Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

How powerful museums and private collectors act as stewards and looters of the world's cultural treasures.


Sharon WaxmanA counterfeit hippocampus on display in Usak, Turkey

On a 1984 visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Turkish journalist named Ozgen Acar noticed a group of fifty artifacts labeled "East Greek treasure" that resembled a collection that had gone missing some twenty years before. The treasure, Acar suspected, had been snatched by grave robbers from Sardis, an ancient city in western Turkey, which served as the capital of the Lydian empire at its peak in the sixth and seventh centuries BC. (Herodotus tells us that its last king, the affluent Croesus, was the first person to mint coins of pure silver and gold, hence the saying "as rich as Croesus.") Acar, who had spent the previous decade tracking antiquities looters in the small towns surrounding Sardis, took his suspicions to the Turkish Ministry of Education. It turned out that the Lydian Hoard had passed through a number of smugglers and semireputable dealers before reaching the Met in the 1960s, and there was plenty of evidence that the Met had known something of the provenance of the objects at the time and willfully ignored it. The Turkish government sued the Met for the unconditional return of the cache and, after a six-year legal battle, finally won. In 1995 the Lydian Hoard was returned to the small town of Usak, in Sardis, sparking an outpouring of national pride and a flurry of copycat lawsuits.

The celebrations were to be short-lived. Unlike in other "source countries" such as Greece, Italy and Egypt, the people of Turkey are the product of successive invasions and migrations. Modern Turks, who are primarily descended from thirteenth-century Ottoman conquerors, have little in common, ethnically or culturally, with the Trojans, Lydians and Mycenaeans of the distant past. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Turks have been most eager to tour attractions that showcase relics of their Muslim heritage, such as the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine basilica later converted into a mosque, and Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans and the present custodian of their crown jewels. These sites each host about a million visitors every year, making them the two most popular attractions in Istanbul. Compare this with the little museum in Usak, which received exactly 769 visitors between 2001 and 2006, a number that failed to impress the Hoard's previous stewards: the number of people "who've visited those treasures in Turkey," sniffed a museum spokesman, "is roughly equal to one hour's worth of visitors at the Met."

At that time, the Usak museum was so poorly appointed that its lone security guard doubled as the ticket taker. The vitrines holding the objects were barely protected; there was no alarm system, and the lock was the sort one can pick with a hairpin. In 2005 officials were forced to admit that several pieces had corroded since arriving in Turkey; the Usak museum lacked sufficient funds to care for them properly.

So it should have come as no shock when, in April 2006, the highlight of the Hoard, a golden hippocampus (sea horse) much beloved by tourists and locals alike, was revealed to have been stolen. At almost twice the weight of the original, the hippocampus that was–and remains–on display was an obvious fake. Kazim Akbiyikoglu, the museum's curator and Acar's old friend and ally, was fingered as the thief. Acar, who had by then devoted twenty years of his life to winning back the Hoard, was devastated.

A verdict has yet to come down in Akbiyikoglu's trial, but the evidence amassed against him seems damning, and the case has exacerbated Western apprehension that museums in source countries are unequipped to handle precious antiquities. On the heels of such embarrassment, the Turkish government has been shamed into putting a stop to a stream of litigation against Western museums, much of which was likely to succeed. The hippocampus, to date, remains missing, most likely having been melted into bullion and sold on the black market.

In Loot, Sharon Waxman, formerly of the New York Times, investigates the Lydian heist as well as similar curatorial debacles around the world. On separate floors of Cairo's Egyptian Museum, she reports, two research teams feuding over trivial logistical matters simultaneously catalog the museum's rich collection of artifacts, each using its own distinct, incompatible notation system. Waxman stops by the then uncompleted museum at the base of the Acropolis–which is meant to house the Elgin Marbles one day, should the British Museum ever return them–where local protests and managerial incompetence delayed construction for years.

