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U.S. museum curators wonder: Who's next?
Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune 19/03/2006

NEW YORK -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Italian government may have resolved their dispute over the ownership of 21 pieces of ancient pottery and silver, but the agreement has hardly restored tranquility to the world of American art museums.
With the Italians playing their cards close to their vests and other nations, such as Greece, Turkey and Egypt, examining the prospects of making their own claims against American museums, worried museum officials are wondering who's next.
At the same time, they have come under assault from archeologists, who say that museums have promoted the looting of ancient tombs and other potentially valuable archeological sites because they have been willing to buy works whose provenance, or ownership history, is not clear.
But, according to the man who crafted the agreement with Italy, one thing not at issue in the ownership controversies is the art itself. It's merely a pretext.
A political statement
"Italian storerooms are engorged with art," Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello told an audience recently during an often-heated panel discussion on the current spate of ownership disputes. "It wasn't as if they needed our works of art. This was a political statement."
Countries have long sought the return of notable works of art. Greece's effort to persuade Britain to return the Elgin Marbles, the frieze that once adorned the Parthenon, is probably the most famous case.
But the current ownership controversy grew out of a 1995 Italian police raid on a Swiss warehouse where antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, who has since been convicted of looting archeological sites, had stored a wealth of artifacts, photos and other records of his operation.
The evidence seized in that raid is being used in the current trial in Rome of Marion True, a former curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who is accused of trafficking in looted artifacts along with American art dealer Robert Hecht.
But Italian prosecutors say Medici's records also indicate that many other American museums ended up with looted goods, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Toledo Museum of Art.
In November, de Montebello traveled to Rome to see the evidence and left convinced that a settlement was the only way to avoid a court case.
"What precipitated it was the emergence of plausible evidence," he told the audience at the New School in Greenwich Village, referring to his settlement offer. "If you pile up enough circumstantial evidence, something undeniable emerges."
The settlement, which was announced last month, calls for the museum to turn over the disputed objects in return for long-term loans of equally important artifacts.
One tangible result of the agreement can be found on the museum's Web site of highlights from its collection. Among the standout items in the Greek and Roman collection is an 18-inch-high krater, a bowl that was used to mix wine and water 2,500 years ago. The museum paid a reported $1 million for it in 1972, but now it is identified as "lent by the Republic of Italy."
In two years, it will head back to Italy. Four other pottery artifacts are scheduled to be returned as soon as possible, while a 15-piece collection of silver will remain on loan at the museum until 2010.
James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the Art Institute reviewed its records after the case against the Getty surfaced. Never an active collector of antiquities, the Institute does not expect to be hit with an ownership claim, he said.
Before 1970, when a UNESCO convention on trade in cultural property was adopted, museums and archeologists frequently worked together to excavate sites and divided the artifacts they found with the host country.
Spurred by the UNESCO treaty, 142 nations now have some kind of law restricting trade in the country's "cultural property," a baggy description that Cuno called "a political construct -- it's what a nation claims it to be."
Such laws often do more to enhance the power of the state than to preserve its cultural heritage, according to Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers" (Norton, 256 pages, $23.95).
"You get bureaucrats giving themselves the power to get to say what can stay and what can go," Appiah said. "What we want is a system of great cosmopolitan collections around the world. This nationalist impulse does endanger these cosmopolitan ideals."
Italy's law says that any newly discovered artifact becomes the property of the state. That provides little incentive for people to turn anything over, because they receive no payment. Instead, they sell the objects on the black market.
Spreading the wealth
Britain, by contrast, has a mechanism that allows the finder to share in the proceeds when an artifact is sold.
But changing laws is a long-term effort. Of more immediate concern to archaologist Elizabeth Stone, who uses satellite images to monitor archeological sites in southern Iraq, is reducing the amount of looting that takes place. One way museums can do that is to take away the incentive to loot by refusing to buy artifacts with a shadowy ownership history.
"If you have an object whose provenance is not known, the chances are very good that it was looted," said Stone, who teaches at Stony Brook University. "My argument is that everybody who loves art and wants it to be available should support the ending of the practice of buying artifacts without a clear provenance. You wouldn't buy a house or a car whose title is unknown."
Stone said that several museums, including the British Museum and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, have stopped acquiring objects with incomplete provenances.
Archeologists focus on looting because tomb raiders and other looters usually damage or destroy objects with no market value in their efforts to unearth artifacts they can sell. That means science loses forever the chance to learn more about the person buried in a tomb, or the society that built a once-great city.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, which represents 169 directors of large North American art museums, issued guidelines in 2004 discouraging the acquisition of artifacts with unclear ownership histories, and last week issued similar guidelines for accepting works on loan. But the Archeological Institute of America has criticized the standards as too lax because they give directors leeway to accept such objects in certain circumstances.
The current tension between archeologists and the museum world was evident in several sharp exchanges between Stone and de Montebello, who commented at one point that "the difference between a looter and an archeologist is that an archeologist keeps better records."
Looting remains a major problem, said Stone, who has examined 750 sites in southern Iraq using high-resolution satellite images in the last three years. Of those, 42 percent have been looted. Many were completely destroyed.
"More archeological dirt has been moved in the last 10 years in southern Iraq than ever before," she said.
But de Montebello said American museums are not fueling that looting. Items from Iraq have not come on the American market, he said, going instead to Japan or the Persian Gulf.
"It isn't that the trade has decreased," Cuno said. "It's simply gone elsewhere. Museums may not be collecting antiquities, but private collectors are."



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