Mar 7, 2014
Karl E. Meyer on Sharon Waxman’s ‘Loot’
Posted on Oct 24, 2008
In short, as Waxman emphasizes, the looting controversy does not lend itself to glib moralizing: “[T]here are no easy answers here. No clear right and wrong as there was in the case of looted Nazi art. Context matters. Details matter. The broad brush-strokes of polemic end up distorting the picture rather than clarifying it. For one thing, it must be asked: is it fair to view events that date back 200 years through modern eyes? Is it appropriate to use words such as ‘stolen’ and ‘plundered’ for things taken when archeology was in its infancy, and when pioneering explorers did what they believed was best? … It is only in our modern age that the notion of ‘spoils of war’ has taken on a negative connotation. … And for those interested in balancing the scales of justice, where does it all end? The ancient Romans stole obelisks from Egypt, to which Renaissance sculptors added their own adornments. Should these be dismantled to return the obelisks to Egypt?”
Granted, we now have the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, currently binding 130 countries. Not only are signatories obliged to bar the importation of smuggled or stolen cultural artifacts, but they are encouraged to enact specific bans on imperiled antiquities from specific areas—as the United States has commendably done at the request of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Mali and Cambodia. These bans have curtailed if not eliminated the traffic in monumental stelae and sculptured fragments chopped, even dynamited, from ancient edifices.
Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman
Times Books, 432 pages
However, while the convention does provide new legal weapons to countries seeking the return of looted or smuggled art, there is a less welcome downside. It also provides a cloak of virtue for nationalist politicians whose concern for the display and protection of ancient cultural treasures ceases once they
Of Turkey’s 93 government-operated museums, only 78 have electronic security systems, many of them defective. In 2007, Turkey devoted merely $66 million to operate all these museums and their staffs, plus 140 state-managed archaeological sites—a paltry two-tenths of 1 percent of the national budget. As in other antiquities-rich countries, inveighing against theft and smuggling is cost-free populism; seeking more funds for conservation and security finds scant reward in glory or votes. Let it be said in Dr. Zahi Hawass’ behalf that, whatever his thirst for publicity, he has pulled dynastic Egypt out of its musty tomb in the world’s popular imagination. And let it be said that while Sharon Waxman’s study offers no novel answers, she poses all the right questions.
Karl E. Meyer, a former staff member of The New York Times and The Washington Post, is the author of numerous books, including “The Plundered Past” and, most recently, with Shareen Blair Brysac, of “Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East,” published by W.W. Norton.
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