The broader issue here regards cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that informs Cuno’s defense of the modern museum. As formulated by Jacques Derrida, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others in conversation with a tradition stretching back thousands of years and through many intellectual traditions, cosmopolitanism asserts that our common humanity gives us grounds for mutual understanding. It requires us to try to comprehend alien points of view. If cosmopolitan values call attention to the importance of the museum—helping us to look beyond its sometimes exploitative past toward a future in which it deepens the cultural awareness of people across the world—then they also demand that we take a tolerant approach to its foes. We owe something to countries laying claim to artifacts, even if they are doing so in ways that appear “tribal,” selfish, or politically motivated. After all, the priorities of these nation-states may be just as important for them as sharing a common artistic patrimony is for “enlightened” members of the world community.
Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno’s book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras. Yet it also raises complicated questions that will surely provoke further debate within the art community. Most important, the dichotomy between tribal nation-states and cosmopolitan museums cannot be so simple as Cuno pretends. The encyclopedic museum is, after all, a product, even an instrument, of modern national and imperial interests. The Louvre was populated by Napoleon’s rapacious plunder, then used as a political tool to demonstrate France’s dominance in the theater of Europe. And who can walk the halls of the British Museum without thinking of the empire on which the sun never set? A related question that could be posed by nation-states demanding restitution of valuable artifacts is: If encyclopedic museums are truly institutions of “international, indeed universal aspirations,” then why are they located primarily in powerful First World countries? Cuno advocates their extension to nations all over the globe, but the fact is that no such collection will be coming to the Darfur region anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the encyclopedic museum and policies that promote it will chiefly serve rich Westerners.
The Palladion was the earliest and perhaps the most important stolen statue in western literature. The small carved wooden statue of an armed Athena served as Troy's protective talisman, which is said to have been stolen by two Greeks who secretly smuggled the statue out of the Temple of Athena. It was widely believed in antiquity that the conquest of Troy was only possible because the city had lost its protective talisman. This myth illustrates the sacramental significance of statuary in Ancient Greece as divine manifestations of the gods that symbolized power and were often believed to possess supernatural abilities. The sacred nature of the statues is further illustrated in the supposed suffering of the victorious Greeks afterward, including Odysseus, who was the mastermind behind the robbery.