I’m reading a novel in which a central plot point involves a museum’s exhibition of some Native American artifacts, artifacts acquired decades prior to the novel’s events. The exhibition’s publicity alerts the tribe that created the artifacts as to their location, and the tribe contacts the museum to allege that the artifacts were taken wrongfully, and the museum has no legitimate title to them. This claim is borne out by the old notes of the anthropologist who acquired the artifacts; he acknowledges he paid for them but knew the tribesman selling them did not himself own them and had no right to sell them. This long-ago thievery was lost to history until the current exhibition alerted the tribe.
The museum staff debates the issue. Some take the position that the museum bought and paid for the items, and should keep them; others, that the ethics of their professions demand that the items be returned.
During the debate, one character in the novel defends the latter point of view by saying something like, “Who ‘owns’ Michelangelo’s David? If the Italians wanted to break it up to make bathroom tiles, would that be acceptable? If the Eqyptians wanted to level the Great Pyramid to make a parking lot, could they? If the Greeks wanted to sell the Parthenon to a Las Vegas casino, would that be their right?”
The character’s viewpoint is that those rhetorical question are obviously answered in the negative – that these things are owned by humanity, that they represent the “highest expression of the human spirit,” and cannot be bought and sold like commodities.
I disagree completely. I imagine if someone wishes to make themselves humanity’s representative, and outbid the bathroom tile maker for first crack at David, they’re welcome to. But I argue that there is no legal, moral, or ethical principle that suggests that artwork cannot be owned, and, once owned, disposed of as the user wishes.
Since the novel’s character can’t debate me, I turn to you.