Antiquities: What Everyone Needs to Know
Maxwell L Anderson
Oxford University Press
250pp
Paperback, £10.99

Lovers of antiquities well know that provenance, the circumstances of discovery, ownership, location and display all give rise to conflicting opinions, heated debate and occasional prosecution. In Antiquities: What Everyone Needs To Know, Maxwell L Anderson examines our long relationship with antiquities at a time when the subject is becoming ever more complex.

An expert in Roman art history, Anderson has taught at Princeton University, been an art museum director for three decades and is a former President of the Association of Art Museum Directors in America, where he chaired a Task Force on Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art. He is now Executive Director of the New Cities Foundation. So he is perfectly qualified to guide us through the antiquities maze. All his knowledge and experience have been distilled in this refreshingly clear, engaging account of the acquisition and ownership of antiquities and the various approaches to the stewardship of our cultural heritage.

Set out in a question-and-answer format, he takes an objective stance, addressing a wide field of relevant subjects – from the history of collecting antiquities and the treaties and laws governing them, to chance finds, excavation and looting, the realities of storage, dispersal and display and the vexed questions of retention, restitution and reparation.

Welcome light is shed on the many different considerations involved in the conundrums that beset this subject. While the acquisition of ancient artefacts is an age-old pastime, the rise of the modern nation-state, as Anderson recounts, has fuelled the desire to protect archaeological heritage as a part of a national, rather than a religious or cultural, identity. The Second World War released a tide of claims and counter claims for antiquities, and a heightened awareness of the dangers posed to archaeological material. The desire to regulate the trade in antiquities spurred the development of a complex array of international treaties and national laws, which the author succinctly explains.

But with international and national laws looming large, some questions are growing ever-more pressing. What should happen, he asks, to antiquities that lack a reliable provenance? Now spurned by museums and responsible private collectors, they find themselves increasingly without a home and go to fuel the black market.

Anderson cites prime examples of ownership disputes, that are sometimes centuries-long. The case of 'Priam's Treasure', for example, the golden hoard discovered in Troy in modern-day Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann in 1837, is one. Spirited away by Schliemann to Berlin, it remained there until after the Second World War when it was seized by the Russians. Its new location was not confirmed until 1996; it is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The dispute over its rightful ownership continues. Not only wars but shipwrecks, too, show how random events can lead a country to claim and possess antiquities from other lands.

Will our new absorption with the present and immediately accessible information dull our appetite for the past? Hopefully not for, as Anderson observes; the aura of antiquity still works its magic on us. Underwater archaeology, he maintains, is the huge and excitingfrontier of the future and there is no reason to doubt that we can expect many transfixing new discoveries.
Diana Bentley

 

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