Skip to main content

Learning from the Gaps in the Display Cases

Drake Bennett ("Finders Keepers", Boston Globe, February 10, 2008) has reflected on the return of antiquities to Italy from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
These returned objects are only the most visible recent fruits of a powerful movement aimed at moving some of the world's most prominent ancient treasures from the hands of foreign museums and collectors back to the so-called source countries.
Drake continues:
These governments argue that to allow such objects to remain abroad as trophies only encourages the continued pillage of their national patrimony. Their position has won broad moral support and increasingly become the norm among academic archeologists, who see ancient objects as historic artifacts inseparable from their place of discovery.
In other words, does the return of antiquities to source countries stop looting? I suspect not.

But what it does do is send a very clear signal to museums and private collectors that acquisition policies and patterns have to change (and that includes loans). I doubt that institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the J. Paul Getty Museum will be in a rush to accept as purchases, gifts, bequests or loans, objects that have no secure documentation prior to 1970.

Drake balances the return with views from James Cuno (see my "James Cuno on antiquities"):
What's at stake ... is the world's right to broad and general access to its ancient heritage.
What is at stake is the loss of archaeological heritage and scientific knowledge - all for the pursuit of "beautiful objects" to display in public museums of art or to place on the sideboards of private collectors.

The reported claim by Cuno that such moves to return antiquities "present an existential threat to great "encyclopedic" museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, places that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world's cultural history in one place" is perhaps misleading.

Have the Italian authorities asked the Museum of Fine Arts for its complete collection of South Italian pottery? No.

Has the Greek Government asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of its entire collection of archaic Athenian sculpture? No.

And nobody is expecting them to do so.

Archaeologists have as their focus recent acquisitions (and loans) because so often they are derived from destroying archaeological deposits such as graves ... and that is happening now.

But Cuno is in a difficult position. He is clearly being tipped as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello and it is a matter for public record that one of the people on the search committee is a private collector who has just handed over ten of her antiquities to Italy (even if she is still unable to issue a press release about it). We can hardly expect Cuno to condemn the actions of private individuals or indeed museums.

Drake also quotes de Montebello about the benefits of the movement of antiquities across national frontiers. There is a big difference between the transport of Athenian figure-decorated pottery from Greece to Etruria in the sixth century BCE, and the transfer of looted antiquities from Etruscan graves to (say) Japanese museum display-cases in the early third millennium CE.

Drake does make the archaeological point:
For archeologists, the problem with looting is not simply that it is stealing, but that it destroys archeological sites, erasing irreplaceable information. A funerary jug scrubbed clean and presented for sale to a museum has far less to offer an archeologist than one found in the ground, where everything from its location and positioning to its contents and the composition of the soil around it - in short, its context - can offer clues to the sort of culture that made and preserved it.
He ends with the two contrasting positions:
  • Cuno who "would like to see a loosening of those laws to allow for a larger licit trade in antiquities" (and see my "Can there be a 'licit' trade in antiquities?").
  • Archaeologists who pose the question, "Why not ... treat antiquities the way we treat African ivory, as something that, with a few exceptions, can't be bought and sold at all?"

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…