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DEBATE: WHO OWNS ANTIQUITY?

Stolen and Looted Art and Antiquities

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 7 SEPTEMBER 2008 - I appreciate that Dr. Kwame Opoku has joined the debate on the position taken by James Cuno, the president and director of the Chicago Institute of Art, in his book Who Owns Antiquity? I note that Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, similarly exchanged views with Dr. Opoku, at www.afrikanet.info, in an earlier challenge made by Dr. Opoku to Mr. Cuno's position:

I went to our African galleries and found - as must our audience of some 4.5 million visitors a year - that Nigeria seemed to have produced no art before the…Benin period , well represented at the Metropolitan Museum. Why is that? Simply because the Metropolitan Museum does not own either a Nok or an Ife object. Their export and acquisition are strictly forbidden, therefore the Metropolitan Museum has refrained from their acquisition…

How this advances broad knowledge of the rich cultural history of Nigeria is a mystery to me.

This is part of an ongoing debate between Alan Behr and Dr. Kwame Opoku. Read the earlier articles in this debate: A Plea for Fair and Equal Treatment and A Humanist Plea for Free-Ranging Antiquities.

Dr. Opoku believes Western countries stole valuable cultural and art objects and should return them. Perspectives on what constitutes theft change with time. In the nineteenth century, when many of the most famous artifacts were taken, Americans thought that seizing hold of the midsection of North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was the nation's "manifest destiny." The men who drove that along didn't consider themselves thieves, but it was quite a land grab - one that puts in perspective the removal to Europe of a few shiploads of stone and pottery. To implement Dr. Opoku's argument, the British Museum should give the Elgin Marbles back to Greece and, working the logic from there, my mother in Florida should surrender her condo to the Seminole Tribe. But much time has passed; the British provided better care to the carytid that Lord Elgin allegedly nicked from the Erechtheion than the Greeks gave the five that remained, and the Seminoles opened a casino up the road from Mama Behr and are doing very well, thank you.

Dr. Opoku writes from Vienna, where the Kunsthistorisches Museum holds one of the world's greatest collection of antiquties. If Philippe de Montebello and his counterpart in Vienna were to take his admonitions seriously, art in Vienna would start with Gustav Klimt and art in New York would begin with George Washington Crossing the Delaware (which is at the Met).

No responsible person believes that anything truly stolen should not be returned, and museums are more famously the victims of theft than its beneficiaries. Any museum director who argues that the world's cultural heritage doesn't belong to a people but to the people of the world and that museums are its best caretakers makes an argument I can only support.

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual property law. His firm is involved in matters concerning international art repatriation.

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