Byline: PETER WATSON
THE British Museum has hardly been out of the news this week. On Wednesday it was reported that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is to ask the High Court to clarify whether the museum can return four old-master drawings to a Czech Jewish family, from whom they were looted by the Nazis, and which the museum acquired in good faith soon after the Second World War.
The museum wishes to return the drawings but cannot do so because of legislation that expressly forbids it to dispose of items in its collections.
In addition, the Attorney General is worried that, if an exception were made, it would open the way for Greece to make a claim for the Elgin Marbles.
Two days before that, Paul Craddock, a scientist at the museum, startled a conference on art crime by reporting that most of the antiquities on sale in Britain "are either stolen or fakes.
The amount of legitimate material on the market is very, very small."
First, it is important to say that we should welcome the British Museum's candour in these matters, both of which concern the moral status of certain works of art. The main London salerooms admit that Nazi loot is a problem in almost every major auction these days, and both Sotheby's and Christie's have specialist lawyers dedicated to it.
Settlements are being worked out - for example, the current owners of the art, where it was acquired in good faith, often agree to put it up for sale, and the proceeds divided. Not ideal, but practical.
However, the problem of illicit antiquities is much more difficult because - like smoking, wearing fur or trading in ivory - it is an area where morals and attitudes are evolving. What was acceptable 20 years ago is not now.
London, Brussels and Paris have long had a thriving antiquities market, the legacy, mainly, of empire, when generations of soldiers, merchants or diplomats brought back objects from their travels. After the Second World War, however, as empires receded and newly independent countries began to explore their own past, attitudes changed. In the 21st century, countries now guard their heritage jealously, both as a source of identity and, suitably excavated and displayed, as attractions for tourists and a source of revenue.
This new attitude crystallised in 1970 when Unesco passed a resolution calling on the advanced countries of the West to stop trading in newly excavated antiquities from the ancient civilisations. Professional archaeologists now accept this as a practical dividing line, turning a blind eye to anything that came on the market before 1970, while objects surfacing after that date are "illicit" and should not be traded. In this way, archaeologists hope to deter looting.
When attitudes are changing, people have to adjust. Here, the British Museum has led the way. It was the museum, in the form of Brian Cook, then Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, who alerted the world in the mid-Eighties to the fact that Sotheby's was regularly selling quantities of Apulian vases looted from Italy and smuggled out. That scandal eventually led to a bigger one, in 1997, when Sotheby's was caught red-handed smuggling old masters and antiquities out of Italy and India, prompting them to stop selling antiquities in London.
Four people were jailed.
It was a trustee of the British Museum, Colin Renfrew, Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge (and now Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn), who persuaded the museum to adopt the practice whereby it would acquire only antiquities whose whereabouts have been known since they were dug up. John Curtis, at the British Museum, has been one of the prime movers behind Iraq's attempts to keep track of those antiquities that were lost during the two Gulf wars, and now Craddock - who actually left the museum two weeks ago - has given another lead. …