Today’s NY Times antiquities scoop on Shelby White‘s agreement to relinquish to Italy 10 objects (nine already in transit, one departing in 2010) adds the “Why Me” corollary to the Times Change justification for past antiquities trangressions. Both defensive arguments will win no converts.
Reporter Elisabetta Povoledo, who overcame a confidentiality agreement between the Italian Culture Ministry and antiquities collector Shelby White, quotes an unnamed official, who was privy to the negotiations, on the stance that was taken by the embattled museum benefactor:
“She had an attitude of ‘Why me? There are other collectors out there,'” said one official who asked not to be identified for fear of offending Ms. White by describing the talks. “The truth is, because she’s lent so many of her pieces, she was very visible.
The “Why Me?” plea for sympathy may have some factual basis but carries no moral or legal force. It’s true that many have bought antiquities that likely were looted and that few have been targeted by the antiquities police. It’s also true that many shoplift and few get arrested. That’s no argument against vigilance.
What’s also true that White has become another Marion True: Sacrificial collector, meet the sacrificial curator. At least White wasn’t put on trial. But the example of both women is meant by Italy to inspire fear and conciliation in the ranks of their colleagues.
The agreement may also have further implications for White’s remaining collection. Not only has Italy reserved the right to go after objects that were not part of the Metropolitan Museum’s controversial 1990 show of her holdings, but, as archaeologist David Gill (cited by today’s Times for co-authoring a 1999 study exposing the lack of provenance for most of those objects) points out in his blog, Looting Matters:
Italy was only a source for some of the antiquities. Pieces from Turkey and the UK have also passed through the collection. Will she [White] be making arrangements with other countries?
I have contacted Shelby White’s representatives and the Italian Culture Ministry, seeking further information. No list of the objects has yet been released, although today’s article from ANSA, the Italian news agency, provides an image of one, and the Times identifies two that had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum—“a red-figured vessel depicting Herakles slaying Kyknos, signed by the celebrated fifth-century B.C. painter Euphronios, and a pot with scenes of Zeus and Herakles attributed to the fifth-century B.C. painter Eucharides.” (UPDATE: As David Gill correctly points out in another post today, the unidentified photo illustrating ANSA’s article is, in fact one of the objects being relinquished to Italy by Princeton. It has nothing to do with the White givebacks announced today.)
White’s spokesman, Fraser Seitel, told me that today’s published report about the agreement “was a surprise—out of the box. It wasn’t according to plan.” A press release had been prepared but not yet distributed.
Seitel also stated that there had been a strict confidentiality agreement about the specific terms of the deal. That presumably would have barred revealing the to the Times details about which White objects could or could not be sought by Italy in the future.
He added that the Italian government, as the new owner of the objects, is free to release a list of them and to exhibit them. I suspect (but have not yet confirmed) that they will join the Nostoi exhibition of repatriated objects at the presidential palace in Rome, where the Met’s celebrated Euphronios krater has today gone on display.
Click the link below for the complete statement that had been prepared by the Italian Culture Ministry and Shelby White.
ITALIAN CULTURE MINISTRY-SHELBY WHITE REACH AGREEMENT
TO RETURN 10 OBJECTS FROM LEVY-WHITE COLLECTION
New York, NY, January ___, 2008 — Italian Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli and New York art collector and philanthropist Shelby White today announced an agreement, in which a private collector has come forward to initiate a dialogue that has resulted in the voluntary return to Italy of 10 objects,” including a rare Euphronios vase, in the collection which Ms. White assembled with her late husband Leon Levy.
Mr. Rutelli went on to say, “Although Italy had no legal claims against Ms. White or her late husband, Leon Levy, she has shown great sensitivity in resolving this matter by concluding based on available evidence that these pieces should go back to the Republic of Italy. We look forward, as she has requested, to exhibiting these objects in museums Italy.”
Ms. White said, “From the beginning, Leon and I collected with the intention of preserving the past, so that people around the world could learn more about their history. That’s why we have supported many facets of archaeology — excavations, publications, exhibitions, conservation, and education, and that is why we established the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Our collection was purchased at public auction and from dealers we believed to be reputable. In the case of the returned objects I believe I have taken the appropriate action.