Friday, August 6, 2010

Almagià: "It’s ridiculous Princeton didn’t do anything to fight that"

The Princeton University Art Museum's reputation has been somewhat patinated by its acquisition policy for antiquities. In October 2007 the museum decided to return or transfer title of several antiquities to Italy. But unlike Boston's Museum of Fine Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Princeton has not disclosed the collecting histories ("provenance") of the objects. Even so, it has been possible to identify some of the donors.

In June 2010 there was news of an additional investigation. Some "two dozen" pieces have been linked to Edoardo Almagià, a dealer who has been associated with the return of some Etruscan material from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Almagià has now given a frank interview to Princeton Alumni Weekly (W. Barksdale Maynard, "Italy’s antiquities and U.S. museums: A Q&A with Edoardo Almagià ’73", PAW July 7, 2010). He was asked about Italy's successful request for the return of some 120 antiquities from several public museums in North America.
The Italians have set up an operation to scour every American dealer and museum coast to coast. It’s a publicity stunt. The investigators, they’ve built a career on this. It gives the Carabinieri a good life – they don’t get shot in the face.
There is no acknowledgement that such an investigation has helped to discourage looting in Italy.

And why has there been a need for such a policy? By an estimate originating in Princeton, it seems that some 1.5 million antiquities have been looted from archaeological contexts in Italy since 1970. As I have noted before, "that is a whacking estimated 37,500 antiquities looted every year for 40 years". (So 120 returned antiquities is less than 1% of the estimated annual amount of looted antiquities from Italy.)

Almagià was then asked about Princeton's 2007 agreement with Italy.
I have urged the Italian government to give back the objects it took. What they took from Princeton, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous Princeton didn’t do anything to fight that. Museums should really be tough. Every American museum should fight for its right to acquire objects in the market. The museum has a right to collect; the dealers have a right to deal.
There is no recognition that a (legal) fight was likely to have seen some potentially damaging evidence presented in court. And Princeton wisely decided to come to an agreement (as did other major North American museums).

And there is a good reason for this. An educational institution with the international standing of Princeton needs to maintain the highest ethical standards and values when it comes to acquisitions in its university museum. Its has a responsibility to educate and shape young minds: not to reinforce the misplaced view, so eloquently expressed by a curator at the British Museum (in response to a volume coincidentally published by Princeton University Press), of US "cultural imperialism at its worst". Princeton needs to stand for transparency and ethical straightforwardness in its acquisitions; it should not be tempted to indulge in obfuscation.

When asked about the "ultimate answer to the antiquities problem", Almagià replied:
The Americans need to say: We believe in freedom, free markets, free enterprise. It’s a very serious ideological battle.
Where does Princeton stand on the intellectual consequences of collecting recently-surfaced classical antiquities?

Image
Red figure loutrophoros (ceramic), attributed to the Darius Painter. South Italian, Apulian, ca. 335-325 B.C. One of four objects to be transferred in title to the Italian government but to remain on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum.

Image courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum.


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