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Museums Face Criticism Over Stolen Art

February 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: In Rome last week, an unusual accord was reached, some 2500 years in the making. The director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, one of the world’s great collections of art, agreed to return a trove of antiquities that Italian authorities say had been taken from the country illegally.

The Met’s Philippe de Montebello:

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO (Feb. 21): The good faith in the which both sides have entered into this agreement, an agreement that from our point of view corrects a number of improprieties and errors committed in the past, will pave the road to new legal and ethical norms for the future. It will encourage, we believe, further reciprocal action in every cultural and artistic sphere.

JEFFREY BROWN: The works included a six century B.C. painted vase called the Euphronius Krater considered one of the premier examples of its kind, A third century silver collection that authorities say had been smuggled illegally from an archeological site at Morgantina, Sicily, and several other earthenware vessels.

Italy’s Minister for Cultural Heritage Rocco Buttiglione:

ROCCO BUTTIGLIONE (Feb. 21): For Italy, this agreement means that these goods are again a constituative part of our historical national heritage, and they are in the full property of the Italian government, the Italian people and the Sicilian government and the Sicilian people at the same time.

JEFFREY BROWN: A century-old Italian law that was updated as recently as 2004 states that any ancient artifact from a dig belongs to the state and no antiquities excavated after that date can leave the nation’s borders except on loan.

In exchange for the Metropolitan’s cooperation, the Italian government agreed to provide the museum with long-term loans of other similarly important items. This case is just one of several now raising questions about the origins of many treasures from the past and the ethical standards of the museums and other who collect and display them.

A much-publicized trial continues in Rome involving Marion True, a former antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She’s been indicted for conspiracy to acquire looted works. She’s denied the charge.

The treasures at issue were acquired by the Getty between 1986 and the late 1990s.

In addition to the Met and the Getty, Italian authorities have said evidence in the case suggest that items in museums in Boston; Princeton; Richmond, Virginia; Minneapolis; Toledo; and Cleveland may also have been illegally taken.

And other countries are also becoming more aggressive in seeking their treasures. The government of Peru, for example, is in talks with Yale University about artifacts from the Andean site of Machu Picchu.

In the most famous dispute involving a museum and classical antiquities, the Greeks continue their quest to have the so-called Elgin marbles returned to their original home on the acropolis in Athens. Portions of the reliefs were stripped from the Parthenon by order of the British Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and they remain today at London’s British Museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: In response to all this, the Association of Art Museum Directors has just issued new guidelines on loans of antiquities.

Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is a member of the group that worked on the issue. We’re also joined from Chicago by Patty Girstenblith, director of the Cultural Heritage Law Department at the DePaul University.

And welcome to both of you.

Mr. Marzio, starting with you, what do you see as the significance of this very high-profile deal between Italy and the Metropolitan Museum?

PETER MARZIO: Well, I think it shows the good faith of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I think it also shows the tenacity and the hard work of the Italian government. And I think both sides wanted the right thing to be done and although I am not privy to the specifics, they obviously reached an accord that I think perhaps sets a model for any types of future activities regarding repatriation.

I think the thing to keep in mind, however, is that this is a specific case with a specific set of circumstances. And frankly, until I know a little bit more about the actual facts of the case, it would be very hard to generalize from this specific activity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Patty Gerstenblith, help us understand how do you see this in a larger context? How do things get out of the ground and at what point do they change hands from clearly an illegal situation to a place where they can be exhibited in a major museum?

PATTY GERSTENBLITH: Well, artifacts today are often looted out of archeological sites. They go through several hands from the looters themselves to middlemen who encourage them, pay them, sometimes keep them on retainer; and the artifacts are smuggled out of the country of origin, then perhaps sold through a market nation such as Switzerland or London, and very often they end up in the United States where a provenance or ownership history may be manufactured, or it may be held for many years, either in the United States or in another country.

But eventually, it often surfaces in what is to be considered to be the legitimate market with some kind of history, such as the property of a Swiss gentlemen or from an old English collection.

