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The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Sharon Waxman

Times Books

Loot Download image

ISBN10: 0805090886
ISBN13: 9780805090888

Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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In Loot, Sharon Waxman examines the histories and controversies surrounding such misplaced artworks as the Elgin Marbles, taken to London from the Acropolis, the zodiac ceiling from the Temple of Hathor, which was transported to Paris in 1822, and the many Etruscan masterworks in American museums and private collections today. For the past two centuries, the West has been plundering the treasures of the ancient world to fill its great museums, but in recent years, the countries where ancient civilizations originated have begun to push back, taking museums to court, prosecuting curators, and threatening to force the return of these priceless objects.

The question arises: where do these treasures rightly belong? Waxman, a former culture reporter for The New York Times and a longtime foreign correspondent, outlines the evolutions of this high-stakes conflict, examining the implications for the preservation of the objects themselves and for how we understand our shared cultural heritage. Her journey takes readers from European and American cities to Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, as these countries face down the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. She also introduces a cast of determined and implacable individuals whose battles may strip these museums of some of their most cherished treasures.

For scholars of art history, antiquity, museums and curatorship, and those who value cultural exchange, Loot opens a new window on an enduring conflict.


Praise for Loot

"Early this year, officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art trussed up one of the prizes of its collection, an ancient vase known as the Euphronios krater, and sent it back to Italy. Italian authorities had presented evidence that the piece had been looted from a tomb near Rome less than a year before the Met paid $1 million for it in 1972. Faced with the prospect of a lawsuit and a ban on receiving any future loans from Italian museums, the Met, writes former Washington Post and New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman, 'stalled, stonewalled, and would not be swayed—until it was forced to do so.' Seeing great institutions humbled like this might give satisfaction to some, but what is served by such returns of art? If they're meant as a statement against looting, how does shifting a pot from New York to Rome advance that interest? These are the underlying questions of Waxman's absorbing and well-researched Loot . . . Waxman recounts the story of Lord Elgin and his marbles and exposes lesser known but egregious cases of 19th-century pillage, such as the removal of three heads from a mural depicting the life of Egyptian pharaoh Amenophis III. Someone simply cut them from an out-of-the-way tomb in the Valley of the Kings; blank squares now indicate where the pharaoh's visages once appeared. 'It is shocking. Imagine the Mona Lisa's face cut out of her canvas with a kitchen knife,' writes Waxman, who was led to the scene by a guide with a flashlight. The faces are now in the Louvre, labeled simply, 'From the tomb of Amenophis III' with no explanation of their pillaged past. Waxman wants the Louvre and other museums to be more upfront with the public about the unethical or illegal origin of their treasures, even if they don't return them. Pillaged artifacts become part of the landscape in their adopted country, and not always in a good way. She offers an engrossing history of the removal of ancient Egyptian obelisks to cities all over Europe, where they were erected as imperial trophies in traffic circles and plazas, including St. Peter's Square in Rome."—Roger Atwood, The Washington Post Book World

"In Loot, Sharon Waxman, formerly of the New York Times, investigates the Lydian heist as well as similar curatorial debacles around the world. On separate floors of Cairo's Egyptian Museum, she reports, two research teams feuding over trivial logistical matters simultaneously catalog the museum's rich collection of artifacts, each using its own distinct, incompatible notation system. Waxman stops by the then uncompleted museum at the base of the Acropolis--which is meant to house the Elgin Marbles one day, should the British Museum ever return them—where local protests and managerial incompetence delayed construction for years. But Waxman appears to believe that, despite everything, these countries have some legitimate claim to the antiquities that have been taken through various semilegal and extralegal contrivances throughout the ages. And she is honest—often angrily so--about the ambiguous circumstances under which many of these objects left their homes. One of the best passages in Loot is a tour of the Louvre's cluttered, poorly labeled antiquities galleries, with Waxman supplementing the stingily worded display cards to create a panoramic exposition of French misadventures in Egypt. Visiting the Chamber of Kings, for example, where a three-wall bas-relief mural tells the story of eleven centuries of Egyptian royal history, Waxman corrects the Louvre's cursory explanation—'elements' were 'lost in transport'—with a story of breathtaking greed and fraud: in the 1840s, a French explorer paid a midnight visit to a temple in Karnak, pried out the mural and bribed a local governor to allow him to ship it, in pieces, to Paris, where well-meaning workers coated the reliefs with a layer of varnish that soaked away the 3,500-year-old paint below, leaving the mural almost colorless. This section of Loot, as well as similar ones on the Met and the British Museum, makes one wish Waxman would turn the book's contents into a series of museum audio tours on tucked-under-the-rug looting scandals."—Britt Peterson, The Nation

