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Stolen Art and International Relations

Stolen Art and International Relations
Posted by Hanna Lundqvist

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The looting of art and historical artifacts is often dismissed as a factor
in international relations. Having studied art history in college and now
working in foreign policy, I feel that when dealing with an issue portfolio
that includes nuclear proliferation, war, economic crises, and global
warming, the lower priority of art and culture is usually reasonable –
however, this does not mean that the problem of looting should be entirely
ignored, particularly because of the strong ties between art and national
pride. Stolen art is not merely of concern due to the loss of object
context for art historians and archeologists or cultural patrimony. Though
usually rightly on the back-burner, looted art is a legitimate and often
hot-tempered foreign policy issue.

Two recent stories highlight various problems of looting. Last week, the
Iraq National Museum, which suffered shockingly destructive looting in 2003,
partially re-opened with many, but not nearly all of its lost artifacts
returned. While many in the art community, myself included, celebrated the
re-opening of the museum as a positive step towards repairing the damage
done by the looting and celebrating Iraqi history, culture and stability,
the Economist has a disturbing piece on the politics of the re-opening that
deserves careful study. It alleges that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki pushed for the re-opening of the museum as a political ploy
against the objections of museum professionals, including former director
Donny George. Not only does this story have implications for the nature of
the Iraqi government, it also serves as a prominent example of the strong
relationship between art and national pride. I had the honor of hearing
Donny George, who fled to the United States in 2006 after threats to his
family, speak last year, and his impassioned plea for assistance in
repairing the damage done to the museum, and to combat the continuing
desecration of Iraq’s archeological sites was a parallel to many people’s
opposition to the Iraq war as a whole. For example, former Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the importance of the looting as it was
happening, while the U.S. officer in charge of a review of the looting
observed, adding an additional importance to the issue of stolen art:

“I know that millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities flow out of the
country each year. And it would be naïve to think the insurgents aren’t
getting a major share of the loot.”

While the most familiar stories of stolen art center around Nazi Germany,
Italy, the Elgin marbles, the Getty Museum’s Greek art, and the looting of
Iraq’s National Museum, the plunder of Chinese artifacts has recently come
into international light due to the sensational Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre
Bergé auction at Christie’s in Paris last week, which included two Chinese
bronze animal heads of disputed status. Like the Greek and Italian cases,
this story particularly emphasizes the ties between national pride and art.
China fiercely protested the sale of the bronzes, which it claims were
looted, and Mr. Bergé invoked Tibet as his reason for not returning the
statues. The narrative became more complicated today when a man claiming to
be the anonymous winning bidder on the statues said he would not pay the bid
in protest of the sale and out of patriotic duty. Though not as serious as
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama or the
United States’ human rights report, China’s outrage at the sale of these
types of artifacts forms a part of its relationship with the West and
deserves some degree of consideration.

If you’re interested in more information about the problems of looting and
why it’s worth caring about, take a look at SAFE: Saving Antiquities for
Everyone, an organization that works to raise awareness of stolen art and
the damage it does to our understanding of our cultural history.