No More Unprovenanced Antiquities in Indianapolis

Yesterday the ArtNewspaper published an excellent article by Maxwell Anderson, the ceo and director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “Why Indianapolis will no longer buy unprovenanced antiquities”. Following in the footsteps of the British Museum, he reveals that “The Indianapolis Museum of Art recently decided to impose a moratorium on acquiring antiquities that left their probable country of modern discovery after 1970, unless we can obtain documents establishing that they were exported legally.”

That is an excellent decision I think, and one which should be praised. Why did they choose 1970? That was the year the UNESCO Convention adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It is seen as a watershed moment in which the international community began to shift its thinking on the cultural property. Nothing legally requires them to pick 1970, but it is an important symbolic date, and that is what this measure essentially is. One would hope that the Museum wasn’t purchasing unprovenanced antiquities anyway, and if they did the trustees or museum director could be violating their duties.

Of course an interesting upshot will be that the decision will “prevent our curators, particularly those in the fields of Asian and classical art, from soliciting or accepting gifts from generous donors who bought works of art in good faith.” This refers to the situation which seems to be plaguing the Met as Shelby White has donated many outstanding antiquities for display, but there are concerns that many of them may have been illicit. Anderson speaks to this:

As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1981-87, I helped to cultivate the support of two couples whose personal collections of classical antiquities became among the world’s foremost: Leon Levy and Shelby White, and Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. In neither case did I suspect then or now any malevolent intent on the part of these couples in pursuing objects of great quality. On the contrary, I knew them to be drawn to the remarkable breadth of the classical imagination, and by obtaining works of consummate beauty, they were proud to share their commitment with others. I wrote entries in the catalogues of their respective collections, long after leaving the Metropolitan, out of a sense that the works illustrated in those publications were better off known than suppressed. I maintain that position to this day: forswearing the publication of antiquities lacking comprehensive provenance penalises the works and their makers, and does no service to any potential claimants.

It is, instead, the act of purchasing unprovenanced works that connects with a chain of events leading back to their possibly clandestine removal from a country of origin. I believe that it is essential for all of us who care for the evidence of the past to take no actions that might unwittingly contribute to such removals.

Another important factor in the decision is the IMA’s reluctance to be involved in repatriation or title disputes which have plagued other institutions in recent years. As Anderson rightly points out, this legal wrangling prevents institutions from focusing on the art and studying and appreciating it. However, I wonder if this decision might be challenged by friends of the museum or other donors when an institution refuses to accept an unprovenanced, but very valuable or important gift? The possibility seems remote, but there seem to be a growing number of suits challenging the decisions of museums and other cultural institutions as evidenced by the recent controversies in Philadelphia and Buffalo.

In the end, Anderson is arguing for a better museum and collecting culture. One in which the repurcussions in source nations of collecting and curating are taken into account.

He imagines a situation which I think would be ideal, “Our collective goal should be to persuade art-rich countries to join Great Britain, Japan, Israel, and other nations in the creation of a legitimate market in antiquities. Archaeologically rich countries could use funds realised from the open sale of documented antiquities to bolster their efforts to police archaeological sites, and to support research, conservation, and interpretation in museums, while sharing their heritage the world over.” To better accomplish this he advocates a greater use of International Loans, similar to the long-term lease idea which I discussed yesterday.

He also proposes a radical idea, which is that unprovenanced works should be donated to the Smithsonian, which would then be solely responsible for the repatriation and other controversies, thereby eliminating many of these headaches for other museums. That is an interesting idea, but do we really want the Smithsonian, the only real National cultural institution in the US to be associated with illicitly-gained objects; especially given its recent high-profile problems?

In any event the article is fascinating, and I really recommend giving it a read. The move is ultimately a symbolic one, but one that may lead to continued reform of the cultural property trade.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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