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Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage

By James Cuno. Pp. xxxvii + 228, figs. 6. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2008. $24.95. ISBN 978-0-691-13712-4 (cloth).

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Cuno, the president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has decided to ask the question, “who owns antiquity?” Ownership is indeed a current issue for some parties. In 2005, the American Council for Cultural Policy produced a volume edited by Fitz Gibbon: Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law (New Brunswick). This was followed by a work edited by Robson et al., Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts (Oxford 2006). More recently, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asked, “whose culture is it?” as part of a lecture on “Museums and the Collection of Antiquities” (The Berlin Journal 15 [2007] 33–7). Ownership is, in part, about possession and the “right” to display objects. The impact of this on Bronze Age Aegean studies can be seen in the way that attributions to anonymous crafts(wo)men have shifted from the names of the excavators of archaeological sites (e.g., the Doumas Sculptor) to those of the present proprietor (e.g., the Goulandris Sculptor) (for this phenomenon, see D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, “Material and Intellectual Consequences of Esteem for Cycladic Figures,” AJA 97 [1993] 654).

Yet for archaeologists, these are likely to be the wrong questions. Our concern more likely relates to the stewardship of a finite resource that sheds light on a common humanity. There are genuine concerns within the archaeological community that collecting archaeological artifacts (“antiquities”) encourages looting, the destruction of sites, and the irreversible loss of knowledge. Appiah (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers [London 2006] 122)—a commentator favored by Cuno (124–25, 138–39)—was right when he observed: “For an object from an archaeological site, after all, value comes often as much from the knowledge to be gleaned by knowing where it came out of the ground, what else was around it, how it lay in the earth.” In contrast, Cuno asserts, “Sometimes archaeologists argue that antiquities have no meaning outside their archaeological context” (9), and continues, “of course antiquities have meanings outside their specific archaeological context, all kinds of meanings: aesthetic, technological, iconographic, even, in the case of those with writing on them, epigraphic” (9). Chippindale and this reviewer have written elsewhere about the intellectual consequences of lost archaeological contexts. Take the example of a fragmentary funerary stele from the Shelby White Collection that was returned to Greece in July 2008 (D. von Bothmer, ed., Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection [New York 1990] no. 97). The catalogue entry by Elizabeth J. Milleker concluded, “The stele must have been carved in an area of the Greek-speaking world, such as the Cyclades or the western coast of Asia Minor, where Attic influence was particularly strong in the late fifth and early fourth century.” Yet it now appears that the Shelby White fragment fits the bottom half of a funerary stele excavated near Porto Rafti in eastern Attica. Milleker’s conclusions, based on the aesthetic, epigraphic, technical, and iconographical study of the fragment, were scholarly—but misplaced in light of what is now known of the original context. This stele is a good reminder of the intellectual consequences of lost findspots and the way that the corpus of knowledge is distorted as a result of such a loss. Connoisseurship cannot replace secure information derived from excavations.

Cuno has written a compact book (in five chapters) that has a strong political dimension; the first two chapters are entitled “Political Matters” and “More Political Matters.” The three main case studies relate to Iraq (ch. 2), Turkey (ch. 3), and China (ch. 4). Iraq is thankfully not typical, though Cuno demonstrates the way that antiquity has been woven into the modern fabric of society, “Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein” (59). His verdict: “Nothing is certain about archaeology in Iraq except that, when once it served the political agenda of the prevailing authorities, now it is victim to the unpredictable violence of foreign invasion and civil war in a failed state” (65).

In the section on Turkey, Cuno considers the place of the Greek population against the background of Anatolian civilizations (79–80). Yet he could have taken encouragement from the international collaborative archaeological projects that are now exploring common themes on both sides of the Aegean (e.g., A. Moustaka et al., eds., Klazomenai, Teos and Abdera: Metropoleis and Colony [Thessaloniki 2004]). Cuno also extends his discussions into sensitive areas of Cyprus (83–4), as well as the role of Kurdish identity (84–6). He questions the “right” of Turkey to lay claim to the so-called Priam’s Treasure removed from Troy (86), while retaining key objects recovered from the former territories of the Ottoman empire such as the “Alexander sarcophagus” found at Sidon (82).

