Tuesday 1 February 2011

Alex Joffe on (Not) Repatriation and Washington Post Soothes

An extraordinary article by Alex Joffe in the Feb 1st number of the Wall Street Journal: Egypt's Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob, A definitive answer to the question: Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece? (sic)
Unfree and unstable countries, regardless of their tourist numbers, have a long way to go before they will treat antiquities in the manner of most European countries or the U.S. Attempts to undo the recent past to assuage postcolonial guilt or appease renewed nationalist sentiments by emptying museums of legitimately acquired items is unlikely to be in the best interest of the artifacts, scholarship or the global public.
that is of course European and US scholarship and the public of Europe and the US. As long as they get over their post-colonial guilt of course. (Including any they might feel towards Egypt, under Ottoman, French and British control for so long and a regime upheld with US funding in recent years.)

Is the "welfare of the artefacts' however the sole factor that should be taken into account? That which Joffe negatively labels (following others) "nationalism" is called "identity" elsewhere. Identity is seen elsewhere as having a positive role in society and the quality of lives of individuals. At this time, building a new national identity, seeking something that binds disparate elements of Egyptian society together in a shared heritage, something that can enhance quality of life of the new citizens of the global world, potentially will be an important element of the future political development of the country.

Perhaps that is something they do not really understand in the United States, not having an indigenous ancient culture they recognise as their own (somewhat surprisingly not infrequently displaying pre-colonial remains from US soil in museums as some kind of "natural history" along with the beetles and shellfish).

Then we have a rather superficial text from the Washington Post soothing the problem is not perhaps all that great because as Brian Vastag suggests, 'Reputable auction houses try to get all (arti)facts before selling antiquities' (Washington Post, February 1, 2011). Yeah, right, but the problem is that the bulk of the antiquities trade these days does not go on anywhere near "Reputable auction houses". As Vastag himself admits:
The global system of tracking antiquities is simply too porous, the demand for ancient baubles too high. "The commercial antiquities market worldwide is big, and open, and even though it's received a lot of criticism, it continues to be very active," said Ricardo Elia, a Boston University archaeologist who studies the long, sordid history of antiquities looting. [...] the chain of custody is often kinked. Forged documents are not uncommon, said Elizabeth Bartman, president of the Archaeological Institute of America. "There's an awful lot of stuff that comes on the market that's said to be from old European collections that somehow nobody ever knew about," she said. "I mean, how many East German collections were behind the Iron Curtain that we didn't know about? Come on. It's not very convincing."[...] museums have, even in the not-so-distant past, made some very poor judgments.

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