Sunday 27 January 2013

America's "Great Giveback"

The New York Times has an Opinion piece by Hugh Eakin ('The Great Giveback',  NYT January 26, 2013) which I am surprised to see has not yet been trumpeted as vindication by the antiquity dealers lobbyists on their blogs. It illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples' cultural property,  that internationally is losing America friends. Really disturbing:
The news has become astonishingly routine: a major American museum announces it is relinquishing extraordinary antiquities because a foreign government claims they were looted and has threatened legal action or other sanctions if it doesn’t get them back.  [...] Since 2006, more than 100 statues, bronzes, vases, mosaics and other works have left public collections in the United States.

Note the language of this article, "foreign government claims..." "statue of a Greek goddess was given to Italy", "agreed to send to Turkey...", "responding to trophy hunting from abroad"...

Eakin's gripe appears to be: 
In nearly every case, the museums have not been compelled by any legal ruling to give up the art, nor are they receiving compensation for doing so. And while a few of the returned works have been traced to particular sites or matched with other fragments residing in the claimant country, many of them have no known place of origin. 
He seems disturbed that US museums are caving in, not holding out like the SLAM attempted over that Ka Nefer Nefer mask. They just gave in to the pesky olive-skinned furriners.  Furriners who go so far in their insolence as sometimes to refuse to issue permits to archaeologists from other nations including the USA to dig up the archaeological heritage in their territories in response to them harbouring stolen (I almost feel Eakin would use scare quotes there) antiquities. How dare they? How dare they presume to say who should enter their sovereign territiory and for what purpose? Furthermore, he refers to these developments merely as:
rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments and impoverishing Americans’ access to the ancient world.  [...]  in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are [...]  making great art ever less available to their own patrons [...] museums [...] are supposed to be in the business of collecting and preserving art from every era, not giving it away.
He also warns that by coming to agreements with these persistent furriners, US museums:
[...]  have also spurred a raft of extravagant new claims  [..] museums’ relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly extortionary, demands.
 Well, I think that is enough of that. The guy steadfastly refuses to even hint that the Americans (demonised by "alarming stories of rogue curators and nefarious dealers") might actually be in the wrong here. That the proverbial Truth, Justice and the American Way might here not really being applied at all assiduously. Certainly I think we can all see a serial avoidance of an uncomfortable truth and a warping of a sense of justice in these writings. This is ridiculous, the US is not some banana republic with 80% of the population barely able to write their own name, its a nation that claims to have a responsible and enlightened society, to be a world leader and moral arbiter. Yet in writings like this we time and time again come across the expression of ideas which conflict with the moral stance one would expect from such a country. The stuff is stolen, if it somehow got into the USA and the original owner wants it back, why kick up such a fuss about handing it back, and how about saying "sorry"?

Eakin concedes that "museums themselves are partly to blame", then here comes the collectors mantra number one:
For decades, most antiquities available in the international art market that had not come from pre-20th century private collections lacked a known findspot and date of discovery. Museums figured they could collect these objects because they bought them in countries with legal antiquities markets and notified potential claimant governments when they bought them. 
What on earth is he talking about? What pre-20th century private collections coming onto that market have objects with "a known findspot and date of discovery"? So Mr Eakin is claiming that all of the 100 items that he bemoans being returned were "bought in countries with legal antiquities markets"? If there is a legal antiquities market, then the museums buying them would have no difficulty in coming into possession of documentation revealing the 100% licitness, legitimacy and legality of every one of those 100 items. How does Mr Eaking account therefore for their absence? In any case, many of the items were only purchased by museums in the US when the objects were already in the US, and it is how they got there that is in question. Secondly is Mr Eakin really convinced that in every one of those 100 cases, the purchasing museum actively "notified potential claimant governments when they bought them"?  As he himself points out,
Though they have involved tens of millions of dollars’ worth of art, the deals have not been made public [...] nor, for the most part, has the evidence on which they are based been disclosed. 
Neither, however, has that which the various US museums concerns use to justify their original acquisition.

Eakin then goes on to point out that "because the deals are premised on physical repatriation" the looting goes on; "in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are doing little to protect ancient heritage while making great art ever less available to their own patrons.

 But giving up objects has done little to halt the international trade in looted antiquities, while
“Has any of this affected the real evil, which is looting?” asks Stephen Urice, a cultural property lawyer at the University of Miami who has advised museums on restitution issues. “From what I see,” he adds, “it’s getting worse.” 
Part of the problem is that the US authorities apparently consider most of the time that getting the objects on the photo-op ICE tablecloths allowing the great and good to trot out their little superlative-filled  speeches for the press is the end of the job. As some of us (including cultural property lawyer Rick St Hilaire not quoted by Eakin) have been saying, that should be the beginning. The seizures should be used as the start of an aggressive truly international programme of going after the smugglers, their suppliers and the looters. Sending the stolen cars back to Hamburg with no investigation will self-evidently not catch the car thieves, and they will carry on thieving, and finding new ways to get the stolen goods smuggled across international borders.

Actually Mr Urice, the real evil is the no-questions-asked antiquities market which facilitates the making of profits for looting. The US no-questions-asked market unquestionably is pre-eminent among the most damaging.

Photo: Hugh Eakin (Authors at Harbourfront Centre)

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