Sunday 15 July 2012

Homes For “Orphaned” Antiquities

Readers will be aware that a few days ago there was a New York Times article ('The Curse of the Outcast Artifact') describing the supposed plight of private collectors of antiquities in the US who have had their intended donations turned away by museums. On that topic Erich Matthes (5th year philosophy student at the University of California, Berkeley) writes ('Homes For “Orphaned” Antiquities', The Creativity Post Jul 15, 2012) that "Undocumented antiquities are rightly refused by museums, but they aren't "orphaned." They have a home in their native countries". Dismissing the arguments of those who make their profits selling such items, he accepts that "the absence of any documentable provenance is a strong indicator that an artifact has been acquired through looting". Apart from the ethical issues involved (which he briefly discusses), he says, museums that display undocumented work "are almost begging for a lawsuit".
So you can see why it’s important that museums not accept undocumented artifacts, a policy being adopted by an increasing number of institutions. This brings us back to the US collectors who are unable to sell or donate their undocumented antiquities. While the damage to the archaeological record is already done, these artifacts are still significant. The NYTimes article quotes Arthur A Houghton III, president of the Cultural Policy Research Institute, as lamenting that these artifacts are “orphaned” when museums won’t take them. But the analogy is inapt. These artifacts still have a rightful home back in the nations from which they were likely stolen. If these collectors are in a philanthropic spirit and want to do a good deed, they should send the artifacts home. The effort might even end in a heart-warming story. But more importantly, it’s a small way of redressing a wrong that collectors themselves help to promote by being part of the demand for antiquities.     

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