The Race to Reform in the American Museum Community

The DMA returned ownership of this red-figure krater (4th century BC)—
Italian officials allowed the piece to remain at the museum on loan

Max Anderson is leading the way towards reform in the American Museum Community. The Director of the Dallas Museum of Art has an OpEd in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News responding to recent criticism in the New York Times of the decision by museums to return looted works of art. Here’s the introduction to the piece:

Protecting the world’s cultural heritage is essential to all of us. Like the natural environment, the material record of the past is irreplaceable and easily damaged. Whether you live in a country rich in archaeological finds, or a country with curiosity to learn about the past, every citizen wants to protect archaeological sites from intentional or accidental destruction. And every scholar and museum professional wants to share our most complete understanding of the objects and beliefs that people treasured in the past. The illicit trade of these objects is responsible for one of the largest international black markets, and the destruction of archaeological sites is often the result. It is not museum purchases that have been fueling the damage in recent years: As a result of strict, self-imposed guidelines, those acquisitions have slowed to a trickle over the last decade. However, private purchases are not subject to such guidelines and take place invisibly. Additionally, the construction of public works, from roads to buildings, causes undocumented harm to historic sites every day around the globe, not to mention accidental discoveries on private property, quickly hidden or destroyed. Natural disasters and armed conflict also take their toll on the world’s cultural heritage.

With this and other statements, Anderson is distinguishing himself and his institution from the old days of optical due diligence and the acquire-at-all-costs attitude of so many other American museums. Those policies have slowly been reformed, bu many still cling to that old idea, that these museums should acquire beautiful objects, despite the looting and theft which brought them to a shady international market. I hope that more and more museums look for more creative and sustainable means of acquisitions in the way Anderson has done. Nations of origin and foreign museums really do need each other. Now the mark of a great museum is not how many ancient objects it can acquire— in the past Anderson has called this lust for acquisition the desire to make museums ‘treasure houses’. Instead cooperators with nations like Italy will find collaborative relationships and long-term loans in exchange for cooperation in returning looted objects. Rather than hoard the ill-gotten acquisitions of the past, I think museums will find themselves working quickly to get at the head of the collaborative line with these nations. Anderson’s opinion piece, and the recent nudge towards reform in the AAMD guidelines are the most recent indication of what one hopes will be a positive shift.

  1. Maxwell Anderson, Giving back art — how museums see it, Dallas News, Feb. 8, 2013.
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The Cleveland Museum of Art Acquires 2 Antiquities

A Roman bust of Drusus Minor

Last week the Cleveland Museum of Art announced that it had acquired these two antiquities. Both are, based on the pictures, quite beautiful. And certainly would be objects one one expect to see at a museum. The problem with them though is we don’t know nearly enough about where they have come from, which means there is a very good chance they may have been looted from their context, stolen, or perhaps even fakes. And given that the museum returned 13 antiquities in 2008, and Turkey has also pressed repatriation claims, one would have thought that the museum would have been cautious to acquire newly-surfaced objects with

The Drusus Minor head has been listed on the AAMD’s object registry site. It is a kind of clearing house where museums can place objects with limited histories and allow potential claimants to come forward. The problem of course is how can a nation know an object has been looted from its context. The site lists the country of origin for the object as “probably Algeria although could be anywhere within the ancient Roman Empire”. Here is the history of the object listed there:

The Cleveland Museum of Art has provenance information for this work back to the 1960’s, but has been unable to obtain documentary confirmation of portions of the provenance as described below. The work was sold at public auction in 2004 when it first appeared on the art market. The work was initially identified and published as Tiberius, but was later (after 2007) recognized as a likeness of his son, Drusus Minor. A certificate of origin was issued dated the day after the auction by Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres (deceased 2007), who assisted the prior owner and consigner, Fernand Sintes. The certificate stated the sculpture came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sintes of Marseilles; that the sculpture had been in Mr. Sintes’s family for many generations; that the family’s name was Bacri; and that they had lived in Algeria since 1860. The museum contacted Mrs. Sintes who confirmed on behalf of herself and Mr. Sintes that Mr. Sintes’ grandfather, Mr. Bacri, had owned the sculpture; that Mr. Sintes inherited the sculpture from his grandfather; that Mr. Sintes brought it from Algeria to Marseilles in 1960; that he had inherited it from his grandfather prior to bringing it to Marseilles; that the sculpture was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2004; and that they had worked with Mr. de Serres. The portrait, monumental in scale and of great historical importance, belongs to a major category of Roman imperial portraiture not otherwise represented in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The acquisition of these objects-without-history has raised a great deal of attention. As David Gill notes, the earliest documented history of this object was 2004. And the rest of this history is I think little more than mere speculation, with very little solid evidence.

