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Potts Shots: Larry Rothfield’s Incisive Analysis of my Q&A with Getty Museum’s Incoming Director (plus my thoughts)

Prof. Larry Rothfield, University of Chicago

Having ignited enough controversy by allowing Timothy Potts, through his own words, to roil the repatriationists, I decided to wait for someone else to hammer home the significance of the incoming Getty Museum director’s surprising comments.

Enter Larry Rothfield. As an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago, Larry is well accustomed to explicating subtexts. On his Punching Bag blog (dedicated to cultural-property issues), the former director of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center called my conversation with Potts “disturbingly revealing” and observed that the incoming Getty director’s “extraordinarily impolitic attitude” is “likely to enrage governments and ministers struggling to stem the tide of looting in the midst of massive cuts in their budgets. The Italians and Greeks, certainly, are hardly ignorant about their country’s archaeological heritage. What they need is not education but material support for more and better monitoring, site police, and the like.”

I agree with most of wroth Rothfield’s comments, with two exceptions: There is as yet no reason to presuppose that Potts, in his new position, won’t try to spearhead material and advisory support for the protection of archaeological sites. And given how Getty president James Cuno incompletely described the Getty’s antiquities-collecting policy during our recent discussion on public radio station KCRW, it’s quite possible that Potts believed that he had indeed “familiarize[d] himself with the details of the Getty’s acquisitions policy” and that he had received the misleading impression that anything out of the source country before November 1970 was fair game for possible acquisition.

Here’s how Cuno described the Getty’s antiquities policy during our radio chat with Warren Olney, host of Which Way, L.A.:

The Getty has an acquisitions policy that is very clear on the matter and we will not acquire anything that we cannot prove to have been out of the country—alleged country—of origin before 1970. Case closed and questions answered in that regard…”

…or maybe not. Here’s an excerpt from the Getty’s written policy, which goes far beyond the 1970 “bright-line” date:

No object will be acquired that, to the knowledge of the museum, has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties and international conventions of which the United States is a signatory, illegally exported from its country of origin or the country where it was last legally owned, or illegally imported into the United States.

Cuno stated in our discussion that this provision “goes without remark” because “you never acquire something that you believe was exported illegally, at whatever date and time it might have been exported. You always seek to adhere to all relevant and international laws, and that has to do with export licenses, as well as acquisitions. So it seems to me that it went unsaid because it was such a clear and obvious matter.”

The “obviousness” of this matter evidently eluded past Getty acquirers, who must have known full well, or at least strongly suspected, that certain important objects in their collection lacked export licenses—most notably the still contested Getty Bronze, clandestinely spirited out of Italy. Museum founder J. Paul Getty himself is said to have declined to acquire that statue of a nude athlete because of its murky past. (It was purchased by the museum after his death.)

Under the previous directorship of Michael Brand, the Getty worked hard to improve relations with source countries and the archaeological community. Any change in the Getty’s approach and guidelines for antiquity collecting should be characterized by deliberation and transparency, not by a selective deemphasis of some of its stringent strictures.

It was Cuno’s responsibility to make sure, in advance of the appointment, that Potts had full knowledge of and concurred with the Getty’s policy in its entirety, especially since this has been such a hot-button issue for the Getty. After I e-mailed the policy to Potts, following our phone conversation, he told me that “the Getty policy is very close to the UK government regime under which I have been working at the Fitzwilliam [Museum, Cambridge, where he is currently director]. So no surprises or change for me in this.”

It could be that the Getty’s written policy merits another look and, perhaps, some revision. I agree with Rothfield, Cuno and Potts that museums, source countries and the archaeological community need to grapple with the problem of “orphan objects”—antiquities that are in our midst, however they got here, but that lack a fully documented post-1970 provenance. These objects—some of them important—shouldn’t be permanently banished from display and declared off-limits for scholarship, as some archaeologists seem to believe should happen. But there also need to be vigorous enforcement efforts to render such objects unmarketable, thereby diminishing the incentive for looting.

As Potts says about the orphan object, there needs to be some way of “trying to preserve it and study it and have it published, so that you can contribute something to the world of understanding.” A step in that direction might be for museums, government entities or a yet-to-be-created international repository to hold orphan objects in trust for their undetermined “rightful owners” (possibly source countries), while allowing museums to show them and scholars to study them.

Museums that are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors have made a tentative, limited attempt to address this problem through an online registry of antiquities lacking complete post-November 1970 provenance that have been acquired by a museum since June 4, 2008 (the date when AAMD’s registry was established). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, has listed some 170 objects on that registry, by far the biggest group among the 11 institutions that have thus far posted.

This is a small start. There has been a deescalation of hostilities between American museums and source countries. Now a more detailed peace treaty needs to be carefully crafted.

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