"Along with Italy, the governments of Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, China, and Cambodia, among others, have pushed to reclaim prized artifacts from collections around the world. They have tightened their laws governing the export of antiquities or intensified the enforcement of existing laws and international agreements; they have made impassioned public cases on the world stage.
These governments argue that to allow such objects to remain abroad as trophies only encourages the continued pillage of their national patrimony. Their position has won broad moral support and increasingly become the norm among academic archaeologists, who see ancient objects as historic artifacts inseparable from their place of discovery.
It has forced major concessions from great museums around the world, including the MFA, the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. The British Museum is under persistent pressure to return the Elgin Marbles, its famous set of sculptures from the Parthenon.
But as one museum after another negotiates deals, and prosecutors all over the world target the commercial trade in ancient objects, some prominent scholars are drawing a line in the sand, saying that objects belong where they are — that the movement is based on a false reading of history, and, if allowed to progress, could do serious damage to the world’s cultural inheritance.
“What’s at stake,” says James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, “is the world’s right to broad and general access to its ancient heritage.”
Cuno, the former head of Harvard’s art museums and someone often mentioned as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello, the retiring director of the Metropolitan Museum, is this spring publishing a book-length argument against returning cultural artifacts, “Who Owns Antiquity?”
Cuno, who is among the most vocal and prominent voices in the debate, argues that laws meant to keep antiquities in the countries where they’re found are wrongheaded and counterproductive. They limit the number of people who can see the objects, he says, while putting artworks at risk and driving collectors and dealers into the black market. They also present an existential threat to great “encyclopedic” museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, places that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place.
Such arguments have triggered fierce responses, not only from source country governments, but from archaeologists, who see in the recent repatriations and prosecutions the best chance for protecting the fragile sites from which antiquities are too often looted.
Ricardo Elia, chair of the archaeology department at Boston University and an expert on the problem of looting, describes Cuno as an “aesthetic fundamentalist” willing to ignore ethical and archaeological values to get his hands on pretty objects. Cuno’s argument, many of his critics charge, is simply an endorsement of plunder.
Many curators and collectors are more cautious in their public remarks than Cuno. But the clash between Cuno and his critics is a battle between two very different philosophies, one that sees antiquities primarily as art, the other casting their value in terms of the historical information they provide. How the argument plays out will determine the way human history is dug up, studied and displayed. And it will determine, too, what it means to own a piece of the ancient past."