April 28, 2014

The next chapter – repatriated works after they return home

Posted at 12:57 pm in Similar cases

There have been various high profile cultural property repatriation cases in recent years that have been resolved by the return of the artefacts in question. In many cases though, once the initial publicity dies down, it drops below the radar, as it is no longer a news item.

This article takes a look at some of the recent cases & what has happened to the artefacts since their return.

The Euphronios Krater, displayed in Rome

The Euphronios Krater, displayed in Rome

New York Times

Vision of Home
Repatriated Works Back in Their Countries of Origin

AIDONE, Sicily — The ruins of the ancient Greek city of Morgantina sit high on a hill in eastern Sicily. There are cherry trees, wildflowers and total stillness, save for the sound of bird song. The area has long been sacred to Persephone; legend has it that Hades pulled that goddess into the underworld by a nearby lake.

It was here at Morgantina, just outside the modern town of Aidone, that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a breathtaking statue of a goddess, draped in a windswept robe and standing over seven feet tall, is believed to have been found. First thought to be Aphrodite and now widely considered to be Persephone, the statue, which dates to about 425 B.C., has become one of the most contested artworks in the world.

Its journey — from Sicily to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and eventually back to Sicily — offers a poignant window into the world of art restitution.

In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.

Most Western museums now acknowledge a strong ethical case for returning objects, especially if they have been found to have left their countries of origin under dubious circumstances, as in the case of the goddess of Morgantina. The Getty, which had bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, returned it to Italy in 2011 after Italian prosecutors found that it had been looted, illegally exported and sold by dealers who very likely dissembled about its provenance.

Some argue that repatriation, particularly of Western antiquities, speaks to the persistence of nations in a globalized world. It’s “the stubbornness of objects,” said James B. Cuno, the president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust and the author of “Who Owns Antiquity?”

“It’s not the same with music, it’s not the same with film, it’s not the same with literature — but when it comes to physical objects, these things are kept as evidence of a proud past, as defined by the nation-state government,” he said.

Others question whether certain museums have the infrastructure to safeguard the treasures that have been returned — or to make them accessible, far outside well-trafficked capital cities. Critics argue that such questions indicate an almost neocolonial attitude.

The goddess of Morgantina is now on display in the archaeological museum of Aidone. The idea was to spread Italy’s treasures around the country and to allow viewers to see the work in the context in which it was found. The statue, returned to the music of police bands, now stands proudly on a metal stand in the museum.

Dozens of ex-voto figures of Kore, or Persephone, found nearby, some with their pink paint still intact, are on display in the museum, along with other objects from the island’s Phoenician, Greek and Roman eras.

These treasures await those who make the sometimes difficult journey. About a 90-minute drive west of Catania, Aidone is in the province of Enna, Sicily’s poorest, and is less than 15 miles from Piazza Armerina, whose Roman-era mosaics, part of a Unesco World Heritage site, are among the most visited spots in Sicily. But the island, renowned for political corruption, lacks reliable public transportation. Local roads are sometimes closed.

Last year, 30,767 people visited the Aidone museum, and about 26,000 visited Morgantina, compared with 400,000 people who visited the Getty Villa in 2010, the last year the statue was on display there.

Across-the-board public budget cuts have left the museum with few resources for maintenance, guards and publicity, said Laura Maniscalco, an archaeologist who has been director of the Aidone museum since fall. “I don’t think it’s up to me to create tourist itineraries,” Ms. Maniscalco said. “But I can complain about the closed roads. Why aren’t they fixed? These are political problems.”

Some repatriation cases underscore countries asserting their place on the world stage rather than simply reclaiming past glory. In 2010 the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History agreed to return to Peru thousands of everyday objects unearthed at Machu Picchu a century ago by the explorer Hiram Bingham III.

“Now, what was before a sign of power is a sign of weakness,” said Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, an archaeologist who is now Peru’s vice minister for culture. “We stand in a moral position that is stronger” than that of “whoever took our stuff. We want it back because it is here where it belongs. It is here where it was produced.”

Returned to Peru in 2012, the objects — which include ceramics, tools, jewelry and human and animal bones — provide a remarkable account of the city, which was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century. Many are now on view at a museum in Cuzco, the nearest city to Machu Picchu. The installation is still largely that from a 2003 traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Museum, which celebrates the triumphs of Bingham, but that emphasis is likely to change as Peruvian museum authorities take command.

