Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Michael Brand on the "Orphans"

Lee Rosenbaum has interviewed Michael Brand, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum ("My Antiquities Q&A with the Getty's Michael Brand: Life after the Givebacks", Culturegrrl, March 10, 2008). One of the issues they discuss is the orphaned objects, i.e. an object that has no recorded history or archaeology. (I prefer to avoid the term "provenance" which is ambiguous).

Brand commented:
There IS a problem with the orphaned object. But there are all sorts of orphans. What we're trying to do in our discussion at AAMD [the Association of Art Museum Directors] is either deal with the orphan problem or get to the point where we can have a more productive discussion about the orphaned object. Our acquisition policy doesn't deal with this.

You can look at it in two ways. For a particular orphaned object, you could argue that one acquisition is not by itself going to encourage illegal excavation. But if you were to acquire every single so-called orphaned object, that WOULD have an effect. You've got to somehow find a way of fulfilling two desires---one is to not encourage illegal excavation and illegal trafficking; but, on the other side, recognizing that it is good if objects come into public collections.

I don't think any of us know what the perfect answer is. For me to contribute to that debate, I had to sort out things at the Getty first. Then I'm in a much better position to talk about orphaned objects and to talk about the benefits of some sort of a licit market for antiquities.
Brand is right to recognise that antiquities can be "orphaned" in a number of ways.

Here are some possible reasons:
  • They are from an old collection and there has never been any documentation. ("I lost my birth certificate".)
  • They were "chance finds" and were smuggled out of their country of origin. ("I am an illegal immigrant and do not have the right visa".)
  • They were deliberately looted to supply the market. ("I was kidnapped and brought here against my will".)
How do you differentiate between these?

If we are generous, we could say that the curators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum were just providing a home for some 90 or so "orphaned" antiquities. But the Medici Conspiracy has shown the problem with this approach. There appears to have been a well-documented network supplying the market with high value (in modern terms) antiquities.

Brand seems to be suggesting that "orphaned" objects come into a public collection. But how does a public collection, whether in North America, Europe or the Far East, ensure that it is not buying (or accepting as a gift, bequest or loan) recently-surfaced antiquities?

And is the AAMD really the best body to police this? Four member institutions have returned antiquities to Italy (and Greece), and there are questions to be answered or resolved for three more.

Does the AAMD have the resolve to make a public stand against looted antiquities and the destruction of archaeological sites?

Brand was also asked about the "Fano Athlete". He gave a gentle answer within the context of the current acquisitions policy:
You can't apply an acquisitions policy retrospectively. The reasons why we have it in our policy is that, while we use 1970 as the bright line, we are still concerned with the provenance of the objects. If you can prove something was out of country before 1970, but there are some giant question marks out there and there are rumors and suspicions, that would also be taken into account.
Italy renewed its claim in January 2008. How will this develop?

And more importantly, how do we work together to stop the trade in deliberately orphaned antiquities?

2 comments:

Gerard said...

In 'The Medici Conspiracy' (2007), Chapter 15 (The Puzzle of the "Orphans"), Watson and Todeschini refer to '(T)he acquisition of vases in fragments - "the sale of the orphans" as Pellegrini puts it...'

It is clear throughout the chapter that by 'orphans' they mean 'vase fragments' - and in particular, vases separated into fragments and later reassembled as part of the trafficking in looted antiquities.

This is at variance with the definition of 'orphans' proposed by Michael Brand, who has presumably read the Watson & Todeschini text, and I feel this is an ambiguity that needs clearing up, especially as the Pellegrini definition refers to a specific and serious crime, "making it more difficult for countries such as Italy to mount claims for these objects." (Ibid., Ch. 22, p.341)

Any further confusion of these issues is surely to be deplored.

David Gill said...

Gerard
thank you for this observation. I will prepare a fuller response in a separate posting.
David

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