"Sharon Waxman's Loot, a cogent survey of the conflict over classical antiquities, is notable for its common sense, a rare quality in a debate generally characterized by high-pitched rhetoric. As Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey attempt to reclaim ancient artworks, their government officials depict Western museums as predatory institutions working hand-in-glove with tomb robbers, crooked dealers and shady collectors to strip vulnerable nations of their patrimony. In response, the beleaguered directors and curators of the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum proclaim that they are repositories of universal culture, the places best qualified to conserve masterpieces that, if returned to their countries of origin, would languish in institutions that no one visits. There's truth in each position, but each is, in Waxman's assessment, self-serving. She's well qualified to make such judgments. A Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times and the author of Rebels on the Backlot, Waxman formerly covered Middle Eastern and European politics and culture and holds a master's degree in Middle East studies. This varied background serves her well as she skillfully interweaves lucid historical accounts with savvy contemporary interviews in four sections tracing the odysseys of paradigmatic ancient treasures . . . The millions of tourists who flock to the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty each year buttress those institutions' contention that they make great works of art accessible to a broader public. Yet Thomas Hoving, who admits he knowingly bought looted art when he was director of the Met, dismisses the idea that big audiences justify the retention of expropriated works. 'The number of people who see something has nothing to do with the significance of art,' he tells Waxman. 'The great masses seeing it doesn't make them or it any better.' The author doesn't necessarily agree, but she allows Hoving his say, just as she lets recently retired Met director Philippe de Montebello defend the notion that 'museums with encyclopedic collections are a way to understand the whole of human history in a cross-cultural environment.' She also gives ample space to angry journalists and archaeologists who have exposed looting and the complicity of major museums, as well as to the sad, complicated case of former Getty curator Marion True, now on trial in Italy for buying looted art. True certainly engaged in ethically dubious, possibly illegal acts, but Waxman persuasively argues that she was scapegoated for misconduct prevalent among museum personnel, a pawn in the Italian government's game of chicken with the Getty over disputed antiquities. This wide-ranging narrative limns a multifaceted problem with no single solution. Facing facts would be a good place to start, Waxman concludes. Western museums should publicly acknowledge that many of their antiquities came to them through plunder. Nations demanding repatriation should admit that they do not always have the resources to properly conserve these treasures. Both sides should get off their high horses. 'The only realistic path forward,' she writes, 'is one of collaboration between poorer source countries so rich in patrimony and the wealthy industrialized nations that have the cash and expertise to preserve that patrimony.' Readers of her intelligent, well-informed book can only hope that such an eminently reasonable point of view will prevail."—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times

"The title, stamped in gold capital letters on the dust jacket, gives away the author's agenda: This is a muckraking book about art objects from ancient cultures that have found their way into major museums of Europe and the United States. Sharon Waxman has a nose for scandal and spends much of the book following up on reports of thefts by grave robbers, smuggling by dealers and sexual hanky-panky between museum personnel . . . Faced with demands for repatriation of artworks, Western museums obfuscate, delay and turn a blind eye to spurious documentation from dealers. Waxman, a former correspondent for the New York Times, recounts tales of arrogance, greed and lust in museum personnel who, however well educated, are all too human in their daily affairs . . . The questions Waxman raises are real, and her proposals to remedy the situation are the start of a much-needed discussion."—Reagan Upshaw, San Francisco Chronicle

