Paul Barford has drawn my attention to Michael H. Miller's article "Digging Up The Past", New York Observer May 25, 2010. In some ways Miller shows that he has a poor grasp of the issues. There are major differences between items that have surfaced on the market since 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention) and objects that were acquired by museums well before that benchmark date. (Countries such as Egypt and Greece are, of course, making claims on pieces such as the head of Nefertiti or the Parthenon marbles.)
Miller then turned to the case of recent returns from North American Museums: "Italy has been the most aggressive, successfully demanding the return of objects from both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty". Miller could have added Boston's Museum of Fine Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Princeton University Art Museum. He uses this to hang the story of Christie's June sale of antiquities: "Now, three pricey ancient Greek items up for sale at Christie's next month threaten to become a part of the messy, murky issues clouding the market." Miller, if he had done his homework, would have noted that three antiquities (a Corinthian krater, an Attic pelike and an Apulian situla) were seized from the same auction-house in 2009.
Miller does remind us of Christie's public position: "As a matter of policy, we do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen".
Miller reviews the collecting histories of the three pieces due to be auctioned in June 2010. He could usefully have noted that the Christie's catalogue had not drawn attention to one of the pieces surfacing at Sotheby's (London) in 1992. (The online entry has now been updated.) Why was this part of the collecting history (sometimes called the "provenance") left out?
Miller then turned to the pieces returned to Italy by Shelby White. He adds, "ironically, some of them Greek". Interesting the Attic calyx-krater (known in a fragmentary state from the Medici Dossier) had an Etruscan graffito on its foot indicating its final resting place.
The contrast is made with Sotheby's where there appears to be meticulous care ("due diligence") in the research of the collecting histories for the pieces due to be offered for sale.
But Miller has done his readership a favour. He has reminded us of the "messy, murky issues" that can surround the sale and acquisition of recently-surfaced antiquities.