The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman | Times. 414 pp. $30
A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land
By Nina Burleigh | Smithsonian/Collins. 271 pp. $27.50
Early this year, officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art trussed up one of the prizes of its collection, an ancient vase known as the Euphronios krater, and sent it back to Italy. Italian authorities had presented evidence that the piece had been looted from a tomb near Rome less than a year before the Met paid $1 million for it in 1972. Faced with the prospect of a lawsuit and a ban on receiving any future loans from Italian museums, the Met, writes former Washington Post and New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman, "stalled, stonewalled, and would not be swayed -- until it was forced to do so."
Seeing great institutions humbled like this might give satisfaction to some, but what is served by such returns of art? If they're meant as a statement against looting, how does shifting a pot from New York to Rome advance that interest? These are the underlying questions of Waxman's absorbing and well-researched Loot. Although her views are often unnervingly one-sided (her sympathies lean toward letting museums keep their contested holdings), she gives all actors in this bitterly antagonistic drama a hearing and writes with flair and an earnest sense of inquiry.
Waxman recounts the story of Lord Elgin and his marbles and exposes lesser known but egregious cases of 19th-century pillage, such as the removal of three heads from a mural depicting the life of Egyptian pharaoh Amenophis III. Someone simply cut them from an out-of-the-way tomb in the Valley of the Kings; blank squares now indicate where the pharaoh's visages once appeared. "It is shocking. Imagine the Mona Lisa's face cut out of her canvas with a kitchen knife," writes Waxman, who was led to the scene by a guide with a flashlight. The faces are now in the Louvre, labeled simply, "From the tomb of Amenophis III" with no explanation of their pillaged past. Waxman wants the Louvre and other museums to be more upfront with the public about the unethical or illegal origin of their treasures, even if they don't return them.
Pillaged artifacts become part of the landscape in their adopted country, and not always in a good way. She offers an engrossing history of the removal of ancient Egyptian obelisks to cities all over Europe, where they were erected as imperial trophies in traffic circles and plazas, including St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Waxman's argument that "Western museums remain essential custodians of the past" wears thin when she conflates imperial looting of the Elgin variety with the modern phenomenon of commercial grave-robbing. They both involve antiquities, but, I found myself asking, what do they have in common? The former usually followed conquest and was seen as a matter of national aggrandizement for European powers (think of Napoleon stuffing the Louvre with Italian booty), while the latter has a straightforward profit motive and occurs in violation of well-established national and international laws that did not exist before the modern era. One can be excused, or at least explained in its historical context; the other is obliterating ancient sites right now and implicates all of us.
Some big collecting museums still keep the door open to acquiring pillaged goods. The Met, as Waxman points out, "remains one of the few major museums that continues to collect antiquities that lack a clear provenance." Other institutions, including the British Museum and even the Getty, whose journey from chop shop of looted artifacts to chastised good citizen is well-told by Waxman, have stopped acquiring antiquities that lack a documented chain of ownership because that usually means they are plundered from ancient sites.
Waxman also neglects to point out that the wanton trade in undocumented antiquities encourages forgery. Since there is no record of where and when looted artifacts are found, museums and the public can be duped by fakes. This is the subject of Unholy Business, Nina Burleigh's bracing account of the case of the James Ossuary, an ancient limestone box that turned up in Jerusalem in 2002 with an inscription reading "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." It caused a global sensation and was exhibited in the Royal Ontario Museum before Israeli authorities revealed that it was a hoax. The box was real -- prominent Jews in the time of Jesus often preserved family bones in such containers -- but the inscription was a modern forgery, probably created in the same rooftop workshop in Tel Aviv that produced another momentarily famous relic now almost universally believed to be a fake: the Jehoash Tablet, which supposedly attested to the existence of the First Temple of Jerusalem.
The ossuary shook the world because it would have offered the first material evidence of Jesus Christ. It posed a theological quandary for Catholics, who believe Mary was a lifelong virgin and that she could not, therefore, have borne Jesus any siblings. Some evangelicals were almost poignantly willing to believe in any artifact, no matter how suspect, that seemed to offer literal corroboration of the Bible. Burleigh skillfully navigates the theological dilemmas that attended the "discovery" of the ossuary and the forensic evidence that finally sank it. She leads readers through the murky world of Holy Land relic-looting, forgery and smuggling and delves deep into the mix of vanity and delusion that leads people to buy fakes. One collector, upon learning he had bought an expensive forgery, insisted to her that "I do have what they call a nose, a feel, whatever it is. . . . An object actually vibrates to me sometimes." As the Met found out with its krater, a beautiful object can betray even the most sensitive nose. ·
Roger Atwood, author of "Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World," is working on a biography of the poet Roque Dalton.