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Decoding Eakin: Behind ‘Extortion’ Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened

imgresIt is no coincidence that The Great Giveback, Hugh Eakin’s lengthy argument against the repatriation of looted antiquities, landed in The New York Times on Sunday, just as the directors of America’s leading art museums gathered in Kansas City for their annual meeting.

A key item on the agenda in Kansas City that day was the museum community’s handling of looted antiquities, an issue that has roiled the art world for more than a decade.  The Assoc. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has repeatedly tried to put the issue to rest, adopting policy changes in 2001, in 2004 and again in 2006 as the controversy metastasized into a full bore international scandal. In 2008 the AAMD revisited the issue yet again, adopting acquisition guidelines that required a clear ownership history dating back to 1970, a position that put them in line with most archaeologists.

The 2008 policy was heralded as a turning point for the American museums and a victory for reformers like the Getty’s Michael Brand and Max Anderson, now in Dallas, who felt it was time for American museums to sever their ties to the black market. But those reforms are under attack. Museum directors are seeking to reverse the policy, which drives a wedge between them and wealthy patrons whose antiquities collections can no longer be donated in exchange for tax write-offs. These dissidents have made ample use of the policy’s major loophole, which allowed museums to violate the 1970 rule if they posted the acquisitions on the group’s Object Registry with a justification of why.

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As Lee Rosenbaum recently noted, sixteen museums have posted nearly 600 objects there, many with no clear justification for flouting the 1970 rule. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, for example, acquired an unprovenanced collection of 31 pieces of ancient gold jewelry, saying it violated the 1970 rule so the objects could be “studied, displayed and publicized.” Last August, the Cleveland Museum posted a Roman portrait bust of Drusus (right) that has no documented ownership history prior to 2004 and was sold to the museum by the Aboutaam brothers, antiquities dealers who have been convicted of charges related to trafficking in looted art. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” Cleveland museum director David Franklin told the New York Times. (Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recognize the quote as a nearly verbatim echo of what the Getty’s John Walsh said in 1987 to justify the acquisition of the looted statue of Aphrodite.)

In short, the Object Registry has become a tool for laundering suspect antiquities. Once objects are posted there, museum officials believe, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking, giving foreign governments just a few years to investigate, build a case and file a claim before their time expires and the objects emerge sparkling and clean. More broadly, the series of reforms taken by many American museums in recent years — which include taking claims seriously and sending looted antiquities back to the countries from which they were stolen — are under attack from within.

That brewing fight is the context for Eakin’s polemic, which notably takes aim not at source countries so much as museums like the Getty and Dallas that have embraced reforms and begun to proactively search their collections for problematic objects. With Philippe de Montebello retired and Jim Cuno forced to moderate his view by the Getty board, Eakin has emerged as the spokesman for the dissidents.

Recent events have only raised the stakes, for the controversy over looted antiquities shows no signs of going away. The depth of the problem with American collections of Classical antiquities is just beginning to emerge, with more revelations certain to come as researchers comb through the seized archives of the illicit trade’s most prominent middlemen. Meanwhile, over the past year the search for loot in American collections has gone global, with countries like Cambodia, India and Turkey bringing claims. Museum directors know better than anyone that these claims are the tip of a very large iceberg.  

To the ears of some in the art world, that sound is the creaking of the floodgates swinging open.  

Spurious Claims

Eakin’s piece, then, is best understood as part of a broader effort to convince the public that claims involving looted antiquities are baseless and those who cave in to them, cowards. The reforms have not only failed to stop looting (a “scourge” often given lip service by museums, but never more.) They have “spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” Unless American museums grow a backbone and fight these foreign claims to the death in court, Eakin suggests, someday soon they will be empty of ancient art.

As he has done in the past, Eakin relies on a mosaic of selective facts and careful omissions to cobble together his argument. Many of its most serious flaws have already been rebutted. Lee Rosenbaum — who herself is often skeptical of repatriation claims — denounced it as a “distorted, often mistaken opinion piece” and concluded Eakin was “an extremist on the anti-giveback side.” Archaeologist Paul Barford was less kind, saying the piece “illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples’ cultural property, that internationally is losing America friends.” Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire noted that Eakin’s argument “overlooks the general principle that stolen property cannot be owned lawfully or that contraband antiquities (smuggled antiquities) are somehow legitimate.” Speaking in Eakin’s favor, I could only find three voices: Peter Tompa, the lobbyist for collecting interests; blogger Judith Dobrzynski, who calls the piece “pitch-perfect” but acknowledged a conflict of interest in the subject; and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who celebrated the piece’s “nuance” in a tweet.

