Sunday, September 18, 2022

Cultural Property II

You probably caught on from last week’s Missive that I was going to continue on the subject of Cultural Property.

Coming back to a paper I wrote in 1997 and mentioned last week, Is the Collecting of Works of Art a Legitimate Pursuit? “Trading in artifacts may not claim to be the world's oldest profession, but it is certainly among the oldest," so commences John Walker, former director of the National Gallery in Washington DC in his introduction to the catalog “Expert's Choice: 1000 Years of the Art Trade, the 1983 exhibition at The Virginia Museum of Art.

I will reprise what I wrote on the subject in 1997: ”Collecting can be documented for thousands of years in China, Sumaria, from ancient Egyptian times and traced through Greece to Rome. The sacking of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC led to one of the first and certainly one of the greatest auction sales in history. At the time it was, of course, celebrated not condemned.

Collecting has always been associated with political power and financial means. Art has been collected through commission, purchase and plunder by Emperors, Kings, Popes, Robber Barons and most recently by heads of corporations.”

The tide began to turn in 1815 when the Horses of St. Marks that had been taken by Napoleon for his Louvre Museum were retured to Venice. In the past half century the tempo of change has increased with Ethics, Morals and Mores holding sway. Still it has taken some time for the collecting public and even the public institutions to recognize the fact. During this relatively new century institutions and individual collectors are coming to accept and act on new rules of engagement.


When I opened my computer exactly one week ago today and was about to start writing, sure enough there were a couple of new articles on this subject.

One from NPR had the provocative headline, “A Kidnapped Goddess Returns Home, After Prosecutors Expose Art Thieves”. Another from Hyperallergic was titled, “a Small Community in Nepal Wants Its Stolen God Back”. These are unrelated stories and each could be the subject of a an entire book or movie.

In the Hyperalergenic article Emiline Smith tells the story that in 1999 a sculpture representing Aghoreswora (Nil Bahrahi), dating from 1636, was one of four lingas stolen from the house of their caretaker. As they are central to local celebration of a holy festival it was replaced with a replica. Only recently was the Aghoreswora identified through a posting on Facebook and traced to the Asian Civilizations Museum, part of the Singapore National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. Its repartriation had not been settled as of last week’s article.


In the case of the NPR story also written about in the New York Times the Marble Head of Athena was one of 74 pieces taken out of Italy by a well-known smuggler who was caught decades ago. Through a dealer known for being a middle man and advanced technology allowed the identification and tracing of works he handled. The New York Times story by Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley reported the return to the countries of origin of 27 antiquities from Rome, Greece and Italy after seizure from the Metropolitan Museum by the New York District Attorney executing search warrants. In an official statement the Met specified that the investigators’ information had only recently been made available to them.


It seems likely to me that many of these works would have been sold by legitimate dealers who were fed a bill of goods by corrupt middlemen. At this point, I do not know. If the case can be proven that pieces were actually the exact same ones stolen and/or illegally exported, the country of origin has every right to get them back.

It is interesting that I grew up at a time that I thought it was inevitable for there to eventually be a one world community. That has obviously turned out to be a huge fallacy, yet in the world of cultural property we are beginning to understand what is important to others. The words in the Met’s recent statement on repatriation is certainly true: “The norms of collecting have changed significantly in recent decades”.