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The Conservation Laundering of Illicit Antiquities

29 March 2015

by Einav Zamir

Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles [Fig. 2], once hailed as the “heroic warrior against plunder,” [Endnote 1] was indicted in 2005 for violations against Italy’s cultural patrimony laws.[2] True became the first American curator to face such charges [3] — not coincidentally, it was also the first time that a source country had the means, financially and politically, to investigate and prosecute violations of their cultural patrimony laws [4]. The Swiss police and Italian Carabinieri’s raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in Geneva a decade earlier [5] exposed an elaborate system, designed to avoid suspicion from authorities [6]. The subsequent investigation threw a spotlight onto the dubious activities of museum curators.

Conversely, restorers are rarely expected to account for their participation in concealing the evidence of clandestine excavation. Articles and books that focus on conservation’s role in the illicit trade of artifacts often take a very sympathetic stance — according to these accounts, conservators are unwilling participants, forced to comply with faulty acquisitions policies and overly aggressive museum personnel.

In many cases, this is certainly true. When the Getty’s Conservation Institute was asked to examine the infamous Aphrodite of Morgantina [Fig.3] before the Getty finalized its purchase, the staff observed that the object had been broken into three sections and speculated whether this was done by looters. They also noticed fresh dirt in some of its crevices, and Luis Monreal, the director of the institute, subsequently advised John Walsh, the Getty’s director, and Harold Williams, CEO of the Getty Trust, not to acquire the statue [7]. Nevertheless, no one alerted the authorities. Instead, the object was cleaned and restored, effectively removing the physical proof of its origin. Clearly, protesting to the museum board was not enough.

Of course, this issue is hardly cut-and-dry. According to Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making by Chris Caple, there are two reactions a conservator might have when presented with a potentially looted object. He or she may choose to conserve it, thereby ensuring that information about the object, though devoid of archaeological context, becomes available to the public [8]. In an interview for the New York Times, Timothy Potts stressed, “If [the ancient art] goes on view with other like objects, then scholars get to see it and study it; the public gets to come; the claimant, if there is one, gets to know where it is and file a claim.” [9] Whether this information is enough to ensure an object’s return to a source country is questionable, however. It took over twenty years for the Getty to return the Aphrodite of Morgantina, and that was only after the raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse and increasing demands from the Italian government and numerous media outlets.

If a conservator turns away a looted object, however, he or she may be dooming it to obscurity, thereby diminishing the possibility that it will ever be returned. According to Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, “Lots of museum folks are unhappy because of the so-called orphan issue, and pressure is mounting.” [10] This pressure is likely felt both by museum curators and their colleagues in conservation. According to Caple, if a conservator refuses to work on an artifact, he or she denies it any “respectability.” He notes that it is difficult to deny an object in need of care, and that “refusal to treat one object will do little to suppress the trade in stolen or looted art.” Caple concludes by stating that “often the conservator’s suspicions may only be aroused during the conservation process,” [11] thus giving the conservator an out. Yet, if a curator suspects that an object has been looted, even after that object has made its way into the collection, he or she is expected to alert the authorities. Conservators are not held to the same standard. In a recent interview, Oscar White Muscarella, archaeologist and outspoken opponent of the antiquities trade, stated, “If someone is asked to conserve an object, and then he is asked to report on it, he doesn’t have to discuss that it’s a plundered object in his technical report — it’s a given that if it’s not from an excavation, it’s plundered.” He later added, “Conservators are as honest or dishonest as any other craftsman, but they contend that they’re scientists, and therefore, not dishonest.” [12]

Even the ethical codes of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) do not strictly prohibit the conservation of stolen objects. Article II of the AIC “Code of Ethics” states that “all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” [13] However, their “Guidelines for Practice” stipulate that a member need only be “cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity,” [14] and it is merely recommended, not mandated, that “conservation professionals report suspected violations of applicable laws to the proper authorities.” [15] Similarly, one of the IIC’s primary goals as outlined in its “Memorandum of Association” is to “maintain standards in the practice of conservation and to combat any influences which would tend to lower such standards.” [16] Taking part in the laundering of illicit objects could be considered a blow to such principles. Yet, their mission to “take any action conducive to the bettering of the condition of Historic and Artistic Works,” [17] coupled with a rather vague definition of “standards of practice,” leaves a wide gap for interpretation. One might reasonably infer that “any action” includes the preservation of looted antiquities in order to safeguard their physical condition.

Jeanette Greenfield, author of The Return of Cultural Treasures, believes that “the purity of purpose of the conservators is to restore, protect and preserve objects…. Their work is a necessary singular task regardless of the method of acquisition. That is a separate legal matter for which the museums should be answerable.” [18] However, the conservator, as Professor Ricardo J. Elia of Boston University points out, should realize that his or her obligation is not to the object in its physical form, but to its overall integrity as a record of cultural history. [19] Because of this factor, loss of context outweighs any perceived gain in performing restorative work. “No self-respecting professional should have anything to do with the antiquities market,” he argues. “You are either with the looters or against them.” [20] There are a growing number of conservators who seem to agree with this sentiment. Catherine Sease advocated in 1997 for a more stringent code of ethics among conservators. In particular, she believed that grassroots efforts, including the refusal to work on objects of dubious origin, have the potential to change future endeavors of both museums and the dealers who supply them. [21] More recently, at the Appraisers Association of America’s annual conference in 2011, James McAndrew, a forensic specialist, delivered a keynote address entitled “A Decade of Transition in the Trade of Art and Antiquities,” in which he discussed the issues surrounding the conservation of looted art. [22] However, the question remains whether refusal to work on such objects is enough. Museum professionals, regardless of their rank, should also consider making their objections more public. From a purely practical standpoint, one must realize that many conservators will find it difficult if not impossible to do either. According to Elizabeth Simpson, an archaeologist and professor who has also been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “those employed as conservators by museums and private collectors are likely to lose their jobs if they don’t toe the line.” [23] Several conservators who were contacted about this article declined to comment on the issue, supporting Simpson’s contention.

