Our Heritage

Who owns our cultural heritage? Is it the person who created a particular work of art or the person who bought it? What if the artist is no longer alive? What if the piece is considered an essential part of the place it originated? Is it then owned by the nation? What if the piece is considered an essential part of human civilization? Does it then belong to all of us?

These are tricky questions. A year ago, the Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, avoided prosecution for antiquities trafficking by agreeing to surrender $70 million worth of artifacts and promising to stay out of the market permanently. For years he had collected precious items that had been looted from various countries, mostly in the Mediterranean basin, including Israel. He maintains that he didn’t know the antiquities had been stolen and that he had been deceived by disreputable dealers.

The US government then set about returning these pieces of cultural heritage to their rightful owners, the governments of the countries where they were found. In the case of Israel, this task was complicated by politics. The Palestinian Authority believes that items found in its territory should go to it, while Israel maintains that it has control over some parts of the West Bank and therefore it should take possession of those pieces found there.

A few weeks ago, the US repatriated a cosmetic spoon from Steinhardt’s collection to the Palestinian Authority. It is unclear whether more artifacts will go to the PA or Israel, but the challenge of finding the equitable custodian for our cultural heritage is significant. The Palestinians believe that 8,000-year-old stone masks from the collection, found near Jerusalem and displayed in the Israel Museum, should be returned to them. The masks were created by the founders of Western civilization and are the common heritage of both Palestinians and Israelis.

These kinds of battles rage on an even grander scale with the case of the Elgin Marbles, carved friezes from the Parthenon in Athens that have been in the British Museum for over 200 years. It was announced this week that British and Greek negotiators are nearing an agreement that would return at least some of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum. The details of the case are complex, but Greece argues that these priceless artifacts should be displayed in the context of the location where they were created. The British Museum argues that they are best integrated into an exhibit that shows their importance in the context of the development of world civilization.

The subtext of these arguments is not hard to see. The British Museum is only able to make the case for world heritage because its former empire stretched across the globe, allowing the institution to collect items from different cultures. Who designated the museum as the caretaker of human civilization? The answer, of course, is no one. The collection is the result of imperialism with all its attendant violence and exploitation.

The British Museum is so reluctant to return the Elgin Marbles because they know the claims will not end there. Other nations will demand repatriation of their items as well, and after a while the museum may find itself more closely aligned with its name – housing a collection of artifacts from the British Isles only. After all, the institution argues that the statues were acquired legally by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. Returning them would set a precedent that any nation can demand the return of its heritage, no matter how it was acquired.

But the case of the Elgin Marbles is not so simple. Many, including Lord Byron and others back in the early 19th century, believe that the British diplomat was at the very least unethical in cutting the friezes off the Parthenon and shipping them back to Britain. A case of Jewish-owned art from the 1930s demonstrates that even when a piece is bought legally, an injustice can occur. The family of a banker who was forced to sell a Van Gogh painting because of Nazi persecution is suing the current Japanese owner. The sale in 1934 may have been legal, but it was the result of the owner being crippled financially due to German antisemitic policy.

Imperialism moves in cycles. The ancient Greeks themselves established political and cultural domination of much of the world, no doubt acquiring the art of other peoples for themselves. Thousands of years later the British took Greek art from the Ottoman Empire which was ruling Athens at the time. Only a hundred years later, the Ottomans Turks brought important archeological finds like the Gezer Calendar, one of the most important early Hebrew inscriptions, back to Istanbul where it resides today. Will Israel demand that these precious artifacts be returned? Will the Palestinian Authority claim them as well? While these pieces belong to all of humanity, they have to live somewhere.


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