Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

In the late 1960s, New York?s Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly acquired the Lydian Hoard, several hundred treasures dating to the reign of King Croesus in the sixth century B.C. The collection, discovered by tomb raiders, had been smuggled out of Turkey before the Met, following the informal “don?t ask, don?t tell” policy then governing the purchase of unprovenanced antiquities, paid $1.5 million for it. A dogged Turkish reporter tracked down the collection, setting in motion a legal battle between Turkey and the museum that resulted in the 1993 return of the artifacts. The Turkish victory was followed by two disturbing revelations: 1) in five years, only 769 people visited the Usak museum that now houses the collection, and 2) the masterpiece of the Hoard, a golden brooch, was stolen from Usak and replaced with a fake. This complex episode is one of many described in Sharon Waxman?s endlessly fascinating book about a raging cultural conflict. Should the antiquities displayed in Western museums stay where they are, carefully preserved and seen by millions, even if they were acquired unethically or illegally? Or should they be returned to the countries demanding restitution, even if those countries? museums are underfunded and disorganized? Waxman focuses on the claims of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Italy against the Met, the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Getty Museum, whose former curator, Marion True, tried on criminal charges in Italy, has become the scapegoat of the museum world. With lucid historical context and topnotch reporting — the issue seems to draw intelligent, passionate, and outsize personalities — the author finds no easy answers. But she recommends a sensible starting point, arguing that museums, which have resisted transparency, must acknowledge their role in a “history of plunder and appropriation… for the public to understand the true origins of these great works of antiquity.”