The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it would return 19 Egyptian antiquities that have lived at the museum for most of the last century. These artifacts, excavated from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), include a sphinx bracelet, a small bronze dog, and a broad collar with beads, among other bits and pieces. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, argued for the artifacts’ return in November 2010, claiming that the artifacts had been removed from the tomb illegally in the 1920s. But, the instability in Egypt during and following that country’s revolution this year has delayed the repatriation of King Tut’s belongings.

One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It’s true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership.1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Elgin Marbles, pictured in the featured image above, are synonymous with the repatriation debate. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, these remarkable marble carvings once fronted the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens‘ ancient Acropolis. They were removed – some say vandalized – by Lord Elgin, former Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the late 18th century and sold in 1816 to London‘s British Museum, where they have lived ever since. Authorities in Greece have been trying for decades to have the marbles returned to Athens where they can be reunited with other Greek antiquities in the Acropolis Museum.

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy
One of the first, high-profile repatriations of an antiquity was the return by Italy of the Obelisk of Aksum (or Axum) to Ethiopia. Pillaged by Mussolini’s troops in 1937, the 1,700-year old obelisk stood for years in the center of a traffic circle in Rome until 2005 when the government of Italy agreed to its return. The Obelisk of Aksum now resides with objects of a similar era at the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia.

3) Objects from King Tut’s Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt
As described in the intro, these priceless objects from King Tut’s tomb are set to be returned to Egypt next week. Egypt plans to install these objects at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction and slated to open in 2012

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The investigative reporting of two L.A. Times journalists was responsible for the recent repatriation of the Dea Morgantina, an ancient Aphrodite sculpture that had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which takes a look at the repatriation debate and the flourishing arts black market, led the Getty Museum to return the stolen statue to its rightful home. The Aphrodite was inaugurated at the Archeological Museum of Morgantina in Sicily in early May 2011.

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany
Just last week, an ancient sphinx returned home to Turkey after years spent in Berlin‘s Pergamon Museum. One of a pair of sphinxes that stood in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattuşa, the sphinx will be restored at the Istanbul Archeological Museum before being returned to its ancient home approximately 150 miles northeast of Ankara.

[Flickr image via telemax]

Across Northern Europe: Why Bother Going to Berlin?

Museums make me thoughtful, or maybe just a bit precious, and I was in the Pergamon museum here in Berlin today thinking that there may be no more pointless thing than going to a museum. I was having very big thoughts about museums though.

Art, I think, is about distillation. It’s about someone spending hours, months, years creating something for us to admire for a few minutes. We’re looking at all the time they spent making it; it’s all concentrated down onto a canvas or sculpture like a very high proof liquor.

And it’s also, obviously, an example of the best anyone has been able to do. Only the best distillations make it to the museum and that must have been a very cool thing a long time ago.

But these days we’re surrounded by movies, books, computer software, furniture, sitcoms that all perform the same trick every day: They take a great amount of expert effort and focus it into consumable pieces for our enjoyment. How many hundreds of man hours do you think go into a 23-minute episode of The Office? How much time did I spend dreaming up this ridiculous blog entry for you to skim for three minutes (and fortunately stumble upon this sentence)?

We’ve become desensitized to distillation.

I think this is why so many people have to work so hard to pretend they care at all about the things they see in museums. Stand in the corner of any gallery in any museum anywhere in the world and watch how many people spend less than ten seconds at each piece of art, when they even bother to stop at in the first place.

And usually when we care the most — indicated by us snapping the greatest number of terrible pictures — it’s because we’ve seen the artwork so often before in popular culture. How often have you been anxious to see a work you hadn’t already seen reproductions of?

It seems to me seeing great art once meant much more for two principle reasons: 1) you couldn’t see a reproduction from home and 2) you couldn’t reach the art very easily. For a boy from New York to see some stuff in Berlin would have been a big deal 200 or even 20 years ago, but not now.

This got me thinking about travel in general because both points 1) and 2) are becoming less true for all sorts of things other than art; it’s easier for the world to come to you and easier for you to go to the world, which starts to erode the reasons to go traveling at all.

Need I waste a paragraph listing ways the world is coming to us? We’ve already seen reproductions of the paintings, tasted reproductions of the food, heard reproductions of the music. Etc to infinity.

And meanwhile going to the world is easier than it probably should be. Look at the twelve of us sitting here in the Heart of Gold Hostel common area in Berlin, Germany. Look at the Koreans on their wi-fi, the dressed up Europeans slurping the bottom of their cocktails, look at me sitting here typing rubbish.

Berlin, Germany, man! There was a wall keeping the world out so recently that if reunified Germany was a backpacker it wouldn’t be old enough to drink the Jager shots on tap at the hostel bar. But in 17 years visiting here has morphed from tragically impossible to impossibly easy.

That’s point 2: When seeing the painting takes no effort you end up spending ten damn seconds in front of it. And these days I look at Russia and the Middle East and say, “At least there’s still somewhere you have to work a little to get to.”

So could travel be on a collision course with itself? Is the world coming to us and us going to world becoming so easy that the magic is disappearing?

No, there won’t be empty planes in 50 years any more than there are empty museums today. We’ll still go. We’ll go because we’re supposed to. We’ll go because its a status symbol. We’ll go because there are some tastes, some colors, some sounds and feelings and sights that will never be fully diminished. And we won’t even really know it’s different, I bet. It’ll be like drinking beer when you’ve never tasted grain alcohol. That’s plenty distilled, we’ll say, wiping our mouth. We’ll hold the glass up to the light and admire it, like we do now.


Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.