October 27, 2007

No easy answers on the return of stolen art

Posted at 1:59 pm in Similar cases

Often the solution to arguments over looted artefacts end with the enemies becoming collaborators in an attempt to reach an amicable solution without losing face.

New York Times

Returning Stolen Art: No Easy Answers
Published: October 27, 2007

MILAN — Not 15 months ago, they were staring each other down at a negotiating table, bargaining tensely over who should have title to 13 archaeological artifacts. But on a recent afternoon they seemed the best of colleagues, amicably discussing how museums might cope with demands for the restitution of cultural property.

“This was the enemy,” said Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for Italy who negotiated the handover of the 13 artworks by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, last year. “Now we’re the tangible example of what happens when there is collaboration.” Sitting with him on a conference panel at the University of Milan on the issue of cultural restitution was Katie Getchell, deputy director of the Boston museum, who echoed many of his comments. “I can confirm that a responsible, legal, ethical solution to disputes is possible,” she told the participants.

Ms. Getchell said the museum agreed to return the pieces — most of them vases, but also a majestic statue of Sabina, second-century consort to the Emperor Hadrian — because documentary research supported Italy’s contention that they were looted from Italian soil.

Italy sweetened the deal by offering long-term loans, Ms. Getchell said, but the museum’s decision was basically ethical. “We didn’t want objects that weren’t rightfully ours,” she said.

But the ownership issue is not always clear-cut. And even when museums draw up codes of ethics to help ensure that they won’t abet the plunder of another nation’s cultural heritage, the measures are not legally binding.

Often, museums and professional associations for archaeologists and antiquarians “don’t live up to the standards they have set,” said Kurt Siehr, a member of the committee on cultural-heritage law of the International Law Association, which organized the conference.

Many of these codes and guidelines have been drafted in the spirit of a 1970 Unesco convention that prohibited the illicit circulation of a nation’s cultural property. In 1986 the International Council of Museums adopted a code of professional ethics that insists on due diligence for every item entering a collection. The code was revised in 2004.

Institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which agreed this summer to return 40 objects to Italy, have drafted their own guidelines to respond to claims that they acted improperly in past acquisitions.

Still, compliance with such guidelines is voluntary for the most part. And while ethical guidelines in theory should help untangle ownership issues, “they aren’t neutral because they are the expression of the worlds which produced them,” said Manlio Frigo, a local lawyer and another member of the heritage-law committee of the International Law Association.

Moreover, said Giovanni Nistri, who leads the art theft squad of the Italian military police, or carabinieri, such guidelines “depend on how ethics change over time.”

Some conference participants said that national laws adopted to combat the illicit export of valuable cultural property sometimes actually encouraged smuggling.

In Italy, for example, anything over 50 years old (“including the drawing your sister did in kindergarten,” Domenico Piva, the president of the Italian federation of art dealers, said dryly) is subject to complex export regulations. As a result, said Casimiro Porro of the National Association of Auction Houses, “things are exported illegally or under false pretenses — and this has been a serious damage to Italy.”

From 1970 to 2006, Mr. Nistri said, more than 858,000 art objects originating in Italy were stolen, and only a third have been recovered. He said his team of experts had also recouped nearly 700,000 illegally excavated archaeological objects and had no reliable way of knowing how many more had been looted.

During the same period, he said, nearly 10,000 books and manuscripts were stolen, more than four times the amount that had been reported missing. “Libraries didn’t even know they were missing,” he said. “It’s a serious problem.”

Clarice Pecori-Giraldi, the director general of Christie’s Italian operation, argued that the export law also inhibited the modern Italian art market, “forcing us to sell and buy only among ourselves.”

The difficulties some museums face in securing long-term loans from some art-rich countries has also stirred resentment over such export laws.

Add the concept of the universal museum and the debate becomes even more complicated. Does a country that produced cultural property have the right to it, or museum visitors around the world who get to appreciate it?

Despite the proliferation of national and international laws, policies and ethical guidelines, some disputes remain intractable, some participants noted, like the long standoff between Britain and Greece over the Parthenon statues that Lord Elgin removed from the Acropolis two centuries ago.

Meanwhile, the looting of unpoliced sites remains a major problem.

With the adoption of ethical acquisition guidelines, “I don’t understand why the sacking continues,” said Abdoulaye Camara, director of the Museum of African Art in Dakar, Senegal, and a member of the ethics committee of the International Council of Museums.

Still, he said, the museums’ ethical guidelines were better than nothing. “People criticize the codes as being too idealistic,” he said, “but we have to continue fighting for our patrimony.”

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