Spinning a Tale - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Spinning a Tale March 3, 2006

Italy regains its artifacts, but did it lose the pr war? And will museums now embrace more responsible acquisition policies?


On February 21, the Italian Culture Ministry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed an agreement for the return of 21 artifacts that Italy says were looted from its archaeological sites. In return, the Metropolitan will receive long-term loans of objects of similar importance. It seems like a win-win situation, but even before the agreement was initialed the spin was on, and while Italy may have regained its artifacts, it may be in danger of losing the public relations war. And not just Italy. Organizations such as the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which has long campaigned against the looting of sites and the illicit trade in artifacts, may find their viewpoint undermined in the court of public opinion by an aggressive round of interviews by the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello. ARCHAEOLOGY spoke to Malcolm Bell, AIA vice president for professional responsibilities and a professor at the University of Virginia, about this.

Photo by Seung Jung Kim

Some of the museum's strategies in the fight for the hearts and minds of the public were made clear in a February 19, 2006, an interview that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, "Questions for Philippe de Montebello. Stolen Art?" Asked by reporter Deborah Solomon about his upcoming trip to Rome to finalize the deal with Italy, de Montebello replied, "The world is changing, and you have to play by the rules. It now appears that the [Euphronios krater] came to us in a completely improper way--through machinations, lies, clandestine night digging. As the representative of an honorable institution, I have to say no, this is not right."

But Italy has pursued the Euphronios krater for decades and, in his 1993 book Making the Mummies Dance, de Montebello's predecessor, Thomas Hoving, expressed his conviction that it was indeed stolen from there. So, one tactic is apparently to minimize the problem and take the moral high ground, justifiably or not. Doesn't the agreement make this possible? With the museum's records of its acquisition of these artifacts remaining sealed, we won't know what the Met knew when it bought the so-called million-dollar pot.

Bell: Much depends on what happens next. It is good to have resolution of the two "historic" cases, those regarding the krater painted by Euphronios and the silver treasure from Morgantina, which both go back several decades. It is also appropriate that the Met repatriate the objects purchased through the corrupt dealer Giacomo Medici. Having said this, I would also note that the Met drove a very hard bargain, excessively so in my view. There will be long delays before repatriation takes place, and the Morgantina treasure must return to New York four times in the next forty years, leaving a big four-year gap in the Italian museum where it is exhibited (with nothing provided in return, although Italy must provide objects of comparable interest to the Met, when the treasure is displayed in Italy). If the museum continues to regard the laws of Italy and other "source countries" as illegitimate, and it continues to consider the historical and cultural evidence provided by archaeology as irrelevant, then it may regard the agreement with Italy as nothing more than a bump in the road, and resume old-style collecting. This would be very unfortunate, for the public is now well-informed about the old ways, and about the destruction of archaeological sites to satisfy the demands of the market. The trial taking place in Rome has dramatized this in a remarkable way. On the other hand, if the Met and other collecting museums adopt better acquisition policies, then we may come to view the past several months as a real watershed in international efforts to diminish the destructive effects of the market. This may not be wishful thinking--remember that the Dumbarton Oaks Conference did lead to the establishment of the United Nations, and the UNESCO Convention was signed in 1970.

De Montebello also used the February 19 interview to suggest that countries trying to protect their cultural heritage are acting out of a misguided nationalism (the word "retentionist" has also been used in this argument): "The world has been atomized into a set of political entities. There is a resurgence of nationalism and misplaced patriotism. There is the sense that, 'This is our identity.' But I can't see how a Greek vase is the identity of a modern-day Italian." To which the reporter responded effusively, "Exactly. On what basis can Italians in the 21st century say that the Euphronios krater, which was created in Greece more than 2,000 years ago, belongs exclusively to the Italians?"

Here--so goes the spin--the problem isn't the destruction of archaeological sites to obtain artifacts for the illicit trade, it is that the Italians are perhaps being a bit irrational or small minded, and that the mission of museums somehow overrides the laws of nations. How can you counter this "us" versus "them" approach when the "us" is portrayed as lofty-minded universalists and the "them" are foreign nationalists?

Bell: There is a simple, rational, and convincing response. It is this: the destruction of unique, irreplaceable archaeological sites to satisfy the appetites of the so-called "universal" museums is totally unacceptable. The museums cannot justify fencing stolen goods, and they betray their missions by furthering the destruction of historical and cultural evidence. The proper solution is for the "universal" museums to negotiate with the source countries, obtaining loans and traveling exhibitions. Worldwide human heritage should be protected from all clandestine, illegal exploitation, whether it is stimulated by the demands of private collectors or by "universal" museums. What is called for now, and urgently called for, is legitimate acquisitions policies by the world's museums. The Met should follow the example of the British Museum, which has recently adopted and disseminated an acceptable new acquisition policy.

