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Museums under fire on ancient artefacts

Heavily publicised by the problems facing the Getty, this article suggests that we are going to see a shift in the way museums handle restitution cases, to bring their attitudes closer to those of the majority of the public who visit the museums.

New York Times [1]

Museums Under Fire on Ancient Artifacts
Published: November 17, 2005

Three years ago, directors of some of the world’s top museums, meeting in Munich, commiserated over a major annoyance: the growing demands from countries like Greece and Italy that they return ancient artifacts.

What emerged from the meeting was a defiant statement defending their collecting practices. Signed by the directors of 18 museums – from the Louvre to the Hermitage in Russia to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles – the document argued that encyclopedic museums have a special mission as treasure houses of world culture, and that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions.

That philosophy is now under siege as never before. In Rome, a former Getty curator sat tensely and quietly yesterday as her trial began on criminal charges of conspiring to import illegally excavated antiquities for the museum. (Page B8.) On Tuesday, Philippe de Montebello, the longtime director of the Met, is to meet in Rome with a lawyer for the Italian Culture Ministry to discuss works in the museum’s collection that the Italians say were looted. Italy is insisting that several other American museums account for dozens of ancient artworks that made their way into their collections.

“The ground is shifting radically under the pressure of newly documented claims,” said Maxwell Anderson, a museum consultant and the former director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. “While there may not be a single clear solution for every claim, institutions will need to be forthright in explaining future acquisitions.”

Behind this shift, museum directors, curators and lawyers say, are broad changes in the way source countries are pursuing and enforcing cultural property claims – and the public’s perception of those claims. Caught in the cross hairs, museums face pressure to clean up their act and embrace rigorous standards for future acquisitions – and to return prized works acquired in past decades.

“In the eyes of the public,” said James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, there is a sense that “the museum is a greedy hoarder of ill-gotten goods, in opposition to the legitimate claims of the powerless.”

Rather than capitulate, though, many American museums continue to resist adopting standards that would rule out the continued acquisition of antiquities.

Last year, for example, the American directors association adopted new guidelines on the issue for its members. But archaeologists fault the guidelines on the ground that they suggest museums should use their own discretion about acquiring treasures that may not have a verifiable provenance.

“There is this big loophole,” said Jenifer Neils, a professor of classical art at Case Western Reserve University. “If something is big enough and important enough, then they should acquire it and put it on display, no matter where it came from, or how it reached the market.”

Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the museum association, said that there was no mechanism to ensure that any of the group’s 177 member museums adhered to the guidelines, and that she could not assess to what degree any of the members were following them. “We just go on their word that they adhere to the guidelines,” Ms. Gaudieri said.

She added that since the standards were published last year, several museums had adopted rules that mirror the group’s. But she declined to name the museums or specify how many had adopted such new rules.

Archaeologists argue that museums in other countries have established far more rigorous policies on antiquities. Both the British Museum and the Berlin State Museums have recently adopted comprehensive standards for such acquisitions, based on a 1970 Unesco convention prohibiting the circulation of illicit antiquities.

“The question becomes, how should museums position themselves in relation to what is clearly an organized international illegal market?” said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which has long faced demands from Greece that it return the Elgin Marbles, which have been in its collection since 1816.

In the United States, only a few museums, including the University of Pennsylvania Museum, have adopted a standard by which unprovenanced antiquities that surfaced after 1970 should not be purchased. A few other museums, including the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, have adopted 1983, the year the United States joined the Unesco convention, as a cutoff date. Rather than setting such a date, the museum directors association recommends that museums buy only objects that can be demonstrated to have been outside their countries of origin for at least 10 years.

Most of the large collecting museums have not formally specified a date. Ironically, one of the few that has a specific written policy for antiquities acquisitions is the Getty Museum, which is at the center of the current prosecution in Italy.

There is also little overall agreement about how to proceed. At a Los Angeles meeting several weeks ago of the same group of international museum directors whose members issued the Munich declaration in 2002, the issue of how to respond to claims became a major point of discussion. But there was no unanimity, several participants said.

The issue is highly sensitive because of increasing concerns about the legal exposure of American museums to claims for the return of stolen art.

In recent years, archaeologically rich countries like Italy, Greece and China have relied on tightening international laws and growing public interest to open well-organized campaigns to repatriate artifacts and crack down on the antiquities trade. At the same time, the United States government has become more and more willing to help, through sweeping bilateral treaties, legal assistance and recognition of foreign laws in American courts.

In a landmark 2003 decision, a federal appeals court in New York upheld the conviction of the art dealer Frederick Schultz for conspiring to buy looted antiquities, on the ground that he had acquired objects in violation of Egyptian law.

“It confirmed that a U.S. court will use those ownership laws of foreign countries as a basis for a stolen property claim,” said Howard N. Spiegler, a cultural property lawyer who has represented numerous foreign governments in the United States.

To many in the art world, that decision, together with Ms. True’s trial in Rome, suggests that museums – and their directors and trustees, who hold fiduciary responsibilities over the institutions – can be held legally accountable for their acquisitions.

Still, for many directors, the controversy is viewed more as a public relations problem.

Mr. Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago, a staunch defender of a liberal market for antiquities, argues that the interests of “source” countries have gained the upper hand because museums have not adequately defended their values and mission to the public. “We’ve got to take a position,” he said. “We can’t just lie low and let it blow over.”

Drawing on the arguments in the 2002 Munich declaration, Mr. Cuno and others point out that the basic mission of museums is to bring works from foreign cultures to a broad international audience.

They say that this aim is ill served by an overzealous application of laws designed to keep objects from ancient civilizations within the boundaries of the modern-day states where they are found today.

“One of the key questions is the internationalist versus the nationalist perspective,” said Mr. MacGregor of the British Museum. “There is a very real tension between the belief that great culture is a shared inheritance of everybody and the view that it is the particular inheritance of one modern political entity.”

Defenders of the so-called internationalist view like to point out that the law governing Italy’s current claims against American museums was passed in 1939, during Italy’s Fascist era. Mr. MacGregor argues that while upholding the rigorous national ownership laws established by source countries, the Unesco convention has failed to address the issue of illegal excavations at the source, within the claimant countries themselves.

Privately, museum curators and directors also note that during the years when most of the objects now in dispute were being acquired – the 1970’s, the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s – the Italian government largely turned its back on the flourishing trade in antiquities within its borders. Others point out that Italy has not yet established a legal market for dealing with the material that does surface and that cannot be adequately cared for or displayed in overflowing Italian museums.

“The basement of the Villa Giulia has better stuff than the Met, Boston and the Getty put together,” said Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. “It hasn’t been studied, it needs research, it needs conservation, it needs all sorts of things. They simply don’t have the resources.”

But many museums are reluctant to speak out on such issues, because they face what one museum official, who declined to be identified, described as “a free fall of anxiety about liability, for themselves, their curators and their boards.”

“The big question is from what date should we take account of these new practices,” said Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre. “It is true that up to World War II and for some time after, people worked in a very different way than today. There are certainly some objects that were removed illegally.

“From what date should there be a prohibition? I don’t know.”

Alan Riding contributed reporting from Paris for this article, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome and Randy Kennedy from New York.