Skip to main content

"Tainted Objects"

Southern Methodist University's Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility is holding a conference, "The Future of the Past: Ethical Implications of Collecting Antiquities in the 21st Century", later this month.

We are told, "The goal of the conference is to move participants toward solutions."

I notice that one of the sessions is described as "Tainted Objects" which will address "The Fate of Antiquities Having Problematic or Unknown Provenance".

This raises several issues.

a. What is meant by "tainted"? Surely the objects are either genuine or fake. Is the magnificent Euphronios krater now on loan from the Italian authorities to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in any way "tainted"? It remains an impressive example of Athenian red-figured pottery. It is not the object that has been "tainted" but rather the institution that purchased it.

b. What is meant by "provenance"? This art historical term, as I have shown with Christopher Chippindale, is misleading in this context. Do we mean the history of the object, i.e. when did the object first appear? Or do we mean the archaeology of the object, i.e. is the find-spot known?

c. What is meant by "problematic"? Do we mean that the object has no known history before the 1970 UNESCO Convention? In other words, could it be open to legal action for its return to the country where it was found? Did the antiquities recently returned from New York, Boston and the Getty have a "problematic provenance"? In fact some of them appear to have have had histories that led them before the lens of a Polaroid camera. Indeed it seems that these were objects removed from archaeological contexts in Italy, transported from the country, and sold to high profile institutions. What is "problematic" about this sequence?

d. Why is "unknown" so puzzling? Imagine an object which is offered for acquisition. It has no recorded history. It has no recorded find-spot. It is a purchase almost too good to be true. Is the history unknown? Or is the history left undeclared because knowledge would undermine the sale?

We need solutions. We expect the highest standards of integrity from the members of collecting institutions. And we also need recognition that looting destroys archaeological sites for good.


Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…

Metropolitan Museum of Art hands over Paestan krater

In May 2014 I commented on a Paestan krater acquired by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art after it had been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis in photographic images seized from Giacomo Medici. Tsirogiannis published his full concerns in the Journal of Art Crime in 2014, but it has taken a further three years for the museum to respond.

The krater showing Dionysos in a hand-drawn cart was purchased in 1989 from the Bothmer Purchase Fund (details from the Museum's website, inv. 1989.11.4). The krater surfaced through Sotheby's New York in June 1989.

It is unclear who consigned the krater to Sotheby's New York.

It has now been revealed that the krater has been handed over to the US authorities after a warrant had been issued (Tom Mashberg, "Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted", New York Times July 31, 2018).

It appears that the museum did make an attempt to resolve the case in December 2016. Mashberg notes:
The Met, for its par…