"It’s about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy."

So argues Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in describing the recent calls for repatriation of works of art.  He takes as examples the recent repatriation claims made by Egypt against Germany and France.  He makes two points that I’d like to draw out of the article.

First, he claims that globalization has intensified “cultural differences” between nations.  This allows nationalism to “exploit culture”.  He may be correct in some cases, but he fails to note that the frescoes returned by the Louvre had been purchased recently, with little history.  Given what we know about the antiquities trade, this means they were likely illegally exported or looted. 

Second, he argues these claims are often based on emotion.  That is certainly true in some cases, because after all works of art are often designed to convey emotion.  One example of this would be Scotland’s desire for the return of the Lewis Chessmen.  But not all of these claims are without merit.  Moreover, why is it that only claimant nations are “emotional”.  Are not museums and other groups “emotional” when they make arguments that works of art should stay where they are currently situated?  Kimmelman makes the argument that justice has shifted.  But I think that is a good thing.  We are closer to better justice for all nations, not merely the wealthier market nations via International treaties like the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and important decisions like the Schultz and Barakat decisions in the United States and the United Kingdom.   

Michael Kimmelman, When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns, The New York Times, October 24, 2009.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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