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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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