The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman, Times Books, 414pp
Reviewed:14 February 2009
Sharon Waxman, an American, studied the Middle East at Oxford then worked as a “culture correspondent” and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. This book applies journalistic reporting on places and personalities in a struggle within the world of museums and professional collectors: when should foreign objects held in museums be returned to their place of origin?
The Enlightenment idea that people become more civilised by appreciation of the classical past – essentially Greece, Rome and antecedents in the Near East - inspired development of the public museum. From the time of Napoleon, this evolved from blatant displays of looted treasure and colonial curios into the sophisticated systems of archaeology, conservation and historical research now epitomised by the Louvre or the British Museum.
The Louvre and the British Museum were founded on overt imperial acquisitions, while the New York Metropolitan Museum continues to receive items of dubious provenance donated by those social-climbing hedge-fund operators not yet in gaol. For at least a century, the prevailing motto has been “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on the provenance of prized items.
Legal and illegal acquisitions seem always to have run in parallel, but formal legality has not discouraged new generations of cultural nationalists from demanding return of precious artifacts to their land of origin.
Waxman gives a fair account of the claims of those restitutionists of Egypt, modern Greece, Turkey and Italy. The happiest case histories undo blatantly unlawful acquisitions involving networks of grave-robbers, smugglers, shady dealers and shameless curators.
Sadly, some of the cultural treasures recovered with heroic effort have since been lost again through corruption, incompetence, or lack of curatorial resources in the place of origin. Such cases strengthen the arguments of the big museums that they hold items not only for themselves but in safe trust for humanity.
Richard Thwaites has worked, among other things, as a publisher's editor