Cultural property expert Bill Pearlstein wrote a letter to the editor of Commentary Magazine about a review of Jim Cuno's new book. The letter was published in the December issue. Pearlstein rightly suggests that judgments about "who owns the past" should be made on a principled, analytical basis, rather than on one based on the ideology of nationalism or an "archaeology over all" perspective. Here is an excerpt:
[T]he ownership of the objects is what is currently at stake as American museums and collectors defend their collections against legal claims to return "looted" objects and fuzzier claims that ancient objects are best appreciated in their country of origin. The former are understandable and sometimes meritorious; the latter are not. Cuno has rightly disputed the received wisdom that source-nation "patrimony laws" discourage looting and help disseminate archaeological data. Such laws are merely nationalist in intent and effect, and any overlap between cultural nationalism and archeological preservation is coincidental.
Which is not to say that looting is acceptable or that ownership of looted objects should be encouraged in the name of building "universal museums" or spreading culture. Instead, an international legal framework should be created that gives due weight to persuasive national-heritage claims, protecting archeological sites, and promoting the international exchange of cultural objects by way of museum loans and private trade. (The role of private collectors here is as important as that of museum curators and the museum-going public.)
As a lawyer for private clients, I argued at a 2005 hearing of the President's Cultural Property Advisory committee against China's request for U.S. import restrictions on all Chinese cultural objects dating from pre-historic times to 1911. Cuno was one of three museum curators who also spoke against the restrictions, which a journalist rightly characterized as a "gross overreach" motivated by Beijing's desire to corner the booming market for Chinese artifacts.
One of the major auction houses suggested to the committee that the question of restriction should be evaluated in light of the following factors related to a given object: the quality and state of the existing archeological and art-historical record; site specificity, portability, and documentary importance; mass production and lack of rarity; frequent and long-term market incidence. This is a more thoughtful approach than simply banning everything old, and seems to be the best analytical model for deciding who should own the past.