Go Ask Dallas

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A brief report from the first day of that conference on “cultural property” I’m attending at Southern Methodist University in Dallas:

On the question of how to deal with antiquities, there’s a big division in the artworld. On the one side are the archeologists, who think art collectors and museums should all but stop buying ancient artifacts, because it creates a financial incentive for looters to pillage archeological digs. Meanwhile, museums, collectors and dealers think they’re the ones safeguarding ancient work, by caring for it and displaying it. Those all tend to be the same people who disagree along similar lines about the wisdom of laws in Italy, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere that declare pretty much everything discovered on their territory to be state property that can’t be exported without approval.

The Dallas conference brings all sides together into (mostly) collegial discussions. Or if not discussions, at least proximity. Which in some cases must have taken some doing. So Torkom Demirjian, a New York antiquities dealer and passionate defender of the rights of collectors, prepared the audience for the presentation by Patty Gerstenblith, a De Paul University law professor well known as a defender of legal curbs on the trade by saying “Everything she says sounds great, but is completely wrong.”

As it happens, when she took the stage Gerstenblith mostly just summarized for us the various international agreements and a few famous court cases that pertain to cultural property. I couldn’t detect any errors. John Henry Merryman, the 87-year-old Stanford law professor who’s one of the founders of the entire field of art law, surprised us all a bit by declaring that U.S. courts should not enforce against American museums and collectors the cultural patrimony laws of nations that block the export of almost all works. “Some of the legislation adopted in other nations would certainly be unconstitutional in the U.S.,” he said.

After dinner last night we had a talk and slide show from Donny George Youkhanna, the former Director General of the Iraqi Museums and the pivotal figure in the vain attempt to protect the treasures of the Baghdad Museum in the opening days of the Iraq War. A sobering presentation, notwithstanding that at least some of the stolen work has been recovered.

He had one story that would be funny, if the laughs didn’t come so hard. Struggling to guard their museum from thugs driving past waving Kalashnikov’s out their windows, Youkhanna and his staff stood outside armed with clubs. Then somebody handed Youkhanna a satellite phone. On the other end of the call was the British Museum’s curator of Near Eastern art. Youkhanna pleaded with him for help in persuading the Americans to position a tank near the door of his museum. The curator signed off and put in a call to his boss, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor. Who put in a call to Tony Blair’s culture secretary Tessa Jowell, who put in a call to 10 Downing Street. From there it appears that a call went over to Washington, because sure enough, the tank eventually rumbled into place.

Just too late to do much good.