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Antiquities Scandal Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by Andrew L. Slayman

The Republic of Guatemala has demanded that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) return a number of Maya antiquities, claiming they were looted from archaeological sites within its borders. The richly painted ceramics were given to the museum in 1988 by businessman Landon T. Clay and went on display in a new gallery last December 5. A day before the gallery opened, an article in the Boston Globe raised questions about the artifacts' provenience. Guatemala asked for their return, and the U.S. Customs Service began an investigation into how they entered the country. Guatemalan officials have promised they will take the MFA to court if their request is not met.

The MFA has refused to comment, except to say that it reviewed the pieces in 1987, before accepting them, and concluded that they had been acquired legally. Nonetheless, at the time the museum ignored the recommendation of Mayanist Clemency Chase Coggins, now of Boston University, who urged it to decline the offer. According to the Globe, it also refused a Guatemalan request for the artifacts' return, even though MFA attorney Weld S. Henshaw, who conducted the review, knew of a Guatemalan law banning the exportation of antiquities without a permit, and no permits had been issued for the items in Clay's collection.

The Globe article also cast doubt on the origins of two terra-cotta figures from Mali, loaned to the MFA by trustee William E. Teel and now on display in an adjoining room. Dating from ca. A.D. 1300-1600, the figures probably come from around Djenne, where looters have decimated archaeological sites. The government of Mali, which like Guatemala bans the exportation of antiquities, threatened legal action, and the Customs Service began an investigation. Ironically on September 19, just weeks before the MFA gallery opened, the U.S. and Mali concluded a bilateral agreement barring the importation into the U.S. of artifacts from Mali's Niger River Valley, making a 1993 emergency ban permanent.

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© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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