- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006


New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed Monday to return antiquities Italy says were looted in exchange for long-term loans of other artifacts — a precedent archaeologists hope will prompt museums to change their acquisition policies.

The agreement, which was expected to be signed yesterday in Rome by Met chief Philippe de Montebello and Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione, likely will have ramifications across the museum world, thrust into the spotlight by a vigorous Italian campaign to reclaim treasures it says were taken illegally from its soil.

Antiquities experts and archaeologists said that unless the Met and other museums are forced to change their policies to prevent the acquisition of looted treasures, the Met’s agreement with Italy will be little more than a one-off deal.

“The Italians have the best evidence we’ve ever had in 40 years to go after museums with dubiously provenanced antiquities,” said Ricardo Elia, an archaeology professor at Boston University. “They can’t just accept a trade. They need to make them change their policy.”

The Met already had announced on Feb. 2 that it would transfer legal title to Italy of six important antiquities Italy says were looted, including the Euphronios Krater, a sixth-century B.C. painted vase that is regarded widely as one of the finest examples of its kind.

In exchange, it proposed that Italy provide long-term loans of works of “equivalent beauty and importance.”

Mr. de Montebello was in Rome on Monday to finalize details of the agreement with ministry officials. As a result, the deal’s announcement by the Culture Ministry was not a surprise.

“An agreement has been reached for the return of some antiquities in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum that belong to Italy, including the famous Euphronios vase, the Morgantina treasure and other pieces on display in the Metropolitan,” a ministry statement said.

Officials would not provide details other than to say the deal was in line with the proposals.

The third-century Morgantina silver collection was smuggled out of Sicily. The other four objects involve Greek earthenware treasures dating from 320 B.C. to 520 B.C.

Met spokesman Harold Holzer said a few details remained to be worked out but suggested they would not affect yesterday’s signing ceremony.

“I can confirm that all that is left are the details,” he said by phone from New York. “The Metropolitan is looking forward to formally consecrating the agreement.”

The Met offered to return the items after saying it had received evidence from the Italians about their origins, a breakthrough in a decades-long dispute that highlighted other battles by countries such as Greece and Turkey to reclaim their cultural heritage from tomb-raiders and the museums that do business with them.

As part of the Italian crackdown — and perhaps contributing to the pressure on the Met — a former curator from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Marion True, is on trial in Rome, accused of having knowingly purchased stolen artifacts for the museum from Italy. Miss True denies any wrongdoing.

Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of antiquities law at DePaul University in Chicago, said the deal with Italy is significant because the Met is recognizing Italy’s title and ownership rights to artifacts found on Italian soil.

A 1939 Italian law states that any ancient artifact found in a dig belongs to the state.

“Museums that acquire looted antiquities are contributing to the contemporary, ongoing looting of sites,” Miss Gerstenblith said in a phone interview. “So it’s my hope that the Met’s decision will discourage other museums from acquiring these undocumented artifacts, which will discourage the market and which will then protect the sites.”

Lawrence Kaye, a New York lawyer who represented the Turkish government in its lawsuit against the Met in 1987 over a collection of Anatolian artifacts known as the Lydian Hoard, said the Met seems to have emerged the victor in the case.

“By taking the initiative and being aggressive, they were able to reach an agreement that gives them something also in addition to very good press,” he said, referring to the long-term loans.

“At the same time [the deal] avoids either a potential litigation like we had in the Lydian Hoard case or risking the kind of situation that the Getty and Marion True have found themselves in.”

In the Lydian case, the Met settled with Turkey before trial and returned the artifacts in 1993. The museum got nothing in return.

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