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

Malcolm Rogers, director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, signing a 2006 accord to relinquish to Italy 13 antiquities from his museum’s collection

(Part I, where I call on the Association of Art Museum Directors to establish guidelines for repatriating certain antiquities, is here.)

American museums cannot be expected to empty themselves of all antiquities with uncertain pasts. Even the most fervent source-country advocates would acknowledge that. For most objects already residing in permanent collections, I recommended (in my above-linked previous “Ceasefire” post) a “cutoff date” for repatriations that would grant repose to objects with documented histories of ownership going back to Apr. 12, 1983, the date when the U.S. passed the
implementing legislation that made this country party to the UNESCO Convention. (David Gill of the Looting Matters blog favors 1970, the year when the UNESCO Convention was first promulgated.)

As I also stated, repatriation of works with known
provenance going back before 1983 should also occasionally be considered,
particularly when museum officials clearly had reason to believe at the time of
acquisition that the objects may have left their country of origin illegally, or when there is compelling, specific evidence that the objects were looted and/or illegally exported from a particular country.

Drawing upon the best elements of the various recent
antiquities repatriation accords between American institutions and source countries, here are some specific provisions that I believe should be incorporated in guidelines for future
repatriation agreements:

online list of all the objects to be relinquished, including images and any
known provenance.

—A chance
to say good-bye. So that interested visitors can get one last look, American
museums should announce when the objects will be leaving and should place them
on public display.

disclosure of why the museum has deemed it appropriate to relinquish the
objects. These works had become part of our own public patrimony. We are owed an explanation as to why they are now being permanently sent away. In other words, what evidence indicates that they were illegally exported
and/or wrongfully acquired?

for future cultural cooperation between American institutions and source countries, possibly including reciprocal loans, joint
archaeological excavations, educational programs, exhibitions, conservation and
research. This is the win-win part of many recent agreements.

—A chance for American institutions to retain possession of
some contested objects. The ownership might need to change; the venue might
not. Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri, at the recent UNESCO-sponsored cultural
property conference
in Athens where we were both invited speakers, told
that Italy already has an abundance of objects comparable to those that it
insists, on moral and legal grounds, must be returned: “We don’t need the
objects we have repatriated.” Exactly.

My final
suggestion is the one that would be hardest to put in place, both logistically
and philosophically: Just as they already post World War II-era ownership
histories of works in their collections that may have been Nazi loot, museums
should consider establishing online databases of antiquities in their collections with
problematic post-1983 provenances, to allow legitimate claimants to come
forward. The recently established AAMD Object Registry (which still contains no listings at this writing—click “Browse All”) is only for NEW acquisitions of antiquities lacking complete provenance after November 1970 (not for works in the museums’ EXISTING collections). The thorniest issue, which may not be easily addressed by simple guidelines, is what criteria should be used in determining which
claims to grant and which to deny.

The resolution of these issues
will be more easily accomplished if the sea-change in acquisitive attitudes represented by
AAMD’s new acquisition guidelines creates a new climate of international cooperation rather
than confrontation. American concessions should be matched by a loosening of
source countries’ retentionist policies, which make it illegal for any
antiquities found within their borders to be sold and which set strict limits
on how long their ancient artifacts can be loaned.

A well regulated licit
market in professionally excavated antiquities, along with liberalized loan policies,
could go a long way towards rendering obsolete the illicit trade in looted

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