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Antiquities Antics: Hugh Eakin’s Astonishing Anti-Repatriation Screed


Hugh Eakin

Hugh Eakin‘s distorted, often mistaken opinion piece, The Great Giveback, which finds fault with American museums’ willingness to return antiquities to their countries of origin, would best be ignored if it hadn’t been accorded the high-profile bully pulpit of a full-page spread in today’s NY Times “Review” section.

Since Eakin has extensively covered the Cultural Property Wars in pieces for many publications, his misstatements and distortions regarding repatriations are likely to have been either deliberate or indicative of how much he has forgotten about what he once knew. A third possibility is that he is prone to blanket statements that he believes to be true but hasn’t adequately researched.

Whatever the explanation, his dubious, dangerous arguments demand a corrective.

Let’s start with the most wrong-headed excerpt from his piece:

Though they have involved tens of millions of dollars’ worth of art, the [repatriation] deals have not been made public (the Met’s 2006 agreement with Italy is an exception); nor, for the most part, has the evidence on which they are based been disclosed. Moreover, because the deals are premised on physical repatriation, they have ignored more enlightened solutions, like granting title to a foreign government but keeping disputed works in American museums on loan.

Everything in this passage is flawed. The provisions of many of the repatriation deals (not just the Met’s 2006 agreement with Italy) were, in fact, “made public” and I have hardcopies of these agreements to prove it. I linked to five giveback agreements in this 2007 CultureGrrl post—most notably the Getty’s and Princeton’s—but the then-active links for the Met, Yale and Boston are now broken.

In most cases, the museums have (contrary to Eakins assertion) publicly disclosed the details of their research that led to their decisions that objects should be relinquished. Here, for example, is the Getty Museum’s explanation of why it recently saw fit to return to Sicily its “Head of Hades” from about 400–300 B.C.


Head of Hades, Greek, Morgantina, Italy, c. 400-300 B.C., terracotta and pigment

Similarly, the Cleveland Museum of Art released the details of its 2008 repatriation agreement with Italy, which I reported in detail here. (The link to Cleveland’s press release is likewise broken.)

Moreover, “enlightened solutions” have indeed been part of many of these repatriation agreements. These include reciprocal loans of important objects, as well as professional collaborations on exhibitions, conservation and archaeological digs.

In suggesting that American museums are weakly caving in to source countries’ “hardball” tactics, Eakin ignores the fact that many, if not most, of these repatriations have taken time—lots of time—as the American museum considered whether to accede to the foreign demand and determined whether there was convincing evidence surrounding an object’s history to warrant a giveback.

If anything, the example of the Toledo Art Museum’s Etruscan black-figure kalpis, cited in Eakin’s second paragraph, directly contradicts the notion that American museums too easily accede to giveback demands, without sufficient cause.


Back to Italy: Etruscan black-figure kalpis, attributed to the Micali painter or his workshop, late 6th century B.C.

According to the description of this object’s trajectory that is provided in the slideshow accompanying Eakin’s own piece:

In recent years…an Italian investigation of the dealer [Gianfranco and Ursula Becchina] who sold it to the museum revealed that it had been illegally exported and given forged provenance documents….In 2012, the museum agreed to give up title to the kalpis. It was recently returned to Italy.

It took Toledo years of pondering (or sitting on) the evidence, plus the arrival of a new museum director there and threats of seizure by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for this repatriation to finally transpire. A lengthy repatriation process also occurred in Minneapolis. I think it’s safe to say, notwithstanding Eakin’s critique, that no museum simply hands over objects in response to demands. There is always a careful (sometimes unduly protracted) review of the evidence before any repatriation is made.

I’m the first to mourn the loss of important objects that I have known and loved in American museums. I also agree that some claims have gone too far. But we can’t ignore the fact that many objects left their countries of origin under shady circumstances and were acquired by curators who at least strongly suspected (or actually knew) that they had been looted and/or illegally smuggled from their countries of origin. This wrong needs to be set right.

Clearly, not every object that’s ever been looted should be returned. The UNESCO Convention‘s 1970 cut-off date, which source countries and the U.S. have ratified (and which American museums profess to respect), is the generally agreed-upon place to draw the line. (The UNESCO Convention on cultural property prohibits 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.)

Eakin notes: “Cultural property lawyers say it is doubtful that foreign governments could have successfully claimed in court most of the works museums have handed over to them.” But the lack of a court order doesn’t meant that they shouldn’t be “handed over.” Morality and cultural-heritage preservation count. Unlike Eakin, I think that American museums’ willingness to review their holdings and target works for voluntary repatriation deserves praise, not censure.

It’s true, as Eakin suggests, that repatriations by American museums won’t end the looting: The market for problematic pieces includes other museums as well as private collectors who can acquire in relative secrecy. But as acknowledged by their own professional guidelines for antiquities collecting, American museums shouldn’t be enablers and abettors of looting and illicit trafficking.

I think Eakin is right in suggesting that the “hardball strategy” of countries like Turkey and Cambodia has been inspired, in part, by Italy’s success. In what turned out to be wishful thinking, former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello (whose NYU class previously hosted Eakin as a speaker) had maintained that the Met’s agreement with Italy (which occurred on his watch) would not “open the floodgates” to widespread repatriations. Subsequent events have shown the Cultural Property Wars to be far from over.

Eakin is as much an extremist on the anti-giveback side as the source countries and archaeologists have been on the pro-repatriation side. Resolution of antiquities ambiguities will not be advanced by black-and-white thinking.

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