Why Repatriations Really Happen

With all the talk about the new AAMD guidelines, James Cuno’s arguments, and the like, it may be worth remembering why antiquities get sent back to their country of origin: simple evidence of a crime committed.

The wave of antiquities which were sent back to Italy in the last few years are the direct result of a massively successful criminal investigation which had solid photographic evidence that some of these masterworks (such as the Euphronios Krater) were looted and smuggled. It’s an open question whether individuals at the acquiring museums could have been subject to criminal penalties, however

Lee Rosenbaum appears to have completely missed the point in her attempt to arrange a “ceasefire in the antiquities wars“. She argues the AAMD needs to decide “[w]hat should its member museums do about all those objects they already own that wouldn’t have entered their collections had the new standard been applied at the time of their acquisition?” She advocates a 1983 cutoff, the year Congress passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act which implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the US. This seems to me like a bad idea. Commenters and museums seem concerned with cataloging their collection and worrying about what objects they currently have which might end up being shipped back (or might be subject to a public dispute). Perhaps cataloging these objects might make the institutions or others feel better about what might be at risk, when the real problem was the complete ignorance of the law and good practice at the time these objects were acquired.

Picking a date is not helpful, nor does Rosenbaum offer any reason why Congressional action in 1983 is a watershed moment for museum directors and curators. When she says “It’s only a matter of time before other source nations follow Italy’s lead” she ignores the fact that Italy has been so successful because they had the evidence. Without the proof not other nation will be able to achieve Italy’s success. There are countless other examples of this, the Sevso Treasure being the most prominent.

David Gill seems to understand this, and he shares my skepticism of this 1983 date. He points out that the returns to Italy represent only 1% of the objects in the Geneva Polaroids.

Picking an arbitrary date will not end the controversy, nor will it protect any more antiquities currently at risk. We need a cooperative coordinated approach which rests on a transparent market and loan procedure which works in conjunction with law enforcement and customs officials of many nations.

In Part II, she makes a few seemingly simple suggestions for future repatriations. One in particular is a collossally bad idea: that when objects are returned museums should give a “[d]etailed disclosure of why the museum has relinquish[ed] the objects”. (David Gill thinks this is a good idea as well).

This will never happen, and probably shouldn’t in most cases, because museum directors would potentially be admitting criminal wrongdoing and might open themselves up to criminal prosecution or investigations by State Attorneys General. I could perhaps see an argument for a detailed disclosure when an object which has been in a collection for 50 years or more, but for the short term acquisitions, museum directors would be making a collossal mistake. Would Marion True have been better served about telling Italy how and why objects acquired under her watch were returned to Italy?

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

1 thought on “Why Repatriations Really Happen”

  1. I really do not want to enter this discussion on whether 1970 or 1983 should be the cut-off date for applying rigorous standards in the acquisition of antiquities. Any such date would exclude the majority of African objects which were illegally acquired in the past. Why are museums and antiquities dealers always looking for lower standards when it comes to examining their acquisition practices? The only really correct standard would be whether these objects were acquired in accordance with the law of the place of initial acquisition,i.e. the laws of the source country. What is required is solid evidence on the mode of acquisition. If a crime or an illegal act was involved in the initial acquisition,then subsequent acquisitions should be regarded as tainted by illegality ab initio unless bona fides can be established.This would lead to considering compensation for the innocent acqusition of stolen property. The flow of time should not be used to cover blatant illegalities. Kwame Opoku

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