"What do you feel about all those antiquities from Greece, Egypt, Italy, and the Middle East that are now on display in museums all over the world? Should they be returned to their countries of origin or do you agree with Aggy Leroule, the Louvre press attaché who claims: 'You end up thinking we're all a bunch of looters, thieves, exploiters, that we're some kind of criminals . . . but who would be interested in Greek sculpture if it were all in Greece? These pieces are great because they're in the Louvre.' This is a fabulously well-written book full of outrage and shady intrigue. When you blend a fine journalistic style with a postgraduate degree in Middle East studies, you have a person who can write entertainingly about one of the modern world's most divisive artistic problems. Waxman brings many of the key figures alive, debates the issues with subtlety and nuance and exposes much of the cultural arrogance that still underpins the belief that Western museums have some right to hold antiquities."—Bruce Elder, The Sydney Morning Herald

"If you've ever stood there awestruck in front of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (London), or the Denderah Zodiac ceiling in the Louvre (Paris), you may get a sinking feeling to imagine them gone, vanished or replaced with replicas. That goal of some powerful people is the subject of Loot: The Battle of the Stolen Treasures of the Art World by Sharon Waxman, a former culture correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times. Also the author of Rebels on the Backlot, about the new Hollywood, Waxman presents a lucid and intelligent investigative report into the dilemma of what the great museums of the world are to do in the face of demands to return signature artifacts to the countries of origin. With unsparing forays into smuggling and dirty museum politics, Loot takes us to Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy, as these countries go nose-to-nose with the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles) . . . Loot deals with many such aspects of a sticky question to which everyone will have an answer and no one will be right. Self-serving as the argument for preservation may be, don't you just wish somebody, somehow, had heisted those colossal Buddhas out of the cliff faces of northern Afghanistan before the Taliban blew them to bits?"—Hans Werner, Toronto Star

"Thieves have been robbing tombs since before the pyramids were built, and conquerors have been claiming artworks as spoils of war for just as long. Over the past several centuries, these time-honored, unsavory traditions have filled the museums of the Western hemisphere with the treasures of the ancient world. The robbed and the defeated have always protested, but until recently their complaints were brushed off. In the past few decades, however, the so-called source nations, rich in antiquities, have upped the ante, cajoling, suing, bargaining and even building new museums in a quest to have artifacts that were taken from their territory—whether 2 or 200 years ago—returned once and for all. Sharon Waxman's Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, arrives on the heels of Italy's successful campaign for the restitution of objects held by several major U.S. museums; it is a timely account of how the world of antiquities arrived at the situation it is in today. Loot is largely confined to Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Italy, on the one hand, and the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum on the other . . . [Loot] is a sensible approach to winnowing a vast topic down to 369 pages. What's more, the Mediterranean in the 19th-century age of empire is where modern Western pilfering started, and it provides no shortage of excellent illustrations of the pertinent issues. The case of the Egyptian Chamber of Kings, for instance—how it got to Paris and whether it should go back—leads to debate concerning not only the conduct of Émile Prisse d'Avennes, the French explorer who removed the ancient wall reliefs from Karnak in 1843 without a permit, but also their transportation and subsequent care. Some of the sculptures were damaged or lost during their journey to Paris, and the remaining ones incurred further injury as the result of a botched restoration job at the Louvre a few years later. Waxman is a Los Angeles–based journalist who began her career reporting on the Middle East. Her most recent beat, first at the Washington Post and then at the New York Times, was Hollywood rather than Brentwood, the locale of the Getty, whose extended travails with Italy ended in the return of 40 ancient artworks last fall. Yet she retells the stories of famous antiquities with verve and style, drawing on historical documents and extensive interviews to illuminate such cases as the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's forces and the latter-day tale of the Euphronios krater, recently given back to Italy by the Met. Loot does an excellent job of exploring the political underpinnings of the contest over antiquities, from the 19th-century race for trophies by European powers to contemporary efforts by once-colonized countries to reclaim their national identities through the repatriation of artifacts. Her critical distance allows her to see both sides of this tangled story, which is too often reduced to archaeologists and source nations versus museums and collectors. She finds fault with Western museums for buying on a wink and a nod and for not acknowledging the sins of the past. For example, she blames the British Museum for not telling visitors the full history of the Elgin Marbles, which would include the embarrassing detail that Lord Elgin's permit to remove them from the Acropolis was issued by the ruling Ottoman authority, not the Greeks themselves, and arguably didn't cover pieces affixed to the building. She also criticizes source nations for not protecting their heritage— whether due to a deficiency of will or a lack of resources—as well as for pressing for the return of objects that they often cannot properly conserve or display . . . Waxman is correct that 'there are no easy answers here.' Although she touches on the subject throughout the book, only three ages of the conclusion are devoted to concrete proposals for actions going forward. That museums should confess their past transgressions is a useful idea. Similarly, Waxman is right about the need for better collaboration between museums and source nations, citing as models the Met's ongoing sponsorship of Egyptian excavations and Italy's recent agreements with U.S. museums . . . Loot is an engaging and informative read, and those interested in the problems currently confronting the antiquities world will not regret spending some time with it."—Andrew Slayman, Art + Auction

