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How are US museums dealing with looted artefact claims?

A few years ago, a number of the worlds most prestigious museums issued a statement, heavily based on the concept of the Universal Museum. The New York Times looks at the conflict between the concept of the Universal Museum & attempts by many countries to clamp down on the trade in looted artefacts. Many of the most publicised cases at present involve museums in the US, but this is more due to the period when most acquisitions were being made, rather than any higher standard of ethics in European institutions.

From:
New York Times [1]

November 25, 2005
Why ‘Antiquities Trials’ Focus on America
By ALAN RIDING

PARIS — A stroll through any one of a score of major museums around the world can provoke amazement at the beauty of stone reliefs, marble statues, ceramic vases and delicate gold and silverware, all dating back to the great civilizations of the distant past.

The same displays, however, can also prompt the question: How did they get there?

For so-called universal museums intent on spreading enlightenment, this can be an irritating question. But for countries trying to halt or reverse illegal excavation and trafficking of their dug-up treasures, it is one increasingly worth pursuing.

It was this very issue that led Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to travel to Rome last week for talks with officials at Italy’s Culture Ministry. The Met has a vast collection of Italian antiquities and, in the view of these officials, some of these objects should not be there because, put bluntly, they were stolen.

The Met disputes this claim and while it, too, is unsure of the pieces’ provenance, it is asking Italy to prove they were illegally excavated. In an interview on Wednesday, de Montebello said Italy would have to provide “incontrovertible evidence” of this. He added, “If we are convinced by the evidence, we will take appropriate action.”

In such cases, possible compromises discussed by de Montebello and Italian officials include transferring the title of an object to Italy but leaving it on long-term loan at the Met; or returning the object, but having it replaced by a similar piece on long-term loan. Before then, however, Italy must make a persuasive case of its ownership of the 22 items in dispute.

Italy has long bemoaned the steady stripping of its heritage and is now engaged in a fresh campaign to combat the practice. This led it to bring criminal charges of trafficking in stolen antiquities against Marion True, the former antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Robert Hecht Jr., a U.S. dealer. Their trial began this year in Rome.

At the same time, bolstered by photographic evidence collected in a 1995 raid on a Geneva warehouse, Italy has begun looking more closely at acquisitions of Italian treasures by U.S. museums, not only the Getty and the Met, but also the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others.

But why the focus on American museums? The simplest answer would appear to lie in when and how they acquired their collections.

For instance, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Pergamon in Berlin built their collections in the 19th and early 20th Centuries when European explorers and archeologists played a central role in rediscovering ancient civilizations. The results of the first excavations were often shipped directly to Northern European capitals. Only later were finds shared with host countries.

“Our works were acquired in a legal way according to the practice at the time,” said Henri Loyrette, the Louvre’s director, noting that there are now no claims on any of the museum’s pieces. “Today, the situation is quite different.”

This is where American museums come in. Many have relied on donations or purchases of collections assembled by private individuals who have acquired antiquities at auctions or from dealers. Further, while European museums today have modest acquisition budgets, some American museums can still afford to buy valuable antiquities.

“European museums got lots of stuff 100 years ago so they can take the moral high ground,” said Neil Brodie, research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Center in Cambridge, England. “But if you establish a new museum like the Getty, you have to stock it.”

In this, he said, U.S. tax incentives play a major part. “If a private collector gives to a museum, he can claim back taxes,” Brodie said. Among the works mentioned in the case against True, there are 12 objects from among over 300 masterworks of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art collected by Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman and bought by the Getty in 1996.

Similarly, some antiquities of concern to the Italian authorities belong to the Levy-White collection, which has other pieces on loan to the Met. Shelby White, the widow of Leon Levy, is a Met trustee.

The path described by the Italian authorities often leads from an illegally excavated site in, say, Sicily, through shadowy middlemen and elegant dealers and, finally, to collectors and museums.

According to Italian law, any antiquity that left the country since 1939 without authorization was exported illegally. In practice, Italian investigators are concerned with more recent traffic, mainly since the 1970s.

Still, along with trying to identify and recover what they consider stolen art in some American museums, Italian officials say they also want to draw international attention to the problem in the hope of discouraging further trafficking.

And, as with antiquities being smuggled out of countries as far apart as Guatemala and Cambodia, the officials believe pressure must be applied on the final buyer, whether collector or museum.

Brodie agreed. “With antiquities, the source is massively distributed, while demand is fairly localized,” he said, “so the obvious answer is to focus on demand. It’s easy to say that countries should protect their sites, but there are so many that it is not practical.”

But the problem of establishing an ancient work’s provenance is far greater than that of, say, art looted by the Nazis from Jewish collections and later placed on the market. Unless a photograph is taken when an object is found, it is often impossible to know when or where it was excavated.

The question now is how Italy’s new push for greater transparency will affect acquisitions by museums and collectors.

Loyrette, the Louvre’s director, believes museums have a special responsibility, a position also often echoed by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. “Museums must be, as far as possible, irreproachable,” Loyrette said. “When there is doubt, we abstain. I prefer not to have an important piece in the Louvre than to run the risk.”

Nonetheless, major museums still have a credibility problem. In 2002, 19 “universal museums,” including the Getty and the Met, signed a declaration that condemned the illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects, but stressed that “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.”

Geoffrey Lewis, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Paris-based International Council of Museums, was unimpressed.

“The declaration is a statement of self-interest made by a group representing some of the world’s richest museums,” he wrote in an editorial in the council’s monthly, Icom News.

He added: “The debate today is not about the desirability of ‘universal museums,’ but about the ability of a people to present their cultural heritage in their own territory.”