Monday, August 3, 2009

Is the AAMD policy having an impact on private collectors?

In 2008 the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted a new policy towards the acquisition of antiquities. They chose to use 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as the benchmark for acquisitions ("the most pertinent threshold date for the application of more rigorous standards to the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art"). At the same time they launched an object register to allow individuals to study newly acquired items.

The AAMD needed to react to the bad publicity generated by five of its members having to return antiquities to Italy (and in one case Greece):
  1. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
  2. The Cleveland Museum of Art
  3. Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum
  4. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  5. Princeton University Art Museum
Why was the material returned? The answer appears to be quite simple: documentary and photographic evidence (some of it seized in Switzerland) appeared to suggest that the objects had been removed from archaeological sites (and countries of origin) illegally.

AAMD members are understandably sensitive. They do not want to be facing similar bad publicity.

But now collectors are concerned. How can they sell, donate or bequeath their collections of antiquities to North American institutions? And remember that some major North American collectors have been associated with the returns to Italy.

The issue has been raised by a research project ("issue") of the Cultural Property Research Institute. The CPRI seeks to determine "the number of artistically and academically significant, privately-owned objects in the United States that are currently excluded from acquisition by US museums". The issue is explained:
Even as the number of “orphan objects” – those that cannot by self-rule be acquired or accepted as loans by US museums – continues to grow, so does the need for accurate data on the nature and volume of such material in private collections and on the US market. The CPRI will seek to develop a methodology that can help determine the number of significant orphan objects in a particular cultural/historical area, with a view toward establishing credible order-of-magnitude figures, over time, for all cultural/historical areas. Initial conclusions will be published on the CPRI website by the end of 2009. Comments will be invited.
Here is my comment.

If the number of "orphaned objects" continues to grow, it can only mean that private collectors are continuing to buy recently surfaced objects that have no documented and authenticated collecting history that can be traced back to 1970.

And these private collectors continue to augment their collection either because they are unaware of the ethical issues or because they have been advised by third parties to continue buying.

I have done quantified research in this area with Christopher Chippindale. What is interesting is that two of the North American private collections highlighted by our study published in the American Journal of Archaeology proved to contain items that have been returned to Italy. So there does appear to be an issue for objects with no documented histories.

Of course some objects sitting in attics will have been "known" well before 1970. But we also need to accept that newly surfaced can sometimes mean recently looted.

So why does the CPRI want to undertake this research? What are the aims of the project?

The CPRI intends to publish initial conclusions by the end of 2009 (less than five months away). My experience of working with such data makes me think that this is an ambitious target.

How are these private collectors to be identified? Will there be photographs and images on the CPRI website? Will the collecting histories of the objects be provided?

But what are private collectors to do? Would they consider making gifts to the countries where the objects are likely to have been found? Perhaps they could add a donation towards display and conservation.

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