Making Matters Worse? The Debate Over
“Repatriating” Antiquities to Failed States in the Middle East
In November of 2013, at a private ceremony at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, DC, a group of four stone cylinder seals, artifacts used in ancient Mesopotamia to mark ownership of property, were handed over to the Iraqi Ambassador (FBI). Both before and since, United States officials and those of other nations have returned looted artifacts to Iraqi government representatives, often with much fanfare. Although the objects returned by U.S. officials in 2013 would have fetched only a few hundred dollars on the open market, that and other ceremonies were touted in official circles and the press as substantive progress in the effort to stem the flow of looted artifacts from the region. Little could those involved have known that just one year later much of Iraq would fall under the control of a self-styled Islamic Caliphate, bent on destroying all physical traces of the region’s pre-Islamic heritage. The fate of the many objects returned to the Iraqi government over the past decade is now uncertain, and serious questions are being raised as to the wisdom of returning more.
As the “Arab Spring” movement for democratic change spread through the Middle East, sectarian violence on a scale that could not have been predicted engulfed the region, particularly Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. Many of the aforementioned states already had poor track records of heritage management, and as some simply disintegrated into warring factions (Libya, Syria and Yemen) the stage was set for ISIL (Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, referred to hereafter as Islamic State), to step into the resulting power vacuum. The result was wholesale destruction of ancient artifacts and archaeological sites and the looting and destruction of museums (Cullinane, Alkhshali and Tawfeeq). With Islamic State on the rampage, and other religiously motivated groups swearing allegiance to them in Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, the threat to ancient heritage is greater than ever, and the debate over whether or not to return antiquities, looted or legally exported, to the modern nation states where they were discovered is fiercer than ever.
To make sense of this issue, it is necessary to return briefly to an era in which the trade in antiquities from the Middle East was unregulated. This period may be roughly defined as beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ending with the United Nations 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” (Convention). This span of nearly 200 years coincides with the age of European colonialism and, for a few decades following the First World War, European occupation of much of the Middle East. With the rise of nationalism and independence for the new nations in the region, restrictions were imposed on the export of artifacts. Although many nations did not sign it right away, and some have still not done so, the 1970 United Nations convention became the standard by which the provenance, or documented ownership history, of an object might be judged. Still, the national export laws of the various states in the region often were out of sync with the 1970 Convention. Egypt and Jordan, for example, did not halt the legal trade in ancient objects until the early 1980s.
Key to understanding the demands by modern nations for the return of artifacts thought to originate within their modern borders, is the scale of the trade in ancient objects. Throughout the roughly two hundred years outlined above, antiquities of every sort were quite legally removed from the lands now defined as modern nations in the Middle East. This was done systematically on behalf of museums, universities and private collectors. Even in relatively recent times, one high profile New York antiquities dealer, who started out selling Egyptian antiquities in the gift shop of the Brooklyn Museum for only a few dollars each, recalled visiting Egypt annually in the 1960s and ‘70s on buying trips, sometimes leaving the country with thousands of objects, all entirely legal under Egyptian law at the time (Dorfman). The net result was a huge pool of legal antiquities on the market from Egypt, North African nations such as Tunisia and Libya and Middle Eastern nations such as Israel / Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Iran. Many of these same countless thousands of objects continue to circulate on the market today.
In the transitional years of the 1970s and ‘80s, when national and international laws governing antiquities exports were still new, many North American and European museums continued collecting antiquities in a fashion unchanged from the unregulated years of the past, resulting sometimes in the purchase of objects whose provenance was questionable. Over the past thirty years, western museums have been under growing pressure from some foreign governments to return objects, often using the threat of legal action or actual litigation, in some cases supported by documentation indicating the items had been removed illegally. A good case in point, one that generated considerable media attention, was The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1972 acquisition of the Euphronios Krater, a Fifth Century BC Greek vase, looted just months earlier from an Etruscan tomb in Italy. The dealer who sold the piece to the Metropolitan Museum had provided specious documentation on its origins. The Museum eventually conceded that the piece was stolen and returned it to Italy in 2008. Similar controversies have embroiled other North American museums, especially the Getty Museum in Malibu and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (McGuigan). But in all these cases, claims made were by European nations, such as Italy and Greece, and their claims could be substantiated. No such claims have been settled with western museums by nations in the Middle East.
Far more troubling for museums and private collectors is the “national identity” claim put forward by some nations. These rest primarily on the notion that a work of art produced thousands of years ago by a culture in which it would be impossible for people in the corresponding modern nation to survive, much less function, are the property of that modern state simply by accident of geography (Cuno, Artifacts). Perhaps the most famous example of this type of claim is the Greek government’s campaign to acquire the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812 under a permit granted him by the Ottoman Sultan (Greece was then a province of the Ottoman Empire and did not attain independence until 1832) and housed since 1816 in the British Museum. The Greek claim is primarily based on national identity, with arguments framed in moral terms. In the specific case of the Elgin Marbles, the Greek claim does have some merit, in that reuniting the fragments currently in London with those in Athens’ new custom built, climate controlled Acropolis Museum would make for a far more satisfactory arrangement and might lead to long term loans of antiquities from Greece to the British Museum (Maupin).
