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Common Sense From Gary Vikan

Maybe retirement, if that’s what Gary Vikan–former head of the Walters Art Museum–had entered, loosens inhibitions. Vikan’s editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal may not have been written if he still had the job. It’s headlined The Case for Buying Antiquities to Save Them.  It’s about the unrelenting damage being perpetrated by ISIS, of course.


It challenges the “prevailing view among archaeologists, reflected in bills in Congress, [that we should] ….exclude from the U.S. all antiquities thought to originate in those countries.”

Vikan instead says:

This is a mistake. After decades of museum experience with cultural property of uncertain provenance, I believe that we should accept looted antiquities from these troubled areas, even when such action might be considered “encouraging looting.” The expenses that museums might incur—including the costs of returning the pieces to the countries of their origin—are worth paying to keep them out of reach of ISIS sledgehammers.

No one, anywhere, should buy art from ISIS….[But] In times of extraordinary risk, we should be open to dealing with bad guys to create a safe harbor for works of art. This is an act of rescue and stewardship—and should be done with the explicit understanding that eventually, when the time is right, the objects will be repatriated to the country of their origin.

He is right. In Britain, Neil MacGregor recently said that the British Museum, which he directs, is holding–“guarding”–an object looted from Syria.

In June, the House of Representatives passed HR 1493–provisions here–which among other things allows for such “safe harbor” importation to the U.S. of Syrian antiquities if the President grants a waiver and if no money goes to terrorists. Pretty difficult to determine, but it’s a step in the right direction, I guess. Still it has yet to get into the Senate. You can read more about it on the Cultural Assets blog of Greenberg Traurig.

For Near Eastern antiquities, these are desperate times; they require fresh thinking and the challenging of conventional wisdom.



  1. I would go further than saying it’s ‘difficult to determine’ and say it’s almost certain transactions will fund terrorists. The House action just made it easier. Vikan, intent on saving antiquities, says he considers the cost of dealing with “bad guys’ worth the expense? I find this statement incredulous. If he’s willing to deal with terrorists in any capacity, then it follows that he is not too concerned about who’s selling and where the money train ends. I’m reading a lot between those lines, I confess. To say that those willing to purchase/harbor these stolen objects are ignorant of the intent of the looters themselves (to wipe us off the map) sounds unconvincing. So I can only surmise that they’ve never paid the price of dealing with the devil.

  2. Matthew Polk says

    It’s important to note that the requirements for safe harbor waivers in the Bill before congress are such that none will ever be granted. The President must request a waiver from Congress and must certify that it will not in anyway contribute to illicit trafficking, terrorism, etc. No president is likely to take the risk of making such a certification. Supporters of the Bill such as ASOR and AIA understand this and hope that this Bill will become a template for restricting “…all International Cultural Property…”. Here’s a link to the ASOR letter to constituents discussing the safe harbor provisions.

    We must do what we can to prevent illegal trade in cultural property but we also have an obligation to protect and preserve the World’s cultural heritage for future generations and for all peoples. Hopefully our policies will punish the malefactors and not the objects themselves. I think Gary has a point.

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