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Michael Conforti and the Licit Market in Antiquities

Michael Conforti, the president elect of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and Director of the Clark in Williamstown. Ma, has been talking about his views on the "licit trade" in antiquities ("More Talk With: Michael Conforti", Time, March 28, 2008). In the wake of some many returns of antiquities from museums that are members of the AAMD it is interesting to read these comments:
There also needs to be established a "licit" market in works of art, including antiquities, in those countries that currently ban it. That's clearly what's encouraging so much illicit excavation. The source countries have a responsibility to establish some way that they can endorse a licit market. And that's a process that we would like to be part of at the Association of Art Museum Directors. We see traditional acquisitions as part of the future of museums as well.
These comments of course are recycled from John Merryman, James Cuno and Michael Brand (among others).

What I find rather frustrating is that Richard Lacayo never asks the difficult questions in these interviews.

Why have members of the AAMD been acquiring recently surfaced antiquities? Is the Merryman model for a licit trade flawed? Are member museums of the AAMD being transparent over their long-term loans?

Comments

Alexander said…
Hey David:
I hope you won't lump my comments in with theirs. Or at least see them as something a bit different. I.e. there is a difference between a "free market" and the licit (in the sense of legally permitted) sale. I think, as I'm sure you seen by now, that if museums swore off buying unprovenanced, or "anonymous" items on the market (clearly exported in violation of laws and undoubtedly looted), they might in exchange be able to directly purchase well-documented materials from source countries. This is a "licit" trade, certainly, but not in the Merryman et al. way. If Conforti was suggesting this (which I doubt he was, granted), then this would be quite a change and a good one.

Another fundamental difference that I hope I got across is that if one stops appealing to some sort of privileged position as speaking for the "public good," then this frees one to speak more openly I think. I think that if museums accept the basic right of nations (or any groups--this parallels NAGPRA, after all) to control and dictate the terms under which their cultural heritage is shared (rather than retaining the right to thwart "unreasonable" laws), then I think they will have a much more reasonable place from which to argue that those laws should be changed. Making compelling reasons for reform is different than circumventing the law and continuing to promote looting.

I hope that came across.

Alex

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