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

How to be a tomb raider?

Slate’s regular Explainer feature covers Tomb Raiding 101 this week. It is generally well-researched and informative. Christopher Beam does a good job of giving an enjoyable overview, but gets a few things wrong.

For example, Beam writes

“Tomb raider” is really just a glamorous way of describing an unlicensed archaeologist. Anyone who wants to dig in Egypt must first go through the arduous process of getting official permission. The authorities demand an explicit description of any project, proof that the diggers are with a university or museum, and a list of everyone who will be working on the site. The license request goes to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government agency that oversees all excavation projects. If you try to dig without the council’s permission, you’re breaking the law—so “tomb raiders” might be opportunists looking to sell their findings, or they might be serious excavators who simply can’t get permission for a dig.

That is correct for Egypt, but looting takes place all over the world. In Latin America for example, a number of unlicensed digs take place, but many of the excavations in that country are not conducted by the stereotypical tomb raider, or simple villager. In many cases, illicit excavation is done by “subsistence diggers”. David Matsuda has done some good work on this subject. This is a controversial aspect of the illicit trade, because it means that the reasons for allowing the illicit trade to continue may be as compelling as the claims of archaeologists and other advocates who argue for an end to the trade in antiquities. When you are digging in tombs for your own survival, the ethical rationale for your illegal activity increases dramatically in my view. However, just how many “subsistence diggers” there are, and if the availability of other means of survival is open to debate. At the very least, though many media reports talk about the criminal “tomb raider”, this stereotype may be inaccurate.

Beam also references the criminal conviction of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry in England, and his counterpart Frederick Schultz in the US in recent years. These two were hardly tomb raiders. They never unearthed an object. Rather, Parry dealt with Egyptians who found or dug up antiquities. They constructed elaborate provenances and disguised the antiquities for Schultz to sell in his Manhattan gallery. They weren’t raiders, they were dealers and middlemen.

Beam talks about the various international agreements relevant to the illicit trade, most notable the 1970 UNESCO Convention. He says these agreements make tomb raiding “very difficult”. I think that may be giving a bit too much deference to these international instruments. The most important impact these international conventions have had on the illicit trade is in terms of raising the profile of the problem, and encouraging Nations to take action. The UNESCO Convention does not return objects. Rather it is the individual Nations implementing structures that dictate their return.

So, though “Tomb Raiding 101” may be an entertaining read, if you are considering a foray into the illicit antiquities trade, I’d consider a more thorough introduction. The sad reality is that becoming a tomb raider may be far easier then you would think.

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

Italy takes aim at Japenese museums

Italy’s aggressive repatriation campaign is continuing, this time in Japan. Italian authorities have compiled a list of 100 objects it claims must be returned. Many of the works are currently housed at the Miho Museum in Koka. Italy plans to make a request for the return of the objects under the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The way in which Japanese authorities respond to these claims will likely be dictated by the quality of the evidence which Italian authorities are able to produce. Most reports claim that these objects are stolen, and that term is likely inaccurate. Probably none of the objects are stolen as we normally think of the crime. Most likely, they were illeglly excavated and/or illegally exported. Italy has claimed an ownership interest in its antiquities, and also put strong restrictions on their export.

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