Cosponsored by the National Arts Journalism Program and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, the three-day meeting was ambitiously titled "Who Owns Culture? The International Conference on Cultural Property and Patrimony."
In lieu of focus, it offered scope, bringing together more than 400 academics, journalists, lawyers, art dealers, collectors and museum officials to argue - sometimes heatedly - about a range of issues in the burgeoning field. Among the most hotly debated: the responsibility of museums to investigate the provenance of their collections; the role of law in resolving disputes involving national pride and competing ethical claims - and whether the g in "Elgin marbles" (the British name for the Parthenon sculptures) should be hard or soft.
Panelists also found time to bemoan the wartime destruction of hundreds of mosques and churches in the Balkans; the ravaging of Tibetan monasteries by the Chinese, and the uncontrolled looting of gravesites and monuments throughout the world.
And the good news? There was some, mostly having to do with what one top museum official called "power-sharing."
One of the brightest examples cited was the successful implementation of the 1990 North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The controversial legislation required museums to catalog and repatriate American Indian remains, as well as funerary artifacts, sacred objects and other culturally significant items. Both G. Peter Jemison, a Seneca artist and curator, and Thomas W. Killion, director of the repatriation program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, praised the mutual respect and information exchanges engendered by the law.
There were other signs, too, of newfound sensitivity to ancient grievances: Marion True, the curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, discussed the museum's groundbreaking efforts to discourage looting by tightening its acquisition policies and promoting international loans instead. And Sotheby's auction house sent Rena Moulopoulos, its worldwide director of compliance, to tout its increased scrutiny of potentially tainted merchandise - although the skeptics remained unconvinced.
If nothing else, the cultural-property conference was timely.
War plunder is as old as war, and grave-robbing predates archaeology. But in recent years, disputes over artwork looted during World War II by both the Nazis and Soviet trophy brigades have riveted attention on displaced cultural property.
Thanks in part to the revelations in Lynn H. Nicholas' The Rape of Europa and Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art, museums here and in Europe are scrutinizing their collections to weed out post-World War II acquisitions whose provenance, or history of ownership, is murky.
In New York, a legal battle is raging over the right of the Manhattan district attorney to impound two Egon Schiele paintings brought to the United States from Austria for a loan exhibition - paintings that are the object of Holocaust claims.
But, as the Columbia University conference made clear, this particular issue is just one component of a larger and even thornier debate that pits the interests of archaeology and nationalism against the claims of aesthetics, internationalism and market capitalism.
Nobel laureate Derek Walcott helped launch the conference, which was supposed to help bridge differences, by declaring that culture is owned by "whoever has the money," and that "it has become difficult to define culture without violence."
Walcott described the position of the United States - the world's dominant art market - as profoundly ambivalent. "The reality of America is that it is an empire," he said. "The beauty of America is that it does not want to be one."
The jockeying for rhetorical advantage began well before the keynote address. Feliciano, an NAJP Fellow and one of the meeting's organizers, said he was "submerged with e-mails" before the conference from both opponents and proponents of stricter controls on the international art market.
"Each side was claiming they were underrepresented," said Feliciano, who said the gathering was designed "to create a dialog" among parties who don't ordinarily converse.
One of the fiercest exchanges occurred during an April 16 panel called "The Trade in Art: Where Cultural Property Goes." Ricardo J. Elia, associate professor of archaeology at Boston University, threw down the gauntlet. Citing a case study of Apulian red-figure vases, Elia said that in recent years, looting of archaeological sites in Italy had increased at "an exponential rate" - a trend for which he blamed museums, collectors and art dealers. "They don't care about provenance," he flatly stated. "No wonder forgeries are a problem. They allow the corruption of their own field because they don't care where things come from."
He was challenged passionately from the audience by Geneva-based collector George Ortiz, an opponent of tight international controls on the art market. "When you say collectors don't care about provenance - I do everything to find out. I desperately care," said Ortiz.
Other participants urged compromise and dialog. "This desire to collect is not going to disappear," said art dealer Gerald Stiebel. "You might as well try to stop drinking by legislating against it." Inviting people to exhibitions but forbidding them to buy was like taking people on a tour of the chocolate factories of Hershey, Pa., and "saying 'you must never taste anything,' " he said.
Disagreement about definitions - including the competing meanings of cultural nationalism - was one recurring theme.
Was such nationalism, as exemplified by Greece's desire for the return of the sculptures ripped from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by agents of Lord Elgin, a healthy index of national pride and identity?
Or, compared with the notion of the free exchange of art, was nationalism a regressive idea?
Finally, as the Getty's innovative exchange programs seemed to indicate, were access to culture and ownership of it actually two different things?
John Henry Merryman, an emeritus professor of both law and art at Stanford University, charged that universalism has gotten short shrift. "Retentive cultural nationalists and archaeologists dominate the debate," he said. "And their voices tend to drown out the others."
Franco Ferrarotti, a sociologist at the University of Rome, agreed, calling the circulation of antiquities and other artworks "a salutary countermeasure" to the kind of "ominous" and "foreboding" cultural nationalism that leads to ethnic cleansing.
Destruction in the Balkans, past and present, imbued the rhetoric with particular urgency. Peter McCloskey, a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, showed slides of mosques and other landmarks demolished by the warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia - notably a historic bridge in Mostar that had once linked the city's Croatian and Bosnian communities.
During a panel discussion and interview, Konstantin Akinsha, research director for the Documentation Project of Wartime Cultural Losses in New York, said that Serbs had plundered Croatian and Bosnian museums.
About 35,000 objects from Croatia's Municipal Museum of Vukovar were confiscated, said Akinsha, whose reporting for ARTNews magazine detailed the actions of Soviet trophy brigades during World War II. "Serbs reported it as the salvation of the Serbian heritage," he said, although the trove included Croatian paintings and archaeological artifacts.
The prize holdings of Sarajevo's Museum of Fine Arts, including works by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hoedler, also were stolen and may be in Serbian hands, he said.
And the looting continues. A recent Washington Post story stated that prior to their offensive against the Kosovar Albanians, the Serbs removed art treasures from museums in Kosovo and shipped them to Belgrade. Akinsha said that NATO bombing also potentially threatened important Byzantine churches in northern Kosovo.
In a brief interview, McCloskey declined to comment on the fate of cultural property in Kosovo. "It's an ongoing investigation, and extremely sensitive," he said.
Conference participants generally praised the event, even if a consensus proved elusive.
"It's clearly articulated the different positions," Elia said, including the increasing divergence between the archaeological and museum traditions.
"The profession of archaeology has matured tremendously," he said. "The countries of origin have become much more sophisticated in their laws and their concerns. The groups that have not matured one bit are the art market - the dealers and the collectors and the museums, in most cases. They still are collecting the way they did 100-plus years ago - grabbing pretty pots devoid of context and putting them on display."
But Souren Melikian, arts editor of the International Herald Tribune, said he thought he detected an increasing U.S. awareness that market ownership could be trumped by moral or intellectual claims.
"It's the first time that what I would call 'the cynical tone' seems to be set aside," he said. "It's obvious that this new tone was inspired by the tragic plight of the Jews whose art was robbed.
"If that real tragedy inspires them [Americans] to pay attention to other tragedies," he said, "it's progress."