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Let me focus on something I think Eakin gets almost right — his summary of recent events. (See below for his major omission.) Other archaeologically rich nations have been inspired by Italy’s success. In bringing their own claims, many have been less disciplined than Italy, which supported its demands with evidence — much of it photographic — gathered during a decade-long criminal investigation. But here Eakin misses an opportunity to articulate the key flaw of some recent repatriation requests — the conflation of historical gripes with the modern criminal behavior of looting, smuggling and fencing. For example, most of the objects Turkey is demanding from American museums were acquired since the 1960s and have no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they are likely the product of illicit excavations. Whether Turkey has evidence to support those claims remains to be seen — unlike Italy, the Turks are making their case to museums before sharing it with the public. But Turkey has also asked several European museums to return objects that were removed nearly a century ago, sometimes by archaeologists operating with government permission. And to increase their leverage, Turkey has denied digging permits to foreign archaeologists who played no role in the alleged wrongdoing. All of this — coupled with Turkey’s own history of plunder — has led to a skeptical reception of claims against American museums that may or may not be backed by clear evidence. And with good reason.

Likewise, Greece and Egypt have frequently included colonial-era claims with requests for the return of recently looted antiquities. Some of those historical claims may carry ethical weight, such as the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. But more often they blur the moral and legal clarity of claims involving modern looting. The same can be said for occasional statements that all things made in Country X should be returned to County X, which discredit the nations that make them.

So, there is legitimate reason for skepticism of repatriation claims. But these are not the arguments Eakin chose to make. Instead, he invents a picture of “terrified” museums being cowed by powerful foreign governments into giving back America’s innocently-acquired art. This description of the situation makes for an almost laughable reversal of reality.

American museums have long had the power when it comes to claims of restitution — the power to ignore claims, to withhold information and to create or defend false ownership histories. For decades, they have wielded this power freely, dismissing polite requests from foreign countries while continuing to buy looted art with impunity. For years, the Getty blew off Italian objections to their acquisitions of obviously looted art by simply refusing to respond to inquiries from senior government officials. The Met refused to allow scholars to look at its collection of looted Greek silver. Turkey has requested the return of the Sion Treasure from Harvard since the 1960s to no avail, while the university published a book about the treasure that detailed its illegal excavation and included a photo of the looter’s hole from which it was taken. Yet Eakin laments that today, 40 years later, Turkey has decided to begin withholding loans from Harvard until it responds. These are what he calls “blatantly extortionary demands.”

What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.

Let’s consider Eakin’s innocent acquisitions. If there has been a lesson from the last decade of controversy — and if there is one point made clearly in Chasing Aphrodite — it is that American museum officials were far from innocents. In case after case where internal museum records have come to light — via lawsuits or leaks to reporters — there is clear evidence that museums officials were aware they were buying recently looted antiquities. Met officials knew the Lydian Hoarde was looted and sought to hide it, as Turkey learned during its six year legal battle for their return. Dietrich von Bothmer kept a map of the precise tomb in Cerveteri from which the Euphronios krater had been looted, as we learned from Marion True’s sworn deposition. The Boston MFA’s longtime antiquities curator Cornelius Vermeule was close personal friends with Robert Hecht and acquired hundreds of looted objects from him, as the Italian investigation and Hecht’s own journal revealed.  

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

The Getty case, our most revealing window into a museum’s antiquities acquisition process, is startlingly clear: “We know it’s stolen,” Harold Williams said in a confidential 1987 meeting about the acquisition of suspect antiquities. “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Marion True discussed the contents of looted tombs in correspondence with Giacamo Medici, and declared the golden funerary wreath “too dangerous” before greed got the better of her. Her predecessor Arthur Houghton visited Medici’s Swiss warehouse and sought his help tracing the Getty’s griffins to tombs in Southern Italy. Houghton’s predecessor Jiri Frel ran a provenance forgery workshop out of the antiquities department and acquired thousands of looted objects through a tax fraud scheme whose scope is just now becoming apparent.

