Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Homecomings: Recovered Masterpieces

An exhibition, "Nostoi. Capolavori ritrovati", is about to open in the Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome (press statement; Elisabetta Povoledo, "After Legal Odyssey, Homecoming Show for Looted Antiquities", New York Times, December 18, 2007; Ariel David, "Looted Art Displayed in Rome", AP). Some 68 antiquities will be displayed. They include material returned from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Princeton University Art Museums. Among the pieces is the ivory mask handled by Robin Symes and seized in 2003. Some of the objects had passed through private collectors such as Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Five pieces were returned from the Royal Athena Galleries.

Missing from the display is the Sarpedon krater on loan to the MMA. It is perhaps the acquisition of this krater by the MMA that generated such intense debate about the collecting of recently surfaced antiquities.

There are still some outstanding questions. Although it has been possible to understand the routes by which some of these antiquities passed to the MFA or the J. Paul Getty Museum, the information on other items has not been made so freely available.

It needs to be remembered that the archaeological contexts for each one of the pieces on display in this exhibition has been lost for ever. Greed and the desire to collect have snatched this information away.

Have museum attitudes in North America changed? Philippe de Montebello's interview with Richard Lacayo in late November 2007 hints that old positions are hard to shift. And what about the disputed items in the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Shelby White collection?

Portrait of Sabina, purchased from Fritz Bürki of Zurich, through Robert E. Hecht to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1979. Returned to Italy in 2006.

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