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Loans: Checking Histories

As antiquities in North American collections have been packed up and flown back to Rome, we have been seeing archaeological finds and art objects winging their way westward to fill their place. There is a new sense of optimism and transparency. Archaeological ethics are on the agenda. Museum acquisition policies are being tightened.

But hang on a minute. Somebody has raised a really important comment on my discussion of the looting of antiquities from the Republic of Macedonia. I do not want to go into the possible identification of the bronze here (after all, I just wanted to draw attention to what was happening in a particular country). There is a suggestion that antiquities are being "displayed" in public exhibitions --- but in such a way that they do not enter the public record via the printed catalogue (or on-line supporting website). The owner can presumably claim that the piece was "exhibited" in a particular show and that anybody with a claim on the object should have known about it.

Do museum policies address the issue of short- and long-term loans in an adequate way?

Elisabetta Povoloedo ("Antiquities Trial Fixes on Collectors' Role", New York Times, June 9, 2007) discussed a “sophisticated method of laundering” antiquities. She interviewed Peter C. Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, who talked about collectors and museums "conducting 'diligent provenance inquiries' on artifacts that change hands".

But loans do not change hands. Loans remain the property of the owner.

What due diligence process is being undertaken for such loans?


phrygian said…
Very strong point indeed.

If the established museums are so lush in their loans acceptance policies and, by keeping important loans off public record, continue to serve private individuals and their interests (Mrs White’s in this case) instead of educating the public, than we are better off if we set up a sort of ‘open source’ museum where anybody could loan anything --- no questions asked, no provenance given, context? God forbid --- just for the sake of providing the owner with the possibility to later claim that the piece was exhibited.

Hey, the dealers would be more than happy. They could put up a great show in no time. Why deprive them of this service, but grant the same to selected individuals? Is Mrs White so special?

Look, there is a great Archaic krater on view (for initiated only, mere mortals have no way to know about it) at the The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for almost 4 years now (see David Gill's comment at "A Bronze from the Republic of Macedonia: a New York Link?") and they, at the museum, don’t want to know where it comes from, how did it entered the United States, why did it came in pieces (see Marcus Tully's comment at "A Bronze from the Republic of Macedonia: a New York Link?"), where is the rest of the treasure (kraters don’t go alone), what were the accompanying artifacts, in what context was the krater found etc.

O.K. I know the answer - it’s too late now, all that information has been lost, we’ve just got that piece of art and want to appreciate its beauty. Great, at least some public use and interest is being addressed.

But wait, there is no public record that a krater from Levy-White collection is on view at the The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. No entrance on their web site, no picture, no presentation, no posters on Houston streets to attract visitors...

How is the public supposed to know about it, if that is the aim at all? As stated by the author of this blog,

Loans should be a matter of public record.

(see David Gill's comment at "A Bronze from the Republic of Macedonia: a New York Link?")

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