In other words, the evidence amassed to date makes abundantly clear that many of our highly educated antiquities curators and museum directors were not total dupes when it came to their role in the illicit antiquities trade.

They knew.

This is Eakin’s most glaring omission and the reason why repatriation is — at times — a reasonable response to foreign claims. They are the pound of flesh that must be paid for our collective cultural sins.

What standard?

How much evidence is needed to establish that an object is the product of the illicit antiquities trade and should be returned to the country from which it was stolen? For all the debate about acquisition policies, there has been nearly no debate or policy papers on this question, which is far more pressing concern facing museums today.

Eakin reminds us repeatedly that museums have returned contested antiquities under no legal order and often with no knowledge of their precise findspots. Such statements remind me of a phone conversation I had in 2006 with the Met’s de Montebello. He told me that the Met was prepared to give up its beloved Euphronios krater if Italy could present “irrefutable proof” of the precise spot from which it had been looted. Soon after, the Met’s general counsel informed him that there was no such legal standard — not even in cases of capital murder. Montebello left it to a spokesman to call back and sheepishly clarify that under the law, the vase could be seized by US law enforcement based upon probable cause. That is the legal standard for civil forfeitures. Apparently Eakin did not get the memo.

Orpheus mosaic in situThe cases that Eakin suggests are spurious are still being negotiated, and we don’t yet have access to the full array of evidence. But what has come to light suggests they are far from fickle. In the case of Cambodia’s claim on the Khmer statue in the Norton Simon, the precise find-spot is well-known and not disputed — the statue’s feet remain in placed today at the temple complex from which it was looted. In the two cases where claims from Turkey have been resolved — Dallas and Penn — there was compelling evidence. Penn acquired the Trojan gold  in 1966 from Hecht, whose ties to Turkish looters are well documented, and scientific tests later found it was consistent with samples found in Turkey. In the case of the Orpheus mosaic, investigators found Polaroids of the mosaic in situ when it arrested the alleged looters.

Eakin’s call to legal arms betrays both his ignorance of the law and of museums’ dilemma. There is a very good reason why museums have voluntarily given back nearly $1 billion in looted antiquities with no legal fight — it was in their self-interest. As cultural property attorney Rick St. Hilaire notes, taking these cases to court “is fraught with danger.”

LACMA's Michael Govan

Museums hoping to fight in court had better make sure they have no damaging internal records detailing their acquisition of looted antiquities, for those are likely to come out in discovery, as Sotheby’s recent learned. They had better also be sure that no other objects in their collections have dubious origins, because their legal fight will inspire a thorough examination of their entire collection. This was the lesson learned by the Getty, which, as Eakin notes, chose to fight rather than accept the voluntary return of six clearly looted antiquities. Several years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, they ended up returning more than 40.

Eakin laments the cost to museums of dealing with repatriation claims. The cost of litigation is far far higher. This is not to mention the public relations consequences, which concern museums far more than a few pieces of ancient art. The true and lasting damage to American institutions over this past decade has not been legal fees or lost antiquities. It has been the growing public perception that they are engaged in an illegal activity that, at its heart, is a deep betrayal of their public mission. If they follow Eakin’s advice, they will double down on that betrayal.

Greek deal

The enlightened solution that Eakin seeks is the one being taken by the institutions he targets — rebuilding trust with the public and foreign governments by taking claims seriously, engaging in proactive research of their collections and sober evaluation of the evidence and when appropriate, returning a token of the stolen property in their collections in exchange for a collaborative relationship with a potential adversary.

As Eakin well knows, this approach is not “making great art ever less available.” It is providing museum visitors with remarkable rotating exhibits of the world’s great treasures while moving both source countries and museums toward a future where questions of ownership recede and the focus becomes cooperation and education. 

Douglas Latchford’s Footprints: Suspect Khmer Antiquities At the Denver Art Museum

13COLLECTOR-popupWho is Douglas A. J. Latchford?

That is the question many are asking since the Bangkok-based British collector who describes himself as an “adventurer-scholar” emerged at the center of the legal fight over an allegedly looted 10th Century Khmer warrior now at Sotheby’s.

