Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"Cultural property is a modern political construct"

James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, made the claim, "Cultural property is a modern political construct", at a debate in March 2006 (see "Is It All Loot? Tackling The Antiquities Problem", New York Times, March 29, 2006).

The reason? He was wanting to dismiss the claims by Italy on various antiquities.

Cuno continued:
Italy is making claims on objects that are, in the case of the Euphronios krater, 2,500 years old. The state itself is only 170 years old.
The discussion is dated; it is nearly two years old. Since the statements by Cuno, Philippe de Montebello, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, there have been returns from Boston, the Getty, the Princeton University Art Museums, and the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville. Indeed a selection of antiquities formerly owned by these great institutions are now on exhibition in Rome.

But why did Cuno care so much about antiquities claimed by Italy?

Perhaps he remembered the acquisition of fragments of Greek figure-decorated pottery when he was director of Harvard's art museums. Back in 1998 Culture Without Context reported:
Harvard Museums have recently put on display a 1995 purchase of 182 fifth-century BC Greek vase fragments. The director of Harvard's art museums, James Cuno, argued that the pieces had probably been removed from Italy before 1971, the date at which the Harvard acquisitions code took effect, and which forbids the purchase of material of questionable provenance. The fragments were bought on the advice of museum curator David Mitten from a New York dealer who had in turn purchased them from Robert Guy, of the University of Oxford, who could only have obtained them after 1971. Guy's name has in the past been linked to those of dealers Robin Symes and Herbert Cahn. Mitten has also purchased several unprovenanced antiquities from Robert Hecht ... Innocent until proven guilty claims Cuno. Guilty by association counter his critics.
I went back through my archive of material and found Walter V. Robinson and John Yemma, "Harvard museum acquisitions shock scholars", Boston Globe, January 16, 1998. There the report made the point:
Harvard's museums have been acquiring undocumented objects from an international dealer so notorious for dealing in looted artifacts that he was barred from Italy for almost a decade. The museums' director said he sees no reason to sever ties to the dealer.
Talking about the 182 fragments Cuno was quoted:
The decision I took was, I thought, a very ethical one and I would stand by it and do it again, ... If we hadn't acquired them, they might be in some private collection lord knows where. No one would know about them; no one would learn from them. Then what service would I have done?
Indeed,
Cuno acknowledged that despite Guy's expertise, he provided Harvard with no documentation regarding the origin of the fragments. Nor could he say where they came from - a dead giveaway, archeologists say, that the items are unclean. Cuno said Guy had obtained them from friends, including dealers, over several decades - a suggestion they might have been in Guy's possession before Harvard's policy took effect in 1971.
The Globe also reported on a 1996 Harvard exhibition, The Fire of Hephaistos:
That Harvard might have compromised its ethical standards has provoked debate within its fine arts faculty. A 1996 Sackler exhibition prompted a formal objection on ethical grounds by Irene J. Winter, then chair of the fine arts department. The exhibition comprised bronzes on loan from collectors - including Harvard benefactors Leon Levy and Shelby White - whose purchases of undocumented antiquities have prompted as much debate as the prices they pay.

In her 1996 letter to Cuno, Winter raised questions about the dubious origin of several of the pieces, including one bronze owned by Levy and White, which, she noted, had been "purchased in clear contravention of international convention, for which its purchasers have shown consistent disregard over the years." Levy and White have insisted that their acquisitions have been proper.
I presume that one of the pieces was the bronze "Portrait Head of a Youth" (cat. no. 31) reported as "Found in Suffolk, in southeastern England; purchased in 1988" (see "Private collectors are a potential threat to our cultural heritage").

And what was Cuno's view about the acquisitions?
It's out of the ground ... It's out of the country of origin. It's on the market. We're a public institution. Our job is to encourage research and preservation. If you don't acquire it, where would it go? Back to the netherworld of private holdings in conditions inimical to its preservation.
The Globe was quite prophetic and the report included this gem of a quotation from Harvard's David G. Mitten:
I don't think there is any reason to question Hecht's credentials ... We have bought from Bob Hecht and will continue to do so. He's very square with us. We have every reason to believe him.
Is cultural property safe when such views are expressed?

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