Wednesday, October 17, 2012

$Billions in antiquities and art reflect the pull of cultural property

The politics and economics of cultural property made headlines with a $2 billion estimate for looted antiquities from Syria  and a $1.5 billion estimate for the offering of art at London’s Frieze week.  The illicit market in antiquities and the art market not only indicate a demand for cultural property but also indicate initiative to steal and create to meet the demand. The market demand, such as illustrated by Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, reflects the pull of cultural property in international affairs.
In politics of the past week, cultural heritage provided a means of diplomacy in two volatile regions that have ramifications for international security. In Iran, Director General of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) met with Deputy Director of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism and Handicrafts Organization (CHTHO) in Tehran. ICCROM agreed to assist CHTHO by training groups of Iranian experts. In Korea, France agreed on shared ownership of cultural patrimony that had been looted the mid-1800s. The repatriation of Joseon-period royal texts from France to Korea in the form of a long-term lease shows innovation in resolution of ownership disputes. At the same time, the United Nations announced access to worldwide cases and analyses of organized crime operations. As a result of a joint effort of the Italian and Colombian governments and in coordination with Interpol, the collated material will provide a valuable source for research on contraband including trafficked cultural property.
In economics, the art market flourishes at both ends. At the high end, debate surrounds the perceived value of works by Gerhard Richter. Paintings by the living German artist fetch in excess of 20 million pounds. The success and safety of Richter’s works as investments has been recognized by celebrities such as Eric Clapton and attributed to the transnational appeal of colorful abstracts. At the affordable end, US-based Costco, the seventh largest retailer in the world, has resumed selling limited edition prints of well-known artists such as Warhol and Matisse with prices ranging below $1000. While the “art for everybody” concept has origins with Sears in the 1960s, perhaps Costco’s international presence in countries such as South Korea will effectively exploit expanding interest in art collecting. In a similar vein, India has “re-invented” printmaking to service budget collectors.
In some cases, the integration of politics and economics has ramifications for security. The wealth of looted cultural material from Syria echoes the severity of the conflict and raises concern over cultural cleansing that may also fund the conflict. On the upside, cooperation on the protection of cultural property improves relations between nations and increases the potential for tourism. Preserving cultural heritage in Iran and returning cultural patrimony to Korea provide a basis for developing museums and other cultural institutions. Cultural institutions both attract tourism and propagate identity that plays a role in social and political stability.

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