Every time any kind of cultural-historical object or building is destroyed overseas, someone who has never written about cultural heritage before (they never have!!! I don't know why!!!) feels the need to (please don't click on this link) lay down some truth: Maybe that item of cultural heritage would not have been destroyed if it were in the West, hmmm! It's the whack-a-mole of cultural heritage takes.
The idea is bad for... many reasons. In addition to the gross paternalism and colonial hangover, there are never any policy corollaries for this suggestion. Do we move all objects to the U.S.? Or is it possible that takes like the one above serve only to exonerate probable criminals from blame? Who can say.
Also, these writers all seem to be under the impression that America is just a giant museum made entirely of bubble wrap and padding. Listen, it is not true. All of the highest-value heists have happened in "the West," a huge amount of art is in private hands and not in museums, and, historically, shit breaks all the time when private owners get their hands on it. Let's look at a small selection of things that William Randolph Hearst broke, shall we?
- An antique bed.
"The bed that Bill is using upstairs is going to pieces through... lack of attention. When a piece falls off somewhere the maid puts it away and later throws it out."
Hearst's solution was to hire a technical assistant to oil, wax and re-glue things. It was pretty normal for collectors, dealers, and museums to perform this kind of unscientific touch-up work, which now feels more like HGTV than actual conservation.
- An alabaster mantle.
"Alabaster mantel at Charles was broken by his men. Tell him he must take mantel back and off my account, as he is responsible for gross carelessness of his experts, or else make substantial reduction in price."
Ok, this one is actually a dealer's fault. Sorry, WRH.
- A lot of glass (see playlist)
Possibly including "the blue and white porcelain garden seats, the three glazed pottery statues, the Wedgewood blue and white Jasperware urns and other small items." The breakage in this shipment led to an extended insurance dispute!
- Santa Maria de Ovila.
"About one percent of the material... was broken and about two percent more had lost its wrappings and had been slightly damaged."
- Some fine urns.
"Our fine urns came smashed. [I] am confident that boat shipment increases hazard through double handling and also careless handling. [H]ereafter kindly ship absolutely nothing of my art material by boat. [A]ll unnecessary handling should be avoided..."
- Tables, chair legs, whatever else.
"The car was beautifully packed and wedged--no shifting apparent--but on unpacking, a number of articles were broken in ways that suggest that as the shocks the car received had to be absorbed and passed from crate to crate because wedged as a whole, the strain went through the crates to the articles which may not have been crated with this in mind; i.e. were too nearly the size of the crates, and giving with them, took up the impulse by cracking such things as table pedestals where fancy, chair legs, etc. We fortunately had good men on hand and most of the repairs are already made."
By this point, Hearst had had a decade to figure out how to move things from New York to Los Angeles. A decade!
- Early American furniture sent to the De Young Museum for display.
"Lot #345 had a broken piece wrapped and placed in a drawer. This has been properly glued and replaced. Lot #29 had a piece of veneer missing on one of the drawers and we are having this repaired by an expert cabinet-maker. Lot #338 had a picture frame broken in two places. The damage was noted by your Los Angeles warehouse man."
- Medieval stained glass.
"[The] carloads arrived largely wrong. The windows for which glass was wanted, as I carefully explained to Chris, are eight feet tall. He sends me glass from Demotte eleven feet high. These eleven feet high windows are very valuable and must be sent back to New York. Some of the glass has broken in transport, through bad packing and lack of bracing in cars."
This broken glass causes an extended dispute between Hearst and his warehouse chief, and a lot of confusion about whether or not insurance covers broken glass. It does, it turns out, so Hearst can become a little pious: "Very glad insurance covers breakage. However please urge our warehouse organization necessity of personally supervising packing and placing in care, as even insurance does not compensate for loss of fine things."
- Who even knows!
Hearst asks his chief logistics specialist to please stop sending objects from New York to California via Examiner, "as everything is consistently lost or misplaced." This telegram may (extremely hard maybe) refer to SS Examiner, which was torpedoed during WWII, so I guess I'll give Hearst a point for foresight.
There are, of course, limits to this take. The chapel at the Detroit Institute of Arts comes from a building that was bombed in World War II, though it appears to be the only building "saved" from the kind of hypothetical destruction posited by anti-repatriationists. And I suspect that institutions are better at moving objects now than Hearst's rag-tag warehouse team was many years ago. Finally, the objects above represent a small portion of the enormous amount of "fine things" that Hearst moved west. It is, frankly, a miracle that he didn't spend all of his time complaining about things being broken. Still, the above list represents some of the small and large ways that things could go wrong in transport. And it also doesn't include, you know, decades of items sitting in leaking warehouses or the five-plus times that Santa Maria de Ovila was set on fire in a park.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from the chaos factory that was Hearst's warehouse enterprise!