Loot by Sharon Waxman (Non-fiction)

A thorough and comprehensive overview of the world of antiquities — and the seedy underbelly comprised of looting, demands for restitution, greed, and the occasional ruined life in the name of political expediency. The author does a decent job of presenting multiple points of view fairly, only occasionally throwing in her own opinions.

She focusses on four source countries — Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy — each demanding the repatriation of important antiquities currently housed in a Western museum. As an example, Egypt insists the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone — discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 and forfeited to the British upon his loss in 1802. She also presents the story behind the four major museum targets of repatriation claims: The Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty.

There is much complexity in the stories. Many of the targeted items came to the museums over 200 years ago. Some were rescued from locals who were extracting building materials, others willingly donated by the head of the country at the time, some the spoils of war and conquest, and others a share of goods under the system of Partage that splits finds between source countries and foreign funded excavations. And others, of course, looted and sold to the highest bidder willing to look the other way when faced with questionable provenance.

The book takes us through a muddle of rationales, explanations, and hidden agendas. Some museum directors and curators point out the lack of facilities in many source countries to maintain and protect such treasures, that the local museums are not secure and ill attended, and that politics and media threats have played a large role in pushing museums to give up expensive works that were gained legally. They also point out that this type of nasty legal attacks will only push artifacts underground — away from the public and into private collections where it is much harder to identify and pursue looted objects. They also point out that while foreign governments are demanding big ticket items back — claiming they were looted — they are doing little to clamp down on modern-day smugglers, preferring to go after the deep pockets and easier targets of large, public institutions.

Read the book to find out more about the arguments from the source countries — after reading the whole thing I come down pretty squarely on the side of the museums. While there are some cases of fraud and obvious theft, for the most part I feel museums come by their artifacts as honestly as they can, given the contexts of the time, and I feel like the source countries are pursuing these objects more for political capital than anything else. I’d be interested in other points of view!

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