Sharon Waxman, a former entertainment correspondent for the New York Times, promoted her new book, "Loot," in Washington, D.C. yesterday.
Waxman is not an archaeologist. She is not a museum person. She is no art historian. She is, however, a seasoned correspondent who is friends with Egypt's Antiquities Pharaoh, Zahi Hawass. She thus comes at these issues with considerable sympathy for source countries in their "tug of war" against Western Museums. Having said that, she also appears to take a practical, non-ideological approach to the complex issues surrounding restitution. Overall, she thinks that source countries should get beyond threats, lawsuits and the like.
Her presentation focused on how French and British colonialists built up the Louvre and the British Museum as nationalistic statements of their imperial grandeur. She then touched on how the Germans hoodwinked the Egyptians out of the magnificent bust of Nefertiti, a move that spelled the end of partage and the beginning of stringent cultural patrimony laws. She also touched upon Italy's and Greece's efforts to repatriate objects from the Getty and the MET. Overall, she calls for more transparency in how museum exhibits "got there" in the descriptions of the pieces in the gallery.
Waxman does not let source countries off the hook either. She suggested that their efforts at conservation and display are substandard and that corruption is endemic. Perhaps even worse, she indicates that source country museums have failed to connect with the general public. Many remain sleepy backwaters, full of art, but not a lot of visitors. Obviously, this does not bode well for the preservation, study and display of any artifacts, let alone those repatriated as part of nationalistic campaigns to restore source countries' "national patrimony."
Waxman specifically cited the story of the Lydian Hoard, a treasure of precious metal artifacts, illicitly excavated and exported from Turkey. After some legal wrangling, the MET repatriated the hoard to Turkey. The hoard was then displayed in a small, provincial museum,. There, it has only received some 500 visitors a year (compared to the 10,000 a day that visit the MET). Even worse, one of the major pieces was subsequently stolen from its galleries. In fact, the very same provincial museum director that helped effectuate the return of the Lydian Hoard was ultimately arrested for switching out the piece (a gold hippocampus) for a copy and selling off the original to pay for gambling debts and loose women. At a minimum, this episode has caused the Turkish government considerable embarrassment. More to the point, stories like this seriously undermine any "moral high ground" source countries rely upon to buttress their repatriation claims.
One major nit. From Waxman's commentary, it appeared that she did not much understand the effect of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. She seemed to think that it "banned" the import and export of antiquities. In fact, the Convention is not self-executing and many antiquities still are imported legally into the United States and other market countries each year.
In any event, I look forward to reading Waxman's book and perhaps providing some further comment.