ON THE FIRST floor of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, in the early Greek art galleries, there is a long display case filled with Athenian ceramics. In one corner, partway up the linen backing, are two holes, a couple of inches apart, where a shelf holding a small, 2,500-year-old oil flask was once attached. Upstairs, in the Imperial Roman galleries, a group of marble busts and statues has been rearranged after the departure of a 6-foot-tall marble statue of the Roman empress Sabina. Ten Greek pots and one carved marble fragment from Imperial Rome are also gone from the museum's collection.
All the pieces were given to the government of Italy, and are now part of a blockbuster exhibition, in Rome's Quirinal Palace, made up entirely of pieces alleged to have been looted and smuggled out of Italy. The show's title, "Nostoi" - from a lost epic poem recounting the perilous homeward voyages of Greek heroes after the Trojan War - is a nod to the labors of the Italian culture ministry and police, whose campaign of persistent arm-twisting, public criticism, and criminal prosecution secured the return of the 68 artifacts in the show, each now the property of the Italian government.
These returned objects are only the most visible recent fruits of a powerful movement aimed at moving some of the world's most prominent ancient treasures from the hands of foreign museums and collectors back to the so-called source countries. Along with Italy, the governments of Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, China, and Cambodia, among others, have pushed to reclaim prized artifacts from collections around the world.
They have tightened their laws governing the export of antiquities or intensified the enforcement of existing laws and international agreements; they have made impassioned public cases on the world stage.
These governments argue that to allow such objects to remain abroad as trophies only encourages the continued pillage of their national patrimony. Their position has won broad moral support and increasingly become the norm among academic archeologists, who see ancient objects as historic artifacts inseparable from their place of discovery. It has forced major concessions from great museums around the world, including the MFA, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The British Museum is under persistent pressure to return the Elgin Marbles, its famous set of sculptures from the Parthenon.
But as one museum after another negotiates deals, and prosecutors all over the world target the commercial trade in ancient objects, some prominent scholars are drawing a line in the sand, saying that objects belong where they are - that the movement is based on a false reading of history, and, if allowed to progress, could do serious damage to the world's cultural inheritance.
"What's at stake," says James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, "is the world's right to broad and general access to its ancient heritage."
Cuno, the former head of Harvard's art museums and someone often mentioned as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello, the retiring director of the Metropolitan Museum, is this spring publishing a book-length argument against returning cultural artifacts, "Who Owns Antiquity?" Cuno, who is among the most vocal and prominent voices in the debate, argues that laws meant to keep antiquities in the countries where they're found are wrongheaded and counterproductive. They limit the number of people who can see the objects, he says, while putting artworks at risk and driving collectors and dealers into the black market. They also present an existential threat to great "encyclopedic" museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, places that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world's cultural history in one place.
Such arguments have triggered fierce responses, not only from source country governments, but from archeologists who see in the recent repatriations and prosecutions the best chance for protecting the fragile sites from which antiquities are too often looted. Ricardo Elia, chair of the archeology department at Boston University and an expert on the problem of looting, describes Cuno as an "aesthetic fundamentalist" willing to ignore ethical and archeological values to get his hands on pretty objects. Cuno's argument, many of his critics charge, is simply an endorsement of plunder.
Many curators and collectors are more cautious in their public remarks than Cuno. But the clash between Cuno and his critics is a battle between two very different philosophies, one that sees antiquities primarily as art, the other casting their value in terms of the historical information they provide. How the argument plays out will determine the way human history is dug up, studied, and displayed. And it will determine, too, what it means to own a piece of the ancient past.
The dispute over where the world's antiquities belong goes back centuries, but recent years have seen an intensification of repatriation campaigns, and a string of victories for the source countries. Among the returned items in the "Nostoi" exhibition is the Euphronios Krater, a dramatic Greek bowl that Italy had been demanding back from the Metropolitan Museum almost since the museum bought it in 1972, for $1 million, from an art dealer now on trial in Rome for conspiring to sell looted antiquities. A year ago, Greece won the long-sought return of a gold wreath and statue from the Getty Museum.
In addition, federal officials are investigating an alleged Asian antiquities smuggling ring that sold pieces to a few Southern California museums and a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. And last month, the oldest antiquities dispute of them all, over the Elgin Marbles, was reignited when the Greek-Cypriot billionaire owner of easyJet added his voice and resources to the battle to reclaim the famed sculptures from the British Museum, where they have been displayed since being prized off the Parthenon 200 years ago.
The problem with these seemingly laudable efforts, according to Cuno, is that they're not really about the artifacts, but about politics. The young governments of Greece and Turkey, he points out, used their antiquities, and the laws restricting their export, as a way of forging a national political identity. The Greek government's dogged campaign to recover the Elgin Marbles is one example. The Turkish government's claim of ownership over the relics of ancient Kurdish culture found within its national borders - objects that, if owned by the Kurds themselves, might fuel their separatist ambitions - is another.
