Thursday, November 24, 2011


What should we do with “our” antiquities?
US museum directors wrestle with the long-term consequences of artefacts acquired without watertight provenance

By Erica Cooke. Museums, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 17 November 2011

One year on from the collapse of the five-year trial in Rome of Marion True, the former antiquities curator of the Getty, the directors of US museums that possess antiquities collections and the curators who are responsible for them face a multitude of challenges, one of which is the potentially negative publicity surrounding claims for the restitution of artefacts. An ordeal by trial in an Italian court is another (True was in the dock charged with conspiring to receive antiquities that had been illegally excavated and exported). In June 2010, it emerged that the public prosecutor’s office in Rome was undertaking a preliminary investigation into another American curator of antiquities, Michael Padgett from Princeton University Art Museum, along with former New York antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià and two other co-defendants.

Although the Padgett case has gone quiet, the issue of museums’ complicity in looting, especially from Italy but increasingly from nations around the world, refuses to go away. The recent publication of Chasing Aphrodite (which focuses on decades of Getty acquisitions) reignited the debate, especially in the US. The book’s authors, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, were widely quoted as saying: “For the past 40 years, museum officials [in the US] have routinely violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Unesco treaty [designed to prevent looting], buying ancient art they knew had been illegally excavated and spirited out of source countries.”

So where does this leave museums with antiquities collections? Will curators work in a climate of fear, worried about their professional reputations or foreign prosecutions over past acquisitions? What will they do with collections, many of which contain objects without watertight provenance? At worst, some fear that antiquities collections could be sidelined, with directors and their trustees reluctant to invest in or research them.

Others, however, feel that the worst is now over, and that a new spirit of international co-operation is beginning to blossom. Perhaps in a show of confidence, the Cleveland Museum of Art reinstalled its collection of Greek and Roman art in 2010, and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston is renovating its ancient coin and jewellery galleries, says its director, Malcolm Rogers.

Returning loot

The plundering of Italy’s archaeological sites, which escalated in the 1970s, feeding the trade in looted objects, has become a cause célèbre—exacerbated by the fact that some of the best works have ended up in museums. Investigations of collections at major American museums have resulted in the restitution of numerous items to Italy: the first round of agreements in 2006 and 2007 included the return of 21 antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 40 from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 13 from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and eight from the Princeton University Art Museum. In 2008, 13 (in addition to one Gothic processional cross) were returned by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is in the process of returning its 2,500-year-old volute krater to Italy.

The Italian Ministry of Culture has responded, rewarding institutions by sending works to US museums on long-term loans and co-operating in special exhibition programmes and provenance research. “Our ability to borrow amazing works of art like the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, which has left Italy only once before, could not have happened without partnerships and our behaving responsibly,” Rogers says. It is one of 13 significant loans—nine from Rome and Naples—in “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” (until 20 February 2012). Expectations of loans are an integral part of today’s restitution process. Even before the MFA returned the upper half of Weary Herakles to Turkey in September 2011, the New York Times reported that the museum hoped to borrow its lower half from the Antalya Museum.

Nowhere is international cultural co-operation more apparent than at the Getty, paradoxically the institution targeted in particular by the Italian authorities and subsequently the media in the 1995 antiquities scandal that led to the 2005 indictment of True. The Getty signed a “major long-term cultural collaboration” with Sicily in February 2010 and an agreement “creating a framework for cultural co-operation” with Greece in September 2011. The Getty and the Cleveland Museum of Art are now planning a major 2013 exhibition focusing on Sicily’s Classical and Hellenistic periods.

“The responsibility of 21st-century museum staff is to realise the fluidity of shared stewardship,” says Michael Conforti, the director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) from 2008 to 2010. This means caring for objects that belong in theory to “an international museum community”. Creating a network “of institutions linked with ones abroad or archaeological sites in source countries” is “where the world is going” and will result in richer displays of antiquities. But, he adds, it will take time, as the American public needs to adjust to this new concept and having “periodic access to antiquities”.

Borrow or acquire?

It seems that antiquities curators should be busy borrowing rather than trying to acquire Roman and Greek antiquities—at least according to some directors. “It is exceptional today to find museums collecting ancient art actively, which is, no question, the function of the 2008 guidelines,” says Maxwell Anderson, a former antiquities curator at the Met and the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).