Federal prosecutors have said in recent court filings that Latchford knowingly purchased the Sotheby’s statue and its companion at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena from “an organized looting network” that stole the objects from the ruins of the Koh Ker temple complex deep in Cambodia’s northern jungles. Latchford allegedly conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for the statues, which were transported it to London in the early 1970s, the filings claim.

[Our previous coverage of the Sotheby's case can be found here.]

DP212330-1As the New York Times reported in June, Latchford is also listed as the donor of record for two prominent Khmer pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Cambodia wants back. All four of the statues are believed to have been looted from the ancient temple complex of Prasat Chen and smuggled out of Cambodia sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Latchford denies the allegations. In an interview this month, he told the New York Times that prosecutors were “weaving together suppositions.” “This is somebody’s imagination working overtime,” he said in an interview at his Bangkok home with reporter Tom Mashberg. He claims that the London auction house Spink at times used his name for purchases of objects he never owned. Spink claims it has no longer has records from those years.

At the same time, Latchford suggested he had a transcendental claim to Khmer art: Buddhist priests once told him he was Khmer in a previous life, “and that what I collect had once belonged to me,” he told the Times. Asked about his early collecting,

Mr. Latchford spins tales of bumping his Jeep along makeshift roads in the jungles of Thailand and Cambodia, exploring vine-entangled temples and the shattered outposts from a 1,000-year-old fallen empire.

He and other well-known collectors, he said, would buy and trade what became available without fretting over the provenance details that govern modern antiquities transactions. They were rescuers, not plunderers, he said, pointing out that he and others have restored, protected, cataloged and donated artifacts that might have been broken into pieces or lost or neglected.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby's, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby’s, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

The final statement is ironic, as federal prosecutors suggest the statue at Sotheby’s was purposefully broken by looters to make it easier to smuggle, a claim supported by Sotheby’s own analysis of the statue’s surface. Indeed, both statues’ feet remain in place at Koh Ker.

Latchford gave another revealing answer in a 2010 interview with the Bangkok Post when asked where a piece in his considerable private collection had come from:

“The ground,” he answered. “Most of the pieces I have come across in the past years have been excavated, or dug up. You know, there is a farmer in the field who digs something up, and he probably thinks if I take it to Bangkok or Singapore or a middle man I can get $100 instead of getting $10.”

Dougla

Latchford has close ties to Emma Bunker, the Khmer art expert hired by Sotheby’s to help with the sale of the contested Khmer statue. In emails to Sotheby’s, Bunker stated that the statue was “definitely stolen,” and said her “culture spies” could help Sotheby’s navigate Cambodia’s cultural heritage bureaucracy. Latchford and Bunker have co-authored several books on Khmer art, including Adoration and Glory, which boasts that “the authors were able to gain access to private as well as public collections worldwide to give unparalleled access to more than 150 objects,” many of which are published there for the first time.

bookComplicating matters, Latchford, now 81, has become a prominent donor to Cambodian museums of both antiquities and money. Emails from the Sotheby’s case make clear his generosity has earned him close ties to cultural officials in the Cambodian government, including to Hab Touch, who is today pressing Cambodia’s repatriation claims but in the past has praised Latchford’s scholarship.

Given this history, we’ve started to scratch around to see where else objects tied to Latchford have ended up. Here’s the first of those reports.

DENVER ART MUSEUM

The Denver Museum has six objects in its permanent collection acquired from Latchford, four of them acquired as gifts. Here are details provided by the museum:

1. Painted Vessel from Thailand, 400-200 BCE. Earthenware and paint
Gift of Douglas A.J. Latchford. Accession #2000.67 No additional provenance available.

2. Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom, Prajnaparamita Cambodia, Angkor period, late 1100s–early 1200s sandstone, 59 inches (130 cm) high. Purchased from Latchford “in honor of Emma C. Bunker.” Accession #2000.198

DAM_Website_2000.198

The museum’s website suggests the piece could be from the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom: “The gentle smile and lowered eyes are features associated with sculptures from the Bayon temple built by Jayavarman VII, the last great ruler of the Angkor royal line.”

