As someone with a lust for culture, from the time of my wide-eyed childhood in the Bronx to my bleary-eyed advanced years in Northern New Jersey, I’ve counted on two constant sources of aesthetic sustenance—the music of the NY Philharmonic and the masterpieces of Metropolitan Museum of Art. But lately I’ve been jolted by a noxious noise emanating from many of my favorite Met haunts—galleries devoted to classical antiquities, African art, Egyptian art, Near Eastern art: It’s the sucking sound of New York’s (and my) cherished icons being dislodged from 5th Avenue and being removed to their “countries of origin.”
Here’s the government official who, for better or worse, is doing his utmost to make this happen:
As quoted by Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley in their Sept. 2 NY Times report, Bragg’s office has been responsible for the recent repatriation of some 2,000 artifacts, including the most recent haul (as of that date)—the seizure from the Met of “27 ancient artifacts valued at more than $13 million,” which had been “acquired to showcase the glories of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt.”
You can see a list of recent repatriations here. I found that list by doing a search in the Manhattan DA’s website on the name of Matthew Bogdanos, the Assistant District Attorney in charge of of the DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, who has been the driving force behind the nonstop seizures. He was also involved in engineering the high-profile restitution of the gilded coffin of Nedjemankh from the Met to Egypt.
Regarding the recent returns of antiquities to Italy, which included not only the 21 pieces seized from the Met but another 37 antiquities from other sources, Bragg bragged:
The investigations conducted by my office have clearly exposed these networks [of organized traffickers] and put into the public domain a wealth of information the art world can proactively use to return antiquities to where they rightfully belong (emphasis added).”
“Where they rightfully belong”? Technically, yes: Some were pillaged (and even harmed in the process), but others were regarded as “stolen” only because the countries where they were found have restrictive laws stating that anything found in what is now their territory must stay in their territory.
The Met’s celebrated Euphronios krater, a magnificent Greek vase, came here from Italy and was returned there in 2008:
The Met’s 2006 agreement with Italy called for the New York museum to relinquish not only its Euphronios but also an assortment of Hellenistic silver and four other objects, in exchange for “long-term future loans—of up to four years each, as Italian law allows—of works of art of equivalent beauty and importance [emphasis added] to the objects being returned.” But In my judgment, the quality of what the Met got wasn’t comparable to what it relinquished.
Here’s what I had to say about the need to deescalate the tensions between current owners and the “source countries” in my 2008 LA Times Op-Ed article, Make Art Loans, Not War (occasioned by the Met’s return of the Euphronios krater):
Now that source countries have forcefully asserted their claims, the time has come to make loans, not war. Everyone wins when cultural objects are internationally disseminated, studied and appreciated. Even objects that came into the custody of American museums through questionable means should be allowed to remain here on long-term loan, in recognition of the principle that art lovers everywhere should have the opportunity to admire the best of world art. The ownership, but not the venue, of these objects should change, and laws like Italy’s — which limits international loans to four years — should be relaxed. The 15 Italy-bound pieces of Hellenistic silver that will remain at the Met until 2010 are now labeled “Lent by the Republic of Italy.” Why not allow them to stay where they are?
The fact is that source countries, possessing more high-quality artifacts from their ancient pasts than they can adequately display, don’t need to get everything back.
Here’s what Met President Daniel Weiss (who recently announced he will step down from his post next June) had to say about the delicate issues surrounding antiquities ownership in his forthcoming book (of which I’ve obtained an advance copy)—Why the Museum Matters (to be published in November by Yale University Press):
What constituted acceptable collecting standards during the…nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are now thought by some to be unacceptable throughout most areas of the world….Within such a changing environment, for most institutions that were founded in the era of the Enlightenment, or on such a model thereafter, there remain challenges and questions about rightful ownership of objects in the permanent collection, just as there are for the British Museum and the Louvre, among others…
Greater fairness in determining property rights and intergenerational justice will require in most instances some combination of legal process, political negotiation, imaginative problem-solving and public advocacy.
As for the recent Met givebacks, this dreamy personage was pictured at the top of the above-linked NY Times piece by Mashberg and Bowley about the latest seizures by the Manhattan DA:
As it happened, he previously made a cameo appearance in this CultureGrrl post about what were then “The Met’s New Greek and Roman Galleries” (the title of my 2007 review of the reinstallation), I had identified him as having been “lent [to the Met] by Renée and Robert Belfer.” (In 2012, the Belfers gifted this marble bust to the Met.) Although it is now no longer on the Met’s Collection website, it had lingered there on Sept. 7, when I saw its published provenance, which indicated that it had been out of its country of origin from “at least the 1980s”:
Collection of Kojiro Ishiguro, Tokyo, from at least the 1980’s until his death in 1992. Bequeathed by Kojiro Ishiguro to his wife, Toyoko Ishiguro. Sold by the Ishiguro family to Renée E. and Robert A. Belfer through the Ariadne Gallery, New York, in February 1997. Given by Renée E. and Robert A. Belfer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012. The work has been on loan to, and on display at, The Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2007. The work was exhibited at the Gallery Mikazuki in 1996.
