Sexy, isn't it? It's the Magna Carta, one of apparently 20 known original copies of a charter issued in 1215 that set us -- yes, us, we the lotus eaters who bask in the land of the free and the home of the brave -- on the path to individual rights separate and apart from the whim of a ruler. Sotheby's has announced that this document will be sold by its owner, the Perot Foundation (named for its founder, the singular entrepreneur Ross Perot), which would rather give the proceeds to charity than continue to underwrite it. Since 1984, when the foundation bought it from a British family, this Magna Carta has been exhibited in The National Archives in Washington DC, and is one of only two copies outside of the United Kingdom, according to the auction house. Who will buy this document, expected to fetch between $20 and $30 million? A Silicon Valley zillionaire? A hedge fund honcho? Where ought it be? If there is any document that deserves to be in the public eye in a democracy, this one may well top on the list. At a time when the term 'habeas corpus' seems a quaint anachronism, the document that enshrined that right may be removed from public view. Its sale makes questions of ownership of and access to important symbols seem more urgent than ever. Here's a thought: maybe Norman Lear, who, after all, bought the Declaration of Independence, will buy it and set up a permanent exhibit somewhere, say, the office of the Attorney General. Wait -- I just had a better idea. Maybe there's a Greek shipping magnate who can be persuaded to buy it, and swap the Magna Carta for the Elgin marbles missing on the Parthenon. That, somehow, would be cultural patrimonial justice.
“Sharon Waxman has written a compelling page turner about the world of antiquities and art-world skulduggery. She manages to combine rigorous, scholarly reporting with a flair for intrigue and personality that gives Loot the fast pace of a novel. I enjoyed it immensely."
“Sharon Waxman’s Loot is the most instructive as well as the most intelligent (and the most entertaining) guide through the labyrinth of antiquity and the ways in which the claims of the departed intersect with the rights of the living.”
"Loot is a riveting foray into the biggest question facing museums today: who should own the great works of ancient art? Sharon Waxman is a first-rate reporter, a veritable Euphronios of words, who not only explores the legal and moral ambiguities of the conflict but brings to life the colorful -- even outrageous -- personalities facing off for a high noon showdown over some of the world’s iconic works of art. Vivid, witty, and delightful, this book will beguile any reader with an interest in art and museums."
“Sharon Waxman approaches her subject with the passion of a great journalist and the rigor of a scholar. It may never again be possible for some of us to walk down the halls of the Louvre or the British Museum or the Metropolitan without a vague sense of disquietude, a frisson of wonder about the provenance of some of their showcase works of ancient art.”
Karl E. Meyer, author of The Plundered Past and co-author of Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East:
"Sharon Waxman’s Loot is indispensable for everyone concerned with the illicit trade in smuggled antiquities. She exposes the self-serving humbug that too often afflicts both affluent possessors and righteous nationalists and shows that we all have a stake in getting an honest account of how great objects came to rest in our grandest museums."
September 25, 2007
Here's a new Associated Press story telling readers of this blog what they knew was going to happen: as the ink dries on the newly-signed agreement between the Getty and Italy, in which the museum returns 40 pieces to Italy, Italy is dropping civil charges against Marion True. That should happen when her trial resumes tomorrow. "True's position is certainly less serious. ... In this case, returning the artifacts can be considered an extenuating circumstance," Maurizio Fiorilli, one of the state prosecutors, told reporters after the deal was signed at the Culture Ministry in Rome this week. Fiorilli handles the civil case, while it is his colleague Paolo Ferri who prosecutes the criminal charges. But as Fiorilli told me this summer, the criminal charges could be pleaded out in exchange for a few months in prison. No word on whether True would agree to this sort of deal, but she is undoubtedly eager to be through with this chapter of her life. UPDATE: True's camp is not interested in a plea bargain, I've been told. They want to prove her innocence of the charges, and intend to see the trial through, though in Italy that process may take many more years.
September 19, 2007
It takes a lot to interrupt my writing silence, but today's article by Kim Murphy in the L.A. Times makes it necessary. Kim managed to gain access to the basement of Iran's contemporary art museum where, she informs us, the most important collection of impressionist and modern Western art outside the West is stored, though not exhibited. Instead of showing its Picassos, Kandinskys, Pollock, Gauguin, Matisse and Braques, the museum has an exhibit of women's clothing and local paintings like one of a small bird facing three large ones titled, "Negotiations." Here is the flip side of the restitution debate -- the blinkering of the public to enforce a particular cultural identity, the desire to assert an acceptable, native culture and to exclude the dominant Western one. Art is lost along the way. Cultural exchange -- the point of this collection, started by the shah who was toppled in 1979 -- is the loser. It is another aspect of the same contentious theme, cultural schism, as involves the demands by other countries for the return of their cultural artifacts from the West. Fundamentally, those demands stem from a desire to reassert a native, cultural identity, and to reclaim it from the powerful colonizers that plundered them. Granted, hiding the Picasso in the basement seems far more absurd.
Here is what the Iranian public is missing from its cultural life: "Monet's "Environ de Giverny," Max Ernst's "Histoire Naturelle." Four of Andy Warhol's Mick Jaggers and a Mao Tse-tung. Georges Braque's "Guitar, Fruits et Pichet," and an Edvard Munch self-portrait. One of Edgar Degas' Dancers. Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, Duchamp, Dali. Photographs by Man Ray. Important Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko." In 2005, Murphy reports, the then-museum director made a career-ending move of exhibiting the paintings. "After authorities saw Francis Bacon's triptych "Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant," they issued an order to remove the central panel because of its purported homosexual overtones," she writes. The curator demanded the order in writing. And he got it. He tells Murphy: "I knew after the presidential elections I would be leaving the museum, but thanks God I had a chance to open this show. I didn't want to leave the museum without this magnificent event." Here's the rest.