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Leiden and the Cuirass

While North American museums have been busy returning antiquities to Italy, European collections have been busy fighting off legal challenges. Is the difference that American institutions are wanting to be seen to be acting in an ethical way, whereas European museums only look at the strict legal implications?

Objects can be acquired "legally" even if they have been dug up at dead of night, their archaeological contexts destroyed and lost, and the pieces themselves transported across international frontiers contrary to legislation.

This is neatly illustrated by the actions of the National Museum of Antiquities (NMA) (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) at Leiden in Holland. A partial set of "ancient bronze armour comprising a cuirass, a helmet, fragments of a belt and two leggings" surfaced on "the stand of a well-known Swiss antiquities dealer" at the 1997 TEFAF in Maastricht (Jos Van Beurden, "A disputed cuirass: Italy versus the Netherlands’ National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden", Culture Without Context 18, Spring 2006). This was subsequently purchased by the NMA in 1998.

In 1999 a "confidential source" provided the Italian Carabinieri with this information:
it seems that some years ago in the illicit trade a complete cuirass … surfaced. According to him, the cuirass was taken up by an important dealer in archaeological objects in Puglia … The important armour seems to have been purchased by a museum abroad.
The Italian government are reported to have requested the return of the armour in 2000 and started legal proceedings in 2002. The Dutch court rejected the request in 2004 (see NMA Annual Report for 2004, p. 10).

Van Beurden reported:
the NMA was not amused with the attitude of the Italians, who according to the head of the museum’s collection management, Steph Scholten, ‘did everything with a lot of fuss and display of power. They tried to criminalise the NMA’. At the same time Scholten could ‘well imagine the dilemmas and frustrations of the Italians. With hindsight maybe that purchase was naïve.’
At least Scholten accepted that the "purchase was naïve". So was the purchase ethical?

Scholten's statement sounds barely believable:
‘With the standards of 2005 one can say that information could have had more substance’ says Scholten, and now we also know more about the role of Switzerland in the illicit trade. In the National Museum of Antiquities one had been thinking for a long time that the illicit trade was something of shady back rooms and not something of prominent traders in prominent places. Now I understand that things happen even at the TEFAF which should not be allowed as far as provenance is concerned.
Could a National Museum of Antiquities really pretend that in the late 1990s that its staff were unaware of the way that newly-surfaced antiquities were passing through Switzerland? (Remember the euphemism of "once in a Swiss private collection".) Were the curatorial staff unaware of the 1970 UNESCO Convention? Were the professional archaeologists of the NMA unfamiliar with the 1973 AIA Declaration?

What is interesting is that this is not the only piece of South Italian armour which has surfaced in recent times. Other pieces include a set that surfaced on the German art market in the mid-1970s, and another in the Shelby White collection.

The Italian Government is reported to have made another request (in 2004) for the return of the armour from Leiden. Would it be ethical for the NMA to retain it given what is now known about the market in archaeological objects?


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