But Waxman appears to believe that, despite everything, these countries have some legitimate claim to the antiquities that have been taken through various semilegal and extralegal contrivances throughout the ages. And she is honest–often angrily so–about the ambiguous circumstances under which many of these objects left their homes. One of the best passages in Loot is a tour of the Louvre's cluttered, poorly labeled antiquities galleries, with Waxman supplementing the stingily worded display cards to create a panoramic exposition of French misadventures in Egypt. Visiting the Chamber of Kings, for example, where a three-wall bas-relief mural tells the story of eleven centuries of Egyptian royal history, Waxman corrects the Louvre's cursory explanation–"elements" were "lost in transport"–with a story of breathtaking greed and fraud: in the 1840s, a French explorer paid a midnight visit to a temple in Karnak, pried out the mural and bribed a local governor to allow him to ship it, in pieces, to Paris, where well-meaning workers coated the reliefs with a layer of varnish that soaked away the 3,500-year-old paint below, leaving the mural almost colorless. This section of Loot, as well as similar ones on the Met and the British Museum, makes one wish Waxman would turn the book's contents into a series of museum audio tours on tucked-under-the-rug looting scandals.

Waxman's extensive, empathetic reporting leads her to make some fairly minimal recommendations, the primary one being transparency. She also advocates closer cooperation between source countries and the West, suggesting that "the only realistic path forward is one of collaboration between poorer source countries so rich in patrimony and the wealthy industrialized nations that have the cash and expertise to preserve that patrimony." But she is vague about the details. How should courts proceed if the parties in question don't care to cooperate? It's true that a few source countries appear to have become more open to lending their artifacts for long periods of time, but what about curators in the West who fear that their cherished collections will be shipped out to museums as badly maintained as Usak's?

A vocal member of this last group is James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose book Who Owns Antiquity? represents a shot across the bow and the greatest stumbling block to Waxman's modest proposal. Who Owns Antiquity? is a passionate apologia for the right of "encyclopedic" museums like the Met and the Louvre to house the world's cultural patrimony. The main thrust of Cuno's argument is that looting is inevitable and therefore museums, rather than private collectors, may as well be its beneficiaries. Source countries suing for restitution are motivated primarily by selfish, shortsighted nationalism, abetted by international courts and Unesco, which in 1970 passed a convention barring trade in looted artifacts. The only institutions that truly care about preserving, properly exhibiting and providing access to the world's great treasures are the encyclopedic museums of the West–not only the Met and the Louvre but also the British Museum, the troubled Getty and, of course, the Art Institute, among others. These museums, having transcended political motivations, allow art to be exhibited in the extranational context of the artistic tradition.

Cuno makes a sophisticated point about the difficulty of separating any thread of aesthetic tradition from the tangled skein of world influence. To claim that ancient Roman artifacts came from cultures that "developed autonomously in the region of present-day Italy," he reminds us, "is to willfully ignore the hybridity of culture and its multiple identities." In support of his concept of a global artistic realm that towers over nationalized identities, he marshals Edward Said and Benedict Anderson, putting a postcolonial spin on the Enlightenment ideal of the universal museum.

But the fit between postcolonialism and Enlightenment universalism is an awkward one, and it points out one of the flaws in Cuno's reasoning: his whitewashed vision of the encyclopedic museum. Here is Cuno's definition of his ideal: "This is the concept of the museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world's artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all." It's undeniable that a visit to the Louvre or the Met illuminates a vast, thrilling network of cultural resonance. Traversing a gallery that contains self-portraiture in the form of paintings by the seventeenth-century Dutch masters, late twentieth-century photographs and West African cult masks, for example, provides an education in comparative cultural self-representation that really can't be experienced any other way. (The Internet seems like a potential supplement, but neither Waxman nor Cuno addresses the potential for online exhibition and cooperation.)

But Cuno's nightmare vision that, through a few well-publicized restitution suits, the display cases of the West will be wrenched open to bleed forth valuable antiquities to the far corners of the world, leaving these grand old buildings tumbleweed-bare, is a fantasy. Such a process would be almost impossibly complex, and it is difficult to imagine that any source country would have the motivation or the means to carry it out. Second, many antiquities in the West were obtained legally, not even through the corrupted system of partage, in which source countries gave up their rights to discoveries made by Western-funded excavations. And most restitution suits center around single high-profile pieces rather than the meat-and-potatoes of these mammoth institutions. So the encyclopedic museum is not really under threat from what Cuno disgustedly calls the "nationalist retentionist" agenda. We will always have the British Museum, even if the Elgin Marbles go back to Greece.

