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Trial of Getty Museum director is a moment of truth for all in the antiquities field

Recent trials forecast shift in collecting policies

It is a moment of truth in the field of antiquities. The documentary evidence discovered by the Italian authorities in the Giacomo Medici antiquities smuggling affair and now coming out in the trial of the former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True (see p4), has made museum professionals and collectors come face to face with the criminality of parts—large parts—of the trade in antiquities. The prospect of being arraigned and facing the humiliation of a criminal trial is also concentrating the minds of curators and directors more accustomed to being considered pillars of enlightened society.

No longer should museums be able to buy antiquities or accept them as a gift while turning a blind eye to the question of where they come from. Nor will it be credible for museums to go through the legal farce practised by the Getty and other US museums in the past of asking the authorities in possible source countries whether they knew that a potential purchase had been illicitly excavated or exported, and then acquiring the item when the answer was in the negative. The museums have been forced to recognise that, by their very nature, illicitly excavated or exported items have a concealed history, so of course the authorities know little or nothing about them.

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who in the wake of the accusations against Marion True has voluntarily decided to give back 21 archaeological items to the Italian government, thereby avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation with political skill, still seems to be resisting a change of heart, however. At the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) symposium on 4 May to discuss this key moment for the future policy of US museums (see p6), he defended the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities on the grounds that this preserved them for mankind. He has also been playing on US nationalist sentiment by suggesting to The New York Times that the US is being picked on unfairly by the source countries. This is disingenuous on his part; he cannot be unaware that nearly all European museums have developed a policy of acquiring only provenanced items since the 1970 Unesco Convention on cultural property.

This is the moment for those few remaining museums who do not respect this convention to join the majority in recognising the importance of provenance and refusing to connive, however indirectly, in the breaking of laws in the source countries. What are museums, after all, if not an expression of civilised values in society, and they should no more think of acquiring illicitly traded goods than running their computers on pirated software. But this could also be the moment for an even more fundamental change to take place, one that in the long run would do far more to protect the archaeological heritage of the world than the mere cessation of collecting by a handful of museums.

In a new climate of respect for the rule of law on the part of museums, the source countries might on their side consider the truth of their current situation. The reality is that, despite tough protective legislation, even involving the death penalty in some countries, the world’s buried history is being lost at a faster rate than ever before, partly through organised looting, as with the tombaroli in Italy, but much more through economic development. Dams, motorways, airports and housing developments all wipe out the past unless there is a huge, and rapid effort on the part of the archaeological services to explore the areas. Everybody knows that there is not enough money for this in any of the source countries, even if there were enough archaeologists.

The view of this newspaper has always been that the fairest and most realistic solution to this problem is for governments to allow a licit market to exist for selected items found in excavated sites (there is absolutely no need for the museums of Italy, for example, to add dozens more unexceptional Etruscan pots of known types to their stores once the sites have been carefully recorded; in so many cases, it is the information yielded by a properly excavated find site that is more precious than the artefacts). This would start a virtuous spiral: the money raised by these sales would go towards rewarding citizens who reported chance finds and would help finance further excavations. The authorised goods would find a more ready market than unauthorised goods, thereby reducing the black market, and collectors and museums of the world would once more be able to buy with a clear conscience, thereby enlarging the understanding of the cultures that had produced these artefacts.

Speaking as the director of a museum that since the 70s has increasingly adopted the policy of only buying items with a provenance dating back beyond 1970 (and since 1998 has made it official policy), Neil MacGregor of the British Museum explained the advantages of such a system at the AAMD symposium.

It would be encouraging if the main European source countries, Greece, Italy and Spain, would reconsider their traditionally defensive positions and meet to take a new look at the potential benefits to their countries and world civilisation of reforming their antiquities laws—this time with the rich museums of the world prepared to assist in fraternal, law-abiding collaboration. n

The writer is the General Editorial Director of The Art Newspaper

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A moment of truth for all in the antiquities field'