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Conversations: Museums on Trial Volume 59 Number 2, March/April 2006

How will a highly charged trial affect shady museum-acquisition practices?


As ARCHAEOLOGY went to press, Marion True, former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and art dealer Robert Hecht were on trial in Italy and facing possible jail time, charged with conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities. Their partner Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2004 on similar charges, is currently appealing his 10-year sentence. Ellen Herscher, former director of international programs for the American Association of Museums and past chair of the AIA's cultural property legislation and policy committee, spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY about what ramifications the case may have on the future acquisition practices of America's most powerful museums.

Photo by Stuart Swiny

Over the past few years, there have been other high-profile cases implicating museums in the trafficking of looted antiquities. Why has the Getty case received so much attention?
It stems from one very unusual, just sort of miraculous incident, which was the discovery in Giacomo Medici's apartment in Switzerland of all these photographs of pots and antiquities right out of the ground. The thing to hide behind, as far as museums are concerned, has always been that it is almost impossible to prove that something has been looted, because by definition looted artifacts are not documented. Talk about incriminating evidence!

There always seemed to be a bit of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding antiquities that museums acquired from private hands. Is there a sense that museums will now be under closer scrutiny regarding what they're purchasing and from whom?
Yes, I think so. The fact that the Italians were willing to take [a curator] to court has to have had a dampening effect.

Archaeologists are concerned with context. So why would a museum be interested in antiquities whose origins are unknown?
It comes down to a very fundamental division in museums. There are the art museums and there are what can generally be called natural history or history museums. For the latter, the context is very important for the objects. It's all about the history and reconstructing the history via the artifacts. The art museums have the concept that it is the object, the aesthetic, that's primary. You see it as much in some private collectors who say, "I bought this object because it speaks to me." Well, I've seen some of those objects and know they are fakes. So if it's the aesthetic that's your primary criterion, then, well, I guess fakes can probably speak to you, too.

Museum curators argue that a lack of provenance doesn't necessarily mean that an object is looted--and if there is any doubt, wouldn't it better to purchase a potentially important item and put in on display for the public rather than allow it to end up in the hands of a private collector?
There's been a refusal to recognize the connections going back to the looting. As long as the object comes to you from some wealthy collector who is very respectable and drives a nice car, it's easy to dissociate and think, Oh, here's this object that needs a home. And you can just ignore the whole chain of events that goes back to really criminal and sleazy kinds of activities. There's a denial of the fact that by taking or buying that object, you're stimulating the looting of sites. It's just amazing how many people try to deny that direct cause-and-effect relationship.

At the same time, it seems that most people who support and visit museums are generally unaware of how much illegally procured material ends up in exhibition cases. Will the media attention generated by the Getty trial finally drive this point home with the public?
I think the educational value of prosecuting cases is really very high, but the publicity is short-lived. It's frustrating.

So has there been any positive fallout from the case so far?
What I think is most important are the recent discussions between Italy and the Metropolitan Museum of Art about a deal in which the Met would recognize Italy's ownership of certain contested items in their collection, but Italy would leave them in New York on long-term loan, or take the contested items back and send the Met other objects of equal importance on long-term loan. The problem with loans in the past is that most countries were never willing to have the really good stuff go out. Also, if the museums and the countries of origin are talking directly to one another, all these private collectors whom the system depends on as the launderers [would no longer be necessary]. And the financial system where the museums get the donations, the collectors get the tax write-off, would break down, because why should a museum accept donations of questionable objects from a private collector when they could get unquestionable things directly from the country? If collectors had no place to dispose of their collections--what do you do in the next generation? So it would really be rather extraordinary if something like that came out of this. It seems rather too much to hope for.

* See also "The Trial in Rome," February 6, 2006.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America