We read with great interest the article by Andrew Finkel which appeared in the New York Times of 11th April, 2012 under the title Treasures Hunters and reproduced in Elginism under the title Turkey's requests for the Samsat Stele to be returned – Cultural nationalism?
Finkel considers the recent decision by the Turkish Government not to approve any loans of cultural objects to museums, such as the British Museum, that are holding Turkish objects and refusing to return them. The writer considers the Turkish decision to be motivated by cultural nationalism:
“Instead of wallowing in cultural nationalism, Turkey should be protecting its treasures and attracting all the foreign expertise it can. It does no good to refuse to lend an object to a foreign museum – particularly for an exhibition that is trying to further understanding between faiths.”
It is remarkable that Finkel ascribes cultural nationalism to the Turks but does not tell us what the British and Americans who refuse to return the contested objects are. Are they also cultural nationalists or perhaps more accurately, cultural imperialists?
The British and the US-Americans are among the most nationalistic of all nations as the history of the last two hundred years shows but they have managed to convince themselves and others that the nationalists are all in Latin America, Asia, and Africa and in some European States. Some British and US-American writers seem to believe that only non-English-speaking nations are susceptible to nationalism. Thus the Greeks and Turks, even though they are Westerners, share with Africans, Asians and Latin Americans the tendency to nationalism. Yet nationalism, invented by the French and the Germans, was perfected by the British and the US-Americans who manage to present their nationalistic interests as humanitarian or world interests. What is nationalism elsewhere becomes patriotism in Britain and in the USA. For further discussions on culture and nationalism, the reader is directed to the articles entitled Can Nationalism be sold as Internationalism? and
Is Nationalism such a Dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Cultural Property?
Finkel suggests that Turkey would do well to lend artefacts to the British Museum for the exhibition on Hajj as this will secure advertisement for Turkey as a land of tourism: “Turkey spends a sultan's ransom in advertising itself as a tourist destination and lending its treasures to the Hajj exhibit would have been a smart way of doing this at the British Museum's expense.” But has Finkel considered that the Turkish government may not want to do anything at the expense of others or simply for the possible profit that may ensue? There are other values beside profit. The argument based on Turkey being a country of tourism, could be applied to many countries of the world and would have the effect that very few States would be bold enough to reclaim their cultural objects from Britain, USA and other States holding the looted/stolen cultural objects.
Finkel advises the Turkish government to concentrate on preventing looting and stealing of artefacts still in the country rather than spend resources on recovering artefacts that have been out of the country for a long time:
“But the effort and expense of fighting over long-lost objects in Britain would be better employed on improving the deplorable state of cultural management at home.”
“The destruction by treasure seekers around Turkey's major archaeological sites is enormous, yet the government doesn't take practical steps to stop it. For starters, Ankara should enforce existing laws meant to protect antiquities.”
It is right to suggest that the Turkish government should prevent further looting and enforce existing laws for the protection of antiquities. But does the duty to protect existing artefacts exclude the duty to recover stolen/looted artefacts? Is there no link between protection of property and recovery of lost property? It is our submission that any State that is interested in protecting its existing cultural artefacts must necessarily be interested in recovering looted or stolen artefacts. Not to pursue looted artefacts would send the wrong messages to current looters and potential buyers. Looters would believe that once the objects are out of the country that is the end of the story. Potential purchasers would think that since the objects have been outside the country for a few years, it would be safe to buy them. This much should have been learnt from the recent scandals of the US-American museums and universities as reported by Watson and Todeschini in The Medici Conspiracy (2006) and in Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino (2011).
Whether priority should be given to protection or restitution is a decision that is best made by those charged with protecting Turkish artefacts. But can a State not pursue both objectives at the same time?
Finkel does not question the right of the Turkish government to recover the looted artefacts:
“No one should dispute Turkey's right to protect its own archaeological heritage from thieves. Nor should there be any question of Turkey's obligation to recover objects smuggled abroad:”
Finkel's position reminds us of a person who borrows and keeps your book for a long period. When you request the return of the item, he does not dispute your right to recover but wonders why you now want your book back even though you have a huge library of books most of which you have not even read. There are even book packages you have not opened since they arrived. He wonders what the motivation is for asking now for the return of the book.
Would you have nothing more urgent now than the recovery of the one single book? In the end, the owner may even be seen as selfish for requesting the return of his book now after it had been with the borrower for ages.
It is noticeable that Finkel offers advice only to Turkey but not to Britain even though it is clear that there are always two sides to a dispute. However, the author restates the most useless of the arguments of the British Museum that can only be described as shameful and insulting, not only to Turkey but to all right-thinking persons:
“The British Museum has offered to loan the stele to the Turks, but the chances of giving it back permanently to Turkey – and thereby setting a precedent for Greece to reclaim the Elgin marbles – are slim. Yet Turkey is playing hard ball”.
We have in several articles established how weak such defences and arguments are. How can anybody seriously offer the loan of an object to a person claiming ownership of the object? To say that a Turkish object cannot be returned because the Greeks are also asking for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is surely no argument. The different histories of the displacement of the artefacts in question should not be confused or mixed. Nor do the Greeks need any precedent in order to establish their right to the Parthenon Marbles and their return.
The net effect of the advice by Andrew Finkel would be that the Turkish government leaves looted/stolen Turkish objects in the British Museum as long as the Turkish government is unable to prevent looting and stealing of artefacts; moreover, the British Museum would receive Turkish artefacts it requests for exhibition and would not need to worry about returning any contested artefact. Where then is the Turkish interest and advantage?
Kwame Opoku, 15 April, 2012.