Monday, October 26, 2009


Artefacts as political pawns
New York Times

This is a busy article looking mainly Egypt's claims for repatriation including, inevitably, the Nefertiti bust and it asks whether the failure of Hosni to secure the UNESCO position was directly responsible for Egypt's latest request for the return of Luxor frescoes from the Louvre. It touches on Iraq as well and looks at the the whole issue of repatriation and politics.
Laws are laws, of course, and looting can’t be tolerated, although when decades or centuries have passed, laws have changed, populations shifted, empires come and gone, legal arguments can be dubious. But the larger truth is that all patrimony arguments ultimately live or die in the morally murky realm of global relations, meaning that modern governments like Egypt’s and Iraq’s may win sympathy today by counting on Western guilt about colonialism when asking for the return of art from ancient sites within their current borders. At the same time there’s no international clamor for Russia to return storerooms of treasures it stole from Germany at the end of the war, or, for that matter, for Sweden to fork over the spoils of a war 350 years ago with Denmark. It’s about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy.

The vagaries of realpolitik, and a shifting sense of justice, determine these things. That’s not meant to sound cynical. Plenty of good arguments, legal, moral, intellectual, economic and artistic, support returning objects that came from Egypt back to Egypt, or from Greece back to Greece, or from Italy back to Italy. And plenty support the opposite: dispersing these artifacts around the world, where they can act as diplomats, benefiting not least the people who occupy the territories from which the art came.

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