Conjuring tricks with caskets and stones

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The Independent Online
Imagine we were to report today that the Prince of Wales was reinstituting the practice of "touching" as a way of curing disease. It was once taken for granted. Doctor Johnson, remember, was touched in his youth by Queen Anne, and the practice was, oddly enough, briefly revived by George VI, another member of the Royal Family in need of a boost. The reaction of almost all readers would be incredulity: a spoof. What royal person has an aura, other than that debased one, celebrity? Outside a few small faiths, nobody on the planet today, and certainly no Westerner, is believed to be a living transmitting-rod for divinity. The Prince, like the rest of us, is common clay.

But the magic of touch lives - transferred, it seems, to objects. Ours is often characterised as a materialist age. You could interpret this week's fuss over the sale of the Thomas a Becket casket in that way - an example of mere lust to own property, augmented (in the disappointed visages of the respective curators from the Victoria & Albert and British Museums) by broken dreams of huge queues of visitors. But there was more to it than that. The object acquired an historical halo, in this instance backlit by rays from newly fashionable Catholicism and childhood memories of Ladybird histories of England. As the hype and the cash bids mounted, reason left the stage.

We are talking here about venerable and venerated objects and the cloudiness of argument which seems to engulf them. The fate of the Becket casket became a complicated political and historical business. There was the bureaucratic rivalry. There was a whiff of vestigial anti-Americanism (never mind the purchaser is a Canadian). There was the scrambling of Tory politicians - and Labour in office would probably be the same - who were trying to avoid letting the national ''heritage'' down. (Some national heritage: the object was made in France to hold the bones of a Norman who did not speak English and owed his first allegiance to an Italian.)

When a French businessman buys a suit of armour and his daughter tries it on and it fits, the possibility that it might once have been worn by Joan of Arc is worth a frisson - on that side of the Channel as here - but not much more. Museum directors in Domremy, Rouen and Paris might salivate, but no one in their right mind should think of this as any more than an old suit of armour with historical associations - unless they are Action Francaise veterans, Le Pennistes or others on a political ramp. God protect Joan's armour, if that is what it is, from conscription in some tawdry neo-fascist campaign.

Much the same needs to be said of the Stone of Scone. We are dealing here with two pernicious theories abroad in the modern world. One is the doctrine of perfect location, as in the Stone having to be in Scotland, the Parthenon friezes in Athens, native American skeletons in the Dakotas and Becket's casket in the V&A. And why stop there? Why shouldn't all Rembrandts be on the Stadthouderskade and all Monets in the Quai d'Orsay? Ah, the answer to that is they were painted for sale and so do not belong to the patrimony.

This takes us to the second doctrine, that of original ownership. This is, of course, a sub-clause in many nationalist manifestos. Nana Mouskouri and her cohorts, British and Greek, are asserting the essential continuity of Greekness, Aristotle to Aristotle Onassis, and so assert that the Elgin marbles belong in Athens. Similarly, the Bravehearts of 1996 who identify so proudly with the 13th-century feudal Scotland but who forget the fact of 1603. The union of the crowns surely made the acquisitions of an earlier English king (Edward I) part of the patrimony of the new monarch of England and Scotland (James I and VI), especially since he could also claim descent from Edward's vanquished adversary. At that, one hears the angels dancing on the pin head. It is a gigantic silliness made the more ludicrous by an opportunist Government promising X-ray inquiries to show it is the Real Thing.

What matters instead are a principle and a practice. The principle is that there can be no final equilibrium position in the distribution of the world's supply of objects of beauty or historical interest. There certainly must not be some national test, or else the contents of the National Gallery of Scotland would scatter to the four winds and the moor of Culloden - let alone Bannockburn and Prestonpans - would have to be dug up to allow the return of those German and English bones. Any existing distribution of objects reflects history, money, chance and comparative advantage. It is not fair because there never can be some suprahistorical measuring rod. It just is.

But here is where the practice comes in. In this world of mass tourism, of Internet imagery and endless simulations of reality, the location of the object surely becomes less and less important. What matters is access to it. What matters, for example, are museum admissions charges: it is when the British Museum starts charging Greek tourists exorbitant amounts that they are being denied their rights.

The obligation on the keepers of objects has to do with good custodianship and curatorship, liberal opening hours and generous arrangements for filming, photography, and copying. Where the objects are and who owns them is secondary. After all, none of them is magic.