Who Owns Antiquities?

On a recent trip to the British Museum, it occured to me:”Who owns all this?”

It’s a pretty complex question to be asking though. As I wandered past the Elgin Marbles, I overheard a couple of tourists discussing how Greece wanted the ancient relics back. Apparently hacking the marbles off the Parthenon and shipping them over to show in the British Museum doesn’t sit too well with our Greek friends. Go figure.

Should the museums of the world, packed full of “stolen” ancient treasures and permanently borrowed artefacts from around the globe start returning the wares back to the countries where they originate?

Archaeologists and Museums have often been at loggerheads over the matter. Archaeologists want to see national and international laws which will restrict, if not prevent, the international movement of antiquities. Some museums, surprisingly, are against any such legislation as it would result in their treasure chest suddenly becoming rather bare.

Unprovenanced antiquities is the hot potato – items whose whereabouts in modern times aren’t fully documented. The liberation of Iraq saw the National Museum, Baghdad looted in April, 2003 with tens of thousands of artefacts removed. International reaction condemned the looting, but the items stolen turned up around the world on the black market.

It’s somewhat a stark contrast to the days of Lord Elgin, who along with his crew of men, set about working on the Acropolis as per their permit with the Ottoman Rulers. Allegedly, an Ottoman firman allowed Elgin to remove some items and take them back to Britain. In removing the marbles and transporting them to England, Elgin may well have saved them from the sorry state that was the Parthenon in the early 1800s. And then the British Government paid Elgin for them to the tune of a cool 39,000.

So wait – essentially Elgin did what a FOXNews employee did in 2003, and bring back some antiquities with him in the hope of selling it on for a handsome profit. Except the employee got arrested at Customs – apparently that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to declare. Elgin, on the other hand, never had to deal with Heathrow Airport Customs.

That said, Elgin did lose his wife to his best friend, lost a chunk of his nose after a particularly bad infection and came close to bankruptcy after his wife took him to the cleaners in the divorce settlement.

But who really owns the antiquities? Can the museums really lay claim to something when the originating country wants them back?Or do ancient artefacts lose all ownership?Lets face it – it’s not as if anyone can directly lay a claim to say it belongs to them personally. So in fact, do antiquities belong to us all?

Simply put, it’s a huge grey area. The Elgin marbles have been the subject of debate for the past 200 years since they first came to British soil, and they’re still here! The argument with many such antiquities is that they’re better off in the museums of developed nations where they can be properly conserved. Which is fair enough. But then the counter argument comes that countries are being denied the rights to their own heritage. Which is another good point. And which is also why this whole thing seems to keep going around in circles.. again, and again, and again..

Frederick Schultz was a New York art dealer jailed for three years in 2002 for smuggling Egyptian antiquities into America on the pretence that they were cheap souvenirs. Having violated the United States law of the National Stolen Property Act, he attempted to plead that he was not guilty as the law stated it was illegal to import or subsequently come into the possession of items which were stolen property. And Egypt’s 1983 law on national patrimony did not share the definition of “stolen” as is commonplace within the United States.

And of course he lost. Mainly because he was citing a law which said all antiquities discovered in Egypt are property of the Egyptian State, and hence belong to the nation.It continues, detailing that any such artefacts that come into the possession of a person, or institution, without the permission of the state means you’re handling stolen goods, and breaking the law. So really, citing that was a bit silly.

But it brings about an interesting point – in particular with regards to the commercial value of such artefacts. Archaeologists will argue that the best way to stop this sort of trade is for everyone to just stop buying antiquities, and hence making them all worthless. Leave it to the archaeologists to sort out, and that then, the blackmarket trade will cease. Wishful thinking, methinks..

So who owns antiquities?The origin country who claims their national soul has been taken from them, and demand for it to be repatriated? The foreign museums who claim the countries of origin are unable to preserve the artefacts as well as they can?Is there any gain from moving a treasure from a museum where it will be seen by millions to a museum where it will be seen by a handful?

Needless to say, it’s a topic with no easy answer.

I find it remarkable that in this age where globalisation and modern technology is making the world smaller and smaller, and we’re all learning much more about one another, sharing information freely, the subject of antiquities hasn’t changed. Nations and museums still bicker and argue about who owns what, and mankind’s heritage is being restricted in the process.

So what is to be of it all?Well for a start, Heritage Key is cataloguing the world’s collection of historical antiquities and bringing it to life for anybody with a computer and an internet connection to enjoy.

For me, this is where the future for accessing antiquities will lie.