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News Flash: AAMD Tightens Guidelines for Acquiring Antiquities

Dan Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum and chairman of AAMD’s subcommittee on antiquities acquisition

The Association of Art Museum Directors has just taken a giant, astonishingly progressive step forward in the deescalation of the antiquities wars, with its just issued Report on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art. This is NOT the usual wishy-washy, weak-willed AAMD whitewash that typically made tentative suggestions but basically left members free to do as they pleased. There has been a dramatic seachange here.

The new report:
—significantly tightens the guidelines for acquiring antiquities
—gives AAMD a startlingly proactive role in insuring transparency of antiquities acquisitions
—strongly recommends that source countries do their part by permitting the legal sale and export of some archaeological material.

Here’s the biggest change from previous AAMD policy:

Member museums normally should not acquire a work unless provenance research substantiates that the work was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. The museum should promptly publish acquisitions of archaeological materials and ancient art, in print or electronic form, including in these publications an image of the work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance, thus making this information readily available to all interested parties….

The museum MUST [emphasis added] prominently post on the AAMD website, to be established, an image and the information about the work…and all facts relevant to the decision to acquire it, including its known provenance.

AAMD’s former guidelines had recommended that works with “incomplete provenance” not be acquired unless they had been out of the country of origin for “a period of 10 years.” But, in typical AAMD fashion, the organization stated that “each member museum should determine its own policy as to length of time and appropriate documentation.”

As I had previously observed, this rolling 10-year rule improperly institutionalized the
time-honored practice of thieves who let hot merchandise cool off for a
decent interval before marketing it. Nevertheless, that rule has been the stated policy of the Metropolitan Museum, whose director, Philippe de Montebello, passionately argued that “orphaned objects”—those with incomplete provenance—should not be forever off-limits to American museums. It will be interesting to see whether the Met changes its policy to conform to the new guidelines, as the report urges of all AAMD members.

Here’s how the new guidelines deal with the “orphan” problem:

The AAMD recognizes that even after the most extensive research, many works will lack a complete documented ownership history. In some instances, an informed judgment can indicate that the work was outside its probable country of modern discovery before 1970 or legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970, and therefore can be acquired.

In other instances, the cumulative facts and circumstances resulting from provenance research, including, but not limited to, the independent exhibition and publication of the work, the length of time it has been on public display and its recent ownership history, allow a museum to make an informed judgment to acquire the work, consistent with the Statement of Principles above.

That last part could use a bit more fleshing out. But overall, this is a brilliantly conceived effort to achieve what I previously called for in the same post (linked above) where I criticized the 10-year rolling rule: “The most important next step in achieving a ceasefire in the cultural-property wars,” I wrote, “is to move beyond the current case-by-case chaos to a more reasoned, consistent handling of these issues.”

Credit must go to the “more than 20 art museum directors” who developed the report under the chairmanship of Dan Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, as well as to the outgoing president of AAMD, Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum. Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, has just become AAMD’s new president, and is, along with Monroe, the designated point person for journalists’ queries on the new guidelines. I’d be surprised if Conforti didn’t have a strong role in these praiseworthy developments.

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