Book cover for 'Playing Darts with a Rembrandt'
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Playing Darts with a Rembrandt

Public and Private Rights in Cultural Treasures
Joseph L. Sax
Considers the limits to the rights of private owners of great works of art or cultural treasures, such as historic papers, to destroy these works or to deny public access to them


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.

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.

Praise / Awards

  • "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
  • "In the end, Sax is less concerned about [particular] issues than he is about raising in a salient and a provocative manner this important set of issues and reframing them in a way that he believes will help shape a more profitable public debate. . . . In helping us to understand this he has succeeded admirably."
    —J. Mark Schuster, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • "Sax avoids easy answers and is leery of doctrinaire attempts at a general settlement. . . . While tailoring his recommendations to particular situations, he is resolute on one point: Some public rights in matters relating to the preservation of public art must be recognized. The market alone is ill-suited to protecting historically important objects and should not be entrusted with the task. . . . At a moment when the market is widely believed to be all-powerful, Sax's argument is timely indeed."
    —Adrian Johns, University of California, San Diego, Civilization, August/September 1999
  • "This book should be required reading for all those with an interest in the preservation of cultural heritage."
    —Patrick O'Keefe, International Journal of Cultural Property, Volume 9, No. 2 (2000)
  • "In one horror story after another, Joseph L. Sax illustrates what many historians have concluded anecdotally: the owners of manuscript and art collections in the United States have almost 'unqualified' ownership of their materials. The abuses of that 'unbridled power' have become legendary. . . . Few historians will contest his argument that the nation must be a better steward of its past. Though some may debate his finer points, his proposals are, by and large, sensible, prudent, and convincing."
    —James M. Lindgren, SUNY, Plattsburgh, Journal of American History, December 2000
  • ". . . a valuable contribution to understanding which parties have, and should have, rights in key objects that comprise our collective heritage. . . . Although I disagree with Professor Sax on several key points, I recommend Playing Darts with a Rembrandt highly to anyone who has an interest in the handling of important cultural treasures. It is clearly written, full of information about key instances and relevant laws, and sensitive to unique considerations with different kinds of cultural treasures. It provides not a single approach but many possible approaches to the multitude of problems it describes. Finally,, it has a tone of modesty, making no claims of providing a final answer to the array of provocative questions it raises and explores so well."
    —Jason Y. Hall, American Association of Museums, Michigan Law Review, May 2000
  • "Wittily written with an eye for human foibles, this survey is chock full of illustrative incidents. . . . Sax advocates public access, but. . . gives wide latitude to creators themselves, and some even to their heirs. He throws down 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."
    Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1999
  • ". . . awakens the reader to the variety of cultural circumstances that bring private and civic values into conflict. And it heightens one's respect for the potential of the law—or of legal thinkers such as Sax—to resolve such conflicts reasonably."
    —Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 272pp.
  • 9 B&W photograph section.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08784-6

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  • $31.95 U.S.