I cannot speak to broader trends among art curators but I think it is a mistake to blame broad trends in the field of art history for the existence of forgeries. They have always been present, and likely always will be in some form. Failing to conduct a rigorous study of the history of an object should have course be criticized, but that kind of unfortunate mistake should be contrasted when an object which might have a good history free of the potential of looting. This happens for antiquities, works of art, and many other objects. Some forgeries are made maliciously to fool, other works of art which are inauthentic appear absent any wrongdoing of the creator.
This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.
The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.
If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.
To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.
Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who
acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.
Disputes over works of art continue to hamper relationships between major Museums and nations of origin. One example is what appears to be a strained relationship between Turkey and the Met.
The Met is planning a major exhibition on the Seljuk Islamic empire. But the show
looks to be hampered by Turkey’s cultural embargo which demands a return of works of art before any new material will be loaned. As Tim Cornwell reports for the Art Newspaper:
Without loans from Turkey, and with Iranian loans unlikely unless there is a sudden improvement in relations between the US and Iran, the Met will have to rely on major loans from British and European institutions instead.
. . .
But Turkish loans could have ranged from manuscripts from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and trophy items, such as an extraordinary steel mirror with gold inlay also housed there, to reliefs from the walls of Konya, the Seljuks’ historic capital in Anatolia.
Turkey has asked for a number of objects back from the Met, the British Museum and other institutions. Some of them removed from Turkey very early in the 20th Century.
According to reporting at Chasing Aphrodite, those objects requested by Turkey from the Met include objects with no history before from the Norbert Schimmel collection acquired them in the 1960s-70s. The ongoing dispute is a pity, as it harms both the ability of curators at the Met to secure Seljuk material for the exhibition, and hampers Turkey’s opportunity to present its heritage to new audiences.
Today, Ralph Blumenthal reports that the Met has agreed to return two 10th century statues to Cambodia. The Met’s director Thomas Campbell is quoted as saying:
This is a case in which additional information regarding the ‘Kneeling Attendants’ has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today.
The piece reports the statues may have been removed from Cambodia at around the same time the Koh Ker statue was removed, which is the subject of an ongoing forfeiture action by a federal prosecutor. Little information has been reported that I can find on the precise circumstances surrounding the removal of these statues from Cambodia. We know the instabality and conflict taking place in southeast Asia at the time of course. The statues were donated by Douglas Latchford in a series beginning in 1987. The parts of the statues were broken into pieces at some point, and the individual pieces of the figures were donated between 1987-1992. Conservators at the Met reattached the heads and bodies in 1993.
The Met should be congratulated for doing the right thing here with these objects which have such an important connection to Cambodia. This return may also give pause to Sotheby’s, the Norton Simon museum, and others who have objects which were removed from Cambodia during this period.
Blumenthal, Ralph. “The Met to Return Statues to Cambodia.” The New York Times, May 3, 2013, sec. Arts / Art & Design. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/arts/design/the-met-to-return-statues-to-cambodia.html.
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“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”, Pierre Cezanne (1891)
Pierre Konowaloff has lost a bid to secure the return of some art confiscated nearly a century ago. Konowaloff is the successor in interest of a Russian art collector who had his art collection confiscated in the 1917 Russian revolution. The 2nd Circuit held the claim is barred by the act of state doctrine, upholding a 2011 dismissal of the claim in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. In its simplest form, the doctrine protects the U.S. Executives dealings with foreign nations by requiring claimants like Konowaloff to seek a remedy with the state doing the expropriation. The doctrine states that separation of powers requires that federal courts not challenge the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments.
In 1911, Ivan Morozov purchased the work. Morozov was a Russian art collector, and lost this work and another Van Gogh currently held by Yale University after the Bolshevik seizures during the Russian revolution. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of Morozov. The Soviet Union in 1933 needed funds and decided to deaccession (if I can use that term in this context) the painting. The paintings were purchased by Stephen Clark, an American who bequeathed the Cézanne to the MET and the Van Gogh to Yale University. Yale decided to initiate a declaratory suit, getting ahead of the lawsuit, and is still ongoing.
