It’s another big step forward for the notion of “cultural patrimony,” in this case humoring the whims of foreign governments that wish to suppress private ownership of long-collected everyday antiquities. [Peter Tompa/Cultural Property Observer; my take]
As I note at Cato, antiquities law has been expanding to restrict private ownership of more and more ancient artifacts. The latest targets are numismatists; more on that in an op-ed that I published last week in the Examiner.
…of access to tribally unaffiliated Indian antiquities and remains, now endangered by new regulations from the Department of the Interior [Robert L. Kelly, New York Times] Earlier on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and Kennewick Man controversy here, here, etc.
John Tierney at the Times makes the case against heritage repatriation laws.
Why does the idea of cultural property have so many advocates? “It seems to establish a bulwark against the plunder of antiquities.” And yet how quickly it’s turned into a way of looting premodern artifacts from Western owners whose claim of title is stronger than that of foreign governments or indigenous/Indian tribes. “But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.” (Edward Rothstein, “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland”, New York Times, May 27).
Under the proposed law, backed by Supreme Council of Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, persons around the world would be forbidden to make copies, even for private use, of the country’s famous monuments, scarabs and other Pharaonic survivals. “His comments came only a few days after an Egyptian opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, published a report complaining that many more tourists each year travelled to the pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel in Las Vegas than to Luxor itself. The newspaper proposed that the US hotel should pay some of its profits to Luxor city.” However, Hawass said that copies of pyramids and other objects that were less than “exact” might escape a royalty obligation, which might get the back of the U.S. one dollar bill off the hook. (Rory McCarthy, “Egypt to copyright the pyramids and antiquities”, Guardian, Dec. 27; “Egypt to copyright pyramids”, AFP/Google, Dec. 26; AP/IHT). More: Coleman.
Melik Kaylan has advice for prospective curator/jailbirds: “The morality around acquiring antiquities parallels that of hunting certain species — it was OK for millennia and suddenly isn’t anymore.” (“A Civilized Solution to Looted Art”, WSJ/OpinionJournal.com, Dec. 14). More on museums in legal hot water: Apr. 28, Dec. 5.
“Peru is preparing a lawsuit against Yale University to retrieve artifacts taken nearly a century ago from the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, a Peruvian cultural official said Wednesday.” Explorer Hiram Bingham dug up the artifacts during three expeditions to the site in in 1911, 1912 and 1914. (AP/CNN, Nov. 30)(via Dave Zincavage). For a critique of the movement to prescribe “repatriation” of cultural treasures to the countries on whose territory they were originally found, see the article linked here Apr. 28.
Various nationalist governments and well-intended archaeologists are trying to shut down the worldwide trade in antiquities, but it’s far from clear that declaring governments to be the sole rightful owners of historical relics leads to better conservation or better public understanding of them. As the U.S. government increasingly shows itself willing to enforce foreign states’ claims of ownership in artifacts, collectors in this country are tangled in legal uncertainties and faced with demands that they affirmatively document long-ago provenances, an often impossible task. And some of the “cultural patrimony” subject to demands for repatriation is of distinctly recent vintage: China seeks title to “calligraphy and paintings dating from as recently as 1912″. (Steven Vincent, “Ancient Treasures for Sale”, Reason, Apr.). Inasmuch as governments such as those of China, Cambodia and Afghanistan have themselves been pre-eminent destroyers of their own store of cultural antiquities — the damage done during China’s Cultural Revolution period is incalculable — the dispersal of an ancient culture’s artworks around the world may turn out to be an important safeguard in making sure that in future such episodes at least a portion of the treasure survives the wreck.