The Euphronius Krater that was mentioned in the introduction was sold to the Metropolitan, as I understand it, with the story that was it was in an old Lebanese collection and had been held there for several decades. Of course, today we know that story is not true. But this is one way in which artifacts that are looted, stolen and smuggled end up in what appear to be legitimate collections and part of the legitimate market.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Marzio, tell us how it works. What protections are in place? How much do you need to know before you accept something for your museum?

PETER MARZIO: Well, basically we’re following the guidelines of AAMD, the Association of Art Museum Directors, which were published in 2004. Those had to do with the acquisition of works of art; and we’re following basically the guidelines of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, with the key point being that we believe that we would not acquire a work of art that has not — that has been out of the country — it must be out of the country of origin for at least ten years. And that’s a rolling period, but, in fact, our own museum goes back much further in time.

We try to get the provenance back as far as we can get it. It takes an enormous amount of time and, in fact, we’ve even said sometimes you wind up spending more on the research for the provenance than you do on the object.

But the times right now call for a level of due diligence which I think frankly was there for most museums but it’s even intensified now and the whole legal aspects of it are looked at more closely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Gerstenblith, do you think the norms are there for most museums? What do you think needs to be done now?

PATTY GERSTENBLITH: Well, it’s difficult to tell what the norms are of many museums because they don’t often make their acquisitions policies public and therefore they’re not available to be scrutinized or to judge whether acquisitions followed these policies.

But would I like to comment on the AAMD guidelines that Mr. Marzio referred to. One problem with these guidelines is that they state that if a museum cannot determine whether the background of the object is legitimate and complies with law, but if the museum thinks that the object is significant enough, then the museum can go ahead with the acquisition.

And I find this to be very problematic because in cases where we don’t know the background of the object, there’s at least a high probability that the object is the result of recent site looting and by buying such objects, by displaying them, it may give the country of origin a chance to bring a claim but it doesn’t do anything to protect the archeological sites themselves.

And when sites are looted, we lose a tremendous amount of historical and cultural information about the past and it prevents us from being able to reconstruct and to understand fully the story of the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Marzio, if I understand right, your brand new guidelines regarding loans take the same approach. Respond to that. What is the argument for displaying these items?

PETER MARZIO: The main argument — and it’s something I believe very strongly — is that the worst thing that can happen is that these objects disappear — that they go into a private collection or a private market and never see the public light. The most important function of the art museum in my opinion is to put these objects of extraordinary beauty and value on view. Not only does it give the public a chance to see these extraordinary works, but it also gives scholars and researchers and potential claimants the opportunity to see what is there.

It is the transparency of the process that I find is its greatest strength and the argument that this policy does not take into effect the protection of sites, I’m not too sure that I understand that logic.

The objects have left the sites, they’ve been gone a long time, and if the argument is that because museums will show it so that they can be claimed, that this somehow is an encouragement for people to loot sites, I just don’t understand that logic whatsoever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Gerstenblith, go ahead.

PATTY GERSTENBLITH: When museums say, the object is brought to us, it’s already been looted out of the site, of course that’s correct. But we’re also concerned with the objects that are today in the site, and we want to keep them in the site. The best place for the object is in the site until it is properly excavated, at which point it can be put in a museum and properly appreciated by the public and studied by scholars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Marzio, finally, do you think that all of this debate is hurting the reputation of museums? And do you think that after the deal we saw last week, do you think that we’ll see more cooperation now or more of the same?

PETER MARZIO: I think museums have always been willing to cooperate and I think that there’s an assumption being made here that the objects that are being shown in museums are stolen from archeological sites. That’s assuming that people are guilty before proven innocent. And I think it’s backwards.

And we have to be very, very careful not to generalize from this case into museums in general because it just isn’t fair. I really believe that we owe it to the American cultural institutions, the press does, to ask those people making the claims, have you contacted those museums?

What have they said? What proof have they offered? And that hasn’t happened. And I think that the process has really gotten off center, and I think it’s time that at least be brought to center so there’s a balanced point of view.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Fair enough, Peter Marzio and Patty Gerstenblith, thank you both very much.

PETER MARZIO: Thank you.

PATTY GERSTENBLITH: Thank you.