December 4, 2023

Eskenazi told me that he detested the behavior of dealers like Medici and that he always took due care to ensure that the antiques he sold were not stolen. But he was also of the opinion that objects that were once on the art market should be kept by collectors and museums. “Let’s face it, art belongs to anyone who can take care of it, and right now it’s the West,” he said. “The world is a dance of Shiva, it is continuously about destruction and new creation. So what we’re trying to do here is take in what remains of the past and create order. “

Eskinazi brought up the influential 2008 book “Who Owns Antiquity?” by James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, who defended the traditional idea of ​​the encyclopedic museum: “The museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations and non-nationalistic boundaries, curious and respectful of the artistic and the world’s cultural heritage that is common to all of us. “Today the encyclopedic museum happens to be in New York or London. in the future it could appear in new capital concentrations such as Doha or Shanghai. “While it is true that encyclopedic museums are mainly in the West,” asks Cuno, “does that discredit the principle of their existence?”

The encyclopedic museum seemed to me like a place where the cosmopolitan could look at history in a kind of innocence. The past is over – why should it haunt the present? In Cuno’s view, the British have as much a claim to the legacy of classical Athens as the Greeks; As for the modern and ancient Egyptians, “it can only be said that they occupy the same (actually less) part of the geography of the earth.” Eskenazi expressed a similar feeling about Buddhist art: “They tell me what Afghanistan has to do with Gandhara – I mean, today’s Afghanistan.”

When I told Eskenazi the story of Hamburg marble, he said he was appalled by the destruction of the Kabul Museum in 1993 and alarmed to find his artifacts for sale in the antique market. In the 1990s, while on a trip to Peshawar, Eskenazi were offered some of the stolen begram ivories wrapped in pink toilet paper. He contacted UNESCO who told him they couldn’t buy hot materials. Finally, he decided to take the risk of buying them himself. He also bought a Buddha statue from a collector in Japan that had been looted from the museum. In 2011 he donated it anonymously to the Afghan government with the support of the British Museum. (I had heard through the grapevine that Eskinazi was the benefactor, which he affirmed.)

Eskenazi served us more oolong tea from a black cast iron pot and fixed me with an ironic smile. He half expected me to write a sensational story about looting, he told me, proclaiming the “pseudomoral” of a new generation that tried to purify itself by rejecting the old one. The art world had indeed changed since his youth. But he felt that he had done his small part to preserve the spark of the divine carried by great art.

“I feel like a criminal for what I’ve done or done,” he said. “On the other hand, I feel like I’ve helped humanity preserve its own history and culture. I feel a lot more like it, of course. “

For the marbles The lack of an identifiable former owner complicates the issue of refunds. However, the Hamburg committee had both a clear legal reason for its reimbursement and someone to whom it could be returned – a “classic theft”, as Reuther, MKG’s provenance researcher, called it. In October 2019, the museum returned the Ghazni panel to the Afghan embassy at a brief ceremony in Hamburg. It had taken the Afghan and German governments more than a year to arrange the paperwork. “It was a feeling of relief that this piece was finally brought back,” said Mörike, the curator. He hoped other museums with similar stolen items would consider returning them. “The Ghazni case shows that the recent acquisitions are just as problematic as the historical acquisitions,” he said. He asked why museums need to buy new antiques from the art market in the first place. “The museums’ warehouses are full. We already have millions of items in our possession. “