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07 Jul 2015 15:57
An Egyptian sarcophagus is displayed at the Museu Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin, the only museum other than the Cairo Museum that is dedicated solely to ancient Egypt art and culture. (Marco Bertorello,AFP)
Every month produces new cases of the “repatriation” of antiquities from American museums to their countries
In late May, Italian authorities displayed 25 looted
artefacts retrieved from the United States. They included some objects smuggled
by the infamous dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2004 for selling thousands
of stolen pieces of Greco-Roman art from Italy and the Mediterranean.
weeks earlier, the Cleveland Museum of Art returned a 10th-century statue of
the Hindu god Hanuman to Cambodia.
In April, homeland security agents relieved the Honolulu
Museum of Art of seven ancient Indian artefacts believed to have been acquired
through Subhash Kapoor, a New York-based art dealer.
Kapoor, who currently languishes in police custody in India,
presided over a vast criminal operation whose full scope authorities are still
trying to understand. An ongoing investigation dubbed Operation Hidden Idol
spans four continents in trying to untangle Kapoor’s network. For decades, he
funnelled stolen antiquities from India and south-east Asia to private
collectors and major museums in the west to the tune of over $100m (and perhaps
even more than that).
Some of the big American institutions connected to Kapoor
include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute in
Chicago and the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco.
Operation Hidden Idol has piled further pressure on American
museums to ensure that their collections are not home to illegally acquired
artefacts. In the last 10 years, public collections including the Getty Museum
in Los Angeles and the Met have given up hundreds of tarnished objects. In
acquiring these illicit antiquities, museums failed to do due diligence in
determining the authenticity and provenance of objects. They have since lost
millions of dollars.
But it’s not just the financial pain that worries curators
and museum chiefs. The headlines generated by such scandals threaten the very
acquisitive enterprise of western museums; mounting demands for repatriation
make more difficult the project of building “universal” institutions
presenting the art and history of the world.
Museums and foreign governmentsSometimes, these claims have little to do with the illicit
trade. Writing in the New York Times, Hugh Eakin decried the strong-arming
tactics of “art-rich” countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy.
“Museums’ relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly
contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly
extortionary, demands,” he wrote. As China and India grow on the
geopolitical stage, so too have Chinese and Indian demands (often by private
groups and individuals rather than governments) for the restitution of
artefacts from the west.
As a result, defenders of museums believe that their diverse
and cosmopolitan collections are under attack from governments and groups with
narrow, nationalist agendas. Critics of western museums accuse them of
complicity in the illicit trade, and at a more general level, of perpetuating
the gross inequalities between the west and the rest of the world.
According to Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The
Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, “museum
culture in the US has been slow to sensitise to the realities of the illicit
trade”. He sees a parallel between the trade in antiquities and the drug
trade: demand in western countries makes both possible. “As long as
there’s a lucrative market for looted goods, for objects with uncertain
provenance, there will be an illicit antiquities trade,” he said.
Tess Davis, a lawyer with the Antiquities Coalition, praised
the Cleveland Museum of Art for voluntarily returning the Hanuman statue, but
argued that it should never have been allowed to enter the collection in the
first place. “The Hanuman first surfaced on the market while Cambodia was
in the midst of a war and facing genocide,” she said. “How could
anyone not know this was stolen property? The only answer is that no one wanted
American museums are largely self-regulated, though many
subscribe to the stricter guidelines adopted in 2008 by the American
Association of Museum Directors governing the acquisition of archaeological
material. Museums have rarely been forced by legal rulings to give up
artefacts; instead, they have voluntarily - sometimes pre-emptively - handed
over the dodgy objects in their collections.
The political agenda of ruling elites“No one wants to be promoting the illegal trade,”
said James Cuno, CEO of the Getty Trust and a major proponent of universal
museums. “Collectors have to be very careful about both the authenticity
of the object and the legality of a transaction.”
But Cuno fears that universal museums in the west face a
deeper challenge from nationalists around the world. Governments and their
deputised national museums often couch their demands for repatriation in terms
of “repairing the integrity of the nation”. Cuno argues that these
claims are more theatrical than moral, making cultural property “about
politics and the political agenda of ruling elites”.
In his view, the universal museum remains the best context
in which to engage with art. “Works of art have not adhered to modern
political borders,” he said. “They have always sought connection
elsewhere to strange and wonderful things.”
The ongoing destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East
by the Islamic State has galvanised the case for the universal museum, with
advocates like Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum in
Baltimore, arguing that only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s
cultural heritage. Isis’s cultural atrocities “will put an end to the
excess piety in favour of the repatriation model”, he told the New York
Colonialism is still alive in art From another perspective, that defence smacks of western
privilege. “Colonialism is alive and well in the art world,” Davis
said. “So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in
order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic
collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice,
a western luxury. The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but
those of Phnom Penh? Never.”
Felch, who has spent years investigating the practices and
acquisitions of institutions like the Getty Museum, understands the problematic
history of universal museums in the west, but still sees great value in their
encyclopaedic character. “Many collections were built during colonial
times, but I’m not tilting at windmills, trying to undo history,” he said.
“I wish there were encyclopaedic museums elsewhere in the world.” He
suggests that the many large, well-resourced museums in the west must help
facilitate loans and exchanges with museums in other parts of the world.
While at odds with Felch on other counts, Cuno agrees that
institutions like his have a global mission. “Any museum that argues for
cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity has the obligation to encourage that
access everywhere,” he said. “There is no reason to believe that
people elsewhere are not curious about the world.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015
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