Sunday, January 27, 2013

America's "Great Giveback"

There is a thought-provoking opinion piece by Hugh Eakin in the New York Times  ('The Great Giveback',  NYT January 26, 2013). The topic of the text is that US museums are giving up items they have acquired from foreign countries:
The news has become astonishingly routine: a major American museum announces it is relinquishing extraordinary antiquities because a foreign government claims they were looted and has threatened legal action or other sanctions if it doesn’t get them back.  [...] Since 2006, more than 100 statues, bronzes, vases, mosaics and other works have left public collections in the United States.
This text unexpectedly reveals quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples' cultural property, that underlie the reluctance of collectors to return stolen items.  Note the language of this article, "foreign government claims..." "statue of a Greek goddess was given to Italy", "agreed to send to Turkey...", "responding to trophy hunting from abroad"...

He refers to these developments merely as:
rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments and impoverishing Americans’ access to the ancient world.  [...]  in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are [...]  making great art ever less available to their own patrons [...] museums [...] are supposed to be in the business of collecting and preserving art from every era, not giving it away.
Eakin's gripe appears to be that Americans are in some way being 'victimised' here: 
In nearly every case, the museums have not been compelled by any legal ruling to give up the art, nor are they receiving compensation for doing so. And while a few of the returned works have been traced to particular sites or matched with other fragments residing in the claimant country, many of them have no known place of origin. 
He seems disturbed to observe that US museums are caving in, not holding out like the SLAM attempted over that Ka Nefer Nefer mask. They just gave in to the pesky olive-skinned furriners.  Furriners who go so far in their insolence as sometimes to refuse permits to archaeologists from other nations including the USA to dig up the archaeological heritage in their territories in response to them harbouring stolen (I almost feel Eakin would use scare quotes there) antiquities. How dare they? How dare they say who will enter their sovereign territory to do what they like there?  Eakin also warns that by coming to agreements with furriners, US museums:
[...]  have also spurred a raft of extravagant new claims  [..] museums’ relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly extortionary, demands.
Well, I think that is enough of that. The author of this text steadfastly refuses to even hint that the Americans (demonised by "alarming stories of rogue curators and nefarious dealers") might actually be in the wrong here. That the proverbial Truth, Justice and the American Way might here not really being applied at all assiduously. Certainly I think we can all see a serial avoidance of an uncomfortable truth and a warping of a sense of justice in these writings. This is ridiculous, the US is not some banana republic with 80% of the population barely able to write their own name, its a nation that claims to have a responsible and enlightened society, to be a world leader and moral arbiter. Yet in writings like this we time and time again come across the expression of ideas which conflict with the moral stance one would expect from such a country. The stuff is stolen, if it somehow got into the USA and the original owner wants it back, why kick up such a fuss about handing it back, and how about saying "sorry"?

Eakin concedes that "museums themselves are partly to blame", by buying looted stuff in the first place (duh). Skipping somewhat lightly over that topic, he sees the damaging effects somewhere else:
Observing the success of this hardball strategy, other countries have been making threats of their own to retrieve objects from American collections, regardless of how long the object may have been out of the country and how little basis they have for claiming it.
The Cambodian government is threatening to sue the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., to get back a 10th-century statue that has been on display since 1980 and whose ownership has never before been challenged. 
Italian prosecutors have revived efforts to claim the “Getty Bronze,” a statue created in ancient Greece and found in international waters. 
And the United States government is continuing a lawsuit against the Saint Louis Art Museum to help Egypt reclaim an ancient Egyptian mask, despite a ruling by an American judge last March that the government “completely failed to identify” the “established law that was violated” in its acquisition.
Odd though that he omits mention of the all-important question of how each of those items left the source country to end up in America. Then the new antiquitists' bogeyman:
Meanwhile, Turkish officials have declared an all-out war on Western museums. Claiming a long list of works from the Getty, the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum — some of them acquired in the 19th century and some from countries other than Turkey — the Turkish government has cut off ties to the offending institutions until they give them up. “All loans have been stopped; all cooperation suspended,” said Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director. “This is a kind of behavior that is really unprecedented.” It was the recent wave of restitution agreements that emboldened foreign governments to make the threats.
"Emboldened" foreign governments to ask the Americans to give back whatdoes not belong to them? How dare they? Eh? The New York Times editor says 'no'. What about the rest of us?


  1. Bravo! My sentiments exactly. Thank you for saying what I wanted to, much much more eloquently.

  2. There is not much to add to what you have written. The Eakin piece is a confirmation that there are still many highly educated and uneducated persons in Western countries who do not understand or accept that taking or holding the property, including cultural property, of another, is wrong. That there is not only a legal but also a moral obligation to return stolen or looted artefacts appears complicated for some.

    I used to think that the New York Times was a paper of the US American elite. Is that how their minds work? I would have thought that we should all now praise the American museums, like the Getty, the Met, Dallas Museum and others that have seen the light and are now willing to examine their past acquisitions and where necessary, return wrongfully acquired artefacts to the owners. Eakin seems to think the museums have returned too many objects and have been weak in resisting foreign pressures.

    Does Eakin not read regularly the New York Times and other American papers and blogs? He would have been aware that the US Museums have not simply returned artefacts on request but have resisted for years. He would also have realized that there are thousands of objects in US museums that are still subject to dispute. What leadership does Eakin and his paper hope to provide?

    Kwame Opoku.

  3. It is surprising to read from “A Short Message About Museums And Antiquities” by Judith Dobrzynski in that those who are reclaiming their stolen or looted cultural artefacts are committing extortion. Can the author really mean that a goverment such as that of Turkey, by stating that it would not loan artefacts to those museum holding illegally Turkish artefacts, is committing extortion? Extortion, according to normal usage, implies the use of force or intimidation to obtain money or other advantage which one could not normally be entitled to. I know of no case where this would apply to those who demand the return of their property. One could as well say that a bank that refuses to make further loans until the earlier ones are paid, is committing extortion. But this is not normal understanding of the word.

    “Meanwhile, the looting that these cases were supposed to stop has gone on, possibly getting worse.” I do not recall anyone suggesting that the restitution of looted/stolen object would stop looting. Which government presented the cessation of looting as ground for requesting restitution of an art object?

    How can anybody, familiar with the situation regarding the recent restitutions by US American institutions, consider the views expressed by Eakin as reasonable? He is suggesting that the American museums have gone too far in restituting looted/stolen foreign cultural artefacts. Is this what you consider a reasonable position? We know that there still many more such artefacts that have not yet been returned to their countries of origin as the United Nations and the UNESCO have been urging for decades. The recent General Assembly resolution on return of cultural property, sponsored by more than 100 States, including the United States, urged the return of such cultural objects.

    The last quotation is simply amazing “But in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are doing little to protect ancient heritage while making great art ever less available to their own patrons”. To describe Italy, Turkey, Greece, Nigeria, Peru and other States seeking the return of their looted/stolen cultural artefacts as trophy hunters is really shameful.

    Kwame Opoku.

  4. "“Meanwhile, the looting that these cases were supposed to stop has gone on, possibly getting worse.” I do not recall anyone suggesting that the restitution of looted/stolen object would stop looting. Which government presented the cessation of looting as ground for requesting restitution of an art object?"

    This is the Americans again, misunderstanding the nature of the 1970 convention, through only seeing it through Article 9 and their own Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. - neither of which I suspect many of them have never read from end to end with any kind of understanding...