A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’
By JOHN TIERNEY
Zahi Hawass regards the Rosetta Stone, like so much else, as stolen property languishing in exile. “We own that stone,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking as the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The British Museum does not agree — at least not yet. But never underestimate Dr. Hawass when it comes to this sort of custody dispute. He has prevailed so often in getting pieces returned to what he calls their “motherland” that museum curators are scrambling to appease him.
Last month, after Dr. Hawass suspended the Louvre’s excavation in Egypt, the museum promptly returned the ancient fresco fragments he sought. Then the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a pre-emptive display of its “appreciation” and “deep respect” by buying a piece of a shrine from a private collector so that it could be donated to Egypt.
Now an official from the Neues Museum in Berlin is headed to Egypt to discuss Dr. Hawass’s demand for its star attraction, a bust of Nefertiti.
These gestures may make immediate pragmatic sense for museum curators worried about getting excavation permits and avoiding legal problems. But is this trend ultimately good for archaeology?
Scientists and curators have generally supported the laws passed in recent decades giving countries ownership of ancient “cultural property” discovered within their borders. But these laws rest on a couple of highly debatable assumptions: that artifacts should remain in whatever country they were found, and that the best way to protect archaeological sites is to restrict the international trade in antiquities.
In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can’t afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.
Restricting the export of artifacts hasn’t ended their theft and looting any more than the war on drugs has ended narcotics smuggling. Instead, the restrictions promote the black market and discourage the kind of open research that would benefit everyone except criminals.
Legitimate dealers, museums and private collectors have a financial incentive to pay for expert excavation and analysis of artifacts, because that kind of documentation makes the objects more valuable. A nation could maintain a public registry of discoveries and require collectors to give scholars access to the artifacts, but that can be accomplished without making everything the property of the national government.
The timing of Dr. Hawass’s current offensive, as my colleague Michael Kimmelman reported, makes it look like retribution against the Westerners who helped prevent an Egyptian from becoming the leader of Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural agency. But whatever the particular motivation, there is no doubt that the cultural-property laws have turned archeological discoveries into political weapons.
In his book “Who Owns Antiquity?”, James Cuno argues that scholars have betrayed their principles by acquiescing to politicians who have exploited antiquities to legitimize themselves and their governments. Saddam Hussein was the most blatant, turning Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar, but other leaders have been just as cynical in using antiquities to bolster their claims of sovereignty.
Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it. (To debate this idea, go to nytimes.com/tierneylab.)
As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dr. Cuno has his own obvious motives for acquiring foreign antiquities, and he makes no apology for wanting to display Middle Eastern statues to Midwesterners.
“It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange,” Dr. Cuno writes. “And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.”
Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn’t have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of “looted” Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.
Dr. Hawass may consider the Rosetta Stone to be the property of his government agency, but the modern state of Egypt didn’t even exist when it was discovered in 1799 (much less when it was inscribed in 196 B.C., during the Hellenistic era). The land was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and the local historians were most interested in studying their Islamic heritage.
The inscribed stone fragment, which had been used as construction material at a fort, didn’t acquire any significance until it was noticed by Napoleon’s soldiers and examined by the scholars on the expedition.
When the French lost the war, they made a copy of the inscriptions before surrendering the stone to the English victors, who returned it to the British Museum. Eventually, two scholars, working separately in Britain and in France, deciphered the hieroglyphics.
This all happened, of course, long before today’s nationalistic retention laws and the United Nations’ Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. But what if the Rosetta Stone were unearthed in modern times?
Were the Rosetta Stone to appear on the art market without the proper export permits and documented provenance, Dr. Cuno says, a museum curator who acquired it would risk international censure and possible criminal charges. Scholars would shun it because policies at the leading archeological journals would forbid the publication of its text.
“Not being acquired or published, the Rosetta Stone would be a mere curiosity,” Dr. Cuno writes. “Egyptology as we know it would not exist, and modern Egyptians would not know to claim it as theirs.”
The Supreme Council of Antiquities wouldn’t even know what it was missing.