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Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Author Topic: Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities  (Read 483 times)
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« on: January 09, 2009, 01:59:31 pm »

So it should have come as no shock when, in April 2006, the highlight of the Hoard, a golden hippocampus (sea horse) much beloved by tourists and locals alike, was revealed to have been stolen. At almost twice the weight of the original, the hippocampus that was--and remains--on display was an obvious fake. Kazim Akbiyikoglu, the museum's curator and Acar's old friend and ally, was fingered as the thief. Acar, who had by then devoted twenty years of his life to winning back the Hoard, was devastated.

A verdict has yet to come down in Akbiyikoglu's trial, but the evidence amassed against him seems damning, and the case has exacerbated Western apprehension that museums in source countries are unequipped to handle precious antiquities. On the heels of such embarrassment, the Turkish government has been shamed into putting a stop to a stream of litigation against Western museums, much of which was likely to succeed. The hippocampus, to date, remains missing, most likely having been melted into bullion and sold on the black market.

In Loot, Sharon Waxman, formerly of the New York Times, investigates the Lydian heist as well as similar curatorial debacles around the world. On separate floors of Cairo's Egyptian Museum, she reports, two research teams feuding over trivial logistical matters simultaneously catalog the museum's rich collection of artifacts, each using its own distinct, incompatible notation system. Waxman stops by the then uncompleted museum at the base of the Acropolis--which is meant to house the Elgin Marbles one day, should the British Museum ever return them--where local protests and managerial incompetence delayed construction for years.

But Waxman appears to believe that, despite everything, these countries have some legitimate claim to the antiquities that have been taken through various semilegal and extralegal contrivances throughout the ages. And she is honest--often angrily so--about the ambiguous circumstances under which many of these objects left their homes. One of the best passages in Loot is a tour of the Louvre's cluttered, poorly labeled antiquities galleries, with Waxman supplementing the stingily worded display cards to create a panoramic exposition of French misadventures in Egypt.

Visiting the Chamber of Kings, for example, where a three-wall bas-relief mural tells the story of eleven centuries of Egyptian royal history, Waxman corrects the Louvre's cursory explanation--"elements" were "lost in transport"--with a story of breathtaking greed and fraud: in the 1840s, a French explorer paid a midnight visit to a temple in Karnak, pried out the mural and bribed a local governor to allow him to ship it, in pieces, to Paris, where well-meaning workers coated the reliefs with a layer of varnish that soaked away the 3,500-year-old paint below, leaving the mural almost colorless. This section of Loot, as well as similar ones on the Met and the British Museum, makes one wish Waxman would turn the book's contents into a series of museum audio tours on tucked-under-the-rug looting scandals.
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