January 15, 2008

De Montebello paved the way for resolution of restitution scandals

Posted at 12:35 pm in Similar cases

This blog on the Guardian’s website looks at how in some ways de Montebello paved the way in resolution of restitution claims. I am still of the opinion though that the Met waited until the vary last possible moment – only giving in once their hand was forced, but now trying to re-paint the event as a grand magnanimous gesture.

Guardian Blogs

International treasure
As director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello paved the way for resolving scandals over stolen antiquities
January 12, 2008 5:00 PM

No museum in America enjoys a more vigorous conversation with Europe than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is a conversation that extends from antiquity to the present, the story of western civilisation as told by its art and objects. To be sure, the dialog between the Met and its continental peers has not always been characterised by soft words. Consider that, just as the Met unveiled its new, 57,000-square-foot gallery space for its ancient Greek and Roman holdings last spring, the art world was fracturing along old lines – as culturally rich Greece and Italy pointed fingers, and sometimes lawsuits, at western institutions like the British Museum, the Getty, and the Met itself.

That transatlantic conversation is losing a powerful voice: that of Philippe de Montebello, who is resigning this year as the director of the Met. His voice will literally be missed, a famous dulcet baritone familiar to anyone who’s donned an audioguide under his tenure, which may in fact be millions of people. Having held the position for 30 years, de Montebello leaves the Met a much stronger, larger and better-attended museum than when he signed on as a curatorial assistant in 1963. His stewardship leaves little to lament.

But his greatest impact may have been on other institutions, in particular, by guiding them as to how they should look backward as they move forward.

The arrangement that de Montebello struck with the Italian government in 2006 may have headed off a worldwide crisis regarding potentially stolen antiquities. Whether de Montebello had access to evidence that might surface and prove the museum knew that certain objects were stolen when it acquired them is unclear. But he stunned some observers when he acceded to the pressure mounting from Italy to return various objects originating from there, including the Met’s crown jewel: the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek vase that was removed from Cerveteri, Italy.

Whatever his reasons, what he did paved the way for resolution – and mutual satisfaction. Given that possession is nine-tenths of the law, de Montebello in fact played down the upper hand he’d been dealt. He agreed to return titles in exchange for loans, or objects in exchange for objects. Italy (and to a lesser extent) Greece has more antique objects than it can ever hope to showcase, and it behoves these nations (and the world) to share their things. The Met would continue to display some cherished works for decades to come; others, de Montebello realised, would be exchanged for comparable pieces. The other way forward would have been long, arduous court trials that may have resulted -as was the case with the Getty’s Marion True – in a successful prosecution. In fact, True alleged that former Met director Dietrich von Bothmer knew precisely where the Euphronios krater came from – an illegal archaeological excavation near Cerveteri.

The Met made the model, the framework that other western art institutions are turning to as they sort out their own provenance issues with Greece and Italy. In other respects, however, the Met has proved to be less the guiding light. It has not charted a course through the end of the 20th century, much less transitioned into the 21st. One of its more recent high-profile acquisitions was that of Damien Hirst’s notorious The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Singled out as it is among contemporary holdings, the piece, while one of Hirst’s better shockers, seems like a meandering step forward along an uncertain path. It does not inspire confidence that the curator for contemporary art is a utility man, responsible too for modernist work and also, improbably, 19th century art.

The director who will replace de Montebello does have at least one task cut out for him: transitioning the museum into an era that often seems post-museum. De Montebello certainly leaves the institution in a position to lead the way – indeed, with the expectation that it will.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away