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Eakin: "Museums themselves are partly to blame"

Hugh Eakin has written an important, but I believe flawed, piece on the return of antiquities for the New York Times [NYT]. He has shown a nuanced approach in his comments on the writings of James Cuno, but shown sympathy towards the J. Paul Getty Museum over the coverage in Chasing Aphrodite.

There is one point where I agree with Eakin: "museums themselves are partly to blame". Since the 1970 UNESCO Convention (and the 1973 AIA Resolution), museums curators, museums directors, museum trustees, and museum boards have known the issues about acquiring recently surfaced antiquities. But the desire to acquire was too much. And this is why closer to 200 antiquities [not 100] have been returned to Italy from North American public and private collections. This is why major institutions such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art have returned antiquities to Italy. These museums thought that they could acquire without restraint and the photographic evidence that emerged from the Geneva Freeport, from the Basel warehouses, and from Schinoussa has shown that their policies were flawed.

But let us return to Eakin's piece. He suggests that foreign governments have been threatening legal action over the return of antiquities. But I suspect that major museums have been secretly relieved to avoid that course of action. I do not know if Eakin has seen the photographic and documentary archives, but the thought of this material being unpacked in a courtroom where every image would be analysed in the media is one that would probably make the blood of most museum directors run cold. It is sufficient to say that Italy has probably claimed less than 1% of the objects in the photographic archives. This suggests great restraint, understanding and flexibility from the Italian authorities. But it also calls for flexibility from the North American museum community.

Eakin draws attention to the Dallas Museum of Art. The initiative to return this material to Italy (as well as a mosaic to Turkey) comes from the museum's director, Maxwell Anderson. As far as we can tell, it was Anderson who identified the material in the wake of the Almagià-linked returns from Princeton University Art Museum. Anderson does not appear to have waited for the Italians to start knocking on his door. He has a long record of acting in an ethical way over antiquities, notably over the EUMILOP scheme at Emory. Yet Eakin brackets Dallas with Toledo (one of the first museums to be identified in the Medici conspiracy) and the J. Paul Getty Museum. These cases are very different and Eakin should have made that clear.

Eakin makes the point that for most of the returned objects we do not know where they were found. The intellectual consequences of such lost knowledge are one of the reasons why this is such a tragic situation. Yes, we know that some pieces were looted from Morgantina on Sicily, or Etruscan cemeteries and sanctuaries at Cerveteri. But all have lost their scientific contexts. Eakin later mentions that the Italians did have access to photographic images that showed unrestored archaeological objects still covered in mud. Eakin could have noted that this is mud from tombs and other contexts not investigated by scientific archaeological means.

Eakin talks about the international trade in looted antiquities. It would have been worth pausing for a moment on how objects identified from the Medici and Schinoussa archives have been continuing to appear in New York auction-houses, and how these sales have continued to proceed even when the Italian authorities have contacted the relevant authorities. Have such stories been covered in the New York Times?

Eakin dramatises the situation:
Countries like Italy and Greece have used the news media to embarrass museums with alarming stories of rogue curators and nefarious dealers; they have withheld exhibition loans from museums that rebuff them; and they have resorted to aggressive legal action, opening criminal investigations of museum staff and enlisting the help of American federal prosecutors to obtain museum records and seize disputed works.
One wonders why it has been necessary for such actions to be taken against North American museums if everything is so transparent in the museum world. But let me take one item here: the "alarming stories of rogue curators". We could be distracted by the case of curators at the Getty or at Princeton. But what about the January 2012 news, never (as far as I can see) covered by the North American press, about the return of antiquities from the collection formed by a New York museum curator? What was so suspicious about this material that it was handed over? Why has the New York museum failed to make a statement? [Perhaps somebody at the AAMD meeting this week can ask the MMA's director that very question.]

There is no need to discuss "nefarious dealers". Eakin has read The Medici Conspiracy and Chasing Aphrodite. He could have listed the North American dealers who have supplied the museums but he chooses not to do so.

Have attitudes changed in the North American museum community? Eakin draws attention to the disputed St Louis Art Museum mummy case. He does not mention the flawed collecting history which was used as the basis for retaining the object and challenging the legal case. Yet the Cleveland Museum of Art has a acquired a Roman portrait of Drusus from the same dealer. What does this say about the due diligence process?

So will we see the return of the Bubon Roman bronzes to Turkey? Will the Michael C. Carlos Museum  start to negotiate with Greece over the Minoan larnax and other items? What is the collecting history of the bronze krater (once? still?) on loan to Houston?

I hope that the AAMD will strengthen its current policy on the acquisitions of antiquities to close various loopholes. And I suspect that there will be museums directors in Kansas this week who will be feeling more than uncomfortable about acquisitions under their care. Perhaps we will see a more enlightened position emerging from AAMD members this week.

And museum directors who wish to ignore the issue should re-read Eakin: "Museums themselves are partly to blame".

UPDATE: two links have been removed from this post.

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The Eakin piece is a confirmation that there are still many highly educated and uneducated persons in Western countries who do not understand or accept that taking or holding the property, including cultural property, of another, is wrong. That there is not only a legal but also a moral obligation to return stolen or looted artefacts appears complicated for some.

I used to think that the New York Times was a paper of the US American elite. Is that how their minds work? I would have thought that we should all now praise the American museums, like the Getty, the Met, Dallas Museum and others that have seen the light and are now willing to examine their past acquisitions and where necessary, return wrongfully acquired artefacts to the owners. Eakin seems to think the museums have returned too many objects and have been weak in resisting foreign pressures.

Does Eakin not read regularly the New York Times and other American papers and blogs? He would have been aware that the US Museums have not simply returned artefacts on request but have resisted for years. He would also have realized that there are thousands of objects in US museums that are still subject to dispute. What leadership does Eakin and his paper hope to provide?
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this very informative post. Every art enthusiasts and museum visitors show know about these facts.

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