Lauren Albert's Reviews > Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Loot by Sharon Waxman
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's review
Apr 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: art-history-and-criticism
Read from April 06 to 08, 2011

After reading this excellent overview of the the problem of ownership of historical artifacts, the problem seems less clear cut to me, more nuanced It raises a lot of questions that I had never thought of. Since I leaned towards the restitution argument, it was good to get a glimpse of both sides from a very good writer. For example, what does "cultural heritage" mean? Turkey is a perfect example--Waxman writes, "Who are the Turks' ancestors? To what and whom are they the heirs? Are they the descendants of the Lydians, Trojans, Hittites, and Mycenaeans? Of are they merely custodians of the remains of these ancient civilizations who happened to inhabit this piece of land before they did?" (141). Then, there is the problem of protecting the artifacts. This was brought vividly to light when Turkey won restitution of objects, the most important of which was then stolen not long after, and most probably by the curator of the museum that held it. Should artifacts be taken from large, well-funded, much visited institutions--open to the public--and returned to countries with often poorly secured, poorly budgeted institutions many of which get few visitors? As Waxman says at one point, perhaps they should be returned, but not yet? Another question is whether the ownership of objects that were legally acquired in the past--but by means which we see as unethical today--should be judged by today's standards or the standards at the time of their acquisition.

While scathing about the past and present pillaging by self-entitled collectors and smugglers--Waxman shows that the arguments for restitution are not always so clear cut. But the first order of business is honesty--she makes that clear. She criticizes American and European institutions for failing to reveal to the public the source of the artifacts they own and display. Doing so would be the first step in honest public debate about ownership.
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