Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Loot by Sharon Waxman - The battle over the stolen treasures of the ancient world

Looters keepers, Losers weepers?

When we look with amazement and wonder at the antiques in the Louvre, British Museum, Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, we seldom ponder on how they were collected and the stories behind the acquisitions of those pieces. Now in this detailed book ‘Loot’ , Sharon Waxman tells us the fight (both legal and political) that is going on between the countries like Egypt, Italy, Greece and Turkey from where many of the antiquities came from, and the museums where they currently reside. We get a glimpse of the life behind the museum’s staid facade, the trade in stolen antiquities and how the museums are now being forced to give back many prized pieces to the countries they were stolen from.

However, the book is not a one sided version - it also explains the great value being provided to society by these museums, not only in educating the public, protecting the antiques from destruction and vandalism, but also in research, excavations and studies that have given so much insight into many old civilizations and cultures. But times are changing and old colonies are now independent democracies who feel the need to demand back what was ‘stolen’ or removed from their temples, tombs and other archaeological sites over the last few hundred years. The challenges undergone by the four museums that I have mentioned above are covered in full detail.

Some of the important disputed antiques whose ‘stories' are covered in this book are ‘The Rosetta Stone’, ‘The bust of Nefertiti’, ‘Zodiac ceiling of Danderah’, ‘Sculpture of Ankhaf’ from Egypt, ‘The Lydian Hoard’ from Turkey, ‘The Euphronios Krater’, ‘The Elgin Marbles, from Greece, ‘The Victorious Youth’, ‘Statue of Aphrodite’, from Italy as well as many others.

The museums that seem to have been affected most seriously are the Getty museum and the Metropolitan Art, who have been forced to return many valuable antiques to the country of origin. The Louvre and the British Museum seem to be holding out better, though it remains to be seen how long they can withstand the pressure.

With a good mix of the stories behind many of the prized antiques as well as the important players in this drama such as the museum curators, collectors, dealers and the politicians, the book provides a lively narration of a subject which typically does not get much coverage. However the drawback of the book is that the narrative is often too long, points keep getting repeated and the author seems to lose focus at many places.

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