Monday, 13 August 2012

Cleveland Museum of Art buys Roman Bust

The Cleveland Museum of Art has announced it has purchased (for an undisclosed sum) an ancient Roman marble portrait head of excellent quality apparently depicting Drusus Minor, son of the emperor Tiberius. It is being reported that it was acquired in accordance with American art museum guidelines aiming to reduce the scale of commercial looting. These stipulate that museums avoid buying antiquities unless they were documented as being outside their likely country of origin before 1970, the date of an international UNESCO convention aimed at halting the looting of antiquities, or were legally exported thereafter.
Even though the museum is convinced [its] newly acquired Roman and Mayan works are free of suspicion, “it won’t stop people from that world from suggesting whatever they want,” Franklin said.
When asked to say what he meant by the phrase, “that world,” Franklin said, “journalists who want to look for a story, or perhaps archaeologists. I hope that doesn’t sound defensive”.
Well, it does a bit, doesn't it? What he's saying is that "journalists" "or perhaps archaeologists" have no right, neither do the general public, to ask just where North American museums are getting their ancient archaeological artefacts (called "art" here) from. It's one matter when they are dug up on US soil from archaeological sites of the 'redskin injuns' and put on display, it is another if they are objects dug out of the soil in foreign countries and brought into America. In both cases there are principles and laws to be respected and I do not think museum directors and trustees in public institutions should consider themselves above them, OR public scrutiny. Such scrutiny should figure large in the worldview of the responsible curators. What does Franklin mean referring to it as "that world"? 
The museum bought the work from Phoenix Ancient Art, run by dealers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam [...], The museum said the portrait of Drusus Minor was the property of the Bacri family of Algiers, Algeria, as far back as the late 19th century. The museum said the work was inherited by Fernand Sintes before 1960s, and that Sintes transferred it to France in 1960. Given that Algeria was a French possession at the time, no export documentation was required, Franklin said. He said the museum has all the documentation it needs to describe the work’s provenance.
If true, and can be verified, that is wonderful news. The article about the purchase has a lot of details about previous and ongoing claims on the Museum of Art's holdings  (and a few comments on the dealer involved). Now, where is the neck, torso, both arms and legs of this statue? Why do collectors have this affinity for lopped-off heads? The rest too big to go in the drawing room?

Steven Litt, 'Cleveland Museum of Art buys important ancient Roman and Mayan antiquities', 12.08.12

David Gill, ' Drusus from an old Algerian collection', Looting Matters 13.08.2012

UPDATE 14.08.12: I later realised I had been a bit too hasty in accepting assurances about the kosher collecting history, rectified in later posts on the topic.

Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.

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