WHO OWNS ANTIQUITY?
Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage
By James Curio
Princeton University Press
248 pp. | $24.95
In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired, for the then-astounding price of $1 million, an exceptional artifact of Greek vase painting dating from the sixth century B.C. Executed in black glaze on red clay, the Euphronios Krater's decoration depicts an episode from the Iliad in which the slain warrior Sarpedon, son of Zeus, is carried toward his homeland by the figures of Sleep and Death. Perhaps the most famous example of Attic red-figure painting known to the modern West, the vessel has offered millions of viewers a portal into the ancient world and a potent initiation into the mysteries of painting. Endlessly reproduced and carefully studied during its three decades on display in New York, the work has enlightened generations of Americans and visitors.
According to Italian authorities, however, the vase is stolen property. Two years ago, facing evidence that the object had been looted from an Etruscan archaeological site near Rome, the Metropolitan agreed to return it to Italy. In January of this year, Euphronios's masterpiece received a hero's welcome in Rome, where it was proudly displayed on the RAI television network and featured in an exhibition called "Nostoi"--homecoming.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno's latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work's archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum--one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
According to Cuno, the logic whereby so-called source nations claim ownership of artifacts extracted from their territories is faulty, for such valuable relics of our human history really belong to a...