Wednesday 30 May 2012

The SLAM and its Ethics

Malcolm Gay ('For the St. Louis Art Museum, a Legal Victory Raises Ethical Questions', the Atlantic, May 30 2012) says the story of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in certain respects "follows a familiar script", but this story "went decidedly off-script" when last year the US government supported the Egyptian government's claim to the object and attempted to use the courts to seize the artefact and return it to Egypt.
But where some museums might have simply handed over the goods, St. Louis went on the attack, filing its own a pre-emptive lawsuit that claimed the statute of limitations had expired -- an aggressive challenge from an institution that has repeatedly defied calls to release its grip on this pricey piece of loot. "This is very unusual," Patty Gerstenblith, who directs the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University, told me not long after the museum filed its suit. "This is the first time I've seen a public institution like a museum deciding to expend its funds to proactively sue the government."
Gay discusses the Pheonix Art collecting history and the holes in it (but after all: "this is a market whose emphasis on the hard-to-find means that plunder is often whitewashed, making it all but indistinguishable from the legitimate market").

With its reliance on a 50-year-old eyewitness account and a lengthy sojourn in a "private" Swiss collection, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer's provenance is viewed by some as a case study for the sort of the cooked-up histories that flooded the antiquities market during much of the 20th Century. "It was kind of a joke," Thomas Hoving, the late director of The Met, said when I first showed him the museum's story. Characterizing the ethos of the age, he added, "Everybody went nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You know: 'Oh, yeah, right, "the anonymous Swiss collector." That's good.'"
 Gay insists that "the bad old days when American museums could ignore with impunity the ownership claims of other countries may be drawing to a close" and raises the suggestion that the mask was acquired, if not illegally (by US law) the same cannot be said about the propriety of the purchase.
to persevere in this litigious and outmoded view of antiquities collecting throws the St. Louis museum out of step not only with its fellow institutions [...]  Given the dueling narratives now in the public realm, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer's provenance has never been more uncertain. The question, then, is whether the Saint Louis Art Museum will simply bury its treasure, or finally embrace the sort of equitable resolution that is fast becoming its industry standard.
It seems that Gay has more faith in St Louis not being moral midgets than some of us.

Malcolm Gay was of course the author of the excellently-researched article a decade ago: “Out of EgyptRiverfront Times 15th Feb 2002 . 

Vignette: Integrity



Should the St. Louis Art Museum return the disputed Ka-Nefer-Nefer funeral mask to Egypt? Vote here:

kyri said...

ethics!?what ethics,its obvious where the mask came from and the provenance is as bent as a £3 pound note.

Paul Barford said...

vote vote vote.

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