The Whistle-Blower at the Art Party

A Curator Takes on His Museum

The whistle-blower tours the scene of a crime he is determined to reveal, in a blue seersucker suit and a paisley ascot. He is confident and unafraid.

"Looted," he says, strolling past a boxed display of ancient Greek art. "Stolen," he mutters, pointing to a glass case full of exquisite pottery. "All plunder." Oscar White Muscarella's voice holds its obstinate volume, though employees of the alleged crime scene—the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are everywhere.

"Look at this piece," he asks, pointing to an ancient jar seal on display in "Art of the First Cities," the Met's current special exhibit on Mesopotamian culture. "It's loot. It's that simple. They say it's unexcavated, which is another way of saying it's plundered."

The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit "Art of the First Cities"
photo: Cary Conover
The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit "Art of the First Cities"

A recent New York Times article on the exhibition outlines the difficulties determining the origin of antiquities, suggesting that several of the artifacts on display in "Art of the First Cities" have an indeterminate provenance, the art-world term for the origin and ownership history of a piece of art. The article describes the decisions made by private art collectors, museum curators, and archaeologists as they navigate the ethical implications of buying, presenting, and writing about art that may have been looted from archaeological sites.

But Oscar Muscarella's concerns are more sweeping, his conclusions more damning. Most of the antiquities in museums like the Met are plundered, he believes. "Whether this should all be returned or not is another story," he says. Put simply, his view is that the practice of acquiring antiquities, outside of scholarly excavation, is inevitably immoral. It promotes a trade that Muscarella, during his more animated outbursts, likens to "white slavery." "The important thing now is to stop the looting."

The whistle-blower, who describes himself as a thorn in the side of the venerable Met, has worked in the Near East department at the museum since the mid 1960s. In 1972, he was fired, he says, for speaking publicly about a stolen vase. He fought for reinstatement in court and won, so they're stuck with him. Since then, he says, he feels isolated, and is friendly with only a few of the curators. "They gave me some Mickey Mouse title, and won't call me a curator," says the archaeologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. "I'm a senior research fellow."

Indeed, Muscarella is viewed as a loner. "I don't think I've ever spoken to Oscar Muscarella," says Harold Holzer, the Met's communications director. "I just don't understand why anyone who hates museums would work in a museum."

The publication of Muscarella's book a few years ago on the forgery of ancient Near Eastern culture probably didn't impress his superiors, either. In The Lie Became Great, he exposes the actors he believes are complicit in the crime, including academics and scientists, collectors and museum trustees, auction houses and dealers. Forgery for Muscarella is not just about fakes. He also means the cover-up of theft, the removal of an archaeological artifact from its "original context," and the attempts to obscure its origins.

In conversations with museum officials, academics, dealers, and collectors, a philosophical divide emerges on the ethics of the antiquities trade. Dealers and private owners repeatedly argue that ancient treasures, especially from the developing world, are better off in Western museums and cultural institutions, or with art collectors. Here, they claim, the works can be studied and enjoyed by the devotees of antiquity. And in the West, they can depend on the stability and professionalism of the art community. This view, of course, is centuries old—a pillar of colonialism—and leans heavily on the vaunted superiority of the West, whether technological or ethical.

On the other side, academics and archaeologists will argue that once a piece is ripped from its original context, its value to scholarship is irreparably damaged. Like Muscarella, they point out that many antiquities in Western museums were at some time stolen from their original sites, and the question is how to mitigate the damage in the future.

Photo: Cary Conover
If Muscarella exists somewhere on the fringe of this debate, the most recent war in Iraq may have changed all that. The outrage that followed the sacking of Iraq's museum and many of its archaeological sites has intensified the debate about art theft.

In the end, says Muscarella, the plunder of art is about class. "I'm not a leftist," he says. "But it's the power of selfish, wealthy people, who can do whatever they want, that is annihilating the world's history."

Others will argue that money, spent by museums and wealthy collectors to acquire art, actually helps to record and preserve history.

"Look, there's no point suppressing these pieces by refusing to exhibit them," says David Owen, an archaeologist at Cornell University. "It serves nobody's purpose. They're already extracted from their context." Owen says that the looting in Iraq has hastened a rush to condemn collectors, especially private ones, who, in his view, are not the problem.

"The first step is having these countries control their own situations," he says. "[Iraq] had enormous oil wealth, enormous resources. They pulled all the guards of their [archaeological] sites [in the mid '90s]."

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