Roanoke Times reviews "Loot"
Book review: Who owns priceless works of art?
What is the relationship between the past and the present? Questions like this fill "Loot," by Sharon Waxman, who has a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Oxford University and is a former culture correspondent for The New York Times. She brings a journalist's crisp, direct style to the book.
Who owns ancient artifacts? Should they be returned to their country of origin? What would happen if they were sent back to provincial museums in countries of origin without adequate precautions? Will they be cared for, or stolen again?
Does the number of people who see something have anything to do with the significance of art? What goes back, and to where? Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, among others, want "their" artifacts returned. What about a Greek statue found off the coast of Italy? These issues embroil museums, collectors and antiquities dealers.
Waxman exposes museum collecting techniques now and in the past; many objects came to museums as a result of looting. Museums seldom display the actual provenance of their objects. Are looted items trophies of imperialism? Demands for restitution often come from a new sense of nationalism.
Waxman offers an in-depth exploration of the history and present approaches to these problems in the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the British Museum and the Getty, the latter recently having had one of its curators tried in Italy for shady dealings in antiquities.
Today, Egypt is in "the forefront of international cultural consciousness," demanding return of its looted antiquities.
Waxman includes facts about the origins, journeys and eventual resting places of many famous art works, such as the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti and the Elgin Marbles, to name only three.
With an even-handed approach, she exposes hypocrisy on all sides of the debates. She also deals with forgeries, faked provenances, shady dealings and smuggled antiquities.
These issues loom large for museums and collectors in our time. Will the "politics of possession" or the "culture of exchange" serve the public and history? How to "repair historic damage"? A comprehensive bibliography is indicative of her outstanding research. Black-and-white illustrations and an eight-page color insert picture some of the objects considered.
How should the art world deal with stolen and smuggled objects displayed in museums now? Waxman's answer is to "collaborate rather than excoriate." The theme of this remarkable book is, "Cobwebs need to be swept away and the daylight of truthful history acknowledged."