Thursday, March 10, 2011

Egyptian antiquities: "a smoke screen"?

Vernon Silver has published a reflective piece on the recent looting of antiquities and the debate about cultural property ("Looting in Egypt Arms Critics of Sending Antiquities Back Home", Bloomberg.com March 9, 2011). Has the looting of the Cairo Museum during the recent political upheavals changed the nature of the debate?

Silver has interviewed William Pearlstein who is seen as opposing claims by Egypt: "My clients will have an easier time against retention laws”. Silver also quotes Ursula Kampmann, the press officer for the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA): “The incidents during the Egyptian revolution could be taken as basis for a change of discussion ... It comes to the question, what is the best way to protect our world’s cultural heritage?”

Hawass also makes the point:

“Arguments against repatriation because of the current situation in Egypt are completely wrong ... If the police left the streets of New York City, London, or Tokyo, the criminals of those cities would smash the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, or any other museums in those cities.”
Thomas Campbell, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, has wisely stated that the museum will return the objects relating to Tutankhamun once the political situation has stablised.

I was interviewed for the piece. Instead of rejecting claims on cultural property, museums and those involved in the antiquities market need to be conducting more thorough due diligence checks. Will members of the IADAA ensure that they have full collecting histories of all Egyptian material that they handle? Will the Barcelona Galerista return the material from Saqqara? Will the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) produce the full authenticated documention relating to the mummy mask that it acquired?

Why does this matter? If we believe in Cosmopolitanism, like Kwame Anthony Appiah and James Cuno, these objects belong to world culture. They are our shared heritage.

4 comments:

David Gill said...

This has also appeared as: "Egypt Is Looted, and Curators Balk", Bloomberg Business Week March 10, 2010.

SAFECORNER said...

What should happen with SLAM vs the US over Ka-Nefer-Nefe? Share you views here.

William Pearlstein said...

Dear David,

Thank you so much for posting my quote (or vice verse). Some nuance was lost in the interview and editorial process. What I had hoped to convey is that the existence of looting in Egypt probably won't make a difference in any contested repatriation case involving allegedly stolen art. Those all turn on the facts of the case. The reality is that looted objects are generally unmarketable in today's transparent markets. Moreover, nobody wants the US markets to serve as a conduit or haven for stolen art.

The larger issue is whether, after the widespread destruction of museums and archeological sites in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, the notion of all-encompassing, unconditional, national retention of cultural property remains sound.

Differences of opinion remain and different people will draw different conclusions. But recent events seem to be thickening the discussion.

Kind regards,

William Pearlstein
New York, New York

David Gill said...

Dear Mr Pearlstein
Thank you for your comments. I am glad that you state "nobody wants the US markets to serve as a conduit or haven for stolen art". I am sure you would wish to include material that appears in photographic archives such as the Medici Dossier and the Schinousa Archive.
All of us --- archaeologists, museum curators, dealers, and lawyers --- need to work together to protect the universal archaeological heritage.
With best wishes
David

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