Mar 20, 2012

Realkulturpolitik: Turkey Requests 18 Objects from the Met

One of the contested objects, a Hittite silver cup (1400 BCE)
Jason Felch reports on the Chasing Aphrodite blog that Turkey is actively seeking 18 objects from the Met. Earlier this month Martin Bailey reported that Turkey would stop lending objects to the United States and United Kingdom, and this dispute with the Met may be one of the motivators for that cultural embargo. This seems a curious collection of objects for return, one that does not share many characteristics with the other kinds of objects requested by nations of origin in recent years. The objects were part of the Norbert Schimmel Collection. Schimmel was a former Met trustee and the collection itself was published in a 1974 volume edited by none other than outspoken looting critic Oscar White Muscarella.

I sometimes call these kinds of requests for return realkulturpolitik, in that there does not appear to be a direct legal mechanism for the return of these objects at this late date. In order to pursue a legal claim here Turkey would have to justify its reasons for not bringing a claim in 1974. Reasons for that delay may be new evidence  which has come to light which shows that these objects were illegally removed from their context or from Turkey. Yet we do not yet know of any of the specifics justifying the return. And if a legal claim was brought for these objects, Turkey would have to show the Met is not prejudiced by the delay under a laches defense. This could prove difficult. After all, Schimmel and others who would have acquired these objects are deceased and cannot provide evidence about how these objects were acquired.

And from the Met's perspective, we do not yet have any of the histories of these objects before their acquisition by Schimmel. The absence of detailed information foreclosing their potential looting or acquisition of these objects makes them questionable objects perhaps, but does not give Turkey a legal right to them. The law requires Turkey to establish that they came from Turkey, which might be difficult. Schimmel appears to have acquired these objects before 1974, at a time when the heritage community was first beginning to pay attention to the looting of sites, after the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

What Turkey does have though is a potential ethical claim which the Met may respond to. And if the Met does not, Turkey is imposing a damaging cultural embargo, and pressure will likely mount on the Met to justify their continued possession of these objects.
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