The Return of Cultural Relics

America is defined by what comes to be American, not by what has been American. There is no place better than New York to understand why Americans regard Cultural Patrimony as vague and odd.  Here races, languages, cultures, money, and talent confluence and culminate in one of the finest cities in the world. And the art world is no exception. Almost every form or style of art has its advocates and market here. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a great collection of Oceanic Art. Brooklyn Museum, on the other side of the East River, was the earliest collector of African art.

But Egyptians disagree. There is no open even controlled Egyptian antiquity market available in its own source country. Ordinary people who possess such antiquities should return them to the government otherwise they face punishment.  And several famous objects including Bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone, even with legal provenance, are pursued fervently by the government.

When Islamic conquest started in the 7th century, Egyptian antiquities were as old in the eyes of muslims as Greek and Roman’s in our eyes. Greeks probably should have claimed more authority than Muslims based on the proof of historical occupancy since they lived there as far back as the reign of Alexander the Great.

China, in the wake of Guo Bao (national treasure) lost in the international market, initiated a movement to bring back antiquities through different means. (You can visit Guo Bao Project’s website.) More than one year ago, a Macao tycoon,  Stanley Ho, spent 8.84 million dollars to buy a bronze statue of a horse head from Sotheby’s and later donated to a local museum. If his fortune justified the ownership, his intention did not. “Apart from being a patriotic act, I would genuinely like to enable the object to be viewed and accessible to a wider audience,” he later commented. Will the local provincial museum do justice to a statue that once belonged to the royal Summer Palace? Or if he had failed to acquire it, and it had gone to a museum in the western world, would the viewing by people with little Asian cultural background be counted as art appreciation or wider exposure?

Ho’s effort also received some fierce criticism at home. Some scholars claimed by spending money to buy cultural relics back, it legalized Westerner’s robbery and looting activities that devastated China’s cultural heritage more than 140 years ago. Like Hawass, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities,   these Chinese scholars resort to antiquity laws and Cultural Heritage Convention, media press, and international collaborations to imprecate any possible sale in the antiquity market.

There is so much gray area that cultural patrimony can hardly cover. For example, why Boston Museum of Fine Art should return something donated by the Egyptian government to the people of Boston in 1927? Or because the new Chinese government was founded in 1949, should any proof of provenance before that become invalid?

I do agree that if it can be proven the object was looted, it is possible to pursue the ownership through legal channels, although the long time-span could make the procedure very touchy. I do not think that unintentional results of the cultural relics being redistributed worldwide is as bad as it is decried. After all, objects displayed are meant to be interpreted, studied and understood. Fruits of the great civilizations can still inspire generations growing up with text message and video games and captivate people of different races, languages and cultural background — that’s something Chinese and Egyptians should be proud of.

Just as I wrote this, my friend cut in the line and argued: What if American found George Washington’s uniform in China and the Liberty Bell in Egypt? Americans cannot judge the matter rationally because they are always on looter’s side!

He has his point.

I smiled. “Maybe,” I said, ” that is why America finally passed Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act in 1983.”

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