Thursday, 10 December 2009

CPAC review of MOU with Italy: the AIA version

I have already given a comment on the CPAC review of Article II of the MOU with Italy that related to "the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material Representing the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman Periods of Italy".

I had noted that Sebastian Heath's presentation on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) had caused concern. A collector advocacy group issued a press release in the wake of the review and described the AIA presentation as "a wakeup call for thousands of private collectors, museums and independent scholars".

Sebastian Heath has now placed a report (as well as the text of his submission to CPAC) on the website of the AIA ("Politics & Archaeology: A First-Person Account of the CPAC Meeting Reviewing Italian Import Restrictions"). He commented on the response from the museum community:
When we had all finished, I was pleased to note that the speakers representing museums generally praised the cooperation of their Italian counterparts in efforts to arrange loans to American institutions. It is clear that museums in this country would like to display Italian objects for longer periods than is currently possible, which seems to be a reasonable request. Only one museum representative, from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, seemed to question the premise that it is appropriate to use the MoU to restrict import of antiquities from Italy with the goal of protecting sites and preserving information on the context of ancient art.
No doubt the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is wanting to deflect interest from the Athenian red-figured volute-krater that was reportedly acquired from Robin Symes.

I was particularly interested to read Heath's version of the discussion about ancient coins. I had earlier observed:
Tompa asserted that "Italy has done a poor job taking care of the coins at state institutions and archaeological sites".
Now we can read the perspective of the AIA representative:
Another voice heard at the CPAC meeting was that of ancient coin collectors and dealers. Like many AIA members, one of the areas in which I’ve published scholarly articles is ancient numismatics so the protection of coins is of great interest to me. Archaeologists are members of the numismatic community, and it is important that our voice is heard. Speaking for coin dealers, Peter Tompa, who represented both the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild and who has also released a summary of his written submission, suggested that Italian museums are not good stewards of their numismatic collections and that Italian archaeologists do a poor job publishing excavated coins. My experience suggests that neither is the case. The Palazzo Massimo in Rome has a superb numismatic display that features excavated material, including hoard finds, to trace the rise and use of coinage from the Republican period onwards. The website reports the discovery of coins and often places them in context by discussing the sites on which they were found. Unfortunately, the current MoU does not include coins as a protected category. If Italy does request that coins be included in a future agreement, it is likely that the AIA would support such a move.
Heath seems to suggest that Tompa was either deliberately presenting misleading information to CPAC or was unaware of the true situation in Italy. Such a conclusion is surprising given that Tompa is a director of the Cultural Property Research Institute (CPRI). What does Tompa's presentation say about the quality of the "research" that is likely to be produced by the CPRI? (For earlier reservations see here.)

Tompa's apparent misrepresentation of evidence would seem to strengthen the case for including coins in any future review of the MOU with Italy.

Heath's account comes close on the heals of the outcome of the FOIA case relating to the import of coins from Italy.

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Cultural Property Observer said...

Now, now, David. The IAPN and PNG description of Italy's handling of the coins in the care of the State was based on an a thorough analysis of the whole picture, not just a focus on one high profile exhibit in Rome. As to that exhibit, while it is quite nice, when I was there a few years back, it was already suffering from neglect-- more than a few dark cases and broken magnifying devices.

As for a more general view of Italy's handling of its cultural patrimony, I would also direct you to the candid interview with Mario Resca in the October Art Newspaper.

Peter Tompa

John Muccigrosso said...


As someone who often bemoans the state of Italian museums, I'd welcome a chance to read the IAPN's or PNG's analysis of the state of Italian museums and their handling of coins and other artifacts. Could you point me to that?

Thanks in advance.

Cultural Property Observer said...

John- Sorry, but as I indicated to David previously, IAPN and PNG are not interested in releasing their CPAC document for public consumption while it is under active consideration. Perhaps, later as was done with the Cyprus submission (see ACCG website for that one). Nevertheless, the state of Italian museums is well known. You may want to try to find a copy of the Oct. Art Newspaper. It has an interesting article about and interview with Mario Resca, Italy's museum czar. He is very forthright about the problems he is facing, chief among which is gross underfunding.


