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Getty’s Latest Repatriation (plus AAMD members’ loose interpretation of cultural-property guidelines)


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

In another case of a voluntary repatriation by an American museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced last week that it would hand over its 10 3/4-inches-high Head of Hades, now on display at the Getty Villa, to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone, Italy, after the conclusion of the Getty-organized traveling exhibition, Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome (Getty Villa, Apr. 3-Aug. 19; Cleveland Museum of Art, Sept. 30-Jan. 5, 2014; Palazzo Ajutamicristo, Palermo, February to June 2014).

This is the second recent repatriation under the Getty Trust presidency of James Cuno, but the first since Timothy Potts assumed the directorship of the Getty Museum. Other recent voluntary returns have been initiated by the Metropolitan Museum (to Egypt), Dallas Museum of Art (to Turkey) and Penn Museum (an “indefinite-term loan” to Turkey, not an ownership transfer).

But notwithstanding these amicable agreements, U.S. museums are increasingly using their posting of objects on the Association of Art Museum Director’s Object Registry for archaeological materials and ancient art as a license to purchase works that don’t meet the standards set by the 1970 UNESCO Convention regarding cultural property (to which the United States became a signatory in 1983).

The Getty purchased its Head of Hades in 1985 from collector Maurice Tempelsman. David Ng and Jason Felch of the LA Times report (and the Getty confirmed) that Tempelsman had purchased it from London dealer Robin Symes (a known conduit for antiquities of problematic provenance). “Getty records show the museum paid $530,000 for it,” according to the LA Times article. (The Getty would not discuss its price.)

The Getty’s online description discusses a change in the identification of the sculpture’s subject:

This head was previously thought to depict Zeus, the king of the gods, who is called “blue bearded” in the Homeric poems. [As you can see in the above photo, the head has remnants of blue pigment on its beard.] But [the head] is now believed to represent his brother, Hades, king of the Underworld, based on its association with finds from the ancient city of Morgantina, Sicily.

The Getty described those Morgantina finds in last Thursday’s press release:

In keeping with the principle of repatriating works when compelling evidence warrants it, the decision to transfer this head is based on the discovery of four terracotta fragments found near Morgantina in Sicily, similar in style and medium to the Getty head.

Getty Museum curators initiated discussions with Sicilian colleagues on the possible relationship between the head and the fragments in 2011, and then worked with the director of the Morgantina Archaeological Park to corroborate the identification. These fragments indicate that the original location of the head was the site of a sanctuary of Demeter, which was clandestinely excavated in the late 1970s.

What’s more, the terracotta body from which the head was lopped off is currently “in the course of an extensive restoration” at the same museum in Aidone that will soon also possess the head.

Notwithstanding such isolated instances of returns in the face of convincing evidence of looting or illicit export, American museums (which by 2008 had largely stopped collecting antiquities with murky histories of ownership, after a forceful surge of repatriation claims from Italy and Greece) now appear increasingly willing to deviate from the strict “1970 rule” set forth in the UNESCO Convention regarding cultural property. That landmark document 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.

Some 579 objects from 16 institutions are now posted on the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Object Registry. That website is intended to be a compendium of all archaeological materials and ancient art acquired by member-museums after June 4, 2008 that do not have a known provenance extending back until at least Nov. 14, 1970. The largest list by far—some 358 of the 579 pieces—comes from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

AAMD’s 2008 guidelines for its registry state that when deviating from the 1970 rule, museums should “carefully balance the possible financial and reputational harm of taking such a step against the benefit of collecting, presenting, and preserving the work in trust for the educational benefit of present and future generations.”

The association’s guidelines further stipulate:

Member museums normally should not acquire a work unless provenance research substantiates that the work was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970….The museum must prominently post on the AAMD website…an image and the information about the work…and all facts relevant to the decision to acquire it, including its known provenance [emphasis added].

Evidence that not all museums necessarily complied with this posting requirement came when the Dallas Museum of Art’s omissions were rectified [scroll down] by its current director, Maxwell Anderson. Shortly after he arrived at the DMA last January, he posted 14 objects that belonged on AAMD’s registry but hadn’t been put there. In compliance with the “all relevant facts” guideline, Dallas also provided detailed “reasons for acquisition as an exception to the 1970 rule.” (Here’s one example.)

Some other museums, however, provide no written justification whatsoever for disregarding the 1970 rule. They post only the pieces’ vague provenances.

Here’s one example from the Walters Art Museum. The information below the photo is all that appears on AAMD’s registry:

“Dwarf Form of Vishnu,” 10th century, India
PROVENANCE INFORMATION: Jaipaul Gallery, Philadelphia (date and mode of acquisition unknown); John and Berthe Ford, Baltimore, June 13, 1976, by purchase; Walters Art Museum, 2008, by gift

Continued pressure from source countries—most notably a recent surge of contested claims from Turkey and Cambodia—demonstrates that the cultural-property wars are far from over. If museums hope to take the high ground in these skirmishes, they need, at the very least, to be rigorously and scrupulously vigilant in following both the letter and the spirit of their own acquisition guidelines.

The purpose of these rules was to diminish financial incentives for looters and their marketplace enablers. This intended benefit is lost If museums repeatedly demonstrate a willingness to shell out money for pieces with problematic pasts, using their publication on a registry as a pretext to skirt the UNESCO guidelines that they purport to uphold.

an ArtsJournal blog