What is Theft?

Imagine…your country has had it’s single greatest cultural treasure stolen. Now imagine two. Now many. How would you feel?

This National Geographic video features the illegal Antiquities trade from several perspectives. I found the different polls on each video a nice touch, the latest Rosetta poll to return items is 72% for 27% against. Videohttp://www.nationalgeographic.com/treasure-wars/index.html

During the interview with Patty Kim, Hanna Boulton spokeswoman of the British Museum, Boulton mannerisms and body language are interesting,

 “The Rosetta is important for all of humanity. It’s important for all of us to have access to, to seeing as object that’s as a…as significant as the Rosetta Stone. And I think that’s why we feel it’s important for it to be, to be based here… in the Museum.

then how it came into the collection of the British Museum about 200 years ago,

“…..when the British beat Napoleon, they um, took the material he had collected.”

Another illuminating response by Hanna Boulton after being asked what if Egypt invaded England, and scholars discovered Stone Hedge 2000 years ago and took it to Egypt, wouldn’t Britain demand their return? Her response,

 “…I think again we come back to this issue about ownership an um…..I think, the, the, the then Trustees, or the Trustees that ended up being setup to run the, the Egyptian museum if you like, would probably use the same argument that the Trustees, at the British Museum use here. Which is that actually, you know, uh, that there is a, a, a need, and there’s great benefit to have a, a museum of World Civilizations. Because you’re able to compare and contrast. There’s always new things you can learn. There’s always new connections that you can make.”

It has a mission as the Museum of all World Cultures? What about Egyptians right to compare and contrast? Learn new things? Make new connections? With their own historical records no less! Why does British Museum think it’s now the bearer of all of civilizations records?

The British Museum doesn’t lend out items to parties that don’t agree with it’s ownership of said item? Who gave it that title and power by the way? There is more than meets the eye and economic reasons such as tourism are certainly in the mix.

Gary Vekon, Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in the video says

“The English and the French have contributed to what the Rosetta Stone is….The Rosetta Stone didn’t come out out of the ground with a neon signs around it… it took work, it took knowledge, and I think that has to take translate to at least some sort of metaphysical ownership.”

I might add he appeared to be struggling to find a term,  and finally visibly shrugged with “metaphysical ownership”. What does that mean i wonder. Certainly the French cracked the code, they and the the British put so much resources into interpreting the stone. But does interpreting something entitle you to ownership? That’s preposterous. The creators are the owners. That’s why everyone is struggling to find a term to redefine ownership of Antiquities.

In the “Treasure Beneath My Home” segment is about Egyptian residents living on top of artifacts buried beneath their homes. I believe it’s Lisa Ling interviewing Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Archaeology Fellow, who explains the following,

“…there is a, whole set of artifacts that do so sort of get excavated in the dark, um by people who are just digging  in their own backyard. And…that’s terrible because, if you sell what you have, you lose your connection,  right? That artifact came from your land, people who had the land before you.” 

Why is stolen property, no matter how many times it’s re-sold, still returned to it’s right-full owner? Because it’s the law. Why should works of art and antiquities be different? In Canada stolen property is treated as one would expect, when it’s found to be stolen, the right-full owner is determined and the item is returned to them. Regardless of how many people went through the chain. If the right-full owner cannot be found then it goes to auction for government funds. I’m not a lawyer but I know this to occur in Alberta, Canada.

If someone just found an antiquity it won’t be in a database of stolen artifacts as one of the segments mentions. A fake history is created and the purchaser has done their due diligence in the eye of the law. This sounds much like a pawn shop. Whereby the pawn shop (gallery or dealer lets say) is purchasing items, they must report it to the police who search their records of stolen items. If it isn’t reported stolen, it’s a legitimate item for sale. With no dis-respect to pawn shops but I dislike the practice is it’s predatory in my humble opinion.

I want to believe the once art smuggler highlighted in the video, Michelle Van Ryn, who says “Art outlives us all.” I certainly know it will outlive the people around the world who willingly trade in illegal activities under the guise of respectability. The dream of Dr. Hawass to reclaim Egypt’s artifacts is important, they are OUR heritage.

I don’t think anyone is trying to limit any countries contribution to archaeology, but I contend that it’s harder to to define theft when you get to be the one defining it as you go along. If they dismantled the Great Giza Pyramid and put it in London would it make it any less Egypt’s?

It certainly would take away something would it not?

Copyright © 2008 Rabeeh Consulting Inc.

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