Cuno's assumption that encyclopedic museums inhabit a universal realm that transcends culture and ideology is obviously wrong. This is true on an artistic level–surely displaying ritual objects on pristine white walls indicates something about the way Western culture believes art should be enjoyed–and it's true on a political level as well. The Louvre, for example, was founded by the French Revolutionary government in 1793 with the purpose of turning what had been a lavish royal palace into a temple of the people. But as France entered the colonial age, the Louvre became less the symbolic home of égalité than the repository of whatever trophies the empire's emissaries could lay their hands on. Napoleon's "savants"–a sort of scientific league of extraordinary gentlemen who traveled with his troops–were the first Europeans to alight upon the treasures of ancient Egypt, and the years of rabid excavation and art exportation that followed helped fill the Louvre's cavernous halls. These prizes, such as mummies displayed by the Empress Josephine in Malmaison, her country estate west of Paris, were meant to redound to the greater glory of France, not merely to celebrate the masses.

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.

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."

Catastrophe! includes a day-by-day retelling of the looting of the Iraq Museum, an event that also features prominently in Thieves of Baghdad (2005), Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos's first-person account of leading the museum's restoration effort. According to Donny George, a former director of the museum (he fled Iraq in 2006), the first looters were professional thieves who knew exactly what to target, and it's likely that many of them were linked to former or current museum employees. Later waves appear to have been more local, casual and indiscriminately destructive. Many of the writers of Catastrophe! blame the US Army for not securing the museum and Iraq's archaeological sites quickly enough or with sufficient manpower. Gibson and Russell describe the days leading up to the invasion and the years since as a frustrating series of memos ignored, phone calls unreturned. Atwood tells the story of a group of Iraqi curators and their two guards trying to defend the 3,500-year-old city of Nimrud from looters in the first days after Saddam's fall. After weeks spent dodging Kalashnikov bullets and watching as the looters carved slices of Assyrian friezes out of the walls with stonecutting tools, the Iraqis requested additional American protection; an infantry battalion finally showed up in May, too late to save the most important pieces. Bogdanos, on the other hand, details his exasperation with archaeologists who assumed the Army had total mobility throughout Iraq in the early days of the occupation. He points out that Saddam's army had used the museum as a fortress, and that securing it immediately would have required its bombing.

But everyone from Bogdanos to Russell, except Cuno, agrees that the vast illegal antiquities trade is the major impediment to curtailing looting in Iraq. Russell tells us that "as long as an unfettered worldwide market for Iraqi antiquities is allowed to provide the funding for this 'Iraqi problem,' the problem will not go away." Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, disdains museums and dealers who buy stolen antiquities as having "no honor, no code, no rules." There is also a security argument against abetting antiquities smuggling, as smugglers who carry weapons and drugs out of Iraq often deal in antiquities as well, and the sale of antiquities appears to help fund the insurgency. Bogdanos mentions the discovery of a weapons cache in Anbar province in 2005: along with guns and armor, marines found more than thirty pieces from the collection of the Iraq Museum.

All of this puts the lie to Cuno's permissive stance on buying objects of dubious provenance. Cuno writes, "No museum has ever endorsed the looting of archaeological sites and the loss of the knowledge they contain. But in many respects, when faced with the choice whether or not to acquire an undocumented antiquity, the looting of the archaeological site has already occurred and the knowledge that may have been gained from the careful study of an antiquity's archaeological context has already been lost." Given the choice between condemning an item to the black market and "bringing it into the public domain," he reckons, why, "putting aside the legal risks," should a reputable museum hesitate to buy? And given that the Iraq Museum is presently under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr, why would we be eager to return the valuable flotsam that has washed up in the United States, Jordan, Switzerland and Japan?

Cuno's slipshod reasoning–his creation of a false dichotomy between buying antiquities illegally and abandoning them to the purgatory of the black market, his dismissal of the legal and ethical reasons for taking a stand against the purchase of antiquities that are likely to have been stolen–reveals the bankruptcy of his argument. To posit that nationalism is the only reason a source country would cherish its cultural patrimony is to rationalize thievery; the argument also diminishes the great power these objects hold, as evidenced by the numerous Iraqi civilians who risked their lives to protect the ancient artifacts of their land, such as the five staff members who holed up in the Iraq Museum during the first days of the invasion. Even many of the casual looters Bogdanos described seemed enthralled by, and desperate to protect, the objects they were "liberating." That may not be art for art's sake, but it isn't "nationalist retentionism" either. Substitute Iraq for Egypt or Benin, and the selfish oversimplifications of Cuno's defense become clear. Sometimes the best test for arguments about the past is a more thorough look at the present.

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