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The looted antiques that fill our museums

The British Museum is far from the only large museum to contain substantial amounts of artefacts that are regarded as looted. This article looks at a number of disputes involving museums around the world.

The Guardian [1]

Stealing beauty
Many of our great antiquities may once have been looted. Roger Atwood offers a guided tour of artworks with potentially dubious origins
Thursday February 2, 2006
The Guardian

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Few museums have faced more scrutiny over acquisitions than New York’s grand temple of art. The Turkish government sued over a stash of 360 artefacts looted from tombs in central Anatolia in 1966 which turned up in the Met. The Met settled out of court in 1993 and the artefacts were returned to Turkey, with the museum admitting no wrongdoing but acknowledging that it knew the pieces had been illegally excavated.

But nothing in the Met matches the notoriety of the Euphronios krater – the “hot pot”, as its former director, Thomas Hoving, called it – a bowl painted with a scene from Homer that is considered one of the finest examples of Greek vase painting.

Hoving wrote in his 1993 memoirs that he believed the piece had been plundered from a tomb near Cerveteri, north of Rome, in 1971, the year before the Met bought it in good faith for the then astronomical sum of $1m. Italy is demanding it back, along with other antiquities of disputed provenance.

2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sometimes the notoriety of a disputed work exceeds its fame as an artistic object. The reputation of the Weary Herakles is due mostly to the strange story of its discovery. The top half was unknown to the public until it appeared in a New York collection in the early 80s and was later donated to the MFA. The bottom was excavated by archaeologists in Perge, Turkey, in 1980, and sits in the Antalya Museum in Turkey. The MFA maintains there is no proof that the top left Turkey in modern times. Still, this piece of late Roman beefcake has come to symbolise for many the destructive power of the antiquities trade.

3. Cleveland Museum of Art
On June 22 2004, Cleveland ballyhooed its acquisition of a fourth-century BC bronze statue of Apollo. The museum said it had provenance information tracing the piece to a 1930s German family, and possibly earlier. Sceptics said there were gaps in the paper trail and claimed the purchase showed US museums were still buying works of dubious provenance. On June 23, one of the co-owners of Phoenix Ancient Art – which had sold the Apollo to the museum – pleaded guilty in a New York court to charges relating to the false representation of an ancient Iranian silver cup, which highlighted the problems inherent in buying antiquities.

4. Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe
It has been illegal to import antiquities from the Sipán area of Peru into the US since 1989, and virtually any Peruvian antiquities since 1997. Yet this museum has a gold rattle that many scholars believe was looted in 1987 from Sipán, the site of a sensational discovery of tomb complexes that overhauled our understanding of pre-Inca art and metallurgy. The museum has denied, however, that the piece is from Sipán.

A few steps away is a monkey’s head made of gold and lapis lazuli, which, according to the museum’s own documents, originates from La Mina, a site looted in 1988 during a wave of pillage on Peru’s north coast. Both pieces, and two others, were confiscated by the FBI in 1998 but later returned. In a statement to the Guardian, the museum said the objects had been returned because the New Mexico attorney-general’s office had “found no compelling evidence” to support the claim that the objects had been illegally removed from Sipán.

5. Leopold Museum, Vienna
In 1997, US authorities seized two Egon Schiele paintings on loan from the Leopold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Descendants of Jews killed in the Holocaust said the paintings had been looted from their estates; the Leopold insisted it had good title to both. One, Portrait of Wally, remains in an American warehouse while legal wrangles continue. The other, Dead City III, was returned to Vienna and is in Paris today, on loan at the Grand Palais. It had belonged to Fritz Gruenbaum, a Viennese cabaret singer and Bohemian who died at Dachau in 1941. The Schiele case brought the issue of provenance research to the forefront at museums everywhere, not least because it showed the US government’s willingness to intervene forcefully. The Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Seattle Art Museum have all parted with Holocaust-related holdings.

6. British Museum
No tour through the world’s loot, alleged or otherwise, would be complete without a look at the classical variety. The British Museum’s sarcophagus face of Rameses VI was taken from the pharaoh’s tomb in the early 19th century. Now that archaeologists in Egypt have reassembled the original sarcophagus, the Egyptians would like the face back. Whether they should get it or not will fuel debate for years, but the question of colonial plunder has little to do with modern commercial looting, which is a lean, streamlined, globalised business.

· Roger Atwood is author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (St Martin’s Press).