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Arts and Culture

Karl E. Meyer on Sharon Waxman’s ‘Loot’

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Posted on Oct 24, 2008
book cover

By Karl E. Meyer

        I devoured “Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” with particular zest, having published in 1973 an earlier account of the same cultural underworld, “The Plundered Past.” A seasoned reporter with an Oxford degree in Middle East studies, Sharon Waxman has updated and surpassed my explorations, in part because the outcry over the illicit traffic has reached fever pitch, provoking voluble, angry and indiscreet utterances from curators, collectors, dealers and a new breed of watchdogs, viz.:

        “You end up thinking we’re all a bunch of looters, thieves, exploiters, that we’re some kind of criminals … but who would be interested in Greek sculpture if it were all in Greece? These pieces are great because they’re in the Louvre.” So protests Aggy Leroule, the Louvre’s press attaché, and so complain directors, trustees and publicists at the many great temples of art and archaeology. Yet there are also dissidents, an unlikely example being Thomas Hoving, once the acquisition-obsessed director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now a fallen Lucifer who recalls, almost with relish, his prevarications past.


book cover


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


By Sharon Waxman


Times Books, 432 pages


Buy the book


        “Don’t be taken in,” he comments to Waxman. “ ... It’s the old nineteenth-century ‘encyclopedic museum’ specious argumentation. It’s generally hogwash. I used to talk about it all the time when I was trying to finish a wing. It has nothing to do with reality, it’s just a phase of Westernization.” Actually, he goes on, in the 1950s and ’60s, European museums “didn’t much care about what they had.” Half of their collections were locked in storage, and “if you tried to see something on a scholarly basis, it took seven weeks.” So why shouldn’t American museums snap up antiquities, no matter how shady their provenance? “You did it because you wanted to boost your collection with beautiful things—and screw it. If you were a collecting curator back in the ’60s, of course you knew where it came from. This stuff is not found in Malibu.”           

          Hoving joined the Met in 1959 and reigned as director from 1966 until his forced resignation in 1977. Even as a novice curator, he recalls spending $850,000 a year on “stuff to be smuggled out of every country, mostly into Switzerland.” His superiors rationalized their complicity in this traffic in the belief that “we were saving something and putting it on view for an enormously wider audience. And we’d publish it. We thought we were adding to our collection, increasing our ego, getting promoted, and saving the world.” His signature coup was the purchase in 1972 of a peerless Greek vase, said to be from an old private collection, for a record $1 million. In truth, the calyx krater, painted and signed by Euphronios, was pillaged in Italy from an Etruscan tomb, sold to an expatriate American dealer of shady repute, spirited to Switzerland, secretly offered to the Met, flown to New York for its celebratory debut, and—following decades of charges and denials—finally returned to Italy in 2008 after each link in this chain had been conclusively established.

          The first merit of Waxman’s book, the best on its subject, is her verbatim account of conversations with everybody who matters in the antiquities trade. This is especially true of her candid exchanges with the staffs and their overlords at the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the mega-endowed (circa $6 billion) J. Paul Getty Museum. As revealing are her encounters with the new flock of restitution hawks, led by Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who demands the return or loan of such stellar prizes as the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone, the Louvre’s Zodiac ceiling and Berlin’s bust of Nefertiti. When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts declined to lend Egypt its sculpture of Ankhaf (the reputed architect of the second-largest Giza pyramid), which it acquired legally in 1925, claming it was too fragile for export, Hawass raged over the telephone: “I’m going to make this museum’s life especially miserable. They’re assholes. Everything—they get for free. They should be punished. I will ban them from working in Egypt, completely, officially.” 

          Hawass is every major museum director’s nightmare, an avenging prosecutor, an agile politician and insatiable self-publicist. Continually visible on Egyptian television, he is also among the most formidable of the post-Nasser governing elite: at home with Americans, having earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and wondrously able to energize the world’s most ancient and torpid bureaucracy. Almost single-handedly, Waxman writes, he succeeded in getting the Egyptian parliament to permit the King Tut treasures to travel abroad for the first time in 26 years, wresting terms for their multi-city tour that brought tens of millions back to Egypt. Yet with all that money (so my wife and I found in January), Cairo’s cavernous Egyptian Museum remains humid, ill-lit and badly labeled, much as it was when I first saw it in Nasser’s time. On the other hand: There are plans for a new archaeological showcase near the pyramids; Hawass has creditably established a fine new antiquities museum in Alexandria; and the recently opened Coptic Museum in Cairo, developed on his watch, deserves three stars. 

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CJ's avatar

By CJ, October 26, 2008 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment

Say what? “These pieces are great BECAUSE they’re in the Louvre”? Perfect. Sounds just like stereo-typical dealers/curators via their PR people. Same get crap sold for millions to Wall Street know-nothings. So much for knowing anything of art on the part of mercenary frauds overseeing galleries and mausoleums. Their principle “talent” is the same as was Barnum’s.

All should bear in mind that no longer than 30 years ago, Impressionist work was not regarded as worthy of being removed to the really, really Big House that is impenetrable Louvre. Despite an entire century having passed, during which time even critics concluded Degas had some talent. More than Rubens, I’d add. The Louvre is plastered with monuments to Ruben’s factory labor. Louvre literature notes only that Rubens had assistants. Really? (Well, Holland/Flanders was original home to rise of merchant class.)

