Skip to main content

"Demonstrably stolen": where does the burden of proof lie?

Sir John Boardman (in Eleanor Robson et al. [eds.], Who Owns Objects [2006]) recently suggested that current legislation over the protection of cultural property has created:
"The denial of the right of persons or museums to acquire antiquities which are not demonstrably stolen or the result of plunder, since most are only so deemed, not proved."
What does he mean? Does somebody have to be present at the time the archaeological site is raided?

Nigel Spivey has pointed out the problem with that course of action by quoting Professor Mauro Cristofani.
"And what will you do ... when staring down the barrel of a sub-machine gun?"
Is it enough to have photographs or Polaroids of, say, Athenian red-figured pots that are still covered in dirt? Does that imply that the objects were fresh out of the ground? And, if they were not excavated by archaeologists, can they be considered to have been "demonstrably stolen"?

Or what about a site where the bases of statues survive in situ but the bronze sculptures have been removed - and form part of museum and private collections? Have they been "demonstrably stolen"?

So if an archaeological object appears in an auction house, gallery, museum or private collection without any previous history we can be suspicious. Research by Chippindale and Gill pointed out this phenomenon for two private North American collections: Shelby White and Leon Levy; Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman.

The fact that the Italian government has been been able to make the case for the return of some of the Fleischman material (now in the Getty) underlines the point. And the Italian government is reported to have made approaches to Shelby White.

Were the Fleischmans and White/Levy wise to acquire antiquities which could not be shown to have been in circulation before the 1970 UNESCO Convention? Perhaps the question to ask is this: were they badly advised?

This debate is not about denying rights. It is about protecting cultural property.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an …

The scale of the returns to Italy

I have been busy working on an overview, "Returning Archaeological Objects to Italy". The scale of the returns to Italy from North American collections and galleries is staggering: in excess of 350 objects. This is clearly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the material that has surfaced on the market without a history that can be traced back to the period before 1970. 

I will provide more information in due course, but the researcher is a reminder that we need to take due diligence seriously when it comes to making acquisitions.

Stele returns to Greece

The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has announced (Saturday 8 September 2018) that a stele that had been due to be auctioned at Sotheby's in London in June 2017 has been returned to Greece (Friday 7 September 2018). The identification had been made by Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.

It appeared that the stele had been supplied with a falsified history as its presence with Becchina until 1990 contradicted the published sale catalogue entry. It then moved into the hands of George Ortiz.

A year ago it was suggested that Sotheby's should contact the Greek authorities. Those negotiations appear to have concluded successfully.

The 4th century BC stele fragment, with the personal name, Hestiaios, will be displayed in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens. It appears to have come from a cemetery in Attica.