Make art loans, not war


The much-celebrated and hotly contested Euphronios calyx-krater is the Metropolitan Museum’s no more. Last week, the Greek two-handled bowl got a one-way ticket to Italy, the country from which it is thought to have been looted. At Rome’s presidential palace, it is joining four other objects already relinquished by the Met in a trophy exhibition of 69 works reclaimed by Italy and Greece from four American museums and a dealer. On Friday came the news that a private collector in the U.S., Shelby White, had, like the museums, agreed to hand over works sought by the Italians.

To the victor in the cultural-property wars belong the spoils. But now that American museums have acceded to demands for restitution, it’s time to ask not only what “universal museums” can do for antiquities’ countries of origin, but also what the source countries can do for the world’s encyclopedic museums.

American institutions have been chastened by evidence demonstrating that objects in their possession were probably looted. The ongoing criminal trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True, charged with trafficking in illegal antiquities, also has been a powerful deal motivator. (With the Getty’s agreement to transfer 40 objects to Italy, True is widely expected to be let off the hook.)


Now that source countries have forcefully asserted their claims, the time has come to make loans, not war. Everyone wins when cultural objects are internationally disseminated, studied and appreciated. Even objects that came into the custody of American museums through questionable means should be allowed to remain here on long-term loan, in recognition of the principle that art lovers everywhere should have the opportunity to admire the best of world art. The ownership, but not the venue, of these objects should change, and laws like Italy’s -- which limits international loans to four years -- should be relaxed. The 15 Italy-bound pieces of Hellenistic silver that will remain at the Met until 2010 are now labeled “Lent by the Republic of Italy.” Why not allow them to stay where they are?

The fact is that source countries, possessing more high-quality artifacts from their ancient pasts than they can adequately display, don’t need to get everything back. The Met’s senior research associate, Heidi King, organizer of that museum’s upcoming show “Featherwork in Ancient Peru,” said that Peruvian museums already own ceramics of far greater quality than the pieces that Yale University recently agreed to relinquish from a collection acquired in the early 1900s from the Machu Picchu expedition led by Yale scholar Hiram Bingham III. And it could be argued that the “context” Yale provided these objects for 100 years -- through scholarship and public display -- makes it worth preserving them “in situ” in New Haven.

Aside from being magnanimous lenders, source countries should allow some legally excavated antiquities to be bought and sold. Lesser objects could be marketed to collectors, dealers and museums, with the proceeds benefiting archaeological projects. Enabling citizens of other countries to appreciate and acquire selected pieces of Italy’s, Greece’s, Egypt’s or China’s past is a game that, if played by the rules, can have no losers.

More controversially, I believe that source countries should consider training and licensing citizen archaeologists. The antiquities police can’t hope to end all the looting or shut down the black market completely. But if those who make finds are compensated for reporting them and perhaps trained to help excavate them, midnight marauders who mangle masterpieces and destroy archaeological context may become less numerous and destructive. One precedent for the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach is Britain’s financial compensation of metal detector-wielding amateurs who turn over significant finds including gold, silver and prehistoric objects to the proper authorities.

That said, American museums should stop falling back on the “times were different” justification for past antiquities sins. Many collectors and museum curators always knew full well that their activities were ethically dicey. Just ask the previous director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving, who in 1972 was responsible for the $1-million acquisition of the Euphronios krater. In his professional memoir, “Making the Mummies Dance” (1993), Hoving made it clear he had suspected that the vessel “had been illegally dug up in Italy.”

In the bad old days, acquirers of antiquities knew, or at least suspected, that what they were doing was problematic. What’s changed now, thanks to aggressive enforcement by the source countries, is that it’s become much harder to get away with it.


Lee Rosenbaum is a contributing editor of Art in America magazine and blogs as CultureGrrl. (