"In her evocative new book, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Sharon Waxman travels to Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy to investigate the persistent tribulations of looting and restitution. Presenting more questions than answers, Loot reveals that there is no easy solution to the centuries-old problem of stolen antiquities. Egypt, for example, wants the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, the Denderah zodiac from the Louvre and the bust of Nefertiti from the Altes Museum in Berlin. Western museums, on the other hand, argue that after hundreds of years, artifacts have a new cultural value in their current locations. Antiquities seen by the hundreds in mere hours in major museums would be seen by only hundreds annually in their source countries. And what about security and climate-control? Consider Turkey, which forced the Met to return the Lydian Hoard, only to have it stolen from a national museum without a functioning security system. Throughout her journeys, Waxman traces the history of prestigious cultural icons, and how in the name of building collections, these antiquities arrived in renowned Western museums, including four of the worst offenders—so named for their rampant acquisition of looted artifacts and their refusal to disclose the real provenance of these items—the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The most intriguing areas of Loot are the accounts of and interviews with flashy government officials, journalists who have received death threats and sacrificed their families in the name of restitution, shady dealers and curators turned scapegoats. Among all the finger-pointing, Waxman hopes museum and government officials around the world can meet somewhere in the middle, cracking down on looting by only purchasing artifacts with a clear provenance and being honest about the history of looted artifacts when displaying them. As the battle continues, enlightened readers and art observers will be among the victors."—Angela Leeper, Bookpage

"I devoured Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World with particular zest, having published in 1973 an earlier account of the same cultural underworld, The Plundered Past. A seasoned reporter with an Oxford degree in Middle East studies, Sharon Waxman has updated and surpassed my explorations, in part because the outcry over the illicit traffic has reached fever pitch, provoking voluble, angry and indiscreet utterances from curators, collectors, dealers and a new breed of watchdogs . . . The first merit of Waxman's book, the best on its subject, is her verbatim account of conversations with everybody who matters in the antiquities trade. This is especially true of her candid exchanges with the staffs and their overlords at the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the mega-endowed (circa $6 billion) J. Paul Getty Museum. As revealing are her encounters with the new flock of restitution hawks, led by Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, who demands the return or loan of such stellar prizes as the British Museum's Rosetta Stone, the Louvre's Zodiac ceiling and Berlin's bust of Nefertiti . . . And let it be said that while Sharon Waxman's study offers no novel answers, she poses all the right questions."—Karl E. Meyer, Truthdig

