A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By repatriating disputed antiquities, museums will be able to bring even more of the ancient world to the public.
The restitution of antiquities to their countries of origin by museums has been much in the news recently. The government of Italy has claimed--and the Metropolitan Museum in New York is giving back--the famed Euphronios krater and a hoard of silver objects probably looted from Morgantina in Sicily; the Getty Museum in Malibu is returning "a number of very significant objects" to Italy and two ancient sculptures to Greece; and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts recently announced it will return several pieces to Italy. Greece is making additional claims on these same museums, and Egypt is demanding that the St. Louis Museum of Art return the 3,000-year-old mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, a noblewoman whose tomb at Saqqara was excavated in the 1950s.
What's going on? Are U.S. museums the only targets of countries requesting the return of artifacts, as claimed by the Met's director Philippe de Montebello in a speech to the National Press Club last April? In fact, claims for restitution of artifacts are being leveled at many museums outside the United States. For example, the Italians themselves recently returned to Ethiopia an obelisk looted from the ancient city of Axum by Mussolini, and of course Greece has been demanding that the British Museum return the Parthenon marbles for more than a century.
Does this mean that collections of major American and European museums are in danger of being depleted, depriving the public of the opportunity to view the great art of the past? Far from it. Most claims are for specific objects that can be shown pretty conclusively to have been looted or to have left their countries of origin illegally. Moreover, following the example of Italy's agreement with the Met, some restitution claims now come with offers of long-term loans of materials equivalent in beauty and significance to those being returned. Items on loan may be studied, displayed, and included in traveling exhibitions so that scholars, students, and the general public may appreciate them. It would be wonderful if this practice became the norm.
Returning artifacts can lead to a new climate of respect in which reciprocal long-term loans among many countries and museums would satisfy the public's desire to see and admire the art of the past, and museums could educate their audiences about antiquity around the world without resorting to shady purchases.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.