What’s Yours Is Mine

Roger Bland

  • Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno
    Princeton, 228 pp, £14.95, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13712 4

James Cuno is currently the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He used to be the director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; before that he was the director of the Harvard University Art Museums. He should be well qualified to write about the role of museums in the antiquities market. His book, essentially, has one argument: that what Cuno characterises as the ‘nationalist retentionist’ policies adopted by many countries and international organisations such as Unesco, which vest ownership of antiquities in the state where they are discovered and limit their export, are damaging because they make it more difficult to establish ‘encyclopedic’ museums – such as the Art Institute of Chicago – whose collections comprise objects from many cultures. Such museums are, Cuno argues, a force for good because they promote an awareness of different cultures.

After proclaiming in his preface that ‘we cannot afford to waste time debating the same tired question of whether or not museums should acquire unprovenanced antiquities,’ Cuno goes on to do exactly that. He’s especially hostile to the idea that the countries where antiquities were originally produced have any claim to them. He discusses half a dozen objects acquired by his museum (a medieval German monstrance which contains a glass perfume bottle made in Fatimid Egypt, for example) in order to make the point that artefacts were often made for export and often show influences from many different cultures. But such examples have no bearing on the arguments against the damage caused by the trade in unprovenanced antiquities. Archaeologists’ principal complaint is not that objects belong in the countries where they were made but that their uncontrolled trade is a major cause of the destruction of archaeological sites across the world.

The first significant attempt to tackle this problem was the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which 116 states are now party. Article 7 of the convention places a legal duty on states to help other states recover objects that have been illegally exported. Only cultural property stolen from a museum, religious institution or public monument – and which can be proved to have been on the inventory of that institution – is covered, and the state hoping to recover its property may have to pay compensation. These strict requirements contrast strongly with the sweeping rhetoric of the rest of the convention. As Patrick O’Keefe has shown, this formulation was insisted on by the US delegation, which refused to sign unless it was drafted to their satisfaction. None of this is mentioned by Cuno.

In any case, the real significance of the Unesco convention is that it shows the signatory states are serious about curbing the illicit trade in antiquities. Parties to the convention have interpreted it in a variety of ways: some, such as the US, have import controls, while others, such as the UK, do not; conversely, the UK has export controls while the US doesn’t. When the UK finally signed up in 2002 it already had in place all the measures required under the convention. But the then arts minister, Alan Howarth, argued that accession would still send the message that the government did indeed take seriously the problem of the illicit trade. Only a year later, Parliament passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which strengthened the UK’s implementation of the convention.

The US implemented the convention in 1983 when it passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act. This allowed countries to establish bilateral agreements with the US, the most important of which were those setting up emergency import restrictions on categories of objects that these countries could show were at risk of being looted from their territory. Cuno argues that when the US responds positively to requests for restrictions, it does so largely for diplomatic reasons. He thinks the agreements are pointless because they are made by the US alone, but it should be said that the US is by a considerable margin the largest market for antiquities. As a result, any measures it takes to restrict imports are bound to have a significant impact. Presumably, the 12 countries – Canada, Italy, Cyprus, Cambodia, Mali and seven Central and South American states – which have reached agreements with the US believe them to be useful. There is some evidence that they are right: Gordon Lobay’s recent thesis on the trade in antiquities from central Italy in New York auction houses since 1970 shows a trend towards increased access to information on provenance and a reduction in the availability for sale of certain kinds of antiquity. Instead of dealing with this evidence, Cuno tries to justify his position by quoting Edward Said and Amartya Sen on the complex nature of national identity.

Cuno discusses two countries, Turkey and China, in chapters combining genuinely interesting information with self-indulgent asides. It’s puzzling that he doesn’t mention recent cases in which the Turkish government successfully secured the return of antiquities from several leading American museums, such as the statue of Herakles from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lydian treasure from the Metropolitan. His chapter on China discusses the activities of the Poly Group, a large commercial concern that is a spin-off of the People’s Liberation Army. The Poly Group buys high quality Chinese antiquities on the international market and then repatriates them to a museum it has set up in China, the Poly Art Museum. This same organisation also runs one of the largest art auction businesses in China; the state has passed a series of laws tightening its control over antiquities but hasn’t completely outlawed private ownership. How China can, on the one hand, have strict laws governing the ownership and sale of antiquities, while, on the other, a company connected with an arm of the state happily buys and sells such objects is, as Cuno points out, quite incomprehensible. But it is nevertheless a state’s right to determine how it should protect its culture, and the duty of other states to respect its policies.

