Posted on January 4, 2007
Museums Yield on Collecting Practices
PND Special Issue: 2006: Year in Review - Museums Yield on Collecting Practices
After years of discussion and legal wrangling with source countries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City may have launched a new era in February when it reversed a position it had held for more than thirty years and relinquished ownership of nearly two dozen artifacts — including the 2,500-year-old Euphronios krater, considered to be one of the world’s finest ancient vases — to Italy.
Under the agreement, which is likely to become a model for other museums facing similar demands, the Met did not admit liability for acquiring objects alleged or determined to have been looted from a source country. In exchange, Italian officials agreed to lend the museum important objects from various Italian collections.
Despite the decision, Philippe de Montebello defended the collecting practices of the museum he has led for decades and questioned the wisdom of some cultural-property laws as well as recent American court decisions that have exposed museums to greater liability for their collecting practices. "I am puzzled," he said in an interview with the New York Times, "by the zeal with which the United States rushes to embrace foreign laws that can ultimately deprive its own citizens of important objects useful to the education and delectation of its own citizens."
Late in the year, the J. Paul Getty Museum, which also faced growing scrutiny of its antiquities collecting practices, announced that, henceforth, it would require at least one of three conditions to be met before it purchased or accepted an ancient artifact: documentation or substantial evidence that the piece entered the United States by November 17, 1970, and that there is no reason to suspect it was exported illegally from its source country; documentation or substantial evidence that the item was out of its source country by 1970 and has been or will be legally imported to the United States; or documentation or substantial evidence that the item was legally exported after 1970 and has been or will be legally imported to the United States. The move, which is not retroactive, will preclude the museum from acquiring any item whose history since November 1970 is disputable.
Experts said that in changing its policy, the Getty was taking responsibility for an item's recent history instead of challenging critics to prove the object was obtained improperly. "It's a rethinking of the whole issue of the burden of proof," said Malcolm Bell III, an archeology professor at the University of Virginia. "The Getty is recognizing the moral problem, and [other institutions] will have to come to that, too."
Italy Approaches Private Collector About Returning Antiquities (11/30/06)
Getty Tightens Acquisitions Policy (10/30/06)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts Agrees to Return Antiquities to Italy (7/31/06)
Getty, Italy Reach Deal to Return, Exchange Antiquities (6/23/06)
Getty Director to Recommend Return of Antiquities to Greece (5/19/06)
Native American Tribes Press Claims for Artifacts (3/10/06)
After Deal With Italy, Met Director Defends Museum's Collection Practices (3/01/06)
Metropolitan Museum and Italy Sign Antiquities Pact (2/24/06)
Embattled Getty Trust President Resigns (2/13/06)
Metropolitan Museum of Art to Return Vase to Italy (2/06/06)