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.