Loot by Sharon Waxman


In short, the best archae­o­pol­it­ics book I’ve read since Edward Fox’s Sacred Geography. I was kindly sent a review copy by the pub­lish­ers and I have a feel­ing that they were hop­ing for a bit more than that, so I’ll add a bit more.

It’s sub­titled “The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” The ancient world here is pretty much Greece, Rome and Egypt, which means she doesn’t have a lot to say about the strip­ping of sites in Africa, the Americas or Asia. To some extent that’s a bit of a shame, but by focus­sing tightly on a few examples Waxman is able to go into the details of how the mar­ket for illi­cit antiquit­ies works. You have to keep a close eye on what’s hap­pen­ing as I get the impres­sion that one of the inspir­a­tions for the antiquit­ies trade was the three-card trick. The book is four parts. She opens by look­ing at Egypt and the atti­tude of the Louvre.

Hall of Hathor, Denderah. Photo (cc) Argenberg.

I ima­gine it could be quite dif­fi­cult to write a bal­anced account of any­thing where Zahi Hawass is involved. It’d be quite easy to get car­ried away with hype of how he’s revolu­tion­ising Egypt’s atti­tude to its ancient past. The man clearly has a mis­sion­ary zeal for his cause. Alternatively you could be turned off by what is very def­in­itely a craf­ted image cre­ated for media con­sump­tion, turn­ing a man into a myth. She does a very good job of bypassing this prob­lem by get­ting to talk with some of the other people work­ing with Hawass. A lot of it is grim read­ing as she explores what west­ern­ers, includ­ing Henry Salt, have done in their quest to take back arte­facts from Egypt. I’ve wanted to visit Denderah, which had an ancient zodiac in the ceil­ing of a chapel in the temple of Hathor. It’s not there now, but I thought the place might still be inter­est­ing. It is, but as an example of nine­teenth cen­tury van­dal­ism. Waxman’s descrip­tion of Egypt is one of a place which bears the scars of west­ern nation­al­ism. She says the rest of the temple is very good though.

This nation­al­ism is intro­duced in the inter­views with cur­at­ors at the Louvre. You might think that many of the arte­facts in the gal­ler­ies are Egyptian, Roman or Greek. They may be, but they’re also French. The Denderah zodiac could not be returned to the Egyptians by the Louvre, even if they wanted to. It’s leg­ally impossible, if I under­stand cor­rectly, because It’s part of French pat­ri­mony and can­not be given away. I sup­pose it could be moved by the Egyptians if they had a very small and loc­al­ised inva­sion, but that would prob­ably cause its own dip­lo­matic prob­lems. Waxman brings out an issue Holtorf has been talk­ing about with mega­lithic sites. The zodiac, and other ancient arte­facts don’t exist in an ideal­ised period, like the 1st cen­tury BC or whatever, they take on new mean­ings. In the case of the zodiac it holds a place in the fledgling sci­ence of Egyptology in France with its con­nec­tion to the Napoleonic era. Waxman doesn’t say if that legit­im­ises the hold­ing of it, but she does show that it com­plic­ates matters.

The Euphronios krater, another illi­cit antiquity pur­chased by the Met.
Image from Wikipedia.

Sometimes it’s in the interests of a museum to com­plic­ate mat­ters. The second part of the book pairs the Metropolitan Museum, New York with Turkey in par­tic­u­lar look­ing at the case of the Lydian hoard. This looks at the prob­lem of the mod­ern antiquit­ies trade and what how proven­ance can mean ‘I got it from a bloke down the pub’, provided the pub is suf­fi­ciently swanky. It’s helped by inter­views with people like Thomas Hoving who admit to know­ingly buy­ing illi­cit mater­ial for the Met. The inter­views don’t give the impres­sion of hav­ing an axe to grind so you can make up your own mind as to whether or not de Montebello is a sim­ilar swanker.

While the Met is sleazy, the Turkish side of the story is far more inter­est­ing. Having repat­ri­ated the Lydian hoard, it seems that some of it has been stolen again. Waxman is also pretty blunt about the absence of vis­it­ors to the ancient arte­facts in Turkish museums. Despite dis­agree­ing with Waxman’s con­clu­sions I think this part is writ­ten very well, like the rest of the book, and it genu­inely help­ful in explain­ing what the con­cerns of the museums which have bought illi­cit mater­ial are. Waxman uses the Lydian Hoard as an example of arte­facts which are now much less vis­ible (or even not vis­ible at all in the case of one brooch). What is par­tic­u­larly impress­ive is the way she’s able to glide between the issues of access­ib­il­ity and secur­ity and the very per­sonal tales of people who’s lives have been changed by the smug­gling of the hoard without any sense of grind­ing gears. As far as writ­ing about the past goes, I think this sec­tion could be used as an example even for some of the more lit­er­ate archaeologists.

In con­trast the fol­low­ing sec­tion The British Museum and the Elgin Marbles is slightly less empath­atic. I think part of the prob­lem may be that battle line are so entrenched that it’s hard to get any­ong per­sonal out of people. Nevertheless she suc­ceeds in some places. She’s also one of the few people that makes a good case for the return of the marbles. Usually I think the marbles should be returned up until someone tries to con­vince me and the then it seems more that the arte­facts are being used to drive a polit­ical point. In this sec­tion she tackles that, and talks to Greeks who have a con­cern about the polit­ical aspects of the demands without los­ing sight of what uni­fic­a­tion of the marbles would mean.