For China, Cuno raises important issues about the complex relationship between the Poly Art Museum, the Poly International Auction Co., Ltd., the China Poly Group Corporation, and Poly Technologies, Inc. (ch. 4). It is a pity, however, that Cuno did not take more care when preparing the text. He could not resist attacking the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for not acknowledging the link between the Poly Group and its “extensive history in dealing arms” (104). He specifically cites Harrington (“China Buys Back Its Past,” Archaeology [11 May 2000] online). There, Harrington is said by Cuno to describe the Poly Group “simply” as “a Beijing-based state-owned corporation.” Actually, if Cuno had read on, the next paragraph states: “The Poly Group, which until last year was owned by the People’s Liberation Army and was known as an arms dealer, has more recently opened a small museum in the capital dedicated to ancient bronzes.” Such carelessness weakens Cuno’s case.

Cuno raises key issues that need to be addressed. He urges countries to share archaeological finds through the system of partage (14, 55, 154). Looking at my own academic institution, some of the material displayed in the Egypt Centre was derived directly from the willingness of Egyptian authorities to allow a selection of material to be assigned to the body sponsoring the excavations (D.W.J. Gill, “From Wellcome Museum to Egypt Centre: Displaying Egyptology in Swansea,” Göttinger Miszellen 205 [2005] 47–54). Cuno could possibly have made more of the loan of antiquities; he perhaps fails to do so because “ownership” would not reside with the North American museum displaying the loan. (An alternative, a position seemingly adopted by the Association of Art Museum Directors [AAMD], is for the promotion of a “licit market” in excavated objects.) One of the most imaginative schemes for archaeological loans has been the the Emory University Museum International Loan Project (EUMILOP) introduced by Maxwell L. Anderson. Not only was the scheme collaborative but it also anticipated the time “when acquisitions of antiquities will become increasingly difficult for American museums owing to financial and ethical considerations.” As part of the project, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma placed 22 key Roman portraits on loan, and a splendid catalogue, Roman Portraits in Context (1988), was produced. A second exhibition, Syracuse, the Fairest Greek City (1989), contained loans from the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi. A third, Radiance in Stone (1989), consisted of stunning loans of sculpture in colored marble from the Museo Nazionale Romano. Could loans of archaeological material be an appropriate ethical option to the commendation of a “licit market” in antiquities?

A key theme is Cuno’s advocacy of “encyclopedic museums” that embrace world cultures (139–44). He quotes Neil MacGregor, the present director of the British Museum, who claims the encyclopedic museum “is truly the memory of mankind” (141). This reviewer has valued and continues to value the resources of these encyclopedic museums; if one takes a cup of tea in the British Museum, one is literally surrounded by Mesopotamian, Roman, Celtic, and Pacific objects. But encyclopedic museums do not need to continue to develop their collections by drawing on recently looted antiquities. There are more sensitive issues that could have been addressed. A bronze plaque from Benin is one of the introductory objects drawn from the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago (xxiii–xxv, fig. 3). The piece may originate with the dispersal of booty from the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition (as it was called) in which British forces turned their Maxim guns on the defenders of the royal city. (To put this in perspective, the event was contemporary with British archaeological work on Melos in the Aegean.) Can such a collection of African bronzes sit happily in an encyclopedic museum when these items were removed from their country of origin at such human cost?

There could have been a more nuanced discussion between historic collections and recently surfaced items. Is there a difference between fifth-century B.C.E. architectural sculptures removed from Athens in the early 19th century for display in London (ix–xii) and the deliberate destruction of an Etruscan tomb in the 1980s to provide an Athenian red-figure pot for an East Coast museum? Cuno makes a case for sidelining the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. He prefers a deadline of 1983, the date the U.S. Congress passed the appropriate legislation (8–9, 24). This is a nonstarter, given that Italy has been successful in obtaining the return of a Lucanian nestoris and Roman fresco fragments acquired by North American museums in 1971. In fact, if the 1983 date had been used for the recent negotiations with the Italian authorities, 6 of the 13 antiquities from Boston and at least 12 of the 40 items on the list from the Getty would have been excluded. Indeed, the Sarpedon/Euphronios krater would still be displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The publication of Cuno’s book coincides with the return of more than 100 objects from North American collections held by museums, a private individual, and a dealer. The admission that members of the AAMD—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Princeton University Art Museum—have since the 1970s been acquiring freshly surfaced antiquities that appear to have been removed from their archaeological contexts in a less than scientific manner has been highly damaging. Some of these returns have been discussed in some detail (e.g., D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, “From Boston to Rome: Reflections on Returning Antiquities,” International Journal of Cultural Property 13 [2006] 311–31; “From Malibu to Rome: Further Developments on the Return of Antiquities,” International Journal of Cultural Property 14 [2007] 205–40), yet Cuno’s main reflection is confined to an extended footnote (167–69 n. 3).

