"The questions Waxman raises are real, and her proposals to remedy the situation are the start of a much-needed discussion."
“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."
November 29, 2008
November 26, 2008
From the Riverfront Times blog:
The mask, said to date back to the Nineteenth Dynasty (1293-1185 B.C.), was unearthed early in 1952 by an up-and-coming Egyptian archaeologist named Mohammed Zakaria Goneim. It is at the center of a long-running ownership dispute between the art museum and the Egyptian government. The set-to was the topic of an in-depth Riverfront Times story by Malcolm Gay, "Out of Egypt," published in February 2006.
The AP story updates the fight being waged by Zahi Hawass, secretary general for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, against the SLAM and its current director, Brent Benjamin. In the current story, Benjamin reiterates the argument he made to Gay in 2006 -- asserting that "[t]o date, we have not seen information that we believe is compelling enough to return the object."
Goneim announced to the world that he might have uncovered the untouched tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh named Sekhemkhet -- potentially the most significant find since Howard Carter unearthed the virgin tomb of Tutankhamen 30 years before.
Among the many burials Goneim discovered atop the pyramid, one in particular caught his eye: the unmummified body of a woman, wrapped in a simple reed mat. Her remains, which dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty, were badly decomposed, but she wore an elaborate mask over her head and shoulders. Her face, covered by a thin sheet of blended copper and gold, peeked from beneath an intricate resin wig molded into plaits. The diadem that crowned her head was made of glass, as were her eyes and nipples. In each hand she held an amulet symbolizing strength and welfare; etched across her folded arms was a scene depicting the encounter between Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, and the woman's spiritual double in the afterlife, known as her ka.
Goneim dubbed the woman Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.
Counters Hawass, per the Associated Press: "This stupid man [Benjamin], he doesn't understand the rules here."
Archaeologist Goneim, meanwhile, never achieved the worldwide fame his discovery had augured: In 1958 he was accused of looting artifacts, and though a friend and colleague came to the rescue with exculpatory evidence, he arrived too late. On January 12, 1959, Goneim threw himself into the Nile River and drowned.
My interview with Matt Frei, the anchor of BBC News America, will air on Thanksgiving at 7 pm and again at 10 pm.
Also, keep an ear out for a chat with Lianne Hansen on NPR's "Weekend Edition," this Sunday, across the country.
November 24, 2008
Many thanks to Wendy Smith for her thorough review of "Loot" in tomorrow's Los Angeles Times.
She writes, in part:
"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."
Smith concludes that the book is "intelligent" and "well-informed." Here's the whole thing.
A very fun and lively discussion with Patt Morrison today on KPCC 89.3 FM about "Loot."
The show aired from 1:40 - 2 pm, and here is a link from the KPCC site:
"Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the World"
[ Listen ]
Why are the Elgin Marbles in London and not the Acropolis or why are there seemingly as many mummies in France as Egypt? Over the past two centuries the West has pillaged the treasures of the ancient world. Recently, however, once-colonized nations have begun reclaiming their history through restitution, taking high-profile museums to court and prosecuting curators for pillaging art and artifacts. Former New York Times culture reporter Sharon Waxman opens a new window into the politics of cultural exchange with this objective look at how several high-profile museums built up their antiquities collections.
- Sharon Waxman, former culture reporter for the New York Times and author of "Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the World
A crowd of well-educated and extremely good-looking Los Angelenos showed up to celebrate "Loot" with my friends and fabulous hostesses in Venice, California. We had a lively question and answer segment, and a lot of books went home to be read, and gift-wrapped. Author shown here with the dynamic triumvirate from left, Paula Silver, Laurie Benenson and Liz Ondaatje. (photo by Suzette Valle)
November 23, 2008
From The Independent, of London:
Sunday, 23 November 2008
The President has written to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Library and Cambridge University Library seeking the restitution of more than 400 so-called "treasures of Magdala", which were stolen by British soldiers following a battle in 1868.
In the letter, obtained by The Independent on Sunday, the President wrote: "I must state that Ethiopians have long grieved at the loss of this part of their national heritage. Ethiopians feel that this act of appropriation had no justification in international law. I feel, therefore, that the time has come for the return of Ethiopia's looted treasures."
Among the items being held in the UK is an 18-carat gold crown and more than 300 priceless manuscripts, including Christian scriptures. Experts say the issue is particularly sensitive for Ethiopians because many of the artefacts hold deep religious significance for them. These include nine tabots, or sacred wooden altar slabs, which are recognised as so holy that the British Museum has pledged never to display them. When a tabot was returned in 2005 after being discovered in the back of an Edinburgh church, thousands of people turned out to greet its return in Addis Ababa.
The objects were among those seized by British soldiers after the storming of the Fortress of Magdala in 1868, a punitive expedition that followed the kidnap of several Britons. Emperor Tewodros committed suicide after the battle. According to contemporary accounts, British soldiers slaughtered hundreds of poorly armed Ethiopians after the battle, and then "jostled each other" to grab a piece of the emperor's blood-stained shirt, which they tore from his body. They also looted the citadel and a nearby church, carrying off treasures that included "an infinite variety of gold, and silver and brass crosses", as well as "heaps of parchment royally illuminated".
British museums have in the past resisted calls for artefacts from their collections to be returned to their countries of origin, but it is understood that Neil MacGregor of the British Museum and Mark Jones of the V&A have already met the Ethiopian ambassador to discuss the matter.
Museums often argue in restitution cases that the artefacts are better off in Britain because anyone in the world can view them, and the V&A is known to have asked Addis Ababa whether the silver crown of Emperor Tewodros, which it returned to Ethiopia in 1925, is available for public view.
The V&A said yesterday that discussions were still ongoing, even though the President's letter was sent in February this year. The four organisations involved have also held meetings over the way forward.
The Magdala treasure differs to other restitution cases, such as that of the Elgin Marbles, because it is acknowledged that the treasures were simply stolen. "It was straightforward looting," a spokeswoman at the Ethiopian embassy in London said.
A spokeswoman for Afromet, an organisation that has campaigned for the restitutions of the items, said: "These museums hold most of Ethiopia's heritage. It means far more to Ethiopians than it could ever do to anyone else."
November 20, 2008
I was on "The Takeaway" with my friend John Hockenberry this morning, early.
Here's the link for those who want to listen, with thanks to the Takeaway team.
A crowd of about 200 came to hear a panel discuss the problems associated with museums and the restitution demands now facing them. The panel included James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of “Who Owns Antiquity?”; Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian philosopher and professor at Princeton, who wrote “Cosmopolitanism.” Oh yes, and yours truly. We had a lively and grown-up discussion about the issues. All extremely civilized. We resolved nothing, finally, but aired different solutions. I presented my sound and light show of the plundered past. Cuno spoke about the dangers of cultural nationalism. Appiah gave a nuanced presentation in which he spoke in favor of aesthetics, but also in favor of returning anything stolen. An intelligent and lively evening.