Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Loans of Archaeological Material

In February 2006 the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released "New Guidelines on Loans of Antiquities and Ancient Art". There are several points to note.
1.C. AAMD deplores the illicit and unscientific excavation of archaeological materials and ancient art from archaeological sites, the destruction or defacing of ancient monuments, and the theft of works of art from individuals, museums, or other repositories.
I would avoid using the word "excavation" when clearly illicit and unscientific looting is meant.

There are positive things to say about collaboration and transparency:
1.E. AAMD supports the open exchange of information among researchers and institutions as they collaborate on loans, exhibitions and other scholarly projects. Through this process, the most complete, accurate and useful information about works of art becomes available to a broad public.
As a researcher I have been impressed with the generosity of some museum curatorial staff, notably at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

AAMD makes the case for loans:
1.F. ... Lenders of archaeological material and ancient art provide a valued public service by making their works available to a broader public and to scholars. ... Loans from private collections also provide new opportunities for the public and scholars to study the art of the ancient world, and in particular are an important means of bringing significant works of art into public view where they can contribute to ongoing dialogue and reassessment.
Loans from private collections can be valuable for studying the material culture of the ancient world. But private collections rarely have items from excavated contexts. An example would be the Middle Kingdom blue faience hippopotamus in the George Ortiz collection that comes from an excavated tomb and passed into the Revd William Macgregor collection in return for his support for the archaeological project.

But there are problems with material from private collections: think of the exhibitions of objects from the Shelby White and Leon Levy ("Glories of the Past") and the Barbara and Laurence Fleischman ("A Passion for Antiquities") collections that were explored in detail by Gill and Chippindale in the American Journal of Archaeology (2000).

AAMD then steps into a more difficult area.
1.G. AAMD recognizes that archaeological material and works of ancient art for which provenance information is incomplete or unobtainable may deserve to be publicly displayed, conserved, studied, and published because of their rarity, historical importance, and aesthetic merit. Importantly, in addition to inspiring fresh scholarship, the display of such works in public museums may serve to facilitate the discovery of further information regarding their ownership and provenance history.
So could it be argued that a museum should display an archaeological object which has an incomplete history - I dislike the word provenance which is, in my opinion, imprecise - because it is rare, historically important or beautiful? I would, though, have to accept that the public display of objects from the White-Levy and Fleischman collections has brought to light "further information regarding their ownership and provenance history" - which is why objects from these two private collections have been handed back to Italy.

AAMD then reviews legal considerations and draws attention to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, though there is more to the trade in looted antiquities than items removed from "an official archaeological excavation" (II.B). AAMD also agrees to abide by the 1970 date rather than the 1983 date of ratification. (And the recent returns of antiquities to Italy have shown 1970 to be the marker.)

As part of the process of considering a loan of archaeological material "museums should (emphasis mine) inquire into their provenance history, seeking to obtain all relevant information from the lender, and an appropriate warranty of their legal ownership of the work" (II.C). Is this tight enough? Is it possible to have "legal ownership" of objects which were removed illegally from their country of origin after the 1970 UNESCO Convention? The return of antiquities to Italy has shown that objects purchased "legally" from dealers in Basel, London and New York do not have a secure history (or "provenance").

AAMD recommends a due diligence process. Has the piece been published? Has it been exhibited? Are there any rival claims to ownership? Does it appear in any database of stolen items? But bear in mind items looted from archaeological sites (and not previously known) do not tend to be registered in such databases.

There is then discussion of loan exhibitions and the preparation of "a list of the ownership histories of the works in the exhibition". Are these public documents to accompany a public exhibition? Are they available on request (in the spirit of 1.F)? And what if a loan appears in an exhibition but is not featured in the catalogue?

The AAMD report then addresses "Incomplete Information on Relevant Ownership / Provenance History". Display is considered acceptable if it "may best serve the interests of the object, the culture it represents and the public". Long-term loans "with incomplete relevant provenance histories should be evaluated under criteria comparable to those for acquisitions".

The purpose of this AAMD report was the "emphasize the need for openness, transparency and due diligence in research on and negotiation for loans".

2 comments:

berto xxx said...

Loans from private collections can be valuable for studying the material culture of the ancient world. But private collections rarely have items from excavated contexts. An example would be the Middle Kingdom blue faience hippopotamus in the George Ortiz collection that comes from an excavated tomb and passed into the Revd William Macgregor collection in return for his support for the archaeological project.

David Gill said...

The MK hippopotamus is an example I have discussed with Christopher Chippindale in the American Journal of Archaeology as part of our consideration of the George Ortiz collection.

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