Archaeologists and scholars criticized the US military for not taking the measures to secure the museum, a repository for a myriad of valuable ancient artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization. In the several months leading up to the war, scholars, art directors, and collector met with the Pentagon to ensure that the US government would protect Iraq's important archaeological heritage, with the National Museum in Baghdad being at the top of the list of concerns. Between April 8, when the museum was vacated and April 12, when some of the staff returned, an estimated 15,000 items and an additional 5,000 cylinder seals were stolen. Moreover, the National Library was plundered of thousands of cuneiform tablets and the building was set on fire with half a million books inside; fortunately, many of the manuscripts and books were preserved. A US task force was able to retrieve about half of the stolen artifacts by organizing and dispatching an inventory of missing objects and by declaring that there would be no punishment for anyone returning an item. In addition to the vulnerability of art and historical institutions during the Iraq war, Iraq's rich archaeological sites and areas of excavated land (Iraq is presumed to possess vast undiscovered treasures) have fallen victim to widespread looting. Hordes of looters disinterred enormous craters around Iraq's archaeological sites, sometimes using bulldozers. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 archaeological sites in Iraq have been despoiled.
Today the Euphronios krater sits rather forlornly in a glass case in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome’s Villa Borghese park. Wall labels, written in Italian and poorly translated English, explain where it was found. One example: “The tomb of Greek Vases (Tomba dei Vasi Greci) is the latest within the great tumulus II of the Banditaccia necropolis and contained so many grave goods that only part of them could be displayed.”
According to Cuno, the logic whereby so-called source nations claim ownership of artifacts extracted from their territories is faulty, for such valuable relics of our human history really belong to a common, global cultural patrimony shared by all the world’s peoples—not only present-day Italians, but also all descendants of the Greeks and Romans the world over, as well as Turks, Chinese, Indians, and Africans. He contrasts the values of nation-states, which advocate strict “retentionist cultural property laws” and manipulate archaeological objects to advance questionable political agendas, with those of “encyclopedic museums,” cosmopolitan institutions like the Met and the British Museum, which seek to draw together diverse artifacts for the education and delectation of a global public.
Art was repatriated for the first time in modern history when Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington overturned art plundered by Napoleon to Italy after his and Marshal Blücher's armies defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This decision contrasted sharply to a long-held tradition to the effect that "to the victors go the spoils." This is remarkable considering that in the battle of Waterloo alone, the financial and human costs were colossal; the decision to not only refrain from plundering France but to repatriate France's prior seizures from the Netherlands, Italy, Prussia, and Spain, was extraordinary. Moreover, the British paid for the restitution of the papal collection to Rome because the Pope could not finance the shipping himself. When British troops began packing up looted art from the Louvre, there was a public outcry in France. Crowds reportedly tried to prevent the taking of the Horses of Saint Mark and there were throngs of weeping ladies outside the Louvre Museum. Despite the unprecedented nature of this repatriation effort, there are recent estimations that only about 55 percent of what was taken was actually repatriated: the Louvre Director at the time, Vivant Denon, had sent out many important works to other parts of France before the British could take them. Wellington viewed himself as representing all of Europe's nations and he believed that the moral decision would be to restore the art in its apparently proper context. In a letter to Lord Castlereagh he wrote:
The agreement between the Boston museum and Turkey acknowledged that the museum had acquired the object “in good faith and without knowledge of any ownership or title issues,” according to a statement from the museum. (In 1981 the museum had acquired a half-interest in the torso, with the other half owned by the American antiquities collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White.)
Returned to Peru in 2012, the objects — which include ceramics, tools, jewelry and human and animal bones — provide a remarkable account of the city, which was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century. Many are now on view at a museum in Cuzco, the nearest city to Machu Picchu. The installation is still largely that from a 2003 traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Museum, which celebrates the triumphs of Bingham, but that emphasis is likely to change as Peruvian museum authorities take command.
One such priority is surely money, which receives scant attention in Cuno’s argument. Most cultural properties are excavated from poor places and brought to richer ones, where they attract further economic bounty in the form of tourism. Why should such benefits accrue to New York rather than Cairo or Athens? Another value is archaeological preservation: the exceptions documented by Cuno notwithstanding, many source nations harbor a genuine interest in establishing or re-establishing historical and geographic contexts for lost objects. Surely archaeologists working in the field should be taken as authorities on the need for cooperation, not confrontation, with governments in these matters.
Stereotypes persist when discussing Native American arts and cultures, and sadly many people remain unaware of the complicated and fascinating histories of Native peoples and their art. Too many people still imagine a warrior or chief on horseback wearing a feathered headdress, or a beautiful young “princess” in an animal hide dress (what we now call the Indian Princess). Popular culture and movies perpetuate these images, and homogenize the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America. There are too many different languages, cultural traditions, cosmologies, and ritual practices to adequately make broad statements about the cultures and arts of the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States and Canada.
The Yale case has also paved the way for Peru to reclaim objects from around the world, including a collection of Paracas textiles, which the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, is in talks to return. “Their concern is how are these pieces going to be taken care of” if they leave Sweden? Mr. Castillo said. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he added. “The point is that Peru is ready.”
In order to be legally classified as an indigenous person in the United States and Canada, an individual must be officially listed as belonging to a specific tribe or band. This issue of identity is obviously a sensitive one, and serves as a reminder of the continuing impact of colonial policy. Many contemporary artists, including James Luna (Pooyukitchum/Luiseño) and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith (from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation), address the problem of who gets to decide who or what an Indian is in their work.
In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.
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.
In truth, there is no need to reject the premises of the contemporary nation-state—a move likely to alienate the very parties with whom compromise is needed—in order to advance the changes Cuno proposes. Try as they might, Italy, Greece, and China cannot hope to repossess all the antiquities ever removed from their soil. As he suggests, agreements that give these countries custody of certain objects while promoting long-term loans, reciprocal education, and responsible archaeology are an obvious way forward. Such governments could even be convinced that sharing their patrimony with others will advance their national reputation abroad. Cuno’s concept of a change in terminology from “ownership” of cultural properties to their “stewardship”—different nations holding such objects in trust for the benefit of various audiences—could also attract the support of these states. However, in order for agreements to happen, First World museumgoers will have to respect the concerns and claims of source nations.
Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws claiming ownership are founded on constructed boundaries of modern nations with weak connections to the culture, spirit, and race to the ancient peoples who produced those antiquities. Cultural identities are dynamic, inter-related and overlapping so no modern nation-state can claim cultural property as their own or else they are promoting a sectarian view of culture.
Repatriation is the return of art or cultural heritage, often referring to ancient or looted art, to their country of origin or former owners (or their heirs). The disputed cultural property items are physical artifacts of a group or society that were taken from another group usually in an act of looting, whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war. The contested objects vary widely and include sculptures, paintings, monuments, objects such as tools or weapons for purposes of anthropological study, and human remains.