Who Should Own Antiquities?

The meaning of ownership and property is usually self-evident. If I own something, I can control how people may access and use it. I can sell it. And so on. But what is the justification for owning a priceless object that you did not create and that has great cultural significance to many people over generations?

A complicated drama over this question is now playing out among museums, governments, art dealers, collectors and citizens of various countries. The title of an article in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (May 14) states the controversy succinctly: “Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?” The piece, by Hugh Eakin, raises fascinating questions about the rationale for ownership of priceless objects from bygone civilizations.

Should they belong to the countries that now occupy those lands, and if so, what responsibilities does the government have in its stewarship of the artworks? Or do the antiquities belong to a museum that acquired them indirectly through their nations’ wars and other imperial adventures centuries ago? Or perhaps the sculptures and jewelry should be seen as something that belongs to all of humanity, now and in the future: the cultural patrimony of the human species.

For the past several decades, governments in Egypt, Italy, China, Turkey and other nations have claimed that they are the proper owners of the many antiquities that have been dug up on their lands. These governments argue that they represent the people of their nations, and are the inheritors of anything that previous civilizations on their territories produced. They argue, moreover, that current inhabitants of the nation — say, Italians — have a cultural identification with Michelangelo’s sculptures and Pompeii frescos, which is said to justify government ownership of the artifacts, on behalf of all Italians.

Here’s where the drama comes in: in point of fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the British Museum, the Getty, and many others are the actual owners of countless antiquities. The antiquities were often acquired through military conquest, purchases from looters, and other imperial adventures. I was in the Metropolitan Museum recently, and was astounded at the breadth of artworks from Egypt. How would I feel if I were an Egyptian?

Prior to 1970, a fairly lax allocation of ownership rights prevailed. Nation-states in the Mediterranean and the Middle East tended to allocate the treasures dug up on their territory through a system known as partage. The host countries authorized museums to carry out major archaeological digs and take a certain portion of their finds for themselves, while the countries would keep a considerable collection of the spoils as well.

But as nationalism swept through many countries following World War II, governments demanded stricter control over antiquities found in their soil. Eventually, in 1970, UNESCO established a convention that prohibits the export of antiquities without the consent of governments. The works are formally considered the cultural property of those governments and peoples.

Under the UNESCO rules, a work’s provenance became important in establishing its legitimacy on the art market. To get around the rules, a black market flourished as looters furtively excavated and exported more antiquities, which they sold to art dealers, who “sanitized the works’ provenance and then sold to the world’s major museums. This arrangement has enraged not just the “archeological countries” of the world but also serious archaeologists, who regard the location and context of an excavated object as crucial in establishing its cultural and historical significance. Without this knowledge, a beautiful urn is just a beautiful urn. (Museums have tended to diminish or dismiss the concerns of archeologists.)

It is a sign of the shifting tides that governments in archeological territories have in recent years demanded the “repatriation” of antiquities taken from their lands decades or centuries ago. This has triggered a number of high-profile cases in which ownership of a rare, iconic object — e.g., the Euphonious krater — becomes a major international controversy.

Hugh Eakin’s article spends a great deal of time critiquing two new books, Who Owns Antiquity? by James Cuno, and Whose Culture? by Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both argue that the “encyclopedic museums” such as the Met and the British Museum are stewards of the world’s cultural heritage and advocates for an enlightened, transnational cosmopolitanism.

They also argue that their museums’ superior resources make them better custodians of priceless antiquities, because objects repatriated to Turkey or Iraq, for example, are often not well-protected. The museums also point out, correctly, that national ownership laws restricting the excavation and export of antiquities have in fact pushed a great deal of the antiquities trade underground.

Cuno goes even further to make the bold claim, “Why should state sovereignty determine ownership?” He calls for an “international trusteeship [of antiquities] under the auspices of a nongovernmental agency.” It sounds appealing in the abstract. But in practice, the scheme sounds like a way for the encyclopedic museums to be free to keep on on collecting whatever they want, without restriction. Their rationale: We’re doing it on behalf of all humanity.

There are many complex arguments to be made that I cannot repeat here. Suffice it to say that Hugh Eakin makes a good case that permanent ownership by museums may be a less effective way to promote cosmopolitianism and international cooperation than the new system of loans and sharing that is now emerging. Paradoxically, as more governments and museums rally around a new set of norms about “ownership,” it is fostering greater lending of antiquities for specific exhibits. People from “archeological nations” can see a more diverse array of the world’s antiquities than otherwise, and so can cosmopolitans in New York and London.

The new regime is also focusing attention on the most urgent priority — to protect antiquities from disappearing into private collections or physically deteriorating. Eakin’s piece leaves me thinking a heretical thought: Perhaps ownership is less significant than the ongoing economy of gift-exchange relationships that is developing among institutions that truly care about antiquities.