The Boston Globe's review of "Loot"
For centuries the West has plundered the treasures of the ancient world; now some nations are fighting back
LOOT:The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman
Times, 414 pp., illustrated, $30
Have you ever wondered why the Rosetta stone (so crucial to our understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics), discovered by Napoleon's army in 1799, is situated in the British Museum? Or why a Babylonian stele called the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known legal code in human society ("an eye for an eye"), is located in the Louvre in Paris? Or how the beautiful bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti ended up as the showpiece of a Berlin museum?
According to Sharon Waxman, a journalist with expertise on the Middle East and Europe, the answer can be found in the history of cultural nationalism and abuses of power, starting with intense rivalry between the British and French at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. Her story continues to the present as Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt have begun to recover some of their greatest treasures from museums in the United States and Europe by means of lawsuits and carefully publicized disclosures designed to embarrass institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the British Museum, the Louvre, and others. (The Museum of Fine Arts, which returned 13 pieces to Italy in 2006, receives only slight attention, though it too has been tainted.)
The directors, curators, and boards of numerous museums come off quite badly in this fast-paced and compelling narrative. "Loot" offers a judicious critique of cultural imperialism and ruthless Western appropriation, dissimulation, stonewalling, and failure to abide by regulations created by UNESCO and others in the 20th century to regulate illicit trading and covert agreements among museums, smugglers, and go-betweens, ranging from elegant dealers to rich donors seeking big tax breaks in exchange for their priceless gifts. Waxman has done a great deal of essential legwork, interviewing countless curators, directors, and cultural officers in the dominant as well as the dispossessed countries.
Although she is most sympathetic to the Mediterranean cultures, and believes that illicitly obtained items should be returned, Waxman allows the anti-restitution side a full hearing. These individuals argue that the ancient treasures belong to all of humankind, not to a single nation. And as the great museums enjoy a high visitation rate, far more people get to appreciate the objects than if they remained in situ or close to their places of origin. They note that these museums have the resources to take far better care of the treasures. Besides, they say, most people living in the victimized countries are not direct descendants of the ancient kingdoms and cultures, most notably the Egyptians and Turks of today, who are Muslims, whereas the older cultures were pagan. That was essentially the rationale for the Metropolitan Museum to conceal its possession of the so-called Lydian Hoard, an astonishing trove from the fabled kingdom of fabulously rich Croesus, located in what is now Turkey but conquered by the Persians millennia before modern Turkey emerged in the 1920s. The issue of precisely whose patrimony is involved gets very complicated. The museum has since returned the antiquities to Turkey.
Waxman has an array of wondrous tales to tell. How Napoleon and the scientists who accompanied his army in the late 1790s serendipitously created Egyptology. How the Scottish Lord Elgin devoted about a decade to damaging the Parthenon by pillaging the famous "marbles" from the frieze and elsewhere, all while his nose was disintegrating from syphilis and his flamboyant wife was carrying on an affair with his best friend. How high-level diplomats finessed so much of the wholesale looting during the 19th century only to be supplanted by wealthy merchants, museum patrons, and scientists early in the 20th century, which provides the "back story" for Nefertiti's 1923 emergence in Berlin.
The public's ignorance of all these "back stories" provides Waxman with one of her central themes: namely, the persistent and ongoing coverup of where great pieces were first found and the covert hands they passed through on their way to becoming cherished icons. Waxman laments that whether we look at wall texts, museum catalogs, or other official publications, we rarely get the full provenance of an item. When we are inspired by majestic works like the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, or the recently notorious Euphronios vase that the Met reluctantly returned to Italy, we get little or no sense that these dazzling items were first found in dirty fragments and reassembled; or that the Rosetta stone was broken by mishandling after it was unearthed for shipment to its new and "improved" home.
For those who have read and been intrigued by Brian Fagan's "The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Raiders, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt" (1975) and more recently by Peter Watson's and Cecilia Todeschini's "The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums" (2006), "Loot" is an essential follow-up because the major court cases were still undecided when the Medici book appeared, and the authors relied heavily on evidence from one side. Moreover, Waxman's highly readable book is more comprehensive in scope than the others.
"Loot" is bound to be both embarrassing and controversial. The nature and meaning of "cultural patrimony" is currently in flux but clearly will never be the same, because museums (and those who deal in antiquities) are fundamentally redefining their regulations and practices. During the past few years, almost all of the major players have become far more circumspect about acquisitions, catalogs, and labels. Waxman has performed a considerable service by pulling this complex story together in such an accessible manner. She commits a few minor errors about the location of places where she apparently has not visited, but her achievement is nonetheless considerable, admirable, and totally absorbing.
Michael Kammen, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, is the author of "Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture."