Ethical questions haunt museums’ acquisition of antiquities
By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star
When the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced last year that it had acquired a colorful, ancient Egyptian coffin, officials presented a small sheaf of paperwork affirming that all was on the up and up.
This was no back-door, black-market deal involving improperly exported cultural patrimony, the documents were meant to say.
Still, the paper trail went only so far.
There’s no telling what really occurred when the sarcophagus, which once held the remains of a noblewoman named Meretites, left a well-known Egyptian museum collection back in 1972, though Nelson curator Robert Cohon confirmed that heirs of the original private collector had been unloading the family holdings since the 1950s.
And there’s no real sense of the character and intentions of the German and Swiss middlemen with whom the coffin resided over most of the next three decades.
That original transaction preceded by a decade Egypt’s effort to tighten its laws on the excavation and export of antiquities.
Yet the Nelson’s acquisition in 2007 had to wait for a German court to rule against Egypt’s petition for the coffin’s return. That judgment allowed the sale and export of the Meretites package, including two wooden boxes and a few hundred small funerary statues, to the museum in Kansas City, where the pieces will go on public view in early 2010 after a period of repair and study.
All of which is meant to emphasize that for the last 200 years, the great museum collections of the U.S. and Europe were largely amassed to the accompaniment of a great sucking sound of cultural migration.
And in recent decades the source nations for many of those collected objects — Egypt, Turkey, Italy and Greece most prominent among them — have increased the clamor for getting their heritage back.
It all makes for convoluted arguments on both ends of the antiquities debate.
Sharon Waxman, a former cultural reporter for the Washington Post and the New York Times, is not the only writer to have tackled the subject (for starters, see Karl Meyer’s Plundered Past, from 1973). But her new book, Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, presents a measured, detailed and accessible history of cultural custody cases, bringing the ages-old quandary up to date.
Waxman traveled to cramped offices, dank tombs and sleek museums on at least three continents to piece together her genial travelogue and to ask some operative questions: Do treasured objects, a “great tonnage of recovered history,” belong in the Western museums that collected them or in their homelands? Are, in fact, museums unbiased repositories of culture or symbols of wealth, power and empire?
Waxman’s account makes clear that Napoleon in Egypt circa 1800, generations of 19th-century British archaeologists and needy and/or greedy villagers of today represent various facets of the tomb-raiding impulse. In the museum world, the don’t-ask, don’t-tell tradition involving wealthy patrons and the antiquities trade has long helped to fuel a worldwide epidemic of cultural looting, fraud and other shady practices.
Greece has been trying to get the Elgin Marbles back from England since 1835. The collection of classical marble sculptures was removed from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain in the early 1800s by agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. The earl had been the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1801 to 1812 and had, at best, ambiguous permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Acropolis.
Greece’s most recent effort to repair the “robbery of ruins,” as Lord Byron futilely put it, has been to build a replica of the Parthenon frieze in the recently opened New Acropolis Museum in Athens. The reproduction includes plaster casts of the carved originals long housed at the British Museum in London.
Turkey’s landscape holds perhaps the widest collection of ancient civilization in more than 20,000 mounds representing the remains of “more Greek cities than Greece, and more Roman cities than Italy,” Waxman writes. But when it successfully got back a cache of objects from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the famed “Lydian Hoard,” a hinterlands museum soon lost track of one highly prized small sculpture, which disappeared while on display.
In Egypt, the place of Napoleon’s epic plundering, Waxman parries the topic with the outspoken Zahi Hawass, who heads the Supreme Council of Antiquities with a near-toxic combination of righteousness and bluster.
And Italy presents her the opportunity to recount the juicy tale of arrogance and dysfunction that led to the trial of Marion True, curator of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, on charges of illegal trafficking of antiquities.
Underlying all these cases are formidable questions, few with easy answers.
Do museums adequately tell the whole story of the world’s cultures through their collections of ancient scrolls, tomb sculptures, vessels and chiseled-out stone engravings? (Answer: Not usually.) What level of cultural identity is lost in the source countries? (It’s debatable.) Can those countries even protect and preserve their treasures? (Not always; see Turkey above, and worry much about Egypt.)
Waxman makes one strong point about what museums should do now, in addition to upping their ethics policies. They should tell the full story of antiquities on display. It’s not enough to illuminate the historical context of sculptures or carvings. Museum-goers, who wander through collections in constant dialogue across cultures, borders and generations, deserve to know how the pieces got there.
Which brings me back to the Nelson, where a large Assyrian limestone relief, “Winged Genie Fertilizing a Date Tree,” greets visitors at the entry of the ancient galleries.
Wouldn’t it be useful to know as much as possible about the long journey that gorgeous carving took from the 9th century B.C. to 1940, when it entered the Nelson’s collection? A fading wall label makes no mention, though, according to Robert Cohon, a lively story appears on the museum’s audio tour.
That story, of course, includes the presence of one of those British archaeologists of the mid-19th century, who shared in the spree that sprung this and many other treasures from their places in the sand.
Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, by Sharon Waxman (432 pages; Times Books/Henry Holt; $30)
The True story
In August 2007, after a long tug of war, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return a 7 1/2-foot statue of Aphrodite and 39 other ancient treasures to Italy.
In return Italy dropped its civil lawsuit against Getty curator Marion True, who’d been on trial for two years for her involvement in the museum’s acquisition of looted antiquities. A trial on criminal charges continues sporadically, but by most accounts, the Italians got what they really wanted: International attention for their argument that American museums had played too loose, too long with ancient objects that had been illegally excavated and sold.
True faced similar charges in Greece, where police confiscated vases and other objects from True’s island vacation home.
True has denied all charges and has complained that the Getty essentially hung her out to dry.
She had been the Getty’s highly regarded antiquities curator for nearly 20 years, making recommendations to the museum director and board about buying objects from private dealers and auction houses. She maintained she had long lobbied for raising museum standards to avoid trafficking in problematic or illegally marketed archaeological finds.
But True’s troubles, and the icky glare of public attention, were compounded by problems of judgment, when, for example, she got a $400,000 personal loan from an antiquities dealer. The Getty found that revelation a convenient opportunity to ask her to quit.
One institutional problem for the Getty Museum was that by the time of its founding in the 1970s and its billion-dollar acquisition spree, cultural-heritage laws were stiffening all over.
Another was a series of internal scandals and dysfunctional behavior, including an atmosphere of sexual escapades and affairs, which Sharon Waxman recounts in Loot. That feels at first like a digression, but it adds to the picture of art museum arrogance and privilege that characterized the Getty’s chase for plundered treasure.
Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, 816-234-4762, firstname.lastname@example.org | Steve Paul, The Star