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Rethinking Antiquities

I promised in a previous post to say more about Philippe de Montebello‘s “brilliantly persuasive presentation” at the Association of Art Museum Directors’ recent symposium on antiquities collecting. I had asserted in a Feb. 28 Wall Street Journal piece that “the Met should rethink its stated willingness to continue buying antiquities of uncertain provenance.” Here’s part of what the Metropolitan Museum’s director said that made me rethink my position:

Frankly, the refusal to acquire an important antiquity, merely because it cannot be traced beyond, say, an auction in mid-1970, benefits no one. It will remain unknown, unpublished, inaccessible, and most likely driven underground, but not, I’m afraid, through a stroke of providence, to the place from which it came.

So to those who say, “Do not buy an unprovenanced object, no matter how unique, brilliantly conceived, and masterfully crafted,” I would ask, as I have done repeatedly, “And what do you propose should be done with that object?” Of course, it is to be deplored that works of ancient art are removed clandestinely from their sites. Much knowledge is lost as a result. But we should not compound that loss by helping the work of art disappear. That would be a violation of our raison d’être and an incalculable loss for scholars, the public, and history itself.

Nevertheless, I was astonished that PdM brought up the case of the Lydian Hoard (called by him the “Lydian Treasure”), surely one of the most problematic cases of a museum’s stonewalling for years in the face of strong evidence. The Met only loosened its grip on the Anatolian precious-metal objects on the brink of a trial that was to decide whether they should be returned to Turkey.

In his May 4 speech, PdM conceded that the 6th-century B.C. hoard “turned out to have been illegally excavated from a site in or near Ushak, in the 1960s.” He went on to suggest, though, that repatriating these pieces had not been such a great idea:

Now, because one piece has reportedly been recently stolen from the Ushak Museum, press attention has focused on the installation there. In an Apr. 20 article in the Turkish press, the chief officer of the Ushak Culture and Tourism Department stated, and I quote: “In the past 5 years 769 people visited the museum,” in total. No further comment is required.

Actually, further comment is required: The issue is not how many people will see an object; if something was stolen, it should be returned.

One thing’s for certain: This symposium did nothing to establish common ground between museum directors and archeologists, an objective set forth in introductory remarks by AAMD president Mary Sue Sweeney Price, director of the Newark Museum.
“We cannot run the risk of being unpardonably contentious, even fratricidal,” Sweeney Price asserted.

Nice thought.

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