Eskenazi advised me that he abhorred the conduct of sellers like Medici, and that he had at all times completed due diligence to make sure that the antiquities that he offered weren’t stolen. However he additionally felt that when objects had been on the artwork market, they need to be preserved by collectors and museums. “Let’s face it, artwork belongs to whoever can care for it, and for now, it’s the West,” he mentioned. “The world is a dance of Shiva, it’s all about destruction and re-creation, repeatedly. So what we’re doing right here is we’re making an attempt to choose up what’s left, the relics of the previous, and make some order.”
Eskinazi introduced up the influential 2008 ebook “Who Owns Antiquity?” by James Cuno, the president of the Getty Belief, which defends the standard concept of the encyclopedic museum, “the museum devoted to concepts, not ideologies, the museum of worldwide, certainly common aspirations, and never of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s inventive and cultural legacy as widespread to us all.” Right now the encyclopedic museum occurs to be in New York or London; sooner or later it could seem in new concentrations of capital like Doha or Shanghai. “Though it’s true that encyclopedic museums are primarily within the West,” Cuno asks, “does that discredit the precept of their existence?”
The encyclopedic museum, it appeared to me, was a spot the place the cosmopolitan may ponder historical past in a form of innocence. The previous is gone — why ought to it hang-out the current? In Cuno’s view, the British have as a lot of a declare to the legacy of classical Athens because the Greeks; as for contemporary and historical Egyptians, “all that may be mentioned is that they occupy the identical (truly much less) stretch of the earth’s geography.” Eskenazi expressed an identical sentiment about Buddhist artwork: “You inform me what Afghanistan has to do with Gandhara — I imply, modern-day Afghanistan.”
After I recounted the story of the Hamburg marble to Eskenazi, he mentioned he had been appalled by the destruction of the Kabul museum in 1993, and alarmed to seek out its artifacts on the market on the antiquities market. Within the Nineties, whereas on a visit to Peshawar, Eskenazi was supplied a number of the stolen Begram Ivories, wrapped in pink rest room paper. He contacted UNESCO, who advised him they couldn’t purchase scorching supplies. Lastly, he determined to danger buying them himself. He additionally purchased a Buddha statue from a collector in Japan that had been looted from the museum. In 2011, with the help of the British Museum, he donated them, anonymously, to the Afghan authorities. (I’d heard by means of the grapevine that Eskinazi was the benefactor, which he confirmed.)
Eskenazi served us extra oolong tea from a black cast-iron pot and stuck me with a wry smile. He half-expected me to write down a sensationalized story about looting, he advised me, proclaiming the “pseudomorals” of a brand new technology that sought to purify itself by disavowing the previous. The artwork world had certainly modified since his youth. However he felt he had completed his small half to protect the spark of the divine that was carried by nice artwork.
“I really feel like a prison due to what I’ve, or had, completed,” he mentioned. “Whereas on the opposite facet, I really feel I’ve helped humanity preserve its personal historical past and tradition. I really feel like that rather more, in fact.”
For the marbles that had been taken from the countryside, the dearth of an identifiable former proprietor makes the query of restitution tougher. However the Hamburg panel had each a transparent authorized case for its restitution and somebody to return it to — a “traditional theft,” as Reuther, the MKG’s provenance researcher, termed it. In October 2019, at a short ceremony in Hamburg, the museum returned the Ghazni panel to the Afghan Embassy. Between the Afghan and German governments, it had taken greater than a yr to rearrange the paperwork. “There was a sense of reduction that this piece was lastly repatriated,” Mörike, the curator, advised me. He hoped that different museums with equally stolen objects would take into account returning them. “What the Ghazni case reveals is that latest acquisitions are as problematic as historic acquisitions,” he mentioned. He questioned why museums wanted to accumulate new antiquities from the artwork market in any respect. “The storehouses of the museums are full. We’re already in possession of tens of millions of objects.”