February 25, 2006

The role of museum trustees

Posted at 10:26 pm in Similar cases

Details of the case involving looted Italian artefacts in New York’s Metropolitan Museum reveal the complexities behind many of the purchases.
Collectors (who are not governed by the same rules as the museum) may be buying items & then donating them to the museum (in the USA, this can be a highly beneficial move under certain circumstances for tax write off purposes). Sometimes the collector’s ownership adds a level of provenance to the item that makes it easier for the museum to accept it. In some occasions, the museums purchase artefacts from the collectors, in other cases, where the collectors are wealthy enough they may be donors to the museum funding whole new galleries that they give their name to (& this is not a recent concept – the Elgin Marbles are housed in the Duveen Gallery paid for by Lord Duveen). Sometimes the collectors are invited onto the board of trustees of the museum because of what they have done for the museum in the past. Collectors become directors & directors become collectors. Collectors use the museums to authenticate their pieces then the museum can later buy the pieces (that they themselves had added provenance to).
In all this, there are more than a few conflicts of interest & many more vested interests. It is hardly surprising that the world of art collecting in general is not the most ethical trade & that museums get caught up in it.
What is more of a problem is that the museums do not seem to realise that they are caught up in it. They are so exposed to it that they become immune to it & cannot see what is wrong with their own behaviour, although if asked most of the public would agree that the museum was not acting in the way that people would expect them to act.
Although most museums in the USA are privately owned, some like the Met benefit indirectly from public funding – something that should in theory make them accountable to much higher ethical standards than the purely private institutions. The Euphronios Krater case would suggest that this is not so though – the problem is that the Met still gives the impression that they cannot entirely understand what they did wrong anyway – they act as though someone was acting within the law only to find that it had been changed secretly without them realising.

Bloomberg News

Met’s Antiquities Case Shows Donor, Trustee Ties to Looted Art
(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)
By Vernon Silver

Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) — On Nov. 22, Philippe de Montebello, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, walked up a cobblestone street in Rome and into a palazzo connected to the chambers where Galileo faced the Inquisition 372 years earlier.

Inside the Italian Culture Ministry’s headquarters, curators, police and the minister of culture himself showed evidence to the chief of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest art museum that the Met harbored looted antiquities — both in its collection and loaned by wealthy donors, some of whom run the museum as trustees.

Three months later, de Montebello agreed to return 21 of the Met’s gems to Italy, among them a 2,500-year-old vase painted by the Greek artist Euphronios.

While Italy secured a victory in this instance, the Met remains enmeshed in a broader tangle of donors, trustees and curators, some of whom have dealt in illicit antiquities, according to Italian and U.S. court decisions.

At least three members of the Met’s board or its curator- appointed committees have bought smuggled artifacts for their personal collections, according to rulings in three Italian and U.S. cases since 1999.

Former hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt and Shelby White, the widow of OppenheimerFunds Inc. founder Leon Levy, have used the museum’s labs and curators to authenticate the items, according to the 1990 catalog detailing the Levy-White collection and rulings in a U.S. civil case against Steinhardt.

`Collecting Habit’

“It’s an interrelated collecting habit, which the Met and other museums have to kick,” says Malcolm Bell, 64, director of the University of Virginia’s archaeological excavations at Morgantina in Sicily. “The museums, the curators, the collectors who support museums and the boards of trustees all have to be set to a higher principle.”

Bell found evidence of looting at Morgantina that Italy used to win the Met’s agreement to return a 16-piece set of Hellenistic silver. De Montebello and Italian officials signed the pact in Rome on Feb. 21. The Met will return disputed antiquities in exchange for loans of equally important objects.

The Met, which says it acquired the objects in good faith, agreed to give back five vases, among them the Euphronios krater, a pot for mixing wine that sits in its own spotlighted glass case.

For three decades, Italy has claimed that the intact Athenian pot, which the Met’s Web site calls “easily the finest Attic vase in the collection,” was looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome.

`Squeaky Clean’

“Professional people working in or for museums, if they are not extremely careful, can be servicing the illicit trade,” says Bernice Murphy, chairwoman of the ethics committee of the International Council of Museums, who’s based in Canberra, Australia.