While it is clear that Marion True participated in the acquisition of looted artifacts, many believe that she became a scapegoat for an issue affecting several major institutions. Violations of the 1970 UNESCO convention were, and still are, widespread. As Felch states in his book, “True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of American museums.” [24] Curators are held responsible for what has become a collaborative offense — anyone who has knowledge or suspicion of illegal activities, regardless of their intentions, should be expected to take action. According to Felch, the only way to ensure future adherence to ethical codes is by promoting “vigilance and education of the museum-going public about these issues. Museums will stop buying loot if and only if they feel the practice is culturally unacceptable in the public’s eyes.”[25] It would seem that the solution, much like the problem itself, needs to be collaborative.

ENDNOTES

1 Stanley Meisler, “Art & Avarice: In the Cutthroat Art Trade, Museums and Collectors Battle Newly Protective Governments Over Stolen Treasures.” Los Angeles Times Magazine, 12 Nov. 1989: 8.
2 Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 305.
3 Italy v. Marion True and Robert E. Hecht, Tribunal of Rome. 13 Oct. 2010. IFAR: Art Law & Cultural Property Database. 30 Feb. 2012. .
4 Peter Watson, and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2006), 28.
5 Neil Brodie, “Uncovering the Antiquities Market,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, edited by Robin Skeates, Carol McDavid, and John Carman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 247.
6 Tom Bazley, Crimes of the Art World (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 129.
7 Ralph Frammolino, “A Goddess Goes Home.” Smithsonian Magazine Nov. 2011: 43.
8 Chris Caple, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making (New York: Routledge, 2000), 194.
9 Hugh Eakin, “U.S. Museum Guidelines Defend Ties to Collectors.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 2006. .
10 Jason Felch, “Getty Policy.” Message to Einav Zamir. 19 Apr. 2012. E-mail.
11 Caple, 194.
12 Oscar White Muscarella, Telephone conversation with Einav Zamir. 25 Jul. 2012.
13 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, AIC Code of Ethics And Guidelines For Practice (Washington, D.C., 1994).
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Memorandum of Association (London, 1992). Originally signed in 1950, amended in 1959 and 1992.
17 Ibid.
18 Jeanette Greenfield, email to Einav Zamir. 7 Aug. 2012.
19 Ricardo J. Elia, “Comment on “Irreconcilable Differences?”: Scholars for Sale.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 18 (2007): 17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade.” Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 36.1 (1997): 56.
22 Appraisers Association of America, “2011 National Conference.” Accessed 25 July 2013. .
23 Elizabeth Simpson, email to Einav Zamir. 6 Aug. 2012.
24 Felch and Frammolino, 312.
25 Felch, “Getty Policy.”

Einav Zamir is a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and a former director of ArtWatch International, New York.

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Looters’ pits at the archaeological site of Isin, Iraq.
Above, Fig. 2: The Getty Museum, unlike institutions such as the Met or the British Museum, is a fairly new establishment. Confronted by an enormous endowment that needed to be spent within a limited amount of time, they aggressively acquired antiquities throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Dubious collecting practices led to both a criminal trial against Marion True, then curator of the Getty Museum’s Classical Art department, and negotiations for the restitution of forty ancient objects to Italy and Greece. Since then, the Getty has adopted a new acquisitions policy with far greater restrictions than the policies of many other comparable institutions.
Above, Fig. 3: The so-called “Aphrodite of Morgantina” from the fifth century BCE, was acquired by the Getty Museum despite its dubious origins for the sake of expanding the collection. The Museum purchased the goddess in 1988 for eighteen million dollars from Robin Symes, a former antiquities dealer who spent seven months in prison in 2005 for involvement in Medici’s illicit operations. It remained on display at the Getty Villa until 2010, returning to Italy in May of 2011. It is now on view at the Museo Archeologico Museo in Aidone, Sicily.
Above, Fig. 4: The Euphronios krater presents one of the most infamous cases of the trade in looted antiquities. It was removed from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri in 1971 and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 by Robert E. Hecht, who claimed to have purchased it from a Lebanese art dealer. After incriminating evidence turned up describing the circumstances of the sale of the krater, Italy demanded the return of the vase, and the Met entered into negotiations with the Italian government. The Met returned the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2008..
LOOTERS, THEIR CLIENTS AND THEIR MARKETS:
“Aggressive collecting curators were more than a little larcenous. To land something great, they were perfectly willing to deal with shady characters. Though they wouldn’t, they could tell you every smugglers’ ploy ever concocted. In extra-legal matters they could be sophisticated, but they were often naive about the subtleties of bargaining…An intact red-figured Greek vase [the Euphronios krater - at Fig. 4] of the early sixth century B. C. could only have been found in Etruscan territory in Italy, by illegal excavators…”
- Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (1967-77), in Making the Mummies Dance, N.Y. 1993, pp. 309 and 69.
“A RARE Greek Sculpture worth up to £2m was smuggled into Britain after being looted from a UNESCO world heritage site in Libya, a court heard yesterday.” ~ The Daily Telegraph 28 March 2015.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: The Spring 2015 issue and contents of the ArtWatch UK members’ journal. On travel risks, see Introduction. For membership details, please contect Helen Hulson, Membership Secretary, at hahulson@googlemail.com
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