For the past two centuries, the treasures of the ancient world have been shamelessly plundered. One of the most graphic examples involves the tomb of Amenophis III in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Looters in the 19th century hacked the head out of the pharaoh in three murals. Those fragments are now on display in the Louvre, leaving behind the original mural, which is permanently defaced.
Other ancient treasures also were looted and are now scattered throughout the world. The Elgin marbles originally crafted for the Acropolis are in London, dozens of Etruscan masterworks now reside in American collections, and there are now almost as many mummies in France as in Egypt.
Sharon Waxman, a former culture correspondent for The New York Times, has written a remarkable book that reveals in chilling detail how many of these priceless antiquities were taken and then transported outside their counties of origin. She raises the perplexing question of who should own the great art of the ancient world, a query that is making curators in major museums squirm.
Waxman says a new offense has been mounted by officials in “source countries” who are challenging major museums in court, prosecuting curators and demanding the return of art and artifacts that they claim, when taken, “denuded” their culture.
As representatives of countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy face down the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, there is a growing demand for restitution so that important pieces of history can be reclaimed. Although many believe that antiquities should remain in Western museums — where they can be cared for and protected from theft — the debate continues and is growing in ferocity.
Waxman has written a fair and balanced book about this global fight, and after reading it, you will never again view an antiquity in a museum in the same light.
© 2008 King Features Synd., Inc.