February 20, 2006

An interview with the Metropolitan Museum’s director

Posted at 9:00 pm in Similar cases

The New York Times interviews Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum who have recently agreed to return the Euphronios Krater to Italy. From the way he speaks about the case & about the Italians, he clearly isn’t entirely happy with the outcome of the situation – although this attitude is not helped by some rather inane comments by the interviewer. I’d have thought that he ought to be rather happy about how much worse it could have ended up. If you look at the facts, they had in their collection a number of looted artefacts (clearly they are (now) certain that they were looted otherwise they would not have agreed to return them). In return for the restitution of these artefacts however, they receive on long term loan other items of a similar value – compensation for theft, or at the very least, compensation for not doing their research well enough before purchasing?
De Montebello seems to feel that the Met if being unfairly targeted. If he knows of European collectors are who are buying looted artefacts “en masse” then why doesn’t he report them to the relevant authorities? One would have thought that for someone holding such a senior position in the art world this is what he ought to be doing – if of course these othe collectors even exist?

New York Times

Questions for Philippe de Montebello
Stolen Art?
Published: February 19, 2006

Q: You’re scheduled to be in Rome this week, finalizing the details of the return of a group of looted antiquities that includes the celebrated Euphronios krater, a jumbo-size Greek vase, which has been a centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum’s holdings for more than 30 years.

The world is changing, and you have to play by the rules. It now appears that the piece came to us in a completely improper way — through machinations, lies, clandestine night digging. As the representative of an honorable institution, I have to say no, this is not right.

I wonder what the Italians intend to do with the Euphronios krater now that they have finally won it back from us.

I have no idea.

Perhaps they will sell it to the British Museum for a zillion dollars.

I don’t think so. I suspect they’re more likely to show it initially as a trophy of conquest in the Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, which houses the greatest collection of vases in Rome.

It doesn’t sound as if they adore America at the moment.

If you listen to the rhetoric of the Italian cabinet members on television, it’s America, it’s American buyers who are encouraging looting. They do not appear to be going after European museums or collectors, nor the gulf states, which are buying antiquities en masse.

What I don’t understand is why the Italian government is suddenly getting so aggressive about seizing works from the Met and the Getty and other American museums. It’s not as if Italy is rushing to return the gilded horses of San Marco, stolen by the Venetians in the 1200’s from Constantinople.

I don’t want to single out Italy. The world has been atomized into a set of political entities. There is a resurgence of nationalism and misplaced patriotism. There is the sense that, “This is our identity.” But I can’t see how a Greek vase is the identity of a modern-day Italian.

Exactly. On what basis can Italians in the 21st century say that the Euphronios krater, which was created in Greece more than 2,000 years ago, belongs exclusively to the Italians?

If Italy says that an object found on its soil is Italian property, and I buy it, I have bought stolen property.

But art isn’t the same as oil or other valuables found in the ground. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in his new book, “Cosmopolitanism,” art reflects everyone’s heritage and shouldn’t be hoarded by Italy or Egypt or any country that happens to turn up shards of pottery found on its soil.

Perhaps those countries will realize that the tougher their patrimony laws, the more they are victims of illicit looting.

Are you suggesting that allowing countries to prohibit the export of artwork they deem to be part of their national heritage needs to be re-examined?

Of course. Can you imagine if every Rembrandt were in Holland and every Poussin in Paris? It is safe to diversify a stock portfolio; it is also safe to diversify the shared heritage of mankind.

That’s easy for you to say, because we don’t have many antiquities to be dug up in this country.

You find Navajo pots and things of that sort. But otherwise, America does not have patrimony laws and you can buy all the Jasper Johnses and Gilbert Stuarts you want and take them anywhere.

On your trip to Rome this week, you’ll be arranging to borrow, on a long-term basis, a substitute Greek vase. How will you decide which one to pick?

We have sent, in advance of the negotiations, a list of about two dozen vases that would be appropriate replacements for the Euphronios krater.

But I hear their idea of a long-term loan is only four years, which I suppose will be up for negotiation.

I don’t mean four years by long-term. I mean indefinite loans, for the simple reason that you cannot have great works of art perpetually on airplanes shuttling back and forth.

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