Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"Tainted Objects"

Southern Methodist University's Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility is holding a conference, "The Future of the Past: Ethical Implications of Collecting Antiquities in the 21st Century", later this month.

We are told, "The goal of the conference is to move participants toward solutions."

I notice that one of the sessions is described as "Tainted Objects" which will address "The Fate of Antiquities Having Problematic or Unknown Provenance".

This raises several issues.

a. What is meant by "tainted"? Surely the objects are either genuine or fake. Is the magnificent Euphronios krater now on loan from the Italian authorities to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in any way "tainted"? It remains an impressive example of Athenian red-figured pottery. It is not the object that has been "tainted" but rather the institution that purchased it.

b. What is meant by "provenance"? This art historical term, as I have shown with Christopher Chippindale, is misleading in this context. Do we mean the history of the object, i.e. when did the object first appear? Or do we mean the archaeology of the object, i.e. is the find-spot known?

c. What is meant by "problematic"? Do we mean that the object has no known history before the 1970 UNESCO Convention? In other words, could it be open to legal action for its return to the country where it was found? Did the antiquities recently returned from New York, Boston and the Getty have a "problematic provenance"? In fact some of them appear to have have had histories that led them before the lens of a Polaroid camera. Indeed it seems that these were objects removed from archaeological contexts in Italy, transported from the country, and sold to high profile institutions. What is "problematic" about this sequence?

d. Why is "unknown" so puzzling? Imagine an object which is offered for acquisition. It has no recorded history. It has no recorded find-spot. It is a purchase almost too good to be true. Is the history unknown? Or is the history left undeclared because knowledge would undermine the sale?

We need solutions. We expect the highest standards of integrity from the members of collecting institutions. And we also need recognition that looting destroys archaeological sites for good.

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