The private collector was Shelby White. In January 2008, she agreed to return 10 antiquities to Italy; two additional objects were returned to Greece in July of the same year. Shelby White is named, along with her late husband Leon Levy, in an extended footnote (200 n. 7), where they are described as “philanthropists and collectors of antiquities.” The Levy White Collection of antiquities was one of the case studies considered by Chippindale and Gill (“Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting,” AJA 104 [2000] 463–511, a study apparently unknown to Cuno). A Levy White object appears fleetingly (and anonymously) in Cuno’s text as a Roman bronze from “a particular private collection” (21). The piece was a Romano-British bronze looted from Icklingham in Suffolk that featured in the Harvard exhibition (where Cuno was director), The Fire of Hephaistos: Large Classical Bronzes from North American Collections (Cambridge, Mass. 1996 [cat. no. 31]). It has been reported that the bronze will be bequeathed to the United Kingdom (G. Cadogan, “Bronzes Bequeathed to BM,” The Financial Times [30 January 1993]). Why is Cuno reluctant to discuss the issues surrounding the Levy White Collection?

Cuno also discusses (22–3) the controversial 1995 purchase of more than 200 Apulian, Attic, Chalcidian, Corinthian, Etruscan, and Laconian pot fragments by the Harvard University Art Museums (see A.J. Paul, “Fragments of Antiquity: Drawing upon Greek Vases,” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin 5 [1997] 1–87; W.V. Robinson and J. Yemma, “Harvard Museum Acquisitions Shock Scholars,” Boston Globe [16 January 1998]). The pieces had once been owned by J.R. Guy. Cuno’s defense of the acquisition of the fragments should perhaps be seen in fresh light. One of the antiquities returning to Italy was an amphora, attributed to the Berlin Painter, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. no. 1985.11.5) (see D. von Bothmer, “Greek and Roman Art,” Recent Acquisitions [Metropolitan Museum of Art] [1985–1986] 9). The piece had surfaced at Sotheby’s London (13–14 December 1982, lot 220); there are also reported Polaroid photographs of the amphora seized from the premises of Giacomo Medici in the Geneva Freeport (P. Watson and C. Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy [New York 2006] 107). The amphora was not complete, and von Bothmer noted that it “lacked only a handful of small fragments.” He continued, “Shortly after it was placed on exhibition, Dr. J. Robert Guy recognized that nineteen of the fragments had been in his collection for some time. He has graciously donated these fragments (1985.315) to the Museum in ‘Commemoration of the Centenary of Sir John Beazley’s Birth.’” How did Guy come to have such fragments in his private collection? What was their source?

Cuno takes a potshot at the AIA’s policy on not publishing recently surfaced antiquities. He uses the example of the Rosetta Stone, which he claims would not be published “in today’s leading English-language, archaeological journals” (xv). Yet there are good reasons for this policy. Take the example of the inscribed ivory pomegranate “thought to be the only relic of King Solomon’s Temple” that surfaced in Jerusalem in 1979 and was purchased by the Israel Museum in 1998 (see, conveniently, N. Avigad, “The Inscribed Pomegranate from the ‘House of the Lord,’” in H. Geva, ed., Ancient Jerusalem Revealed [Jerusalem 1994] 128–37). More recent studies suggest that while the pomegranate should be dated to the Late Bronze Age, the inscription is a modern addition (see D.W.J. Gill, Evangelical Quarterly 77 [2005] 356).

Cuno has written a personal and passionate defense of the right of encyclopedic museums to continue acquiring cultural objects derived from other nation-states, whatever the damage sustained to the archaeological record. What he has failed to notice is that the “battle” over the issues finished some time ago; he needs to engage with the creation of a new cultural landscape where museums and collectors value the information that can be derived from scientifically excavated objects.

David W.J. Gill
Centre for Egyptology and Mediterranean Archaeology
School of Humanities
Swansea University
Singleton Park
Swansea SA2 8PP
United Kingdom

Book Review of Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, by James Cuno

Reviewed by David W.J. Gill

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Gill

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