Agreeing to return objects from the Met’s own collection is an important step in improving the museum’s practices, says Jane Waldbaum, 66, president of the Boston-based Archaeological Institute of America, North America’s oldest and largest archaeology association.

Now, de Montebello, 69, and the trustees must provide the governance a museum of the Met’s stature requires, says David Gill, associate dean of arts and humanities at the University of Wales Swansea.

“The way ahead is to say, `We need to be absolutely squeaky clean,”’ Gill, 44, says. The Met should publish an antiquities acquisition policy, distance itself from trustees who are private collectors and assess the museum’s holdings to see whether more objects should be returned, he says.

`Cut Ties?’

Gill’s research of private antiquities collections, including the Levy-White items on loan to the Met, found that most such items have no published or credible archaeological sites of origin. Without such data, there’s no proof an object was obtained legitimately and not through looting, Gill says. White didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Met spokesman Harold Holzer rejects the idea that the museum’s affairs are inappropriately enmeshed with donors and trustees.

“Private collectors are responsible for their own collections and that’s an issue that’s separate and independent from the Metropolitan Museum’s issues,” he says. “That’s not to say that the Met’s collection hasn’t been built proudly from private benefactions.”

De Montebello says there’s no reason for the Met to distance itself from White.

“Why should I cut ties?” he says during a Feb. 21 interview in a wood-paneled library at the Italian Culture Ministry, leaning against the table where he has just signed the Met’s agreement with Italy. “She has a great many wonderful objects over which there are no problems, many of which were acquired from collections that go back to the 18th century.”

`Another Era’

Still, de Montebello says the Met won’t accept any new loans or gifts of antiquities over which there are legal claims, either from White or any other collector. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re trustees or my chairman of the board,” says de Montebello, who has led the museum since 1977. “We’re in another age, another era.”

The museum paid de Montebello $873,530, including $247,752 in allowances mostly related to housing, according to the museum’s tax return for the year ended on June 30, 2004. In addition, the Met will pay him $3.3 million in May when he turns 70, part of a plan designed to keep him at the museum until that age.

The Met especially must be above reproach because it gets funding and a rent-free lease from New York City for its 2 million-square-foot (186,000-square-meter) neoclassical building in Central Park, Gill says.

Wealthy Benefactors

“Publicly funded collections should have the highest ethical standards,” he says. The Met has 43 board members, not including honorary and emeritus trustees. Five come from city government, and most of the rest are wealthy benefactors.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is setting up a unit to fight illicit antiquities trafficking in the New York borough that’s home to the Met, says Matthew Bogdanos, who will handle the hunt for looted art.

Bogdanos, 49, an assistant district attorney and U.S. Marine Corps reserve colonel, has a master’s degree in classics from Columbia University. He ran the U.S. investigation of looting at the National Museum of Iraq at the outset of the war in 2003, while on leave from the district attorney’s office.

Bogdanos says networks of museums, collectors and smugglers should be prosecuted as conspiracies if they are found to be dealing in loot.

`Criminal Enterprise’

“We should be tackling the illicit trade in antiquities like a criminal enterprise,” says Bogdanos, whose previous cases include the 2001 prosecution of rap impresario Sean Combs on gun possession and bribery charges, which Bogdanos lost.

Bogdanos says he’s looking to root out criminals in the antiquities trade by recruiting curators and gallery workers as informants and witnesses. He declined to say whether he plans to investigate the Met or any other institution.

“I’m going to treat the networks the same way I do international drug cartels,” he says.

Legal disputes over antiquities may mean a black eye for the Met and the renovations to its south wing. De Montebello has used donations from White, Steinhardt and other patrons to accomplish the biggest building project of his career, the most recent portion of which cost $173 million from 2002 through the middle of 2005.

White has donated at least $5 million to the capital fund. Steinhardt, 65, has given at least $1 million, according to the Met’s 2004-2005 annual report.

