Saturday, June 14, 2008

Antiquities market update Insider: Guardians of Antiquity?
James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, posits in his new book Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton University Press, $24.95) that the UNESCO treaty and laws enacted around the world aimed at applying its principles have done nothing to stop looting and have succeeded only in inhibiting the global movement of art. UNESCO, he argues, has impoverished our understanding of one another and contributed to a stale, narrowly nationalistic view of culture.

More specifically, these laws have prevented museums like his from acquiring antiquities as they have in the past. He calls them "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws," and views them as one outcome of what he sees as the chauvinistic nationalism that has infected governments and led to the suppression of minorities and even ethnic cleansing. Whatever good intentions UNESCO had back in 1970, they've gone horribly wrong, implies Cuno.

Lots of stuff in this article, so it's worth reading the whole thing. I found much to agree and disagree with regarding both the book author and the reviewer (Roger Atwood). For example, Cuno argues that modern nations have little or no claim on the work of ancient societies since, as Atwood puts it, the modern nation "did not exist when ancient sites were created, its laws relating to those sites are invalid and U.S. courts should ignore them." I think that's a fair (though arguable) interpretation in some sort of theoretical sense, but realistically not terribly useful. We recognize sovereignty except in certain rare instances and, like it or not, the modern state must retain legal control over their own territory.

Atwood seems a bit Pollyanna-ish when he discusses the motivations of modern states: "The state has an interest in preserving the knowledge contained in ancient sites and preventing that knowledge from being lost forever through looting." Only in the ideal. Realistically, governments change and their priorities change and th results don't necessarily have any relation to archaeological preservation (cf. Afghanistan under the Taliban).

Still, a thought-provoking review on a number of levels.