Repatriation, Claims to the Past and Compromise

Issues of repatriation have been much on my mind lately. For New World antiquities the National Park Service is finalizing regulations that would expand the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in fundamental and far-reaching ways; in the Old World the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, stated in an interview that Egypt owns the Rosetta Stone—at the same time that British Museum Director Neil Macgregor was considering loaning it for the opening of a new Egyptian museum specifically because Egypt has never questioned its ownership. And next year the notorious Euphronios krater will return to Italy; already the Metropolitan’s label has been changed to describe the calyx-krater as the property of the Italian government. Times and viewpoints are changing, but in many ways the legal and moral frames of reference are changing independently of one another, and the future direction of cultural property ethics remains unclear.

A couple of weeks ago I was part of an international conference on antiquities sponsored by Southern Methodist University’s McGuire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility and the SMU-in-Taos Program. A preliminary session was held in July in Taos, with a final public session in Dallas last month. Antiquities dealers, collectors, art historians, museums directors, archaeologists, lawyers and ethicists were all represented, and the conversations were direct and sometimes heated. At the Dallas session I presented a paper distinguishing between the related concepts of provenience, provenance and context, and suggested that the former two concepts were proxies for different ways of privileging claims to the past, both on the part of academic disciplines (by archaeology and art history respectively), and by putative claimants or owners of the past more generally.

Nowhere is this clearer than in current claims for repatriation and restitution. Provenance-based claims generally focus on legal ownership based on patrimony laws and the boundaries of nation-states. Italy’s claim to the Euphronios krater is an example; the claim is not founded on an ethnic identification with the vessel’s makers (Greeks, not Italians), or as restitution to descendant communities, but on the simple and compellingly argued fact that the krater was looted from an archaeological site in Italy, and smuggled out of the country in direct violation of Italian patrimony laws. Provenience-based claims are based on a very different argument, and are concerned less with the status of objects as antiquities and their movement than their status in antiquity, as objects having a direct and demonstrable relationship to particular communities or peoples. Native American claims to objects under NAGPRA are a case in point, and are based on the affiliation of a group with an object, in some instances based on lineal descent from that object’s makers. Based less on legal constructions of ownership or title (and to some degree premised on a rejection of Lockean notions of private property) than on the powerful moral argument that objects were wrongly alienated from their makers and custodians and should be restored to descendant communities, provenience-based claims place a priority on the social life of an object before it entered the ground, rather than on how and when it left.

Some current trends blur that distinction. New NAGPRA regulations focus less on returning objects to demonstrably affiliated or descendant groups than determining which group should receive objects when affiliation or descent is unclear; Hawass’ claims to at least some objects are now based on those objects’ inherent importance to the Egyptian people, creating a moral imperative that they be returned as the natural property “of the mother country” regardless of their technical legal status.

But while these trends blur the distinction, they do not erase the differing and sometimes contradictory logics on which claims are premised and decisions to repatriate judged. The resulting potential for conflict, for one logic effectively undermining the other, is real and may be growing. At least some claimants seem to recognize this; Italy has chosen not to support the claims of the Umbrian village of Monteleone di Spoleto for return of the Metropolitan’s celebrated bronze chariot. The village has called for return of the chariot as “part of its identity,” and stated that while the chariot was not necessarily exported illegally, it nevertheless “belongs to Italy and was taken out improperly.” In essence, the village is advancing a provenience or community-based claim for the object, and Italian officials recognize that this could undermine their continuing efforts to repatriate objects based on provenance-based claims and existing legal precedents. “This case actually jeopardizes other negotiations,” Italian official Maurizio Fiorilli is quoted as saying, noting that “the preconditions that have guided other negotiations don’t exist.”

The past has always been contested. Even the idea that we study the past is in some ways a fiction; instead we study those fragmentary remains or passages that come down to us from antiquity, making inferences about the past from what survives into the present. The past is always a construct, however real it may once have been, and how we construe and construct the past says as much about us today as about those people who lived and died in that utterly different and temporally foreign land. Deciding whose claims to that past (or to those pasts) to honor, and to what degree we can or should sustain claims to a common and shared human past, requires us to reconcile incommensurate systems of value and contradictory moral contexts.

One of these competing logics isn’t necessarily better than the other, and persuasive, rational arguments can be advanced for each. But in the long run they can’t be sustained simultaneously, and that means compromise. The only question is whether it will be an amicable compromise between differing viewpoints, or an already wounded past being compromised further.

MacGregor’s comments are posted on Lee Rosenbaum’s site; Zahi Hawass’ interview is posted in its entirety on YouTube. A New York Times story on the claim by Monteleone di Spoleto can be found here, and the proposed regulations extending NAGPRA are at the NAGPRA site (pdf).

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