Met Renovation

One gallery that features Greek art is named for Steinhardt. Two others, including the one in which the Euphronios krater is displayed, are named for curator Dietrich von Bothmer, 87. He’s listed in the Met’s annual report as having donated more than $5 million to the capital fund, money which he says others gave in his name.

The grandest room of the renovation will be the Leon Levy and Shelby White Roman court, paid for in part with $20 million from Levy and White, the New York Times reported on Dec. 10. Holzer declined to confirm the figure.

The two-story expanse will display a bust of Roman emperor Caligula and fragments from Domitian’s palace on Rome’s Palatine hill. “These are reflections of substantial generosity by trustees to raise funds to build and rebuild the museum,” Holzer says of the room titles.

The roles of Steinhardt, von Bothmer, White and others in the antiquities trade put their eponymous galleries under a cloud, says Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago who has a doctorate in art history and anthropology from Harvard University.

`Ethical Sensibilities’

“It makes the association so public that it certainly casts doubt on the ethical sensibilities of the museum,” Gerstenblith, 55, says.

Steinhardt sits on the visiting committees for Greek and Roman art and ancient Near Eastern art, which are appointed by curators of those departments.

He used Met curators and the museum’s lab to authenticate a gold bowl before buying it for about $1.2 million in 1992, according to a Nov. 14, 1997, ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones in White Plains, New York. The U.S. brought the civil case on Italy’s behalf.

The authentication services, which can help determine if an object is a modern fake, involve testing with X-rays. The Met’s Web site says such services aren’t available to the public.

`It’s Dodgy’

The museum makes exceptions if it hopes to receive donations of objects from a private collector, Holzer says.

“The museum has been providing expertise on great works of art for 135 years and advising collectors openly in the hope that their collections become part of the Metropolitan Museum,” he says. “That’s standard museum practice.”

While testing for private collectors might be standard at the Met, “it’s dodgy,” says Mike Tite, 67, the former keeper of the British Museum’s research lab and retired head of the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

Such tests can provide a stamp of authenticity for an object that has no other records of its origin. That can aid smugglers, he says. “I wouldn’t expect museums to authenticate because they shouldn’t be encouraging looting,” he says.

As it turned out, the bowl authenticated by the Met as being genuinely ancient had been looted from Sicily, U.S. district and appeals courts in New York determined. U.S. Customs agents seized the bowl from Steinhardt’s New York home on Nov. 9, 1995.

`An Addiction’

After trial and appeals courts ruled the bowl was stolen, the U.S. sent it back to Italy in 2000. Steinhardt, a part owner of the New Republic magazine, wasn’t charged with wrongdoing.

“Part of my attraction to ancient art is that there is an element of risk, of speculation,” Steinhardt said in an interview with Bloomberg News published on June 6. He said he had no knowledge of, or role in, the bowl’s importation.

“I spent more in legal fees than I paid for the object,” he said. “It should have turned me off antiquities, but it’s like an addiction to me.” Steinhardt declined through a spokesman to comment for this story.

German-born von Bothmer, who immigrated to the U.S., joined the army and was awarded a Bronze Star for his World War II service in the Pacific, joined the Met in 1946.

While working as a curator, he purchased smuggled Greek pottery for his private collection, Judge Guglielmo Muntoni of the Rome Tribunal wrote in a December 2004 smuggling conviction of Roman art dealer Giacomo Medici. Von Bothmer, a former head of the Met’s Greek and Roman department who still works as a senior researcher at the museum, says he never bought objects illicitly.

Buried Cities

“I did not steal them, and I have the receipts,” he says. Von Bothmer hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

Italy has long contended that the Met, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and other U.S. museums hold artifacts looted from buried cities and other sites. Informal claims go back at least to 1972, when the Met bought the Euphronios krater, which it has agreed to return, for $1 million from U.S. dealer Robert Hecht.

Hecht, who lives in Paris and New York, is on trial in Rome for antiquities smuggling with the former curator of the Getty Museum, Marion True, who’s charged with receiving looted antiquities.

Medici, 67, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy and illicit export and receiving of antiquities, is free while appealing his conviction. Medici, Hecht and True all deny the charges.

