An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 251

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 11, 2023 - Issue 251

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The desire to repatriate goods to the countries of their origin is a subject that I like to return to from time to time. I suspect that, in time, most everything will be returned from places like the Louvre, the British Museum and the Met to their countries (I should actually refer to them as their areas of origin as they were not countries when the artworks were conceived) of origin. Smaller museums are likely to hold out longer, partly because they will be overlooked, but also because the coup of repatriating an item from a grand old institution is an arrow in the quiver for any curator trying to get things returned to their country. The Mediterranean basin is certainly one of the areas where pieces are being re-claimed--Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy all have claims out and I am sure there are a whole lot more from other governments that I know nothing about. West Africa is another hot spot as is most of Asia and Central America. What is driving this urge to repatriate things?

The foremost thing that encourages a country to ask for something back is political--the object matters, of course, and is often portrayed as essential to the cultural ethos of the country it came from. This can be true or not. Clearly, the Elgin marbles are in integral part of the history of democracy as represented by Athens and the Parthenon, but are they an essential part of Grecian history? Yes and no. If I were a Greek, I would want the marbles returned on a purely chauvinistic level as they were made in what we know of today as Greece. Digging further, would I want them put back onto the Parthenon? No, they would be destroyed by pollution and weather. Would I want them in the museum (which is superb, by the way) that has sprung up next to the Acropolis? Maybe, but does that enhance the understanding and appreciation of the marbles? I'm not so sure of that as the museum covers that angle already, and very well at that--more of the sculptures would not be more enlightening. But this example, along with a number of others, is among a group that I would call one-offs. Nefertiti in Berlin is another as is the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. There are many more. I believe that most will end up back in their countries of origin. It is just a matter of time.

The impetus behind every repatriation request is therefore something that needs examining. The irony, of course, is that the politics of today are so very antithetical to any time period pre World War II, let alone a country that existed in the areas known today as Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Italy, etc. thousands of years ago. Reverence for the past for most of us lies primarily in the artistic heritage of that past and for little else--the issue of slavery, for example, lurks behind almost every ancient artifact--a can of worms that no one wishes to open. Furthermore, Turkey for example, is largely a modern state that has little to do with the people that lived there two thousand years ago. The migration of cultures has been ongoing since the beginning of time and the cultural make up of an area today likely does not relate to the people in those places now. Is it wrong for them to want these items back? Not at all, and yet the question I have for any repatriation request is whether it actually means something to the contemporary culture within a country? (Cairo, for example, is in the middle of modernizing and in the process of destroying all sorts of ancient artwork--where's the outcry?) If it does, then repatriate by all means. If, on the other hand, it is a feint made by a politician or an ambitious curator, I would say let the item be. But this is why I think most of the one-offs will be returned--their symbolism is undeniable and the victory of repatriation, a coup.

My core belief does not align with what I believe to be inevitable. Years ago, I went to the archaeological museum in Istanbul and saw three porphyry caskets sitting outside in the rain. In my eyes, they qualify as major art objects if only for the porphyry (red, mined in Sinai) that they were made from. The museum is packed with extraordinary things so I guess there was not enough room to show the caskets (tombs) inside, but they were just lying higgledy-piggledy outside. In my mind, I thought that the museum could do some rather wonderful political move by offering a casket each to three museums around the world and in the process advertise the Istanbul museum and Turkey in the process. Indeed, the decorative art of this world and all the others that are clamoring for returned items could be mute ambassadors to encourage the world to understand the depth and breadth of human development. I see the current chauvinistic urge of repatriation as being little better than the spoils of war mind set prevalent in the 19th century. Where are right and wrong in this scenario? There really isn't a right or wrong--it is the symbolism alone that matters.