December 9, 2005

Why museums should change their approach to antiquities acquisitions

Posted at 5:51 pm in Greece Archaeology, Similar cases

This editorial piece from the New York Times, prompted by the problems facing the Metropolitan Museum feels that many of America’s largest museums could easily have anticipated these current issues. For many years there was a “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy regarding the purchasing of antiquities. Can the museums that now look with indignation at these restitution requests ever have a legitimate claim on artefacts that mean so much more to the people of the country where they were originally located?

New York Times

December 8, 2005
Critic’s Notebook
Regarding Antiquities, Some Changes, Please

In the latest debacle over the looting of antiquities from Italy, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around. The Metropolitan Museum is now negotiating with the Italian authorities over objects in its ancient Greek and Roman collection, trying to avoid the crisis facing the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with its former curator of antiquities on trial in Italy.

Those aren’t the only museums suddenly being scrutinized. American museums always pretend to be taken aback to learn that some of what they have acquired might not have been legally exported, as if there weren’t a longstanding, tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. For years, museums have permitted art brokered through cities like Geneva and London to come into their collections. Dealers have been given a nod and a wink, so that they would know better than to share dirt on the origins of what they were selling. The burden was on the Italians – or Greeks or Turks or whomever – to prove the art was illegally sold.

American museumgoers have adopted their own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Art comes, art goes: the public doesn’t raise a fuss when museums sell off what is, really, the public’s art. But acquiring looted treasure from abroad feeds into a particularly destructive foreign stereotype of the big, bad United States, exploiting other countries.

It should give every American pause, not just people who care about culture. Instead, politicians, picking up cues from an indifferent public, take the word of museum directors and officials who say, trust us, we know what we’re doing. And what results is politics as usual.

The latest troubles should cause Americans to ask questions about our ethics and practices. Do the Met, the Cleveland Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – places that bring together cultures from around the world, act as safe houses for civilization and provide public access to millions of people – also have claims to the world’s art, claims that legitimately compete with the nationalist goals of countries that cannot always provide the same care and access?

Isn’t it better for an ancient pot dug out of some farm in Sicily to end up at a museum like the Met, where it can be studied, widely seen and cared for, than to become booty in some billionaire’s safe in Zurich, Shanghai or Tokyo?

At the same time, does encouraging the movement of artifacts into museums stimulate looting and, in the process, impede the circulation of critical information about the provenance, or history, of these objects?

The answer to all three questions is yes. But the Italians are also to blame. For years Italy was notoriously lax in enforcing its own export laws. Officials on the local level often turned a blind eye to the activities of scavengers. Italy has recently poured money into the policing of ancient sites, border control and bureaucratic reform, but the looting goes on.

One proposal put forward during the Met’s talks with Italy could serve as a template for other American museums: the Italians would reclaim ownership of disputed treasures in return for long-term loans, a fair compromise. Yet going after American museums won’t prevent looters from turning to Japanese or Chinese or Russian collectors who don’t care about international law.

That’s partly because Italian law, a function of cultural nationalism, encourages criminality. It requires Italians who discover an antiquity on their property to inform authorities. The authorities can then seize not just what was found, but also the ground where it was discovered, for excavation, without compensating the owners. All sorts of treasures are now dug out of the ground illegally or shepherded quietly from villas out of the country. Before the law was enacted in 1939, it was at least easier to learn where the objects came from. Sellers and buyers dispensed information about provenance without fear of prosecution.

Britain (never mind its problems with the Elgin marbles) has a less draconian system for its own heritage. If you find something, you come clean. You’re free to sell. Should the government want what you unearthed, it can block export and then match the price. A couple of years ago in a field in Oxfordshire, an Englishman named Brian Malin, hunting around with a metal detector, came across a rare silver coin bearing the head of an obscure Roman emperor, Domitianus. Only one other coin like it had ever been found. Mr. Malin took it to the Ashmolean Museum, which wanted it. An independent panel was formed to assess the value and pay him.

Better that artifacts remain buried, Italian archaeologists may argue, because treasures will be safe for legitimate excavation in the future. The standard comparison is to legalizing drugs. Illegal art trafficking is often talked about alongside drugs and arms dealing.

But drugs and arms kill people. Art doesn’t. Nudging the antiquities trade from the shadows into the light, while it may not stop all the criminals, won’t do them good, either.

Typical of today’s inconsistent enforcement policies is the recent decision by the Greek Parliament to open up 10,000 miles of coastline for pleasure divers to scour ancient shipwrecks. The law, intended to increase tourism, is really a windfall for looters and comes just when Greece is also pressing claims against the Getty for illegally exported art.

There are precedents for museums like the Met voluntarily returning stolen goods; the Met has given back an Egyptian relief, a Nepalese manuscript and a Cambodian head. But good faith clearly has its limits where big money is involved. The museum has been courting trouble by showing ancient loans from a major donor and trustee, Shelby White. For years, archaeologists have been complaining about the art that she and her late husband, the financier Leon Levy, bought.

And if the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True, and her bosses at the museum did not suspect that some of the objects they acquired from a trustee, Barbara Fleischman, and her late husband, Lawrence, were hot, then they were just about the only people in the art world who didn’t.

Denials by former and present administrators at the museum fly in the face of insider accounts and the evidence presented so far at Ms. True’s trial in Italy, never mind that they propose incompetence as a plausible defense. It turns out that while Ms. True was loudly trumpeting the Getty as a model of integrity, she was buying the Fleischman collection. That the whole Getty needs a thorough housecleaning and reorganization, and not just its current in-house review, should be obvious by now even to the beleaguered people who run the place.

Change must happen all around. The United States has to get its legal act together. It bars the import of antiquities deemed stolen from Italy, but the State Department and the courts don’t interpret foreign export laws the same way. Museums should devise tougher standards for themselves, accepting the burden of proof. They should have third-party committees sign off on issues of provenance. The museum-going public should also be more vigilant in calling on the government to play watchdog.

And the Italians should reconsider their approach. They may change lending rules in exchange for returned goods. They should start by redoing a self-defeating law, which only invites deceit.

That would require an extreme act of political bravery. So don’t bet on its happening anytime soon.

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