Skip to main content

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?

Comments

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.

Reference
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…