Let me take a break from my head exploding and eyes popping out of my head to explain the jargony stuff:
- The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is the basic international law dealing with looted artifacts. Put simply, it says that before you can buy an artifact or work of art, you have to a) have evidence that it was legally exported from its country of origin, or b) was publicly known prior to the convention entering into force.
- ‘Partage’ refers to the old custom of divvying up antiquities found on excavation sites between the excavator and the host government – I get to pick one, you get to pick one, and so on. As soon as countries like Egypt or Turkey got out from under the thumb of the European powers, they got rid of this system and passed laws keeping all artifacts found in their country.
He relies on some familiar but weak arguments, like the notion that the 1970 UNESCO treaty has not eliminated looting, and that looting is inevitable. This is an old saw trotted out by people who want to make it easier to buy illicit antiquities. Laws, by themselves, don't do anything - the real conversation has to be about effective enforcement and harm reduction. The Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species has not stopped people killing tigers or rhinos – does that mean we should get rid of it, and go buy us some tiger skins? (For ‘research’, of course.)
Moving on to the downright offensive, Cuno argues that modern nation-states are not direct descendants of ancient peoples, so they don’t have any right to control artifacts of ancient cultures on their territory.
Talk about glass houses. For centuries, European and American collectors and museums plundered and stole everything they could get their hands on to build their collections – which is why the Parthenon Marbles are in London and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. These artifacts were acquired to feed the nationalist ambitions of European nations. For Europeans or Americans to turn around and complain about nationalism when it doesn’t suit their interests is – how to put it politely? – ironic. Cuno fantasizes about a return to the good old days when white guys in pith helmets and knee socks got to decide who should own the world's antiquities. Thankfully, those days are not coming back.
He closes with a whopper: partage is “the only reasonable way to protect the legacy of antiquities and promote a global understanding of what they represent”. Let’s be real here. Partage is a symbol of colonial domination. Egypt is likelier to invite the Israelis back into Sinai than to adopt this system again. But beyond that, it’s a bullshit argument. We can all think of a dozen successful exhibitions of antiquities that have toured the world to great acclaim, with support of the governments that own them. There is a new trend toward bi-lateral agreements that could make such loans easier and more frequent: the US and Italy just made a deal to allow more Italian art and artifacts to come to the US, in return for the a crackdown on the import of illicit antiquities. These are reasonable ways of promoting global understanding. Dispersing finds around the world to feed the ego of museum directors, not so much.
It’s annoying to hear vapid ideas from an intelligent man. But more frustrating than that is that comments like Cuno’s are a distraction from the real conversations we need to be having – archaeologists and collectors alike – about what to do about the looting issue. There is an ongoing demand for antiquities, while some countries have a huge surplus of artifacts that languish in warehouses for decades. A regulated, licit antiquities market could quell demand for looted artifacts while providing cash where it is needed for conservation. By the same token, the nation-state sometimes plays a negative role in cultural heritage issues. But what we need is a nuanced discussion in an atmosphere of respect, not the self-interested musings of a frustrated would-be collector.
In deense of Science News, they’ve also published a good article profiling recent research on looting by Morag Kersel, Christina Luke, and others. I should also give a nod to some fellow archaeology bloggers. Paul Barford has his own comments on the Cuno article and recent tightening of Egyptian laws. Derek Fincham notes the importance of openness and transparency in the antiquities trade, something which collectors avoid like plague-ridden vampires. Finally, David Gill points out that we need to look at ethics as well as expediency in our approach to the looting issue.