Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Changing attitudes

I have been returning to some of the cases of antiquities returned to Turkey. This included a detailed interview with investigative journalist Özgen Acar (UNESCO Courier April 1, 2001). He was asked, "From your experience, what are the most effective ways to prevent smuggling?"

First of all, we have to change the buyer's attitude. Court cases won by Turkey have discouraged museums and collectors from buying smuggled works. They don't want the inconvenience of a court case, having their names in the newspapers and loosing money. The Met paid $1.7 million for their collection [sc. Lydian Treasure] and Koch $3.5 million for his [sc. "The Elmali Hoard" / "The Dekadrachm Hoard"]. They spent at least twice as much as this on legal expenses. Secondly, Turkey should make agreements with museums in the purchasing countries. "Don't buy smuggled works--I'll send you exhibitions on loan every three or four years." As a matter of fact, Turkey has sent as many as 35 exhibitions abroad in the last 15 years. The third step is to expose the smuggling mafia with their international connections, and put them out of business. [...] Several respected antiquity dealers in the U.S. lost confidence in their business partners when they realized that they were, in fact, dealing with smugglers.

The Italian Government has certainly been using the media to great effect in its successful campaign to reclaim antiquities that appear to have been looted in recent decades.

8 comments:

Heather Hope said...

In addition to creating expensive legal battles for museums, publicity regarding questionable acquisitions create publicity nightmares for museums caught up in these scandals. For good or bad, the museum gets linked in the public's collective mind as a place that buys stolen works. For institutions that are depending on public support, this is not what you want your name associated with!

David Gill said...

Heather
This is indeed the problem. Did museum directors want to send out a signal that they would rather hang onto material that appeared to have been looted?
David

Heather Hope said...

David

I think the problem is that museums are in a period of transition. They are evolving from an area that people "fell into" accidentally to a more professionalized environment. Behavior that would shock many graduates of museum professional programs were often ignored or silently accepted 20 or 30 or 50 years ago.

Hopefully, more directors, curators, registrars, etc., will learn that they must ask the hard questions before acquiring objects.

Heather

David Gill said...

Heather
While I think you are right about the awareness of professional responsibilities, I am not convinced that all curators (and directors) are so enlightened. I am aware of several Greek antiquities acquired by two AAMD member institutions that do not appear to have previous recorded histories. Why were the objects acquired?
Best wishes
David

Heather Hope said...

David

Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm terribly surprised about those acquisitions, though it is disappointing and disheartening. I think some of the "old guard" in museums have a mind-set that only public backlash and legal action is going to change.

What I'm saying is that I hope that the new generation of professionally trained museum workers, the so-called "Emerging Museum Professionals" (those who are graduating now or recently from the many Master's programs nationwide) will have a different outlook on these issues. I know that cultural patrimony, looting, and art theft were topics covered in my Master's program. I assume the problems and realities are discussed elsewhere, too.

Heather

wyrdbrthr said...

There are a number of reasons an institution may take in objects with very little, or no records of provenance. The objects may be part of a larger collection that the museum has worked towards acquiring, and their acceptance of the pieces may be part of the rules of the bequest- no collector wants to have pieces of a collection, which they may have spent many years building, spurned by an institution they happen to be donating them to. The objects may come to them from a trustee, or another trusted personage, that they truly believe have had the object in their family prior to 1970. Some of these reasons carry more water than others, but it's important to recognize that most museums no longer have a budget for acquisitions of antiquities, and they do turn away objects on a regular basis. The pieces you've mentioned may in fact represent the best choices the ancient art department has had in some time to build their collection. While I may not be able to comment specifically on the pieces you've mentioned, I'd like to think that all museums with ancient art departments are trying their utmost to balance their collection with as much integrity and academic depth as they can.
Aaron

David Gill said...

I agree.

Heather Hope said...

Aaron: I agree with you, as well.

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