Loot. Tomb Robbers, Treasure and the Great Museum Debate, by Sharon Waxman, London, Old Street
Publishing Ltd., 2010. paperback, 415 pp., illustrated. ISBN 978-1-906964-10-8. £ 9.99.
Despite its rather provocative title, this book reports on the problems of illicit excavation and cultural restitution in a balanced but by no means uncritical fashion. The author examines the fate of antiquities in four countries – Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey – and links her narrative to four great museums of the world – The British Museum, The Getty Museum, The Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York although the Berlin and Boston Museums also rate a brief mention. She draws highly critical and sometimes amusing portraits of both museum directors and those on the other side demanding the return of objects. While her heart seems to be with those advocating restitution, her head tends to support the counter argument, but she ruthlessly displays the weaknesses of both sides in the debate. She does tend to blur the differences between antiquities acquired before archaeological laws were in place and those illegally excavated and smuggled out in modern times. It does not help the debate to describe the former as plunder.
She begins with Egypt and the debate initiated by Zahi Hawass over the return of Rosetta Stone and the Dendera Zodiac. However, her lack of knowledge sometimes lets her down. For example, she states that the Rosetta Stone was taken away without consulting the Egyptians when in fact the legal government of Egypt at the time represented by the Ottoman vizier was consulted and approved the transfer of the antiquities to London, no doubt relieved that that was all the British were requesting in return for aiding the Turks and Egyptians to expel the French. She rather daringly claims that many modern Egyptians remain largely indifferent to the past and museum standards in Egypt are not as good as they should be. Her view of current developments in Luxor is not positive.
The second section of the book covers the involvement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the purchase of smuggled antiquities from Turkey which were eventually returned. The shocking development was that the key piece was later stolen on its return so this story of restitution did not end happily. In the third section of the work it is back to the British Museum and the saga of the Elgin marbles. Various spokesmen of both sides of the dispute are interviewed and she even locates a Greek who is opposed to restitution. While adopting a neutral stance, she nevertheless points out flaws in the Greek argument to the extent of questioning modern Greece’s link with the past and the embarassing fact that Greece is holding smuggled Bulgarian artefacts which it refuses to return. Her most telling point on illegal excavation in Greece is that most of the objects go to private Greek collectors.
The final section covers the problems in which the Getty Museum found itself entangled when it became involved with the acquisition of unprovenanced material from antique dealers. Many of the objects were found to be stolen in recent times and the Museum faced pressure from the Greek and Italian governments and court cases which forced it to return most of the objects. In her conclusion the author comes close to saying a plague on both your houses. She advocates more cooperation between musuems and archaeologically rich countries. Early travellers and collectors laid the foundation for the creation of the science of archaeology but it appears that old habits die hard. Protection of archaeological sites would seem more urgent than public relations motivated claims for restitution.