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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 14 AUGUST 2008 - There are few subjects in law more contentious than property rights, and when property stirs the emotions, there can be no end to the bickering. Divorce proceedings are notorious for that, as anyone knows who has ever battled a soon-to-be-ex-spouse to exhaustion over a sofa, clock or spaniel of no value or charm.

Nations can play that game too, and because they do it with antiquities, they are finding that the Zeitgeist is in their favor, reports James Cuno in his new book, Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton University Press, 256 pages). Cuno is the president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago - one of the encyclopedic art museums (to use Cuno's phrase) that are the quiet protagonists of his book. They are the museums that, like bees ranging over a broad field, pollinate the world with the art, history and culture of its constituent regions. The Elgin Marbles were carved in Athens and the Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt, but they are now displayed at the British Museum, in London. The Pergamon Altar was built by the Greeks, removed from what is now Turkey and is on view in Berlin. I used to be able to take a ten-minute walk to The Metropolitan Museum to see the Euphronios krater , one of the finest surviving bowls of classical Greece, but I can't do that anymore because it was packed off - not to Greece, but to Italy.

Fair enough: Italian courts concluded that the krater had been looted fairly recently from an Etruscan tomb, and title indeed does not pass to stolen goods. The problem, argues Cuno, is a new round of what he calls "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws" that effectively prohibit the export from modern countries of anything of artistic or cultural importance found within their borders - regardless of whether those nations or their inhabitants have any affinity to the makers of the antiquities other than to have inhabited the same space at a different time. So we have Egypt - a country both Arab and Muslim - claiming national ownership of all antiquities from the age of the Pharaohs, and China claiming rights to works by ancient populations that weren't even Chinese, such as the Uighurs of the province of Xinjiang, who were a mix of Mongol and Indo-European peoples.

Cuno devotes much of his book to those laws and their consequences, and as a lawyer, I recognize his book for what it is: a legal brief. It is the particular vanity of lawyers to conclude that, whatever brief they read, they surely could have written it better, but I am willing to stretch outside my professional training to say that Cuno has done a fine job. As in many briefs, Cuno makes his key points more than once and perhaps too often, but they are points worth making: that all consequential culture becomes international, and all culture should therefore be shared with the world, not hoarded for reasons of skewed nationalism (or out of desire for tourism revenues) in the places where artifacts were made or just happened to have been dug up. Says the author,

Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws are not archaeological sites protection laws. They are retentionist cultural property laws, intent on keeping what they identify as national cultural property within the country for the nation, for the sake of affirming and strengthening claims on a national identity, on just what the nation is: a unique cultural identity identifiable by its forms and practices, coincident in reach with the extent of its current political borders, and that confirms a particular kind of identity on the people of the nation.

The most telling part of Cuno's thesis is his warning that the impulse to hoard antiquity is related to the perils of excessive nationalism. He documents the steadily tightening claims by Turkey on all antiquities, regardless of origin, found inside its borders, starting with an 1884 Ottoman decree, through the latest law, enacted almost a century later. In parallel, he tracks changes in demographics: in the first Turkish census, in 1924, just over a quarter of the population of what was soon to be renamed Istanbul was Greek; today, it is only a few thousand. Meanwhile, the country's Western-looking and internationalizing reforms are under threat by a new wave of demands for religious and national purity.

Concludes Cuno,

And all of the rough and tumble untidiness of the streets of Istanbul, once filled with Greeks, Jews, and Christians from throughout Europe is tidied up and left to Turks, overwhelmingly so, and mostly Sunni Muslim Turks at that. That's the nature of nation building. It subjects the past and the present to the rigors of identity control. And archaeology and national museums are used as a means of enforcing that control.

Although Cuno is too gracious to drill his argument through the next level-that the final stop on the line to nationalism is fascism and that the result of ethnic and religious purity is all too often persecution and worse-the implications cannot be ignored. Quoting Edward Said ("…there is no such thing as an isolated humanist."), Kwame Anthony Appiah ("Cultural purity is an oxymoron.") and Diderot (on being a citizen of "that great city, the world"), Cuno calls for an expansive view by which nations understand that all countries are built and maintained with foreign influences, and that the world's store of antiquities needs to be shared so that that process can continue. It is that enduring humanist message, more than the law and the politics recounted by Cuno, that makes his book compelling.

Who Owns Antiquity?
Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage
By James Cuno

Hardcover: 256 pages
Princeton University Press (April 2008)
ISBN-10: 0691137129
ISBN-13: 978-0691137124
$24. 95

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual property law. His firm is involved in matters concerning international art repatriation.

Calendar Tips: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Etruscan Princes: Between East and West
Through 29 August 2008
CaixaForum Palma
Palma de Mallorca, Spain


Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
Until 21 September 2008
Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

San Francisco

Power & Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty
Through 21 September 2008
Asian Art Museum
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New York

From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 B.C.
Until 13 September 2008
Onassis Cultural Center
New York, NY


The Greeks
Through 28 September 2008
The Canadian Museum of Civilization
Montreal, Quebec, Canada


Babylon: Myth and Truth
Through 5 October 2008
Berlin, Germany

Hong Kong

The Ancient Olympic Games
Until 24 November 2008
Hong Kong Heritage Museum
Hong Kong, China

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