In a notebook I wrote this past Friday, I summarized a few of today’s leading disputes involving the moral obligation of international museums to return artworks to their respected countries of origin. Exhibit A has Greece and England pitted over the famed Elgin Marbles. With exhibit B we have Italy and several major American museums going toe-to-toe over classical antiquities.

Angela Cesere
Andrew Sargus Klein

There’s a fair amount of legitimate counterpoints voiced by the countries who possess the coveted works: Many can, in fact, prove without a doubt that the works in question were acquired legally. Greece and Italy are left with “moral obligation” as their flagship argument.

And the public has, in part, responded. Some of the Parthenon’s past tourists who broke off tiny pieces as souvenirs (this, of course, was from when you could sit on the steps of the Athena-devoted shrine) have since started sending them back – a toe here, a piece of a frieze there. Such gestures are wonderful in their immediacy. The image of a magnificent, colossal jigsaw puzzle slowly assembled back together is impossible not to admire.

But as the director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which represents the most public dispute with Italy, pointed out, the artworks in question are in fact owned by the state of California, since the institution receives public funds. There is no legal channel for returning works in part owned by the public. The London Museum argues the universal need of top museums keeping their “one-stop culture hub” status.

But what of “moral obligation”? Taking the devil’s advocate’s side first, it seems that returning all artworks past and present to their “rightful” country would be a complete and irreconcilable mess of red tape, legal strife and bitterness. How long would the list of disputed works run?

If Greece and Italy succeed in reclaiming some of the scattered pieces of their respective heritages, how far would the precedent affect the art world? Indeed, compromises are being struck in several cases – this isn’t an “axis-of-evil” situation. But overall, to each his own, right? This or that museum was in the right place at the right time, and to the victors go the spoils. Plus, using the London Museum’s argument, international museums need to have as wide a collection as possible – that’s what makes them great.

Hold on a minute.

What’s the sappy, idealistic tantrum? Oh, yeah, art should transcend business and politics and other accoutrements of the modern art world. Now I remember.

And it’s true, by God. All legal hullabaloo aside, the countries holding tightly to their rightful claims should be more liberal with their lending policies. As I said, there are compromises being made. But the “moral obligation” touted by Greece and Italy shouldn’t stop at the national level. There should be an international obligation to the spreading of cultural wealth. Read reviews of any of the nearly innumerable international biennials and witness second-hand how important the convergence of cultures will always be. Anytime a Monet or Michelangelo or Hiroshige retrospective rolls through your hometown, it’s the most important arts event in the media.

We might have to resign ourselves to the grim reality our devil’s advocate described: It’s just not possible to right every wrong.

Be that as it may, it might not even matter. If the world’s leading museums raised their approach to lending to another level, one that realizes that everyone – not just those in “rightful” countries or who were lucky enough to be born in New York, London, Paris, etc. – is entitled to experience the timeless fruits our world has produced.

– Klein has yet to return his various caryatids to Greece. E-mail him at andresar@umich.edu.

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