NYT, March 29, 2006
Is It All Loot? Tackling The Antiquities Problem
On March 6, at the New School in New York, Michael Kimmelman, The
Times's chief art critic, moderated a discussion about antiquities and
their provenance. He opened by delving into the topic of the Euphronios
krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl that the Metropolitan Museum of Art
has recently agreed to return to Italy. Here are excerpts, edited for
clarity, from the conversation:
MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: Questions about whether the Euphronios krater was
looted are nothing new.
PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO: Documents emerged out of the criminal trial
against the Getty Museum. How Italy prosecuted its case in the United
States is rather shabby. It was entirely through the press. For years,
we wrote countless times to the Italian ministry, to the justice
department there and so forth, asking for a direct dialogue and really
never got it. I went with our secretary and counsel Sharon Cott in 1999
and it led to nothing. I was there in 2003 to discuss the whole issue of
the silver that the archaeologist Malcolm Bell said, on circumstantial
evidence, came from Morgantina in Sicily, asking whether they had any
hard information. I got blank stares.
But if you pile up enough circumstantial evidence, you've eventually got
something that's beyond reasonable doubt. And that has become the case.
I thought that some sort of formula where reciprocity and exchange could
be arranged would be successful for both sides and not deprive the
American museums altogether of antiquities when the objects were
returned to Italy. As you know, Italian museum storerooms are engorged
with works of art. It's not as if they needed them. This is a political
And we also negotiated what I think is important for the field as a
whole in the future, joint excavations, with our archaeologists digging
in Italy, where if we find a number of important objects they would be
sent to the Metropolitan for conservation and for long-term loan.
ELIZABETH C. STONE: Bit by bit, various museums, countries, groups have
begun to see the light, if you will, and to restrain their appetites for
looted objects since the Unesco agreement was passed in 1970 against
importing looted objects. The Germans, for example, have a very good
relationship with Italy now, exchanging objects. You wouldn't buy a
house or a car that somebody hasn't given you a legitimate title to. It
should be the same with antiquities. I've talked to museum people in the
Middle East. They would love to have museums of international art —
trade a second-rate Impressionist for a bunch of Sumerian statuary. If
you stop bad behavior, then all kinds of things are possible.
KIMMELMAN: But has the Unesco agreement really worked? Archaeologists
are saying the problems have gotten worse.
JAMES CUNO: The same people who argue for agreements like Unesco say the
illicit trade in antiquities has increased exponentially. Actually, the
trade has gone elsewhere than to museums. Museums are collecting far
fewer objects of antiquity than ever before. But private collectors are
not. And those private collectors may not be in the United States. They
may be in the Gulf states, in Japan, wherever. What the agreement has
done is drive the market from the public to the private domain.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: The Unesco system shares an assumption that the
goal is to get everything into some public domain. I think that for the
vast bulk of art, the right place for it to be is in the private world,
governed by market rules. It's a very important fact about art,
including antiquities, that it enriches the lives of people who live
with it, not just people who visit museums.
So the first thing I would have us think about is the importance of
distinguishing between the vast majority of objects that human beings
should live with — objects of virtue, beauty, whatever you want to call
it — and the rather small proportion of them, which are masterpieces,
works of profound importance, which should end up in the public domain.
What matters is not ownership, it's access — that as many people in the
world get access to the richest aesthetic experience possible. If I were
the National Museum in Kenya and today I wanted to start building a
museum that included not just Kenyan artifacts but world art, a
cosmopolitan collection, I'd have a very, very hard time. And one of the
reasons is because I have nothing to offer, say, the Italians. The Met
has things of beauty and virtue to swap. But without things to exchange,
countries suffer from restrictions on the movement of objects. If you
have focused, as Unesco has done in the case of Mali, say, almost
exclusively on stopping stuff getting out, you've done absolutely
nothing for the people of Mali in terms of helping them to develop a
broad cultural experience. One thing that Mali is not short of is Malian
art. But if you care about the aesthetic experience of Malians, you'll
be more concerned to see how to get them some of those second-rate
DE MONTEBELLO: The very notion that somehow looted objects account for
the vast majority of antiquities simply doesn't hold up. Newspapers
write about a market of $2 billion to $4 billion in looted art. In 1999,
Christie's and Sotheby's did a survey of the market for all antiquities,
not just looted — many had come out of grand-tour collections — and it
was somewhere between $80 million and $90 million, worldwide. American
museums, in the aggregate — we've just done a poll — have bought, on
average per year, about $150,000 worth of antiquities without
provenance. Now between that and $4 billion, there's a chasm I'm unable
STONE: The $4 billion, I think, is plucked out of the air because mostly
we don't know what it is. But let me give you an example of the effect
of looting. One of the most important things, archaeologically to come
out of Iraq, is the Sumerian flood myth. It shows that Noah's story
existed in Mesopotamia a thousand years, at least, before the Bible was
written. We know this only from pieces of broken tablets found in the
19th century. Looters today would just throw those fragments away. There
isn't a market for them.