Rick St. Hilaire argues as much:

There is no explanation why the museum did not contact Fernand Sintes. There is also no information about Mr. Bacri’s first name, how he came to own the artifact, or if there was paperwork specifically describing that Fernand Sintes would inherit the marble head after his grandfather’s death. Did the museum seek out other family members or those in the Bacri family to get a more complete collecting history? That is not known.

A glazed Mayan vessel

And of course the Mayan vessel has a history which only slightly predates 1970. It has appeared in photographs in New York in 1969. But that was the time when the sites in Central and South America were being pillaged on a grand scale. Beautiful objects of course, but what price has been paid for them.

  1. Randy Kennedy, Cleveland Museum Buys Antiquities, Stirs Ethics Debates, The New York Times, August 12, 2012, (last visited Aug 23, 2012)
  2. Steven Litt, Cleveland Museum of Art buys important ancient Roman and Mayan antiquities The Plain Dealer – (2012), (last visited Aug 23, 2012).

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Banks Impacting Art Exhibitions

“The income we have generated through increased business is superior to any income we could generate from selling the collection… Attracting even one individual client can cover the entire cost of lending a turnkey exhibition.”

So says Rena DeSisto, head of “global arts marketing” for Bank of America in a piece by Robin Pogrebin for the NYT.  I take it as another sign that art goes where the money is.

It seems prominent banks have taken to lending works to American museums, including this work, Martin Wong’s Brainwashing Cult Cons Top TV Star (c. 1981) recently donated by JPMorgan Chase to the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  Corporations and others have long sponsored art exhibitions, but recently museums have begun allowing Banks to put together complete exhibitions of their own works, and it may be a sign some museums are ceding curatorial control

Is this another signal of the impact the recession of 2008-09 is having on the arts?  Or is it more of the same.

The Association of Art Museum Directors does not have a policy on the practice.  Pogrebin’s piece states:

The Association of Art Museum Directors has no policy governing shows organized by corporations and “would not be against it,” said Michael Conforti, the association’s president, “as long as the people involved felt comfortable themselves that a show complied with their curatorial standards.”  What museums need to be conscious of, art experts say, is creating the impression that these exhibitions enhance the value of corporate collections that might one day come to market. “A museum has to think very seriously about taking those shows,” said John Ravenal, president of the Association of Art Museum Curators and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The museum, by virtue of its stature and its public role, gives legitimacy or confers a certain kind of validity to these collections when it exhibits them. 

Hat Tip:  The Consumerist 

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Interview on the California Raids After One Year

You can hear my thoughts on the California antiquities investigation in a piece by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez for NPR affiliate KPCC in Southern California which aired this morning, and again this evening.   He tracks the impact of the massive federal investigation and very public searches and seizures which took place last January, and the ripples the raids have created in the museum world, despite little apparent progress in any prosecutions.

You can listen to the audio here

As I said in the piece, I think there are a number of ways institutions can still fulfill their mission, without violating the laws of nations of origin or Federal and State law here in the US.  Despite the very tragic death of Roxanna Brown, the investigations have changed the ways antiquities are transferred, most notably with the revised acquisition policies promulgated by the AAMD. 

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Deacessioning, Art and the Bottom Line


There’s been a great deal written about the National Academy’s decision to sell these two works Scene on the Magdalene  by Frederic Edwin Church (1854) and Mt. Mansfield, by Sanford Robinsons Gifford (1859). 

Lee Rosenbaum was the first to report the story (though she seems a little too fond of criticizing conventional news outlets for not linking her in — despite a paucity of links to other blogs by Lee herself).  As regular readers of Lee will know she has been very critical of deacessioning generally and this one in particular: 

I have never credited the deaccession-or-die argument and I still don’t. That was Fisk University’s justification for its attempt to monetize its Stieglitz Collection. When it was instructed by a judge not only to keep the collection but to get it back up on public view, it somehow managed to raise funds the old-fashioned way, allowing it both to display the collection and to keep the university afloat. I believe that deaccessioning is the easy way out, even more tempting today as museums grapple with Dow-ravaged endowments and distressed donors.

 But she notes:

 The National Academy is an honorary association of artists … who are responsible for its governance. The artist/members voted 181 to 1 … in favor of selling the works. An alternative that was considered but rejected was selling the Academy’s swank Fifth Avenue mansion and moving to less pricey quarters.

 Donn Zaretsky at the invaluable art law blog responds to this argument:

 So let me get this straight. The museum runs a “chronic operating deficit.” Its $10-million endowment is “restricted to specific purposes and cannot be used for general operating funds.” Its artist board members voted 181 to 1 in favor of the sale. The purchase agreement “stipulated that the paintings were to be hung publicly.” There’s a good chance they’ll end up on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

And we’re supposed to be outraged by this . . . why?