Godsend for Prosecutors

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” says Hecht, who says he never smuggled an object out of Italy or bought from illicit diggers. True declined to comment.

The Medici conviction was a godsend for Italian prosecutors because it uncovered a trove of allegedly looted objects. The case paved the way for the Rome trial of True, 57, and Hecht, 86. It also helped spur Italy’s demand for the return of antiquities that de Montebello agreed to turn over.

The case against True is parting the curtains on ties that can develop among curators, dealers and donors in the trade of allegedly looted antiquities. The Getty said in October that True had lost her job for failing to disclose that a dealer who sold ancient art to the museum had helped her get a loan to buy a house in Greece. The same dealer supplied the Getty with antiquities for which True is standing trial.

True repaid the loan with $400,000 borrowed from Getty donors Barbara Fleischman and her late husband Lawrence, the Los Angeles Times reported on Nov. 17. The Fleischman collection, which is now the Getty’s property, includes looted art, the judge in the Medici trial ruled. Barbara Fleischman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

U.S. Customs

“Relationships with dealers, collectors and donors, which are part of one’s professional life, need to be continually looked at,” ICOM’s Murphy says.

The U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are coming to Italy’s aid in tracking down disputed antiquities and winning their return.

Last year, Justice Department lawyers and customs agents used a 1985 mutual legal assistance treaty, which allows U.S. and Italian law enforcement to investigate for each other, to help Italy get three artifacts from the Getty, including a 2,300-year- old vase by the southern Italian painter Asteas.

While efforts by Italy and the U.S. to repatriate looted items have picked up in recent months, alleged dealings in ancient loot by the Met and some staff and donors go back more than 40 years, according to the sentencing document in Medici’s conviction.

`No Crime’

In the late 1960s, excavators illegally unearthed a kylix, a type of drinking cup, in Cerveteri near Rome. The cup came from the same area where the Euphronios krater was found, according to the judge’s ruling in Medici’s December 2004 conviction.

In 1968, von Bothmer, who was then head of the Met’s Greek and Roman department, acquired a fragment of the looted cup for his personal collection from Hecht.

“Buying fragments, in itself, is no crime,” von Bothmer says. The cup was potted by Euphronios and painted by the artist’s colleague, Onesimos.

Four years later, von Bothmer traveled to Switzerland with Thomas Hoving, then the Met’s director. They sought another work by Euphronios, this time for the museum’s collection. The Met paid Hecht $1 million for the 18-inch-tall (46-centimeter-tall) krater.

By the early 1980s, von Bothmer says that as his office at the Met was bursting with shards and pots from his own collection, he began donating them to the Met and other museums.

Tax Deduction

“I even got my tax deduction,” he says. Outside appraisers at auction houses assessed the objects’ values, ensuring he didn’t take inflated tax write-offs, von Bothmer says. Typically, a U.S. donor to a not-for-profit museum can reduce taxable income by the full fair market value of the donated artwork.

Such collecting and donating by a curator raises potential conflicts, Murphy says. Scouting for objects and hiring experts for appraisals are part of a curator’s official duties. The people selling the goods or providing the service might not be clear on whether they’re dealing with a museum or a private buyer.

“It’s enmeshed in a whole sequence of actions by which it could be seen that you are compromising your position,” she says.

In 1984, von Bothmer donated the fragment of the Onesimos- Euphronios kylix from his personal collection to the Getty, which had just bought a larger piece of the same cup for $180,000, Medici’s sentencing document shows.

Donated Fragments

To fill in missing bits of another Getty artifact, a pot, von Bothmer donated a separate batch of fragments from his collection, some of which had come from a New York gallery that dealt with the Met, according to Medici’s sentence.

The donation of shards to a rival museum and buying for a personal collection from dealers who sold to the Met should have raised red flags about von Bothmer’s dual role as private collector and museum employee, Murphy says.

What’s worse, both of the pots from which von Bothmer had bought and donated fragments turned out to be looted, the judge in Medici’s case ruled.