APPIAH: Nobody is in favor of random digs or losing crucial information
about these objects because of looting. The question is whether we can
create a sane international system.
The current situation in Africa is this: The Unesco system gives each
minister of culture the right, basically, to tell people that they can't
take stuff out. The ministries of culture in these countries generally
have a tiny budget and no staff. So the minister is not in any position
to do sensible regulation. Instead, the minister might be encouraged to
say to the people: "Look, we prefer things to be done in authorized digs
by archaeologists. But we understand that we can't achieve that, just as
we understand we can't stop some people from smoking marijuana. So what
we're going to do is we're going to create a system that incentivizes
people who are going to dig stuff up anyway to give us as much
information about where it came from as possible, by offering a
reasonable price, and by allowing the Met or the Art Institute to go
directly into these places and work with our countries."
KIMMELMAN: There are countries that already provide incentives —
Britain, no? — so that if you dig up something, you then declare it,
keep it, and the nation reserves the right to buy it from you at fair
value if you wish to sell it. In Italy, I believe you can be penalized
if you discover something on your land and declare it, because the
government can then seize your property.
CUNO: Things that are found in the ground in Italy belong to the state
of Italy. They don't belong to the person who owns that land. So people
don't declare what they find. But there's another factor. We live in an
age of resurgent nationalism. When the U.N. was founded 60 years ago, it
had 51 nations. Now it has 191 member nation states — 82 of them have
laws on the books that condemn you to the status of possessing stolen
property if you find objects in the ground. Cultural property is a
modern political construct. It's what a modern nation state claims it to
be. Italy is making claims on objects that are, in the case of the
Euphronios krater, 2,500 years old. The state itself is only 170 years old.
APPIAH: The regulations Italy currently has are crazy because they fail
to stop this looting. They're crazy if you care about people outside
Italy having access to the extraordinary cultural riches of Italy
without going there. And they're crazy because they lead to deaths and
violence and crime. If you possess something that's been in Italy for 50
years, under present law you can't take it out of the country without
permission of the Italian government. This applies to a Jasper Johns
painting of an American flag, which happens to have been in Italy for 50
KIMMELMAN: What might be a fair statute of limitations?
STONE: I don't know anybody who isn't comfortable with 1970, the date of
the Unesco agreement, when international law essentially came together.
KIMMELMAN: The Greeks have been asking for the Elgin marbles for
DE MONTEBELLO: Between 1970 and 2006, we're talking about 36, 37 years,
during which time a great number of very substantial objects of great
merit have found their way into collections and onto the market.
Archaeologists say we should not buy them. Then what should be done with
them? Condemn them to oblivion? Or bring them into the public domain and
to the attention of possible claimant nations?
CUNO: Or what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? We don't know where they were
found. Some Bedouin showed up with them. Should people have said, Nope,
sorry, we can't touch them? That's the choice museums now are told to make.
DE MONTEBELLO: If one of those tablet fragments Elizabeth Stone spoke
about earlier chanced upon her desk with a fascinating inscription on it
but no legitimate provenance, she would not be allowed to publish it:
the Archaeological Institute of America forbids it.
STONE: And I won't.
DE MONTEBELLO: Does that advance knowledge?
