By Jason Felch
Mr. Felch is a co-author of “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.”
The dream of a “universal” or “encyclopedic” museum was born centuries ago as a product of the Enlightenment. During the 1700s, in a burst of noblesse oblige, many art collections were moved from private drawing rooms into public spaces, where they theoretically could be appreciated by all. The grand institutions that were built over the next century to house them were established on the notion that access to the world’s art and artifacts would foster an enlightened, democratic culture — and, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that only institutions in the West could properly preserve, protect and study the world’s great wonders.
The Enlightenment led into the age of empire, and these new museums were quickly filled with plunder. Thomas Bruce (a.k.a. Lord Elgin) whisked sculptures from the Parthenon away to London. “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” landed in the Louvre. The “Benin Bronzes” were dispersed around the globe, including to the Met. Egypt’s Nefertiti bust was shipped off to Berlin.
At the time, many considered this kind of acquisition to be benign, even necessary, arguing that the museums would be suitable curators and custodians of the objects. That view is still invoked as the rationale to keep vast collections of antiquities in museum storerooms now. In 2002, more than a dozen leading museums, including the Louvre and the Met, signed on to a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” partly as a retort to Greece’s nagging claims for a return of the Parthenon marbles in London and to the growing criticism that these museums embodied a colonial view of culture that needed correcting.
“Over time, objects so acquired — whether by purchase, gift or partage — have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them,” the statement read. “To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors.”
But the theft of objects from the bowels of the British Museum put the lie to that threadbare view: If these institutions fail at the fundamental task of physically protecting the treasures they are supposedly preserving, how can they justify keeping things they themselves have taken from other societies?
Indeed, the British Museum thefts might have gone unnoticed if not for an antiquities dealer who was browsing eBay and recognized an ancient Roman cameo as one from the museum’s collection. The dealer notified the museum in 2021 that, after tracking and buying many such objects, he had identified the anonymous seller via a PayPal account. The evidence presented by the dealer was doubly disturbing: Not only were the thefts an inside job, but they were allegedly carried out by a curator (who is now facing a police investigation) whose duty was to protect these objects.
As an investigative reporter, I spent years uncovering how the J. Paul Getty Museum, along with peer institutions in Boston, New York and elsewhere, had built world-class collections of Classical antiquities in the 1980s and ’90s by doing business with a thriving black market. After the Getty’s curator was criminally charged by the Italian government (a case that was later dropped when a three-judge panel ruled that the statute of limitations had expired), the mounting evidence compelled several museums to return over 100 looted antiquities to Italy, Greece, Turkey and beyond.
Several antiquities dealers have likewise been heavily involved in the theft and sale of antiquities from across Asia, selling them to collectors and museums, including some in the United States. Some of the dealers have since faced criminal charges, and federal agents at Homeland Security Investigations, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency usually charged with investigating antiquities trafficking, have worked with federal and state prosecutors to seize and repatriate tens of thousands of looted objects.
European museums are facing a similar reckoning about their colonial acquisitions. A report commissioned by France’s president recommended the restitution of major artifacts and any illegally obtained works to African countries on the basis of bilateral agreements. Last year, Germany announced it would return more than 1,000 bronzes from the historical Kingdom of Benin.
As the very first of the universal museums, the British Museum built its collection over several hundred years of colonial boondoggles and the result is a treasure house of epic proportions: The collection contains some eight million objects (nobody knows for sure), of which only about 4.5 million have been fully documented online. A mere 1 percent are on display. But the museum is largely prohibited by law from disposing of its holdings, and it has often justified its position by invoking its ability to safeguard the world’s treasures.