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Lewis Stew: Carlos Museum’s Belated, Inadequate Disclosure of 19 Gifts from Indicted Collector

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta

Of the three American museums that were said to have received loans and gifts of Egyptian antiquities from collector Joseph Lewis II (who was recently indicted for allegedly “conspiring to smuggle Egyptian antiquities into the United States and conspiring to launder money in furtherance of smuggling”), only one—-the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University—failed to respond promptly to my queries about Lewis-connected objects in its galleries.

On Friday I received this very belated press statement (responding to my several e-mails and a phone call, dating back to July 15) from Bonnie Speed, director of the Carlos:

The Michael C. Carlos Museum has 19 objects in its permanent collection [emphasis added] that were donated by Joseph A. Lewis. To the best of our knowledge, none of the objects donated to the MCCM by Lewis were purchased from the dealers currently under investigation [who were named in the indictment—my link, not hers]. The majority of these objects are on view in our Egyptian galleries, contributing to the Museum’s educational mission of sharing and interpreting the art, history, and culture of ancient Egypt.

As CultureGrrl readers will remember, the Lewis objects at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were loans, not permanent-collection acquisitions. When asked, both provided information about those Lewis-owned pieces, although Boston, unlike Virginia, did not provide a photo or provenance.

It now turns out that the museum that took longest to respond to my queries (and then only vaguely, after repeated requests) may have the biggest Lewis-related problem: It acquired, rather than borrowed, the 19 works.

The Carlos’ Egyptian art curator, Peter Lacovara, had orchestrated, almost eight years ago, the widely publicized return to Egypt of a mummy believed to be Ramesses I, which had entered the Carlos’ permanent collection as part of an acquisition of a large collection of ancient Egyptian material from the Niagara Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, Niagara Falls, Canada. (Here’s Lacovara’s own account of this repatriation.)

Peter Lacovara, senior curator, Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art, Carlos Museum

Given the serious accusations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District, regarding Lewis’ alleged collecting practices, Speed’s belated statement was far from satisfying. I immediately shot off another e-mail, requesting important information that was lacking in her intial response:

—Can you please send me a complete list of the 19 objects, with
provenance (including year of donation) and images (if not all the
images, perhaps five of the most important objects)?

—Have you done any further investigation of the objects’ history since the announcement of the Lewis indictment? If not, do you intend to do so?

—How many objects are on view in the Egyptian galleries and where are the others (i.e., other galleries, storage)?

—Have federal or foreign government officials contacted you with
questions or concerns about any of the 19 objects?

Priyanka Sinha, the museum’s spokesperson, replied promptly:

The information in the statement I sent is the only information we are releasing at this time.

Doing considerable damage to the index finger of my right hand, I pounded the reply button:

A refusal to release further details seems to me to be contrary to the principle of museums’ transparency about the works held in their collections—a principle that was honored by both the BMFA and VMFA, in answering my queries. [Actually,  Boston’s and Virginia’s loaned pieces were in their galleries, but not “in their collections.”]

Please tell me the reason why you decline to release any further information.

If I hear back from the Carlos, you’ll be the first to know.

In the meantime, let’s review what the Association of Art Museum Directors (of which the Carlos is a member), says about collection-related transparency (p. 7 of Professional Practices in Art Museums):

The collection exists for the benefit of present and future generations. It should be made as accessible as is prudent for the protection of each object. Every effort should be made to provide information about the collection, document it visually, and respond appropriately to serious inquiries [emphasis added].

Trust me, art-lings. Mine was a “serious inquiry” and the Carlos did not respond “appropriately.”

But let’s not just rely on AAMD’s pronouncements. Let’s also take a look at the Carlos’ own Collecting Guidelines:

Many factors contribute to a work’s suitability for acquisition, including artistic quality, intellectual appeal, historical importance, attributes which foster understanding of a particular culture or artistic movement, and, above all, a credible provenance, or history of ownership [emphasis added]….

The museum will not knowingly acquire any object which has been illegally exported from its country of origin or illegally imported into the United States. Any object surrounded by the suggestion of being illegitimate will not be acquired.

In other words, too much was left unsaid when the Carlos’ director, Bonnie Speed, averred that “to the best of our knowledge, none of the objects donated to the MCCM by Lewis were purchased from the dealers currently under investigation [emphasis added].” That’s a far cry from a “credible provenance, or history of ownership”—the museum’s own collecting standard.

It could be that the Carlos did its due diligence in examining the provenance of the 19 objects that it acquired from Lewis, and that they’re all squeaky clean. If so (and, especially, if not so), the museum should fully disclose their ownership histories, including the year(s) the pieces were acquired from Lewis.

If the objects were acquired by the Carlos after June 4, 2008 and lacked a “credible provenance” dating back to November 1970, AAMD’s guidelines require that they be posted to the online registry that the association has established for such objects.

At this writing, the Carlos is not among the seven institutions whose acquisitions appear on that website.

As a CultureGrrl aside—I had time to post this from home because my scheduled flight to Canada today was hit by one of those infamous (very belatedly announced) Newark Airport cancellations. I’ll be taking off tonight (maybe) for my work-ation, hitting the hotel bed around midnight, if all goes according to (revised) plan. I may or may not post this week, but if I do, I won’t be e-mailing links to CultureGrrl Donors until my return.

This gives me more time to peruse the catalogue for one of the exhibitions that I’m hoping to see…if only I can get there!

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