Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Due diligence and good faith inquiries are no longer sufficient"

An extract of James Cuno's new book, Who Owns Antiquity? [Princeton UP, 2008] [WorldCat]) has appeared in the Wall Street Journal (April 26, 2008).

I am waiting to read the whole volume but I would like to comment on a few of points.

Language is important. Christopher Chippindale and I have long argued that the word "provenance" (and with it "unprovenanced") is confusing. We have tended to use the terms "history" and "archaeology". The first maps the collecting history and documentation (e.g. "from the Thomas Brand collection" or "given by Giacomo Medici"). The second provides information on where it left the ground (e.g. "excavated from tomb 42 at Abydos" or "said to be from Cerveteri"). Cuno comments:
Archaeologists argue that unprovenanced antiquities are almost always looted from archaeological sites or from what would become archaeological sites. But strictly speaking, since provenance is a matter of ownership and not archaeological status, and as some countries allow for the ownership of antiquities but not their export, it is possible to illegally export a legally owned, unprovenanced antiquity.
He generalises. But what we have shown is that antiquities with histories only after 1970—and 1983 is a distraction—have been included in the returns to Italy: this is particularly true for our comments on the Fleischman collection, and the Shelby White / Leon Levy collection.

Cuno again generalises when he talks about the debate looking at "the legal aspect of their ownership". This would ignore the material and intellectual consequences of looting (and subsequent collecting). But no doubt he will address this in the full volume.

He poses the question:
Is there convincing evidence that the unprovenanced antiquity was removed from its country of origin in violation of that country's laws?
He cites the example of a Roman object that could have been found anywhere across the empire. Need it have been found in Italy? But a more interesting example for him to have discussed would have been the quantities of Apulian pots that are being given back to Italy. (Or for Greece, how about Cycladic figures?)

Cuno is clearly critical of the way that the media has been used to reclaim antiquities for Italy. He does not comment in this extract on the use of Polaroids and documentation in the Italian public courts of law. If an image used in a trial is identified in a public collection, have the media a right to comment? And should a museum (or private collector) elaborate on the "history" of the piece in question? The reporting has been "sensational" because the revelations have been jaw-droppingly shocking.

Cuno now accepts "due diligence and good faith inquiries are no longer sufficient". He is right to recommend that "U.S. art museums have to be much more careful"—and Francesco Rutelli's successful reclamation programme has brought this painfully home.

Cuno grumbles that the recently surfaced antiquities—he uses the term "undocumented"—are going to public collections in other parts of the world.
Keeping them from U.S. art museums is not a solution, only a diversion.
The Italian authorities have said that they intend to pursue further antiquities in Denmark and Japan.

The issue to address is this: how can we work together to reduce the damage to our shared cultural heritage?

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