Whose Art Is It? American Museums Are Returning Some of the World's Great Antiquities to Their Original Homes. Should They? A New Debate over Who Owns the Past Is Underway

By McGuigan, Cathleen; Murr, Andrew et al. | Newsweek, March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

Whose Art Is It? American Museums Are Returning Some of the World's Great Antiquities to Their Original Homes. Should They? A New Debate over Who Owns the Past Is Underway


McGuigan, Cathleen, Murr, Andrew, Nadeau, Barbie, Newsweek


Byline: Cathleen McGuigan (With Andrew Murr and Barbie Nadeau)

In 1972, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a record-smashing $1 million for an ancient Greek vase known as the Euphronios Krater. It was worth every penny. The krater--a 12-gallon pot for mixing wine and water--was one of only two dozen surviving examples by the great painter Euphronios, and it even had his signature. Thomas Hoving, then the Met's director, was so smitten by its classic beauty he called it "positively the finest work of art I've ever seen." (Take that, Michelangelo.) But the 2,500-year-old krater did have one major flaw. It was stolen--dug up by looters from an Etruscan tomb near Rome and smuggled out of Italy just months before it was sold, an inconvenient truth the Met finally copped to last year. When the museum debuts its lavish new Greek and Roman galleries next month, its most notable antiquity will be left in a side gallery. Next year the Met is sending it back to Italy for good.

The true provenance of the krater wasn't exactly a surprise. The American dealer who sold it to the Met, Robert Hecht, said he got it from a guy in Beirut who'd kept it in a shoe box in a closet. Hoving suspected that story was dubious, but Hecht provided documentation. Still, reporters who tried to nail down the krater's past took to calling it "the hot pot." For years, antiquities buyers operated on a "don't ask, don't tell" standard. In fact, the Met is returning 20 other pieces with checkered pasts, and museums from Boston to Los Angeles are negotiating with Italy over objects in their collections. Other countries, including Greece, Egypt and Peru, are also fighting for the restitution of art. Disputes about ancient treasures are nothing new--the Greeks have been trying to take back the Elgin Marbles from Britain for almost 200 years. But the pursuit of such artworks has ignited a complex debate over cultural patrimony. No sooner had Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, signed away the Euphronios Krater than he launched into a series of passionate speeches: why, he asked, should objects from ancient civilizations go back to modern nations that didn't exist when the art was created? Yes, the law "must be obeyed," he said, but antiquities "are the patrimony of all mankind." In other words, who really owns the past?

Of course, that depends on whom you ask. Thanks to recent international pacts that condemn the smuggling of artifacts, there's been an ethics shift that seems to favor the claims from countries of origin. Adding to the pressure is genuine alarm over the brutal plunder of archeological sites--in Italy, China, Turkey, Mexico, Iraq and elsewhere--by traffickers eager to supply the soaring black market. "When an object appears on the art market, it is stripped of its historical context," says scholar Brian Rose, president of the Archeological Institute of America. "It is, in a sense, the murder of history." The archeologists maintain that it's the market that must change: museums should refuse antiquities without a clear provenance back to 1970. "That," says Rose, "is our line in the sand."

But art-museum directors are fighting the new Zeitgeist. Not that they haven't tightened their collecting standards--they have. Not that they don't deplore art theft and the trashing of ancient sites--they do. But they don't believe that the acquisition of antiquities is intrinsically unethical. And they defend the importance of their mission: to conserve a vast range of artworks and display them to a broad audience. "These 'retentionist' laws are really arguments against the encyclopedic, universal museum," says James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's important to give the public access to our common legacy and to encourage the understanding of other cultures." And, as de Montebello points out, ancient art has always been on the move, as either the spoils of war--the treasures from Napoleon's conquest of Egypt that fill the Louvre, for example--or from trade. …

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