The illicit trade of ancient art

The cover of Susan Waxman's book "Loot"

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal:
If by chance you know off the top of your head how many pyramids there are in Egypt, go ahead and add one to your total.
Egyptian archaeologists announced today they've uncovered what's left of a pyramid that's more than 4,000 years old. It's the 118th discovered so far.

If history's any guide, the tomb inside could well hold amazing treasures.
And to judge by that same history, those treasures could just as easily wind up in a museum somewhere in the West.
Ancient artifacts are bought and sold all over the world in legal and not so legal transactions every day.
In her new book "Loot," author Sharon Waxman tries to find the answer to the basic question of who owns those antiquities. Sharon, thanks for joining us.

Sharon Waxman: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: When did it become an issue about where these artifacts all came from?

Waxman: Well, I think that it started pretty much in the '70s, that you had developing countries starting to take consciousness of the fact that really important pieces from past civilizations that are beneath their soil were in Western museums and were being sold on the private art market as well. And they started to take action to get those pieces back. So, for example, to a lawsuit in the case of Turkey, which sued the Metropolitan Museum. It's the first time you had a foreign country actually suing a major cultural institution in this country, was a pretty landmark thing.

Ryssdal: Are there different eras in this entire discussion? If you got something 150 years ago and you have it in your museum, is it somehow more legitimate to keep it there than if you got it 10 years ago, when, in theory, everybody should know about this debate right?

Waxman: There is an international convention, passed by UNESCO, United Nations' cultural arm, accepted by most every country, including the United States, that places a cut-off date for the year 1970 for collecting, for buying antiquities with no provenance. And the more I've looked into the issue, the more I'm aware that this is an issue that has everything to do with all of the political conflict that's gone on for centuries around the globe. And the issue of how politicians use these artifacts to kind of beat their own chest and to make a point, is true across the globe.

Ryssdal: It's not just politicians right? I mean, you point out the guy who runs the antiquities department in Egypt, Zahi Hawass, and you spend a lot of time with him. And he goes out there and literally uses the press and uses his own personality to force this issue in a lot of ways.

Waxman: Yeah, I think Zahi Hawass today is probably the best known, living Egyptian there is. I even saw him one night being a clip on John Stewart on the Daily Show. I just said OK, Zahi is like everywhere.

Ryssdal: Have they gotten stuff back, have the Egyptians gotten stuff back specifically through what he has done?

Waxman: He hasn't pushed the issue to that degree yet. There have not been lawsuits, for example. What he's done is, he has made a formal demand for five objects from five major Western museums. Some of them the very most famous things: the Rosetta Stone; the bust of Nefertiti; the Zodiac sealing, which is in the Louvre today, the sculptures of the two architects of two of the great pyramids in Giza, one is in a Boston museum, one is in a German museum. So those are the five pieces that he says, 'These are so integral to the Egyptian cultural identity. They cannot be outside the country. Regardless of the circumstances under which they left the country -- legal or murky or whatever.'

Ryssdal: This is a little bit metaphysical, I suppose, but is it about po session of these artifacts or the ownership of them?

Waxman: For some reason there seems to be something about po session that is important for people. You want to have it because you could say so easily, well, why, not make a copy of the bust of Nefertiti. We absolutely have the artistic and technical ability. And I think that part of the solutions in resolving the tension over these objects is in the relinquishing of that idea of possession. That it's not so important who owns something because none of us own it and we all own it.

Ryssdal: The book by Sharon Waxman about the battles in the art and antiquities market is called "Loot." Sharon thanks a lot for coming in.

Waxman: Thanks for having me.

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