Saturday, September 05, 2015

Protecting antiquities by distributing them: Why Cuno has the right idea but the wrong application

A very disappointing interview with Scott Simon in which James Cuno continues pushing the argument he made in the New York Times more recently to the effect that "portable works of art" from areas under threat by ISIS "should be distributed throughout the world" because "ISIS will destroy everything in its path." Simon obviously understood going into the interview that there was something very wrong with this argument, since in the middle of the interview he expresses puzzlement about how changing the law to keep artifacts brought to the States from going back to Syria and Iraq would do anything to stop something like the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel, at which point Cuno admits that "it's completely different" from portable antiquities. In other words, yes, I've been using a classic bait-and-switch tactic. Immoveable antiquities and portable antiquities are two different things.
Simon should have stopped Cuno there and asked him why he was then using the destruction of one as a reason for protecting the other. The answer, though Cuno would not admit this, is to avoid dealing with the very uncomfortable truth that ISIS' view of how portable antiquities should be treated is close to his own. No state has ever been more willing to distribute its portable antiquities throughout the world than ISIS, which licenses digging and runs its own export operation. Sure, those digs destroy thousands of archaeological sites, but on the bright side, I'm sure there are many museum-worthy artifacts brought to light and distributed to the world in the process.
I am of course not, repeat not, suggesting that Cuno supports ISIS. And in fact, Cuno in the interview immediately goes on to say "we can address [the trafficking of coins or small statues] by policing those borders to try to prevent or inhibit the illegal trade of objects across borders." So he clearly does recognize that distributing ISIS-dug artifacts is a bad thing. Dealing with the problem, on the other hand, is just not something he wants to think about. Let the Turks and the Lebanese tighten up their borders, no problem. (Who's going to pay for that to happen? Don't ask.) Meanwhile, whatever gets over those borders and makes its way to us we should be grabbing and keeping.
It is surely a good thing for museums to assist each other in safeguarding antiquities they already hold and to make arrangements in advance to take or transfer holdings in worst-case scenarios. All museums, not just those in countries in crisis, also ought to be thinking of dividing and spreading out their own massive holdings to hedge the risks of attack by terrorists on a single building.  An attack on the Getty or the Met is not unthinkable. But museums also should recognize that distribution of artifacts through the market, rather than from museum to museum, destroys many more artifacts than it safeguards. 
The irony here is that if Cuno turned his considerable intellect towards the problem of inhibiting the illegal trade in artifacts, he would find that distributing antiquities in the proper way could not just safeguard those antiquities by spreading them round, but could also inhibit the illegal trade. How? Museums should pull antiquities off their basement storeroom shelves and offer to allow collectors to borrow --not buy -- them in exchange for contributing to efforts to help police the borders and prevent the illicit trade. The thirst of collectors for beautiful artifacts could be slaked, ISIS would be robbed of the profits they are now making, and the presently-overmatched antiquities police would have resources to really go after the traffickers.  If Cuno cares about inhibiting the illegal trade, this is a distributional solution he ought to be pushing. I'm sure it's because he hasn't thought this through yet, not because he wants collectors to bring him fresh artifacts more than he wants to keep ISIS from destroying sites and human beings.

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