Cover image for Playing darts with a Rembrandt : public and private rights in cultural treasures
Playing darts with a Rembrandt : public and private rights in cultural treasures
Sax, Joseph L.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiv, 245 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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K3791 .S29 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Some of the world's greatest treasures are hidden away and have not been seen publicly for decades, sometimes for centuries. Others have been destroyed. They are not stolen property. They are simply private property, and no matter their public significance, the public has no claims on them. A capricious owner of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook would be perfectly within his rights to throw it in the fireplace, as James Joyce's grandson did with letters from the author's daughter, or Warren Harding's widow did with her husband's Teapot Dome papers. This is a book about such rights and why they are wrong.
Some incidents are famous. A great artist's mural is demolished because the rich man who commissioned it is offended by its political implications. One of America's most famous collections is closed to virtually every notable person in the art world, whose requests for visits produce only a postcard from the owner saying "go to Blazes." Scholars who seek access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, monopolized and secreted by a handful of individuals for nearly forty years, are dismissed as "slime," "fleas," "gang-snatchers," and "manure," and told, "You will not see these things in your lifetime."
Playing Darts with a Rembrandt explores abuses of ownership of cultural treasures in a wide range of settings, including material of historic and scientific interest, as well as art and antiquities. It examines the claims made on behalf of the public for preservation, protection, and access to important artifacts, balancing those claims against proprietary and privacy interests, and discusses the proper role of institutions such as museums and libraries that act as repositories. Acknowledging the complexities that sometimes arise (such as the claims of history against the desire of a great figure's family to withhold private letters), Playing Darts with a Rembrandt proposes a new species of qualified ownership: to own an object of great public importance is to become a "fortunate, if provisional, trustee, having no right to deprive others who value the objects as much as they do themselves."
The fascinating stories that comprise the bulk of the book, ranging from dinosaur excavations and the Dead Sea Scrolls to the fate of presidential papers and the secrets held by the Library of Congress, will be of interest to a wide range of general readers. The extensive discussion of collectors, and their role, should commend the book to those in the art world, as well as to those professionally associated with museums, libraries, and archives. While written in a readable and untechnical way, it should also be of interest to those in the legal community who are interested in the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of our property system.
"Sax turns his attention from public rights to conserve land and water to protection of cultural treasures. As always, he sees both sides of the argument and comes to reasoned and wise conclusions, balancing private and public interests. His prose is lucid, and his examples are both instructive and entertaining. An invaluable book for anyone interested in the preservation of our cultural resources." --I. Michael Heyman, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Joseph L. Sax is Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley. He was formerly the counselor to the Secretary of the Interior and Professor of Law, the University of Michigan Law School.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Pointing out that if a wanton art collector wanted to play darts with his Rembrandt portrait, no one could stop him, Sax contends that conventional notions of ownership need to be modified for artistic treasures, important scientific objects, architecturally significant buildings and documents of cultural or historical import. Sax calls for a form of qualifiedÄrather than exclusiveÄownership of cultural treasures, founded on a recognition that the public at large has a stake in them. Wittily written with an eye for human foibles, this survey is chock full of illustrative incidents, such as the Rockefeller family's 1934 destruction of a mural they had commissioned from Communist painter Diego Rivera; the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, monopolized for four decades by a small group of scholars until an intensive campaign opened them to the public in 1984; Jonas Salk's radical renovation of the La Jolla, Calif., research institute named after himÄdeparting greatly from Louis Kahn's original 1965 design; the squabble over a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil discovered on a South Dakota ranch in 1990; and John Ruskin's torching of J.M.W. Turner's erotic sketchbook. Other cases include the Nixon papers and Lady Churchill's destruction of an unflattering portrait of Winston. In controversies over private papers (of President Harding, Kafka, Salinger, Malamud, Joyce, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.), Sax advocates public access, butÄrecognizing "the real costs that unmitigated probing of private matters can engender"Ägives wide latitude to creators themselves, and some even to their heirs. He throws down a gauntlet to librarians, curators and archivists, however: material should either be closed to everyone for a reasonable period, or open to all adults. It's a stirring argument. Photos. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

In this broad exposition of the ethical, legal, and social issues associated with private and public rights and obligations attached to cultural treasures--including works of art, papers of prominent figures, library and museum collections, and the interface of private and public interests--Sax (law, Univ. of California, Berkeley) examines the destruction by its owners of the Diego Rivera murals at Rockefeller Center and Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill, the rights to and control over the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Chauvet cave in southern France, the Barnes Collection, presidential and Supreme Court justices' papers, and the Freud collection. Instead of enunciating complex legal rules, he explores issues that have been treated in an ad hoc fashion and looks for common themes. Sax concludes that some articles evince qualified ownership founded on the recognition that they are part of a community, and that ordinary private dominion over them insufficiently accounts for the community's rightful stake in them. His core intuition "is to let history make its own judgments, and not permit mere proprietors to prejudge what sort of artistic, scientific, or documentary material is germane to that judgment." Thus the owner is merely a steward for cultural heritage and does not have the right to throw darts at his Rembrandt. Upper-division undergraduates and beyond. K. W. Grundy; Case Western Reserve University