As ISIS Destroys Artifacts, Could Some Antiquities Have Been Saved? : Parallels The Getty Trust's president argues objects should be spread around the world for safekeeping — which is controversial, and sometimes illegal. Protecting sites, he says, could require military action.

As ISIS Destroys Artifacts, Could Some Antiquities Have Been Saved?

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In addition to the human toll, ISIS continued its assault this week on Syria's cultural heritage. Militants blew up three tombs in the ancient city of Palmyra and reduced the wondrous Greco-Roman Temple of Bel to rubble. Yet, ISIS also profits by selling small antiquities on the black market. The British Museum says that it's holding an object that was looted from Syria and will return it only when it's safe to do so. But should museums in one country be safeguarding artifacts extracted from another? Or is it more important that those objects say where they came from? James Cuno has been writing about these questions a lot. He's president to the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. Thanks very much for joining us.

JAMES CUNO: Thank you very much.

SIMON: You wrote a letter to The New York Times that I want to quote a line from it.

This unconscionable destruction is an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place.

What would that achieve?

CUNO: It distributes the risk to them - and to their survival - over many places. I like to say that it is the case that calamity can happen anywhere, but it won't happen everywhere simultaneously. But when things are preserved and kept in one place, that puts them at greater risk.

SIMON: We mentioned that The British Museum is holding an object that was taken illegally from Syria. What do you think about that?

CUNO: Yeah, I don't know the circumstances of that, but I know that in the United States, we can't do that with regard to Iraq. There was a law passed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that all such materials, if they are found in the United States, should be returned to Iraq. Therefore, we would have to, and have recently, returned things to Syria and Iraq and put them, probably, in harm's way.

SIMON: Should the law be changed?

CUNO: I think it should be changed. I think it's extremely reasonable. We do take refugees. I think we could take refugee objects as well.

SIMON: Yeah. I think I can begin to understand this when it comes to coins or small statues. But what do you do about something like the Temple of Bel?

CUNO: Yeah, it's extremely different. You know, the former we can address by policing those borders to try to prevent or inhibit the illegal trade of objects across borders. But when it comes to the built heritage, we have to take the risk of military intervention whereby - having to protect those sites. And the United Nations has a means of doing so through the Blue Helmet system, but it is only at the invitation of the local sovereign authority. And that's not likely to happen because those states are in calamitous situations, currently.

SIMON: Somebody listening, I think, will point out that you can't get the United Nations, as presently constituted, to agree to intervene to protect human beings. Can you really expect them to do it for antiquities?

CUNO: It's a very hard argument make. That I understand, but as I said, the natural resources, human resources, cultural resources - they're all part of what is the world, and all need to be preserved.

SIMON: James Cuno is president of J. Paul Getty Trust. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

CUNO: Thank you very much.

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