James Cuno Still Critical of Repatriation

The Getty Villa in Malibu
The Getty Villa in Malibu

James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, has authored a short essay revisiting his arguments against repatriation. Those familiar with his arguments will see many of the same kinds of arguments he has made in the past. Mainly he criticizes repatriation as an exercise in nationalism:

Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.

Though he acknowledges the looting and destruction that has taken place and this was the impetus for a number of returns from his current institution, he’s attempting it seems to hold a firm line against calls for repatriation which pre-date 1970. While he does obliquely criticize looting, he offers no other solution to the problem. How can we prevent site destruction and looting without national legislation and domestic initiatives (which he has called nationalistic)? That question is left largely unanswered. He does make calls for more Universal museums in nations of origin.

He ends with a call for exchange and cooperation:

For encyclopedic museums to fulfill their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist. And existing encyclopedic museums should aid in their development. Already, there are laudable examples of how great museums in wealthy countries can foster a more comprehensive kind of cosmopolitanism. The British Museum established a program in 2008 to promote partnerships with institutions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to loaning collections and exhibitions from British museums, it focused on training: in conservation, curating, and archiving. In all, some 29 countries were involved. The program was supported by the British government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. But after three years, the British government cut the program’s funding. The partnerships continue on a smaller scale supported by grant funding, including from the Getty Foundation.

This process of exchange and cooperation should build trust among museums and national authorities. It will be a long, slow process, but if successful, it would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism.

Cuno, James. “Culture WarForeign Affairs, December 2014.

More on ISIS and the illicit antiquities trade

This Chart from the Economist, from June, 2014 shows the growing influence of ISIS
This Chart from the Economist, from June, 2014 shows the areas under ISIS control

Three academics (Amr Al-Azm Salam al-Kuntar, and Brian I. Daniels) who have been training Syrian preservationists in Southern Turkey have some more anecdotal insights into how deep the connection between ISIS and the illicit antiquities trade is in an OpEd appearing in the International NY Times:

In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name for reasons of their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)

ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.

The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.

The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.

The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.

But how much exactly does this amount to? The answer is difficult to quantify. As Sam Hardy points out, the recent claim that ISIS has garnered $36m from antiquities looted in its territory is likely inaccurate:

I can only reiterate that it is (literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State is making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone).

Al-kuntar Amr Al-azm & Brian I. Daniels, ISIS’ Antiquities Sideline, N.Y. T., Sept. 2, 2014.