The Getty kylix and pot that von Bothmer helped complete are among the items the Italians have sought to recover. The Getty returned the kylix to Italy in 1999, and the pot’s possible return was being negotiated in February.

Even Medici says the evidence of looting is persuasive, citing an inscription on the kylix linking it to the site where it was found.

`All That Proof’

“In the face of all that proof, you can’t close your eyes,” Medici says over a lunch of stewed octopus and steak with porcini mushrooms in Rome. He gave the Italian government fragments of the kylix from his collection in a bid for leniency.

Von Bothmer says he helped save the cup and other works by collecting their fragments.

“If the Italians don’t look after their own things, I’d rather have it in New York than kept somewhere where it’s not appreciated,” he says. “I bought fragments for so long because dealers didn’t pay attention to them, and I didn’t find enormous prices, and it was a way of making sure they didn’t throw them out.”

Judge Muntoni’s written conviction of Medici paints a different picture. Von Bothmer was at the center of a social and financial web involving the buying, donation and authentication of loot that involved the Met, dealers, curators at the Getty Museum and private collectors such as White, the judge wrote.

“The Metropolitan Museum gave Medici and his band their beginnings in the American traffic through Dietrich von Bothmer,” he wrote.

Medici and True

Von Bothmer says he’s unfairly associated with the alleged misdeeds of Medici and True. “A gentleman he was not,” he says of Medici.

“Marion True had her own way of interpreting the law, and that was her downfall,” he says of the former Getty curator. “I avoided her like the plague.”

Von Bothmer helped cultivate the Met’s relationship with donors Levy and White. He edited the catalog of the Levy-White collection, “Glories of the Past,” as part of a 1990-1991 Met show. De Montebello wrote the catalog’s foreword, in which he lamented the limits of the acquisition process at museums.

“Objects thus acquired are subject to the constraints of committees, to financial restrictions, and to the relative academicism of many of their curatorial guardians,” de Montebello wrote. “In the assembling of private collections every whim can be exercised at will, and the preferences of the collectors tirelessly pursued and indulged.”

Warehouse Raid

Many Levy-White antiquities are on loan to the Met. One is a 2,500-year-old krater depicting Zeus, by the Greek artist known as the Eucharides painter. The bowl is on the list of White’s objects that Italian Culture Ministry lawyer Maurizio Fiorilli says Italy tried to claim in the November talks with de Montebello.

Around the time von Bothmer was writing the Levy-White catalog, he gave up his duties running the Met’s Greek and Roman department. He wanted to stay on at the museum. Donors he’d advised as they formed their private collections — Levy, White and the Fleischmans among them — offered to help. The donors endowed a research chair for von Bothmer that pays his salary, von Bothmer says.

In 1995, ties among museum donors, collectors, dealers and curators began to emerge. On Sept. 13 of that year, Italian and Swiss police raided Medici’s warehouse in Geneva. There, in neatly cataloged photo albums, they found pictures of antiquities that had ended up in the Levy-White and Fleischman collections and in the Met and Getty.

Turned on Each Other

Photos of fragments of the two Getty pots von Bothmer had helped complete were among the discoveries. Medici says the photos aren’t proof he owned the objects and says there’s no evidence the antiquities were dug up in Italy.

The 1995 raid let Italy build cases against Hecht, Medici, True and other dealers and restorers, some of whom have turned on each other. True testified in depositions for her trial that von Bothmer once showed her, using an aerial photo, the exact tomb site where the Euphronios krater was looted. Von Bothmer denies her account.

“I do not know where the krater comes from nor did I identify the site on a photograph,” he says.

As the Met confronts Italy’s claim that the museum holds looted antiquities in its own collection, at least two trustees – – White and Paula Cussi — have themselves bought disputed objects, according to the conviction in New York of Cussi’s antiquities dealer and Medici’s conviction in Rome.

Conflict of Interest

Decisions made by trustees for the museum may affect the legal fates of objects they own, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest, says DePaul’s Gerstenblith, who’s also president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Washington.

White hasn’t participated in any of the deliberations that the board has held on Italy’s demands for antiquities, Met spokesman Holzer says.

