Waxman in NYT Op-Ed Urges the Met to Come Clean about Acquisitions

Both the recent purchases and the acquisitions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In so doing she continues to conflate historical taking founded on imperialism with modern concepts like looting and smuggling.  Both imperial taking and the illicit purchase of these objects can be criticized, but for very different reasons.  She does have a point though, institutions will likely face continued pressure to admit how and why objects came to these institutions:

The Met’s galleries and Web site are mysteriously devoid of recent facts about the provenance of many artifacts. Most visitors have no idea how the treasures on display in the Greek and Roman rooms, the Egyptian antiquities department, or the Byzantine, African, Asian and Oceanic collections came to be housed in the museum.

Who among them knows that Louis Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-born collector and Civil War veteran who was the first director of the museum, appropriated a huge number of antiquities for more than a decade? As the American consul in Cyprus in the 1860s, Cesnola kept 100 diggers busy in Larnaca; his house became a kind of museum. Cesnola smuggled out no fewer than 35,573 artifacts — passing them off as the property of the Russian consul — for which the Met paid $60,000. 

The Met doesn’t tell this story. Even many people who work at the Met don’t seem to know it. Plunder is also the provenance of one of the museum’s most imposing artifacts in the Greek and Roman collection — an Ionic capital from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. Massive and graceful, it sits prominently in a gallery on the first floor of the Met.

How did it get here? In 1922, as the Greeks and Turks warred over the port of Izmir, the column was spirited away by American archaeologists along with hundreds of other pieces and sent to the Met. When the hostilities ended, the Turks protested and the theft (or rescue, depending on one’s perspective) became an international incident, recorded in State Department archives. After much negotiation, the Turks ceded ownership of the column in exchange for the return of 53 cases of antiquities, also stolen from Sardis.

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

6 thoughts on “Waxman in NYT Op-Ed Urges the Met to Come Clean about Acquisitions”

  1. You are right that imperial takings and looting/smuggling should be distinguished for clarity of discussion. I can’t imagine confusing the two is necessary to support the proposition that museums should disclose the journeys that objects took to come into their collections.

  2. But what though is the significance of this distinction? Looting is looting.Do we want to find ourselves in the position of having to discuss whether one type of looting is less destructive than the other and thereby run the risk of appearing to defend one type of looting?
    Lawyers may want to make such distinctions but from the point of view of the communities thus deprived of their cultural objects,the destructive effects are similar. The museums must still tell the full story of the objects they display.
    Dr.Kwame Opoku.

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