Wednesday, June 24, 2009

2009.06.39

Version at BMCR home site
Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle Over Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. New York: Times Books, 2008. Pp. xiv, 414; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780805086539. $30.00.
Reviewed by Thomas C. Rust, Montana State University Billings

In an extremely readable, though not overly analytical book, Sharon Waxman takes us through the rather unseemly story of how museums have acquired artifacts -- and continue to do so -- from the ancient Mediterranean and how they deal with demands for repatriation by the countries of origin. While this may sound simple, the work shows how nuanced and complicated, both legally and ethically, it truly is. Waxman is a former cultural correspondent for the New York Times and, though holding a master's degree in Middle East Studies from Oxford, she "sought to get at the truth behind the accusations and claims made by museums and source countries -- not as an art historian or an archaeologist, but as a journalist with a passion for foreign cultures of all kinds and a love of museums that first kindled that passion" (p. 9). The work generally follows the approach of a responsible journalist who tries to provide a fair voice to all parties involved without overtly interjecting her conclusions or analyses. Thus, Waxman's approach is more descriptive than analytical, although she does raise interesting and thought-provoking questions.

The book is divided into four parts that focus on case studies of specific conflicts between museums and countries in the Mediterranean basin. Part 1, entitled "Pharaohs and Emperors" details how so many Egyptian antiquities ended up in Europe, particularly France, and how the current Egyptian Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has made it his personal crusade to have them returned. She describes the expeditions of Napoleon and Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian weightlifter who discovered the temple at Abu Simbel, and their confiscation of artifacts for European museums and private collections. The removal of the Denderah zodiac and its placement in the Louvre provides a colorful example of European colonialism's destructiveness during the 19th century. Further, to Waxman's chagrin, the artifacts are currently exhibited with no explanation of how they came into the possession of each museum or context for their removal. Juxtaposing interviews with Hawass, who insists on repatriation of all Pharonic artifacts, with those of officials at the Louvre, she provides substantial voice to all sides of the issue.

Part 2 is titled "Tomb Robbers on Fifth Avenue" and focuses more on the modern antiquities market. Here Waxman examines the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its willful purchase of illegally excavated artifacts. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Met, admitted that he "had a rolodex of the best smugglers," who used their own children to transport illicit artifacts across European boarders, giving the children ice cream so custom officials in their "dress whites" would pass them through with ease (p. 193). She examines in detail how in 1967 the Met illicitly acquired the Lydian Hoard -- 219 pieces of gold from an illegal excavation in Turkey. After a payment of nearly $1.5 million dollars, the artifacts were kept in the museum's storage for many years so as not to attract attention. Finally, when select pieces were put on display, a Turkish journalist described them and Turkey demanded them back. After much legal wrangling, the Met exhausted its delaying tactics and the pieces were finally returned in 1993. However, as Waxman points out, the artifacts may not have been better served in Turkey. They were moved to an underfunded one-room museum in Usak where 769 people saw them in a five year period -- one hour's worth of people at the Met. In addition, it turned out that the curator, after a series of personal tragedies and massive gambling and womanizing debts, stole one of the pieces, sold it, and placed a fake on display.

Part 3 returns to the context of the impact of European colonialism entitled "Lord Elgin's Legacy." Waxman goes down the well beaten path regarding the British Museum's refusal to repatriate the "Elgin" Parthenon Marbles. Like Part 1, we see European colonialism at its worst with regard to antiquities and the exploitation of subject countries. Little new is revealed in this part, although Waxman takes great pains to interview as many interested parties as possible. It is the shortest of the four parts and will also be the least substantial even to the casually informed reader. Waxman does make a good case for repatriation since Greece has constructed an exceptionally modern facility with adequate security (unlike the Lydian Hoard in Part 2), and she attempts to tie the issue into the larger political issues of today.

The J. Paul Getty Museum and, in particular, the trial of its former curator of antiquities, Marion True, are the focus of Part 4 "Rough Justice." In true journalistic fashion, Waxman examines the trial with the clarity of a court reporter. However, she is also not above unnecessary journalistic sensationalizing of the problems at the Getty. She goes on for four pages describing how employees admitted that "they were f***ing behind the paintings" and that the general atmosphere at the Getty was "convivial in the most carnal sense of the word" (p. 327). She freely admits "the sexual shenanigans were not directly tied to the problems the Getty would later face over stolen antiquities, but they were not insignificant either, creating a backdrop of interpersonal drama and tension" (p. 328), something she does not entirely prove. The Getty is portrayed as a generally amoral institution, letting True become a scapegoat for the institution's lack of integrity. Even Barry Munitz, the head of the Getty Trust, ultimately stepped down from his position and relinquished a substantial benefits package claiming that the Getty was a "spoiled and arrogant and self-involved" institution (p. 342). However, the Italian authorities and their handling of True come off little better. Their heavy-handed approach would seem to discourage other museums from voluntarily cooperating with repatriation efforts. While both sides claim the moral high ground, the significance of the artifacts over which they are arguing almost becomes lost in the quest for victory.

The general tone of the book is that of a journalistic inquiry rather than an analytical academic work, which has its benefits and its problems. It avoids the more moralistic tone of James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage and allows the reader to wade through the issues to reach his or her own conclusions. However, Waxman's attempts at evenhandedness border on indecisiveness. In her conclusion she painfully presents every argument and counter argument. Countries of origin have a legitimate claim for artifacts acquired either in the 19th century colonial context or the modern illegal antiquities market. Yet Waxman feels that more people and the artifacts themselves might indeed be better served in Western encyclopedic museums.

Waxman's style is very readable and generally accessible. Her use of interviews provides a voice to all the players involved. Her choice to focus on four general case studies provides adequate information to examine the issues of repatriation, though scant attention, other than a passing mention in the conclusion, is made of areas outside of the Mediterranean. In addition, the voices of the legitimate (and perhaps illegitimate) archaeologists who discovered the artifacts in question are not examined, which is surprising given the extent to which both sides of the conflicts are given equal voice through copious interviews. Surely at least one archaeologist could have been interviewed for his or her perspective. Even a tomb robber has a story to tell and room could have been made to include these voices by cutting out some of the extraneous details such as the full discussion of the setting for her interviews that goes into such detail as the color and pattern of the carpet. Still, if one is looking for a readable and general introduction to the issues and problems of repatriation and museum ethics, this book is a fine beginning.

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