Spoiler alert: the answer to the title's question is that "[a]ntiquities are the cultural property of all humankind... and not that of a particular modern nation." Cuno (Whose Muse?) is the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, so his position, which favors museums over governments, is not a surprise. But it would be a mistake to see this deeply felt and carefully reasoned argument as self-serving. The crux of his argument is that modern nation-states have at best a tenuous connection with the ancient cultures in question, and their interests are political rather than scientific. China, for example, asserts ownership of ancient treasures of a wide range of ethnic minorities whose identity as "Chinese" is problematic at best. Cuno advocates instead a universal, humanistic approach to the world's shared cultural treasures. How could this be achieved? Cuno's proposals for enforcing such a policy are unlikely to make any national government shake in its boots. But however quixotic, Cuno's pleas for a more expansive approach to cultural artifacts must be taken seriously. Photos. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritageby James Cuno
Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of
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Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."
Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.
Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.
Mary Katherine Ascik
"A condemnation of cultural property laws that restrict the international trade in antiquities, the book doubles as a celebration of the world's great border-crossing encyclopedic museums."--Jori Finkel, New York Times
"Who Owns Antiquity? is an impassioned argument for what Cuno calls the 'cosmopolitan aspirations' of encyclopedic museums. By this he means not only collecting and showing art from every place and era, but also, and more crucially, the promotion of an essential kind of cultural pluralism. . . . Whatever one makes of Cuno's thesis, it brings into focus some urgent questions--for museums and for archaeology--that have yet to be given much attention."--Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books
"Who Owns Antiquity? by Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno deals with one of the most sensitive questions in today's art world: Should antiquities be returned to their country of origin? [T]his book provides a lot of worthwhile background."--Wall Street Journal
"It would be a mistake to see this deeply felt and carefully reasoned argument as self-serving. The crux of his argument is that modern nation-states have at best a tenuous connection with the ancient cultures in question, and their interests are political rather than scientific...Cuno advocates instead a universal, humanistic approach to the world's shared cultural treasures...Cuno's pleas for a more expansive approach to cultural artifacts must be taken seriously."--Publishers Weekly
"[A]n illuminating...book."--Edward Rothstein, New York Times
"The author's message is that stewardship, not ownership, is what matters. Trade in antiquities should be dictated not by politics, but by the demands of conservation, knowledge, and access. The argument presented here is thought-provoking. Cuno may be over-optimistic. But you can't help feeling that he is right."--Financial Times
"Cuno worries that 'encyclopedic' museums such as the Art Institute and the Louvre, which contain antiquities from around the planet, are endangered by nations that, simply put, want their stuff back -- and don't want any more stuff to leave their borders. In Who Owns Antiquity? Cuno answers his own question this way: All of us do."--Andrew Herrmann, Chicago Sun Times
"Chronicles [Cuno's] views about the antiquity trade--a global community enmeshed in a war of ideas. Collectors, museum directors, archeologists, dealers and even nations are in dispute. The battle line is drawn between those who believe that national policies should prevent the looting of archeology sites and those--including a very outspoken Cuno--who think that such policies don't prevent plundering and should be changed to ensure artifacts are globally shared."--Madeline Nusser, Time Out Chicago
"I can't remember a book on museums that has generated quite so much publicity and critical comment as this one."--Artknows
"Cuno implicitly poses the question: 'Whose nation is it anyway?' .... His is a cogent and powerful argument that he expresses with personal conviction."--Robin Simon, New Statesman
"James Cuno, director of the Art institute in Chicago, has written a clear, well-argued...book about the vexed question of how great museums like his should collect ancient objects."--Art Newspaper
"Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno's book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras."--American Scholar
"Cuno defends the museum side of the issue, and he is well suited to make the case."--Matthew J. Milliner, First Things
"[F]ascinating, and extremely helpful in providing a lucid account of changing attitudes to cultural property since the Second World War. . . . Many of his arguments are persuasive."--Literary Review
"Who Owns Antiquity? by James Cuno explores the impact of new restrictions being placed on the acquisition of antiquities and how these will affect future museums."--Art and Antiques
"[Cuno] argues convincingly that current cultural property laws are too retentionist. . . . It's difficult to disagree with the idea that people benefit when antiquities of other countries can be seen in museums around the world. And the virtues of partage also seem clear. As Cuno points out, the collections at the great museums of the world could not have been put together under our current system of cultural property laws, and the millions of people who have marveled at these collections would be poorer for not having seen them."--Mary Katherine Ascik, The Weekly Standard
