Who owns antiquity?

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In the art world today, the question of whether antiquities should be returned to their country of origin is both controversial and crucial, because museums in Europe and America own many disputed items in its collections. The most glaring example is the British museum, where the refusal to return the Elgin Marble to Greece has brought the issue to international attention. In response to the problem, James Cuno in Who Owns Antiquity? argued that although antiquities should be protected from looting, they should not have to be kept in the counties in which they were found. This is because the basis of the retention laws is political, and that antiquity is international heritage. I agree with Cuno’s general principle that no country could be the sole inheritors of a particular civilisation, because art is a result of symbiosis from different cultures and therefore must be shared. Even Classical art, long presumed to be archetypically western, grew from and influenced art in the eastern world. However the question of who owns antiquity is specific as well as broad. We should return artefacts which were obviously stolen, but it has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Antiquity does not belong to any individual, nation, or group of nations because ancient cultural relics should be common property of humankind. The nationalist retention laws which often prevent any export of antiquities beyond the borders of the countries of origin are in place for political reasons according to Cuno, and so do not have any moral basis. Firstly, the exclusive link which modern states often claim with past cultures is almost always weak. For example, Turkey’s claim of sovereignty over all artefacts found in the territory of the former Ottoman Empire is unsound because it is hard for us to link the people of modern Turkey with either the culture of the ancient Greeks, or the customs and doctrines of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Even though these past cultures once dominated the core of the old Ottoman Empire. And China is only so concerned with the return of artefacts, such as those from the Mogao caves, because she is trying to reassert herself after being humiliated by Europeans, whom which reduced the country to a semi-colonial status in the late 19th and early 20th century. China must be motivated by politics because her claims are hypocritical. While China is trying to get the U.S. to return Chinese art imported under dubious means, she is doing nothing to prevent the trade of art without provenance in her own boundaries. And volume of the potentially illicit trade is much greater too, because many pieces were looted in periods of political instability. In 2005 a total of US $1.2 billion worth of art was auctioned in China, which is 25 times higher than Christies and Sotheby’s combined sale of Chinese art in the same year1. In this context, we can see that the nationalist retention laws many countries have are not in place to protect art, but to politicize it. So we should try to lift the retention laws that are in place, because the politicization of art is dangerous as it leads to the politicization of culture. The history of the study of classical art proves this. Artefacts from antiquity should be international heritage because when we give one or a group of countries exclusive access to antiquity, we will distort the picture. Today most people wrongly view classical culture as a quintessentially Western phenomenon, because the study of classical art was dominated by Europeans. The earliest professional antiquarians were from renaissance Italy, and their motive was political. As J.S. Slotkin argued, they studied classical art “to discover a glorious past for the city states and thus give them ideological reinforcement”2. This skewed picture of classical art was continued by the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whom used Roman copies of classical works he saw in Italy as the basis for his 1764 book History of...
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