Q: When is it legal to take an ancient and valuable cultural object out of its country of origin without the consent of the inhabitants?

A: Before 1970, the UNESCO cut-off date for pieces without provenance (often smuggled). Especially in the colonial empires of the 19th century, archeologists from England and France and Germany would race to get the best plunder for their home museums. If the book I’m reading now is correct, this has not changed so much as gone under the table.

The Euphronios Krater
I just got to the chapter ‘Tomb Raiders on Fifth Avenue’ in Loot, a book by Sharon Wexman describing the battle over stolen antiquities. Until last January, she describes how a red and black pot sat alone in its glass vitrine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, labeled “Terra cotta calyx-krater. Greek, Attic 315 BC. Lent by the Republic of Italy.” This deceptively understated label did not mention that this was the Euphronious Krater, an exceptionally rare and fine vase.

Of course, it also did not mention it was raided from tombs nearby Rome as late 1971 when pieces of unclear provenance should not have been bought by museums. It turns out the curators were aware that it was stolen and did not care. Italy was immediately suspicious but could not prove that the items were indeed stolen until January of last year. The Euphronios krater was returned to a victorious Italy, where it symbolized the war against illicit trafficking of the nation’s cultural patrimony.

The Lydian Hoard
The Euphronios Krater is by no means the only questionable antiquity under the Met’s roof. In 1993, after much press and pressure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to give back the Lydian Hoard, a collection of coins and jewelry looted from Usak, Turkey in the 1960s. Turkey similarly celebrated the return of this excellent collection, and housed it in the town where it had originally been discovered. The tomb robbers who sold it came back to see it in its new home. All was well. Then in 2006, the masterpiece of the collection–a golden hippocampus–was discovered stolen. It had been replaced with a fake. Still unsolved, many suspect the museum director, a respected local archaeologist.

However, he is hardly the only person who might have done it given the museum’s lack of security. There was one guard who was also in charge of tickets, one small lock on the glass case holding the hippocampus, security cameras that didn’t work, and no visitors to witness anything–the museum estimates to have had 769 visitors in the first five years it opened to exhibit the collection. This state of underfunded disorganization is hardly limited to the museum in Usak. Theft is a problem in museums throughout Turkey.

As the Euphornios Krater and the Lydian Hoard suggest, the tide is beginning to flow the other way in the battle for restitution. You might have noticed with the recent opening of the Acropolis museum and renewed demands for the Elgin marbles. On one hand, antiquities belong in the land where they are discovered as part of the cultural heritage there. The blatant recent thefts are shocking and greedy. On the other, developing countries like Turkey or Egypt often have a richer cultural heritage than government budgets allow them to care for, causing problems of maintenance and security. ‘Universal’ museums such as the Met and the Louvre have the laudable purpose of giving their millions of visitors a round-the-world knowledge of civilization. Very little of the Met’s universal art collection would remain were we to begin returning things to their ancient homelands. How much restitution is enough?

2 thoughts on “Loot

  1. It is a tricky question. And one that I don’t have an answer for. I do know a bit of inside story that suggests that large art museums in the US at least aren’t necessarily doing the right thing.

    Back when the US first invaded Iraq and all of the looting was going on, a moderate Republican Conressman (who is no longer in office) introduced legislation to try and curb the flow of antiquities out of Iraq. He tried to enlist support for his legislation from some of the largest (and most respected) museums in the US. His staff was stunned at how uninterested many of those institutions were seeing the legislation passed. At least one staffer got the distinct feeling that some of these institutions were even hoping to be the recipients of some of that loot.

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