ANTIQUITIES: What Everyone Needs To Know

Maxwell L. Anderson

OUP (2017) p/b 250pp £10.99 (ISBN 9780190614935)

Invited to publish this guide to the antiquities’ business in Oxford’s ‘What Everyone Needs To Know’ series, A. has responded with a three-part volume covering I ‘Legal and practical realities’, II ‘Settled law and open questions’ and III ‘Scenarios and solutions’. Each of these three parts is divided into a series of headings (seventeen in total) covering a number of sub-headings; and these sub-headings are posed as questions. So, for example, heading number 14 (in part III) is ‘Retention, restitution and repatriation’ and its sub-headings are ‘What do these terms mean?’, ‘Which term is best suited to address the Parthenon marbles?’, ‘Are antiquities better off staying put or circulating?’, ‘How have recent upheavals in the developing world affected the rationale for state ownership?’, ‘What is “safe harbour” for ancient objects?’, and so on.

A., who has spent nearly thirty years working in museums in the USA, agrees that his book cannot be the last word on this knotty subject, but hopes that it will make readers better informed. In this he is wholly successful. He exudes expertise, writes with admirable clarity, and succinctly answers the series of questions that he has set. There is a full bibliography (much of it from authoritative websites, e.g. law reports, Christie’s, the Metropolitan Art Museum as well as newspaper and magazine reports) and index.

To give a brief taste of A.’s method and observations:

What is the cosmopolitan argument?
… There are three assumptions informing the cosmopolitan opposition to restraints on collecting: 1) antiquities have an intrinsic value as ciphers of world history outweighing their value in the archaeological record; 2) antiquities cannot reasonably be claimed by countries that have no role or responsibility in their ancient manufacture; and 3) instead of seeking to restitute antiquities that have left their source countries under various circumstances, these countries should turn over new finds to an international body to facilitate their circulation … [A. now looks in detail at this proposition and concludes] … The heart of the problem with the cosmopolitan argument is thus twofold: it is both impractical and unreasonable. From its anachronistic endorsement of practices that are no longer feasible, like partage [sharing out antiquities between source nations and museum collections], to its abnegation of the right to national self—determination, the cosmopolitan argument offers no plausible prescription for what ails the field of antiquities.

What new technologies might safeguard antiquities from harm?
In chapter 12 we touched on the potential value of invisible marking of artifacts through microdots, sealants, or other materials that allow for recognition by handheld devices of one kind or another. Another solution is currently being explored at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It is a technology with its oldest known roots recorded as early as AD 210, when hunters would bury hares to train their dogs to track scents. Auburn faculty are exploring the possibility of marking individual antiquities or entire archaeological sites with scents that could be recognized by dogs, thereby improving the chance of interdicting stolen antiquities that are spirited away in shipping containers or hidden among shipments of other goods.

Are antiquities better off staying put or circulating?
The three words relating to the possession of antiquities represent the spectrum of opinion about ownership claims. Collectors and dealers may invoke ‘retention’ to signify what they perceive to be an unreasonable aversion to allowing works to circulate in an open market. Nationalists invoke ‘repatriation’ to signify that antiquities belong where they began. And in the middle are those who use ‘restitution’ to signify the return, voluntary or not, of examples of cultural heritage to their nation of modern discovery. Those espousing the two extreme views see little room for compromise … But as far as the objects themselves imputed in property disputes are concerned, what matters most is careful handling, a stable climate, and a secure setting … the case for possession has less to do with what is best for the material remains of our past, and more to do with personal and political aims.

For once, the glowing puffs that adorn the back cover of the book are well deserved. Anyone with an interest in this topic should have a copy.


Peter Jones



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