When it comes to art and antiquities, which is the rightful owner: the country in which it originated, the person who acquired it, or the museum that houses it? This debate has been long addressed and become quite controversial between governments, collectors and curators.
Art found within the country where it was created is rare nowadays as the worlds wealthiest museums accumulate as deep as their pockets will support. In the art world, it is common knowledge that if you want to view the famous Greek Parthenon, you do not travel to Greece but instead the British Museum in London. To truly appreciate the Egyptian antiquities, you book a trip to the Louvre in Paris not Cairo. Even viewing the space shuttle requires a visit to NYC when one never departed from there. The famous line directly from the shuttle was “Houston, we have a problem.” Indeed, we do.
Imagine traveling to Pompeii and after touring through the city you are not able to see the bodies curled into the exact position in which they died, forever embalmed choking on the volcanic ash. It would remove the eerie feeling Pompeii transcribes on the minds of its visitors. Machu Picchu does not provide the same effect. The traveler must journey all the way to the breathtaking top of the Andes Mountains in Peru. Then, they can walk through the incredible ancient site of Machu Picchu but cannot see any artifacts because all antiquities are now housed in a New York museum. What a giant let down.
The controversial argument about the rightful owners of art was in the news again this week when a Germany based magazine published a piece on how a billion dollars worth of art was found in a Munich apartment. The art world went crazy over the recovered art that was presumed destroyed. Supposedly, the Nazis looted the art but now rightful owners can attempt to claim it, despite German law stating claims could only be made until 1975. Graciously, they are permitting claims now even though they will not publicly show what art they have exactly. Should the people have rightful claim, the countries where it originated or the museum in Germany, the last country to house the art?
The rightful country or person who claims it can also be dubious to locate. A notable example is the Kooh-i-Noor diamond. Throughout history the diamond was housed under many empires and in many countries that today claim rights to it, including, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even the Taliban. Today, it is housed in Britain and fastened into the crown of Queen Elizabeth. The British maintain that since it has passed through so many countries already, they have just as much claim as any country.
Rumor holds that if the Greek antiquities were not removed and transported to Britain, the world would not know their existence today because they would be destroyed as a consequence of war. The war part is true, the Parthenon suffered from wars with the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks but it is the British who prevented it from ever being reassembled. Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century when the Ottomans controlled the area. He claimed the sultan gave him permission to remove anything from the Parthenon that did not affect the walls. After extracting the ancient marble sculptures the British Government purchased them in 1816. They are still housed at the British Museum to this day. The famous marbles are referred to as the Elgin Marbles, taking their name from the Lord that looted them.
Egypt suffers the most trying to recover its art and antiquities. Maybe because there is so much of it floating around in the world or because there are not a lot of Egyptians who care for their ancient art and history. The Museum in Cairo is a sad, sad place by art preservation standards. There is virtually no temperature control, lighting is almost nonexistent and furthermore, the pieces are amassed in a crammed, garage-like manner. Strolling through that museum conjures appreciation for the grandiose display of Egyptian art encountered in the Louvre.
While the world dreams of venturing to Egypt, discovering the Pharaohs, seeing the hieroglyphics and understanding the prominent ancient culture, it seems the Egyptians could care less about all that. While they do welcome the tourism, for them, all the art and antiquities immortalize their culture into a time when they believed in many gods, which is something shameful to predominately Muslim Egyptians today. Egypt is currently considered the educational center of Islam, a title they much prefer.
The Louvre is the worlds most visited museum, with 8 million visitors per year. What particular pieces draw the most attention there? Not the French art. Instead, long lines form around the Venus de Milo of Greece and the Mona Lisa of Italy. The third most visited attraction is the Egyptian collection. If the Louvre returned all the art to the rightful country, would it still be the most visited museum?
Whether a country, person or museum houses a piece of art, the main problem is that it is attained and moved by way of force, war, theft or money. None of which can entirely rightfully claim pieces forever. However, the mummy of Ramses I was returned finally to the Luxor Museum. Nobody could argue that it did not rightfully belong in Egypt.
By Cayce Manesiotis