"A measured, detailed and accessible history of cultural custody cases, bringing the ages-old quandary up to date . . . Waxman traveled to cramped offices, dank tombs and sleek museums on at least three continents to piece together her genial travelogue and to ask some operative questions: Do treasured objects, a 'great tonnage of recovered history,' belong in the Western museums that collected them or in their homelands? Are, in fact, museums unbiased repositories of culture or symbols of wealth, power and empire? Waxman's account makes clear that Napoleon in Egypt circa 1800, generations of 19th-century British archaeologists and needy and/or greedy villagers of today represent various facets of the tomb-raiding impulse. In the museum world, the don't-ask, don't-tell tradition involving wealthy patrons and the antiquities trade has long helped to fuel a worldwide epidemic of cultural looting, fraud and other shady practices."—Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star

"When the celebrated French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette excavated the underground Serapeum in Saqqâra in 1850, he used gunpowder to blow open its vaults and then shipped more than 60,000 objects found inside to the Louvre. Depending on your point of view, he was either a careless plunderer or an important figure in the preservation of antiquities. In her lively and wide-ranging account, Sharon Waxman presents both sides, making this an evenhanded primer for lay readers new to the debates that have pitted Western museums against countries seeking repatriation of ancient treasures . . . Waxman deserves credit for casting a wide net: there is quite a bit on Egypt, and although the claims of Turkey and Lebanon seldom make headlines, they are discussed here . . . Waxman has written a definitive volume."—Judith Harris, ARTnews

"Classical scholar Marion True, a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, was a leading light in the museum world, until her passion for antiquities landed her in court in Italy. In a bizarre series of events starting in 2005, Italian prosecutors pursued her for allegedly covering up earlier transactions in which the Getty had bought looted artifacts for its collection. Yet Ms. True had long fought against the murky underworld of smuggled antiquities, and many now feel she became a scapegoat in an ongoing battle between august Western institutions and the often-poorer countries from which the world's great artifacts were taken. This fight over humanity's collective heritage lies at the heart of Sharon Waxman's insightful new exploration into cultural plunder. Does a bust of Nefertiti have more meaning in a Berlin museum, or on-site back in Egypt? Should the British Museum in London yield to Greece's long-standing demands to return the Elgin marbles, which were ripped from the Acropolis in Athens two centuries ago? And should Ms. True be made to pay for sins committed by her institution in the past? . . . After reading this book, it's hard to go through an antiquities exhibit and not scrutinize each caption for detailed information on the provenance of each object. Is its history clearly traced, or does vague wording such as 'family heirloom' suggest a dubious past? When it comes to cultural heritage, all of us have a stake in knowing which of the world's great artifacts are fairly acquired, and which may carry a tainted legacy of plunder."—Alexandra Witze, The Dallas Morning News

"Sharon Waxman, a former culture reporter with the New York Times, visits the great museums of the world and finds them, with regard to their collections of antiquities, in a state of turmoil . . . In Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Waxman, who previously wrote a book on Hollywood, takes a panoramic approach, recounting the stories of four great museums in the West, their ancient treasures, and those who believe that the antiquities should be returned . . . Waxman sensibly suggests that museums be more careful about how they acquire their collections. Two centuries later, the British Museum has no reason to obscure the details of Lord Elgin's heist. He is as much a part of history as the marbles he made off with."—Roger Lownestein, Portfolio

"This is an even-handed exploration of a fraught topic: Should archeological and other cultural treasures reside where they are safest, best protected and accessible to the most visitors, or in the countries in whose territory they were found, of whose history they form a part and from which they were illegally or extralegally removed? Waxman, a former New York Times correspondent, interviews personalities all along the chain of 'ownership'—smugglers, government officials, dealers and curators—and explores the political and cultural ambiguities and suggests a collaborative middle way."—Saudi Aramco World

"Sharon Waxman has written a compelling page turner about the world of antiquities and art-world skulduggery. She manages to combine rigorous, scholarly reporting with a flair for intrigue and personality that gives Loot the fast pace of a novel. I enjoyed it immensely."—Tina Brown