De Montebello correctly noted in the February 19 interview, "If Italy says that an object found on its soil is Italian property, and I buy it, I have bought stolen property." In other words: it is the law. In fact, in Italy this law dates back to 1939. The reporter, however, then insinuates that such laws are wrong-headed: "But art isn't the same as oil or other valuables found in the ground...art reflects everyone's heritage and shouldn't be hoarded by Italy or Egypt or any country that happens to turn up shards of pottery found on its soil." Montebello added to this, asserting that such laws actually contribute to looting: "Perhaps those countries will realize that the tougher their patrimony laws, the more they are victims of illicit looting."

But isn't this the equivalent of saying that if there was no such thing as private property, there would be no theft? Is there any evidence that tough patrimony laws promote looting of sites? And again, there is no mention of the destruction of sites: artifacts are simply art objects.

Bell: I think it is obvious that if archaeological sites in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt were not protected by laws and by custodians, there would be a great deal more looting. Like many of the views of museum administrators, this one seems wrong-headed and ultimately self-serving.

A week after the agreement was signed, another interview of de Montebello, by Randy Kennedy and Hugh Eakin, appeared in the New York Times, "Met Chief, Unbowed, Defends Museum's Role." The reporters describe de Montebello as having "been hailed as the man in the white hat for his willingness to part with some of the museum's finest treasures in the face of evidence that they were probably looted." The same strategies are apparent in his answers as in the earlier interview.

Minimizing the problem: "You want to get irritants, you want to get vexing issues, behind you."

Was this all about no more than an irritant?

Bell: That does appear to be Mr. de Montebello's view. It is a shame that it is not accompanied by recognition that the Italian negotiators with whom he has been dealing are wise and experienced professionals who are doing their best to protect an immense and remarkable patrimony, much of it still underground and at risk to the depredations of the sort of people who provided Giacomo Medici and Robert Hecht with the objects they sold to U.S. museums. Back in New York Mr. de Montebello appears to question, even to scorn the views of his Italian counterparts.

Questioning the laws foreign of other countries compared to the mission of the museum: "I am puzzled by the zeal with which the United States rushes to embrace foreign laws that can ultimately deprive its own citizens of important objects useful to the education and delectation of its own citizens."

Will Americans be deprived if museums do not purchase stolen or questionable artifacts?

Bell: The solution is again very simple. In an increasingly global world, in which archaeological resources are finite, two things should happen: the sites must be protected, and the source countries must make available loans and traveling exhibitions. Italy is already doing this in the most progressive and legitimate way.

Keeping the discussion about objects, not the destruction of sites: "Ninety-eight percent of everything we know about antiquity we know from objects that were not out of digs." "How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in--supposedly Cerveteri--[the Euphronios krater] came out of?"

Yet, for the classical world, isn't most of our knowledge from either written records or excavations? How important is context?

Bell: These comments either were misquoted or they reveal considerable ignorance about the ancient world. The krater by Euphronios was found in no ordinary hole, but rather in a tomb, probably an important one, at Cerveteri. Was it one of the remarkable chamber tombs at Cerveteri, almost house-like in their complexity? What other objects were found inside? What individual did the krater accompany into the underworld? Who was its last owner, before it was acquired by the museum? What is the date of the burial? Could the tragic scene of Sarpedon's death have been chosen because Euphronios knew the vase would have a funerary use? Mr. de Montebello appears to be quite uninterested in such questions, but I believe that most viewers of the vase would like to know about the full history of its use in antiquity. Once it is back in Italy perhaps at least some of this information can be recovered.

According to reporters Kennedy and Eakin, the Metropolitan's current acquisition policy was adopted in September 2004. The policy stipulates, they maintain, that the museum "can acquire only works whose documentation dates back at least 10 years, although it can make an exception for any work of special importance or merit." Those terms match guidelines proposed by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in June 2004, guidelines that have now been criticized by the AIA.

What problems do you see with the AAMD guidelines on acquiring artifacts? What policy should museums adopt?

Bell: The AAMD guidelines contain many loopholes that permit a collecting museum like the Met to continue more or less on the same course as in the past. Dealers often keep objects for longer than ten years. What is the nature of documentation dating back ten years?--if it is dealers' stories, then it has little meaning (see Simon Mackenzie's new book Going, Going, Gone for a revealing account of the workings of the antiquities market). The AAMD guidelines also allow for exceptions. A better policy should state categorically that museums refuse to buy unprovenanced objects likely to have been recently looted, and the "date before which" (i.e., the date before which a work should have proof of being above ground) should either be that of the relevant laws in the source country, or considerably earlier than the ten year period recommended by the AAMD. The collecting museum should thus decisively separate itself from the contemporary market in illicit antiquities. The AIA recommends 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention. And if a museum wants to "rescue" an exceptional object from the market, it needs to have a committee of outside experts to give an opinion--this is the procedure adopted by the British Museum.

* A full critique of the AAMD guidelines and the newly proposed AIA recommendations are available on the AIA website.

Notes: ARCHAEOLOGY magazine is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. Current New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., is a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His father, chairman emeritus of The New York Times Company, served on the Met's board from 1968 to 1999 and was its chairman for 11 years.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America