The museum said the piece was originally purchased by “Ian Donaldson” in Vietnam around 1964-66; then shipped from Thailand to the UK on February 12, 1994 and imported from the UK on March 10, 1994. It is worth noting that Adoration and Glory contains a very similar statue listed as being in a private collection.

surya3. Sun God (Surya) from Cambodia or Vietnam. 600’s to 700’s, Pre-Angkor period, sandstone. Purchased from Latchford in 2004. Accession #2004.371. Published in “Adoration and Glory.” No other provenance information was provided.

4.  Sleep of Vishnu and the Birth of Brahma, Cambodia, 700’s, Pre-Angkor period. Sandstone. Gift of Douglas A. J. Latchford. Accession #2005.104. The piece was published in “Adoration and Glory” and listed as being held in an “American Collection” on page 84. No other provenance information was provided.

5. Bronze Bell, Cambodia, 1st Century BCE, Iron Age. Gift of Douglas A.J. Latchford. Accession #2005.105. No provenance or publication history provided.

6. Wood Cabinet with Chinese Motifs, 1700’s Thailand. Gift of Douglas A. J. Latchford & Emma C. Bunker. Accession #2006.81. No provenance or publication history provided.

rama_1986_44Among the museum’s Khmer objects not included in the list are other objects from Koh Ker, such as this statue of Rama, whose ownership history is not listed.

In short, in recent years the Denver Art Museum has acquired several Cambodian antiquities with little or no documented ownership history — much less evidence of legal exportation — from a man now at the center of a federal looting probe. For several of those objects, the only documented history was a book written by Latchford himself. The museum’s position is further complicated by the fact that Emma Bunker is listed as research consultant for the museum, suggesting a possible conflict of interest. All of these are serious red flags.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the museum said, “The Denver Art Museum curatorial team conducts provenance research on an ongoing basis and posts results online as they become available both on the museum’s website and on the AAMD object registry. The Museum adheres to AAMD guidelines for the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art set forth in 2008. In coming into full compliance with AAMD guidelines for antiquities and archeological material, the Denver Art Museum now requires all available provenance information to be provided for new acquisitions.”

The statement suggests a deep misunderstanding of modern acquisition ethics. The moral obligation on museums to obtain clear provenance — concrete evidence that an antiquity had not been recently looted — did not begin in 2008, after the wave of museum scandals we wrote about in Chasing Aphrodite, but in 1970 with the passage of the UNESCO convention. Further, the museum’s postings on the AAMD Object Registry suggest that South East Asian antiquities are not the only problematic collecting area for the Denver museum: it has acquired nine pre-Colombian objects since 2008 that do not have provenance pre-dating 1970.

We’ll follow-up on these matters with Denver, which has still not provided a list of Latchford objects that were lent to the museum.

Meanwhile, if you know of other Latchford material in public or private collections, drop us a line confidentially at chasingaphrodite@gmail.com

At Asia Society, Antiquities Collectors Describe “Climate of Fear”

On March 18th, the Asia Society convened a discussion titled, “Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century.” For anyone with an interest in the ethics of collecting ancient art, it is required viewing.

The conversation touched on many of the key issues facing collectors and museums today: the AAMD’s 2008 acquisition guidelines, which were roundly denounced; recent attempts by archaeologists and museum directors to find a solution to the question of archaeological “orphans”;  WikiLoot, our recent proposal to crowd-source the analysis of the illicit trade; the need to move beyond ownership to stewardship; and the various regimes used by source countries to limit the illicit trade.

But there was one recurring theme among participants, who included collectors, museum officials, legal experts and an archaeologist: the pervasive climate of fear brought on by recent attention to the link between looting and American museums and collectors. Several said this fear had all but halted museum acquisitions and would soon bring an end to American collecting. Participants may have exaggerated those fear somewhat — just a few days later, Sotheby’s South East Asian auction took in $13 million for ancient art. Still, it is remarkable to see many of the leading advocates of collector’s rights wrestle with the core issues facing today’s art market.

The participants were Naman Ahuja, an associate professor of Ancient Indian Art at Nehru University; Kate Fitz Gibbon, a Santa Fe attorney and vice-president of the pro-collecting Cultural Policy Research InstituteKurt A. Gitter, a prominent collector of Japanese art; Arthur Houghton, coin collector, former Getty antiquities curator and president of the CPRI; James Lally, Asian art dealer;  James McAndrew, former senior special agent at the Department of Homeland Security focused on cultural property and currently an adviser to collectors; Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery; and Marc Wilson, former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. 

