Thursday, August 2, 2007

Lessons from the Getty return

There are several lessons that can be drawn from yesterday's announcement that the J. Paul Getty Museum will be returning 40 antiquities to Italy.

1. The myth of the 'safe' private collection
The Getty's 1996 acquisition of the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection was undoubtedly a major mistake or at best a serious error of judgment. Research by Gill and Chippindale (and published in The American Journal of Archaeology for 2000 demonstrated that 92% of the objects in the exhibition catalogue of the Fleischman collection has no indication of find-spot. In addition 91% of the objects (and perhaps another 3% for objects where information was lacking) surfaced after 1973 when the issue of looting became public knowledge thanks to the resolution passed by the Archaeological Institute of America.

Six of the items announced in November 2006 for return to Italy came from the Fleischman collection; seven more pieces were added yesterday (August 1, 2007). That is 7% of the Fleischman collection. [List of Fleischman material.]

But there are further pieces which are apparently featured among the Geneva polaroids. Will a request be made for those? And what about claims by countries other than Italy?

There is the apparent link of one of the Roman wall-paintings with a fragment in the Shelby White collection. Maxwell Anderson made this comment in the exhibition catalogue: 'The upper portion of the fresco matches precisely the upper portion of a fresco section in the Shelby White and Leon Levy collection ... and is from the same room, as is catalogue number 125". Fleischman no. 125 is Getty inv. no. 96.AG.170 but it is not (surprisingly) on the list of returning objects. And what about the fragment owned by Shelby White? Will she be returning it to Italy? She can hardly donate it to a museum which would be faced with an immediate request for return from the Italian government.

2. The myth of the 'safe' antiquities dealer
This is not the time to comment on Giacomo Medici, Robert Hecht, Robin Symes or Atlantis Antiquities. They are covered in The Medici Conspiaracy (recently reviewed by Gill and Chippindale).

But how did dealers who were members of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) come to handle some of the returning objects? After all the IADAA has clear 'ethical' guidelines:
'The members of the IADAA undertake not to purchase or sell objects until they have established to the best of their ability that such objects were not stolen from excavations. architectural monuments, public institutions or private property.'
Indeed the IADAA stresses:
'Our members adhere to the highest professional standards as set out in our stringent code of ethics.
They have therefore been well placed to understand and tackle issues of provenance which have become prevalent in recent years.'
It is true that Galerie Nefer (owned by Frida Tchacos) has resigned from the IADAA, but the gallery was presumably a member when it handled the objects which will soon be returning to Italy. Another member (the gallery is listed on the website today, August 2, 2007) apparently sold one of the objects to the Getty (and had handled material that Boston has now returned to Italy).

How was this was possible?

Conclusion
Our research has highlighted material and intellectual consequences of collecting antiquities. It has been dismissed by senior figures in the museum world ('Making a graph of what may or may not be published is not scholarship; it is a pastime' [Carlos Picon on Gill and Chippindale]). There is a serious financial consequence of this return. The value of the 40 returning antiquities is in excess of US$20 million (based on what the Getty paid for them). Will the sums be returned? Ignoring the issue of looted antiquities can be a costly mistake.

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