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Museum Watchdog August 14, 2007

David Gill, a professor of archaeology at the University of Wales Swansea, is the author of a number of studies on the antiquities market. With his colleague Christopher Chippendale, Gill has conducted detailed surveys on the origins of thousands of artifacts in private and public collections. His blog:, explores the murky relationship between the museum world and illicit antiquities.


David Gill at Rhamnous in Attica, Greece (Courtesy David Gill)

What motivated you to devote so much of your time to the close study of the antiquities market?

I think it goes back to my time in Cambridge, when I was a museum curator there. We were seeing instances of looting and material coming on the market, particularly Cycladic figurines, and we wondered what the impact of all that was. So my colleague Chris Chippendale and I did a survey of the provenance of Cycladic figurines and a paper on the intellectual consequences of collecting them. We demonstrated that 85% of known Cycladic figurines come from undocumented contexts.

What was the reaction to the paper?

Various people reacted to it, saying "This is atypical, you're distorting facts." Collectors, for the most part. And then there were a series of exhibitions of antiquities in London, notably at the Royal Academy, that we thought were very odd in terms of provenance. Then coming on the back of that was the Sotheby's shakedown. They pulled out of London, and said "Yes, there are obviously problems with the material we've been getting and we'll stop selling it." Of course, all they've done is move it to New York. And now we're seeing the MFA, the Met, and the Getty send all these objects back.

The last two years have obviously been pretty big years in terms of American museums returning looted antiquities to their countries of origin. What do you think the next two years will bring?

Well, it's very interesting. If you look back two years, you saw the MFA being very bullish, saying "There isn't a case here to answer." And then last year they suddenly caved in and said this stuff can go back. I think the evidence for looting is overwhelming. We know there are thousands of Polaroids of these objects seized in the Geneva Freeport. And I think it's well known that people are going through the images and linking them up to items in public and private collections. And that's the basis for the requests. And I think it's easier to return all these objects rather than have all the Polaroids taken through court.

I think we can expect four other American museums to follow suit in the next two years. We know Princeton is negotiating with Italy. With its background, I would be surprised if they could hold out. Cleveland looks like very much the same pattern, we know some of that material followed the same route as the Getty's. The Toledo Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art have also received requests.

Presumably the Italians have Polaroids of these objects as well.

That's right.

Are any European collectors and collections facing the same kind of scrutiny?

You sound like one of my North American post-graduate students, who asked me why we were focusing on American museum collections. I think that's probably because in Europe, or at least in Britain, we have very strong rules because funding is so tight. As a museum, you can't get funding if you don't follow the rules of the Museum Association, which prohibit acquiring illicit artifacts. Another point is that there are fewer big profile museums with these collections. But we do know that Copenhagen has been named as one and I suspect there are a number of museums in Germany which have been buying illicit antiquities.

It sounds like the culture of museums in Europe does more to discourage acquiring looted antiquities.

I think so, certainly in Britain. My hunch is less so in Germany, and certainly less so in Switzerland, where there is a more "fluid" relationship between museums and collectors.

I do want to stress that Boston has been very, very helpful in providing information on objects in their collection. And Carol White [Acting Curator of Antiquities at the Getty] has fallen over backwards to give me information. So in one sense, we can get a very clear picture of what's been going on with these American museums, and there's actually a sort of obfuscation in museums elsewhere. And life is short.

What do we do now with all this information that's emerging about these museums' collections?

Going forward, I think we need to step back, and look at what's going on in the market now, and think about the scale of the problem. There are big questions, much more interesting than individual cases. Take Sotheby's New York. Egyptian antiquities formed 35% of their total sales over the last 10 years. That's way, way above say, sales of Athenian pottery, in terms of overall importance.

Many collectors and curators maintain that the idea of the "universal museum" is threatened by recent efforts to repatriate objects. Is there a value to having these objects on display in major museums not in their countries of origin?

That's a good question. I was talking to Colin Renfrew about the Cretan collection at Cambridge, which was given to the university as a share of excavations. And he pointed out that Cambridge undergraduates have gone through these galleries for decades and been motivated to get involved with Aegean prehistory. So I think in one sense we have to recognize that are historic collections, in Europe, in North America, that are outside the countries in which they are found which have encouraged interest in the cultural heritage of Italy, Greece, and Turkey. And I think we have to recognize that there has been historic collection throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then you move in the period of scientific excavations and you look at an institution like the Met, and you find that its Egyptian collection is largely derived from it share of finds from excavations. I think that's probably true in Europe as well. But I think the sticking point is: "In the twenty-first century, should institutions should be creating a classical collection from scratch?" And I think the answer has to be no. Because we know that the only way to supply that material is essentially to dig up archaeological remains. There isn't this great store of antiquities floating around in people's attics. The Getty is going to be a classic example. If you look at how many pieces in their "Masterpieces" catalog are now going back to Italy or Greece, the figure is between 15% and 20%. So that's not good. And with a museum like the San Antonio Museum of Art, you have to wonder how they built up their collection from scratch.

It may seem obvious, but why should the average museumgoer care whether the material they are seeing in an exhibit has no archaeological context?

I think there are two things to keep in mind. First, are you seeing a genuine object? The case of the Fitzwilliam Goddess is a good example of a forged object being presented as genuine. It was purchased by the University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum in 1926 as one of the earliest examples of Minoan stone sculpture. In fact it turned out to be a fake almost certainly created by one of the people helping Sir Arthur Evans reconstruct the Palace of Minos at Knossos.

Secondly, archaeological objects find meaning in their archaeological context. Strip them from that context and we lose dating, related objects, and information about who used and viewed them. Presenting a looted object means that we value the object as a beautiful thing--but we do not care about the society and culture that created it. And that is an uncivilized view.

David Gill, a professor of archaeology at the University of Swansea, is the author of a number of studies on the antiquities market. With his colleague Christopher Chippindale, Gill has conducted detailed surveys on the origins of thousands of artifacts in museum collections. His blog on looting:, chronicles recent developments in the world of illicit antiquities.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America