“IN XANADU DID KUBLA KHAN A SACRED PLEASURE DOME DECREE BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REST IF IT – THE STUFF WE CANNOT SEE?”
Here is an extremely interesting article that charges that there is an untold hoard of British art stowed away in secret containers, crates and boxes in the USA. Treasures purchased by the voracious collectors Hearst, Rockefeller, Morgan, Frick et alia from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. A time when export licenses for antiquities were not required and the trade was undocumented. Keep in mind that Hearst was a significant collector of European Arms and Armour.
Clearly there is the potential for some to perceive hypocrisy in people from the British art establishment laying claim to national treasures that have gone overseas. However I think the key point is that they have been hidden from the world, not necessarily that they should be returned. If these secret troves exist, for heaven’s sake let’s find out and open them up and see what is there.
I personally believe that the art treasures of the world belong to the world. The repatriation of art and archaeological treasures is a thorny subject. If things can be seen in their original context that is preferable (all other things being equal). However the great museums of the world are also treasures in themselves – The Louvre, The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hermitage and many others are choc full of artifacts from many diverse cultures distant from the museum’s location. In these treasure houses the objects are cared for, conserved and protected; they are a source of scholarship and they open windows to the wider world to the millions of international visitors who see them. There are good cases for certain individual repatriation claims but these should not, in themselves, challenge the general principle of museums of antiquities around the world retaining their historically diverse collections. We certainly should not play into the current, and ugly, fad for petty nationalisms that one hopes will soon pass.
I do not see any legitimate claim to have these objects returned to British soil. They are presumably owned by someone. I do think however that they should be discovered and revealed. It may be that, if the owners are willing, many objects could be purchased and returned to Britain and that may be a good thing. Either way – fascinating to see what is there. #Open the box!