Skip to main content

Crawling out of the Blast Crater: Who Owns History?

Richard Lacayo has reflected on the recent return of antiquities to Italy and asks the question, "Who Owns History?" (Time, February 21, 2008). Through the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, museums (and private collectors) in North America (and in Europe and the Far East) acquired antiquities that had been recently looted from sites in Italy. And then the Italian authorities asked for them back.

Why?

Not because the returning pieces could be given back their contexts when displayed on Italian soil.

But because (some) museum directors, (some) curators, (some) dealers and (some?) collectors did not believe that acquiring recently surfaced archaeological material had a direct link with the destruction of archaeological sites in Italy.

And then came the break through with Giacomo Medici. And one after another institutions, two dealers (one in London and the other in New York) and even a collector have handed over a sample from their collections. Lacayo puts it so well:
In the months that followed, one museum after another went through something like the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of accepting death. They bridled, they denied, they negotiated. Finally, they came to terms. In the case of the Getty, it agreed to return 39 objects in short order but got a temporary reprieve on the goddess until 2010.
So are we entering a new era?

Lacayo thinks so:
I'm betting now it will be a long time before a U.S. museum director buys another ancient treasure with a wink and a nod or anything less than a documented-ownership trail longer than an Old Testament genealogy and much more credible.
But why acquire when you can have long-term loans?

But let us move on. Lacayo next presents:
the ordinary museumgoer, who has a crucial stake--being able to see the widest spectrum of culture that humankind has produced.
There is nothing wrong with this. I know what an impact the British Museum had on my own view of the ancient world. But should "
the ordinary museumgoer" feel comfortable with viewing potentially looted antiquities? (The exception must be the "Nostoi" exhibition in Rome that celebrates the homecoming of so many objects ripped from Italian soil.)

Indeed
"the ordinary museumgoer" should feel distinctly uncomfortable when archaeological material loses its context that can never be recovered. We do not know the last resting place of the Sarpedon krater --- and that is a loss to human culture. Looting has intellectual consequences.

But Does Lacayo get sidetracked by the ownership issue? Should the bust of Nefertiti be in Cairo or Berlin? Should the Pergamon altar be in Turkey? Are the Parthenon marbles best displayed in a purpose-built museum that has a visual link with the Athenian akropolis? But in one sense there are no intellectual consequences linked to a decision to transfer ownership. Nefertiti was found in a sculptor's workshop at Amarna. The Pergamon altar dominated the skyline of the Attalid royal city. The Parthenon was constructed during the 440s and 430s BCE.

But we do not know where the acrolithic female statue of "Aphrodite" acquired by the Getty was found. Where was the tomb in which the ex-Princeton's red-figured psykter was placed? This information is lost.

There need to be solutions and Lacayo rehearses the issues of partage and leasing.

But he is wrong about one thing. It was not the "Rutelli campaign" that created the "blast crater" from which these North American public institutions are now emerging. It was the greed and short-sightedness of (some) museum curators, (some) directors, (some) trustees, and (some ?) benefactors who wanted to "own" part of antiquity.

Image
The reconstructed Pergamon Altar in Berlin. © David Gill

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an …

The scale of the returns to Italy

I have been busy working on an overview, "Returning Archaeological Objects to Italy". The scale of the returns to Italy from North American collections and galleries is staggering: in excess of 350 objects. This is clearly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the material that has surfaced on the market without a history that can be traced back to the period before 1970. 

I will provide more information in due course, but the researcher is a reminder that we need to take due diligence seriously when it comes to making acquisitions.

Stele returns to Greece

The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has announced (Saturday 8 September 2018) that a stele that had been due to be auctioned at Sotheby's in London in June 2017 has been returned to Greece (Friday 7 September 2018). The identification had been made by Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.

It appeared that the stele had been supplied with a falsified history as its presence with Becchina until 1990 contradicted the published sale catalogue entry. It then moved into the hands of George Ortiz.

A year ago it was suggested that Sotheby's should contact the Greek authorities. Those negotiations appear to have concluded successfully.

The 4th century BC stele fragment, with the personal name, Hestiaios, will be displayed in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens. It appears to have come from a cemetery in Attica.