Two Kneeling Attendants, Angkor period, c. 921-45, Cambodia, Metropolitan Museum
Before launching into his usual twice-yearly rundown for the scribe tribe of upcoming exhibitions, director Tom Campbell yesterday delivered a cri de coeur to assembled journalists, imploring us not to rush to judgment against American institutions over every claim by foreign governments for objects in museum collections.
His plea came in response to Saturday’s front-page article in the NY Times, Cambodia Says It Seeks Return of Met Statues.
Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal wrote:
The Cambodian government is convinced that two life-size 10th-century
statues [pictured above] that have anchored the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Southeast
Asian galleries for nearly two decades were looted from a jungle temple
and plans to ask for their return [emphasis added].
The operative words are “plans to”: No formal claim against the Met has yet been lodged, Campbell said. Taking a page from Italy’s repatriation playbook, Cambodia seems to be trying to use journalists as vehicles to influence public opinion, prior to dealing directly with the institution that is the target of its claim.
That gambit impelled Campbell to address the media directly yesterday on the issue of repatriation claims. Here’s what he told us:
What I want to clarify is that no formal claim has come to us from Cambodia, so we can’t comment on this issue beyond what the Times story published.
But I would like to emphasize the efforts that the museum has made since acquiring those objects, to ensure that they were properly assembled, publicly displayed, published, researched and posted on our website, which now has some 45 million visitors a year. So we are doing our bit in terms of our mission to promote the understanding of works of art.
We welcome any additional information about the provenance of these or any other contested objects and I think it’s inevitable that as a result of the mandate I gave our staff a year and a half ago to get all our collections online, we are going to see a number of cases like this coming forward. In the spirit of our new collecting guidelines [my link] which we adopted just as I took over from Philippe [de Montebello] in late 2008, we are fully committed to dealing with such claims with transparency [emphasis added].
What I would say to you as the press is that’s our commitment. Please just recognize that the circumstances surrounding the way in which objects arrived at the museum over the decades vary on a case-by-case basis. There has been a tendency sometimes to see things in very black-and-white terms and I think it’s so important in this era, when museums are moving into embracing a whole new approach to acquisition, particularly of antiquities, [that] we also look to the press to be sensitive to the complexity of the situation.
I agree with Campbell that the media, always (like me) on the alert for institutional missteps, should be cautious in assessing the legitimacy of foreign claims. That said, museums, including the Met, should make good on Campbell’s pledge of transparency.
That’s something that the Met itself could improve on: The source country-friendly Chasing Aphrodite blog, authored by investigative journalists Ralph Frammolino and the LA Times‘ Jason Felch, recently reported that the Met had stonewalled its requests for a complete list of objects that Turkey has recently requested from the museum.
Whatever the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of source countries’ claims, such lists of claimed objects should be public information, along with the complete known provenance of antiquities in museum collections—particularly those that are involved in ownership controversies. With some exceptions, American museums generally now do abide by the 1970 UNESCO Convention’s guidelines stipulating that museums should not acquire antiquities lacking known ownership histories going back to at least November 1970.
That said, several museums (including the Met) are taking advantage of the loophole provided by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which allows them to acquire objects having incomplete post-1970 provenances, so long as those objects are identified on the AAMD’s Objects Registry website for antiquities.
As for the two Khmer statues claimed by Cambodia, Mashberg and Blumenthal say that experts regard them as companion pieces to the Athlete that is also being sought by Cambodia and was recently withdrawn from auction at Sotheby’s due to that ownership controversy. All three were said to have been originally situated “a few yards” from each other at the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker.
The earliest owner posted on the Met’s website for the two Khmer statues is “Douglas Latchford, London (until 1989).” The Met acquired parts of the sculptures in 1987, 1989 and 1992.
As Campbell was exiting from yesterday’s press lunch, he was accosted by Maxwell Hearn, the head of the Met’s Asian art department, who thanked him for his comments on the Cambodian situation, because “this needs to be said.” Whether this will have any effect on subsequent coverage remains to be seen.
CLARIFICATION: I should have consulted my notes, rather than my midnight memory, for Hearn’s comment to Campbell at the end of the press lunch. What he actually said was more eloquent:
Thanks for the very sensitive way you handled the Cambodia thing. It’s very important to have someone say that.