Hugh Eakin has pulled the band-aid off the antiquities restitution issue in the opinion pages of the New York Times revealing that the pre-emptive return of some treasures from American museums has done little to clean up the antiquities trade but encouraged the governments of some nations to make ever more extravagant demands:
Since 2006, more than 100 statues, bronzes, vases, mosaics and other works have left public collections in the United States. Among them was the Euphronios krater, depicting a scene from the “Iliad,” which awed visitors to the Met for decades, and a rare limestone and marble statue of a Greek goddess, which the Getty purchased for $18 million in 1988.
In nearly every case, the museums have not been compelled by any legal ruling to give up the art, nor are they receiving compensation for doing so. And while a few of the returned works have been traced to particular sites or matched with other fragments residing in the claimant country, many of them have no known place of origin. […] But giving up objects has done little to halt the international trade in looted antiquities, while rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments and impoverishing Americans’ access to the ancient world. And while preserving good relations in some cases, these agreements have also spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats. […] Most troubling, the overriding focus on restitution has directed valuable museum resources toward disposing of works acquired long ago when the most urgent priority should be protecting threatened archaeological sites today.
“Has any of this affected the real evil, which is looting?” asks Stephen Urice, a cultural property lawyer at the University of Miami who has advised museums on restitution issues. “From what I see,” he adds, “it’s getting worse.”
The Great Giveback (NY Times)