Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
Times Books; 414 pages
The great museums of the world are stuffed with spoils of war. They're crammed with stolen relics and permanently borrowed treasures, beautiful icons obtained through shady means and cultural riches that their countries of origin want back right now. In her look at the debate over who owns ancient art, Waxman, a former Hollywood reporter for the New York Times profiles four museums the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum and poses the question, "Shall we empty [them] because one source country after another seeks the return of treasures past?"
1. On the exceptionalism of the Louvre: "The elitist strain that is built into the Louvre has an explicitly nationalist component. No object that has become part of the French museum system can ever be sold, since it has officially become French patrimony. To someone who comes from Greece, this must seem like a strange concept: the Parthenon frieze in the possession of the Louvre has become, ipso facto, French. The building of a national collection was central to creating the narrative of French greatness, of the power and glory of its empire. Like so much in French culture, the Louvre is organized around the unspoken principle that the French are a great nation with a mandate to instruct and lead the world in all matters of human progress."
2. On who should own symbols of the past: "Repatriation is usually connected to the idea that a country's modern cultural identity is tied to the objects of its ancient history, that those objects are the tangible symbols of the link between a nation's past and its present. The debate is thick with the sense of stolen identity, of the theft of a nation's very soul, which is largely why this debate surpasses legal minutiae to take on moral overtones."
3. On the museum-builders' attitudes towards antiquities: "It was a different time, with attitudes that are shocking to today's sensibilities. At that time, what antiquities you saw and you liked, you took. Perhaps you took it for the glory of your country, or for the glory of your country estate. What you left untouched was either out of a vague sense of propriety, or for lack of logistical support, or for fear of running afoul of an unpredictable, often-distant authority...For centuries, plunder had been the rule rather than the exception, and the privileges of colonial tribute seemed to bestow similar entitlements."
Waxman illustrates this overstuffed book with the colorful personalities and histories behind some of the most famous ancient artworks (the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone), and the questions she raises are fascinating ones. Should a nation be allowed back its antiquities if they cannot be cared for? Is there any value in moving a piece from a museum where it will be seen by millions to one where it may be seen by nobody? Should exhibits detail exactly where an item comes from, no matter how embarrassing the history? Unfortunately, the basic appeal of such debates is often diluted by an excess of detail and a surfeit of characters. It makes for an overlong and sometimes plodding read, though Loot contains its share of golden treasures underneath all that dust.
The Verdict: Skim