I think Zaretsky makes the more compelling argument here.  Is art really this static?  He notes yesterday as well that:

Another question worth exploring is whether it’s sensible to draw such a sharp distinction between the acquisition of art, on the one hand, and other ways museums spend money, on the other. Take, for example, Whitechapel Gallery, only because it was just in the news earlier this week. It recently completed a $20 million renovation and expansion — a “desperately needed” makeover. “The added space will allow the gallery to remain open continuously, whereas before it had to close about 10 weeks a year when installing new art. Its educational space was too small to accommodate even an average-size school class, and the former library had no wheelchair access.” Is it not possible to see those things as every bit as important to the institution’s mission as the acquisition of additional artwork? Is keeping the museum open an extra 10 weeks a year not a good art-related reason? Does expanding space for education not count either? Why should we automatically assume that buying art always justifies a deaccessioning, but that no other use of proceeds — no matter how important to an institution’s mission — ever can?

The argument against deaccessioning is essentially that funding should be found from private donors somehow, and its better for a museum to shutter its doors, and close up shop temporarily and move across town than to sell  a work.  Let’s compare the National Academy’s decision with the difficulties at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.  MOCA pencilled itself into a financial corner.  The institution is in dire financial straights, but according to the LA Times’ Tim Rutten:

[T]he curatorial staff was busy putting on exhibitions that won acclaim around the world, nobody bothered about the cost. Year after year, as expenses outstripped revenue, the board let the professional managers dip into capital — the endowment — to cover the shortfall in operating expenses. More recently, they’ve also been borrowing from restricted gifts to the museum, including those for new acquisitions. While other institutions were pinching pennies and cutting back, Strick actually increased the size of MOCA’s professional staff by at least 50 people.As one trustee, who also asked to remain anonymous, said this week, “All this happened without anybody on the board screaming — and somebody should have screamed.”

 We might point to the financial mismanagement, but how much of this financial difficulty can be focused on the decision to focus on the art itself, on the acclaimed exhibitions.   MOCA seems to have focused entirely on the art, and now needs the art world equivalent of a financial bailout.  The National Academy has instead chosen to deaccession works, which has produced a dramatic reaction from the Association of Art Museum Directors essentially ostracizing the New York institution from the American Art community.  Are the two related? 

I find it very interesting how swiftly the AAMD responded to the National Academy, especially given the downright glacial pace with which it responds to instances of antiquities looting or illegal export.  But might the AAMD be also sending a message to MOCA here, and other institutions in looming financial difficulty that in the current economic climate deaccessioning is not a viable option?  (As I was writing I notice that  Christopher Knight has picked up on the same possibility).  That seems the most likely reason for the dramatic and swift response.  Fund raising and arts funding is going to be tighter in the coming years and months.  The United States has largely been immune from these kinds of painfull art departures, in large part because it has been the buyer.  But as American dominance may be waning, perhaps there will be some tension between America’s expansive art buying policy and the loss of works of art from museums and instituions.  I think there are a lot of complicated questions to resolve here, as art moves from the historical financial and economic centers of America in cities like Philadelphia or Boston to Bentonville Arkansas or even abroad.  Perhaps America’s laws will have to shift and become more ‘retentionist’ as this art loss becomes more common. 

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Cuno and Conforti on KCRW

James Cuno and AAMD President Michael Conforti appeared on KCRW‘s The Politics of Culture a couple of weeks ago to discuss the new guidelines and their views. It’s a short discussion, and not much of it is new but I found it interesting nonetheless. It serves as a good overview of Cuno’s book, and an overview of the new guidelines. Thanks to Kwame Opoku for passing this along.

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The New AAMD Guidelines

While I was on my blogging holiday in recent weeks, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) set a new ethics policy for how art museums should collect antiquities. The AAMD issued a policy which stated essentially that in most cases a museum should not acquire an object unless evidence exists that the object was outside its “country of probable modern discovery bofeore 1970, or was legally exported from its probably country of modern discovery after 1970.”

Much of this is old news to many of you, but I found Randy Kennedy’s NYT article to be a very good summary of the new guidelines, with reactions from Prof. Patty Gerstenblith. I also saw that Mark Feldman, a negotiator of the original 1970 Convention had a very interesting Letter to the Editor, in which he welcomed the new measures, but cautioned that they “may not solve the problem”.

The debate has shifted now to encompass the date of 1970 as a cutoff, though these ethical guidelines are not hard and fast rules. They are guidelines, and art museums can derogate from them freely, though they do so at their own peril. They of course run grave public relations and financial risks when they do so, but this was already the case in recent years, as evidenced by the oft-mentioned repatriations to Italy from the MFA Boston, the Met, the Getty, Princeton, and elsewhere.

Souren Melikian has a follow-up article for the International Herald Tribune, and ties these new guidelines to the shifting antiquities market, though I don’t think this shift has much to do with the new guidelines.