A centaur about to kick a bloke in the marbles

Unfortunately it’s this sec­tion which also shows the lim­it­a­tions of the book. Waxman has con­cen­trated on four case stud­ies to keep the book fol­low­able. Yet in the case of the Elgin Marbles it’s tied into wider global issues. For instance the return of the marbles should mean the return of the Benin Bronzes. She men­tions the bronzes, includ­ing the fact that the museum sold off some of them in 2002, which shocked me, but to keep the focus, she doesn’t go into much depth about them. To some extent it would be hard to write a book which includes everyone’s favour­ite bit of out­rageous loot­ing and I can see why she’d choose the Elgin Marbles as the prob­lem with the British Museum rather than the Benin Bronzes.

The final sec­tion she calls ‘Rough Justice’ and it fol­lows the down­fall of Marion True who is on trial in Italy and con­trasts her treat­ment with that of the Getty Museum where she was formerly cur­ator. Her descrip­tion of the Getty is scath­ing. The found­a­tion is almost com­ical, John Paul Getty foun­ded the museum because he was feel­ing insec­ure about Randolph Hearst’s dis­plays of wealth. Except Getty was miserly, so he tried to cre­ate an osten­taious dis­play of wealth on the cheap. Amusement turns to con­cern when she describes him as so patho­lo­gic­ally miserly that he waited until kid­nap­pers cut off his grandson’s ear before pay­ing the ransom, and even then haggled them down in price. Any sym­pathy evap­or­ates when she tells of Getty visit to visit of Baron Louis de Rothschild’s man­sion in Vienna in 1938 when the Baron was being held by the Nazis. Getty was there to cast his eye over some fur­niture which he hoped would be going for sale at a knock-down price. The Getty Museum would seem to be a fair test­a­ment to the worth of the man.

Two griffins attack­ing a doe. At the Getty but not for much longer.
Photo (cc) Marshall Astor.

Waxman puts for­ward the argu­ment that True is being made a scape­goat for the Getty’s lack of eth­ics, which is true, and that this is unfair — which I struggle with. For a start for­eign justice is always rough justice, mainly because for­eign­ers have this habit of hav­ing their own laws which you don’t fully under­stand. This works both ways. In the UK many of us are baffled as to how bankers involved with a fin­an­cial swindle can be sent to the USA under ter­ror laws. Secondly scape­goat­ing is, for a cer­tain stratum of soci­ety, a fairly com­mon exper­i­ence of justice. Minor drug deal­ers are imprisoned for long lengths of time to hurt the activ­it­ies of the big play­ers, who aren’t the ones inside. It seems a com­mon law enforce­ment tac­tic that, if you can’t get the major crim­in­als, you make the ones you can catch pay. I don’t have a lot of sym­pathy with drug deal­ers, and sim­il­arly I don’t have a lot of sym­pathy with True. Perhaps if I met her and found out what a nice per­son she was my view might change. I’m also sure there are many ami­able drug deal­ers too, but I don’t see that as a basis for chan­ging the law. I also don’t ima­gine that many defend­ants in Italian courts have hugely rich museums bank­rolling their defence.

Again this is where I clearly take a dif­fer­ent view to Sharon Waxman, but non­ethe­less it’s a good write up of a com­plex case. While I may lack sym­pathy, I can see how True’s treat­ment might not encour­age other cur­at­ors to take a more co-operative approach with the vari­ous police forces of the world. So the ques­tion becomes again, rather like the drugs trade, do you want retri­bu­tion or is it more import­ant to tackle the problem?

There’s plenty to like about this book. It’s well-researched and well-written. It’s prag­matic rather than mor­al­ising and prob­ably a much bet­ter read because of that. The com­par­ison of the Louvre and British Museum with the Met and the Getty also helps move it from the prob­lems of per­son­al­it­ies to the prob­lems with the insti­ti­u­tions. Waxman makes a good case that the Louvre and British Museum are the trophy rooms of empires. While the cur­rent cur­at­ors would not con­done a sim­ilar approach, simply declar­ing past beha­viour as ‘the past’ isn’t a quick solu­tion. Indeed on mul­tiple occa­sions, Waxman shows that an unwill­ing­ness to account for how mater­ial ended up in cer­tain museums means inform­a­tion is being lost about an artefact’s his­tor­ical import­ance. For example the Rosetta Stone isn’t simply the means by which hiero­glyphs were trans­lated, it’s also a trophy cap­tured from the French.

Certainly there are miss­ing ele­ments, like the lack of invest­ig­a­tion of the devasa­tion of some sites in the Americas or Africa but even that might not be bad if it opens up the pro­spect of Loot 2, which is a book I would go out and buy. Loot is not just a good intro­duc­tion to the illi­cit antiquit­ies prob­lem, it’s also a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the debate upon what should be done about it.

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When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Kristen says:

    Have you read “The Medici Conspiracy” the 2006 book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini which cov­ers the same issue inde­pth for Italy?

    And can you tell me how they com­pare? Is it just that “Loot” is broader than “Medici?”

    Just curi­ous for your thoughts since you did such a nice detailed review of Loot. I’d already put it on my list after hear­ing an NPR inter­view with the author, but yours is the first review I’ve stumbled across.

  2. Alun says:

    Unfortunately no I haven’t read it yet. It’s per­petu­ally on my list of books to buy when I get the time to read them.