STONE: No, but when you publish, as a scholar, you're authenticating the
object. And when you authenticate it, its value goes up.
APPIAH: It seems to me there's a kind of unreality about many of these
responses to the problem of looting.
KIMMELMAN: You were talking earlier, Philippe, about museums excavating
with permission to borrow what they find on long-term loans. The great
collections at places like the Met and the British Museum and Chicago
were put together in concert with foreign countries. Many archaeologists
got interested in becoming archaeologists when they were kids by seeing
those collections. Why has the relationship soured lately between
museums and archaeologists?
STONE: Americans have a difficult time understanding these issues. Most
people here are of European extraction, not Native American. We have
this dissonance between our own archaeology and our majority culture.
It's unseemly of us to denigrate the relationship that, say, Italians
feel with ancient Romans and Etruscans.
CUNO: But what about, say, Muslim Italians of North African descent?
Should they also feel that a Greek krater is important to their
self-esteem and identity? Or is this the majority culture looking back
at some imagined link ...
STONE: It's not an imagined link. If you look at genetic material,
there's a lot of Roman and Etruscan ...
APPIAH: Now we've gone from nationalism to racism.
STONE: What we're talking about is how people create identities. And of
course people from North Africa are not going to have the same
relationship to a Roman past, just as most of this audience doesn't have
the same relationship to Native American remains that Native Americans do.
APPIAH: We've talked mostly about Italy and the United States. There are
50-odd countries in Africa — all of them younger than I am. The cultural
roots are Asanti, Zulu. These are not the names of African nations. Now
with the rise of an Islamist conception of statehood, Mesopotamian
ancestors become pagan idolaters, which is what happened in Afghanistan,
where the Taliban, acting according to the Unesco conventions, were
considered rightly trustees of Afghan objects, and they exercised their
trusteeship by destroying them.
STONE: That was outrageous. No way will I defend that.
APPIAH: It does seem to me to show how this nationalist logic can
endanger what we all mostly care about, which is the survival of the
cosmopolitan experience. Assigning ownership to modern nation states,
many of which are very young, or which have very conflicted and
sometimes odd relations with the cultures that happened to be on their
territory, is a mistake.
KIMMELMAN: Questions from the audience?
Q: I wonder if anyone might consider the notion of the commons, a
cultural commons. Serious scientists know science cannot advance unless
knowledge is understood as a kind of commons.
DE MONTEBELLO: I think the reality, since we have been talking about the
Euphronios vase, is that the knowledge that we have of Greek vase
painting is based 98 percent on vases that were never excavated by
licensed archaeologists. Archaeologists talk about the loss of context.
We have almost a totality of the possible knowledge we could have,
although we don't know what the vase painters ate.
Where I agree with Elizabeth Stone is that there are very deep-rooted
feelings on the part of people who occupy the boot or the peninsula of
Italy for their past. But the problem with the notion that on a
providential zephyr an object will somehow return to its context by
being returned to the country it came from — well, what is the
difference between the object moving 5,000 miles to the Metropolitan and
five kilometers to the local museum. It's not in its original context in
STONE: I've talked to people in Turkey and Iraq about this because one
of the things the American dealers have argued is that there should be a
kind of a licit trade in duplicates, if you will, which seems reasonable
to me. But they also say the problem is the price of some of the objects
involved. When you talk about France, Germany, Britain and Japan, you're
talking about wealthy countries. When you're talking about Iraq or Egypt
or Mali, you're talking about very poor countries. The amount of money
is so high, so much for certain objects that they won't be able to
control corrupt trade.
Q: The nation state has been the bad guy in this discussion. Isn't it
the case that the cosmopolitanism of the 19th century, which created the
Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum, was really imperialism —
that the last great cosmopolitanism was a kind of tyranny of reason with
a white face.
APPIAH: The museum that was looted in my home town in Africa was created
by an Asanti king who had heard about the British Museum. He thought it
sounded like a good idea. And it was a good idea. People mention things
having Western sources as if, nowadays, this is supposed to count
against them in some way. If you're a cosmopolitan, you're enthusiastic
about us borrowing from Muslim culture and from Chinese culture. And
you're perfectly happy to have them borrow from yours.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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