It was a turbulent year in cultural policy, marked in many ways by unrest in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. But even elsewhere, funding shortfalls, and austerity have put pressure on our cultural institutions, with too many deaccessions and museum closings to mention.
Egypt really was an important nation of origin in a number of ways. First, Zahi Hawass made a number of unfounded allegations with respect to the Central Park Obelisk in New York, in a high-profile call that was to seem terribly trivial only months later. And even before the unrest came news that the United States and the St. Louis Museum of art had each brought suit to assert that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was either rightfully possessed, or had been stolen from Egypt. Then of course we saw the demonstrations in Tahrir square and the fears of looting at sites, storehouses and the Cairo museum. And of course just a few days ago, the protests have escalated once again, and L’Institut d’Egypte was burned, and only a few of the manuscripts were salvaged. I’m not sure what solutions the law can offer to problems like this, when states radically shift. The opportunistic will take advantage of the uncertainty to destroy knowledge, steal objects, and attempt to sell whatever can be made portable. The Solution is continued vigilance of the market in these objects, and a renewed sense of urgency for transparency to ensure these precious objects aren’t trafficked and sold abroad.
In the Southwest the long string of sentencing hearings in the wake of the Four Corners Antiquities investigation continued, with partisans making repeated calls for stiffer sentences, despite serious questions about the force displayed by agents during the raids, and 3 suicides, including the death of the informant who would have been a key witness had any of the defendants chosen to go to trial rather than take lesser plea deals.
Yale and Peru finally finalized an agreement to send objects removed from Peru long ago by Hiram Bingham, and were able to conclude what both sides claim is a mutually beneficial deal. The Menil also announced it would return, as agreed, frescoes to Cyprus. Montrose will be without a very fine set of Byzantine Frescoes.
Italy was in the news a great deal as well, assisting in the protection of sites in conflict areas in the Middle East, receiving repatriated objects, most notably la dea di Aidone, even as calls for more returns were made.
The Smithsonian decided to postpone and later cancel an exhibition of objects from a looted underwater site in Indonesia, despite the fact that the site was excavated with an archaeologist present, and the site was published. Odyssey Marine also suffered a colossal setback in its efforts to salvage valuables from underwater archaeology sites.
Oh, and the Mona Lisa was stolen 100 years ago. In my brief forward to Noah Charney’s re-examination of the theft, I argued the World’s Most Famous Painting is almost certainly the Mona Lisa. Few would dispute its claim to the title, though many have personal favorites they would place higher (I certainly do). As such, the painting cannot help but be left open to claims that it may be overrated, perhaps even unworthy of its esteem. Nearly everyone knows when shown an image of the work that it is the Mona Lisa. Why then did this simple portrait of a smiling woman become so ubiquitous. Did its theft in 1911 help it reach these lofty heights? Would the world have come to appreciate its charms all on its own? The story of its theft is the story of an overrated painting that might have been better left stolen. But nevertheless it marks the beginning of the modern era of art theft, one of the first really high profile thefts.
Also, $150 million worth of art may have been thrown away, the thieves of the Musee d’Art Moderne were arrested however.
It’s been a turbulent year, hopefully next year we can just enjoy art, and there will be fewer thefts. Though I expect we might receive some bad news this week as museums and historic building reopen after the holidays.
Bonne Anée! and thanks as always for reading.