"Cuno sets his stage for a discussion of an ongoing legalistic international battle dealing with archaeological objects by introducing the case of the Elgin marbles. What superficially may seem a simple matter of 'ethnic nationalism' is described as considerably more complex, dealing with such matters as 'cultural property,' the notion of nation-states, and 'partage'--the sharing of archaeological finds (the author's suggested solution to disputes). . . All readers interested in current interaction among museums, academics, collectors, politicians, and so forth will be well informed here."--K. Marantz, Choice
"James Cuno's passionate, finely reasoned new book, Who Owns Antiquity? . . . is a fresh salvo in the ongoing battle between museums that collect antiquities and modern states that claim to be the legal heirs of ancient societies and cultures. . . . Cuno mobilizes a wealth of anecdotes and examples to support [his] position."--Benjamin Genocchio, Art in America
"The book is cogently argued and extremely well documented. The 'select bibliography' is ten pages. It explores in great depth all of the recent turmoil regarding the legal ownership of antiquities. . . . No one involved in the acquisition of antiquities can ill afford to pass this book by as it sets the stage and defines the complexities involved in this heated battle that is sure to rage on for years to come."--Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D., Minerva
"Whether or not you agree with Cuno's arguments, I believe this book is an important addition to the discussion on museum collections."--Richard Gerrard, Muse
"Cuno raises key issues that need to be addressed."--David W. J. Gill, American Journal of Archaelogy
"Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno's book Who Owns Antiquity?, published May 2008, offers a spirited, cogent defense of encyclopedic museums' right to collect such treasures. The book has provoked equally spirited controversy."--Tom Mullaney, Chicago Artists' News
"Overall, Cuno's analysis presents a range of themes, particularly the role of the encyclopedic museum in contemporary society, that will resonate with the museum community and students of museum studies. Nationalistic agendas are set within a compelling theoretical argument that should be read by those engaged in writing as well as following museum and archaeological policies, provided that the reader understands that Cuno's emphasis is on objects and access to them rather than on the more pressing issue of the preservation of archaeological sites and cultural landscapes for a cosmopolitan world community."--Christina Luke, American Anthropologist
Matthew J. Milliner
Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D.
David W. J. Gill
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Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage
By James Cuno Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction The Crux of the Matter
Consciously or subconsciously, archaeological interpretation and the public presentation of archaeological monuments are used to support the prestige or power of modern nation-states. -Neil Asher Silberman
For years, archaeologists have lobbied for national and international laws, treaties, and conventions to prohibit the international movement in antiquities. For many of these years, U.S. art museums that collect antiquities have opposed these attempts. The differences between archaeologists and U.S. art museums on this matter has spilled over into the public realm by way of reports in newspapers and magazines, public and university symposia, and specialist-even sensationalist-books on the topic.
At the center of the dispute is the question of unprovenanced antiquities. In conventional terms, an unprovenanced antiquity is one with modern gaps in its chain of ownership. As it pertains to the United States, since in most cases we are an importer of this kind of material, this means there is no evidence that the antiquity was exported in compliance with the export laws of its presumed country of origin (these are always modern laws, hence the qualification above, modern gaps). Archaeologists argue thatunprovenanced antiquities are almost always looted from archaeological sites or from what would become archaeological sites. But strictly speaking, since provenance is a matter of ownership and not archaeological status, and as some countries allow for the ownership of antiquities but not their export, it is possible to illegally export a legally owned, unprovenanced antiquity. (It would have to be either an excavated antiquity that could be legally owned, or a found or looted antiquity owned by someone, if not by its current owner, before the implementation of anti-looting laws.) For nationalist reasons, some countries-we will see this is the case with China-allow for the legal import and ownership of unprovenanced and even suspected looted antiquities, but not their export.
Because it can make complex matters appear simple, and attractively controversial, the public discourse around the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities has focused largely on the legal aspect of their ownership: either they are owned legally or they aren't. This does not mean, of course, that legal disputes over ownership are easy to resolve. As is always the case in matters of law, everything turns on evidence. Is there convincing evidence that the unprovenanced antiquity was removed from its country of origin in violation of that country's laws? Indeed, is there convincing evidence that allows us to identify its country of origin? Just because an antiquity looks Roman, do we have any evidence that (1) it was unearthed within the borders of the modern state of Italy, as opposed to elsewhere in the former Roman Empire; and (2) that it was unearthed since the implementation of restrictive Italian export and ownership laws? And what would constitute convincing evidence? An eyewitness's testimony? A confession? Some kind of convincing documentation? Rarely does such evidence exist. And since unprovenanced antiquities, like all works of art in the collections of U.S. art museums, "belong" in fact or principle to the public, U.S. art museums are obliged to keep the unprovenanced antiquity until a preponderance of evidence convinces both parties that it should be turned over to the claimant party.