Cuno goes on to give a potted account of the history of the region of Xinjiang in the far north-west of China, historically a melting pot of different cultures along the Silk Road. The Mogao caves there contained wall paintings and rich caches of Buddhist and other writings, which were discovered by Aurel Stein and other Western explorers and taken in the early 20th century to the museums of Europe and the US. Because these artefacts came from non-Chinese cultures, Cuno argues, the modern Chinese state has no legitimate claim to them (‘as if the People’s Republic of China were the rightful, indeed natural, heir to Chinese dynasties of millennia past,’ he scoffs). Indeed, he seeks to justify the acquisition in 1924 by Harvard of a Tang dynasty stucco sculpture from the Mogao caves on the grounds that at the time the sculpture was made Mogao was not under the control of the Chinese empire. This is a specious argument: given the changes that all states have seen in their ethnic and cultural composition, its only logical conclusion would be that present-day states can have no legitimate claim on any antiquities discovered on their soil. But not even the most doctrinaire apologist for the free market would argue that there should be no state protection for national treasures.

Cuno makes no attempt to deal with the issue that most concerns archaeologists: the loss of information caused by the unscientific removal of objects from their native contexts. As an art historian, Cuno cannot see beyond the physical beauty of the artefacts that appear for sale, often with no information about their provenance. He describes several such objects in the collection in Chicago, notably a magnificent Shang dynasty cauldron which his museum purchased in 2004. But he doesn’t seem to realise how much more information could be gleaned from these objects if they had been recorded and studied where they were found. The cauldron probably came from a tomb in central China; stripped of that context, it is an interesting object that tells us about early Chinese metalwork, but it reveals little about the life of the person with whom it was buried and the culture from which it came.

When Cuno insists that ‘nationalist retentionist cultural property laws’ like those in China are not ‘archaeological site protection laws’, he misses the mark. These laws may not all be equally successful, but they are undoubtedly introduced by states with the intention of protecting their archaeological heritage. Cuno also ignores the effect of the great disparity in wealth between many of the nations in which antiquities are found and the nations that buy them. In Britain, a 1996 law that grants the state ownership of precious metal finds and hoards of coins has proved successful because it ensures that finders and landowners are compensated for any objects that museums wish to acquire. But poor countries can’t afford to pay full compensation, which means they are at risk of losing the best examples of their heritage. It’s no wonder that some countries have passed legislation vesting the ownership of all discovered antiquities in the state.

When the terracotta statuettes of Mali became vogueish among collectors of ‘tribal art’ in the 1960s and 1970s, many were dug up and smuggled out of the country, ending up in museums such as the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. A study conducted by Dutch archaeologists between 1989 and 1991 found that 45 per cent of all the sites in one area had been damaged by looters. Concerned that few, if any, of these objects would be left in the country, Mali secured, in 1993, a bilateral agreement with the US to introduce import restrictions on its antiquities. Since then, instances of looting have greatly diminished.

It may be true that, as Cuno claims, strict cultural property laws adopted in recent years have in some cases failed to prevent looting. But Mali is not the only case of successful government intervention. In the UK a recent survey found that illicit metal detecting has declined significantly thanks to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which has shown metal detector users how their finds, if properly recorded, can contribute to the archaeological record. Dealers report that the number of coins and other antiquities exported from Turkey fell considerably after the government’s eventual success in its legal fight with the finders of a large hoard of Greek coins at Elmali and its recovery of the coins from the US. By contrast, the collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the end of restrictions on travel launched a great outflow of illicit antiquities from those countries.

Cuno speaks as someone who feels that he should be free to acquire the artefacts of other cultures since his country has no culture of its own. And yet the Field Museum in his own city of Chicago contains one of the great collections of native American and pre-Columbian artefacts and sets them firmly in the contexts of the cultures from which they came. Surely these artefacts and the sites where they were found deserve protection too?

Who Owns Antiquity? is an example of US cultural imperialism at its worst. Cuno’s assertion that people’s desire to ‘present their cultural heritage in their own territory’ reflects ‘self-interest on the part of “source” nations and those who support their claims’ is breathtakingly arrogant in the light of the tremendous damage done in so many countries from Cambodia to Peru by a traffic in antiquities aimed at satisfying the demands of collectors and museums in the West. There is a strong case to be made for ‘encyclopedic museums’ and the way they promote understanding of different cultures, but this book does not make it.