Thursday, 9 May 2013

Antiquity Collecting: Carrots and Sticks in the USA

Professor Patty Gerstenblith (director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University College of LawZ) wrote a letter to the Editor of the new York Times on 'When Museums Decide to Return Looted Art', NYT, May 6, 2013) She notes that the decision of the New York Metropolitan Museum to return two knocked-off statues to Cambodia "shows how far American museums have come from the days of litigation over cultural artifacts" (mentioning here the "Lydian Hoard looted from Turkey in the 1960s and returned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993, and the Met’s contentious relationship with Italy in the early 2000s over antiquities such as the Euphronios krater"). Gerstenblith suggests that:
The Met is leading the way, along with other museums including the Getty, Dallas Museum of Art and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in deciding that restitution accompanied by cultural property agreements establishes mutually beneficial relationships that allow the world’s cultural heritage to be shared with the American public in ways that ensure the objects’ authenticity and impart knowledge as well as beauty.
What she does not touch upon is why she considers that it should be the "American public" which shares out the world's heritage with the source nations, and the question of the neo-colonialist morality of filling the white-man's museums with stolen and knocked-off items in the first place. The movement of such items into the USA or anywhere else (or their return) should not need any formal "cultural property agreements" to be in place first, should it? It just requires those who acquire objects to do the decent thing. This also has nothing to do with ensuring "authenticity" of the objects or using them to "impart knowledge", but has everything to do with curbing the damaging commercial exploitation of a precious and fragile resource and preventing the public institutions in the world's rich and powerful nations being a contributing factor through indirect involvement in this destructive process.

Gerstenblith also makes an important point, now the museums seem finally to be cleaning up their act (or increasingly admitting that there is a need for them to do so), there is the matter of the vast numbers of smuggled and looted artefacts now in private hands, coming back to those "cultural property agreements" (she means, I assume those instituted in the case of the USA by the antiquated Reaganist CCPIA):
While public institutions can benefit from these agreements, it is less clear that the private collector can do so. The challenge now is to create incentives for private restitution that can produce comparable mutual benefits.
Why? If somebody has stolen artefacts on their hands, why "incentivise" doing the right thing with it? Is not righting what is quite clearly a wrong not an incentive in its own right these days?  

Rick St Hilaire (It is Time to Talk About Repatriation Options for the Private Collector) echoes these comments:
Creating safe and easy repatriation options for private collectors who discover that they are in possession (sic) of looted, stolen, or smuggled cultural property is an important matter for discussion. No mechanism currently exists that smoothly facilitates the repatriation of contraband cultural heritage without exposing innocent collectors or good faith purchasers to potential legal and financial risks. There is no equivalent "Gun Buy Back Program" or "National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day" for archaeological, paleontological, ethnological or other cultural heritage items. That is why a conversation among policymakers, archaeologists, collectors, dealers, auction houses, and other stakeholders needs to take place.
I disagree. Why on earth should any nation be compelled to "buy back" articles that have been stolen from it? Especially when many of these nations are not as wealthy as those whose citizens indulge themselves and their desire for trophy articles by no-questions-asked purchases of dugups and other cultural property? What is "innocent" or "good faith" about that?  There has been concern about the looting of sites to produce some of the objects on the market in the very same societies from which these 'enlightened' (sic) collectors come which goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. I would say there is a very good argument for suggesting that anyone who has deliberately ignored those concerns since then (so well before the 1970 UNESCO convention which is the result of - not the origin of - those concerns)  cannot be regarded as an 'innocent" buyer. These collectors know jolly well, and have for many decades known perfectly well, that  the origins of much of the stuff on the market is less-than-licit. Yet they have continued to handle it all indiscriminately without a thought for protecting themselves (and their clients) from handling illicitly-obtained artefacts. These people are not children, they have had every opportunity (especially now in post-Internet days) to make themselves fully aware of the contentious issues involved in the collecting of this type of material. That they have continued to avoid doing so is nobody's fault but their own. 

So no, Wongawongaland should by no means be forced to pay a US collector to achieve the return stolen Wowongalandian  artefacts. So, let US collectors and dealers press the US administration to reimburse (tax-free)  the full current market value of any 'orphan artefacts' that the Wongawongans want back. When it turns out that if it was to meet the needs of the current situation and more nations started to look more carefully at what private collectors and dealers have in the US, the full cost of such a Collectors' Payback Scheme would be millions of dollars annually, I think we might see the US public looking with a little more  critical eye at their fellow citizens who have been so careless with documenting the licit origins of the material they have been hoarding. 

Vignette: Carrot and stick

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