She owns eight of the items that Medici smuggled: a bronze statuette of a nude youth, purchased for $1.2 million in 1990, and seven vases bought for at least $5 million, according to the sentencing document in the Medici conviction.

Cussi, a Met trustee who founded the former Mexico City museum Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporaneo, agreed in 2002 to pay $950,000 for a silver, griffin-shaped drinking cup, according to the conviction of the dealer, Hicham Aboutaam.

Iran’s Western Cave

He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally importing the 2,700-year-old cup in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Cussi made the deal after two appraisers said the cup matched silver items stolen from Iran’s Western Cave site in the Lorestan province, according to a June 2004 Justice Department news release about Aboutaam.

Aboutaam, 38, who counts the Cleveland Museum of Art and the St. Louis Art Museum as clients, paid a $5,025 fine and refunded Cussi’s money, he says.

Cussi wasn’t charged with wrongdoing. Cussi’s late husband was Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, who controlled Mexico’s Grupo Televisa SA, the world’s largest Spanish-language broadcaster. Cussi didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“It concerns us that the generosity and the commitment of trustees might be denigrated,” Holzer says. “Shelby White in particular, who contributes to education and conservation and archaeology and collections, is one of the most generous and informed trustees.”

`Extremely Generous’

Cussi and Steinhardt have resolved their antiquities cases to the Met’s satisfaction, Holzer says. “Each of the collectors has addressed the issues that have confronted them in their own way, and that’s appropriate, and they’re both extremely generous,” he says.

Such dealings can’t simply be brushed off, says Colin Renfrew, an archaeology professor at the University of Cambridge and a member of the U.K. House of Lords.

“Citizens have to ask why their museums are behaving in this flagrantly unethical way,” he says. Renfrew, 68, studies the finances of the art trade as a founder of Cambridge’s Illicit Antiquities Research Centre. He echoes the contention by Gill at Swansea that publicly funded organizations deserve special scrutiny.

In the Met’s case, New York City gave the museum $18.9 million, or 11 percent of its revenue for operations, in the fiscal year ended on June 30, according to the Met’s annual report. That covered electric and heating bills and helped pay for maintenance and museum guards. The city also gave $5.1 million for renovation of the museum’s facade and fire-safety enhancements, the annual report says.

Government Contributions

New York state and city governments are each listed as having contributed more than $5 million to the Fund for the Met capital campaign. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is listed as having donated more than $5 million of his own money to the fund.

Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, was a Met trustee as a private citizen until he became mayor on Jan. 1, 2002. As mayor, he and his appointees hold three seats on the Met’s board.

City officials on the Met’s board should use that forum to ensure laws aren’t broken on city property and that taxpayers’ money is spent for the public good, Gerstenblith says.

“They really need to get on the stick, seeing this cozy relationship among the collector, the donor and the museum,” she says.

Kate Levin, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and a member of the Met board, declined to comment on whether city officials should provide better oversight of museum activities, said Sara Rutkowski, a spokeswoman for the department.

Settlement With Italy

Underscoring the ties between the museum and donors, one of the pots at the Met for which Medici was convicted, and which Italy had demanded the museum return, turned out to belong to a private collector. Holzer declined to identify the person.

Because the pot on loan isn’t the Met’s property, it’s outside de Montebello’s purview, Holzer says.

De Montebello fought against including pieces from the Levy- White collection in the repatriation talks and didn’t address Italy’s demand to know the origins of all of the antiquities the museum has on loan, says Fiorilli, the Culture Ministry’s lawyer.

De Montebello says the Met can only negotiate over artworks it owns. Still, he says, he has offered to help White and her lawyer reach a separate settlement with Italy similar to the one he struck for the Met.

He also points out during the interview in Rome that just one of the eight contested Levy-White objects is on display at the museum. “They’re not at the Met,” he says of the other seven antiquities. “They’re in her apartment.”

Whether the Met takes the next steps to free itself from the tentacles of the illicit trade depends on de Montebello, the Met’s trustees and perhaps some prodding from prosecutors, both abroad and in New York.

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