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Whats Yours is Ours

Published on Gapers Block, May 29, 2008

Art Institute Director James Cuno has been in the news quite a bit recently in anticipation of the publication of his book “Who Owns Antiquity?” Cuno advances the somewhat controversial position that no one does and he favors the loosening of laws designed to prevent looting in order to facilitate global partage of antiquities. This all sounds fair enough until one considers that historically “partage” has meant removing these objects from their historical context and the cultures that produced them and transplanting them to Western museums.

With this book, Cuno isn’t really saying anything that hasn’t been said before. The debate about the proprietorship of objects stolen in war or purchased for less than their value from developing countries has been going on for centuries (see: the Elgin Marbles). He is essentially just collecting and advancing the various arguments that museum directors, private dealers, and collectors have long been making in support of decreasing regulations on the movement of antiquities.

Some of these arguments have intriguing geopolitical implications (should dictators like Saddam Hussein be allowed to exploit antiquities for their own political benefit?) while some are less persuasive (if one of the goals of partage is exposing the greatest number of people to the artifacts, then shouldn’t we be sending them to China and India? asks one of his opponents in this article).

In any case, Cuno isn’t the only member of the Chicago arts community to hold a strong opinion on the matter. As discussed previously on A/C, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has been very active in the international discussion. Additionally Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul College of Law, is an advisor for the State Department body that helps the President make decisions about cultural heritage policy.

The Sun-Times has covered the book here and also has a somewhat insightful interview with Cuno here. If you’d like to read about the softer side of the man who just wishes we could all learn to share our priceless ancient treasures, see the recent New York Times profile that focuses on his previous professional accomplishments.