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Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities | The Nation

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Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Can an institution be said to be beyond ideology when its history is bound up with colonialism and the same "palace of wonders" tradition that brought living, breathing villages nègres to nineteenth-century Parisian world fairs and the preserved genitalia of the "Hottentot Venus" to the Musée de l'Homme? Cuno seems oblivious to the imperialist taint on the tradition of the encyclopedic museum. He mentions, when listing examples from the Art Institute's collection that require a global context to be properly understood, a bronze plaque from the Benin Empire, taken by the British: "As retribution for the deaths of members of the British mission, a punitive exhibition was organized, which occupied the royal city of Benin in 1897 and led to the removal of hundreds of Benin bronze plaques, brass sculptures, and ivory tusks to Britain." He doesn't elaborate much on the "punitive exhibition" (usually referred to as a "punitive expedition" by other scholars), which involved days of looting and destruction and precipitated the collapse of the 400-year-old empire. The region (modern-day Nigeria) was left destabilized, and the British began a period of colonial dominance that lasted sixty years. Elsewhere, Cuno glosses over or completely omits the unfortunate legacies of some of the artworks he discusses. Most surprising, he makes a glaring error when he tells us that the Met received the Lydian materials through partage. Here one misses Waxman's corrective gaze.

About the Author

Britt Peterson
Britt Peterson is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

For Cuno, however, to harp on this is to get hung up on ancient history. He reminds his readers that the Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago, London and various European cities, where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year. The idea of returning them to Lagos, one of the world's most dangerous cities, or anywhere else in Nigeria, with its poverty, civil unrest and ethnic violence, seems absurd, especially given that only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire. But Waxman's prescription is not simply to pack up everything in the halls of Western museums and send it all priority mail back to the Third World countries whence it came. She recommends that museums be open about their complex legacy while seeking feasible ways to redress old wrongs whenever possible. Cuno may disapprove, but if recent developments are any indication, the future of museum collecting looks a lot more like Waxman's vision than it does his: flexible agreements with source countries for loans and joint expeditions, transparency about procedure and provenance and a commitment from museums to obey the spirit as well as the letter of the law, determined by international conventions on art trading.

There is no place on earth where questions of patrimony and preservation are more urgent than Iraq, which, according to archaeologist Gil Stein, is undergoing the wholesale "eradication of the material record of the world's first urban, literate civilization." In Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past, an exhibition catalog from the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, Stein and other archaeologists and curators discuss the history of looting in Iraq and what is to be done about the future. Under Saddam Hussein--until the 1990s, at least--Iraq did a good job of protecting more than 1,000 archaeological sites, such as buried cities and tomb complexes from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Akkadian empires. Saddam, who fancied himself the spiritual descendant of ancient Mesopotamian kings like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, provided ample funds for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and set a high penalty on looting. (This scrupulousness did not extend to his neighbors' treasures; after invading Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi army made off with nearly every item housed in the Kuwait National Museum.)

Following the Gulf War, with the country's economic strength on the wane, the looting of archaeological sites became far more common and the enforcement of antilooting laws declined sharply. Nor did this much seem to bother the West. John Russell, an archaeologist and former cultural adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, claims that "newly surfaced Iraqi artifacts were sold in the United States at venues to accommodate every price range: the major New York auction houses, brick-and-mortar galleries, online virtual galleries, and the burgeoning, anonymous, unregulated mega-market of eBay."

After the invasion, however, even beyond the piñata bash that was the Iraq Museum in the early days of April 2003, unlawfully excavated antiquities became as coveted on the black market as weapons. By May the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had issued a fatwa against illegal excavations; the United Nations passed a ban against traffic in stolen Iraqi art the same month. Still, an estimated 15,000 objects were stolen from the Iraq Museum, and more than half of these remain missing, including the museum's unique collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. Damage to the archaeological sites is unquantifiable, but through the use of DigitalGlobe aerial images, the Oriental Institute has assembled an extensive database cataloging the missing artifacts. As Roger Atwood writes in Stealing History (2004), "Antiquities pulled from the ground...have no...records, no catalogue numbers or schematic drawings, and so it is that much more difficult to detect them as they move through the market and, if seized, to prove that they were plundered." Even if the objects are someday returned, much of their history, not to mention their value, is lost forever. Without archaeological context, as McGuire Gibson writes in Catastrophe!, objects "are really just knickknacks. Beautiful and intriguing, but knickknacks."

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