Stuff IS in fact to be found near Malibu—moved from old Getty to new Getty, where I’ve never gone. Mr. Hoving can’t see function of objects for art that Picasso called lies. (Rightly so. Not disparagingly, but insofar as art is inevitably lie revealing of truth. It’s what you don’t see that counts, what’s between lines.)

Good for Hawass, if not so much for Waxman via Meyer. No. Since looting is looting is looting. British were well-known for it as were Nazis. Iraq’s national treasure was looted—not really surprisingly—to sell to privateers.

The only context relevant, as Arnold Hauser would have explained to anyone seriously interested, is capitalism (in all manifestations), whereby women’s feet are reduced to commodity. Collecting (thieving) antiquities has long been about socio-cultural status (individual too, but mostly state-cultural), nothing to do with “art,” except insofar as so designated with intent (by dint of term, “art”) to establish “value.” Social status, in turn, is a function of wealth under circumstances of real-life context that capitalism at its most hegemonic.

Colonial powers hi-jacked antiquities while imagining themselves more “cultured” than those who actually produced antiquities. Exactly as Aggy claims without knowing what he/she claims. The colonial attitude tends to die very hard, if ever. Theft is theft is theft. No ifs, ands or buts. This is not complicated.

Not that any public museum can’t and shouldn’t be home to visiting art produced in and by other cultures at various times in history.  Museums needn’t necessarily be banks-mausoleums where art goes to die out of any context. In that sense, Aggy is right about Louvre conferring value, sadly enough. In that case, context is indeed everything while never-dead art is reduced to so much dead bullion.

As Palin keeps claiming of Obama about spreading the wealth. Good idea in more ways than one. (We can only hope Obama does just that! Not since FDR.) Antiquities are authentic wealth, if wealth means anything more than accumulation of paper and precious metals. Between Getty and Louvre, there are probably enough antiquities to plant on street corners around the world separated by only by a few miles. Living painters/sculptors are desperately in need of making a living so as to survive to make art reflective of time and place, while products of long dead cultures are in need only of being discovered, indeed not without assistance by and from scholars knowledgeable of times and places. I wonder if they’d not be of more value, however, out of the Louvre and Getty on street corners? Of all times and places—there, here, everywhere.

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By Fahrenheit 451, October 26, 2008 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

I take note of the lack of interest in this subject.  I attribute this to an inability of provincially oriented Americans to track anything outside of their own prurient interests.  Pity.

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By samosamo, October 25, 2008 at 2:03 am Link to this comment

So, some low lifes want to hoard a bunch of antiquities for their personal pleasure to satisfy those good old traits, greed and lust. I would personally like to see all these antiquities returned to the country of their origins and put on display for all people to see but does anyone really think that will happen. The United States of America is demonstrating its desire to prevent this as it is not in the elite’s best interest. This greed and lust is a highly marketable sector that will continue until the last person on earh will be sitting on top of a mound of gold and jewels and antiquities hoping for the last animal to come by so he can kill it and eat it.

Sir Martin Rees of Cambridge University has a book published in 2004 where he gives the earth a 50/50 chance of making it to the end of this century, these are actually good odds. With the technological advances where just even one person can come very close to, if not totally wiping out the human race with biological agents, chemical agents, nuclear experimenting or weaponry, to nature smacking the earth with a large enough asteroid or comet or a close enough super nova or an extreme plate tectonic event unleashing volcanic eruptions that will not stop for decades or maybe centuries or just the climate change of natural or human induced changes have the ability to create disasters never witnessed by humans in our time on earth. My bet is on the stupidity of humans to continue to allow the humans to over populate the planet and totally trash the ecosystem. Thus ends materialism that is just another bad characteristic of humans.

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By Fahrenheit 451, October 25, 2008 at 12:40 am Link to this comment

Oops: Make that, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; its been a long time ago.

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By Fahrenheit 451, October 24, 2008 at 10:09 pm Link to this comment

When the “loot” isn’t stolen, but, preserves historical/cultural artifacts; museums are magical places.  My father used to take me out of grade school to visit The American Museum of Natural History and The Museum of Art in NYC.  These visits and exposure forever changed my view of the world.
Traveling exhibits offer these things to the world while maintaining rightful ownership.

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By 123456, October 24, 2008 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

I recall watching a tv documentary that said that in the 1930’s, wehnt he Egyptian government asked the German government to return the Nefertiti bust, Hitler refused stating that Nefertiti represents “Aryan” beauty.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, October 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm Link to this comment

Civilizations come and go.

You can’t take it with you.

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skulz fontaine's avatar

By skulz fontaine, October 24, 2008 at 6:37 am Link to this comment

Museums are prisons and curators are vermin. Sucking up in mass horde ancient culture and all that would enlighten. The vermin defile the dead and the dead’s honored resting places. The vermin denigrate indigenous people and their arrogance is beyond intolerable. “We presume to know better than anyone!” Thus their cry is the epitome of ignorance. Lock it up and the treasure is mine! Curators are the vampires of elite piracy and they should be shot on sight. Return the treasure from whence it was stolen and shut the fuck up!

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