An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 284

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 29, 2024 - Issue 284
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The rather sobering news that a French tourist, a woman who visited Luxor and purchased a metal statuette at a souvenir shop, was arrested by customs agents while leaving the country for trying to illegally export a 4500 year old antiquity, doesn't surprise me at all. She was held in jail for eight days while the snafu was sorted out--the vendor was contacted and scientific tests were carried out on the piece because no one knew what they were looking at, despite the fact that the souvenir was part of a phalanx of similar objects for sale. This kind of situation raises all sorts of questions which could be answered if the Egyptian government wanted the answers, but I fear that it doesn't. Indeed, no countries that make money from the kind of tourism that Egypt has--numerous Asian and African countries for example, really want to discuss the artistic legacy of the past--they want to own it and not allow others to own it, but that is all. Why is this?

The first answer to this question is, of course, politics. Every leader wants to be seen as preserving the cultural integrity of their country and rightly so--up to a point. There are some hidden conundrums in this desire, the foremost being that some countries are better known through their art than just about anything else. Hence the desire by the U.S. State Department to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with other countries to limit the export of art so that the politicians of the country they have the MOU with can be seen as defending the interests of their country--which in turn allows whoever promoted the MOU to do business in that country--be it private enterprise or the US government. In other words, it is politics 101. And yet, without a doubt, European and American museums end up promoting those cultures with this art that they want to repatriate--the paradox readily apparent in that you get enthused by what you see in a museum in New York City, Paris, London or wherever and then travel to where you can find more of it. The tourism business works and those objects in museums around the world are simply small scale advertisements for visiting the source and learning more.

There are so many points to be made about the value of having a healthy art market of goods from around the world. Expertise, the desire to learn about, for example, Egyptian ancient history is not confined to Egyptians. (Indeed, today's Egyptians likely have a lot less in common with their so called ancestors than they do with any people of today.) There are people from around the world who are excited by Egypt's past and want to learn more. If they get seriously involved through study and handling objects by having access to them, their intelligence and expertise can potentially offer yet another light on the past. It seems obvious to me that Egypt should cultivate collectors and academics around the world and put items either on the market or in museums across the globe that promote Egypt. The intensely nationalistic desire to hold all things Egyptian tightly to one's own museums is a political canard that does not serve the populace. As for the poor tourist who was arrested, she was told when finally getting out of jail, that she could never come back to Egypt. By the time her airplane landed back in France, however, she was greeted by the Egyptian ambassador and offered a two weeks vacation in Egypt, all expenses paid. Someone finally woke up to the absurdity of the situation, but it's clear to me that the Egyptian diplomatic corps has an uphill battle with its own bureaucrats and politicians. Kafka would understand the dilemma all too well.

My thanks to Kate Fitz Gibbon for alerting me to the story of the French tourist in her "Cultural Property Newsletter". If you are interested in the world of cultural property news and developments, it is a must read.