Treasures on Trial
In Defense of Museums
That Resist the Call
To Repatriate Ancient Artifacts
By ERIC ORMSBY
April 26, 2008; Page W8
Who Owns Antiquity?
By James Cuno
Princeton University, 228 pages, $24.95
The oldest printed book known is not the magnificent Bible produced by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455 but a translation of the "Diamond Sutra," a Buddhist treatise on the illusory nature of reality. The word "sutra" means "thread" in Sanskrit but came to designate any pithy statement; the Diamond Sutra -- more accurately, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra -- was so called because the sharp facets of its aphorisms slice through the illusions of both mind and senses.
[The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.]
The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.
Sometime in the fourth century, when Buddhism made its way from India into China along such well-traveled routes as the Silk Road, the text was turned from its original Sanskrit into Chinese. The book, produced by wood-block printing on separate pages that were then stitched into a scroll some 16 feet long, is dated 868 A.D. Discovered in 1907 in the Mogao Caves of northwestern China by the scholar and explorer Aurel Stein, it was one of several thousand manuscripts and artworks that he deposited in museums from New Delhi to London. For more than a century now, this earliest of imprints has been one of the most prized possessions of the British Library.
The Diamond Sutra is important for the history of Buddhism in China; it is also an irreplaceable record of human spirituality in general. Should it be considered the "cultural property" of the Chinese people or does it in some sense belong to us all? The question, as James Cuno makes clear in his excellent and outspoken new study, isn't about provenance but about rightful possession. To put the matter another way: If antiquities, whether the Diamond Sutra or the Elgin Marbles, form part of what he calls "our common heritage," is it right to treat them as embodiments of some particular modern nationality, whether Chinese or Italian or Turkish?
[The sixth-century-B.C. vessel known as the Euphronios Krater, returned from the U.S. to Italy earlier this year.]
The sixth-century-B.C. vessel known as the Euphronios Krater, returned from the U.S. to Italy earlier this year.
The question may appear disingenuous. After all, Mr. Cuno is himself the director of the Art Institute of Chicago and hardly a disinterested party. And since American and European museums hold many of the most famous and priceless antiquities known -- some acquired in ways that wouldn't be allowed today -- it seems self-serving, at this late date, to invoke lofty notions of the "heritage of humanity." The real issue is ownership, legal as well as ethical. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have in recent years ended up returning disputed antiquities, such as the Met's sixth-century-B.C. ceramic vessel known as the Euphronios Krater, to Italy. And claims continue to be made not merely over objects whose provenance is murky but over ancient artworks increasingly seen as the inalienable "cultural property" of a nation.
Mr. Cuno minces no words. In his view, "antiquity cannot be owned." By setting the stringent cultural property laws of such countries as China, Italy and Turkey in historical perspective, he is able to show how contradictory, and often unjustified, such claims of ownership tend to be, driven as they are by constantly shifting political agendas.
Mr. Cuno is a passionate advocate of "the encyclopedic museum." By this he means a "museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations." This ideal, inherited from the 18th- century Enlightenment, drives his argument throughout. Against this stand ranked nation-states, many recently constituted, whose policies favor museums governed narrowly by "nationalistic limitations."
• Read an excerpt from the book.
Possibly the most famous wrangling over the ownership of antiquities involves the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805 by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Greece was then under Turkish rule and -- with the consent of the Ottoman authorities -- Elgin had the sculptures sawed from the Parthenon frieze and transported to England. Ten years later, when he fell into debt, he sold the marbles for £35,000 to Parliament, which deposited them in the British Museum, where they have remained for the past 200 years. The Greeks have passionately petitioned for their return but the British Museum has repeatedly rejected the request, refusing to lend them "even for a short period of time," in the words of Museum trustees. According to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum: "This is where they can do the most good." Mr. Cuno shares this view.
If Mr. Cuno opposes the pressure to repatriate antiquities, which is mounting, it's not only because he espouses lofty "universalist" ideals. His own Art Institute, and museums like it, catalog, conserve and exhibit antiquities for the benefit of all. And they safeguard them for the future. The looting of the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad, which he describes in shocking detail, stands as a grim example of the alternative.
Excellent as his book is, Mr. Cuno makes some surprising factual errors, especially about early Islam. Thus he calls Mu'awiya, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty in Syria, the "fourth caliph," when in fact that office was held by 'Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. Nor did 'Ali "challenge" Mu'awiya for the caliphate, as Mr. Cuno states; rather, Mu'awiya was the challenger. The author further describes 'Ali's supporters as the "Shia I-Ali," an impossible construction in either Arabic or Persian; the correct term is Shi'at 'Ali, or "party of 'Ali" (from which the present-day term "Shi'a" derives). The Abbasid Dynasty, which supplanted the Umayyads around 750, did not endure for two centuries, as Mr. Cuno states, but lasted a good 500 years, until obliterated by the Mongols in 1258. Sometimes he uncritically recycles the errors of others. Describing an ivory casket made in medieval Sicily by a Muslim craftsman, and now in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, he says -- following the misreading of earlier catalogers -- that the calligraphic inscription on this lovely little masterpiece reads: "May glory endure." In fact, the inscription is nothing more than a conventional formula of blessing on the owner of the casket and means "lasting honor." In Islamic belief, "glory" belongs to God alone.
No one, of course, disputes that the looting of archaeological sites or the trafficking in antiquities should be prevented. But for Mr. Cuno, the enforcement of sweeping cultural property laws, as in China (which claims all antiquities from prehistoric times to 1911, when the Qing Dynasty fell), isn't the best approach. He advocates a return to the practice of "partage," whereby archaeologists who excavate an ancient site divide their finds, according to agreed percentages, with the host country. It was through partage, for example, that the rich collections of cuneiform tablets unearthed in Iraq in the late-19th and early-20th centuries were apportioned between the University of Pennsylvania and the British and Iraqi national museums, to the ultimate advantage of the institutions and the general public.
In a final chapter, Mr. Cuno sets aside polemic to describe his first visit to the Louvre as a young man. There he was surprised to experience an unexpected kinship with vanished peoples; their artworks inspired a deep sense of wonder in him. He felt momentarily part of immemorial human endeavor. That kind of wonder may still be possible only in an "encyclopedic museum," where antiquities from all cultures are assembled to reveal the full range of human genius. As the French poet Paul Claudel wrote: "For the flight of a single butterfly the entire sky is needed."