Sunday, 18 November 2012

Repatriating Art and Antiquities as Diplomacy: The Insincerity of Uncle Sam

Erik Nemeth writes about the use by "some collecting nations" of the repatriation of cultural patrimony for  diplomatic and foreign policy benefits. 
Antiquities have been stolen, smuggled and sold in what is a reported multibillion dollar underground market. They have become the illicit prizes of private collectors and the subject of legal claims against museums.[...]  . 
The proactive repatriation of cultural property demonstrates the significance of cultural property in foreign policy. These nations "exploit the power of antiquities" as diplomatic and foreign policy tools "outside of armed conflict". The United States government is among those that have demonstrated an interest in pursuing the return of artefacts to "source nations" as diplomatic gestures. Nemeth points out that:
Museums and auction houses take on roles as agents of diplomacy [...] Museum directors [...]  can wait to be challenged on the provenance of artifacts of foreign cultural heritage—or realize an opportunity for strengthening relations with the source nation.
There are implications for the private sector, too; private collectors may reflect on their own involvement in damaging, or engagement in foreign relations.

Erik Nemeth, 'The Diplomatic Power of Art'  U.S.News and World Report November 15, 2012

It is interesting that the American author speaks all the time in this article about "repatriation"  - rather than addressing the root cause, that damaging "multibillion dollar underground market". Foreign nations are supposed to be grateful for the tin pots and beads that America gives them rather than looking at the more extensive exploitation that these "gifts" hide. As Nemeth points out the no-questions-asked antiquities market as a whole is worth many millions to American commerce (what the lobbyists insist on calling "small businesses") and it seems increasingly clear that the US State Department's "International Cultural Property Protection program", focussed as it is on individual cases rather than adopting a holistic approach, is going to do as little as possible to actually curb the trade in dodgy items itself.  Objects are all-too-often "repatriated" to ever-so-grateful-to-Good-Ol'-Uncle-Sam foreign nations without single smuggler ever being named, let alone arrested or convicted, or without a single smuggling network investigated. No looter ever went to jail as a result of the ICPP. A warrant was only issued in the US for the arrest of a major dealer in Asian antiquities dealing for decades from a shop right in the middle of New York when somebody else had already arrested him and he was being extradited to a third country. Meanwhile the barrier of bubbles that the ICE oversees lets through thousands of dodgy antiquities annually, both ways. Indeed there is a very good reason for these 'collecting nations' to make loud noises, but do as little as possible to upset the flow of illicit antiquities into their country, since they can get so much political kudos for occasionally stretching out a lazy hand for one or two of them (or waiting for them to fall into their lap) and make a big show of getting them back to the place they'd been stolen from. 

Meanwhile no act of "repatriation" can lead to the un-digging of the looters' holes, can replace the archaeological information destroyed when looters ransacked an archaeological hotspot to find saleable collectables. Repatriation is wallpaper over the cracks and fissures in a wall.

Only when "collecting nations" like the USA and UK actually start doing something about this destructive industry  as a matter of protecting a fragile, finite and important resource, rather than just as a cheap and innocuous means of gaining political kudos, will any headway be made. Can archaeologists and conservationists get that message through to the vote-counting lawmakers before it is too late?  Are they trying? The record in the UK is even more tragically inadequate than in the US.

Anyone who CARES should consider the latter to be a useful maxim:
"No Repatriation Without Prosecution".

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