June 17, 2006

Art museums & ownership isues

Posted at 9:11 pm in Similar cases

Prompted by the rise in restitution cases involving American museums (such as that of the Euphronios Krater), the Washington Post looks at the trade in looted artefacts & how museums are dealing with the problems that this creates.

Washington Post

Art Museums Wrestle With Ownership Issue
The Associated Press
Friday, June 16, 2006; 4:41 PM

— Anthropologist Bennet Bronson recalls working on an archaeological dig in Thailand for months, then returning the next year to discover that the site had been destroyed by looters who used backhoes and machine guns.

Cultural heritage expert Patty Gerstenblith relates stories of plunderers in China walking around with auction house catalogs to determine what artifacts they should target to bring in the most money.

Art museums, meanwhile, tell of curators spending months tracking down ownership records for potential acquisitions and trying to verify if documents are legitimate. They point to studies they say prove how little influence American art museums have on the global trade in antiquities and indicate private collectors are driving the black market.

The issue of provenance _ or the history of an artwork’s ownership _ has never before been a more debated topic among archeologists and attorneys, collectors and curators, museum directors and donors, nations and cultural groups.

It’s occurring as the Metropolitan Museum of Art agrees to return ancient objects to Italy, a former American antiquities curator faces charges of knowingly buying stolen artifacts and museums continue to address claims about artwork stolen by Nazis up to 70 years ago.

The debate touches on issues of cultural heritage and history, of the aesthetic value of artwork versus the scholarly value of archaeology, a web of international laws and political motivations, and modern-day geographic borders that do not always correlate with ancient civilizations.

In other words, who owns cultural property? Who owns the past?

And will anything change in the way U.S. art museums acquire artifacts, accept donations, process loans and publicize any doubts they may have about an object’s hazy provenance?

“Museums have not been willing to address those discussions because they fear once they do, the museum doors will open up and the historical collections will go out the door,” said David Rudenstine, dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

Rudenstine is writing a book about one of the most disputed artifacts in history _ the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon removed by the British Lord Elgin in the 19th century and on view at the British Museum in London. Greece has waged a long, unsuccessful campaign to win back the large collection of sculptures and is building a new Acropolis Museum with hopes they will one day be displayed there.


In recent years, Italy has become more aggressive about objects it believes were wrongfully taken from its borders, helped in part by a warehouse raid nearly a decade ago that turned up photos of allegedly looted antiquities and artifacts still covered in dirt. Under a 1939 Italian law, any ancient artifact found in a dig belongs to the state.

In February, the Met agreed to return nearly two dozen artifacts Italy says were illegally taken from the country, including a collection of Hellenistic silver and the prized Euphronius Krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek vase the museum bought 30 years ago. In exchange, Italy will loan the Met objects of “equal beauty and historical and cultural significance,” and the two sides will cooperate on future excavations and restoration work.

Evidence from that warehouse raid has figured prominently in the Rome trial of Marion True, the former antiquities curator for Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum. Italian authorities have charged True and American art dealer Robert Hecht Jr. _ who sold the Euphronius Krater to the Met _ with conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities. Both deny wrongdoing, and their trial is ongoing. Hecht recently told reporters outside a Rome courthouse that competition from other buyers meant he could not afford to ask sellers how items were obtained.

Emboldened by Italy, such countries as Peru, Egypt and Turkey are becoming more aggressive in demanding that American museums return disputed items.

Egypt _ led by Zahi Hawass, the country’s charismatic and often controversial chief archaeologist _ is particularly pushing the case of a 3,200-year-old funerary mask of a mummy depicting a young lady, which it said disappeared from the Egyptian Museum.

The mask is currently housed at the Saint Louis Art Museum, which bought it from a dealer in 1998 for about $500,000, after checking with authorities and the international Art Loss Register to see if the item was stolen. The museum also approved the purchase with the Egyptian Museum, Saint Louis museum director Brent Benjamin said. Nonetheless, Hawass has threatened to pursue legal action and encouraged St. Louis area students to boycott the museum.

Hawass also created a stir last month at the opening of a King Tut exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum when he learned the chairman of one of show’s corporate sponsors kept an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in his office; while there were no allegations of problems with the piece’s provenance, Hawass said that “ancient artifacts are not for display in homes and offices.” As a result, the sarcophagus is being loaned to the Field indefinitely.

