Friday, 18 August 2017

Hex of Exhibiting Collectors' Artefact Stashes for Them

Steinhardt said Turkey should have raised its claim
years earlier, since the idol has been displayed publicly for decades.
He said the provenance questions he has faced are typical for major
antiquities collectors, calling the episodes “a little bit of bad luck.” 

Christian Berthelsen and Katya Kazakina, 'Hex of the Idol: Steinhardt, Christie’s Fight Heritage Claim' Bloomberg, 18 August 2017
Increasingly, courts and public opinion have supported claims by foreign governments to return stolen treasures, in challenges to museums, auction houses and collectors. [...] Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said the pendulum has swung too far in favor of foreign governments. “The enthusiasm for disputing things -- which is borne from very just cases -- has gone beyond the boundaries of common sense. “If objects have been in the public domain, they acquire good title over time,” said Vikan, the author of 2016’s “Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director.”
Which is why Renfrew, nearly twenty years ago (Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (Debates in Archaeology) 2000) was arguing that museums should not be showcasing poorly-documented objects from private collections, giving them a spurious legitimacy. Fortunately whether an object is illicit or not is based on other criteria than 'how many people saw it and did not ask questions'.


Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

Dear Mr. Barford,

I cannot claim to know Mr. Renfrew's current position. However let
me quote from his 2005 paper titled "Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage:The Inadequate Response".

"The inclusion in an acquisition code of the
strict (because enforceable) requirement that
they will not in principle acquire antiquities
which lack a clear and documented history
back to 1970 denies museums the opportu-
nity of acquiring antiquities which have been
illicitly excavated after that date, and prevents
them acquiring antiquities that are the prod-
uct of recent looting, but does not stop them
from acquiring antiquities that were in cir-
culation before that date. This “1970 Rule”
seems an effective and practical response to
an ethical problem, and one that is capable
of rigorous enforcement."

The object in question however does seem to have a rock solid provenance dating back 4 years before the 1970 UNESCO-Treaty. So
I am not sure any obligation to return it to Turkey can be deduced from Renfrew's writing. Neither can we invoke Renfrew when opposing that such an object be shown to the public in a museum.

I may however be mistaken. In that case please do show me a quote from Renfrew in which he demands that objects need not just be traced back beyond 1970 but to the exact time and place it was found.

Cheers from Germany,

Paul Barford said...

Can you tell me what legal basis that 1970 cut-off date has in relation to a state whose laws which define legal/illegal ownership go back to 1906? The academic Renfrew proposes a "practical response", which does not mean that everyone everywhere has unconditionally to accept it as in any way legally binding.

I think in addition that we should all see the chain of paperwork which proves that this piece which 'looks like' one shown in New York in 1966 actually is the same item, and that that one was legally exported from the source country.

"acquired by the current owner, a New York private collector, from the Merrin Gallery in August 1993" so 27 yeas after its alleged exhibition by a previous owner. It was after all only 'published' in 1975.

But the point remains that the BOOK to which I refer discusses whether public museums should be legitimising collecting by exhibiting such items. Here we see the results of a museum doping the opposite, they should be ashamed of themselves. What did they gain, and what has been lost through this? The Met's reputation is already in shreds, this again raises questions about just what it is they think they were doing.

Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

Turkish law cannot by itself affect the legal status of an object in the United States. Only US law can do that. That is why there was the need for a UNESCO Convention of 1970, which I believe both countries have signed.

That convention does demand the return of illicit objects. But it draws a clear line in the sand in the form of a cut-off date. (To say nothing of the burden of proof.) That is the year that the countries involved have signed on. So not before 1970.

By signing the Convention Turkey has accepted the limitations of the cut-off date. So I am not sure they have a leg to stand on in a US court even if they can prove that the object definitely came from their soil. But we shall see ...

However I am somewhat surprised at you dismissing the 1970-date. Especially after you once said this in one of our previous discussions when we were talking about a hypothetical Greek vase:

"Since it was taken before the definition (UNESCO 1970 art 3) of what an illicit antiquity is, if it was in England in 1890, then I'd say that is as licit as you get. I would not say that if the source country wanted it back it 'should not' go, but that is a matter for negotiation rather than compulsion." (25 January 2017 at 10:08)

So ... no compulsion?

