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'Illicit antiquities': what are the issues?

Sir John Boardman makes a useful point when he notes, 'objects cannot be "tainted" or "illicit", and could only be so described by scholars who do not understand them, or legislators' (in Who Owns Objects? [2006], 44 [for details of review]). I would insert 'genuine' before 'objects' as forgeries can corrupt the corpus of knowledge.

Objects are removed from their archaeological contexts by scientific means (excavation), chance, erosion or illicit means. Some involved in the debate tend to place all antiquities emerging on the market in the same group. Our research has stressed the date of surfacing. Has the object been known since excavation? When is the first recorded mention or (even better) publication? These are not irrelevant issues. The Getty return has shown that 'histories' were being assigned to objects which appear to be fresh out of the ground.

So what are the contentious groups of archaeological objects?

1. High profile objects that were removed from their countries some time ago
Should high profile objects which were removed from their findspots before (say) 1850 remain in their (usually western) museums? Should the Parthenon marbles be displayed in London or in a purpose-built museum within sight of the Athenian akropolis? Should the Rosetta stone, a key text for Egyptology, be in London or Cairo?

These are complex issues as the three volume UK House of Commons select committee report demonstrated. [For commentary.]

I suspect these issues will not be resolved by legal arguments but by common sense and goodwill.

These historic cases are different to modern instances of looting from archaeological sites. Take the Parthenon marbles. We know where the sculptures were displayed. We know the order in which they were displayed. And thanks to the surviving accounts we can almost date their work to the year.

Contrast recently surfaced objects. Do even known the country in which they were found?

2. Notorious acts of looting prior to the 1970 UNESCO convention
This has been a major issue in recent weeks. Should the Fano athlete at present in the J. Paul Getty Museum return to Italy? It appears to have been known well before the 1970 Convention. Is there a case for it to return? The debate looks set to continue over the next few months and years.

What about the Keros haul - rather than 'hoard' - from the Greek Cycladic islands? [For recent discussion.] Hundreds of fragments of Early Cycladic marble figures appear to have been removed from the site. What was their purpose? Were the fragments broken on site in the Early Bronze Age? What was going on? Several pieces from the 'haul' were exhibited in the Katonah Museum of Art exhibition Ancient Art of the Cyclades (October 1 - December 31, 2006). Should these fragments now residing in North American collections be returned to Greece?

3. Surfacings after 1970
Thousands of antiquities surface each year on the market. Few are provided with histories. Are we really expected to accept that they have been lurking in the attic? (Though we can all probably think of one or two cases where this has happened.)

But we have read The Medici Conspiracy, we have seen recently opened tombs ... and we can draw our own conclusions.

Perhaps it is important to note that objects looted from archaeological sites will not be on The Art Loss Register.

4. Objects stolen from museums and archaeological stores
From time to time archaeological material is stolen from museums and stores. Hopefully these have been photographed and recorded and their loss can be registered with bodies like The Art Loss Register.

The theft from the Corinth Museum was perhaps revealing in the way that some of the objects from that heist reappeared in 'respectable' auction houses and galleries even though photographs of the items had been widely circulated.

5. Objects illustrated in the Geneva Polaroids
Thousands of objects are illustrated in the Geneva Polaroids (linked to Giacomo Medici). It will take years to research this photographic archive and locate the objects. There is, of course, movement and we are seeing the results in the return of antiquities from North American museums to the Italian Government. Other objects have already been identified and I understand negotiations are on-going.

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