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The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

A-LootSharon Waxman is a former culture reporter for the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The Topic: The Rosetta Stone offers a key to Egyptian hieroglyphics—yet it resides in the British Museum. Paris’s Louvre houses the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal code. And New York’s Met contained Turkey’s Lydian Hoard—until it was sent back to its home country. Waxman explores these cultural and geographical contradictions by delving into the plundering and cover-ups by the world’s most renowned museums—from the Met to the Louvre, the Getty, and the British Museum. In so doing, she tells a larger story about cultural nationalism from the late 18th century onward. She traces the efforts of museums—particularly those in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries—to track down and recover their lost antiquities—even if, she argues, these native museums are not always the best caretakers of their own treasures.
Times Books. 432 pages. $30. ISBN: 0805086536

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Waxman has done a great deal of essential legwork, interviewing countless curators, directors, and cultural officers in the dominant as well as the dispossessed countries. … The public’s ignorance of all these ‘back stories’ provides Waxman with one of her central themes: namely, the persistent and ongoing coverup of where great pieces were first found and the covert hands they passed through on their way to becoming cherished icons." Michael Kammen

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Waxman recognizes that repatriation is an extraordinarily nuanced issue. It’s too simplistic to say that all artifacts must be returned to their countries of origin, yet it’s also too simplistic to absolve museums of all responsibility for a history of questionable transactions involving smuggled goods." Alexandra Witze

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Waxman] also gives ample space to angry journalists and archaeologists who have exposed looting and the complicity of major museums, as well as to the sad, complicated case of former Getty curator Marion True, now on trial in Italy for buying looted art. … This wide-ranging narrative limns a multifaceted problem with no single solution." Wendy Smith

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Waxman’s argument that ‘Western museums remain essential custodians of the past’ wears thin when she conflates imperial looting of the Elgin variety with the modern phenomenon of commercial grave-robbing." Roger Atwood

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The larger problem is Waxman’s portrayal of the antiquities crisis as mainly a ‘tug of war’ over coveted museum pieces. In fact, the more important battle concerns unprotected archaeological sites, and it is far less a matter of repatriating objects than of figuring out how to stop latter-day looters from destroying our collective past." Hugh Eakin

Critical Summary

Sharon Waxman raises many challenging questions in this important, well-researched study about the conflict over classical antiquities and the breach of international regulations by Western countries. Compelling and fast-paced, the story spans countries (mostly Western) and centuries. Despite Waxman’s generous narrative, a few critics thought her perspective uneven, as she favors allowing Western museums to keep their purloined treasures. Similarly, although she gives everyone equal voice—from curators to archaeologists to journalists uncovering these crimes—the museum directors and curators fare relatively badly. Despite these criticisms, Loot offers intelligent analysis about a difficult dilemma with no easy answer.

Cited by the Critics

The Medici Conspiracy The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities: From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums | Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini (2006): Giacomo Medici, an Italian antiquities dealer, carried out illicit business dealings through an extensive network of tomb robbers, dealers, and institutions such as the Met and the Getty. Besides chronicling the eight-year investigation into Medici’s dealings, the authors offer a lesson on the world of antiquities.