In a rather odd post on his Illicit Cultural Property Blog Derek Fincham disseminates an unpublished letter he wrote together with Noah Charney of ARCA to the editors of The New York Review of Books about Hugh Eakin's review (“What Went Wrong at the Getty” July 13, 2011) of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museums. It's rather a long letter which seems rather to be mostly a vehicle to get a mention ARCA into the papers, but the central point is a defence of curator Marion True.
When one compares the number of returned objects acquired under the direction of Philippe de Montebello at the Met, one should perhaps wonder why he received accolades and a grand retirement while Dr. True was made an example of.They point out that "an array of prominent officials at the Getty were lured into buying looted art by three renowned leaders of large-scale organized looting rings, Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, who are truly to blame [...] while Dr. True is no saint, she does not represent the core of the problem". So a collector who knowingly buys the stolen Van Gogh painting from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum because they were lured into it by an attractive offer is not the core of the problem? It is because there ARE people who can't say 'no' and will buy without bothering whether the transaction is legitimate or not that these things get stolen. The collector who buys dodgy stuff is as guilty as the seller to whom he gives money for selling dodgy stuff. Fincham and Charney argue further on True's behalf:
Dr. True has tried to preach against other curators and museums making the mistake of violating heritage laws. The cynic would say that her only regret was having been caught, but there seems to be a genuine passion in her call for resisting the temptation of a beautiful but looted object, and working to end the purchase by museums of illicit antiquities. Indeed, few have spoken out against the perpetuation of the illicit trade in antiquities with greater fervor.That's a bit like those US public figures who speak out vehemently against other people's homosexuality and then are caught out taking male escorts on holiday with them etc. They then make an even more controversial suggestion, for "playing a part in setting in motion a sea-change in the way in which museums acquire antiquities" they say Marion True should be applauded:
and perhaps even put before the ARCA Trustees and Board of Editors of the Journal of Art Crime for an annual award to recognize the good work she did, even while she found herself unable to resist the pressure to acquire some beautiful but looted objects.Well, it's worse than that, she has actually been advanced for an ARCA award (Journal of Art Crime 5 (2011) p. 97), but Renfrew got it instead. I am left wondering whether anything done by Marion True herself actually led to the capture and conviction of a single looter of archaeological sites, or advanced any "Research into Crimes against Art" (of course in looting archaeological sites, its not the "art" that is damaged, just the rest). The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild also speaks out very strongly against looting and bad practice. Maybe Fincham and Charney consider they should get an ARCA award too? Or perhaps Hicham Aboutaam and his brother in recognition of their role in getting the Entemena statue back to Iraq, they too are frequently quoted in papers speaking out against the illicit trade and stressing the need for well-documented transactions. After all they have other awards, so why not an ARCA one? The following year no doubt they will be presenting one to Frederick Schultz and Jonathan Tokeley-Parry for highlighting the importance of provenance...
I've got a better idea, let the "Association for Research into Crimes against Art" stick with the paintings and leave giving awards for financing and turning a blind eye to archaeological looting up to somebody else.
Dues where dues are due: Derek Fincham reminds us that in 1988 it was Marion True who led to a dealer with some dodgy looted mosaics being caught: Did Marion True Ever Catch a Looter or Dealer? That's very nice, glad to hear it. We all know there are many dealers and museum people, even if they realised they were being offered dodgy goods would refuse to buy it, but not go that extra step and pick up the phone, so good for her on that occasion. Of course if ARCA feels that is enough to give her their award, that is their prerogative, it's their award.
Vignette: ARCA logo