Stupid Countries, Stupider Museums
One night in the early 1980s, my wife, Peggy, and I were sitting in the second row of the Mark Hellinger Theater watching the musical romp “Sugar Babies,” starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.
Mickey Rooney (amazingly, this was his Broadway debut) was standing outside a hotel room door listening to what was going on inside between two newlyweds. It was the setup for a very old joke that I had known since boyhood.
“When you get to the umbrella, it’s mine!” Rooney shouted through the door.
I let out a guffaw that rocked the theater and the audience followed suit.
Rooney marched down to the edge of the stage and looked me right in the eye. “You liked that?” he shouted at me. “I got a million of ‘em!”
We live in curious times.
All around the world—from Greece, Egypt and Italy to Peru and China—museum directors and ministers of culture are seriously trying to repatriate the great art and artifacts that they believe were illegally plundered.
In my opinion, the entire bunch of them—in the immortal words of Noël Coward—are absolutely, positively nuts.
Quite simply a huge marketing opportunity is being missed.
Belize and the Artifact Conundrum
In the mid-1980s, Peggy and I received a brochure offering an archaeological tour of Belize (formerly known as British Honduras) in Central America, center of the mysterious and cruel Maya civilization. On a lark, we sent in our money and went on one of the most memorable trips of our lives.
The expedition was led by Herman Smith, a great archaeologist and teacher who spent 1966-1969 as a Marine pilot in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Crossand earned 17 Air Medals and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Fed up with the business of killing, he resigned from the service and went back to college where he got a Ph.D. in Archaeology and, in less than 10 years, became a world-class archaeologist specializing in Belize and the Maya. The tall and good-looking Herman Smith was a real-life Indiana Jones.
Belize is filled with magnificent Mayan ruins and a vast abundance of artwork and artifacts. Many objects had been retrieved, but much was still in the ground. Belize has strict laws that prohibit any antiquities from leaving the country. Belize was also desperately poor, with no money to build a museum and no place to store the art and artifacts that were being uncovered.
The most valuable finds were kept in a locked room in the main government building in the capital city of Belmopan, which was built 50 miles inland following the devastation of Belize City by a hurricane in 1961.
Herman Smith led us into the building, got the key to the vault room and showed us an extraordinary collection of Mayan masterpieces.
Did I say, “showed us?” Rather, he handed out gloriously-decorated pots for us to fondle and he festooned the squealing, giggling ladies with 1,000-year-old jewelry that would bring six and seven figures at a Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction.
Later we took a putt-putt along the Belize River to the camp of a working archaeologist. The first sights we saw were grass-roofed huts that were padlocked. Peeking in the windows, we saw 1,000-year-old pots stacked floor to ceiling. With no museums, no proper storage facilities and strict export laws, these magnificent objects had no place to go.
They may still be there 30 years later for all I know, unless they have (1) been moved to a proper facility; (2) been stolen; (3) disintegrated. That a poor country permits the digging up of historical treasures only to let them rot is preposterous.
These pots could be added to the collections of museums around the world along with promotional brochures offering hotel and restaurant discounts all over Belize—a tropical country with splendid beaches, scuba diving unmatched in the Western Hemisphere and archaeological wonders.
The message to museum visitors around the world: “You like this pot? Belize has got a million of ‘em!”
Belize could put the pots to work bringing them tourist business, rather than allowing them to turn to dust.
Machu Picchu and Hiram Bingham
Hiram Bingham III, a teacher of South American history at Yale University, went to Peru in 1911 looking for a redoubt in the Andes and stumbled upon Machu Picchu, the great Inca cosmopolitan center. The following year, under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society and Yale, he returned to Peru for architectural digs and sent back to New Haven almost 5,000 artifacts.
In this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Arthur Lubow was not enthusiastic about Bingham’s loot, some of which is on display at Yale’s Peabody Museum. “Mostly, the pieces are bones in varying stages of decomposition” he writes, “or pots, many of them in fragments.”
Now Peru wants them back.
Why doesn’t the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism say to Yale, “Hey, if your visitors like these artifacts, we got a million of ‘em down here! Come see Machu Picchu for real, and while you’re at it, take a side trip to the Galapagos Islands and a spin down the Amazon! And, oh, by the way, we’ll reciprocate by making Yale Peabody Museum brochures available here.”
The Elgin Marbles
Atop the Acropolis, that big hill overlooking the city of Athens, stands the ruins of the Parthenon, a huge temple built in honor of the goddess Athena in the 5th century B.C. Over the years it was turned into a Roman Catholic church, a mosque and, under the Turks, it became a gunpowder magazine. In the 1687 siege of the Acropolis by the Venetians, a cannon ball hit the magazine and the building exploded, blowing off the roof, severely damaging the columns and destroying many of the sculptures from the pediment. A number of these sculptures were subsequently smashed, ground into lime and used for building materials.
Enter Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had such a bad bout of syphilis that late in life his nose fell off. Elgin went to Athens in 1800 with a small retinue of artists to make drawings and plaster casts of the remaining sculptures. When he discovered that these masterpieces were being chiseled and stolen by tourists, Elgin arranged to have these 2,000-year-old works of art shipped to England where he sold them to the British Government at a huge personal financial loss. As well as being exhibited in the British Museum, pieces of the Parthenon sculptures are scattered around the world in nine other countries.
Over recent years, Greece has mounted a vast and nasty PR campaign to get them back, vilifying England and all the other 19th century thieves, even though had it not been for Lord Elgin, these things would by now have been reduced to talcum powder and blowin’ in the wind.
