Saturday, January 19, 2008

Shelby White: "positive for the future of collecting antiquities"

Hicham Aboutaam, owner of Phoenix Ancient Art of New York and Geneva, has now commented on the announcement that Shelby White has returned nine antiquities to Italy (and a tenth will follow).

Ula Ilnytzky ("Return of artifacts by private collector seen as positive step",, January 18, 2008) quotes Aboutaan:
Overall, this is positive for the future of collecting antiquities and for the future of a trade that's crucial to America's culture ... Collectors in antiquities should be conducting more due diligence than in the past.
Clearly the suggestion is that collectors have not been conducting sufficient due diligence: and the implication is that the dealers who sold them antiquities have also been remiss. (Perhaps that it is why antiquities returned from two named dealers are on exhibition in Rome at the moment: and remember that Ali and Hicham Aboutaan were the listed donors of one of the pieces returned from the Princeton University Art Galleries.)

Aboutaan thought that the deal with White "is the beginning of more a careful era in collecting cultural properties." I hope he is right.

He makes a call for more transparency:
I suggest that collectors show what they have and follow what Shelby and Leon did - publish photos and background on these works, in a catalog or registry.
He suggests that some collectors have acted in "good faith". Yet in North America the issue of looting has had a high profile since the adoption of the AIA Resolution in 1973. Collectors like Shelby White and Leon Levy knew - or should have known if they had taken responsible advice - the issues when they started buying. But they wanted to own "ancient art" and ignored the impact on the archaeological record.

There have been suggestions that White has been picked on. The New York Times reported:
“She had an attitude of ‘Why me? There are other collectors out there,’ ” said one official who asked not to be identified for fear of offending Ms. White by describing the talks. “The truth is, because she’s lent so many of her pieces, she was very visible. Other collectors tend to keep their antiquities at home.”
But anybody who has been following this case will know that other collectors have been highlighted. These include Barbara Fleischman (who did the honourable thing and resigned from being a Trustee of the J. Paul Getty Museum) and Maurice Tempelsman.

White's philanthropy has been tainted. And the era of collecting recently-surfaced antiquities should perhaps be at an end.

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