November 28, 2007

A talk with Philippe de Montebello

Posted at 2:11 pm in Similar cases

Richard Lacayo is gradually interviewing various key players in international restitution issues. This time its the turn of Philippe de Montebello, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, who famously returned the Euphronios krater to Italy.

Time Magazine Blogs

November 27, 2007 4:11
A Talk With: Philippe de Montebello

Over the past few months I’ve been having a series of conversations with museum directors about the controversies over “cultural property” and the demands by nations like Greece, Italy and Egypt that museums in the U.S. and elsewhere return treasured antiquities. I sat down recently with Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As you already know, in response to demands from the Italian Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, the Met agreed last year to return 20 artifacts to Italy, including the prized Euphronios krater.

As I usually do, I’ll divide the excerpts from that conversation into a couple of posts.

LACAYO: The Met’s acquisitions policy is updated from time to time. The last update was in September, 2004. Your museum’s policy now is that it will not acquire any object that cannot be shown to have been out of its country of origin for at least ten years. Have you considered further changes as a consequence of your dealings last year with Mr. Rutelli?

DE MONTEBELLO: There haven’t been changes and [the current policy] has been extremely effective, since it is the policy that also applies to the Association of Art Museum Directors. Acquisitions of antiquities on the part of American museums have fallen to almost zero. Out of a sense of new ethical standards and a not inconsequential fiduciary responsibility — they don’t want to make an acquisition that is likely to be subject to claims — most museums have imposed on themselves standards that, as a matter of praxis, are even more stringent than ten years. And so it’s been very effective on one level — if you take pleasure in the fact that antiquities are practically no longer entering American collections.

LACAYO: Should the Met have gone about things differently when it made acquisitions in the past?

DE MONTEBELLO: I don’t know, should Enrico Dandolo not have taken the horses of San Marco [from Constantinople] in 1204? Everybody lives according to the norms, the ethics and the behavioral patterns of their own day. Retrospective judgments aren’t very useful. There was a laissez-faire attitude then that there isn’t today. Times change. And the good thing about museums is that they evolve, they respond to societal and other pressures. One is alert to the world around us. It’s a different world.

LACAYO: Rutelli has made it plain that he’s not interested in pursuing objects that came into the U.S., say, more than a century ago. For that reason, for instance he’s not supporting the claim that the Italian town of Monteleone is trying to press for the return of the Etruscan chariot in your own collection.

DE MONTEBELLO: He’s very embarassed by that claim. Because it undermines what he considers to be legitimate claims. It’s completely frivolous and long antedates any Italian laws.

LACAYO: All the same, some nations, like Greece and Egypt, are still demanding the return of objects taken in the 19th century, long before their own cultural property laws were adopted.

DE MONTEBELLO: There are rhetorical claims everywhere.

LACAYO: Do you think demands of that kind can ever be valid?

DE MONTEBELLO: They are rhetorical claims. They have no basis in anything except home consumption in politics and pronounced nationalism. I am not one of these people who believes in re-writing history. Where do you stop? At what point then is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Sidon in Lebanon? In the 19th century it was brought from Sidon when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman empire. Where do you stop? On what grounds should you return and not return?

I never see a questioner asking “Isn’t there value to these objects having been in the western museums, having been studied?” When Layard from England and Botta from France went to Mesopotamia, got the great winged horses and brought them back to the Louvre and to the British Museum, to describe the local attitude towards these pieces as indifferent would be generous, because most of them were being quarried to build local buildings and so forth. The whole history of Egyptology comes out of Dominique-Vivant Denon and the expeditions of Napoleon in Egypt, again at a time when there was less local interest in the subject. One has to consider the repayment in knowledge that these objects have given and that these institutions and nations have given.

Time Magazine Blogs

November 28, 2007 4:37
More Talk With: Philippe de Montebello

Let’s conclude that conversation with the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

LACAYO: As you know, a number of nations have cultural property laws that effectively lay claim to anything found in the ground on their territory, or that require export permits for anything over, say, 100 years old. China has a request pending with the State Department for the U.S. to bar the import of anything from that country that’s over a century old. Do you think the scope of cultural propperty laws can be too broad?

DE MONTEBELLO: There are scenarios that clearly are reasonable, and some outrageous. The request from China was rejected [so far] as unmanageable and unreasonable. And at some point the U.S. might say, well, wait a minute, we’ll cooperate with you on this, but every time we put out a DVD, 24 hours later it’s for sale all over China. so a sense of parity and fairness should prevail.

Source countries also have their role to play in safeguarding their archeological sites and prosecuting people involved in thefts — because not everything is taken from a site to sell to a wicked American museum or an American collector. A lot of these things are taken by people who are poor and who dig up gold and silver to melt it down. With American museums over the last few years being a non-existent factor in antiquities collecting, why has there been an increase in looting of sites around the world?

LACAYO: Many archeologists believe that any commercial trade in antiquities should be banned, whether that means the sale of objects to private collectors or museums. They say it encourages the looting of archeological excavations, and with that comes the loss of crucial information about an object’s cultural context.

DE MONTEBELLO: Archeologists presumably became interested in archeology by visiting museums. They forget this very conveniently. They become practicing archeologists and then their only interest is in the “find spot.”

One can question whether one particular discipline can arrogate to itself the right to everything that’s in the ground. There are many different contexts, many different ways to look at these objects. So you have a discipline that goes too far in claiming that an object is of no merit, of no value, the moment it’s out of the ground and you don’t know who buried it. That’s one context. It’s obviously a very precious one, because once an object is out of that context the information is not retrieveable. But it’s not the only context.

LACAYO: Does the Met buy in the antiquities market any longer?

DE MONTEBELLO: Almost not at all.

LACAYO: Michael Brand, the director of the Getty, told me recently that his museum will still buy, but much more carefully.

DE MONTEBELLO: Oh yes, but just a fraction of what it did before. And you pay far larger costs, because a huge premium is placed on works with secure provenance. Our acquisitions are, I don’t know, less than one tenth of what they used to be.

LACAYO: Will you be vetting objects that you receive as gifts, to ensure that they meet the same acquisition standards as the museum’s purchases?

DE MONTEBELLO: We apply the same standards to gifts, bequests and purchases. And now we apply it to loans as well.

LACAYO: Do you mean an object being leant to the Met from another museum?

DE MONTEBELLO: From a collector. From another museum I think it’s likely to be all right.

LACAYO: Do you worry about the future of the universal museum, the ones, like your own, in which works from all cultures are gathered together? It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, that China might one day become more aggressive, not just about asking other nations to impose import bans on Chinese objects, but about demanding the return of things already in foreign museums.

DE MONTEBELLO: I can’t imagine mankind being so self-destructive intellectually as to do away with the universal museum. No, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. But those institutions that have collections should consider themselves fortunate to have what they have, because increasingly they will not be able to build their collections. The museums in Berlin, Paris, London, New York have mature collections. A few things will be added here and there, but less and less in the archeological area.

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