Sunday 17 September 2023

"I Looked him In the Eye, he Said They Were OK, so I Purchased Them"

 Michael Bennet has left his post at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla. after a touring exhibition of antiquities put together there raised concerns at a Denver museum (Graham Bowley, 'Provenance of a Museum’s Greek Exhibit Is Questioned, Fueling a Debate' New York Times Sept. 17, 2023) The exhibition of objects representing ancient Greek art from the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida was called “From Chaos to Order”.

But earlier this year, when the exhibition was scheduled to travel to the Denver Art Museum, the staff there balked because many of the 57 artifacts lacked detailed provenances. None of the antiquities, on loan from the businessman and collector Sol Rabin, were known to have been looted, but some had been purchased from sellers who have been accused of handling stolen antiquities in the past, Denver Museum officials noted. The Denver museum had recently had its own scandal, when it returned four artifacts to Cambodia. Its director, Christoph Heinrich, suggested postponing the Florida exhibition in the hope that the provenance issues could be resolved. [...] The show never made it to Denver. Two months later, Bennett, the curator in St. Petersburg, was put on leave. A month after that he was fired.
Michael Bennett of course was the curator in Cleveland who'd been involved in the as-yet-unresolved issue of the so-called "Leutwitz Apollo" discussed in this blog a while back as being one of those objects that was in to places at the same time.
The exact circumstances of Bennett’s dismissal, which dismayed his supporters in St. Petersburg, remain unclear. Museum officials declined to detail their reasoning, saying they could not discuss personnel matters, but in a statement they stressed the importance of adhering to the highest industry standards in a changing world and said that they had started a complete provenance review of the museum’s collection [...] A board member, Robert Drapkin, said that he believed the provenance issue was a factor but that he was told there was more than one reason for the dismissal.
Belinda Dumont, a board member at the St. Petersburg museum is quoted as saying: "The response was exaggerated, [...] I think the hysteria about provenance is deeply misguided because the items are valuable to be shown to the public.” I think the quote suggests that Ms Dumont does not really understand the issues cannected with looting. A few of the objects came from Robert Hecht, a prominent antiquities expert who investigators say often dealt in stolen objects. Neither the Rollins Museum of Art, in Orlando, Fla., or the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., where the exhibition toured, raised issues about the loaned items.
Rabin, who is currently chair of the Ancient Art Committee at the Harvard Art Museums, said his collection of Greek art, which runs to some 700 pieces, was built up over several decades, with the advice of Bennett and David Mitten, an emeritus professor of classical art and archaeology at Harvard, who died last year. He said that two of the objects in the show had also been on loan recently to other major museums. Rabin said he had not asked dealers he worked with for full provenance information, but had sought clear assurances objects had not been stolen. In dealing with Hecht, Rabin said: “I would look him in the eye. He would say, ‘No, these are fine. These are legitimate pieces,’ so I purchased them.”
All of the claptrap justifications offered in this article are object-centred, they do not even mention what happens when items are ripped out of the ground to satisfy the no-questions asked market they are defending, nor the rights of the Citizens these objects were taken from without anyone bothering whether or not there is documentation that shows that was done legally.

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