Peter Tompa

Nathan Elkins said...

Mr. Tompa has reacted to the attention brought to Sebastian Heath's article via a post denigrating the numismatic display at Palazzo Massimo - Italy's national coin collection. I've visited the collection personally several times and while it is true that the magnifiers, which move on rails by means of buttons, are sometimes broken down (they are probably subjected to a lot of wear), the display is otherwise extensive and superb. A progression of Italy's entire history of coinage is put on display for the viewer: from aes rude through the use of cast bars and coins, to struck Republican and Imperial coins, and then Medieval and modern coinages.

The ancient section makes up about half of the floorspace. In addition to cases showing the coins, there are side displays which show hoards and various votive assemblages, accompanied by bilingual explanatory placards. One display reconstructs the stratigraphic arrangement of coins from a well using the actual coins: old cast coins on bottom, with layers of later coins above it and finally the struck coins on top.

Mr. Tompa also quotes an unnamed collector who chastises the Italian display. One of the criticisms is that a curator (sic!), described as wearing a jacket and a badge, didn't know anything about the coins. Sounds like a museum guard - not a curator!

I've visited several numismatic displays at other national museums, including the British Museum. The British Museum has an and respectable display of coins. But I don't think that one could or would assert that it is supremely better than that of Palazzo Massimo. I don't recall the presence magnifiers allowing one to view the coins up close as one can in Rome either. If my recollection is correct, Palazzo Massimo probably devotes more floorspace to coins and, at least for Roman coinage, the displays are arguably more encyclopedic and dynamic. The current exhibition space at the American Numismatic Society is rather limited and requires entrance into a secure area to view it. A wider selection of coins from the ANS is on view at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

No public display of ancient coins in the United States really compares to the size and scope of what is on view at Palazzo Massimo.

Therefore, one must ask the question: For what reason is Mr. Tompa so intent on denigrating the Italian display, especially since there are probably few national displays that could rival it in terms of scope and content?

Nathan Elkins said...

Last fall was my latest trip to Rome; I actually blogged about the Palazzo Massimo display in September 2008 immediately following the trip and posted photographs of some of the displays (including the stratigraphic display described above). Click
to read the post and view the pictures, and note also the comments.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Nathan- You were at the same CPAC meeting I was, weren't you? Italy (or at least Stefano Di Caro) wants import restrictions on coins, no? In theory, such a claim is based in part on the presumption that the State is the best steward for artifacts, no? As I mentioned in my own blog, I think the Rome display is excellent in concept, but was certainly showing signs of neglect when I was there, something that has been verified by others. Keep in mind this is by far the best numismatic display in Italy. Every other one I have seen (mostly in Sicily) is just awful and I can only imagine the storage conditions behind the scenes. This is all relevant to any claim that the Italian state is the best steward for coins, purportedly justifying as it does, potential restrictions on American collectors. Of course, the Italians themselves don't really believe this. They have a vibrant and quite legal internal trade in unprovenanced coins of the exact same type the AIA wants restricted.

Thank you for also reminding us about this on your blog:

"Most of the coins in the cases at the Palazzo Massimo come from the private collection of Francesco Gnecchi, a numismatic scholar from the late 19th and early 20th century, but other displays include excavated hoards and finds as does its larger inventory which cannot be displayed at once. Some 60,000 - 70,000 ancient coins from the Rome, which were recovered during the risorgimento, await publication by the numismatists at Frankfurt. Some finds from the Tiber River have already been published."

So, the Museum has benefited from the generosity of a collector to make its display possible, but 19th c. ancient coin site finds from Rome still have not been published?

Imagine that.....


Peter Tompa

Nathan Elkins said...

And I expect that Mr Tompa thinks the approximate 1 million ancient coins from multiple "source countries" that were bought and sold on eBay (US) this year are better off with these handlers? No history, no context, just dirt and coins. How many will be carefully cleaned; how many abrasively cleaned? Who will publish them and who will view them?

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