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Turkey’s Repatriation Claims: Met’s Schimmel Benefactions Targeted (plus AAMD database)

Silver rhyton (drinking vessel) of a stag, c. 14th-13th century B.C., Central Anatolia, Hittite, Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989

I’ve always wondered whether the repatriationists would eventually get around to scrutinizing the objects donated to the Metropolitan Museum by the late Norbert Schimmel, a collector widely respected for his connoisseurship and public spiritedness, and a great patron of the Met.

Now Jason Felch‘s and Ralph Frammolino‘s Chasing Aphrodite blog reveals that Schimmel’s collection was the source of objects that Turkey reportedly has asked the Met to relinquish. As Martin Bailey wrote earlier this month in The Art Newspaper, Turkey is withholding loans to the Met, British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. in connection with its demand for the return of pieces in those institutions’ collections. Felch and Frammolino say they will soon disclose the names of other American museums on Turkey’s hit list.

Felcholino assert that “most of the objects [being sought by Turkey] have no documented ownership history other than being in the Schimmel Collection by the mid 1960s or 1970s.” That characterization fits the silver rhyton above, for which the Met has reported the following provenance:

From 1964, collection of Norbert Schimmel; from 1970, on loan to the museum by Norbert Schimmel (L.1970.73.3, L.1973.48, L.1983.119.1);
acquired by the museum in 1989, gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust

Let’s look at what this means: The object was out of the source country by at least 1964, if not earlier. The UNESCO Convention that regulates the import and export of cultural property says that institutions should not acquire objects that cannot be shown to have left the country of origin before November 1970. Unless there are other reasons to regard it as stolen, the silver stag easily meets UNESCO’s criterion for acceptable acquisitions.

That said, there’s no question that Schimmel himself felt a bit queasy about his acquisitive urges. In 1979, I interviewed him for my Knopf-published book on collecting art. As we chatted in his object-filled apartment, just a stone’s throw from the Met, he spoke to me with unguarded candor about his collecting activities. To understand his lack of caution, you need to remember that these were the days before the United States became a signatory (in 1983) to the UNESCO Convention.

As previously published here on CultureGrrl, this is a passage from my Complete Guide to Collecting Art regarding Schimmel:

Norbert Schimmel says that he now generally does not buy objects that
were once attached to buildings. Gesturing towards paintings displayed
in his Manhattan apartment that had been hacked out of an Egyptian tomb,
he said he was now “ashamed I bought these.”

He added that he does not
like to buy objects that left their countries of origin after the
effective dates of laws banning their export, “but when I see a nice
object, I believe it left before. Sometimes I ask. In Europe, everybody
buys and they don’t ask any questions.” Schimmel noted that even if you
ask questions, you are unlikely to get illuminating answers. “Dealers
never tell you exactly where something was found. They say, ‘Anatolia,’
and then they tell you all their stories.”

Felcholino also noted the role that Oscar White Muscarella had played in cataloguing Schimmel’s gifts to the Met. I alluded to this in another post, where I described my 2007 cultural-property talk to archaeologist Richard Leventhal‘s class at the University of Pennsylvania. During my talk, I held up a copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin from Spring 1992, which published the works of ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman art given to the museum by Schimmel and noted this:

Many of the entries for objects in the Met’s bulletin were written by Oscar White Muscarella,
the museum’s senior research fellow, who was close to Schimmel and went
on to become a thorn in the side of the museum by unrelentingly
criticizing its antiquities policies and practices.

(After I said that, I was embarrassed to learn from Leventhal that Muscarella’s wife just happened to be one of the students in that class.) Felcholino are now seeking Muscarella’s reaction to Turkey’s demand for the Schimmel pieces.

Chasing Aphrodite has published an illustrated list of 19 items claimed by Turkey from the Met. But these acquisitions should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. The public shaming of possessors of objects that may, upon investigation, turn out to meet generally accepted standards for acquisition is one of my concerns about Felcholino’s WikiLoot plan. They propose to “create an open source web platform…for the publication and
analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs
documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities.”

I think that making judgments about possible “loot” requires informed, careful analysis by experts and (if necessary) by law enforcement agencies. An “open source platform” is likely to attract a fair amount of intemperate discourse and unsupported allegations that could prove harmful and counterproductive. I think that deputizing the general public to ferret out “loot” at their local museums is a problematic enterprise.

Speaking of antiquities lists, one of the first things that Max Anderson did when he hit the ground in his new gig as director of the Dallas Museum was to add 17 objects to the Association of Art Museum Directors’ registry of works acquired since June 4, 2008 that have uncertain post-1970 provenances. (Actually, three of the works were acquired in the 1990s.)

What’s surprising is that those objects weren’t posted before, since the AAMD requires such postings of their members. (See “F” under the AAMD’s guidelines.) One wonders how many other museums have ignored this posting requirement.

In response to my query, Max told me this morning that a Deaccession Database (such as the one that he instituted as director of the Indianapolis Museum) is also in the works for Dallas.

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