On a personal note, I have seen the Elgin Marbles on several occasions, and each time they depressed the hell out of me—headless with missing limbs and noseless faces—all horribly weather-beaten. In the heyday of classical Greece, these objects were garishly painted, like figures on a merry-go-round.
If the Greek Minister of Culture had the brains of his or her predecessor, the great actress Melina (“Never on Sunday”) Mercouri, the message to the British Museum would be:
“You can keep the Elgin Marbles, so long as you put travel brochures for Greece on the way in—and the way out of—the gallery. If your visitors like the Elgin Marbles, we got a million of ‘em here!
The Euphronios Krater
In 1972, the buccaneer Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, acquired what he calls the “Hot Pot”—perhaps the most spectacular Greek vase in the world—from a shady dealer in Italy. Italy has demanded it back, claiming that it was stolen goods and had no business leaving the country, and the Met has agreed to return it.
(It seems to me that if it were to be returned to the rightful owner, it should go back to Greece—and that the Italians acquired it just as illegally as Thomas Hoving—but that is the subject of another discussion.)
Meanwhile, if the Italians had any sense, they would treat the Euphronios Krater as a loss leader—just like the guy handing out free bites of sausage at Whole Foods—that introduces Met visitors to the glories of Rome, Florence, Milan and Lake Como. “You like this vase? We got a million of ‘em here in Italy!”
The Naughty Getty
If ever a cultural organization has a reputation for fast and loose behavior, it is the J. Paul Getty Museum in the Los Angeles area, with a $5 billion endowment—six times that of the Metropolitan Museum—which means it can buy anything it wants. Over the years it has been caught red-handed acquiring great works of art of questionable provenance or no provenance at all. Italian authorities want 52 objects returned, and became so angry and frustrated that it put curator of antiquities, Marion True, and the American art dealer, Robert Hecht, on trial for trafficking in artworks illegally excavated in Italy and shipped out of the country. Early this month, the court proceedings in Rome became so contentious that the judge has called a temporary halt until everybody cools down.
Same thing. You, Getty Museum, can keep the stuff so long as you make discount travel brochures for Italy easily available to your visitors.
The Rosetta Stone
Meanwhile the British Museum is caught up in another contretemps besides the Elgin Marbles. On display in the Egyptian section is the Rosetta Stone—a carved cheat sheet that made deciphering hieroglyphics possible. It was discovered by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1799 and spirited away to London in 1802. The Egyptian Museum is making rude noises about having the Rosetta Stone repatriated.
I remember when the first King Tut exhibit came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976-77. We were staggered by the gold, the glitter, the gorgeous workmanship and artistry of these ancient artifacts. How could the Egyptian Museum send all this stuff overseas, Peggy and I asked each other.
In 1980 we visited the Egyptian Museum, and it turns out that the traveling Tut exhibit three years prior was peanuts; the museum is stuffed to the gunwales with unbelievable goodies.
Cairo hardly needs the Rosetta Stone.
Cairo’s message to the British Museum: “Keep the Rosetta Stone and put out brochures offering great travel deals to Egypt. In return, we will tell our visitors that they simply must see the Rosetta Stone in London.
Art Brings Tourism
People that go to museums love art, have spare time and often plenty of spare cash. Many of them travel incessantly and are constantly on the prowl for ideas of new places to visit.
For example, during the three summer months of 1996, the Philadelphia Museum of Art put on a barn burner of an exhibition devoted to 170 works by Paul Cézanne. It attracted 700,000 people and put $60 million into the coffers of local hotels, restaurants, shops and transportation.
As a result of the current four-city tour of King Tut artifacts—Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago and currently ending up here in Philly—it is estimated that it will be responsible for inspiring 200,000 to 500,000 Americans to visit Egypt.
This past May, Peggy and I went to Madrid for the first major Tintoretto show in 70 years. The Prado would not take reservations. When we arrived, thousands of people disgorged from dozens of tour buses that were waiting in line. Peggy and I do not travel 30 miles—let alone 3,000 miles—to wait in lines. We never got to see Tintoretto. So we drove to Toledo for the El Grecos.
All the countries mentioned above—Peru, Italy, Greece, Great Britain and Egypt—are great tourist destinations. And Americans love to travel.
Given the weakness of the dollar against the Euro (€1 = $1.35) and the Pound (£1 = $2.00), America is a bargain-basement tourist destination for the folks across the Pond.
I believe it’s high time to get the fine arts business out of the hands of museum directors, ministers of culture and assorted bureaucrats—with their sphincter-tight mentalities—and replace these silly acquisitors with good old-fashioned marketers.
Leave all these works of art and artifacts in situ. Instead of blowing millions of dollars on court cases and PR, spend money on upscale travel brochures that offer irresistible opportunities for intellectual and emotional fulfillment on a grand scale.
In the Basement
Incidentally, the major museums of the world have basements filled with great art in storage with no room to exhibit it.
A single example is the Barnes Collection outside Philly. Albert C. Barnes, a multimillionaire who acquired 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Soutines, and 18 Rousseaus, as well as a number of works by Modigliani, Degas, van Gogh, Seurat and Monet.
Only a teeny fraction of these are on exhibit.
If the Barnes directors had any savvy—and were not constrained by Barnes’s wacko will—they could offer to loan out some of these works to smaller museums around the world in return for their agreeing to put out Barnes brochures and travel deals to Philly.
This business model, it seems to me, would stimulate business for the museums and bring in tourist dollars, Euros, pounds and yen to airlines, hotels, restaurants and car rental companies everywhere.
Isn’t this business common sense?