-General of the Sudan, British High Commissioner in Egypt

Friday, April 1, 2011

Return that Loot!

An idea put forward recently was obviously intended as an April Fool joke by a US cultural property lawyer, but the idea behind it is in fact sound and would probably make good television. Maybe not "Zani Hanass", but another figure from the world of culture as the host, and instead of an "audience of archaeologists", a game show format with an invited panel of various people arguing the pros and cons, with short (no more than 5 mins) colourful film reports of where the object came from, what significance it has in its original context, what significance it has in its new context. Then viewers vote by texting the programme with the results announced the following week. The objects should be chosen from all over the world, from among the obvious famous ones which viewers may well have seen in museums (or been to the place they were taken from) on one holiday or another and a few more obscure ones.

If a British TV company made it, they could use the British Museum and its Portable Antiquities Scheme as a source of commentators and panellists - a far better TV use of the latter than what they were apparently proposing to do in December staging a programme about Treasure hunting.