Wednesday 27 October 2021

Looted Gold Anatolian Ewer from London's Victoria and Albert Museum Returned to Turkey

 © The Rosalinde and     
Arthur Gilbert Collection

A golden ewer dating to around 2500 BC from Anatolia has been returned to Turkey after it was discovered to have been bought by a dealer who had traded stolen antiquities. It was part of the 1200-piece "collection of fine objects and decorative art" of American collector Arthur Gilbert on long-term loan at the London museum (Amah-Rose Abrams, 'A 4,250-Year-Old Vase in the V&A Collection With Ties to the Illegal Art Trade Has Been Restituted to Turkey', Artnet News October 27, 2021)
The Gilbert Trust discovered the truth of the provenance of the object [...] after hiring the specialist Jacques Schuhmacher to check into possible Nazi-looted objects. Schuhmacher uncovered that the dealer who had sold the ewer to Gilbert was now known to have dealt in stolen items. Gilbert, who died in 2001 at age 88, had bought the ewer from Los Angeles dealer Bruce McNall for $250,000 in 1989. “Like most collectors of his time, Arthur Gilbert acquired various pieces without asking in-depth questions about their provenance, which is why it is important to conduct this research today, not only to increase our knowledge, but also to ensure that the Gilbert Trust can act as an ethical steward of the collection,” said Schuhmacher in a statement. McNall, who sold the work to Gilbert, said he had bought it from the Swiss-based collector Fritz Bürk —it emerged that the latter had connections to the convicted trafficker Giacomo Medici, according to The Art Newspaper. At the time that the purchase was made, these names would not have caused alarm but today they raise serious concern. As soon as these connections were established, the ewer had to be removed from museum property and sent back to Turkey immediately, in accordance with U.K. law.

In 1989, some twenty years after the 1970 UNESCO Convention, any collector should have known better to buy unpapered  antiquities from anyone, whatever their "reputation" at the time, or later. Whenever it was that the Victoria and Albert Museum agreed to handle this item, the acquisition process should, as a matter of course, n'est pas, have  ascertained how the Gilberts got this item and what guarantees there were of licit origins. Should the Gilberts not have been able to provide this, this object (and all the others that Dr Schumacher is only now having to investigate because the answers are not in the paperwork the Museum and collectors have) should never have passed through the Museum's doors. Why are we celebrating the fact that it took 32 years for this unprovenanced loose object to be offered back to the citizens of the country that it seems to have been taken from? How long was it in the VandA's basement? 

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