I’ve posted the full video below. Here are some highlights that caught our attention.

Kate Fitz Gibbon opened the session with a strident call to arms: “We are facing a crisis. What began a decade ago as a few front page legal cases highlighting the greedier and less scrupulous side of the art business and the excesses of a few museums has grown into a sea change in arts policy and museum policy. There has been, I think, an over-reaction rather than an appropriate response, and the consequences are incredibly far reaching. These new policies threaten the very future of collecting and collecting museums. That may sound like an exaggeration today, but if we continue on this path there may not be a next generation of collectors, donors and patrons of ancient art. Not in the United States of America.”

She also described the current legal regime governing looted antiquities: “Under the current legal system we inherited from Britain, stolen is stolen forever, no matter how many times an artwork changes hands. So when an art source country passes such a [national ownership] law, there are no time limits, and knowing possession can be a crime.” Under such laws, she said collectors were being “victimized by a misinformed or over-zealous [federal] agent.” She called the AAMD’s 2008 policy a “self-administered self-poison, completely illogical and not required by any law.”

Mark Wilson: “Younger people have been deliberately misled into believeing that everything in museums is stolen. This is very bad…”

Naman Ahuja said that in many countries modern development proved as serious a threat to archaeologist sites as looting. It was imperative for collectors to engage with the views of archaeologists, whose position should not be so easily dismissed. “It’s not an outrageous argument, it’s a noble argument,” he said. He challenged collector groups to find ways to help source countries stop looting, not just defend American’s right to collect.

Julian Raby spoke about the need to move beyond fights over ownership of disputed antiquities. “We’re possibly on the cusp of a new model, a model that moves away from ownership to stewardship.”

At minute 60, Arthur Houghton introduced the audience to our initiative WikiLoot, warning the audience, “We’re that far away from launching a vigilante effort that may flood the Asia Society and other American museums with people wanting to find out, Is this object looted or not? If it is unprovenanced, how do you know where it came from? And what should we all do about it?”

Houghton denounced the AAMD’s 2008 policy, saying, “Hundreds and hundreds of Americans, even thousands, have collections that are no longer available for study, protection, or exhibition or conservation.” A CPRI study suggested there were millions of objects in private collections that can no longer be donated to museums, he said.

Arthur’s provocation sparked a revealing debate about what the AAMD’s policy did and did not allow museums to acquire. “The real fact of the policy is to freeze acquisition boards,” argued one panelist. Others argued acquisitions of unprovenanced antiquities were still possible, but had to be posted on the AAMD’s object registry. Others noted that the AAMD position was merely a guideline, and museum directors and their boards were free to set their own acquisition policies.

At minute 72, the conversation moved to possible solutions.

Julian Raby said that in addition to the stated arguments for “retentionist” views — protecting archaeological context and defending the ownership rights of source countries — there was a third, more primal motive: the emotional impact of possession and control felt by both sides. “I can understand why my possessions might feel like others losses,” he said. “How can we rebalance a feeling of asymmetry between those who have and don’t have?”

Raby proposed two paths forward: advocacy for the creation of licit markets, and the development of a modern version of partage in which museums help fund excavations and participate in long-term loans and shared stewardship.

By minute 90, the panel was ready to conclude when the crowd nosily demanded that the all-but-forgotten James McAndrew be given his chance to speak. His message: “Don’t be fearful. US laws are very specific.” But his description of the law no doubt raised some concerns. All the talk about UNESCO and 1970 was irrelevant to law enforcement, he said. What they looked to instead was the source country’s date of state ownership laws, many of which go back a century or more. His advice to collectors and museums was to avoid the temptation to fudge import documents, which are the first thing federal investigators will seize on. “If you document your imports properly, you should have nothing to worry about,” he concluded.

The Q&A began at minute 102, and touched on the AAMD policy and the orphan issue, among other issues.

The session concluded with a plea for support by the event’s co-sponsor, William Perlstein of American Committee for Cultural Policy (AACP), whose mission Perlstein said was “to get US policy back to the reasonable middle ground.”

Watch the entire video here, and leave us your thoughts in a comment.