It seems to me that if an object is shown to have been around in 1980 you will say: "Illicit! Because 1970!" And if it can be shown to have been around in 1966: "Illicit! Because 1906!"

Or am I completely misreading you, the Convention and the case?

Paul Barford said...

>Turkish law cannot by itself affect the legal status of an object in the United States.<
eh? So if I nick a diamond ring in Istanbul and put it on a plane to Detroit, I can sell it there where a stolen object suddenly somehow becomes legal? How, exactly?

> it draws a clear line in the sand in the form of a cut-off date. <
which article of the Convention does that, please?

The Convention is not a law, but it establishes the right of sovereign nations to have such laws and encourages them being respected by other states.

> By signing the Convention Turkey has accepted the limitations of the cut-off date<
bollocks. In any case, Turkey has ratified it, not merely signed it.

Yes, you are misreading me, we are talking here about chalk and cheese. Museums should not exhibit such things is what this post is about. You do not 'get title' by having an item a long time without anyone asking where it is from. Now somebody IS asking where it's from -a and the person who bought it without ascertaining that wants us all to ignore that question. In the case of the "best example of the type" that is a perfectly valid question. What country would let "the best example of the type yet known" out of the country by legal means? If they did, let the current owner demonstrate that he ascertained that this was, in fact, the case.

Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

1. Nothing is "legal" or "illegal" per se, but only "legal" or "illegal" according the laws of a certain country. In our case the object is in the US. So it will be a US court that decides on the basis of US law.

Take the example of the so called "Beutekunst". According to the German perspective the removal of paintings and archaeological objects to the Soviet Union after WWII was "illegal". However according to Russian law the objects are now the property of the Russian state. And as the disputed objects are in Russia it does not matter what a German government may say or a German court may rule. It has no meaning in Russia unless Russia makes it so.

2. I would point to the section 7bii that deals with repatriation claims. It refers to "such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States". So let's not pretend that there is no cut-off date. It is in fact written all over the convention because it is above all a compromise.

That is probably why the Pen Museum did not just have to hand over their "Trojan Gold" to Turkey, acquired prior to the convention. But an elaborate agreement was reached which left the gold (at least on paper) in the property of the museum.

Also, the Convention does not "establish the right of sovereign nations to have such laws" as sovereign nations per definition can have whatever laws they chose. It is what makes them sovereign.
But the very fact that there had to be a convention of 1970 shows that these laws are not per se binding in other countries.

3. Of course "bollocks" is not an argument. But we can agree to disagree on whether joining a treaty implies that one is actually accepting ALL aspects of it, even those one doesn't like.

4. As far as the question of exhibiting such an object is concerned I don't see the benefit of keeping it out of the public domain. It has, after all, been around since before 1970. Why punish the interested public? Seems frankly a bit masochistic to me... or elitist, as experts might still be able to see it in the store room.

Ironically, if the object is returned to Turkey it will only be because it was brought into the public domain.

Paul Barford said...

I think you are still confusing a convention with a law (and seem not to have read to what art 7 actually refers). Objects removed during military occupation are treated more fully in other conventions.

You ignore my point about a ring nicked in Turkey somehow becoming "not-stolen at all" in Detroit.

You also seem, to miss the point that this object has been sold by one private collector to another buyer who certainly does not HAVE to be about to put the object ( the 'best example of its kind') 'in the public domain' anywhere, least of all in the country where it comes from.

All putting it on display in a museum (ie, what my post is about) has done is embolden the private investor to think he can persist in keeping this objects out of the hands of the public of the source country (which is not the USA). And this is why museums should not accept loans of material of this type.

Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

In that case I must humbly ask: What does article 7 "actually" refer to if not to objects removed from source countries contrary to the source countries' laws?

And: If the case of ownership is such plain sailing in these matters, why could the Pen Museum keep ownership of its "Trojan Gold" despite it leaving Turkey without permission sometime prior to the convention?

Clearly the legal situation is not as clear cut as your ring-metaphor is trying to make out. And even in the case of the famous ring there would be matters like a possible statute of limitations to consider, if they have that in the US at all.

Paul Barford said...

Art 7 specifically refers to objects stolen from collections. In any case as I said, do not confuse a convention with a law.

Works of art stolen by Nazis 1933-1945 from central European Jews are still being returned to descendants today by collections in a number of countries, including the USA.

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