National Treasures

Why is plundering cultural objects one of humanity's oldest traditions?

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I didn’t understand the fuss. Sure, the redesign of Berlin’s Neues Museum — unveiled last October — seemed awfully nice; the place was finally fixed its World War II-era damage. But for all the queues that wind around the museum and the sell-out exhibitions, most of the fuss centered on one Egyptian bust. The Nefertiti bust looked pretty enough on the museum’s website and in the news stories, but I didn’t think it seemed like anything worth standing around for hours to see.

  • Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property by Margaret M. Miles. 440 pages. Cambridge University Press. $32.99 (new in paperback).

Or so I thought. When I finally got around to seeing it, the 3,500-year-old bust seemed to glow with its own light. Like all powerful religious and royal artwork, it inspires an unquestioned and immediate desire to kneel. I understood the lines and the devotion immediately. My reaction was nothing short of awe.

But very shortly after Nefertiti started reenchanting the Berlin masses in the new Neue, Egypt came calling. We would like our bust back, please. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, argued, “Nefertiti was smuggled out of Egypt, bypassing the law.” Egypt was accusing Germany of plunder.

The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman linked Egypt’s new issues with the Nefertiti bust — which left Egypt around a hundred years ago — with Germany and France’s campaign against Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s nominee for director general of UNESCO, after Hosny made a public call to burn any Jewish in the Alexandria Library. The post went to Irina Bokova, the former prime minister of Bulgaria, and suddenly Egypt started calling for the return of artifacts from the Louvre and the Neue, and it suspended the Louvre’s excavation of a site near Cairo.

Egypt’s timing may have been politically motivated, but the ownership of antiquities, the public role of art, how a piece that inspires a world can be held hostage by one nation, and the ethics of private collections have been debated since Cicero, according to Margaret M. Miles’ Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property. It’s a debate that museums enter — often unwillingly — again and again. Italy recently filed suit against Boston’s Getty for its purchase of a Roman statue in 1977. Greece is looking for the Getty to return a funerary wreath that dates to 320 B.C. Last year China began sending teams to museums like the Met, the British Museum, and the Louvre to hunt for artifacts that they might want returned.

Ever since people began forging shiny objects and carving statues out of marble, the philosophy was vae victis: “woe to the conquered.” One of the oldest pieces of plunder is a six-foot victory stele of Naram-Sin, taken as war booty from Mesopotamia sometime around 1250 B.C. by the Elamites, who lived in what is now Southern Iran. The stele celebrated a victory over the Lullubi people of the Zagros Mountains. Now the stele lives in Paris, at the Louvre.

If you managed to overrun a people, you got to take their stuff. It was straightforward. What else was war for? As the Assyrian king, as quoted by Xenophon, quoted by Miles, assured his men as they readied for battle with the Persians, “For who does not know that victors save their own possessions and take in addition what belongs to the defeated?” Valuables, yes — also women, livestock, and, in the case of Rome’s plunder of Greece, their gods and goddesses.

In modern warfare, however, plunder is very taboo. The American Civil War-era General Orders No. 100, often referred to as the Lieber Code, gives specific and unique protection to artwork, artifacts, and cultural valuables in the time of war. It was picked up and restated by the two Hague conventions, after Europe’s cultural history suffered from widespread plundering during the Napoleonic Wars and again by the Nazis. The Nazis, of course, didn’t simply want to add to their personal collections, but were looking to create a cultural wonderland, a depository for all the world’s best art, to be housed in Linz — a public display of art, for the people. Only, of course, the right art and the right people. Germany is still trying to recover all of the art the Nazis had deemed obscene and eithe damaged or dispersed. Meanwhile, the act of restitution is still ongoing, with many open lawsuits, and a few institutions in Switzerland weirdly refusing to return artwork to the descendants of their rightful owners. (Of course it’s not just the Swiss. American WWII soldiers are just now getting around to returning books and artworks they stole from the Germans.) When the Baghdad Museum was looted following the 2003 invasion, over 170,000 items lost or destroyed, the international community admonished the United States for its lack of effort in securing the building. Some of these items have shown up at auction, but it may take ages for even half to be located.

Artworks don’t disappear only in wars. Archaeological sites in Egypt, Sicily, Greece, Southeast Asia, and Italy are routinely scavenged for materials, as museums and collectors are currently paying top dollar for antiquities. While some museums have been scrupulous about tracking the origins of their purchases, others don’t ask too many questions. International law is confused on this topic. Who owns these things to begin with? The state? Can the current Italian government lay claim to a Roman statue that left the country decades ago under the watch of a much less conscientious leader? Or does it belong to the person who owns the land? Clandestini posing as farmers who just happened to dig up this ancient pottery in their field have appeared at auction before. And if countries like Egypt and Cambodia, who rely on Western nations to fund excavations and restoration, suddenly kick the archeologists out over a political squabble, what is the cost to scholarship and to culture?

For as long as these questions have been debated, it’s unlikely we’ll find an answer any time soon. In 70 B.C., Cicero condemned Gaius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily, for his voracious appetite for artwork and precious metals. Verres plundered far and wide and horded his stash in his private home. He stole from his guests, he stole from his hosts, he stole from religious shrines. Cicero wasn’t rankled simply by the theft (nor by Verres’ habit of beheading people who could possibly report on his crimes and mistakes). It was, as Miles puts it, that “an elaborate bejeweled lamp-stand, previously dedicated to Jupiter, should not be used to illuminate Verres’s dinner parties… [Verres’s theft was] compounded by its indecorous use.” While private ownership of art didn’t really begin until the second century B.C., removing important works of art from the public view to decorate your own home was considered not simply in poor taste, but actually immoral. The sentiment continues today, whether we’re talking about the black market sale of Baghdad’s artifacts, or the auction of a Picasso that will be locked away in a private home.

Last month I was at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, wandering through a newly restored collection of Greek and Roman statuary, recently returned from Russia to the statues’ true home. Which was, according to the museum’s pamphlet, I guess supposed to be Germany, and not Italy and Greece. Russia took the statues from Germany during the war, but who knows what route they took over the centuries to get here in the first place. Miles writes, “The aftermath of seizures of art by the Nazis is still unfolding, paintings are sold at hugely exorbitant prices, the ownership of art designated as ‘cultural heritage’ is bitterly disputed, and at any moment, vulnerable archaeological sites all over the world are being robbed and their contents sold to private collectors.”

There will always be another Verres — perhaps these days with fewer beheadings, but certainly not caring any more about the knowledge lost when a Cambodian Angkor-era sculpture is ripped from its context and meaning to be sold on the black market and placed on someone’s private bookcase. But hopefully there too will always be new Ciceros, to remind us of the public function of art, and the value of art for the people. All of them. • 6 May 2010

 

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.

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