At Christie’s, a sale of antiquities held on June 4 opened with sundry sculptures and other works of art from Ancient Egypt collected by the Swiss Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, who died in 1946. Extraordinary prices were achieved for the greatest rarities from a collection that did not raise provenance questions.

The auction was only into its second lot when a limestone carving of a coiled snake, 19 centimeters, or 7½ inches, across, shot up to $338,500. This was more than 15 times the high estimate. Executed in the late 3rd to mid-2nd millennium B.C., the sculpture carries a royal dedication inscription to the god Osiris that enhanced its importance, and the Jéquier provenance guaranteed that any institution could acquire it without fear of being faced one day with a restitution lawsuit.

The phenomenon repeated itself as a fragmentary bas-relief carved in the second half of the 14th century B.C. came up. Christie’s thought that the limestone slab, which only preserves the upper part of two character’s heads, might sell for $15,000 to $20,000 plus the 25 percent sale charge. It ended up at $182,000…

A day later at Sotheby’s, bidders were even more willing to pay enormous prices for desirable antiquities that could irrefutably be proved to have reached the West well before 1970.

An elongated alabaster vessel from 6th century B.C. Etruria, reportedly dug up at Vulci, was unusual rather than breathtakingly beautiful with its four female masks carved on the base and the bust of a goggle-eyed woman ghoulishly smiling at the top. But it had been illustrated in 1963 in the magazine Antike Kunst. The alabastron, as containers of this type are called, nimbly climbed to $40,625, more than triple the estimate

I think it is certainly right that reliable provenance information which can establish a solid ethical basis for acquisition will certainly drive up the price of objects. This was already the case though, before the new guidelines, as the sale of objects from the Albright-Knox museum already has shown.

However, it is worth noting that some of this provenance evidence can be manufactured aor forged, and has often been done in the past. Continued scrutiny of the antiquities trade is needed, despite these new ethical guidelines. I’m not sure much has really changed. There is still no definitive account of which objects had been discovered or unearthed before 1970.

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The Getty Bronze and "Culture Property Wars"

The “Arts, Briefly” section in today’s New York Times has a couple of interesting points today. First, Marion True went on trial in Greece for conspiring to acquire a gold funerary wreath, alleged to have been removed from Greece. Also, a judge in Pesaro, Italy dismissed a local prosecutor’s claim to the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” found by fisherman in the Adriatic and currently on display at the Getty. When a repatriation agreement was reached in August for 40 other objects, Italian authorities said they would consider their case after the case in Pesaro was resolved.

Along those lines Lee Rosenbaum has an interesting series of posts on how to create a “ceasefire in the cultural property wars”. She makes a number of excellent suggestions, including a need for full disclosure of acquisition policies, and to create a “consistent handling” of repatriation proposals. I agree with both those suggestions.

I have to raise some issues with her discussion of a consensus for future acquisitions. She gives the three dates normally given as cutoffs for new acquisitions:

  1. 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention;
  2. 1983, the date the US implemented the Convention with the CPIA; or
  3. A 10-year “rolling rule” advocated by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Those are all plausible dates, but I think Rosenbaum misses the point in discussing the Getty’s new acquisition policy, and how it relates to the Getty Bronze. First, here’s the Getty’s revised acquisition policy:

For the acquisition of any ancient work of art or archaeological material, the revised policy requires:

* Documentation or substantial evidence that an item was in the United States by November 17, 1970 and that there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin OR

* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was out of its country of origin before November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States, OR

* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was legally exported from its country of origin after November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States.

Rosenbaum then argues, “good faith counts. And it seems to me that this is the best argument for returning the Getty Bronze: There was plenty of ‘reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin,’ and plenty of people DID suspect it, at the time of the acquisition.”

I think Rosenbaum misses the point of the new acquisition policy, because if the Getty were deciding whether to acquire the Bronze today, based on its new acquisition policy it could certainly do so. To be fair, you have to think like a lawyer. The “or” is critical. The Getty could hypothetically acquire the statue if any one of the three clauses are satisfied; it doesn’t have to satisfy all three. The statue was found in international waters in 1964. Even assuming Italy was its “country of origin” the statue had left Italy by 1970, and it certainly was legally imported into the United States; as at that time the US did not enforce Italy’s export restrictions. It’s also worth remembering that absent a treaty agreement the US does not enforce the export restrictions of another nations. The reasons for that policy are complicated, and often don’t seem to have a solid policy foundation, but that’s the general rule followed in both the US and the UK.

These are difficult issues to be sure, but as I’ve argued I don’t think Italy has a strong ethical or legal claim to the statue. Greece perhaps has an ethical claim, but not Italy. The most likely reason for the statue ending up in the Adriatic is it was taken from Greece, probably by Romans.

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