For many years, Museums sat comfortably in the knowledge that despite turning a blind eye to the looted antiquities in their collections, the law was on their side & successful prosecutions were rare, even in relatively clear cut cases. In the past three or four years though, a constantly evolving situation has begun to shift far more rapidly.
So far, Italy has taken the lead role in spearheading the wave of restitutions, but other countries are carefully watching & learning.
Analysis: Museums often pay the price for looted antiquities
by Steven Litt/Plain Dealer Art Critic
Sunday November 23, 2008, 6:30 AM
On Sept. 13, 1995, Swiss and Italian police raided a suite of offices in a warehouse on the southwest side of Geneva rented by Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo de Medici.
Behind the gray metal door of Room 23, on Corridor 17, they found shelves packed with looted vases, statues, bronzes, frescoes, mosaics and jewelry.
Some were wrapped in newspapers; others were packed in fruit boxes or left leaning against walls. Many objects were still covered with dirt, having come fresh from the earth.
Most important, as recounted in the 2006 book “The Medici Conspiracy” by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, police discovered thousands of letters, photographs and other documents.
The paper trail linked the activities of Italian tomb robbers, or tombaroli, to networks of art dealers who sold the artworks eventually to some of the greatest museums in the world, including the Cleveland Museum of Art.
On Wednesday, the Cleveland museum agreed to return 13 ancient artworks to Italy, based in part on evidence gleaned from the 1995 raid, according to Maurizio Fiorilli, the Italian state lawyer who negotiated the deal.
The agreement marked the conclusion of an 18-month negotiation and followed similar accords with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Princeton University Art Museum.
All have returned dozens of objects to Italy.
The agreements are part of a fundamental change sweeping the art world. In response to reports of a global epidemic of looting in the Mediterranean, China and Southeast Asia, museums are facing increased scrutiny about how and from whom they acquire antiquities.
It’s a field fraught with uncertainty. Before acquiring an object, museums typically contact international police agencies to check whether the work may have been stolen.
The catch is that if an object was looted, there will be no record of its existence. Many museums, including Cleveland’s, have collected and shown ancient works whose exact origins remain unknown.
To experts such as Ricardo Elia, a Boston University archaeology professor and a close observer of the antiquities trade, such lack of documentation is proof that an object was looted. He estimated that as much as 90 percent of the antiquities purchased in recent decades by American museums are the product of looting.
But Timothy Rub, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said that lack of exculpatory evidence about an artwork’s origins doesn’t prove a wrongdoing was committed — or that the work should be relinquished on demand.
“If I’ve inherited as director custody of an object that doesn’t have a provenance before a certain date and somebody says, ‘It’s ours, give it back,’ that’s a pretty tough thing,” he said. “I’ve got to ask you to make a case.”
The difficulty of arguing such cases makes it unlikely that the recent wave of repatriations to Italy will lead to a vast purge of artworks from American museums.
Instead, if the negotiations show anything, it’s that museums, including Cleveland’s, are willing to part with antiquities only when foreign governments provide persuasive evidence connecting the works to recent criminal wrongdoing.
That’s a difficult threshold to reach, and it’s rare. The art bust in Switzerland, for example, documented the precise trail taken by specific objects from the looters who dug them up to the middlemen who cleaned and restored them, provided them with phony ownership histories and put them on the market.
“You may not see another case this dramatic for 20 or 30 years,” Elia said. “They found bags of Polaroid photographs and information from Hecht’s diaries.”
Robert Hecht is an art dealer associated with Medici, who is on trial in Rome on charges related to smuggling.
In the absence of such evidence, museums are likely to stand firm.
“The world is filled with people who want to cast a taint over objects in order to try to get them back,” said Michael Horvitz, co-chairman of the Cleveland museum’s Board of Trustees. “We don’t want to get ourselves in a situation where every time somebody says, ‘This object was sold to you by a dealer we don’t like,’ we just cave in.”
Art has been subject to plunder for centuries. Napoleon scoured Italy during a late-18th century invasion, bringing home a hoard of masterpieces that still adorn the Louvre.
Lord Elgin of England shipped home the celebrated marble carvings from the Acropolis in Athens between 1801 and 1805 with permission from the Ottoman court. Hitler and his lieutenants raped museums and private collections across Italy, France and the Netherlands.
But while art museums on both sides of the Atlantic have honored claims brought by former owners of artworks looted or confiscated by the Nazis, they have resisted attempts to right the wrongs of prior centuries by emptying their galleries.
Greece, for example, has demanded that the British Museum give back the Elgin marbles. Greece even went so far as to build a new museum at the base of the Acropolis to display the sculptures, as a way to pressure the British. Thus far, it hasn’t worked.
Many experts on both sides of the argument over antiquities agree that current moral and ethical standards shouldn’t be applied retroactively to treasures removed from archaeological sites by explorers or colonial powers in prior centuries.
“It’s not the intention to go back through all of history to get the stuff that Columbus maybe put on a ship and took back to [Queen] Isabella,” Horvitz said.
The most widely accepted dividing line between contemporary and past moral standards is the 1970 UNESCO Convention, aimed at halting the illegal trade in antiquities. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Rub, the Cleveland museum’s director, recently helped toughen the guidelines used by leading American art museums when considering the purchase of an antiquity, using the 1970 convention as a key reference point.
Antiquities expert Elia said the document is an improvement, but he’d like to see even tougher standards.
The debate won’t end soon. But if Italy’s agreement with the Cleveland museum sets a precedent, it is that any future discussions about repatriating artworks will focus on works positively associated with illegal activity and acquired by the museum after 1970.
By all accounts, the agreement between the Cleveland museum and Italy is a friendly one, and the deal certainly looks good from a local perspective.
In exchange for the “transfer” of the 13 antiquities, Italy has agreed to lend Cleveland on a long-term basis 13 works of equal quality. The museum also agreed to return a 14th object, a late-Gothic processional cross stolen from a church near Siena.
Rub declined to say how much the museum paid for the purchased items it’s returning but said it would be highly difficult to seek monetary restitution from dealers.
Still, though, the Cleveland museum will have those Italian loan objects in place of the ones it’s transferring. And Italy also has promised to cooperate on at least one major exhibition of objects lent from state collections.
It’s also important that the agreement states that the Cleveland museum acted in good faith when it acquired the antiquities and the cross. Italy isn’t going to bring charges against current or former curators in Cleveland, as it has against Marion True, the former Getty curator now on trial with Hecht in Rome.
A sticking point remains: Italy and the Cleveland museum will form a joint scholarly commission to continue research on the controversial Apollo Sauroktonos bronze acquired by the museum in 2004, along with a smaller bronze winged victory chariot ornament bought in 1984.
If the Italians come up with scientific or other evidence of wrongdoing associated with those two pieces, negotiations could resume, said Fiorilli, the Italian state lawyer.
From Elia’s perspective, the agreement between the Cleveland museum and Italy shows how the Italians are using sticks and carrots gently to get what they want.
“They’re making these agreements in a very deliberate way,” he said. “They’re trying to get museums to change their policies by being generous.”