August 15, 2006

Restitution of cultural property in the USA

Posted at 7:37 pm in Similar cases

In the US, even smaller museums are now affected by requests for the return of items in their collections – particularly those classified as cultural treasures. A large number of these cases are related to Native American artefacts, but their experience with handling claims in that field has no doubt helped to move the goalposts with regards to the restitution of other artefacts, as highlighted by many recent high profile cases involving some of the country’s wealthiest museums.

Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon)

Monday, August 14, 2006
Plundered art creates quandary
Local museums often have returned such pieces
Statesman Journal
August 13, 2006

The international trade in looted antiquities and misappropriated cultural works may seem a distant matter to the museums and universities of the Northwest.

There are no Indiana Jones-type professors working at Oregon schools or museums with large collections of ancient works or large acquisition budgets.

But even Salem’s Willamette University, which will host an international conference this fall on cultural-heritage issues, has discovered that it’s not immune to such concerns.

In 1998-99, the university repatriated 500 Native American burial items to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, works collected several years ago by a student archaeology club that excavated Native American burial mounds.

Then last April, the university repatriated a 2.2-pound chunk of the Willamette Meteorite, sacred to the Native Americans, to the Confederated Tribes. It was discovered in a shoebox in a closet in 2005, together with a 9,000-year-old pair of Native American sandals.

No one is sure how or when it was acquired.

John Olbrantz, the director of the university’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, first ran across the issue in the 1970s and 1980s while working at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art in Bellingham, Wash.

The museum received a collection of cultural items gathered by Theodore Cox in the 1880s and 1890s in what now is Malawi. The items were donated to the museum by Cox’s daughter in the 1940s.

An anthropology student who catalogued the collection happened to tell a Malawi official about the works, and the country’s ambassador came to the museum: All 100 pieces eventually were returned to Malawi, which otherwise had little of its cultural heritage intact.

“It made a lot of sense, and it seemed like the right thing to do,” Olbrantz said. “It’s an issue that a lot of museums, particularly museums with an extensive collection, are grappling with.”

Today, most countries observe international agreements and are careful about the provenance of artwork and antiquities.

Ann Nicgorski, a professor in the art and art-history department at Willamette, experienced the modern approach when she spent 10 years working archaeological digs in Crete, through 2001.

“I was working in Greece, which had really strict laws,” she said. “Everything we found belonged to the Greek government.

“I think the sort of concern of archaeologists there is a loss of scientific information when a site is plundered.

“On the other hand, many museums have taken a different position: It simply isn’t possible to repatriate and return everything.”

“It used to be when you’d go in and excavate, there would be a division of finds with the country,” Olbrantz said.

“They could manipulate those situations so they were getting the best of the spoils. They can’t do that now.”

The Willamette conference Oct. 12-14, “Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legacy of Conquest, Colonization and Commerce,” will tackle these and many other issues, bringing in more than two dozen internationally recognized experts from Australia, Canada, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Nigeria and the United States.

Among them is U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks, who decided the contentious Kennewick Man case, involving the remains of a Native American whose disposition had been disputed by scientists and Native Americans.

This will be his first public comment on the case, Nicgorski said.

The looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the ongoing destruction of Iraqi historical sites also is on the agenda.

“We’re really excited about this,” Nicgorski said of the conference. “We’ve been talking about it for years.”

As many as 200 people could attend, with two free public lectures.

Willamette might seem an odd location for such a conference, but it has a number of faculty recognized in this subject, in particular James Nafziger, who specializes in international law and is in the College of Law.

Nafziger helped draft the UNESCO treaty governing cultural provenance in 1970 and was part of a 1972 World Heritage Convention on the same issue.

He currently serves on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act committee and was active in having Willamette’s collection of burial finds and the Willamette Meteorite artifact returned to the Confederated Tribes.

Nafziger said the larger issue came to a head in the 1970s because of articles and books exposing the looting of antiquities.

Especially influential was Karl E. Meyer’s 1973 book, “The Plundered Past: The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art.”

