windfall for the cultural looters
ho! Just what we need: Kim Beazley. Just when most of the world and
half of the Australia population, especially the Labor-voting half,
is outraged about the US of A, a bunch of dingbats want to bring back
a fat, bellicose, pro-Zionist Christian conservative; a man whos
relentlessly sensitive to the wishes of his US masters. Bomber Beazley
-- another deputy sheriff. What a jerk.
she spoke, Joadja almost crushed the wine glass she was polishing.
they say he has a heart problem too, I ventured, shaking the rain
off my tail. It had been pouring for days but a particularly heavy torrent
had descended as I scurried across Werrong lane to the Brushtail Café.
slumped in my favourite chair by the window and ordered a long black
and the vegetarian breakfast special. It had been a long night without
sleep, tidying up an urgent investigation into the American Council
for Cultural Policy and its founder, the former vice president and legal
expert for New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ashton Hawkins.
the US invasion forces stood aside while Iraqs cultural treasures
were plundered, there has been some mention, in the worlds media,
of this shadowy lobby group for of art dealers, wealthy collectors,
art lawyers and museum directors but little was clear, except
that it was formed in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and quickly gained
an audience with George W Bush himself where they argued that after
the war, Iraqs retentionist cultural policy should
be swept aside to enable the export of cultural treasures. According
to arts insiders, Hawkins group includes collectors and lawyers
with a questionable record of collecting artefacts, including stuff
looted by the Nazis.
the surface Mr Hawkins was just a nice New York liberal, a cultural
identity, an urbane out gay, a close friend of Jackie Onassis who owned
a waterfront house in New York and a holiday home on the Greek Island
of Patmos, but as I dug deeper it became clear that he was a real piece
the invasion kicked-off, Hawkins was savvy enough to create a political
alibi. In November 2002, together with one Maxwell L Anderson, the president
of the American Association of Art Museum Directors he penned for the
Washington Post a most responsible plea to the US Government,
asking the Pentagon to identify and spare the cultural treasures of
Iraq in the event of invasion. They spoke out against looting
of any kind.
Hawkins can do otherwise as well. When he retired from the Met in 2000,
he joined the law firm of Gersten, Savage & Kaplowitz where he represents
at least five institutions and a host of wealthy collectors. Hes
also been running a small private crusade to redress the balance
between the rights of the owners of stolen art treasures
and the rights of innocent buyers. No prizes for guessing in which direction
Hawkins thinks the balance should be restored.
then there was the small matter of the Mets own record of what
many consider to be looting in the years when Hawkins was the Mets
VP and legal guru. The standout item here is the museums relationship
with the shady art dealer Bob Hecht, from whom, in 1984, the Met purchased
the fabulous Morgantina silver, a collection of 15 Third Century BC
Hellenistic artefacts unearthed somewhere in central Sicily, for $US
turned out that the silver came from a professional graverobber, wonderfully
named Giusseppe Mascara, who confessed to the crime. The Italian police
built an excellent case of cultural theft, but the Met refused to discuss
how it got the gear and blandly asserted that Mascaras testimony
couldnt be trusted because he was, after all, a crim. Ever since,
the Met has resisted Italys demand for restitution.
Morgantina case wasnt the first time the Met had got itself in
the spotlight. In 1972 it bought a 2,500 year-old painted Greek vase,
the Euphronios Krater from Hecht. The Italian government claimed it
was looted from an Italian archaeological site but Hecht said hed
got it from a Lebanese dealer whod owned it for decades. Eventually
the Italians dropped the charges against Hecht, but the Mets then
director, Thomas Hoving, who authorised purchase of the vase, later
concluded that the Italians had been right all along. Of course, the
Krater is still in the Met.
the big dealers and their wealthy clients are gearing up for the Iraq
windfall. The Yanks invaded Iraq without an official plan to protect
cultural treasures, the museums and libraries were comprehensively looted
and evidence of provenance burned. Looking on, one US officer referred
to it as the new income redistribution program. He meant
the redistribution of wealth from the public sector to the private,
of course, which is in line with the neoconservative philosophy underpinning
the new American imperialism.
of this bodes well for the restitution to the Iraqi people of what artefacts
might be left after the trashing of the museums. If the Italians, with
excellent evidence, cant get their stuff back from a reputable
museum like the Met, what chance do the Iraqis have, when most of the
stuff will find its way into secretive private collections? Ashton Hawkins
has publicly maintained that dealers should be free to buy from local
people at local prices. It looks like the wave of the future.
informants: David Darcy (Art Online), Bryan Pfaffenberger, Jason
Edward Kaufman (The Art Newspaper), Patrick Martin (World
Socialist Web Site), Walter V Robinson (Boston Globe), Geoffrey