Who Owns Antiquities?

Who Owns Antiquities? September 23, 2016

Maxwell Anderson’s forthcoming Antiquities surveys the world of antiquities, summarizing law, history of collection, the difference between the interests of archeologists and antiquities dealers, forgeries and their detection, the market in antiquities. Everything you’d want to know.

Anderson places the rise of interest in antiquities in the context of the emergence of national identity: “With the emergence of statehood came pride in ancestral origins, even if embroidered to the point of invented memories. Pride in the cultural heritage of a nation naturally yields a protective instinct, which is ultimately translated into proscriptions against the loss of or damage to that heritage.”

Nations lay claim to ancient heritage and deep, deep roots by laying claim to the artifacts of antiquity. Problem is, modern nations and ancient peoples don’t correspond geographically: “national boundaries rarely correspond precisely with the extent of artistic influences in antiquity. For much of ancient history, southern Italy was an extension of Greece, called Magna Graecia. Beginning in the 8th century BCE, colonies of Greek city-states were founded not only in what are modern-day Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily, but also as far afield as the Black Sea, North Africa, and the southern coast of France. The Greek heritage in each of the many modern states that overlay the relevant terrain is claimed, understandably, to be part and parcel of their national identity.”

Anderson illustrates with a brief sketch of the migration of Priam’s Treasures, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1837 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire:

Excavated in Hissarlik in northwestern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) by Heinrich Schliemann in 1837, the hoard of gold and copper works were carried off to Berlin, where they were mistakenly heralded as treasures of ancient Troy. During the Soviet Union’s invasion of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, the looted works, collectively identified as Priam’s Treasure, were seized and dispatched to Russia. Although rumored to be in Russian hands over the intervening decades, it was not until a 1996 exhibition at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum that the location of the hoard was confirmed. Relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Russian Federation have been strained to this day in no small part over disagreement about which nation should possess these works. Vladimir Putin’s rationale for retaining Priam’s Treasure is that it is reparation for German aggression against Russia. But Chancellor Angela Merkel notes that a treaty signed in 1990 obligates Russia to restitute the cultural property seized during the course of World War II. . . . Turkey’s potential claim to this hoard, which was excavated during Ottoman rule, almost a century prior to the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal in 1923. Over two decades ago, Patty Gerstenblith argued that Turkey had a solid claim to the hoard as the natural successor state to the Ottoman Empire; her opinion is highly relevant since she today chairs the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee.

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