Eskenazi told me that he abhorred the behavior of dealers like Medici, and that he had always done due diligence to ensure that the antiquities that he sold were not stolen. But he also felt that once objects were on the art market, they should be preserved by collectors and museums. “Let’s face it, art belongs to whoever can take care of it, and for now, it’s the West,” he said. “The world is a dance of Shiva, it’s all about destruction and re-creation, continuously. So what we’re doing here is we’re trying to pick up what’s left, the relics of the past, and make some order.”
Eskinazi brought up the influential 2008 book “Who Owns Antiquity?” by James Cuno, the president of the Getty Trust, which defends the traditional idea of the encyclopedic museum, “the museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all.” Today the encyclopedic museum happens to be in New York or London; in the future it may appear in new concentrations of capital like Doha or Shanghai. “Although it is true that encyclopedic museums are primarily in the West,” Cuno asks, “does that discredit the principle of their existence?”
The encyclopedic museum, it seemed to me, was a place where the cosmopolitan could contemplate history in a kind of innocence. The past is gone — why should it haunt the present? In Cuno’s view, the British have as much of a claim to the legacy of classical Athens as the Greeks; as for modern and ancient Egyptians, “all that can be said is that they occupy the same (actually less) stretch of the earth’s geography.” Eskenazi expressed a similar sentiment about Buddhist art: “You tell me what Afghanistan has to do with Gandhara — I mean, modern-day Afghanistan.”
When I recounted the story of the Hamburg marble to Eskenazi, he said he had been appalled by the destruction of the Kabul museum in 1993, and alarmed to find its artifacts for sale on the antiquities market. In the 1990s, while on a trip to Peshawar, Eskenazi was offered some of the stolen Begram Ivories, wrapped in pink toilet paper. He contacted UNESCO, who told him they couldn’t buy hot materials. Finally, he decided to risk purchasing them himself. He also bought a Buddha statue from a collector in Japan that had been looted from the museum. In 2011, with the assistance of the British Museum, he donated them, anonymously, to the Afghan government. (I’d heard through the grapevine that Eskinazi was the benefactor, which he confirmed.)
Eskenazi served us more oolong tea from a black cast-iron pot and fixed me with a wry smile. He half-expected me to write a sensationalized story about looting, he told me, proclaiming the “pseudomorals” of a new generation that sought to purify itself by disavowing the old. The art world had indeed changed since his youth. But he felt he had done his small part to preserve the spark of the divine that was carried by great art.
“I feel like a criminal because of what I have, or had, done,” he said. “While on the other side, I feel I’ve helped humanity conserve its own history and culture. I feel like that much more, of course.”
For the marbles that were taken from the countryside, the lack of an identifiable former owner makes the question of restitution more difficult. But the Hamburg panel had both a clear legal case for its restitution and someone to return it to — a “classic theft,” as Reuther, the MKG’s provenance researcher, termed it. In October 2019, at a brief ceremony in Hamburg, the museum returned the Ghazni panel to the Afghan Embassy. Between the Afghan and German governments, it had taken more than a year to arrange the paperwork. “There was a feeling of relief that this piece was finally repatriated,” Mörike, the curator, told me. He hoped that other museums with similarly stolen objects would consider returning them. “What the Ghazni case shows is that recent acquisitions are as problematic as historical acquisitions,” he said. He questioned why museums needed to acquire new antiquities from the art market at all. “The storehouses of the museums are full. We’re already in possession of millions of objects.”