Monday, 4 February 2013

Letters from America: The Dispute Over Returning Antiquities

NYT "Readers respond to a Sunday Review article about museums giving in to pressures from foreign governments". Letters: The Dispute Over Returning Antiquities, New York Times, Feb. 3 2013.

Barbara Y. Newsom (Osprey, Fla). "The writer was director of a national study of art museum education and a founder of the Archaeological Conservancy". In that case the most charitable thing to assume is that her letter has been cruelly savaged by an editor, as different parts of it make no sense when taken together (or with the aims of the US organization she reportedly founded). Basically she says crassly that America should not give the Brown Folk back their stuff, as they most likely cannot look after it properly, its their own fault it was looted and in America it is "honored by institutions that know their value", unlike among the primitive foreigners.
As Mr. Eakin points out, our museums make a mistake by giving up these artifacts. The governments that so carelessly let them go should be grateful that these things have been kept intact.
I'm crossing her off my Christmas card list.

Fiona Rose-Greenland (Ann Arbor, Mich.) tries to do make some post-Processual argument about "power balance" but says nothing particularly remarkable. The next one is even more weird than Newsom's. William G. Pearlstein ("a lawyer who represents art dealers and collectors" and former luminary of the ACCP) takes issue with cultural property lawyer Stephen Urice quoted by Eakin as saying that archaeological looting is increasing despite the voluntary restitution of unprovenanced objects by American museums.
I disagree. Archaeological looting has substantially decreased in some countries, independent of museum restitution and American import restrictions. The Italian cultural police have stated that they have largely halted looting in Italy by breaking up the big international smuggling rings. Little fresh material is coming out of Cambodia, decades after the civil war and the demise of the Khmer Rouge. It’s time to rationally address whether archaeological looting in specific nations is driven by demand in the American antiquities market.
Sounds like a task for the CPRI. So the policies are working? Is that what Pearlstein is saying? So if you put curbs on smuggled stuff preventing it from entering market countries such as the US, the smuggling decreases? Do you really need a CPRI investigation to come up with a 'Mickey Mouse law' like that?

But then what does Mr Pearlstein want to happen? If it is proven that curbing imports of illegally exported material has reduced its trade, I am sure Mr P. is not suggesting that this means it would be OK for the US to allow illegal exports to come flooding in again...

 Also here we see the peculiarly American confusion of looting and illegal exports. The relationship between the two is far more complex than a 'Sesame Street' equation of one with the other, sadly that is the way their outdated 1980s 'Convention on Cultural Property Implementation [the term is used loosely] Act' encourages them to think.

Also what's with the "in specific nations"? Apparently the USA became a state party of a Convention which assures mutual aid in curbing trade in illicit cultural property to 122 other countries (including Palestine), not "specific nations.  No?

Has the trade in freshly-surfaced Cambodian antiquities actually halted as Pearlstein claims? Or has it just shifted to smuggling through Bangkok (so the illicit artefacts come not from Cambodia but "Thailand")?

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