New guidelines for US museums acquiring antiquities

The Association of Art Museum Directors says no works which left their country of origin before 1970 should enter collections

NEW YORK. The US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has established a stricter set of guidelines for its member museums to follow when acquiring antiquities. These new guidelines suggest no works exported from their country of origin before 1970—the date set by the Unesco convention on the illicit trade of the same year—should enter North American collections.

But while AAMD advises member institutions that they “normally should not acquire a work unless research substantiates that [it] was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported…after 1970”, it leaves the decision of whether to acquire works of unknown provenance up to individual museums.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, the newly appointed president of the AAMD, Michael Conforti, says that by adopting the new rules, US museums will “align themselves with much of the rest of the world”, as most major institutions in Europe already abide by the 1970 cut-off. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which has returned a number of antiquities to Italy and Greece following claims that the objects had been illegally excavated, has followed a similar policy since late 2006.

The final decision on whether to acquire a work, however, remains with individual museums. If an object lacks a

complete provenance, the AAMD guidelines say the museum “must carefully balance the possible financial and reputational harm of taking such a step against the benefit of collecting, presenting, and preserving the work in trust for the educational benefit of present and future generations”.

The AAMD has set up a website where museums will be required to post “an image and the information about the work…and all facts relevant to the decision to acquire it, including its known provenance”. If further research uncovers questions over ownership, the museum is expected to “take whatever steps are necessary to address this claim, including, if warranted, returning the work, as has been done in the past”.

Although the guidelines establish a clear set of rules for the acquisition of antiquities, they are not legally binding. Mr Conforti says: “We’re not here to be a policeman. These guidelines have been voted on by the membership, including major museums. Philippe de Montebello [director of the Metropolitan] was on the committee as was Michael Brand [of the Getty], people who have been famously connected to these issues.”

The new guidelines have largely been met with approval by archaeologists. The Archae­ological Institute of America (AIA), one of the harshest critics of the AAMD’s previous recommendation of a rolling ten-year cut-off, which allowed museums to acquire works if they had been taken out of their countries of origin ten years or more before the time of acquisition, has re­leased a statement applauding the new decision, although it raises concerns over museums being allowed to acquire works with unknown provenance (a practice which is strongly discouraged in several European countries). The AIA says that it hopes “the rights of the country of origin and the potential harm to the world’s cultural heritage” will be incorporated in the decision to acquire such work.

Mr Conforti says: “Some archaeologists would prefer that institutions not purchase such works at all, to ‘pretend they didn’t exist’ and thus not encourage the market for them.” But he says that there is still a market for such work outside of institutional buying. As a means of curbing the looting of archaeological sites, the AAMD promotes the creation of “licit markets” through which countries could legally export archaeological objects and “strongly urges all nations to provide a legal method for the sale and export of art”.

He also argued that if there were a greater sense of trust, some nations “will realise there’s only so many things you can keep for display”, says Mr Conforti. He suggests countries could send objects that they can’t care for on loan—“a long-term loan that one could consider in decades rather than in years”—to international museums as a way of sharing their cultural patrimony with the rest of the world. “I think we’re only beginning to explore this,”

he adds.

Helen Stoilas

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