Many nationalistic claims of this type can be easily dismissed simply by the complex nature of the objects themselves, such as a mosaic glass dish made in Egypt when it was a province of the Roman Empire, shipped to Rome itself in antiquity, and finding its way to a Roman town in England, by which time it had already become an antique. Or a shipwreck containing wine jars made in Greece in the Roman period and lost off the coast of Croatia. The question raised is who might claim ownership of these objects? In these two examples, a total of four modern nations could potentially lay claim, opening a Pandora’s box of legal challenges and counter-claims. But the larger issue is one of precedent. Museum officials worry that if every foreign claim on the basis of emotionally-driven national identity, political expediency, artistic continuity or one interpretation of morality were agreed to, many museums in North and South America, Europe and even parts of Asia would be virtually emptied of artifacts.
Some governments in the antiquities-rich Middle East have sought universal moratoriums on importation of specific types of antiquities into the United States, and the U.S. State Department has imposed bans on the importation of certain types of cultural items from Egypt, Iraq and Syria. These have been actively supported by a very well-heeled lobby composed of the Archaeological Association of America and a host of richly financed non-profit groups variously describing themselves as operating in the sphere of “heritage protection” or “cultural property” and constituting a flourishing new industry. In the face of these mounting pressures, a growing number of museum professionals, art historians, academics and commentators have, over the last few years, begun to call for a reexamination of museum practices and official policies advocating the return of antiquities to source countries. Their proposals for a changed approach to antiquities repatriation are based on wide ranging philosophical and practical arguments.
Perhaps the most prominent voice in advocating a reconsideration of antiquities repatriation is James Cuno, Former Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, now with the J. Paul Getty Trust, and author of several controversial but highly successful books examining such fundamental questions as “Who owns antiquity/” and ‘Does it serve anyone’s interest to limit access to antiquities?” (Cuno, Who Owns). He, and a number of other prominent academic critics of antiquities repatriation policies, argue that the art and artifacts of the ancient past are a global heritage that belongs to all mankind, and most modern antiquities rich nations have little or no real claim to the ancient heritage that remains in their borders by accident of geography (Appiah). Further, they argue, emotionally driven claims by foreign governments to objects of the distant past are most often about modern politics, not art or archaeology. Cuno cites as an example both Turkey and Greece, whose early governments used new laws banning the export of antiquities, and making all antiquities found on their soil property of the state, as a means of creating a clear national identity where one did not previously exist (Cuno, Who Owns). And more modern governments, including Mussolini’s regime in Italy and successive regimes in Egypt, have used antiquities and ancient monuments as a tool for stirring up nationalist sentiment and cohesion during times of crisis.
Scholars arguing against repatriation of antiquities share the view that “encyclopedic” museums, housing the widest possible range of man-made objects from around the globe and across time, are the best possible venue in which to see antiquities. They argue that the more objects that are removed from museum collections due to litigation by foreign governments, the less comprehensive these museum collections will become, and the cultural experience for the museum going public will also be reduced in quality (Bennett). Further, they make the case that by concentrating antiquities, or any form of art or artifacts, from a particular culture only in the museums of the modern nation state where those objects were found, they are placed at greater risk in times of political unrest. Better to spread the risk, they argue, by housing antiquities in many encyclopedic museum collections worldwide, thus reducing the chances they may be destroyed or looted in a single unstable nation (Mashberg and Bowley).
Both the governments of antiquities rich nations in the Middle East and the archaeological and “cultural heritage” lobby have responded in a predictably negative way to such proposals. Archaeologists, in particular, claim that antiquities that have no provenance or whose archaeological contexts have been lost are dead objects that cannot provide any meaningful information. The response from critics such as Cuno is that even removed from their archaeological context, ancient objects have much to tell. Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Philippe de Montebello, in reference to the Euphronios Krater, stated: “Although having not been properly excavated, it is far from meaningless…. All great works of art have, in addition to their historical and other learned contexts, an aesthetic context as well” (qtd. in Eakin).
In light of the terrible damage recently done by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, the still fresh memory of other crimes against archaeological heritage in the broader Near and Middle East in recent years (dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, looting of the Baghdad and Kabul Museums, burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, bombing of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo and looting of regional museums in Egypt), and the near certainty that further damage will be deliberately done to the region’s ancient art and monuments by extremists or simply as a result of being caught in the crossfire, a growing number of commentators are asking if James Cuno’s reasoning should not be taken a step further. They point out that when antiquities were in danger of being destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, ironically it was the 1970 UNESCO Convention that prohibited concerned outsiders from removing the objects from the country for safekeeping, with the result that they were destroyed. Now they wonder if the UNESCO convention should be amended, imposing substantial fines or other penalties on nations that fail to protect their ancient heritage. Others are even advocating for a return to the old system of “partage,” under which foreign museums or universities excavating in the Middle East would evenly divide archaeological finds with the host government, thus insuring that a share of the objects found would be protected outside the country in the event of political instability (Marlowe).
Moralistic pronouncements from the archaeological community, countless conferences full of expensive luncheons and carefully worded resolutions put on by the heritage industry, high profile attempts by dysfunctional governments in the region to reclaim antiquities already looted or missing, and bans on the importation of objects from some countries, have all done absolutely nothing to reduce looting of archaeological sites or stop the ongoing destruction of the ancient past by extremists. With new reports coming out of the Middle East almost weekly of crimes against the shared ancient heritage of all humanity, the urgency that concerned governments, academia, the museum and collecting community, heritage organizations and others take some form of new and meaningful action, including adoption of some of the proposals outlined above, cannot be overstated. Based on the lack of meaningful action to date, it seems doubtful that such common sense will prevail.
NOTE: As this article is being posted, news reports indicate Islamic State is closing in on the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra.
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