Bernard Frischer


In the nineteenth century, liberalism characterized the law codes of many Mediterranean countries rich in cultural heritage such as Italy, Turkey, and Greece. Under the liberal regime, museums in countries like France and Britain could send archaeological expeditions to sites and repatriate as many of the significant finds as they wished. As the nineteenth century proceeded, first in Turkey and then in other countries, a more restrictive approach to cultural heritage was adopted, culminating in the Italian law of 1909. Under this new regime, foreign museums could no longer export works found in archaeological projects they sponsored and so, inevitably two things happened: museums ceased to sponsor excavations; and a black market in looted art sprung up, as happens whenever the law attempts to suppress behavior that humans find natural (such as drinking alcohol or collecting valuable artifacts). The twentieth century was thus a disaster for archaeologists for many reasons: it was harder to raise funding for new projects; existing archaeological sites were systematically attacked and looted by tombaroli; and objects started to fill our museums without provenance, which made interpretation and even evaluation of authenticity difficult. A change for the better was signaled by the UNESCO convention of 1970 (“Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”). The recent Marion True case in Italy and the looting of the Baghdad Museum after the US-led invasion of Iraq focused the world’s attention on the problem of looted art in a welcome way.

Now the time has come for a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to prevent the looting of our cultural heritage while at the same time making it possible for museums outside the Mediterranean area to continue to build their collections in a responsible way. The purpose of this talk is to propose a “grand compromise” between the liberalism of the nineteenth century and the repressive laws of the twentieth: an arrangement whereby museums can once again sponsor archaeological excavations and exhibit the finds, but in which the host country continues to maintain ownership. In the talk, I will present the details of how this solution might work in detail.