It was bound to come to this: ancient body parts held hostage by a French bureaucracy fearful of creating a precedent. That's the truth behind a strange tale playing out in France this week. The mummified, tattooed head of a Maori warrior was what an enlightened deputy mayor in Rouen decided was not a work of art, but indeed, part of a "barbaric trafficking in body parts," as Catherine Morin-Desailly told the New York Times this week. She struck a deal to return the head to New Zealand as a gesture to the dignity of the dead. Maoris, native to that country, preserved the tattooed heads of warriors killed in battle for their own cultural memory. Europeans collected the heads in the 19th century as curios, along with many other things on many other continents that did not belong to them. Mummies, for example. (U.S. museums have their own store of Maori heads, along with relics of Native American culture in U.S. museums that include human remains.) In France, the culture ministry has blocked the return because of worries that it would open the door to a flood of restitution requests. At the moment matters are stuck in court; the culture minister won a ruling to stop the handoff of the head, while Morin-Desailly had a symbolic ceremony with a high-level New Zealand delegation to do so anyway. The standoff exposes absurdities in the French cultural approach to patrimony. The French claim that any artifact or object that is part of a national collection is, by definition, French patrimony. This is an untenable one-way street in a world where restitution is an ongoing, evolving issue. Meanwhile, the culture ministry has convened a conference to study the ethical problems of storing or exhibiting human remains in museums. This one will be fascinating to watch, however it plays out.
“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."
October 29, 2007
More booty going back home: Princeton's art museum has agreed to transfer title to eight ancient artifacts to Italy in the wake of demands by the government, my colleague Elisabetta Povoledo and others reported over the weekend. Of 15 items under dispute, Princeton will keep 7 objects and transfer legal title to eight, and four of those they can keep on loan for four years. The stunning vase pictured at left will stay on loan to Princeton. No details about what evidence or documents were used to strike the deal, but I would imagine that this is the start of a flood of similar agreements, as institutions make rational decisions in the wake of the Getty deal and the prosecution of Marion True. Italian prosecutor Maurizio Fiorilli told reporters that he is looking at artifacts at the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan. As these deals continue to roll in, and Italy takes possession of beautiful, well-curated and well visited artifacts from around the world, two points need to be monitored by observers: how well will Italy care for the objects that it has claimed as restitution? And has the campaign to take these pieces back to Italy had a real impact on illegal excavating?
October 01, 2007
A major break-through has occurred for Egypt in its quest to reclaim five major pieces from five major Western museums. The Hildesheim Museum in Germany has agreed to lend Egypt the statue of the architect of the Great Pyramid in time for the opening of Cairo's new Grand Museum in 2012, Egypt has confirmed today. (The statue of Hamiunu was taken from here, the architect's burial mound. An archeologist shows the pit where the statue was found and taken to Germany in 1912, which sits a couple of hundred feet from the pyramid of Cheops, built 4,500 years ago.) I have just spoken to Zahi Hawass, who heads Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and while he confirmed the news, it did not seem to mollify him at all. He has made little progress in gaining the agreement for four other pieces he has requested for the Grand Museum's opening. The Louvre has rejected a request for the Zodiac ceiling of Denderah; Berlin has a committee looking at the request for the great Bust of Nefertiti, but seems negatively inclined; the British Museum is still thinking about the Rosetta Stone; and Boston Fine Arts Museum has rejected the request for the statue of the architect of the next-largest pyramid, Khefren's. Hawass is especially incensed at Boston, and warned that he is ready to take punitive measures against the museum. "I am going to make especially this museum’s life miserable," he warned. "They get every exhibit for free. They should be punished." In the past Hawass has threatened to ban museums from excavating in Egypt if they do not cooperate on this issue. Regarding Boston, he said that he would confer with his colleagues and announce something in about a month. (photo copyright: Sharon Waxman)