April 1, 2006

Academic backlash against Leon Levy foundation donation

Posted at 6:47 pm in Similar cases

Leon Levy who died in 2003 & his widow Shelby White are known for their philanthropic efforts, including the donation of twenty million dollars to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for the construction of a new gallery there. Shelby White is also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum.
For many years, the art collection of Levy & White has been regarded by many as highly contentious due to the fact that it contains many artefacts which are believed to have been looted. It has also been argued that by working closely with the Met, they have used the museum’s resources to authenticate items in their collection, while at the same time donating or loaning pieces to the museum, which included some whose provenance is disputed.
In this article, Michael Balter looks at another scandal involving the Leon Levy Foundation – that of the funding of a centre for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Questions about Levy & White’s association with looting of artefacts has already led to one NYU archaeologist resigning in protest.


$200 Million Gift for Ancient World Institute Triggers Backlash

When New York University (NYU) officials announced last week the creation of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, it was widely seen as a major coup. The new Ph.D.- granting research institute, devoted to the art, archaeology, history, literature, and geography of ancient societies, was made possible by a private gift of $200 million in cash and real estate, one of the largest donations the university has ever landed. Yet some NYU faculty members, along with outside archaeologists, are aghast that the school accepted the money. One leading NYU archaeologist has already resigned from the university’s existing ancient studies center to protest the decision.

The fracas stems from the source of the new institute’s funds: The Leon Levy Foundation, named after the late Wall Street investor and philanthropist. Levy and his widow Shelby White, the foundation’s trustee, have for years been at the center of controversies surrounding their antiquities collection, which some archaeologists believe includes objects that had been looted and illicitly traded. Indeed, several institutions, including Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, have adopted explicit policies against accepting funds from the foundation. “If we or our students accepted these kinds of funds, it would simply be giving credibility to the longstanding Levy-White practice of buying objects of questionable provenance,” says James Wright, chair of Bryn Mawr’s department of classical and Near Eastern archaeology. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom is more outspoken: “I wouldn’t touch a gift from Shelby White with a barge pole,” he says.

But other scholars argue that the Levy Foundation has been a positive force, spending millions for archaeological digs, such as a major excavation at the Philistine site of Ashkelon in Israel (Science, 2 July 1999, p. 36). It also funds a program based at Harvard University that supports the publication of archaeological findings. “The foundation has done a power of good,” says Baruch Halpern, an expert in ancient history at Pennsylvania State University in State College. And Christopher Ratté, a classical archaeologist at NYU, whose publications have received Levy-White support, says that “it is very difficult to argue with this kind of generosity.” Ratté adds that the Levy-White collection “is not coming to NYU, and there will be no direct association between the collection and the university.”

Levy and White have generated debate among many archaeologists since at least 1990, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City mounted a major exhibition of some 200 of their artifacts from the Near East, Greece, and Rome. A study published later in the American Journal of Archaeology concluded that more than 90% of those artifacts had no known provenance.

More recently, publications including The New York Times and The New York Observer have reported accusations by Italian authorities that objects in the Levy-White collection, including some that are still on view at the Metropolitan Museum, can be traced to illicit trade. White takes strong issue with these criticisms. “We have been involved in the field of archaeology for many years,” she told Science, referring to herself and her late husband. “We have always collected in good faith, and we have always exhibited our collection publicly.” White adds that the items in the collection were not purchased in “obscure places” but at public auctions and from leading dealers: “If it turns out that there are objects that I should not have bought, then I will deal with them.”

Some NYU faculty members began questioning the wisdom of accepting the donation in January, when Matthew Santirocco, director of the university’s existing Center for Ancient Studies, called a meeting of the center’s advisory committee—the first of three committee meetings devoted to discussing the proposed institute. At least five of 13 members of the center’s advisory committee expressed varying degrees of concern about accepting money from the foundation during the meetings. Some members also worried that White would have considerable input into the naming of the institute’s director and faculty. “We wanted to be sure that NYU administrators were aware of concerns in the archaeological community about the problem of safeguarding cultural property,” says NYU classicist and advisory committee member Laura Slatkin.

Members of the committee say the decision was very close to being finalized by the time they were consulted. “The people in the administration and [Shelby] White had gone a long way down the road,” says Michael Peachin, chair of the university’s classics department. Another member, who asked not to be identified, agrees: “It was a fait accompli.” Santirocco counters that the committee “was not at all opposed to pursuing this opportunity” and that there was a “majority consensus” in favor of accepting the donation.

Santirocco adds that the funds to create an interdisciplinary institute are a “truly transformative gift” that will “lead to a more holistic understanding of the ancient world.” University off icials also say that although White will be on the search committee for the new institute’s director, NYU’s provost and president will have the final say.

But those assurances did not satisfy archaeologist Randall White. In a letter last week to Santirocco, White resigned his membership in the school’s ancient studies center, arguing that accepting money from the Levy Foundation could have negative consequences for NYU scholars. Countries victimized by antiquities looters could shut down digs associated with the new institute, he suggests. “The gift will promote suspicion that objects would be ripped from their archaeological context by looters,” Randall White says.

Most opponents of the donation assume, however, that the institute will go ahead. Says NYU archaeologist and center member Rita Wright: “It remains to be seen whether this donation, and the institute it will create, will be in the best interests of research into ancient cultures.”


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1 Comment »

  1. helen m. mageau said,

    01.25.07 at 5:43 pm

    it seems abundantly clear, that a significant number of museums and collectors are the real “looters”. must we now add “tap-dancing,double-
    talking” academics to the illicit brew?
    h. mageau

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