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Towards a Ceasefire in the Antiquities Wars: The Next Step (Part I)

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Cult Statue of a Goddess, 425-400 B.C., to be returned to Italy in 2010 by J. Paul Getty Museum

Earlier this month, the Association of Art Museum Directors
took an important first step towards deescalating the protracted antiquities wars that
have roiled the Getty Museum, Metropolitan Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts,
among others. The association at long last promulgated
rigorous standards for acquiring ancient objects.

Institutions adopting these rules will, under most circumstances, acquire only objects known to have
been legally exported from their countries of origin, or objects with
known ownership histories that extend at least back to Nov. 17, 1970—the date
of the UNESCO Convention designed to curb illicit import and export of cultural
property.

That was the easy part.

Now AAMD needs
to tackle the hard part: What should its member museums do about all those objects they already own that wouldn’t have entered their collections had the new standard been applied at the time of their acquisition?

This is the issue
that has sparked the most acrimonious battles in the culture wars between American institutions and source countries. In recent years, our country’s leading museums and universities had, for
the most part, already become much more careful about not acquiring antiquities with
dicey ownership histories that suggested they might have been looted and/or
illegally exported.

But giving up already acquired objects is a far more complicated matter. The Getty,
Metropolitan, Boston MFA, Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University
have, in the last two and a half years, developed separate agreements to
relinquish objects that source countries claimed had improperly left their
borders. For the most part, the American institutions were initially resistant to crediting these claims, but eventually yielded to persuasion, pressure and the weight of evidence.

Like
decisions on future acquisitions, repatriations from existing collections should be governed
by coherent, consistent policies, designed to protect the interests of American
museums and their public, as well as to respond to legitimate and reasonable
claims by source countries. However, AAMD’s members, hoping that the first wave of repatriations may be the last, have shown no inclination to work on developing detailed guidelines for future givebacks.

I think it’s only a matter of time before other source countries follow Italy’s lead in asking for returns. And, as last week’s announcement by Italian Culture Minister Sandro Bondi indicates, Italy is also likely to keep up the pressure. AAMD’s members would do well to grapple with these issues proactively, through a unified approach, rather than reactively, on a case-by-case basis.

So what might repatriation guidelines look like?

For
starters, I believe that the ownership-history “cutoff date” for relinquishing
works already in permanent collections should be more lenient than the 1970
line that’s been drawn for future acquisitions. The relevant
date for repatriations should be Apr. 12, 1983, when the U.S. passed the
implementing legislation that made this country party to the UNESCO Convention.

That’s not
to say that our museums should purge themselves of all works lacking complete
post-1983 provenance. Far from it. But an agreed-upon dividing line is needed
to define which works should be potentially subject to compelling source-country
claims and which should be granted repose.

That said, repatriation of a work with known
provenance going back before 1983 should also occasionally be considered,
particularly when the museum clearly had reason to believe at the time of
acquisition that the object may have left its country of origin illegally. Good
faith counts. So does convincing evidence that an object was likely looted and/or stolen, such as the photographs from the warehouse of Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici of dirt-encrusted objects that eventually found their way into American museums.

COMING SOON: More Guidelines for Repatriation Agreements

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