[See below for updates.]
The Turkish government is seeking the return of 18 objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The requested objects include several highlights of the Met’s collection that are currently on display in the museum’s Ancient Near East Galleries. Turkey claims all of them were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of its cultural property.
All the contested objects are from the Norbert Schimmel Collection, which the museum has described as “the finest private assemblage of its kind in America” and “one of the most important gifts of ancient and Classical art ever presented to this museum.” Between the 1950s and his death in 1990, Schimmel was a member of the Met’s board of trustees and acquisitions committee. In 1989, he donated 102 objects from his collection to the Met. The museum’s 1992 catalog of the collection quotes Schimmel saying, “Collectors are born, note made, possessed of an enthusiasm that borders on madness.”
We’ve posted a list of 16 of the 18 objects Turkey is requesting here. Here are a few highlights:
The requests from Turkey were first reported by Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper earlier this month. The report said Turkey was requesting the return of two objects from British museums — the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum — and 11 unidentified objects at the Met. Turkey has refused to loan objects to those institutions until questions about the contested objects were addressed.
But the scope of Turkey’s demands reach far beyond those three museums, we have learned. Turkey has requested the return of objects from several other American museums. We’ll be posting details on those objects soon.
The Met has refused to publicly identify the objects Turkey has requested, and in response to our inquiries has changed its story about the requests several times. On March 2, Harold Holzer, the museum’s senior vice president for external affairs told us, ”We have had a request for no specific objects at all.” Soon after, he corrected that statement and said Turkey had requested information about 11 objects at the museum, as reported by the Art Newspaper. A few days later, Holzer acknowledged the actual number was 18 objects, and offered the following statement:
This past fall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was contacted by officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture with regard to 18 works of art in our collection. The Ministry requested provenance information, which we are in the process of providing. Because this matter is currently under discussion with the Turkish government, the Museum will have no further comment at this time—except to acknowledge with appreciation that Turkey has long been a valued lender to significant exhibitions at the Metropolitan, and we look forward to the continuation of that relationship.
The museum did not explain why it has taken several months to provide Turkey with provenance information that is readily available on the museum’s website. Most of the objects have no documented ownership history other than being in the Schimmel Collection by the mid 1960s or 1970s.
The Schimmel Collection was published in a 1974 volume entitled “Ancient Art:The Norbert Schimmel Collection.” The editor of the volume was Oscar White Muscarella, a former Met curator who has been an outspoken critic of the role museums have played in the illicit antiquities trade. We’ve asked Muscarella for his thoughts on the Turkish claim and will post his response when we have it.
In a 1990 obituary for Schimmel in the New York Times, another outspoken reformer — Maxwell Anderson, current director of the Dallas Museum of Art — was quoted saying, “As a collector he was an inspiration to the antiquities field, in the sense that he quietly and devotedly promoted the appreciation of ancient art through sage collecting and through the generosity he manifested to several collections throughout the country.”
HOT DOC: TURKEY REQUESTS FROM THE MET
In early June, Met director Thomas Campbell made some public comments about claims like those coming from Cambodia and Turkey: “We welcome any additional information about the provenance of these or any other contested objects and I think it’s inevitable that as a result of the mandate I gave our staff a year and a half ago to get all our collections online, we are going to see a number of cases like this coming forward. In the spirit of our new collecting guidelines which we adopted just as I took over from Philippe [de Montebello] in late 2008, we are fully committed to dealing with such claims with transparency.” Perhaps Harold Holzer didn’t get the memo?
Lee Rosenbaum has picked up the story on her blog CultureGrrl, noting that Schimmel himself had regrets about his collecting practices. Citing her 1979 interview with Schimmel, Lee writes: “Norbert Schimmel says that he now generally does not buy objects that were once attached to buildings. Gesturing towards paintings displayed in his Manhattan apartment that had been hacked out of an Egyptian tomb, he said he was now ‘ashamed I bought these.’ He added that he does not like to buy objects that left their countries of origin after the effective dates of laws banning their export, ‘but when I see a nice object, I believe it left before. Sometimes I ask. In Europe, everybody buys and they don’t ask any questions.’ Schimmel noted that even if you ask questions, you are unlikely to get illuminating answers. ‘Dealers never tell you exactly where something was found. They say, ‘Anatolia,’ and then they tell you all their stories.’”
Derek Finchham has posted some interesting analysis of the legal challenges facing the Turkish request on his blog Illicit Cultural Property. “In order to pursue a legal claim here Turkey would have to justify its reasons for not bringing a claim in 1974,” Fincham writes. “What Turkey does have though is a potential ethical claim which the Met may respond to. And if the Met does not, Turkey is imposing a damaging cultural embargo, and pressure will likely mount on the Met to justify their continued possession of these objects.”
David Gill at Looting Matters reminds us of that several objects linked to Schimmel that have already been returned to source countries: an eye of Amenhotep III; an Apulian dinos that the Met has returned to Italy; and the Met’s Morgantina silvers, which now reside in a museum in Aidone, Sicily alongside the Getty’s statue of a Cult Goddess (once thought to represent Aphrodite.)