Update Appended: February 21, 2008
Over the past few months, I made what you could call a farewell tour, except I wasn't the one going away. What I did was set out to bid goodbye to a few favorite works of art that would soon be departing the U.S. for good. First I headed to California and the Getty Villa in Malibu, a museum devoted to the ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. I wanted a long last look at its statue of a goddess from the 5th century B.C. Scholars are divided over just which goddess she represents, but whoever she is, at 7.5 ft. (2.3 m) tall, she's a formidable woman, one of the most powerful works in the Getty's rich collection.
Or she was. Two years ago, Francesco Rutelli, newly appointed as Italy's Culture Minister, embarked on a campaign to demand the return of dozens of objects held by U.S. museums, ancient works that he said had been looted from archaeological digs in his country and smuggled out. In the months that followed, one museum after another went through something like the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of accepting death. They bridled, they denied, they negotiated. Finally, they came to terms. In the case of the Getty, it agreed to return 39 objects in short order but got a temporary reprieve on the goddess until 2010.
Right after my visit to Malibu, I headed back to New York City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This time I was paying my last respects to the Euphronios krater, a magnificent painted Greek mixing vessel from the 6th century B.C. The Met bought it in 1972 for what was at the time the enormous sum of $1 million. But even as he was haggling over the price, Thomas Hoving, then the Met's director, suspected the jar had been looted from Italy. He even said so years later in his very cocky memoirs.
Late in 2005, the Met's current director, Philippe de Montebello, a much more saturnine character, duly began negotiations for the return of the krater and 20 other pieces from the Met's great collections. One week after I last saw it, the krater was in Rome, along with 68 other objects recovered from the Met, the Getty, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and other places, all on display as part of "Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces"--nostoi is Greek for "homecomings"--a victory-lap exhibition of repatriated treasures.
I'm betting now it will be a long time before a U.S. museum director buys another ancient treasure with a wink and a nod or anything less than a documented-ownership trail longer than an Old Testament genealogy and much more credible. But the givebacks of recent years are just part of an accelerating worldwide struggle over the past. It has complications brought to the table by archaeologists, who say any commercial market for antiquities is an incentive to looters who plunder archaeological sites. And then there's the ordinary museumgoer, who has a crucial stake--being able to see the widest spectrum of culture that humankind has produced. Among all these bristling claimants to the past, is it possible to strike a balance between protecting history and unfolding it, between safeguarding it and making it available for our own pleasure and instruction?
Don't think for a moment this is a problem just for a few museums in the U.S. Last fall Rutelli told TIME that he planned to turn next "to European institutions, starting with Denmark, as well as Japan and other parts of the world. And it goes for [Italy] too. We have returned hundreds of stolen archaeological artifacts from Pakistan, Iran and Iraq." In January he made his first successful claim against a private collector, Shelby White, a trustee of the Met, who agreed to give back 10 items from the collection she had formed with her late husband. And Italy is by no means the only nation making demands. Egypt wants the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Peru says Yale must return artifacts from the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. And China has asked the U.S. to ban the import of almost anything of aesthetic interest--scrolls, paintings, furniture--made from the prehistoric era to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
In this climate, the question of ownership of the past has taken on a real edge. "Source nations" like Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and China--homes to the world's ancient civilizations--think of antiquities as national property, essential to the construction of the modern nations' identity. Which in part they are. The problem is whether that idea can accommodate the no less plausible notion that the products of ancient civilizations are also the heritage of all humanity. Our encounter with Shang-dynasty bronzes, Central African carvings and Aztec-calendar stones is part of how we construct for ourselves a human identity that transcends mere nationality. To put it mildly, in a time of rising nationalism, that's an urgent project. Why shouldn't things produced by all civilizations be widely available, not just as traveling blockbusters but on a permanent basis, to impress on people everywhere the greatness of other cultures?
The Age of "Cultural Property"
Today it's the source nations that have the whip hand. Nearly all of them have so-called cultural-property laws that lay claim to any ancient objects found in the ground on their territory after a particular year--the cutoff year varies from one nation to the next--and make it a crime to export such material without a permit. A 1970 UNESCO convention has given those laws force in the courts of other nations, like the U.S., that have accepted it. Cultural-property claims by foreign nations are also enforceable in the U.S. under the ordinary law governing stolen property.
Unsurprisingly, having endured the Rutelli campaign, even museums that may have once played fast and loose have tightened their practices. But curators and museum directors complain that cultural-property laws prevent virtually anything from being exported lawfully, guaranteeing a continued black market even if museums don't take part in it. And they're exasperated by demands to return objects that entered their collections many years before the adoption of laws that bar their export. "We've acknowledged that some claims are reasonable," says Michael Brand, director of the Getty Museum. "But if you start claiming everything, it becomes impossible." The Met's De Montebello likes to ask whether Italy will return the bronze horses of San Marco, which arrived in Venice as war booty from Constantinople in 1204. "And at what point is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Lebanon?" he wonders. "In the 19th century, it was brought from there when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire. Where do you stop?"