In a few recent cases, U.S. art museums have been charged by foreign state authorities with having in their collections unprovenanced antiquities alleged to have been illegally removed from their (presumed) country of origin. After a review of the evidence in three of those cases, and without going to court, the art museums either returned the antiquities in question or came to an agreement to return some of them. In other cases, claims were made only through the press, with evidence hinted at but not shown to the charged museums. The museums rushed to deny the allegations and called for a review of the evidence. But by then the damage had been done: the public had read that the museums were in the possession of stolen property and that somehow, somewhere, a theft had occurred.
Most often it falls to the museum to prove that it has the right to keep the questioned unprovenanced antiquity. A foreign authority-often a ministry of the government, such as the judicial or cultural ministry; rarely, if ever, the executive or legislative branches, what we might more accurately call the foreign government-makes a claim and implies that it has evidence to back it up. In the court of public opinion, the burden of proof falls to the museum to show that it has positive evidence to the contrary: that the unprovenanced antiquity entered its collection legally. And proving one's innocence in the blinding light of a public dispute can be very difficult, especially when "convincing" evidence is likely never to be found.
By far most unprovenanced antiquities were acquired by museums long before the adoption of international agreements between nations and/or the implementation of those agreements by the U.S. government and before the U.S. courts enforced foreign patrimony laws under the U.S. National Stolen Property Act. The United States only signed on to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1983, thirteen years after it was adopted. Before 1983-and even for some years after-it was enough for U.S. art museums to perform due diligence and make a good faith effort to ascertain whether or not an antiquity had been legally removed from its presumed country of origin. Without documentation testifying to its legal status-an export license, bill of sale, or some other kind of evidence of its being in a private or public collection outside the likely source country prior to the date of the relevant law in that country-a U.S. art museum had only to inquire of antiquities authorities in the likely source country as to any evidence they might have that the antiquity was illegally removed from their country, seek a review by IFAR and the Art Loss Register for any evidence that the antiquity might have been stolen, and consider the museum's relations with the donor or dealer offering the antiquity: was the donor's or dealer's reputation positive? had the art museum a long-standing relationship with him or her? did the art museum have reason to believe that the donor or dealer had the museum's best interest in mind, rather than his or her own? and ultimately, did the art museum trust the donor or dealer? If the art museum found no reason not to proceed with the acquisition, it could do so and then was obliged to publish and exhibit the antiquity for the public's benefit. By acquiring it, the museum brought the antiquity into the public domain for the delight and instruction of everyone. If it indeed had been removed illegally from its country of origin, this would more likely be determined by its being in a public museum than by its circulating in the private realm of dealers and donors.
Things changed in 2001, when the New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz was indicted for (and later convicted of) conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian antiquities that had been transported in interstate and foreign commerce in violation of U.S. law, with the underlying substantive offense of violating the National Stolen Property Act. His conviction on the latter charge was a marked departure from previous cases involving similar accusations. Schultz argued that the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, under which it is against the law to import or subsequently come into the possession of stolen property, did not apply to an antiquity removed in violation of a national patrimony law like Egypt's, since such an object was not "stolen" in the commonly used sense of the word in the United States. The court disagreed and found in favor of the 1983 Egyptian patrimony law, which declares all antiquities found in Egypt to be state property and thus owned by the Egyptian nation. Anyone, or any institution, coming into possession of such articles without state authorization is necessarily in possession of stolen property and in violation of the law.
Due diligence and good faith inquiries are no longer sufficient. When weighing the risks of acquiring an antiquity for which there is no positive evidence of its legal removal from its presumed country of origin, U.S. art museums have to be much more careful. It is not simply that the antiquity might be returned. It may be that individuals within U.S. art museums will be held criminally liable. As a consequence, the acquisition of antiquities by U.S. art museums has declined dramatically over the past five years. This does not mean that illegal trafficking in antiquities or the looting of archaeological sites has declined; in fact, archaeologists claim that both have increased. It means only that unprovenanced antiquities are not being acquired by U.S. art museums to the extent that they were in the past. Instead, undocumented antiquities are going elsewhere in greater numbers, either remaining in the private domain of private collectors and dealers or being sold or donated to museums in countries that do not enforce foreign patrimony laws as the United States does. If undocumented antiquities are the result of looted (and thus destroyed) archaeological sites, that there is still a market for them anywhere is a problem. Keeping them from U.S. art museums is not a solution, only a diversion.
A second criticism of the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities is that it is unethical: unprovenanced antiquities are likely to have been looted from a (now) damaged archaeological site and the destruction of archaeological sites and the loss of the knowledge they contain is bad and those who encourage it are bad as well. But archaeologists consider almost any context in which an old object is found an archaeological site. And they consider every archaeological site important, for it will likely tell us something we wouldn't otherwise know, and that is good.