Kimbell Art Museum Responds To Questions About Ancient Cup Acquired Under Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts

The Kimbell Art Museum has decided to list one of its prized possessions — a Greek cup acquired in 2000 under then-director Timothy Potts — on a public registry of ancient art with unclear origins.

The move comes after Jason raised questions about the cup while reporting an article for Saturday’s LA Times on Potts’ role in the controversies involving American museums and the looted antiquities trade discussed in Chasing Aphrodite. This week Potts was named as the next director of the Getty Museum.

The cup in question is from the 5th century BC and was masterfully painted by the Greek artist known as the Douris Painter. The Kimbell describes it as “one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period.” The scene on the cup depicts the death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes, being torn limb from limb by a group of drunken followers of Dionysus.

The museum lists the cup’s ownership history as follows: (Elie Borowski [1913-2003]) by 1977; sold to a Japanese oil company, probably late 1980s; (sale, Christie’s, New York, June 12, 2000, no. 81); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2000.

As David Gill noted in his review of James Cuno’s book Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, the vase was published by Robert Guy in “Glimpses of Excellence: A Selection of Greek Vases and Bronzes from the Elie Borowski Collection” (Toronto Royal Ontario Museum) and highlighted in an interview with Potts for Apollo Magazine (vol. 166,October 1,2007).

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The earliest documented owner of the cup, Elie Borowski, has been linked to the illicit trade by Italian and Greek investigators. His name appears  in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici and on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001 (on right). Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the chart) who is now on trial in Italy.

In correspondence with Potts and the Kimbell, we asked why they were confident the cup was not the product of an illicit excavation after 1970.

Kimbell spokeswoman Jessica Brandrup initially said: “The Museum has not been contacted by the Italian or the Greek government in regards to works in the Museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of the Greek vase was legitimate and remains a highlight in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.”

Potts said via email, “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.” (Worth noting: Four years after the acquisition of the cup, Potts played a central and somewhat controversial role in re-writing those AAMD guidelines, as we note in Saturday’s LA Times story.)

When we pushed the Kimbell for additional information about the cup, we received this statement:

“When the Douris cup was purchased at auction in 2000, the Kimbell Art Museum, like most US museums, held antiquities to the standard of the US 1983 ratification of the 1970 UNESCO treaty.

We believe that the piece can be documented as being outside its country of finding before 1983. Subsequent to its purchase, the AAMD recommended in 2008 that museums apply the 1970 standard instead.

We don’t have information on the cup’s whereabouts between 1970 and 1977, as is evident in the provenance described on our website. To further comply with the AAMD recommendations, we will post it on the AAMD Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.

Thank you for calling this discrepancy to our attention.”

The AAMD object registry was created in 2008, when American museum directors decided the 2004 policy championed by Potts and others was not adequate. As described on AAMD’s website, the 2008 changes sought “to affirm more clearly and tangibly its members’ commitment to helping protect and preserve archaeological resources worldwide, and to strengthen the principles and standards used in making decisions regarding the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art.”

The AAMD’s object registry lists recent acquisitions of ancient art whose ownership histories cannot be traced back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO anti-looting treaty. The goal is “to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries, officials, as well as possible claimants.”

The registry also contains 10 objects acquired by the Chicago Institute of Art, many of then under director James Cuno, who is now Getty Trust CEO.

Hot Docs: Marion True the Crusader

Former Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True

One of the most scathing rebukes of the collecting practices of American museums in recent memory came not from a grumpy archaeologist, a nosy journalist or an overzealous foreign prosecutor. It came from one of the museum field’s rising stars: Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

In June 2000, True delivered a gutsy speech to an audience of museum peers that denounced them for relying on “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” arguments to justify their collecting of ancient art. Over the course of the next hour, True dismantled the various justifications museums had long used to buy ancient art that was almost certainly looted.

The speech, whose full text we’ve posted and annotated here, is remarkable not just for True’s scathing remarks but also for their venue: the annual gathering of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group is the museum profession’s most powerful, consisting of representatives from the country’s largest and wealthiest collecting institutions. As such, the AAMD wields immense clout on matters of institutional policy, including collection practices.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Met

Under the sway of former directors Philippe de Montebello of the Met and James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago (now CEO of the Getty), the AAMD had long resisted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which calls for import restrictions and international cooperation to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities. Instead, AAMD’s guidelines were riddled with caveats and loopholes that allowed member institutions to buy undocumented antiquities as long as the pieces were artistically “significant.” In her speech, True was calling out the power structure of American museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Her speech was inspired by an earlier panel at Columbia University on the Elgin Marbles. The discussion “had nearly devolved into a fistfight” when a fellow panelist suggested the Parthenon sculptures needed to remain the British Museum because the Greeks were “unworthy custodians and therefore did not deserve to have it” [sic]. “As the three front rows of the audience were primarily of Greek nationals or Greek Americans, this statements did not go down very well,” True noted dryly.

