Alexander Bevilacqua, a Princeton doctoral student, has an illuminating essay on the issue of national claims to cultural property on Forbes.com. Here he unpacks the issues surrounding the Chinese bronzes and Gandhi’s personal effects without taking sides or ignoring the self-serving interests of arguments on either side of the fence. It’s a refreshingly interesting read:
What often goes unsaid is that the UNESCO convention has no retroactive effect: Goods removed before 1970, like the bronze heads, remain outside its purview. Mankind’s long history of looting prestigious objects was thereby laid to rest.
As for Gandhi’s belongings, they were always in private hands and never looted, so India’s protestations simply express a desire to suspend the convention of private property.
China and India’s arguments may seem, then, like hollow nationalist rhetoric. They are certainly a disingenuous public relations coup, designed to provoke national sentiment.
Yet they are also based on a concept of national cultural property that is now universally recognized, though India and China’s application of the concept is much broader and looser than the relevant laws allow.
U.S. courts recognize that in countries like China, any item of cultural value unearthed is automatically owned by the state. The person to discover the object has no property claim on it. Such national property claims have been upheld in American courts when cultural goods were brought illicitly to these shores.
And as unreasonable as the recent claims of India and China may sound, they are not entirely different from those the Greek government makes on the Elgin marbles, held for two centuries now in the British Museum. Lord Elgin nabbed the Parthenon friezes when Athens was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Though the Acropolis is now a national icon for modern Greece, the country’s claim to the sculptures that once decorated its main temple has no legal force.
The nationalist specter of restitution that gets exhumed at each international controversy is just that, a ghost. In 1970, UNESCO said that bygones are bygones, and this is unlikely to change.
Yet in the U.S., many prominent curators and archaeologists disagree vehemently over current global policy. Capitalizing on the posturing of governments like the Indian and Chinese, leaders of the art world like James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago have recently argued that cultural property laws enacted the world over are narrowly nationalist in spirit and effect.
In their stead, Cuno proposes to alter the laws radically, allowing the free circulation of artworks and antiquities across all borders. He argues that items like Chinese bronzes and Indian memorabilia are the patrimony of mankind, not of any particular country, and therefore “a source of identity and esteem for all of us.”
Cuno has a point: The notion that Chinese bronzes should be enjoyed only in modern China must strike any dispassionate observer–or student of history–as ludicrous. Since antiquity, art objects have been traded across cultures and continents along routes such as the Silk Road.
National Treasures For Sale (Forbes.com)