When Indiana Jones cracked his bullwhip and declaimed “That belongs in a museum!,” I crusaded right beside him in spirit as he took some ancient treasure from the hands of the greedy bad guys. I’ve stood guilt-free before the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles (above) at the British Museum, gazed at the Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, and wandered blissfully through the Roman and Greek galleries of the Met, wondering at the “one-stop-shopping-ness” of all these ancient cultures gathered together for the enjoyment of the West without thinking much of the sense of loss of the East, the source of all this culture. Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World raises uncomfortable questions about who really owns the art of the past and who should be the stewards of that art in the future. The heated struggle for ownership has transformed art galleries in the Western world into virtual temples of doom as poorer source countries pressure powerful museums to relinquish items they have acquired and sustained for decades, if not longer. Waxman peoples that larger battleground with figures throughout art history such as Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the “Elgin” of the Elgin Marbles, who wear the black or white hats of history depending on your perspective, but ultimately fall into a middle grey area that denies any clear resolution. One country’s art savior is another’s art stealer. “Should [these artworks] stay where they are,” Waxman asks, “exhibited and preserved with care, accessible to crowds of visitors from around the world? Or should they return to their countries of origin, whose demands for restitution have grown ever more vociferous, a chorus of dissatisfaction from across the ancient world?” Waxman asks the tough questions and honestly presents the tough, unsatisfying answers.
For many Westerners, the face of Egyptology and all ancient art is Zahi Hawass (above), Secretary-General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, ubiquitous face on popular television archaeological documentaries, vocal activist for restitution, and, to his detractors, “hypemonger” and “the loosest cannon in the Egyptian government.” Hawass represents the pugnacious side of the restitution advocates. Waxman delicately explains how, for countries such as Egypt, “[t]he demand for restitution is a way to reclaim history, to assert a moral imperative over those who were once overlords.” Demands for the return of art originate not only from the injuries of the colonialist past but also from present resentment over the American military’s presence post-9/11 in the Middle East. As arrogant as the source countries can be in their demands, Waxman points out, “the responses of the Western nations have often betrayed an arrogance that has served to stoke the flames of resentment over trampled national dignity.” The battle over stolen treasures, Waxman proves, is over much more than the treasures themselves. And, yet, the “trampled national dignity” of source countries rarely translates into actual interest in antiquities. Waxman cites the example of Hawass’ own son, Sharif, who “like many young Egyptians, having searched for meaning and cultural identity, he found it in Islam, rather than in the country’s ancient pharaonic roots.” Colonialism trampled national dignity rooted in the ancient past so far underground that the Egyptians, Greeks, and other source nationalists of today no longer recognize it. Western museums that host millions of visitors yearly point toward the meager attendance numbers of Eastern museums as an argument against returning ancient art to source countries and, thus, effectively burying them once again.
Western museums don’t like to discuss how they got the treasures they have. In most cases, wall plaques don’t describe the journey from the source country to the museum at all. People such as Lord Elgin are acknowledged only due to their fame, or infamy. Waxman digs into the closets of museums such as the Louvre and the Met and pulls out all the skeletons. In 1820, the Dendera zodiac (above) was literally hacked from the ceiling of the Hathor temple at Dendera and transported to the Louvre, where it remains today. A sad replica, all in black, hangs where the original once did. The Louvre, however, refuses to return the original. “Deep in the DNA of the institution is this passionately held belief—valid, perhaps, but not unanimously believed—that the world should be grateful that the Louvre preserves and displays the great art of the world,” Waxman writes. Similarly, the Met admits no wrong. “The new chauvinism does a great disservice to mankind,” says the Met’s former director, Philippe de Montebello. In 1960, the Met knowingly purchased the Lydian Hoard from smugglers and only returned it to Turkey in 1993 after a long legal battle, just one of the many battles it has waged and continues to wage over ancient treasures. In 2003, de Montebello called the restitution debate “pure politics,… but we’ve lost, they’ve won, and the public has lost as a consequence.”
An earlier Met director, Thomas Hoving, now freely admits dealing in plundered art during his time there, including the Euphronios krater (above), which the Met only returned to Greece in 2008. When the Met paid $1 million USD in 1972 for the vase, looters ravaged ancient sites in search of new items to sell, placing much of the responsibility for the destruction of ancient culture squarely in the lap of the museums feeding the frenzy. Today, Hoving is not only a staunch restitutionist, but also the greatest advocate against the idea that Western museums serve humanity better through greater access to these treasures. “In the entire history of mankind, art was seen by specialists,” Waxman quotes Hoving. “The great masses seeing it doesn’t make them or it any better. So what? It’s a specious argument.” Personally, I find Hoving’s words repugnant, a case of extreme elitism in which the works of kings will always remain the works of kings and their “specialists,” forever cordoned off from the riff raff. Hoving represents the ugly side of the restitution argument, taking it to an extreme that few others follow. It’s hard to understand how someone who once helped assemble one of the great encyclopedic survey museums in the world now wants it all torn apart and hidden from “the great masses” who he feels can never appreciate them as well as he can, and should never be given the chance to try.
Perhaps the darkest chapter of Loot surrounds the strange case of downfall of Marion True and The J. Paul Getty Museum. Once the greatest champion of strict provenance for ancient art, True, the curator of antiquities at the Getty, found herself the target of restitutionists looking to reclaim such works as the gold wreath (above) some believe belonged to Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. In a strange twist of fate, True found herself charged with stealing antiquities by both the Greek and Italian governments. “What happened to Marion True was a warning, a shot across the bow by source countries to the entire Western museum establishment,” Waxman writes. “Was Marion True a scapegoat or a scofflaw deserving of her fate? Perhaps she was both.” Restitutionists sent a clear signal that they would personally prosecute museum personnel, if necessary, with True as simply the first victim. The gold wreath now hangs in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, just the beginning of a large-scale shaking down of the Getty’s collection that continues today. The entire True episode proves just how high the stakes have gotten in the battle for antiquities today.
By the end of Loot, Waxman seems as weary as her readers of the warfare. “The politics of ‘us versus them’ has to give way to a reaffirmation of the value of cultural exchange, and its real embrace by both sides,” Waxman concludes in an attempt to provide some solution to this multifaceted problem. “But what is required most of all is a desire to collaborate rather than excoriate, to take the measure of where a lack of collaboration has led and pursue a different path.” In the end, can’t we all just get along. Perhaps as America’s attitude towards the rest of the world adjusts with the incoming new administration, an environment in which collaboration and understanding can begin to take hold. Waxman presents an incredibly complex argument in all its permutations with delicacy and understanding, never taking a single side but always presenting the strengths and flaws of each position. In a world at war since the dawn of time, Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World shines a light on how the battle over the past not only reflects our present conflicts but also, in its potentially peaceful resolution, may point the way toward a brighter tomorrow.
[Many thanks to Times Books for providing me with a review copy of Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.]