De Montebello poses the question, "Who Owns Culture?" , and presents it as
a highly controversial issue, surrounded by a considerable degree of exaggeration, misunderstanding and "political correctness".But of course the issue is not over ownership, but over the unscientific destruction of archaeological contexts to provide "art works" for museums and private collectors. De Montebello accepts
nor would anyone disagree with the fundamental principle that all archaeological sites - and potential archaeological sites - must be preserved.I am not sure I understand the word "potential". I presume he means a site that has yet to be recognised or located; in that sense the site is unregistered or unrecorded.
De Montebello claims that archaeology is a discipline that emerged in "the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries". (Perhaps he should read Paul G. Bahn, ed., The Cambridge illustrated history of archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Stephen L. Dyson, In pursuit of ancient pasts: a history of classical archaeology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.) While it is true that a more "scientific" approach emerged in the late nineteenth century, the roots of the classical branch can be traced back to Johann Winckelmann. (Later in his lecture de Montebello confusingly says "At the same time [sc. the eighteenth century] the discipline of archaeology as we know it today was born ...")
I doubt his claim that "ours is an era of ... scrupulous acquisition policies" is strictly true. If it was, why was his own museum able to acquire the Euphronios krater and the other antiquities that have now been returned to Italy? And the Met was not alone among North American institutions: the present exhibition in Rome includes material from Boston, Malibu and Princeton. And only this month the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville has announced the return of pieces to Sicily. So acquisition policies have allowed recently surfaced objects to enter major collections that see themselves as repositories of "culture".
De Montebello disputes the importance of archaeological context and suggests that general context can be reconstructed from "intrinsic qualities". I have discussed some of the issues associated with the Euphronios krater elsewhere.
De Montebello rightly emphasises the movement of objects in antiquity and cites examples from Pompeii and Gandhara. I have discussed with Christopher Chippindale a Roman silver cup in an anonymous North American private collection ("AIC") which is said to come from Gandhara (see AJA). But the find-spot is not certain. The cup comes from a collection with an emphasis on Gandhara; would a buyer sell it with an appropriate "find-spot"? There is a huge difference between "excavated at" and "said to be from"; there are intellectual consequences for the study of the discipline. I do not believe that de Montebello has yet understood the issues. He even makes the outrageous suggestion that archaeologists are to blame for the loss of information because dealers who handle "illegitimate objects" [his term] do not say where it was found for fear of prosecution. There is not a hint that the fault could lie with the looters, dealers, or indeed the end-of-line institution.
De Montebello makes the point that few antiquities in museums "have a known find spot or clear archaeological provenance". Loss of archaeological information does not necessarily mean "stolen". I do not know anyone, except de Montebello in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, who has suggested that "by today's standards, all of the works in the Vatican are stolen". Athenian figure-decorated pots removed from Etruscan tombs on estates belonging to the Vatican at least are known to come from Etruria. But can we be certain that the Euphronios krater was found in a grave in Tuscany?
Loot is a major theme. And certainly spoils were removed from sites in antiquity. For example, a silver phiale dedicated in a sanctuary at Megara has turned up in a late classical tomb in Macedonia. And de Montebello points to Roman "trophies of conquest". But we could continue to more modern trophies of war such as the hoards from Troy removed from Berlin at the end of the Second World War.
De Montebello makes an important point about separating finds. He cites the way that the Nimrud Ivories were divided between three collections. This he claims preserved part of the collection when the pieces in Baghdad were damaged during the First Gulf War and the later looting of the Baghdad Museum. But spreading scientifically excavated material between different collections - partage - is different to displaying pots excavated in the cemeteries of Cerveteri in the Villa Guilia and ones that have no recorded find-spot (and are presumably looted) in a public collection in North America.
De Montebello also considers the implication of the Frederick Schultz case and suggests that it is "one of the reasons why countries like Greece, Turkey, and especially Italy are now making claims against US institutions". He grumbles that European museums also collected from "now discredited dealers like Robin Symes and Robert Hecht ... but for the moment seem to be inviolate". While that is true, we will have to wait to see if Italy is able to regain material from any European collections. (See "Leiden and the cuirass".)
He also notes the implication of the "Medici Conspiracy" and the evidence of the Polaroids "showing clear evidence that objects had been stolen in modern times". He goes on to mention the Met's return of the Euphronios krater and the ("Morgantina") silver. I find it interesting that he uses the word "stolen" to describe the "looting" of ancient cemeteries.
I would agree with de Montebello that there needs to be a distinction between cases of recent looting and claims over historic collections; he cites the head of Nefertiti, the Pergamon altar, and the Parthenon marbles. He reminds us that pieces can have different settings: the horses of San Marco have contexts in Constantinople, Venice and Paris. One could also draw attention to the way that in Late Antiquity the snake tripod marking the end of the Persian Wars was moved from Delphi to Constantinople; it is still visible in the hippodrome in Istanbul. Or indeed the colossal chryselephantine statue of Zeus from Olympia was moved to Constantinople and destroyed in a fire. However de Montebello makes a great leap when he suggests:
We should recognize that a great deal of knowledge, cross-fertilization, and exchange can come from objects moving across borders.It is almost as if he is saying that it is a good thing for, say, an Attic red-figured krater to move across international frontiers from Italy to the USA. (And that we can ignore the loss resulting loss of knowledge.)
Does de Montebello accept that archaeological contexts have been destroyed and that museum policies can encourage looting? Not really, as his November 2007 interviews with Time showed.
The weakness with de Montebello's position is that he places the emphasis on ownership. He closed with his appeal:
As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, the treasures in the world's major museums belong to an international, cosmopolitan society.While this sharing of a universal heritage is true, the debate is in fact over the protection of the archaeological record. What are the material and intellectual consequences of collecting antiquities? De Montebello needs to think beyond possession.
Terracotta calyx-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), Calyx-krater, ca. 515 B.C.; Archaic
Signed by Euxitheos, as potter; Signed by Euphronios, as painter
Terracotta; H. 18 in. (45.7 cm), Diam. 21 11/16 in. (55.1 cm)
Lent by the Republic of Italy (L.2006.10)