In many cases the nations asserting rights to artifacts have little in common, culturally, religiously, artistically, or even ethnically, with the civilizations buried beneath them. Modern Peru, for example, was built in the vacuum left by the systematic destruction of the Inca civilization, whose legacy the country now claims. "It is a stretch of the imagination," says Cuno, "to link modern Egypt to ancient Egypt, modern Greece to ancient Greece, modern Rome to ancient Rome, communist China to ancient China." Nonetheless, countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, China, and many others have laws that make any antiquity found on their soil automatically the property of the state.
The demands of this nationalistic system, its critics say, can sometimes overrule the best interests of the artifacts. In a 2006 essay in the New York Review of Books, the philosopher and Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that such laws have even destroyed antiquities. Soon after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Appiah pointed out, it was a UNESCO treaty prohibiting the removal of antiquities from their country of origin that prevented concerned scholars from rescuing pre-Islamic artifacts before the Taliban, branding them idolatrous objects, destroyed them.
"Would the ideologues of cultural nativism...find solace in the fact that these works were destroyed by Afghan hands, on Afghan soil?" Appiah wrote.
Even at museums that have made substantial changes to their acquisition policies, there is discomfort with some of the language of repatriation, and with the sweeping nature of some source country laws. Kimerly Rorschach, the director of Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art, is seen by archeologists as someone who listens to their concerns. She is quick to describe her alarm at the problem of looting and smuggled artworks. But she is also critical of the idea that, as she puts it, "All objects from these ancient civilizations must be distributed to people who descend from them - or who may not descend from that civilization but inhabit the same geographical region."
Better, many in the museum world insist, to let some of these treasures find a home in encyclopedic museums - cosmopolitan institutions where the age-old interpenetration of cultures is brought into relief - rather than restricting them to more homogenous national museums.
"We should recognize that a great deal of knowledge, cross-fertilization, and exchange can come from objects moving across borders," Philippe de Montebello wrote in an essay, "Whose Culture Is It?," published in the Berlin Journal last fall.
Archeologists don't deny the value of cross-border cultural exchange, or of bringing ancient treasures to the widest possible audience. The problem, they argue, is that the lucrative antiquities market inevitably creates incentives for looters. According to archeologists who study the issue, a significant portion of artifacts on the market today, and in the collections of many major museums, were looted - illegally dug up for the sole purpose of profit. David Gill, an archeologist at Wales's Swansea University, examined the sales of Egyptian antiquities from
For archeologists, the problem with looting is not simply that it is stealing, but that it destroys archeological sites, erasing irreplaceable information. A funerary jug scrubbed clean and presented for sale to a museum has far less to offer an archeologist than one found in the ground, where everything from its location and positioning to its contents and the composition of the soil around it - in short, its context - can offer clues to the sort of culture that made and preserved it.
To illustrate the point, Brian Rose, president of the Archaeological Institute of America and an archeology professor at the University of Pennsylvania (and a curator at the university museum), gives the example of a site called Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Under excavation since 1994, it is the oldest known temple complex in the world, predating Stonehenge by 7,000 years. If it had been looted, and its pillars and carvings brought onto the market with no context, Rose argues, "they probably would have been branded as forgeries" because their existence so fundamentally challenged archeologists' understanding of the earliest eras of human history.
The value of the current system to archeologists is that source countries like Italy and Greece, whatever their motivation, have proven better protectors of dig sites than museums have. "I think the nation-states are trying to do a good job of maintaining and protecting their antiquities," says Malcolm Bell, an archeology professor at the University of Virginia and the leader of a dig at the ancient Greek colony of Morgantina, in Sicily, the source of a collection of looted silver recently returned to Italy from the Met.
To Bell and other archeologists, the recent repatriation campaigns are less a form of national chest-thumping than part of a healthy long-term shift in archeology, away from treasure hunts run by museums and wealthy explorers and toward long-term digs managed in cooperation with host countries. Most of the laws and international accords governing the antiquities trade tacitly acknowledge that standards have changed over the years, and only target objects that may have been looted in recent decades.
Cuno, for his part, believes that it's the laws themselves that encourage the black market in antiquities, much as 90 years ago Prohibition spurred the rise of the Mob. Private collectors are a fact of life, he argues. Since source country export restrictions make it so much harder to legally purchase antiquities, dealers and collectors are driven into the black market. Cuno would like to see a loosening of those laws to allow for a larger licit trade in antiquities. Perhaps, he suggests, source countries could arrange to set aside some portion of the artifacts unearthed on archeological digs for sale, or they could bar only those antiquities they were willing to buy from the owner from leaving the country. As the legal market grew, he predicts, the black market would correspondingly shrink.
To archeologists, this position is unconscionable. Some even wonder if the world would not be better off without a market in antiquities. In this view, the fundamental problem is that antiquities can be private property. Why not, they argue, treat antiquities the way we treat African ivory, as something that, with a few exceptions, can't be bought and sold at all?
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.