Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno - review by Charles Saumarez-Smith

Charles Saumarez-Smith

National Trust

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage


Princeton University Press 228pp £14.95

I was recently asked to give a paper at a conference on the subject of ‘Collecting Practices in Lebanon’ held at the American University of Beirut. I spoke on some of the problems of adding to the collections of the National Gallery and the worrying prospect that museums and galleries in the United Kingdom would no longer be able to add to their collections in the same way that they have in the past, due to the absence of dedicated state support and the increasing cost of the greatest works of Western European art. During the questions, someone at the back of the room stood up and asked how it felt to live in a country where so much of the wealth of the Middle East had accumulated. I misunderstood the question and thought that he was asking me about my attitude towards restitution. My answer was greeted with a slight undercurrent of sarcastic laughter, since it was obvious to them that I had not given deep thought to the fundamental issue of imbalance between collections in the Middle East, the heartland of ancient cultures and civilisations, and collections in Western Europe, which have been enriched by at least two centuries of trade, wealth, archaeology and loot. The message was: you already have more than enough; you are not entitled to complain.

James Cuno, the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and former Director of the Courtauld Institute in London, has written a book that looks at some of the issues underlying this imbalance in the world’s collections, and the attempts by national governments all over the world to maintain a

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