"Loot is a riveting foray into the biggest question facing museums today: who should own the great works of ancient art? Sharon Waxman is a first-rate reporter, a veritable Euphronios of words, who not only explores the legal and moral ambiguities of the conflict but brings to life the colorful—even outrageous—personalities facing off for a high noon showdown over some of the world's iconic works of art. Vivid, witty, and delightful, this book will beguile any reader with an interest in art and museums."—Douglas Preston, author of The Monster of Florence

"Sharon Waxman's Loot is the most instructive as well as the most intelligent (and the most entertaining) guide through the labyrinth of antiquity and the ways in which the claims of the departed intersect with the rights of the living."—Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great and The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?

"Sharon Waxman approaches her subject with the passion of a great journalist and the rigor of a scholar. It may never again be possible for some of us to walk down the halls of the Louvre or the British Museum or the Metropolitan without a vague sense of disquietude, a frisson of wonder about the provenance of some of their showcase works of ancient art."—Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

"Waxman adroitly and expertly explores a centuries-old struggle. The British Museum in London contains some of the finest examples of classical Greek sculpture ever seen. Known as the Elgin marbles, they consist of friezes, statuary and architectural elements removed from the Parthenon in 1801 by a British nobleman. These spectacular marbles, the author notes, are among the most hotly contested items in a battle over repatriation of looted artifacts that rages all over the world. From the conflict between Cairo and Berlin over an exquisite bust of Nefertiti to Turkey's successful reclamation of the ‘Lydian Horde' illegally excavated and sold to the Met, Waxman covers multiple dramatic stories of feuds over riches from the world's ancient civilizations. Often cast as a struggle between former colonizers and colonies, with repatriation seen as a form of amends for generations of domination, the debate has more complexity in this presentation. The author presents multiple points of view. The almost invariably impoverished countries of origin, their representatives argue, had no choice but to allow excavations authorized by their colonial rulers. On the other hand, contend contemporary museum curators who fervently believe in the ideal of a ‘universal' museum bringing together many cultures, the nations demanding the return of these artifacts often do not have the resources to preserve them. Who has the right to the world's treasures? The case of the Elgin marbles illustrates how difficult such questions are to answer. Much of the Parthenon was destroyed during the marbles' removal, but the temple was being used at the time by the occupying Turks as a storage facility for gun powder, with more than one resulting explosion. Athenian pollution subsequently corroded much of what remained on site, but the British Museum's attempts to clean the marbles has also had disastrous effects. In Waxman's hands, the question of justice remains intriguingly slippery, and the argument over who owns history takes on new depth. Erudite and wholly satisfying."—Kirkus Reviews

"Waxman embarks on a grand tour of some of the world's finest museums—the Met, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Getty—and the countries from which some of their most famous antiquities were illicitly taken. Skillfully blending history and reportage, Waxman traces the stories of treasures like the Elgin Marbles, then jumps into the debate over whether they should be restored to their countries of origin. She finds no easy answers: while acknowledging the dubious means by which European and American museums acquired many antiquities, she concedes that the governments clamoring for their return don't always have adequate plans for their maintenance. (Turkey compelled the Met to hand over the famous Lydian Hoard, only to have its masterpiece stolen.) Waxman's account is animated by interviews with museum curators, accused smugglers and government officials, putting a human spin on the complex cultural politics before arriving at a middle ground that strives for international collaboration in preserving a broad, global heritage."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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It was just like Zahi Hawass to toss a bomb into the middle of someone else's well-laid plans. On a bright, breezy day in June 2006, dozens of reporters and news crews, cameras, and microphones were lined up at the...

About the author

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman is a former culture correspondent for The New York Times and holds a master's degree in Middle East studies from Oxford University. She covered Middle Eastern and European politics and culture for ten years before joining The Washington Post and then The New York Times to report on Hollywood and other cultural news. She is the author of Rebels on the Backlot, and the CEO and founder of The Wrap News.

Joel Bernstein

Sharon Waxman

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