Was every unprovenanced antiquity at some point in an archaeological site? It depends on the definition of an archaeological artifact, what I am calling an antiquity. The general, political definition of an antiquity (as it is used in political agreements and national laws) is an object that is more than 150 years old. Often they are included among all manner of things more properly called "cultural property." Recent requests by the governments of Italy and the People's Republic of China to have the U.S. government impose blanket restrictions on the import of a range of materials were based on the premise that such restrictions would protect archaeological sites, since they would not allow for the import of looted and illegally exported antiquities. But the requests were very broad. In Italy's case, it included stone sculpture, metal sculpture, metal vessels, metal ornaments, weapons/ armor, inscribed/decorated sheet metal, ceramic sculpture, glass, architectural elements and sculpture, and wall paintings dating from approximately the ninth century b.c. to approximately the fourth century a.d.; that is, virtually every kind of object produced in or imported to the land we now call Italy over 1,200 years of recorded human history. In China's case, it was even more broadly defined, covering all manner of things from the Paleolithic period through the end of the Qing dynasty (a.d. 1911); by its own estimation, some 20,000 years of human artistic and material production, including everything from bronze, gold, and silver vessels to textiles, painting, calligraphy, lacquer, wood, and bamboo objects, and ceramics of all kinds. Clearly, these items are not all equally ancient in the common use of the term, nor are they all archaeological artifacts. Many of them were made for the trade and circulated in the trade for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is unlikely that each artifact was removed from an archaeological site. The promiscuous slippage between the terms "antiquities" and "cultural property" in the public and governmental discourse on the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities is unhelpful, and, as I discuss below, is intended to support a nation's nationalist aspirations rather than the stated goal of protecting archaeological sites.
Why are archaeological sites looted and unprovenanced antiquities sold? Because, the archaeologists' argument has it, antiquities have commercial value. If they had no commercial value, they would not be looted and sold. They would remain in the ground for archaeologists to excavate, and would enter local site or national museums with knowledge of their archaeological context intact and would be there for people to enjoy as sources of inspiration and learning. But of course, until such time as antiquities have no commercial value, it is reasonable to assume that archaeological sites will be looted and unprovenanced antiquities sold. How to deprive antiquities of their commercial value, and thus how to protect archaeological sites and preserve the knowledge they contain? Stop buying them. Of course, people should also stop looting and selling them, but that falls to source nations to enforce. And that is extremely difficult: they would have to police all known and suspected archaeological sites within their borders and fully police their borders to prevent illicit export of antiquities. It is unlikely that this can be done: there are too many sites, national borders are too porous, and the nations themselves are too poor. Rather, it should be up to the acquiring (sometimes called "collecting") nations to enforce restrictions against importing and buying unprovenanced antiquities. And when these countries no longer allow for the import or purchase of unprovenanced antiquities, all other nations will follow; then there will no longer be a market for such artifacts and archaeological sites will no longer be looted. Of course there may still be people and institutions willing to risk looting and buying unprovenanced antiquities illegally. But one day even they will no longer take these risks, since all acquiring and source nations will enforce export, import, and ownership laws equally and the risks will be just too high (and the rewards too low). The market will finally dry up. What happens until then?
No museum has ever endorsed the looting of archaeological sites and the loss of the knowledge they contain. But in many respects, when faced with the choice whether or not to acquire an undocumented antiquity, the looting of the archaeological site has already occurred and the knowledge that may have been gained from the careful study of an antiquity's archaeological context has already been lost. Now the museum is faced with the choice of acquiring a work and bringing it into the public domain for the reasons cited above, or not acquiring it.
It is a fact that the archaeological site will not be restored or the lost knowledge recovered by a museum's decision not to acquire the antiquity. Then, putting aside the legal risks for a moment, why shouldn't a museum acquire it? Critics of museums emphasize the benefits of a "clean hands" approach. Even if it were legal to acquire unprovenanced antiquities, and even though not acquiring them will not restore archaeological sites nor recover any loss of knowledge, a museum should not acquire such works but should instead set an example for others to follow. Although in the interim archaeological sites will be looted and knowledge lost, eventually that will no longer be the case. It is more ethical, according to this argument, to allow looted antiquities from damaged or destroyed archaeological sites to remain unknown in private hands or in museums elsewhere in the world.
Excerpted from Who Owns Antiquity? by James Cuno
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Meet the Author
James Cuno is president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago and former director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Harvard University Art Museums. He has written widely on museums and cultural policy. His books include Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public's Trust (Princeton).
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