Owners of ‘orphaned’ objects find donations difficult now

A detail from one of the Sevso objects, the most
notorious collection of ‘orphaned’ objects

An interesting report in today’s N.Y. Times discusses the difficulty some collectors of antiquities are having when they decide to donate their collections to museums:

But his giving days are largely over, he said, pre-empted by guidelines that most museums now follow on what objects they can accept. “They just won’t take them — can’t take them,” Mr. Dewey said. Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, is in a similar bind. An antiquities collector, he is eager to sell an Egyptian sarcophagus he bought from Sotheby’s in the early 1990s. But he is stymied, he said, because auction houses are applying tighter policies to the items they accept for consignment. “I can’t get proof of when it came out of Egypt,” Mr. Dershowitz said.
The main omission from the report though, is that it only really gives the perspective from the point of view of collectors, without really giving much in the way of the consequences of buying these illicit objects.

There is a collection of reactions which give the perspective of the cultural heritage movement. But one big piece missing from the report involves the tax deductions received for these donations (and I’m pretty sure Neil Brodie and Patty Gerstenblith would have made this known to the authors of the piece).When an illicit object is donated, the donor receives a lucrative tax deduction, which can often exceed its real value. As a consequence the American taxpayer is then subsidizing the illicit antiquities trade, and helping to pay for the continued looting of sites.

I can appreciate the concerns of collectors who have acquired objects without informing themselves of the issues involved in the antiquities trade; who now find themselves surprised to have a very valuable piece of ancient art; and nobody is now willing to accept it as a donation. But this is a necessary consequence of the lack of information given by auction houses and dealers to these folks—especially the buyers who have money, but don’t know what they are actually buying. Some objects may be orphaned, but if the trade itself responds to this correction and pressure exerted on behalf of the owners of these ‘orphans’, then that might very well be worth the costs. Buyers won’t be buying objects if there is no further market for these objects, and the market itself rejects objects without provenance and information.

 Consider as well that many of these objects may not be real to begin with. Without information on an object’s history, we have lost the best most cost-effective means of knowing if an objects is in fact not a fake.

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Antiquity Market Grapples With Stricter Guidelines for Gifts, N.Y. Times, July 12, 2012.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Student Note on Orphaned Works and Cultural History

Brianna Dahlberg has posted a student note on orphaned works and access to cultural history in the Southern California Review of Law & Social Justice. From the abstract:

Orphan works are copyrighted works whose owners are difficult or impossible to find. They include a vast number of old works in museums, archives and libraries that are not being commercially exploited by rights holders because they are out-of-print, unpublished or anonymous, but nonetheless have cultural or historical significance. However, if the institutions cannot locate the rights holders, they cannot publish or publicly display these works without risking a copyright infringement lawsuit should the rights holders come forward in the future. This Note addresses a new aspect of the orphan works problem: its disproportionate impact on works created by racial and religious minorities, women, Native Americans and other indigenous people, and the poor. Locating rights holders for early-twentieth century works by these groups tends to be especially difficult for a variety of reasons. Minority and poor white musicians were routinely excluded from performing rights organizations until the 1940s and were less likely to register their copyrights. Women and minority visual artists often created their works apart from the established gallery system, and their artworks tend to be less exhibited and well-known. The identifying information for folk art and traditional Native American art is often lost. As a result, many of these important works remain locked away in archives and inaccessible to the public. This Note proposes a solution to the orphan works problem with the goals of promoting broader cultural access and participation in mind. I evaluate four potential approaches, and conclude that the Nordic countries’ solution of extended collective licensing would best serve the goal of promoting access to cultural works of disadvantaged groups while fairly compensating rights holders who do come forward.

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