Monday, October 27, 2008

"A great sucking sound of cultural migration": From Berlin to Kansas

Steve Paul has responded to Sharon Waxman's Loot by looking at an Egyptian coffin acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City in 2007 ("Ethical questions haunt museums' acquisition of antiquities", The Kansas City Star, October 26, 2008). Paul writes:
There's no telling what really occurred when the sarcophagus, which once held the remains of a noblewoman named Meretites, left a well-known Egyptian museum collection back in 1972, though Nelson curator Robert Cohon confirmed that heirs of the original private collector had been unloading the family holdings since the 1950s.

And there's no real sense of the character and intentions of the German and Swiss middlemen with whom the coffin resided over most of the next three decades.

That original transaction preceded by a decade Egypt's effort to tighten its laws on the excavation and export of antiquities.

Yet the Nelson's acquisition in 2007 had to wait for a German court to rule against Egypt's petition for the coffin's return. That judgment allowed the sale and export of the Meretites package, including two wooden boxes and a few hundred small funerary statues, to the museum in Kansas City, where the pieces will go on public view in early 2010 after a period of repair and study.
Alice Thorson and Steve Paul had originally covered the acquisition in December 2007 ("Nelson Gallery acquires ancient Egyptian funerary display; Museum acquires ancient (and costly) coffins for study and eventual display," The Kansas City Star December 19, 2007; see also museum press release). They even quoted Marc Wilson, the Nelson's director and CEO, "She's a celebrity, a rock star."

It was noted that the coffin of "Meretites (me-ret-it-es) was last displayed at three German museums in the late 1990s and Taiwan in 2000. It has since been in storage in Berlin."

The reported history was:
Wilson said Meretites came from a private European owner through a dealer in the U.S. Although Wilson declined to disclose the purchase price, he confirmed it was in seven figures. And, according to a European news account, a German court recently valued the pieces at more than $2 million.

The objects spent nearly two years in legal limbo in Germany. In 2004, Egypt filed a claim for the coffins' return.

A German court ruled late last year that Egypt had insufficient evidence to prove the objects had left that country illegally. An Egyptian law in 1983 established that any cultural object taken out of the ground henceforth belonged to the state, making it illegal for anyone to export antiquities without government permission.

Although not much is known about where Meretites was entombed or when her coffin was unearthed, records indicate the objects were exported from Egypt to Switzerland in 1972, according to the Nelson.
The legal case was covered in the German press (Martina Doering,"Die lange Reise der Meretites; Ägypten klagte auf Antikenraub, trotzdem darf der Sarkophag in die USA verkauft werden", Berliner Zeitung November 28, 2006). The German court had valued the coffin at 1.5 million euros.

The court case apparently failed because Germany is not signed up to the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Doch das Problem für Ägypten und das Glück für die Kunsthändler ist: Deutschland gehört weltweit zu den wenigen Ländern, die bisher weder die Konvention unterzeichneten, noch eine entsprechende nationale Gesetzgebung verabschiedet haben.
Doering even commented on why Germany is a suitable place to sell antiquities:
Der Fall Meretites führt beispielhaft vor, warum Kunsthändler in der ganzen Welt Deutschland so lieben - wer mit legal erworbenen Objekten handelt, schätzt den gesetzlich gewährten großen Spielraum. Wer mit illegalen Objekten dealt, kann sich sicher sein, dass er trotz möglicher Verzögerungen auch der Besitzer bleibt.
The sequence for the piece:
  • It is claimed that the coffin had been in the Egyptian Khashaba collection.
  • 1972: allegedly exported from Egypt to Switzerland.
  • Late 1990s: displayed in three German museums.
  • 2000: Displayed in Taiwan.
  • In storage in Berlin.
  • 2004: Egypt filed a case in Germany for the coffin's return.
  • 2005, October: Coffin reported to have been held by the Jersey-based Millennium Art Holdings Limited.
  • 2006: Legal action failed.
  • Coffin handled by the American art dealers, Noele and Ronald Mele.
  • 2007, December: Coffin sold to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The coffin is still undergoing conservation and will not be on display until 2010.

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