In 2008, the AAMD set new standards for protecting cultural property in accordance with the 1970 Unesco Convention. (Museums would only acquire ancient artefacts or accept donations that could be traced outside the country of origin pre-1970 or legally excavated post-1970.) Anderson predicted in 2007 that the guidelines would prohibit IMA curators “from soliciting or accepting gifts from generous donors who bought works of art in good faith”, but envisioned that this “short-term” setback would ultimately lead to a better future for US museums (The Art Newspaper, May 2007, p49). Anderson now believes that museums are favourably changing from static “treasure houses” to “stewards of cultural heritage willing to work with anyone who is interested”.

Not everyone agrees. “Loans are wonderful, but ownership is better,” says Michael Bennett, the curator of Greek and Roman art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. David Franklin, the museum’s director, insists that greater attention to provenance should not deter museums from their founding commitment “to build permanent collections and work with collectors”. The majority of material has typically been donated to museums, not bought. Bennett stresses the urgency for “policy shapers” such as the AAMD to ensure that these “numerous” antiquities “dispersed” throughout private collections can “land in homes” for the public, fearing that politics may prevent these objects from entering US museums and duly informing art history.

Franklin argues that US museums must “continue to make great acquisitions”, otherwise they will “drive the antiquities market underground”. “There is a sense that a lot of museums have retracted from collecting,” he says. “[The Cleveland Museum of Art] has the tradition and intelligence to show leadership in the museum field in this way.” In 2004, the museum controversially bought an ancient bronze statue of Apollo Sauroktonos (Lizard Slayer) with an unpublished provenance. Bennett later attributed the work to Praxiteles, making it possibly the only surviving original sculpture by the Greek sculptor. Apollo is the centrepiece of the museum’s newly reinstalled Classical collections. “The object has only been preserved, cared for, published, exhibited and made accessible because [the museum] owns it,” says Bennett. “We are a country of immigrants and so are art objects in our collections.”

The problem, according to Jim Lally of the New York antiquities dealership J.J. Lally and Co, is that “the core of the AAMD guidelines is a one-size-fits-all rule. All ancient art, unlike any other type of property, is declared to be ‘guilty’ until proven innocent. The honest museum curator is confronted with the task of documenting where an object was during the past 41 years, and confirming that throughout that time it was always handled in a manner consistent with the laws of the country of origin and/or any country where it might have landed at any time. In the real world, it is very often impossible to document the history of an object that may not have been in the public eye nor even highly valued in years past. Thus many good objects which are entirely legitimate are ‘orphaned’ and denied to US museums.” And even if objects can satisfy the “growing number of lawyers and bureaucrats demanding documents”, the “complicated and bureaucratic process” stops “many dealers from offering their best art to US museums”.

The differences over the merits of ownership are dwarfed, however, by the debate about what to do with unprovenanced objects in US museum collections. The majority of museum directors agree that the next crucial matter for the AAMD is finding a solution that deals with these works, specifically those collected between 1970 and the present. But no one is ready to outline what that solution may look like.

Tomorrow’s curators

With these kind of issues to deal with, will the antiquities curators of the future be deterred? No, says the acting director of the Getty Museum, David Bomford: “It is as dynamic as it has ever been, with tremendous young curators at the Getty involved in exhibitions and research.” Bomford’s view is predominantly shared by museum professionals. Even if curators are no longer “the driving force behind acquisitions”, says Anderson, there remain exciting opportunities for today’s curators to conduct serious research on objects already owned by museums. In 2007, the IMA appointed an associate curator of provenance, a growing field in museums. Boston’s MFA hired a full-time provenance curator, making it one of the first to do so, in 2000.

“There will always be young people who consider this a calling and will go into it,” Bennett says. Franklin is less confident. He wonders whether “special pressures” on antiquities curators, such as almost requiring a law degree or a lengthy apprenticeship, is “discouraging”. He fears that the field of antiquities may “die” if “negative publicity” deters the next generation of curators, leaving “no one to look after these objects and promote understanding of them through research and description”.

Lally is more blunt: “In the long term, curators choosing a career path will naturally turn away from a field that presents a minefield of political complications and diminishing possibilities to build a collection without constant interference. One misstep or unfortunate oversight in accepting a donation or acquiring an object that is later shown to have a problem of title can destroy his or her future career.”

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