“Who Owns Antiquity?”

by Walter Olson on April 27, 2008

About time someone stood up to the demands against Western museums and collectors for repatriation of “cultural patrimony” lawfully obtained at the time (Eric Ormsby, “Treasures on Trial” (review of new James Cuno book), WSJ, Apr. 26; Kerry Howley, Reason “Hit and Run”, Apr. 24; earlier coverage).


1 Bill Poser 04.27.08 at 3:01 am

See this Illicit Cultural Property blog post
for interesting commentary.

2 Joe Bingham 04.27.08 at 8:44 am

I was always bothered by the fact that the guy who found the cross of Coronado in The Last Crusade wasn’t allowed to keep it.

3 Richard Nieporent 04.27.08 at 9:23 am

You don’t have to go to China to see the effects of such a policy. We have the same problem here with respect to Indian tribes. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by Congress in 1990 in order to return objects and human remains. Under a new proposal, the bones at museums, universities and federal facilities across the nation could be given to Native American tribes now living in the area from which the remains were excavated, even if the skeletons are not culturally identifiable to the tribes.


4 CSI 04.27.08 at 5:38 pm

One of the reasons why China is so eager to reclaim foreign-held Chinese artifacts is because they destroyed most of theirs during the Cultural Revolution. That is kind of ironic.

5 John Burgess 04.27.08 at 6:43 pm

Somewhat like CSI’s example, the Arabs living in the Gulf states were eager to get rid of their old junk when they started getting oil incomes in the 1950s. Expats bought up the junk–chests, doors, mashrabia, traditional clothing, jewelry, rugs, coffee pots, etc. Rather than cupidity, the motive seemed more the appreciation of the exotic and the hand-made.

Now, Arabs are re-buying the junk at very serious prices, both for private collections and state museums. The states are having problems with looting, particularly from pre-Islamic sites that hadn’t received much physical protection. Another sort of expat is recognizing a business opportunity and selling off somebody else’s heritage.

The story in Egypt is a bit different as looting and grave robbing there have a history that goes back millennia. But even there, there’s a new problem with black marketing Coptic and Jewish materials.

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