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by Thomas Hoving
|Did you check out the most recent art story out of China posted by the AP on Sunday, May 21? "China plans to form a task force to try to recover as many as one million valuable and sometimes looted Chinese cultural relics … in more than 200 museums in 47 countries."
With all respect to a nation which has, admittedly, suffered extensive art looting over the centuries by foreigners (not to mention wholesale destruction of its own treasures during Mao's cultural revolution) this is about the dumbest thing a sovereign country can do, even one devoted to its artistic heritage.
China -- and indeed all nations on earth -- ought to be taking the opposite tack. The whole world should open up free markets for the sale of art and even archaeological artifacts that cannot be linked scientifically to a historic site.
Yes, you got it right, I am advocating the complete dismantling of all existing obstacles to the free export of fine art, including the so-called responsible governmental restraints now current in the UK, Japan and Israel.
I say goodbye to Britain's Board of Trade, which halts the export of works by any artist deemed of national interest until some museum comes up with the dough. This procedure isn't bad, for at least the purchaser can argue a case for exportation. But there seems little sense these days in allowing British museums to stall and stall for months, obtaining extension after extension until the right combo of private and public funds come together.
And au revoir to the French system which allows the government to establish a low-low "fair price" which it will pay to acquire the work.
Sayonara to the Japanese department that categorizes works under various levels of quality, permitting the export of only lesser pieces.
Ciao to Italy's virtually universal ban on the exportation of any archaeological work or any worthy painting, sculpture or work of decorative art for that matter.
So long to Turkey's so-called ironclad rules on the foreign sale of any work of art.
And see you around to the harsh Greek rules on the ban of selling anything outside the country.
What a nutcase, you must be thinking! Untrammeled (and irresponsible) free trade in art of the world would mean a flood of the finest works surging out of every poor country into the crass hands of wealthy collectors and institutions in richer countries.
This scheme would be the Elgin Marbles gone berserk. Under totally free art trade tomb robbers, night diggers and pillagers would make those lands rich in archaeological sites look like mammoth strip-mines.
Without the existing responsible and commonsense checks and balances, the Getty Museum or some other disgustingly well-heeled and voracious museum somewhere would suck up every Stubbs, Poussin, Canova, Canaletto and de Vries or what-have-you in England and make off with it.
Under harshly controlled art markets, more works are pillaged, more archaeological sites are violated of their integrity and more are stripped of their goodies than when the governments pay a fair price for whatever a farmer finds in that little hillock behind the barn. The sensational antiquities that have come into the U.S. in the past decades -- like the Met's infamous multimillion-dollar silver treasure from Turkey discovered by illegal diggers in a tomb near Palmyra -- would not have been stolen and smuggled if the government let it be known that the diggers would receive fair compensation.
As it turned out, the looters of this incomparable treasure made pennies, were caught and spent some time in jail. The treasure was returned not long ago to Turkey after it was discovered in the Met's own documents that the museum knew the marvelous works were illegal.
To those who argue that night diggers and smugglers would do their thing anyway and would laugh even harder on the way to the bank if a government did offer fair compensation, look at Russia old and new. From the time of Peter the Great through the end of the Soviet Union (and hopefully still) no indigenous archaeological work -- those divine gold Scythian, Sarmatian things -- ever left the country. The people were promised and received a good monetary reward plus a medal that got them a host of perks. They respected the arrangement even during times when a Soviet citizen might sell anything for a few bucks of hard currency.
The late director of the Hermitage, Scythian archaeologist par-excellence Boris Pietrovski, once told me that his best archaeological assistants were locals who demanded he investigate a certain site -- one that he with all his training would never have looked into. Some of his most spectacular finds -- still, of course, safely in the Hermitage -- came only from the expertise of these "assistants."
Of course, you're going to say that only rich and developed nations or wealthy private collectors will benefit under the no-obstacle-to-export scheme. Poorer countries couldn't possibly afford to buy works of art. Yet China stepped up to the bar and recently bought at auction in Hong Kong for several million some beautiful pieces stolen in the 19th century. Every time England has bought a painting with public funds matched by private moneys, the public has reacted with consent and pride.
If Italy, Greece and Turkey would shell out fair market value to keep pieces deemed of national interest inside their boundaries, their citizens who are now cool to art and museums might well over the years feel more concerned about their artistic patrimony. Is Mexico, Peru or Belize honestly too poor not to pay alert citizens to help save the national artistic patrimony? Hell, no. Politicians would win elections by making the pay-as-you-find scheme part of the platform.
Remember the old adage: people always cherish more what they pay for.
I'll bet if the Turkish government paid half the weighty lawyers fees it's already spent getting smuggled stuff back to buy the items at the wellhead, so to speak, the Turkish people would be happier and might even start visiting their treasure-laden institutions.
I'll bet if the Egyptian government spent a tenth of what it fritters away for antiquities police and give the dough instead as rewards for discoveries it'd get more for its money and have better specimens. Word is that today when a peasant finds something he just tosses it into the Nile rather than risk getting hassled by the antiquities cops.
In insisting on keeping every smidgen of archaeology and not paying for them, Italy not only loses many, many fine treasures like the Met's famous 510 B.C. calyx krater by Euphronios, but loads up its museums' storerooms with superfluous works.
Restrictions on free export of art are rooted in the 19th century when nationalism was boiling and when the global village in which we now live couldn't have been conceived. Now in the 21st century when nations are coming together in countless ways the solution for world art is not to continue restrictions but to smash them.
In a real sense the population of the world owns the world's art so let's move it around more and more freely every year.
THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of artnet.com.