True said the debate had caused her to re-trace the evolution of what had become an increasingly nasty debate about cultural patrimony that pit foreign officials and archaeologists against American museums, dealers and collectors. “Given the seemingly noble intentions that inspired the foundation and development of American Art museums, how have they now come to be so often in direct conflict with the source countries and the academic communities that work on cultural heritage?”

Her answer laid the blame squarely at the feet of American museums, which had used similarly “demeaning arguments” to justify their acquisition of marquee objects and to brush off the concerns of foreign countries. She listed the most common arguments, many of which are still used today:

“–Because the contemporary population was ethnically not the same people as the creators even thought they inhabit the same territory;

–Because the police force in the source country does not do enough to protect its patrimony and maybe even is in collusion with the smugglers;

–Because art historians in the country are not up to the job of studying their own patrimony but have had to look to the British German and American scholars for leadership;

–Or because the national laws governing the protection of cultural properties are repressive since they do not allow the free trade in the objects that US laws allow and,

–Or most perplexingly and inflammatory, in the case of Italy, because Mussolini had continued to enforce the laws instituted in the 18th century to protect Italian artistic heritage, that we would be enforcing the laws of a fascist regime.”

“Surely,” True said, “we should not have to rely on such distorted, patronizing and self-serving observations to justify collecting ancient art in this country.”

Next, she turned her sights on dealers and collectors, who still “vehemently denied” the extent of looting that has been clearly documented by archaeologists and governments. Their claims that the illicit trade was small were “contradicted by the evidence,” including their own political machinations to gut American laws prohibiting the import of such objects. It was time to accept that most undocumented antiquities came not from “old European collections,” as dealers and museums were fond of claiming, but from recent chance finds or illegal excavations, True said.

Likewise, the claim made by Sothebys and other auction houses that sellers preferred not to reveal provenance information “flew in the face of logic” because such information would only increase an object’s value. And the common practice of asking governments for evidence of whether a piece had been looted “conveniently ignores” the fact that, by definition, such objects are “undocumented,” she said.

She concluded with a knock-out punch: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty,” she said, citing the Getty’s own 1987 acquisition policy and the writings of James Cuno while at the Harvard Arts Museums. “But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.

“It has been our unwillingness to do so that is most directly responsible for the conflicts between museums, archaeologists and the source countries.”

In one fell swoop, True had laid bare the cynical path of many museum masterpieces—a path few insiders had ever been willing to publicly acknowledge.

But as powerful and succinct as True’s presentation was, her listeners could have been forgiven a measure of skepticism. While it represented one side of Marion True – the crusader for reform — they knew another: the accomplished curator and competitor who for a decade had used those very same tactics to fill the Getty with some of the best undocumented pieces in the world. Indeed, True’s intimate knowledge of museums’ efforts to navigate the illicit trade was based on her personal experience.

As it happened, the day after True gave her speech a judge in Switzerland ruled that Italian officials could take possession of hundreds of Polaroids and documents that had been seized in a 1995 raid of an antiquities dealer’s Geneva warehouse. The Polaroids showed scores of looted artifacts as they appeared fresh from the ground. Eventually Italian investigators traced the greatest number to the Getty and Italian prosecutors started planning a prosecution of Marion True.

A Polaroid of the Getty's Statue of Apollo showing it soon after being looted

Soon after, an internal Getty probe found similar photos in True’s own curatorial files showing, in the words of the Getty’s outside counsel, “objects in a state of disrepair or in a location from which they may have been excavated.” The Getty’s attorney concluded it would take little for the Italians to link True to a conspiracy or to support a claim that the curator “knew or should have known that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Among their best evidence, he noted, would be True’s own 2000 speech before her peers at the AAMD.