Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Political Economy of Cultural Property

When Edvard Munch's The Scream fetched $120 million at Sotheby's in New York in May, the painting, with its angst imagery, made headlines as the most expensive artwork sold at auction. The sale also highlighted that the art market continues to draw attention as a type of alternative investment that may offer refuge in times of economic anxiety. At the same time, the broader world of cultural property is developing political angst.
While artworks become financial assets, antiquities are taking on political liability. “Source nations” are gaining confidence in challenging museums in “market nations” over the return of antiquities with questionable provenance. With past successes, such as the repatriation of the “Lydian Hoard” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the 1980s, Turkey has made headlines recently for aggressively approaching several museums in the United States and Europe about a number of antiquities.
An expanding art market and evolving precedents for repatriation reflect the financial and political value of cultural property. Unfortunately, the value motivates looting of antiquities worldwide and targeting of historic structures and religious monuments. A recent example is the destruction of mausoleums of Sufi saints by Ansar Dine in Timbuktu, Mali. UNESCO raises awareness of the extent of looting and destruction, but awareness does not seem to draw the necessary support quickly enough. Perhaps not enough parties have, or realize, a vested interest.
In some cases, the financial and political dimensions of cultural property intersect to form a security risk. Recent rumors of a trade in arms for antiquities from Syria epitomizes a tragic aspect of the political economy of cultural property. Might the financial significance of artworks and the political clout of cultural patrimony expand the range of stakeholders in the protection of cultural heritage?

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