Near Bordeaux is the famous wine village of Saint Emilion, classified with its vineyards as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2011, something extraordinary happened here. The town was in debt to the tune of €6 million and decided that it could not afford the upkeep on its patrimony. Without public discussion, the mayor, Bernard Lauret, sold the 14th Century Cordeliers cloister to a private citizen, a local businessman who had designs on making Cremant de Bordeaux on the property.
The cloister had recently undergone a publicly funded €570,000 restoration and was sold for €750,000, a figure which appears to significantly undervalue the property.
It is clear that there was a genuine financial problem – the regional accounting office determined that Saint Emilion had a debt load four times greater than the average French town of the same size despite tax revenues 73 per cent higher. But the office also determined that bad financial management was at least part of the reason for the debt.
The Mayor and the town council defended the measure by saying that the funds were needed to maintain the rest of the town’s patrimonial structures, not to pay down the large debt. The townspeople were outraged by the deal, but were too late to stop the transaction from going through.
France has a great deal of experience in privatization, having sold off so many of its great monuments during the French Revolution. The results were disastrous; the Abbey of Cluny, the centerpiece of French monastic architecture in the Middle Ages, was almost completely obliterated by a Dijon businessman who used explosives to topple the complex so that he could sell off the stone. Prosper Lorain in his Histoire de l’abbaye de Cluny describes how Napoleon, on his way to Milan to be crowned King of Italy in 1805, passed through Burgundy. A citizen of Macon begged him to visit Cluny, remonstrating “You have allowed the sale and destruction of your great and beautiful church.” Napoleon replied brusquely, “You are the Vandals. I will not visit Cluny.”
The abbey was used as a stone quarry until 1813. This example, among too many others to enumerate, demonstrate the folly of privatization, which we might postulate equates to destruction.
The French recognized the importance of their heritage and in 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care. Under his leadership, France took the first steps to protect its patrimony on a national scale.
But more destruction occurred in the years that followed. In 1906, the American sculptor George Grey Barnard was in Europe while he worked on a commission for the Pennsylvania Capitol building. Exploring the countryside by donkey cart, he came upon the remains of monasteries and churches abandoned or damaged during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. Barnard haggled with local owners and was soon exporting antiquities to rich Americans, among them John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
“I chanced to take up this work,” Barnard remarked, “at a time when France was so interested in modernity that she had forgotten her glorious past.”
A Milwaukee Journal article from October 21, 1979 states, “More dealer and entrepreneur than scholar, the enthusiastic Barnard ranged widely looking for treasures. France’s indifference to the value of its artistic heritage, coupled with the lack of export controls, made it possible for Barnard to ship antiquities of incalculable value to clients overseas before corrective legislation was passed. The French government finally passed a law in 1913 to stop the export of their cultural heritage.”
Two days before the law took effect Barnard sent a shipload of materials and artifacts to New York.
The bulk of his personal collection, which he expanded to include substantial architectural elements including cloisters and portals, became the basis of the Cloisters Museum collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Perched on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, the Cloisters is a superb home for the transplanted walkways of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, Saint Martin-de-Canigou, and from other sites in southern France. Visitors to the City can enjoy these marvels of the Middle Ages for themselves.
But it is a different thing to go to France and visit the original sites of these cloisters. We see fragments instead of ensembles, fragments of the buildings that once were the glory of medieval France.
It is like going to the ancient city of Pergamum in Turkey, knowing that the magnificent Altar of Pergamum resides in Berlin instead of in its home in Turkey from whence it was removed.
The British Museum in London contains the so-called Elgin Marbles, the sculpted frieze from the Parthenon in Athens. The agents of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, spent almost ten years cutting out the frieze and sending it back to England.
Byron decried the defacement of the Parthenon in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Those who defend the removal of these treasures cite the fact that they were found abandoned and deteriorating and that only the protection of a more civilized setting would preserve them for posterity. That may be so, but were the Marbles and the Altar of Pergamum any more protected in London and Berlin? Both were severely threatened in the Second World War as Berlin and London were devastated in bombing and battle. The English protected the frieze by placing it in an unused section of the Underground as a defense from the German bombing. The Pergamon Museum was badly damaged by air raids towards the end of WWII, while segments of the Altar, which had been stored for safekeeping in a Berlin bunker, were seized by the Red Army and taken back to the Soviet Union. They weren’t returned until 1959.
The controversial issues of artistic salvage and reparations cannot be decided by a simple right or wrong because the issues are too dense, the history too complex, and the national laws too convoluted. My position is predicated on a simple question. If, in the future, the United States suffered complete economic collapse, would I approve the sale of the Lincoln Monument to a private individual to recover some funds, or to allow it to be dismantled stone by stone and transported to another country for display in a museum? This is the question faced by those countries whose monuments have been removed, and I am not surprised that their answer is a resounding negative.