Loot by Sharon Waxman

/ posted in: Reading

I learned about this book from the endnotes in The Lost Sisterhood. Who should own art?  Is it the cultural patrimony of the country where it was made?  Does it belong to the highest bidder?  Does it belong to whoever is strong enough to take it?

It is a very complicated question with no good answers.

Grave robbing has happened forever.  Should museums today return objects stolen from Egyptian tombs in the 1900s?  What about objects stolen earlier?

There are art pieces that have been stolen repeatedly.

“Should the four bronze horses on the roof of the church of San Marco in Venice be returned to Constantinople, whence they were taken in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade?  Or should they be returned to Rome, since they supposedly adorned the Arch of Trajan before they were carted off to Contantinople?  Or should they go back to the Greeks, who are believed to have originally made them in the fourth century BC?  Those who would unravel the tangled skein of history will quickly confront such riddles.  As the restitution debate evolves, new brain twisters emerge.  Like this one:  in 2007 American deep-sea explorers in international waters off the coast of Spain found a Spanish galleon that had been sunk by a British warship in 1804.  On the ship, the explorers found gold and other treasures worth $500 million.  Claiming that this was its “cultural heritage,” Spain immediately asserted ownership of the shipwreck and filed a federal lawsuit in Tampa, Florida, to press its claim.  But Peru then intervened to ask what seemed to be a relevant question:  wasn’t this gold stolen from the Peruvians’ Incan forebears?  And if so, shouldn’t they be the ones to whom restitution is made?”  from pages 7-8.

The author focuses her story on art from the ancient Mediterranean countries.  She interviews archeologists in these countries, smugglers, dealers, and museum directors.  The story gets more and more tangled.  For example:

  • France considers any item in the Louvre to be French by definition no matter where it was originally made.
  • A museum in Turkey won the return of a group of artifacts from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in one of the first high profile restitution cases.  The centerpiece of that collection has since been stolen.
  • In some of the small museums that have had items returned from large western museums the number of people who saw the items in the first 5 years after restitution was less than the number of people who saw them each hour in the previous museum.
  • If a collector buys a piece in good faith and it turns out to have been looted, do they get their money back and from whom?

After reading this book I don’t have a clear idea of what the right thing to do is in many of these situations.  I will think more about how the items got to museums and notice if the museums list anything about their history other than “Swiss collector.”