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A Short Message About Museums And Antiquities

Hugh Eakin has it exactly right in his long piece in today’s New York Times, headlined The Great Giveback. In it, he chronicles what has been happening at American museums regarding the antiquities in their collections. While some of those objects have clearly been obtained under suspicious circumstances — and have now been returned, as they should be — many do not have proven problems. Yet museums have fallen victim to what amounts to extortion some foreign governments — sometimes voluntarily.

Ka-NeferNeferMeanwhile, the looting that these cases were supposed to stop has gone on, possibly getting worse. And many of the stolen objects are being purchased by collectors in other countries that do not care about the looting.

I normally refrain from writing about these cases lest I be accused of conflict of interest because of my consulting work. However, I don’t believe that prohibits me from citing an excellent article. He is a reasonable voice on a topic that attracts extreme positions.

Or from making another point: far too many journalists have bought the line of the “country of origin” claimants and archaeologists without examining the circumstances, the dynamics and the politics at work. The same thing happened, on occasion, in Nazi looting cases. It was far easier to buy the arguments of, and be sympathetic to, the claimants than it was to report out “the best available version of the truth,” to quote that line about the purpose of journalism.

Not all of the claimants of antiquities or World War II loot deserved that bias toward the “underdog.” Some are taking advantage of a complicated situation.

Let me close with Eakin’s final paragraph, pitch-perfect:

Looting is a terrible scourge, and museums must be held to the highest ethical standards so they don’t unwittingly abet it. But they are supposed to be in the business of collecting and preserving art from every era, not giving it away. By failing to deal with the looting problem a decade ago, museums brought a crisis upon themselves. But 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.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum via the NYT



  1. Christian Kleinbub says

    Perhaps the United States needs to develop its own cultural property laws to protect our accumulation of heritage, just as countries like the UK do. Nobody would argue that certain paintings in UK public and private collections aren’t now part of UK heritage, because of their cultural impact on the place in question. Why are we so resistant to embracing those ideals here? We’re not such a young nation anymore!

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