While some repatriation cases have stemmed from protracted legal battles, the settlement between Yale University and the government of Peru was hailed as a triumph of diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange. After years of often acrimonious talks, in 2010 Yale agreed to return the artifacts, and the university and Alan García, then the president of Peru, pledged to help create a joint study and research center with the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco.

“I think the Yale case is a good one as a model in some ways because it was resolved diplomatically; it wasn’t resolved through legal decisions,” said Richard Burger, chairman of the Council of Archaeological Studies at Yale and a former curator at the Peabody Museum, who was part of the talks. A committee of Yale scholars and officials from Peru’s Culture Ministry oversee the museum.

The Yale case has also paved the way for Peru to reclaim objects from around the world, including a collection of Paracas textiles, which the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, is in talks to return. “Their concern is how are these pieces going to be taken care of” if they leave Sweden? Mr. Castillo said. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he added. “The point is that Peru is ready.”

“If you take our patrimony, we’ll go to the end of the world,” he said. “Peru is taking this very seriously.”

In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.

When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.

Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. The museum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.

But in 2012, Cyprus asked for them back, in a climate in which the new government and leadership of the Church of Cyprus have been increasingly aggressive in their campaign to call attention to the deconsecrated Christian religious sites in the areas of Cyprus that Turkey still controls.

The Menil Collection made good on its promise. “Of course we were sad, but in the end we were very proud because ethically, from a moral point of view, this was exactly what needed to happen,” said Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection.

The frescoes are now on view in the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Byzantine Museum and Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus’s second-most visited museum, “until the day they will be put back in the chapel,” said John Eliades, the director of the Byzantine Museum. That might not be so easy.

In Turkey, the statue of “Weary Herakles,” dating to the second century A.D. and half of which was in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until 2011, is in a museum in Antalya, about 500 miles south of Istanbul — a testament of Turkish fervor to reclaim that country’s past, as well as a triumph of scholarly sleuthing.

In 2011 the Boston museum agreed to send back the torso of the sculpture depicting Herakles after scholars determined that it matched the lower half of a statue that had been excavated in 1980 in Perge, in southern Turkey, and was already on view in the archaeological museum in Antalya.

The agreement between the Boston museum and Turkey acknowledged that the museum had acquired the object “in good faith and without knowledge of any ownership or title issues,” according to a statement from the museum. (In 1981 the museum had acquired a half-interest in the torso, with the other half owned by the American antiquities collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White.)

With great fanfare, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took the torso back to Turkey in his government plane in October 2011. It was pieced back together and is now on view at the museum in Antalya.

Few repatriation cases have been as contentious as that of the Euphronios krater, a red-figure vase hailed as one of the few extant masterpieces by the ancient Greek artist Euphronios, which is also a cautionary tale about looting. Found in 1971 in illegal excavations in an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, north of Rome, the vase was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972 from an antiquities dealer. For years, it was on display there, admired by millions of visitors.

After years of contentious negotiations, in 2006 the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return the krater and 21 other objects to Italy, which celebrated the development as a national victory — a strong rebuke to the tomb raiders who had helped secret hundreds of world-class artworks out of Italy for sale on the international market.

Today the Euphronios krater sits rather forlornly in a glass case in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome’s Villa Borghese park. Wall labels, written in Italian and poorly translated English, explain where it was found. One example: “The tomb of Greek Vases (Tomba dei Vasi Greci) is the latest within the great tumulus II of the Banditaccia necropolis and contained so many grave goods that only part of them could be displayed.”

Although many school groups come to see the vase, on a recent sunny March afternoon, there were few visitors. A museum attendant in plainclothes sat in a chair near the vase, chatting on the phone.

Considered one of the finest examples of ancient Greek painting, the vase depicts the gods Mercury; Hypnos, or sleep; and Thanatos, or death, carrying the body of the wounded warrior Sarpedon, son of Zeus, back to the motherland for burial after being killed by Patroclus in the Trojan War. A repatriation of a different kind.

Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.

A version of this article appears in print on April 20, 2014, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Vision of Home

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