2009 saw a number of interesting trends in cultural heritage law and policy. Below are a few of the year’s prominent stories. On a personal note, I am still enjoying the fellowship at Loyola in New Orleans; but still looking for a permanent position that will allow me to continue writing and thinking about cultural heritage. But in the mean time your interest and support continues to enrich and support my work. There is a need for people to continue thinking and writing about culture. The blog saw a lot of interest this year, with nearly 80,000 visitors. I’d like to thank you all for your interest, comments, and helpful notes and conversations.
The Four Corners Antiquities Investigation
A large federal investigation into the illegal trade in Native American Artifacts signaled a growing commitment of federal authorities into policing Native American artifacts. A June 10th raid which searched the homes and businesses of over 20 people lead to arrests, and even two suicides. So far charges have emerged in Utah, but charges may emerge in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and perhaps even Colorado.
Ongoing Repatriation Efforts
Repatriation continued to dominate headlines this year. Peru, Egypt, Greece and other nations brought suits and made charges in the press. One of the most interesting stories which emerged early in 2009 were the efforts by China to secure the return of objects taken during the period of colonialism. Many of the prominent details emerged in the press. In February an auction of many works of art from the Yve Saint Laurent auction became the proving ground for China’s cultural diplomacy. These two bronzes were slated for sale at the auction, having been looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. China first threatened suit against Christie’s, but that suit was denied. At the auction, Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. was the winning bidder on these bronzes. Yet he refused to pay, essentially sabotaging the auction. This was another indication of the increasing role that nations of origin are playing in the heritage marketplace. I’m not sure how many wealthy bidders would be willing to stake their reputation or future ability to bid on such a move in the future, but this was a cunningly simple, very shrewd strategic move by Mingchao and the Chinese. They wanted to disrupt the market in these objects which had been looted, and did a brilliant job doing so.
The decision by museums to sell works of art generated considerable controversy this year, and no dispute better encapsulates the difficulties which arise than the decision by Brandeis University to close the Rose Museum of Art. The University has shifted its position since the initial announcement. It has announced its intention to maintain the Rose in some form, but given the University’s financial difficulty the decision was not made lightly. One of the difficulties with deaccession stems from its connection to our fundamental view of art and museum governance. What is the nature of art? An art museum? Are either permanent? Can we trust the governing structures in our museums? Our inability to find common ground in crafting answers to these questions accounts for the continued difficulty. But if the arts community cannot come together and craft viable solutions to these difficulties, we are going to be left with weaker cultural institutions and risk losing more works as a result of financial difficulty.
Treasure Seekers in the United Kingdom
Earlier this year Oxford Archaeology released a report on the management of undiscovered antiquities in England and Wales. The conclusion? Illegal metal detecting in England has declined since the United Kingdom amended the Treasure Act and created the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This has led to the amateur discovery of some beautiful objects, including this Anglo-Saxon hoard discovered by a detectorist this summer.
And of course art theft continued to occur with alarming regularity.