Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
In 1612, the personal library of Sultan Zaydan An-Nasser of Morocco was trusted to French consul Jean Phillipe de Castellane for transportation. After Castellane waited for six days not receiving his pay, he sailed away. A flotilla commanded by Spanish privateer Luis Fajardo de Córdoba captured the ship and took it to Lisbon (then part of the Spanish Empire). In 1614, the Zaydani Library was transmitted to El Escorial. Moroccan diplomats have since asked for the manuscripts to be returned. Some other Arabic manuscripts have been delivered by Spain, but not the Zaydani collection. In 2013, the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute presented microfilm copies of the manuscripts to Moroccan authorities.
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.)
Méndez de Vigo has instructed the Department of Culture of the Catalan government, now under his leadership, to obey a provisional judicial order that dictates the return of the objects to their former location in Aragon, Catalonia’s neighboring region. Even though this judicial order could still be disputed, the minister demands its immediate implementation.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno’s latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work’s archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum—one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain cultural items such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, etc. to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organisations. However, the legislation has its limitations and has been successfully contested both domestically and extraterritorially.
In some cases, this may mean parting with objects we have known for decades. When I was growing up, a reproduction of the Euphronios Krater, flattened onto a small varnished panel, hung on a wall of my family home. I used to wonder at the scene and its coded urgency: who were the strange winged and masked figures, and why were they grappling with the muscular body of the young man? When I finally saw the original, it seemed to be a flashback to a death I had actually witnessed, so visceral were the outlines. Encountering more of the vase’s history, I wasn’t happy to discover that my education in art had been facilitated by looting and smuggling. Neither am I happy that the Krater is no longer in New York, where other schoolchildren might have profited from it. But I’ve also learned that a productive approach to this controversy requires seeing the good side of the bad and the bad side of the good. Perhaps the Euphronios Krater has finally come home; but “homecoming” is a concept as many-faceted as the people who wish to shelter and treasure such an extraordinary object.
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.
Drawing on careful legal research, the book’s central chapters argue that the laws governing the movement of antiquities today are political constructs heavily influenced by nation-states. Over the past three and a half decades, the conventions of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have increasingly favored the narrow interests of countries like Greece, China, Turkey, and Egypt that lay claim to particular artifacts. They make these claims not out of concern for the welfare of the works themselves, but to assert their authority over, and to profit from, riches originating in their territories. In turn, they incorporate these artifacts into national “histories” that, not coincidentally, exclude ethnic minorities and shore up the power of ruling parties.
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.
It was here at Morgantina, just outside the modern town of Aidone, that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a breathtaking statue of a goddess, draped in a windswept robe and standing over seven feet tall, is believed to have been found. First thought to be Aphrodite and now widely considered to be Persephone, the statue, which dates to about 425 B.C., has become one of the most contested artworks in the world.
Few repatriation cases have been as contentious as that of the Euphronios krater, a red-figure vase hailed as one of the few extant masterpieces by the ancient Greek artist Euphronios, which is also a cautionary tale about looting. Found in 1971 in illegal excavations in an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, north of Rome, the vase was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972 from an antiquities dealer. For years, it was on display there, admired by millions of visitors.
“Could we have been better parents?” At 87, Cornell emeritus professor James McConkey reflects on the inadvertent ways that parents—especially fathers—shape their children. “Most parents don’t want their children to suffer the kind of grief inflicted on them by their own parents,” he says in this essay from our Spring 2008 issue. “By saving them from that, though, they may inflict upon their children difficulties of another kind.” As the father to three sons, McConkey is acutely aware of how his relationship with his own father informed his relationship with his children. His essay “What Kind of Father Am I?” is a meditation on aging, parenthood, and the bond between fathers and sons.