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Mona Lisa and Other Extreme Claims: When Do Cultural-Property Demands Go Too Far?

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa,” 1503-06, the Louvre

By making a wacky claim for Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Mona Lisa” to be “returned” to the Uffizi in Florence, Italy’s National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage and the Province of Florence may have done a favor for museum officials who argue for the retention in their institutions of many of the artistic treasures that repatriationists want returned to countries of origin. The “Gioconda” joke is the most extreme of a number of recent claims that attempt to reach beyond the limits of the generally accepted UNESCO Convention‘s guidelines for the return of cultural-property.

Regarding the Mona boner, the Italian news agency ANSA reports:

A campaign launched by the National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage together with the Province of Florence has garnered 150,000 signatories petitioning for the return of the painting in 2013.

The return would be of “high historical value, both symbolic and moral,” Committee President Silvano Vincenti said. “The committee has officially
submitted a request for a meeting with the new French minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti. I am convinced that, thanks to the minister’s Italian origins, she will not only respond positively to our request, she will understand its motives,” said Vincenti…

…or maybe not. Michael Day of London’s Daily Mail reports:

The Louvre museum itself has already snubbed the committee. And Florence’s claims on the Renaissance masterpiece, known by Italians as “La Gioconda,” might not be that straightforward. [Click the above link to see why not.]

The claim throws into comic relief other more serious recent attempts by source countries to extend their repatriation claims to objects that left their borders years, decades or even (in the latest case) centuries before the 1970 cutoff date agreed to by signatories of the UNESCO Convention.

One of these timeframe-stretchers is Turkey, which recently pressed claims against the Metropolitan Museum for objects that were demonstrably out of the country pre-1970:

Thumbnail image for MetRhyton.jpg

Claimed by Turkey: Silver rhyton (drinking vessel) of a stag, c. 14th-13th century B.C., Central Anatolia, Hittite; In the collection of Norbert Schimmel since 1964; gift to the Metropolitan Museum from Norbert Schimmel Trust in 1989

Turkey has now reportedly teamed up [via] with Greece and Bulgaria, “to cooperate in bids to facilitate the return of stolen artifacts.”

Giving Turkey’s claims some traction is an agreement announced last week by the repatriation-friendly University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which will make an “indefinite-term loan” (but not a transfer of ownership) to Turkey of 24 “Troy Gold” jewelry pieces that Penn had purchased in 1966 from a now defunct Philadelphia gallery:

Earrings, Northeast Aegean, c. 2400 BC, on long-term loan from the Penn Museum to the Republic of Turkey

“The expectation is that the gold will eventually be displayed in a new museum that is planned for the archaeological site of Troy,” according to the Penn Museum’s announcement, which includes details about a recent study of the Troy Gold (including soil analysis) that led to the agreement. (You can see images of the 24 objects, here.)

I’ve asked the Met for both an update on the current status of its Turkish contretemps and an elucidation of its stance regarding claims for objects that clearly have well established pre-1970 ownership histories. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

Two upcoming cultural-property conferences—one, Sept. 28-29 at the Penn Museum; the other, Oct. 29 at DePaul University—may help to clarify (or further complicate) the field’s thinking about whether and under what circumstances museums should consider repatriating objects that may fall outside UNESCO’s bright lines.

DePaul’s panel on “Historical Appropriations: When 1970 Is Not Enough” specifically focuses on this issue. Here’s its description:

Even as museums and market participants accept that they should not acquire antiquities that are not provenanced before 1970, countries of origin have increasingly sought to recover antiquities and other cultural artifacts that were taken in the nineteenth and earlier parts of the twentieth century. Case studies will be presented to explore the legal and moral aspects of these calls for repatriations.

I invite readers’ concise BlogBacks on this thorny question.

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