And just this week, Christie’s auction house in New York withdrew from sale an ancient Egyptian offering vessel over concerns about how it was removed from Africa.

Smaller institutions have struggled with provenance issues as well. The Illinois State Museum is preparing to return to Kenya a kigango, a traditional wooden statue erected to honor a dead male elder. A curator in Kenya wrote to the state museum on behalf of a family who said misfortune had followed them ever since the wooden post was stolen from their property 20 years ago.


Those who track the issue say they wonder if the increased focus on looted antiquities and stolen cultural artifacts is just a blip or something sustainable.

“How long will this wave go before it flattens out?” asked Los Angeles attorney Steven Thomas, who advises clients on the purchase, collection and sale of fine art and cultural property. “Everyone is stepping up.”

Archaeologists and institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are among the groups pushing for a permanent change in how art museums handle such acquisitions.

They argue that when thieves sneak into archaeological sites to dig up the treasures, the looters are destroying any chance by archeologists to reconstruct the history of that site and the people who lived there.

Many want museums to refuse to buy or accept through a donation or on loan any artifacts that do not have airtight documentation that they were properly excavated and legally exported from their country of origin. This, they argue, will discourage the black market and in turn protect the sites.

“When you go into a site to just pull out the goodies, you lose that history, you lose that context and you often lose other objects, such as human remains or objects that give clues to religion, health, socio-economic status,” said Gerstenblith, a professor of cultural heritage law at DePaul University in Chicago. “All you’re left with is a pretty pot with a pretty painted scene on it.”

Mary Sue Sweeney Price, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, believes museums have been unfairly characterized in the debate.

“I think there is a misperception that museums are evildoers, and museums _ which actually preserve, publish and make more widely accessible archaeological works _ are the creators of an illicit trade. That is so far from the truth, and it’s an unfortunate mischaracterization,” she said.

Richard Leventhal, director of the University of Pennsylvania museum, said he would like to see art museums be more open about purchasing antiquities, and publicizing their purchases so that countries can immediately speak up if they feel that an item has left their borders illegally.

He wants the burden of proof shifted to the buyer, instead of the country having to prove that the artifact was wrongfully removed from its borders. Without proof like the photos Italy obtained in the warehouse raid, it’s a hard case to make, he said.

He also believes that art museums need to become more creative in how they interact with countries with ancient cultural treasures. U.S. museums could get loans from those institutions, perhaps in exchange for helping to train staff and improving conservation efforts.

“The bottom line goal has to be to stop the looting. … We can reach that goal by turning off the spigot, which is the desire on the part of large museums and collectors to purchase more and more objects,” Leventhal said.

But the group that represents about 170 art museum directors argues that museums are already acting responsibly and do not drive the looting trade.

A recent survey by the AAMD found that museum buys of archaeological material and antiquities represent less than 10 percent of the global annual trade in antiquities.

In its guidelines for purchasing ancient art and archaeological materials, the group “deplores” the unscientific excavation of such materials and their thefts. But its 2004 guidelines also said the group recognizes that some artworks “for which provenance information is incomplete or unobtainable may deserve to be publicly displayed, preserved, studied and published because of their rarity, importance and aesthetic merit.”

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met, is an AAMD trustee. Soon after the Met reached its agreement with Italy in February, he said he didn’t foresee the museum stiffening its policies for future acquisitions.

“We go through the normal research on objects, and if we have any doubt, any question that object may have been illicitly removed from somewhere, we will not consider its acquisition,” he said. As a result, in the past 15 years, the number of antiquities purchased by the Met has declined.

He does think, however, that the Met will increase its efforts at publishing the provenance of antiquities it buys to help claimant nations find them.

Until about World War II, much of the Met’s collection was built on the concept of sharing with other countries what was found in the ground. A modern solution, he said, would be if the Met directed an archaeological dig and found objects, they would then be lent to the Met and displayed _ without transferring title to the artwork. The Met now has digs underway in Egypt, Syria and Turkey. But found objects remain in those countries.

“Whether museums buy objects or not, the plundering will continue until source countries can protect each and every site,” said the AAMD’s Price. “I’m afraid that is practically impossible.

“Greed always seems to trump idealism.”


Associated Press Writer Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.

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