Saturday, October 25, 2008

Book Review: Loot

Truthdig (review by Karl E. Meyer)

I devoured “Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” with particular zest, having published in 1973 an earlier account of the same cultural underworld, “The Plundered Past.” A seasoned reporter with an Oxford degree in Middle East studies, Sharon Waxman has updated and surpassed my explorations, in part because the outcry over the illicit traffic has reached fever pitch, provoking voluble, angry and indiscreet utterances from curators, collectors, dealers and a new breed of watchdogs, viz.:

“You end up thinking we’re all a bunch of looters, thieves, exploiters, that we’re some kind of criminals … but who would be interested in Greek sculpture if it were all in Greece? These pieces are great because they’re in the Louvre.” So protests Aggy Leroule, the Louvre’s press attaché, and so complain directors, trustees and publicists at the many great temples of art and archaeology. Yet there are also dissidents, an unlikely example being Thomas Hoving, once the acquisition-obsessed director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now a fallen Lucifer who recalls, almost with relish, his prevarications past. . . .

The first merit of Waxman’s book, the best on its subject, is her verbatim account of conversations with everybody who matters in the antiquities trade. This is especially true of her candid exchanges with the staffs and their overlords at the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the mega-endowed (circa $6 billion) J. Paul Getty Museum. As revealing are her encounters with the new flock of restitution hawks, led by Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who demands the return or loan of such stellar prizes as the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone, the Louvre’s Zodiac ceiling and Berlin’s bust of Nefertiti. When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts declined to lend Egypt its sculpture of Ankhaf (the reputed architect of the second-largest Giza pyramid), which it acquired legally in 1925, claming it was too fragile for export, Hawass raged over the telephone: “I’m going to make this museum’s life especially miserable. They’re assholes. Everything—they get for free. They should be punished. I will ban them from working in Egypt, completely, officially.”

Hawass is every major museum director’s nightmare, an avenging prosecutor, an agile politician and insatiable self-publicist. Continually visible on Egyptian television, he is also among the most formidable of the post-Nasser governing elite: at home with Americans, having earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and wondrously able to energize the world’s most ancient and torpid bureaucracy.

See the above page for the rest of the two-page review.

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