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The “Times Change” Defense for Past Antiquities Transgressions

Reading Richard Lacayo‘s Q & A in his Looking Around blog with Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello gave me a traumatic flashback to the unexpected curve I was thrown at the very beginning of my talk two weeks ago to Richard Leventhal‘s class at the University of Pennsylvania.
In answering Lacayo’s question about whether the Met should “have gone about things differently when it made acquisitions in the past,” de Montebello declared:
Everybody lives according to the norms, the ethics and the behavioral patterns of their own day. Retrospective judgments aren’t very useful. There was a laissez-faire attitude then that there isn’t today. Times change.
I had decided to make a similar point at the beginning of my talk, by holding up a copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin from Spring 1992, which catalogued the works of ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman art given to the museum by Norbert Schimmel, a collector who was then widely respected for his connoisseurship and public spiritedness, despite the fact that his collecting philosophy (as described by me here) was not all that different from that of the controversial Shelby White, who knew Schimmel and regarded him as her role model.
I noted that many of the entries for objects in the Met’s bulletin were written by Oscar White Muscarella, the museum’s senior research fellow, who was close to Schimmel and went on to become a thorn in the side of the museum by unrelentingly criticizing its antiquities policies and practices.
At that point, Leventhal interrupted my introduction to inform me of the identity of one of the students (below), who was gazing at me from the back of the room:
Grace Freed Muscarella
I gulped twice, exchanged pleasantries and moved on to discussing today’s burning cultural-property conflicts and possible resolutions. Grace later informed me that her husband had, in fact, implored Schimmel to stop collecting, and that he had complied for a time but ultimately couldn’t kick the habit.
The problem with justifying past collecting on the grounds that “the ethics and the behavioral patterns” were previously different is that many old-time collectors, like Schimmel, knew full well that their activities were ethically dicey.
It’s just that, in the bad old days, they could mostly get away with it.

an ArtsJournal blog