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My Ceasefire Proposals for the Cultural-Property Wars–Part II

(Part I is here.)
The most important next step in achieving a ceasefire in the cultural-property wars is to move beyond the current case-by-case chaos to a more reasoned, consistent handling of these issues. The most obvious need is for some sort of consensus about a cutoff date for future acquisitions: Should museums not acquire any objects that don’t have a known provenance going back for at least 10 years (the policy of the Met and the Association of Art Museum Directors)? Should the known provenance have to go back to before the 1970 date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property? Or should the date be in 1983, the year when the U.S. officially became a party to the UNESCO Convention?
My feeling is that the AAMD/Met 10-year rolling rule improperly institutionalizes the time-honored practice of thieves who let hot merchandise cool off for a decent interval before marketing it. I favor moving the cutoff to 1983, the year when all museums were on unequivocal notice that this country adheres to the UNESCO Convention. Works with no clear provenance before that year could still be acquired if they were legally exported from the source countries, or if the source countries were contacted in advance for their consent.
I particularly like the language of the Getty’s acquisition policy, which indicates that it’s not enough that an object merely has a known provenance predating the cutoff year. The Getty’s policy states:
For the acquisition of any ancient work of art or archaeological material, the revised policy requires:
* Documentation or substantial evidence that an item was in the United States by November 17, 1970 and that there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin
[emphasis added] OR
* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was out of its country of origin before November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States, OR
* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was legally exported from its country of origin after November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States.

As the first provision indicates, good faith counts. And it seems to me that this is the best argument for returning the Getty Bronze: There was plenty of “reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin,” and plenty of people DID suspect it, at the time of the acquisition.
Near the end of my talks last week at the University of Pennsylvania, I tentatively proffered two controversial ideas that I think should at least be considered in thinking about a long-term resolution of the problems of looting and smuggling. At Penn, I was embedded deep in the archaeologists’ camp, so I knew I was recklessly preaching to the unconverted.
COMING SOON: The case for a licit market and “citizen archaeologists.”

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