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AAMD’s “Strengthened” Antiquities-Collecting Guidelines Boost the Loopholes

Philippe de Montebello, articulator of the "orphan object" problem

Defender of the “orphan object”: Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello (at his current public television gig)

My enthusiastic response to the Association of Art Museum Directors’ announcement that it had voted to “strengthen” its 2008 antiquities-collecting guidelines was premature.

Having now read and analyzed the full document, comparing it closely with the 2008 guidelines, it seems to me that the primary change in AAMD’s eight-page Revisions to the 2008 Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art involves the delineation of loopholes that could be used to justify a member museum’s decision to acquire pieces despite their problematic pasts.

One very positive change, though, is a new amendment to AAMD’s Code of Ethics (p. 17 in Professional Practices in Art Museums), requiring museum directors to adhere to the association’s directive to post all acquisitions after June 4, 2008 of antiquities with sketchy post-November 1970 provenances. Failure to adhere to provisions in the Code of Ethics subjects a museum director to “reprimand, suspension or expulsion” from AAMD. This gives real teeth to the requirement that was previously in the guidelines but not in the ethics code.

As I discussed here, some AAMD members have failed to observe the association’s requirement to post on its Object Registry “all facts relevant to the decision” to deviate from the 1970 rule; others have failed to post their sketchily provenanced objects at all. Now this requirement has teeth, if and when AAMD decides to use them.

I asked how long non-compliers would be given to get up to speed, and was told this by an AAMD spokesperson:

There is no specific timeline. Museums are encouraged to post their information as quickly as possible once the site is relaunched [date undetermined]. AAMD recognizes that for an institution with multiple works that may need to be (re)posted, this may take time.

While duplicating the old guidelines in most respects, the revised document does have one notable change (contained in Section III F, pp. 6-7). It’s an expanded list of possible justifications (or excuses) for skirting the generally accepted UNESCO guidelines that prohibit the acquisition of antiquities that cannot be proven either to have left their countries of origin before Nov. 14, 1970 or to have been legally exported from the countries of origins after that date

The new rules add several new factors to be considered in weighing whether to acquire an object that doesn’t meet the 1970 rule. Nothing here obviates acquisition. The guidelines merely suggest that these considerations are among those relevant to making “an informed judgment to acquire the work.”

All of these factors, except “c,” are new or expanded from the 2008 guidelines. My own comments about them are in brackets. “Facts and circumstances” to be considered include:

a. The number, place and circumstances of independent exhibition(s) of the work [Does public exhibition in reputable museums or galleries remedy defects in provenance?]
b. The number, type and circulation of publication(s) of the work [Does publication by respected scholars remedy defects in provenance?]
c. The length of time and place of public display(s) of the work [Same question]
d. As to archaeological material, the provenance history of other works excavated from the same site or area [This, I suppose, is meant to suggest extra caution if the site of “excavation” is a known magnet for looters.]
e. The prior owner(s) of the work and any claims made against them with respect to other works [This seems to suggest that if a known antiquities trafficker handled the piece, extra caution is advisable.]
f. Communications regarding the work between the country of modern discovery and the current owner, a prior owner, or the museum. [If prior officials from a source country raised no objections, does that invalidate future claims by more heritage-conscious successors?]

The new guidelines also state that a museum may justifiably consider the acquisition of objects with sketchy post-1970 provenances that were promised to the institution (by gift or bequest) or were fractionally given to it before 2008.

Like me, in my own too-hasty reaction to AAMD’s self-congratulatory announcement, other journalists bought the association’s assertion that its collecting guidelines have been “strengthened.” It now seems to me that the loopholes have also been strengthened. Members now have a longer, more detailed list of suggested excuses for making questionable acquisitions.

In Randy Kennedy‘s NY Times report on the new guidelines, this last paragraph from yesterday’s online version was omitted from today’s print version (possibly for space reasons):

“What I want to see is the museums not acquiring these things in the first place,” said Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago. “It remains to be seen how they enforce that part.”

Gerstenblith, a pro-repatriation lawyer, is also chairman of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), which advises the the U.S. State Department on responses to requests from foreign governments for U.S. import restrictions on cultural property. The State Department has almost uniformly granted source-country requests, which AAMD representatives have frequently testified against for being overly broad.

Unconvinced: Patty Gerstenblith, chairman of U.S. State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee

Patty Gerstenblith, chairman of U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee

I am sympathetic to one of the arguments offered for museums’ acquisitions of objects with sketchy provenances—the “orphan object” problem. This consideration (which raises the hackles of many archaeologists) was perhaps most eloquently articulated in 2006 by the Metropolitan Museum’s then director, Philippe de Montebello, at a symposium on antiquities collecting organized by AAMD:

To those who say, ‘Do not buy an unprovenanced object, no matter how unique, brilliantly conceived, and masterfully crafted,’ I would ask, as I have done repeatedly, ‘And what do you propose should be done with that object?’

Of course, it is to be deplored that works of ancient art are removed clandestinely from their sites. Much knowledge is lost as a result. But we should not compound that loss by helping the work of art disappear. That would be a violation of our raison d’être and an incalculable loss for scholars, the public, and history itself.

As I have suggested here, a step in the right 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.

The trick would be to do this under auspices acceptable to both sides in the Cultural Property Wars—not an easy condition to meet.

In its two-page introduction to its revised guidelines, AAMD “encourage[s] its members to pursue voluntary standards for acquisitions that are stricter than the requirements of applicable law.” They should also consider following standards stricter than the requirements of AAMD’s revised guidelines.

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