Looted antiquities have long been the dirty little se-crets kept by American art museums. But now some of the country’s top cultural institutions are being forced to come clean about their collections as foreign governments aggressively pursue artifacts swiped from within their borders.
Last week, the Italian government and the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed a precedent-setting accord stipulating the return of 21 artifacts from the New York institution to Italy. Among the objects are a Greek vase from the sixth century B.C. and a collection of Hellenistic silver that Italy claims were stolen from archaeological sites dug within its soil. In exchange for giving up the works, the Met will receive long-term loans of significant treasures from Italian collections.
Now the Italian investigators are moving on to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and other cultural bulwarks in Boston, Princeton, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Toledo. They contend that these museums, like the Met, house artifacts stolen from Italy’s ancient sites.
Egypt has also made a recent move to reclaim its ancient heritage. The nation’s antiquities council recently asked the Saint Louis Art Museum to return a pharaoh’s golden mask believed to have been stolen from a storeroom in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Peruvian officials are haggling with Yale about antiquities purportedly looted from the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.
Will the nation’s capital be the next target?
Local museums don’t own the sizable collections of ancient classical treasures being investigated by the Italians. But the Dumbarton Oaks Collection comprises antiquities from Central and South America, and the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery specializes in ancient artifacts from the Middle East and Asia.
Both claim they have strict policies on collecting and documenting acquisitions. “We don’t accept gifts unless the donors can show that the objects have been in the country for decades,” says Edward Keenan, director of Dumbarton Oaks. “If someone were to walk in the door with something they wanted to donate, we would challenge them, asking ‘Where did you get it?’ ”
He notes that the museum “hasn’t acquired anything in years” and that its collection of Pre-Columbian and Byzantine artifacts has changed little since Mildred and Robert Bliss gave their collection to Harvard in 1940. “The last thing Harvard wants is something like what’s happening at the Met,” Mr. Keenan says.
Curators at the Smithsonian’s Sackler declined to comment, but in past interviews have cited the museum’s compliance with a 1970 UNESCO agreement banning illegal trade in cultural property. Congress passed legislation in 1983 based on the UNESCO agreement, and “a potentially large number of significant source countries, including China, are starting to reach similar agreements,” says attorney Thomas Klein of Andrews Kurth LLP, who specializes in cases involving illicitly obtained artworks.
Despite the law, museums have been slow to set strict ethical standards for acquiring and exhibiting antiquities with uncertain or inaccurate records of origin and ownership. “Museums are self-regulating to much too great an extent,” says archeologist Malcolm Bell III, who teaches at the University of Virginia and has long researched the Sicilian tomb where the Met silver pieces were probably buried. “The problem of pillaged works of art in museums is still very real.”
Mr. Bell considers the Met-Italian accord “a real earthquake” in shaking up the art museum establishment, and others agree that it sets a precedent for dealing with ancient loot.
“The action by the Met begins to remove the impediment to open and transparent conversation about cultural patrimony,” says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “It’s very positive.”
But even under the threat of legal claims by foreign governments, the museum world still remains reluctant to establish tough rules about antiquities that could turn off potential lenders and donors, as well as visitors eager to admire rare treasures.
On Monday, the Association of Art Museum Directors published new guidelines for exhibiting loaned archaeological material and ancient art that leave wiggle room for displaying borrowed objects that may have been stolen. Works with an incomplete or unobtainable provenance, the guidelines state, “may deserve to be publicly displayed, conserved, studied, and published because of their rarity, historical importance, and aesthetic merit.”
While some art experts say exhibiting undocumented antiquities can help expose the objects to scholarly scrutiny by bringing them into the public domain, others say such a practice encourages looting — and may increase the value of stolen artifacts by giving them a museum’s stamp of approval. Exhibiting a treasure without a clear provenance may also put the museum at risk of legal action by the country of origin.