“Basically, the problem was growing, the marketing was more sophisticated and more looting was coming to the attention of the governments,” Nafziger said.

“The laws have served as a conscience-raising device for both the art-poor and the art-rich communities, the importers and the exporters.”

The issue may seem distant to the Northwest, but Seattle Art Museum recently had to return a Matisse painting that proved to have been taken by the Nazis from a Jewish owner in the 1930s. It was sold to the museum in the 1950s.

Bruce Guenther, the chief curator at the Portland Art Museum, said the museum has been cognizant of the issue, which can be complicated with 40,000 items in its collection, 25,000 of those works on paper.

“That’s a lot of documentation,” he said.

The museum’s collection includes Native American works and European art, which can raise some red flags.

“We’ve done research and posted objects that have holes in their provenance from the Nazi period,” he said.

A number of 17th-century paintings have been posted on the American Association of Museums Web site.

“We don’t know who owned them in the 1920s and 1930s,” Guenther said.

The Portland Art Museum also has had discussions with the Native American community about the issue.

“It’s a smaller issue for us,” Guenther said.

The museum’s collection is not heavy in antiquities from countries such as Italy and Greece.

The museum holdings are more a collection of collections, works donated to the museum by collectors, though occasionally, the museum purchases individual works.

“It’s apt to be an issue in which prospective collectors need to be aware in their dealing with dealers,” Nafziger said.

“I think it is a matter of reputation, and I think it is a matter of buyer beware.”

“There’s this whole industry that’s built on looking the other way,” Guenther said. “Institutions get caught in it because they’re buying it from a reputable source, and it is a reputable source.”

He recalled visiting a Vienna apartment that was packed floor to ceiling with paintings from the 18th through 20th centuries, run by an art wholesaler of obviously dubious nature.

Guenther said he knew better than to acquire any of that work.

Native American work can be an even more complicated issue.

“You look at these things, and you think, ‘How do we know where this was excavated?'” he said. “A lot of things came out of the ground without documentation and went into collectors’ homes.”

Although Hallie Ford Museum of Art has some European and Asian antiquities, Olbrantz said they are small, secondary-type works.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about its provenance,” he said.

“We would want to make sure its provenance was impeccable.”

Objects acquired after 1973 are of particular concern, given the adoption of international standards, Olbrantz said.

“I would say it’s a red flag if there wasn’t good documentation on an item or it was missing,” Olbrantz said about items found after 1973.

Willamette is hiring a new collections curator, artist/ teacher Jonathan Bucci, currently an assistant director and collections curator of the Watkins Gallery at American University in Washington, D.C. He starts Oct. 2.

“Certainly, one of the challenges our new collections curator is going to face is we’re going to encourage him to do provenance research on items,” Olbrantz said.

Doing the right thing is what motivated the university to repatriate the Native American burial mound items to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which handles items of cultural patrimony and sacred items when the original tribes may no longer be in existence.

‘They weren’t on view here,” Olbrantz said of the items. “They were housed40 to 50 years here in different locations.”

Nicgorski said the piece of the Willamette Meteorite apparently was on view at the university at one time, but no one knows how it was acquired. To the Native Americans, the 10,000- to 12,000-year-old meteorite was known as “Tomanowos,” or “Sky Person.”

The university appeared to have acquired it before 1940. It was found in May 2005 in a supply closet in Collins Hall.

The sliver of the 15.5-ton meteorite, which the tribes unsuccessfully have sought to have returned from the Museum of Natural History in New York, was turned over in a ceremony on April 17 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

“Tomanowos was, and is, sacred and priceless to the Indians of the Clackamas Tribe, who watched over it from time immemorial,” said Lindy Trolan, the tribe’s cultural collections specialist.

The 9,000-year-old sandals also were a surprise find.

“Those were found in the same shoebox with the Willamette Meteorite,” Nicgorski said.

Olbrantz said the sandals are among several pairs found in a cave in the Fort Rock area and are in such poor condition they are kept in a vault and have not been displayed.

“They’re not from a grave context,” Nicgorski said.

“We’re hoping that we don’t have any more such shoeboxes.”

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