When I asked whether we can expect more such givebacks by the Met and whether the Met would attempt to work out compromise agreements (as it did with the Euphronios krater), the museum’s spokesperson replied: “Nothing more to offer on our interactions with the DA’s office.”
Although I can understand the Met’s seeming reluctance to get further into this, there actually was more: On that same day (Wednesday) when the Met’s spokesperson sent me the above comment, the DA issued a new press release stating this:
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. today announced the return of 16 antiquities valued at over $4 million to the people of Egypt….Five of the pieces were seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art [emphasis added] pursuant to an investigation into the “Dib-Simonian” trafficking network. An additional piece from the Met was seized pursuant to an investigation into trafficker Georges Lotfi, the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the [DA’s] Office last month.
Here’s one of those Met givebacks:
The Met did share with me this official statement about the Manhattan DA’s collection dissections:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been fully supportive of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigation and of the return of these object to Italy, based on information recently made available to The Met. The Met has a long and well documented history of responding to claims regarding works of art, restituting objects where appropriate, being transparent about the provenance of works in the collection, and supporting further research and scholarship by sharing all known ownership history on metmuseum.org—one of the few institutions in our field to do so.
The Museum deeply values its long-standing relationship with scholarly institutions and colleagues in Italy, and looks forward to continuing our ongoing and fruitful exchanges of scholarship, object loans and expertise.
We can only hope. But the tide has decisively turned from the time when the Met’s longtime (now retired) director, Philippe de Montebello, and the directors of 9 other major museums had jointly “issued a strongly worded statement affirming their right to keep long-held antiquities that countries like Greece and Egypt, with increasing insistence, have demanded be repatriated,” in the words of this 2002 NY Times report.
Now there’s been a persistent din of repatriation discussions. Even one of the most adamant holdouts—the British Museum—has expressed a new openness to considering Greece’s demand for returning to the Athens’ Parthenon the so-called “Elgin Marbles.” As reported in the Huffington Post, George Osborne, chairman of the trustees of the British Museum, “recently said they should find a way of sharing the ancient sculptures with Greece.” He told a television interviewer that “sensible people should come up with something where you can see them in their splendor in Athens, and see them among the splendors of other civilizations in London.”
I, too, have argued for the reunification of those sundered marbles (which I’ve admired, piecemeal, in London and in Athens). In this 2002 NY Times Op-Ed piece, I declared:
If ever there were a case for putting the integrity of an artwork above ownership interests, this is it.
And in other recent repatriation news:
—France has returned to Nigeria 26 Benin bronzes, formerly held by the Quai Branly, Paris, but recently displayed at Benin’s Presidential Palace in Cotonou.
—Egypt’s former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, is reportedly renewing his demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum.
—The Manhattan DA’s long reach has extended to Malibu, CA: The Getty Villa Museum is returning its Orpheus group of life-size terracotta figures to Italy, pursuant to “evidence in an investigation [by Bogdanos’ office] unrelated to the Getty. The evidence persuaded us that the statues had been illegally excavated and it was appropriate to return them in accordance with Getty policy,” according to Getty spokesperson Julie Jaskol, as quoted in the LA Times. As stated in the Getty’s press release (which includes images of all the planned givebacks), the museum will return four more objects “at a date to be determined.”
Here’s one of them:
At the risk of incurring the wrath of repatriation hardliners, I’ll give myself the last word—my semi-contrarian take on cultural-property conundrums, excerpted from my Feb. 28, 2006 Wall Street Journal opinion piece—Truth in Booty: Coming–and Staying–Clean:
Objects properly imported into the U.S. before a specified date, and not “stolen” under universally accepted meanings of that word, should be able to remain here under the legal principle of “repose” (the concept that owners should not be indefinitely subject to stale claims). Otherwise, there is little to prevent attempts to empty our museums of everything that ever arrived under murky circumstances. The effective date of the U.S. Cultural Property Implementation Act, Apr. 12, 1983, is a logical cutoff.
The cutoff date should apply only to works that would never have been considered stolen under U.S. laws, were it not for the blanket patrimony laws of antiquities-rich countries that claim as national property everything unearthed within their borders, including objects as yet undiscovered….
Museums and collectors need to be granted some legitimate way to acquire beauty that isn’t booty.
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