So the Bolshevik-era claim has been extinguished. One wonders though if the way courts treat the act of state doctrine in this context may be different from the ways it might treat foreign ownership declarations of other works of art. That’s a question I don’t have the answer to. It may be there are peculiar aspects of the doctrine. But on balance this seems like nations are given the benefit of the doctrine when it comes to situations where museums have long possessed these objects, but they aren’t given the same advantages in other repatriation cases. That may be because of problems baked-in to the doctrine, or not. I’m not aware of any direct act of state doctrine argument which bends for claimant-nations, it seems primarily to assist current museums attempting to fend off suits arising from Nazi-era takings.
One of two kneeling statues from Koh Ker, at the Met
Cambodia has discovered it may have a claim to another set of objects in New York. But these statues are on display at the Met, not up for auction.
The contested statues may have been taken from the same temple where a mythic warrior figure (discussed earlier here) was likely looted in the early 1970s. It seems the Cambodians have uncovered other objects which they may have tenable claims for in the wake of the research into the statue from the Koh Ker complex which was removed from auction at Sotheby’s last month. Federal prosecutors have initiated a forfeiture proceeding against that statue, based on the fact that despite the armed conflict at the time, Cambodia’s earlier pre-existing legal principles had established the statue was owned in some way—and thus any removal would have been an illicit removal.
It seems research into the temple complex and the established law have allowed Cambodia to cast a wider net for their repatriation claim. It will be interesting to see how the Met responds to Cambodia’s questions. The initial reaction from the Met in the piece does not seem to show the Met asked for much history when these objects were acquired:
The museum acknowledged that beyond the names of the donors it has no records on the statues’ origins, despite a longstanding policy to investigate the history of donated antiquities. “No one is concealing anything,” said Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs. “I’d like nothing better that to find more documentation.” Mr. Holzer cautioned against using current standards for museum collecting to evaluate the propriety of acquisitions dating back more than two decades. “There were no real prevailing restrictions against accepting these works of art,” he said of the period, “especially if, by doing so, they might be protected from disappearance completely from public view and from study.” The Met’s policy in 1992 allowed it to accept works without a detailed provenance. Such acceptance, though, was supposed to come after an effort had been made to root out the history of a piece in case it was illicit.
One of the contested objects, a Hittite silver cup (1400 BCE)
Jason Felch reports on the Chasing Aphrodite blog that Turkey is actively seeking 18 objects from the Met. Earlier this month Martin Bailey reported that Turkey would stop lending objects to the United States and United Kingdom, and this dispute with the Met may be one of the motivators for that cultural embargo. This seems a curious collection of objects for return, one that does not share many characteristics with the other kinds of objects requested by nations of origin in recent years. The objects were part of the Norbert Schimmel Collection. Schimmel was a former Met trustee and the collection itself was published in a 1974 volume edited by none other than outspoken looting critic Oscar White Muscarella.
I sometimes call these kinds of requests for return realkulturpolitik, in that there does not appear to be a direct legal mechanism for the return of these objects at this late date. In order to pursue a legal claim here Turkey would have to justify its reasons for not bringing a claim in 1974. Reasons for that delay may be new evidence which has come to light which shows that these objects were illegally removed from their context or from Turkey. Yet we do not yet know of any of the specifics justifying the return. And if a legal claim was brought for these objects, Turkey would have to show the Met is not prejudiced by the delay under a laches defense. This could prove difficult. After all, Schimmel and others who would have acquired these objects are deceased and cannot provide evidence about how these objects were acquired.
And from the Met’s perspective, we do not yet have any of the histories of these objects before their acquisition by Schimmel. The absence of detailed information foreclosing their potential looting or acquisition of these objects makes them questionable objects perhaps, but does not give Turkey a legal right to them. The law requires Turkey to establish that they came from Turkey, which might be difficult. Schimmel appears to have acquired these objects before 1974, at a time when the heritage community was first beginning to pay attention to the looting of sites, after the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
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.
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