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Tuesday, December 27, 2005 Safety Last

Collectors are only a small part of the reason that antiquities move from one country to another or disappear altogether. If one wants to show reasons why archeological sites are destroyed and works of art lost, we can look at the archeologists, who have claimed the moral ground. Archeologists are very destructive. They leave mud brick walls to deteriorate…or they remove things that they think are insignificant….Or they allow a site simply to deteriorate.
…But if we follow the line of thinking…that all objects should remain in their country of origin, museums all over the world would have to send their treasures away. Surely, in this day of global mobility, this is not practical or even thinkable.
…Even an object without an immediately known provenance should not be considered suspect. Some objects, especially small things, were kept by private individuals and never reported. So the provenance may exist but is lost.
…Collectors are the traditional preservers of our shared history. Knowledgeable collectors bring value to the objects.
…We believe that as collectors, we are following a long and honorable tradition. We remember that the great museums of Europe have, as their core, the private collections of kings and reigning families….We hope that we, too, will contribute to preserving our cultural heritage….
—Shelby White, art collector

Shelby White’s breathtaking comments—dripping with a patronizing, shameless entitlement that makes the Marquis de Sade seem absolutely humble (and pure as the driven snow) by comparison—were delivered in April 1999 at a panel entitled Antiquities: International Cultural Property?, where they duly shocked and awed the assembled audience. The panel was part of a three-day, international conference on cultural patrimony organized jointly by Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program and Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America under the title, Who Owns Culture?. White’s comments are, of course, even more resonant (and self-incriminating) today. The debate on the illicit international movement of cultural property, and private and institutional acquisition practices, is becoming more and more clamorous each year. But it is only now, following the decision of the Italian government to actively pursue its claims to, and even prosecute individuals for smuggling, its antiquities that it has reached such an unusually high decibel level. The trial in Rome of Marion True, the Getty Museum’s former curator of antiquities, on charges of acquiring artifacts that were illegally removed from Italy—and the fear that this case is only the beginning of an aggressive campaign, not only by Italy but by other countries that are vigorously seeking the return, from the permanent collections of prominent museums, of their illegally removed artifacts—has drawn extraordinary international attention, and the attendant focus, on the fundamental issues of cultural property and national patrimony.

It is hardly accidental that Selby White figures prominently in the latest developments. The private collection of antiquities that she and her late husband, financier Leon Levy, amassed over a long period is considered one of the world’s best. It is also one of the most scrutinized. For many years, the couple has been accused of illicitly obtaining ancient artifacts. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art moves toward completing its ambitious reinstallation of its classical galleries—and the creation of a Roman gallery that might possibly bear White and Levy’s names—the Italian government insists that the couple’s collection contains art that was illegally removed and trafficked from Italy.

As the scrutiny of museums, collectors, and art dealers intensifies, so does the debate over a possible global policy on illicit art traffic that would satisfy everyone. The problem is that, in their overwhelming majority, most discussions begin with the assumption that museums exist for the altruistic purpose of acquiring, preserving, and making available to the public at large the world’s cultural heritage—as opposed to the commonplace reality, well-known to any sociologist of bureaucratic organizations, that their primary purpose is self-aggrandizement and -preservation. It is thus taken for granted that no policy on the trafficking of cultural property can question, let alone endanger, a museum’s self-defined function as a cultural “safe house.”

White’s risible defense, cited above, of private collectors, museums, and, by extension, art dealers as guardians of culture against the alleged depredations of archeologists and nation-states would be pitiable were it not so tragic in its consequences. In the event, a more polished version of it has, for a very long time, been the main rationale against implementing new legislation—and strictly enforcing existing laws—to combat the illegal traffic in cultural patrimony. It has also stymied any possibility of dialogue to address the specific issue of the collections of some of the world’s major museums. This impediment to any kind of reasoned exchange of ideas has been abetted by the very influential notions of Stanford law professor John Henry Merryman, who has argued tenaciously that the “cultural internationalism”—i.e., using (oftentimes stolen) cultural property to enhance the understanding of human civilization generally—of these major world museums must be supported and defended against “cultural nationalism.” The latter term is how Prof. Merryman describes the general policy of seeking to return cultural artifacts to their countries of origin, since, according to him, such an attempt only reinforces national identities and cultural particularism.

Of course, the notion of the museum as a cultural “safe house” completely ignores the process by which the world’s leading museums came to play this role. This is not the place for a history lesson on Western imperialism or the sanguinary Western colonial projects and missions civilisatrices to which the West’s “great” museums were so directly bound. Suffice it to say that any debate on cultural property has to begin with the fundamental truth that most of the collections of the West’s important museums were forcibly and/or illegally removed from their countries of origin. Having said that does not mean, or suggest, emptying out these institutions. On the other hand, neither does it mean allowing them to continue to function as if business were usual, as if nothing has changed in the world—as if India is still part of the Raj, Guatemala a latifundia of the United Fruit Company, Cambodia the pleasure garden of French Orientalists, and Greece a province of the Ottoman empire. The foreign plunder with which most of these museums were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were enriched beyond any imagining in the twentieth, cannot be considered sacrosanct in the twenty-first. Any debate on the issues involved has to account for the utterly fundamental fact of the origins of most of these collections. This is the only way to level the playing field and give equal power to both sides in this ongoing dispute. Until museums acknowledge that their self-appointed, and occasionally deleterious, role as “guardians” of the world’s cultural heritage is the result of a largely illegitimate (and sometimes even violent) process, a comprehensive solution to the trafficking of cultural patrimony will never—indeed, can never—be attained. Which is finally why, pace Ms. White, it is especially “in this day of global mobility” that repatriating national patrimonies is very “practical,” indeed—and why all of the world’s museums had better start thinking what she considers to be the horribly unthinkable.

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