Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Michael Brand on the Return of Cultural Property

Lee Rosenbaum has commented on Michael Brand's paper at the 32nd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art in Melbourne. Rosenbaum cites the report "At odds on the art of possession" in the Sydney Morning Herald (January 19, 2008).
Also speaking at the conference, Michael Brand, the Canberra-born director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles - which has been embroiled in repatriation claims in recent years - proposed the metaphor of art objects as "de facto migrants".

He argued that while it was crucial that museums guard against the illegal trafficking of art objects, it was just as important for "source" countries such as Greece and Italy to think carefully about requesting the restitution of art objects.

"While we all know that migration is the agent of great inspiration and transformation, it can also fuel the politics of nationalism," Brand said.

"In the museum world, this is often expressed in the form of cultural patrimony claims. All museums must play their role in curtailing the illegal trafficking of works of art and some works should be restituted.

"At the same time, the simplistic argument that all works of art should be returned home is no better than one seeking to stop human migration in the name of preserving supposedly pure ethnic borders."
What this newspaper quote does not do is spell out the different groups of cultural property. Let me give three examples.
  • Should the eighteenth-century Grand Tour collection of, say, Thomas Hollis (a benefactor of Harvard) and Thomas Brand-Hollis (and bequeathed to the Revd John Disney and thence to his son Dr John Disney) be returned from Cambridge to Italy?
  • Should finds from, say, Amarna that were shared out after the excavations be returned to Egypt?
  • Should fragments of Roman wall-painting from a villa on the Bay of Naples (and covered in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE) that were ripped out in the last thirty years be returned to Italy?
Some of the Grand Tour pieces could have been derived from, say, Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. But their removal was more than two hundred years ago, and they have subsequently formed the cultural backdrop for radical English gentlemen. The Amarna pieces have recorded find-spots and their scientific contribution remains whether they are in a museum in the UK or in Egypt. The wall-paintings have merely been looted to provide a museum or collector with a piece of "Ancient Art" to place in a gallery or sitting room.

But the objects returned to Italy (and some are now on display in Rome) by Boston, Malibu, New York, and Princeton - and not forgetting the Royal-Athena Galleries and Shelby White - appear to come from recent looting (and in some cases from museum thefts). Did curators turn a blind eye to the destruction of contexts in their search for the piece to fill a gap in the collection?

Brand also chose to comment on the "Fano Athlete" at exactly the same moment that Italy has renewed its claim on the piece:
Fortunately for us, the so-called Getty Bronze will be staying at the Getty ... Ironically, it was most likely on its way to Italy from Greece as Roman loot when it was lost at sea.
Ancient Romans looted - so it is acceptable to acquire "illicit cultural property" today?

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