Like many lifelong habitués of the Metropolitan Museum, I have mixed feelings about the growing impetus to return to “countries of origin” works that have been gathered by the Met’s curator-connoisseurs and long treasured by the museum’s local, national and international audiences. Clearly, stolen artworks should go back to their rightful owners, unless a win-win compromise can be crafted, such as the one announced yesterday by the Met and the Republic of Italy, Sicilian Region, whereby reciprocal loans will benefit both sides.
Here’s one of the objects now on loan to the Met for three years, as part of that agreement, from the Antonino Salinas Archeological Museum, Palermo:
That said, the repatriation goalposts have moved in setting boundaries between the positions of both sides in determining what constitutes improper possession and what constitutes rightful ownership. (More on that below.)
It seems to me that the pace of repatriation announcements has noticeably quickened since (and perhaps as a result of) the Smithsonian Institution’s issuance a year ago of its new Policy on Ethical Returns, which sent a message to sister institutions in the U.S. that relinquishing long-held objects is not only acceptable, but perhaps even desirable. It now seems as though every other day another giveback is announced.
This must be disheartening, if not alarming, to old-school U.S. museum professionals, who always saw their primary mission as the acquisition, preservation, study and exhibition of world-class objects and never foresaw that giving away such sought-after treasures would become one of their responsibilities. One traditionalist, well known to me, who asked to be identified only as “a source close to the Met,” minced no words in his blunt commentary about the recent repatriations. (The links and words in brackets are mine, not his.):
It’s shocking and incomprehensible. Recently, great works of art were removed from the Met’s galleries, not even reluctantly but joyfully. Now, the galleries will be proactively emptied, gradually. It is with ever more pride that the Met will announce its repatriations.
There has been no mention of, nor probably any thought given to, the inescapable equation between removal and loss. Nor is there any suggestion that some form of accommodation is sought.
The reality is that these works, which at the Met are often one of a kind, are removed from its visitors’ sight permanently. And to what end? To be added, most often as redundancies, to the already engorged museums of so-called country-of-origin, where they will go almost unnoticed.
Four people are being hired [at the Met] to find ways to despoil curators’ collections [emphasis added]. All the while, Met curators are fighting hard for higher wages. It’s bizarre.
Here, we are talking about antiquities, mostly Greek, Roman, and Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, et al). WWII [i.e., Nazi-expropriated art] is different. Baroque pictures are different. Cambodia is complicated. Benin is a special case. Asia is not yet squarely in the crosshairs. Give it a little time.
Speaking of Benin…this is one of my personal touchstones at the Met—a plaque that I can only hope is still there. I was relieved to see today that it’s still listed on the museum’s collections site as “on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 136”:
As I wrote here, Alisa LaGamma, curator in charge of the Met’s Rockefeller Wing, told me back in December 2021 that the museum’s Benin objects “were given generations ago. They are works that have great resonance for New Yorkers and we haven’t been approached for restitution.” That was then; this is now: Some restitutions have recently occurred, including (according to the Met’s press release) “two 16th-century brass plaques created at the Court of Benin.” (Uh-oh! I may need to confirm the status of my “Warrior Chief.”)
Just today, the Met announced “the significant loan from the Mont’e Prama Foundation, Sardinia, Italy, of a colossal statue of a boxer known as Manneddu (mannu in Sardinian means “large”). The nearly seven-foot-tall figure, dating from about 900–750 BCE, will be on view for six months—from May 25 through Dec. 6, 2023.”
Here’s an image of all the known Warrior statues from Mont’e Prama. (The visitor to New York is second from the left.):
While there is no announced quid pro quo for this limestone loan, the director of the Mont’e Prama Foundation, Nadia Canu, sees this as a possible tourism lure. Here’s the sales pitch:
Our wish is for all visitors to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to be captivated by the history of Sardinia, and perhaps someday become guests on our beautiful island in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. We want to tell the story of the island, which is already renowned for its unspoiled beaches and crystal-clear sea, by exploring the millennia-old heritage that has turned it into an open-air archaeological museum.
In the midst of all this shuffling of objects and objectives, one thing seems clear: The rules embodied in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property—the formerly accepted standard for defining what constitutes licit ownership—no longer apply. Signatories to that Convention committed to acquiring only objects known to have been legally exported from their countries of origin, or objects with known ownership histories extending at least back to Nov. 17, 1970—the date of the Convention.
Now that’s not good enough. Still, there should be some legal way for museums and collectors to acquire antiquities, notwithstanding some source countries’ broad, punitively restrictive laws regarding their cultural and spiritual patrimony.
Here’s what I wrote on that subject in my 2008 LA Times piece, Make Art Loans, Not War:
Source countries should allow some legally excavated antiquities to be bought and sold. Lesser objects could be marketed to collectors, dealers and museums, with the proceeds benefiting archaeological projects. Enabling citizens of other countries to appreciate and acquire selected pieces of Italy’s, Greece’s, Egypt’s or China’s [or Africa’s] past is a game that, if played by the rules, can have no losers.
Or, as I declared at the end of this 2006 Wall Street Journal piece, pegged to then Met director Philippe de Montebello‘s agreement to return to Italy the infamous Euphronios “calyx krater,” aka “the hot pot” (acquired under his predecessor, Tom Hoving):
Museums and collectors need to be granted some legitimate way to acquire beauty that isn’t booty.
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