How The Met and the Louvre are complicit in the illegal art and antiques trade: Interview with Manus Brinkman

Museums must set the standard for collectors and dealers, says Manus Brinkman Secretary General of the International Council of Museums



Museums across the world are being called on to take a tougher stand against the illicit trade in art and antiquities. The International Council of Museums (ICOM), meeting in Barcelona in July, approved a new, stronger Code of Ethics. This requires that when making acquisitions, provenance checks should be made to establish “the full history of the item from discovery or production”. Every effort must be made to ensure that objects have “not been illegally acquired in, or exported from, its country of origin.”

The Art Newspaper spoke with Manus Brinkman, the Dutch Secretary General of ICOM, to talk about his plans for fighting the illicit trade.

The Art Newspaper: You recently suggested that a number of major museums are not abiding by the ICOM Code of Ethics, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Louvre. Are they in breach of the code?

Manus Brinkman: In the case of the Metropolitan, I was quoting evidence about unprovenanced antiquities cited by Professor Colin Renfrew, whose work I respect. [In his Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership”, published last year, Professor Renfrew claims that in borrowing private collections for exhibitions, the Metropolitan legitimises “the acquisitive activities of collectors without asking serious questions about provenance.”].

Regarding the Louvre, ICOM has taken up the case of the Nok terracottas which were acquired by the Quai Branly Museum, whose collection is currently on show in the Louvre.

TAN: Should ICOM do more to “police” its Code of Ethics?

MB: This is a difficult question. Of course the Code should be strictly adhered to, but we need to strike a balance between letting things go and becoming fundamentalists.

We can send letters to member museums asking for clarification, which we have done a few times. We can start discussions with the museums, which again we have sometimes done. Ultimately, we can inform our members or the general public, as we did with the Nok terracottas.

TAN: What really happened over the Nok sculptures? Clearly they were illegally exported from Nigeria. However, there was an agreement signed between Nigeria and France last year which appears to authorise the purchase (The Art Newspaper, No. 104, June 2000, pp. 1,9; No. 107, October 2000, p. 1).

MB: The situation is still unclear. I telephoned the Nigerian ambassador in Paris a few days ago and he told me the case is in the hands of higher authorities in Lagos.

Although it is true that the agreement was signed at the bottom, it is not a proper document, since a number of clauses were deleted without being initialled or signed. It is also unusual to have an international agreement signed by a minister [the Nigerian culture minister] and a civil servant [the Quai Branly director]. We are still seeking clarification.

TAN: The Louvre is currently showing the Quai Branly collection, until the new museum is opened in 2004. So surely it is breaking the ICOM Code of Ethics?

MB: In a legalistic sense, yes. But the Louvre is only housing the Quai Branly collection. From an ethical point of view, the Branly museum should never have bought the Nok objects because they knew they had been smuggled. That is not proper behaviour.

TAN: But should the Nok terracottas be returned to Nigeria? Museums there have a very poor security record and corruption is rife.

MB: We have just published a booklet, Looting in Europe, and there is no completely safe museum—whether it be in Italy or Sweden. In any case, the situation in Nigeria is better than it was 10 years ago. Of course the security risks are greater in Nigeria, but why could Western governments not assist in providing better security and climate control in the museums?

TAN: What about Afghanistan? Would it not have been better if more antiquities had been smuggled out and acquired by foreign museums before the terrible destruction earlier this year?

MB: Of course, and one could say the same about Europe in War II, the Cultural Revolution in China, or Bosnia...

TAN: There is an Afghan “museum-in-exile” in Bubendorf, Switzerland, which is collecting antiquities, in order to hold them until conditions are right for their return. Does ICOM support this initiative?

MB: Two years ago we began discussions with the Swiss museum, and said that while we could understand their position, there were problems. Their supporters were going to buy Afghan antiquities in Pakistan, and give them to the museum. We said that as soon as the traders discovered this, they would steal even more objects and prices would increase.

However, I appreciate that there is the risk that if no one buys the smuggled antiquities then the traders might even dump them. We would be willing to accept that smuggled objects should be received by the Swiss museum, providing there is proper provision eventually to send them back to Afghanistan. But we at ICOM could not accept that this decision should lie with the individual running the museum, and we said there ought to be an agreement with Unesco and the Swiss government. Unesco is still negotiating with the museum.

TAN: In fighting the illicit trade, how important are export regulations? Some countries have very tough regulations on paper, such as Italy, but there is widespread evasion.

MB: Legislation and export regulations are only part of the answer. In Italy the Carabinieri [military police charged with the protection of the cultural heritage] are doing an extremely good job, but the country’s heritage is so rich. However, if the rules were not in place, and there was no special police force, then the situation would be much worse.

TAN: What is the extent of the illicit trade? Is it increasing?

MB: The trade in stolen cultural objects is estimated at around $1 billion a year. My impression is that it is definitely increasing nearly everywhere.

TAN: Surely it is dealers and private collectors who are the main culprits. Why should it be a major priority for museums, and for an organisation such as yours?

MB: Museums have to set an example. We need to raise awareness.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Met and Louvre are behaving unethically'