Senior editor at the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin, recently published an opinion piece, “The Great Giveback,” in the New York Times. The piece discusses the now commonplace routine of American museums announcing the return of antiquities to foreign countries, based on the respective country’s threats of legal action or other sanctions. Through the piece, Eakin argues that such return of objects has “done little to halt the international trade in looted antiquities, while rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments.”
A letter to the editor published in response to Eakin’s piece noted that “the repatriation issue applies to the United States as well,” as the American government did not protect the United States’ archaeological heritage until 1980. The letter further argues that many ancient treasures, such as the Elgin marbles and remains from Egyptian tombs, would not have been properly preserved had they not been taken by “institutions that know their value.” The letter concludes that it is often a mistake for American institutions to return artifacts.
In contrast, Derek Fincham at Illicit Cultural Property noted strong opposition to Eakin’s piece. Fincham explained stated that the piece “contained a stunning array of factual inaccuracies.” He defends America’s return of artifacts, noting that many such returns are accompanied by “corresponding loans heading in the other direction.” He concludes by comparing looting to murder, stating, “It would be a bizarre legal system that said that so long as a murder occurs and the perpetrator can hop off to another country, the defendant should get off free and clear. But that’s the casual indifference displayed by Eakin.”