Topic: Society

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
(March 2006)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is finally returning to Italy the so-called Euphronios krater, a unique ancient Greek vase that the museum purchased in 1972 shortly after it had been dug up and smuggled out of the country. In doing so it is breaking ranks with other museums in America and Europe which have developed an elaborate series of rationalizations for keeping stolen archeological, architectural and art treasures that their countries of origin have demanded to have returned. The Metropolitan Museum’s move will make things uncomfortable for these institutions, exacerbate some international tensions and may ultimately make some of the world’s most cherished objects less accessible to you and me. And it will surely put Indiana Jones and his followers out of business. Never mind: it was the right thing to do. It was always the right thing to do.

One down, thousands to go. A staggering amount of art and artifacts were stolen from Greece, Italy, Egypt, Africa, South America, Asia and other locales over the last three centuries. The King Tut treasures. The Rosetta Stone. The Elgin Marbles. There has never been any dispute over the real owners of these priceless things. The argument is whether it is right to disrupt the collections of the world’s great museums to return them now. For many decades, the museums have said no, even after the methods used to acquire the purloined treasures were outlawed by international treaty.

The longest standing and most bitter dispute has been between Greece and the British Museum over the so-called “Elgin Marbles,” large portions of sculpture taken off of the Parthenon in 1799 by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, with the consent of the Turks, who occupied Greece at the time. The Museum’s arguments against returning the Marbles have included claims that Turkey’s permission was still valid, despite the fact that the Acropolis is Greece’s most cherished remnant of its ancient heritage; that the sculptures were treasures belonging “to the world;” and that Great Britain was better able to preserve and protect them than Greece. Another argument is that Elgin had “saved” the Marbles from eventual private ownership that would have hidden them from the world, and thus Greece should let them remain in England out of gratitude. The Brits have used a similar argument to excuse Howard Carter’s “liberation” of King Tutankhamun’s tomb treasures in 1922: when Egypt was unable to protect its ancient heritage from looters, the British “did mankind a favor” by taking the booty. Maybe someday we’ll hear a this defense from the still unidentified art thieves who stole $250 million dollars worth of masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas and others from the Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. The old museum was always lax on security, so the thoughtful thieves really did art lovers a favor.

Yale is having the same debate with Peru, which is demanding the return of objects taken from the ruins of Machu Pichu by a Yalie nearly a century ago. When all the rhetoric is put aside, the facts are pretty simple: the artifacts belong to Peru, Yale has them, and doesn’t want to give them up, just like the British Museum and, presumably, the Gardner Museum art thieves.

In 2002, directors of 19 prominent museums devised a useful tool for Yale and others by signing a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” While agreeing that “illegal traffic in archaeological … objects must be firmly discouraged,” the statement declared that the statute of limitations has run out, and source countries have no more claim. That’s a pretty slick moveĀ…preparing a formal declaration that principles of fairness and justice no longer apply to stolen goods when all the signatories are the ones who have the stolen artifacts in their possessions. Slick and transparent, like the statements in support of the “universal museum” concept by individuals such as James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the signers of the declaration. Cuno told the Washington Post that “a universal museum is one dedicated to the proposition that museums can serve as an instrument for the dissipation of ignorance and superstition about the world through the presentation of the world’s shared artistic legacy.”

Uh-huh. Brent Benjamin, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, echoes similar themes in his rationalization. “There is validity for examples of great art to be everywhere; American painting can be in Greece,” he says. Fine: but does that validity extend to stolen artifacts? How would the U.S. feel if Indiana Jonsopolis spirited the Liberty Bell away to Athens?

Probably not too good. Doing the right thing often has a remarkable effect on moral certitude: having taken the plunge, Met curator Oscar White Muscarella now maintains that most antiquities in museums come from plunder and theft. If he is correct, and almost certainly he is, then Federal Express should have a lot of business over the next few years. Thanks to the courage of Muscarella’s museum, many of the great treasures of the world might be on their way back to their rightful owners.

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