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What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?

by Daniel Grant on March 18, 2014

This sculpture by an unknown artist, "Victorious Youth" (300–100 BCE), bronze with inlaid copper, 59 5/8 x 27 9/16 x 11 in (151.5 x 70 x 27.9 cm), currently on view at the Getty Villa Malibu, is the subject of a current repatriation claim by Greece (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California)

This sculpture by an unknown artist, “Victorious Youth” (300–100 BCE), bronze with inlaid copper, 59 5/8 x 27 9/16 x 11 in (151.5 x 70 x 27.9 cm), currently on view at the Getty Villa Malibu, is the subject of a current repatriation claim by Greece. (image courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California)

Year after year, the demands come from foreign governments, landing on the directors’ desks at some of the major museums in the United States: give us back our looted antiquities. And, after some delays and in some instances the assistance of the US State Department, these antiquities are being returned. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has sent back 52 objects — 46 to Italy, six to Greece — since 2005, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ceded title to 19 antiquities in its permanent collection to the government of Egypt in 2010, and 16 to Italy in 2006; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts transferred 13 objects to Italy that same year, and the Cleveland Museum of Art sent back 14 works to the country in 2008.

It’s not over by any means. Turkey, which has been accused by the Syrian government of tacitly allowing looted antiquities to pass freely through its borders, has stepped up its demands on American museums, calling on the Getty, the Met, Cleveland, and Harvard University to return artifacts that it believes were looted from archaeological sites. Italy, Greece, and Egypt may make more claims in the future — particularly as the latter faces a growing looting crisis in the wake of the Arab Spring, to the point where the country’s antiquities minister has asked the US government to help restrict imports. The British Museum recently turned over 843 artifacts to Afghanistan, and Nigeria has called upon the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to return 32 newly acquired bronze and ivory sculptures that reportedly had been looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art took off display and returned to Cambodia two life-sized 10th-century Khmer statues, which the Cambodian government claims were looted from a jungle temple decades ago.

The process extends to US schools as well: Cornell University has agreed to return to Iraq a 10,000-piece collection of cuneiform tablets that date back to the Mesopotamian era and that are assumed to have been looted during the 1991 Gulf War, and the Lowe Museum of Art at the University of Miami sent back to Mexico three large-scale Mesoamerican carved basalt rock sculptures that date back to the first millennium CE. A collection of 119 mid-20th-century artworks by aboriginal Australian children, who were forcibly removed from their families and sent to special camps and schools, is in the process of being returned to Australia. The collection had been donated to Colgate University in 1966.

Not to be left out, the Toledo Museum of Art has returned a 6th-century BCE Etruscan ceramic vase, acquired in 1982, that came from dealers who had smuggled it out of Italy using falsified documents, and the Dallas Museum of Art, which recently sent back to Turkey an illegally exported mosaic image of the Roman god Orpheus taming wild animals with his music, is also in the process of returning to Italy several Etruscan vases and a pair of bronze shields.

This work by an unidentified artist, "Commemorative head of a king (Oba)," Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria (late 16th century), copper alloy, iron, 9 1/2 x 6 1/2 in (24.1 x 16.5 cm), is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but Nigeria wants it back. (image via mfa.org)

This work by an unidentified artist, “Commemorative head of a king (Oba),” Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria (late 16th century), copper alloy, iron, 9 1/2 x 6 1/2 in (24.1 x 16.5 cm), is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but Nigeria wants it back. (image via mfa.org)

Losing so many high-profile items from a permanent collection might seem like a disaster for a museum, but this story has not resulted in empty gallery display cases. “A significant number of those objects were in storage, so their return didn’t dramatically affect our presentation,” said Claire Lyons, the Getty’s senior curator of antiquities.

On the plus side, she noted, the removal of some objects from display allowed the Getty to put on view other pieces that had been kept in storage for years, and there are quite a lot of those. The storage facility at the museum contains 44,000 antiquities, with objects from the bronze age to the late Roman era, while only 1,200 are ever on view at any given time. So, the return of looted artifacts that were displayed hasn’t meant that “whole galleries needed to be redesigned,” Lyons said. “At times, we may rearrange the objects in a display case, largely to draw visitors’ attention to works that have not been displayed before, contribute to a theme in a fresh way, or feature an object that has been recently conserved.”

Other museums have similarly found that repatriation has not marred the galleries devoted to these artifacts. “When we transferred the objects in 2008, the antiquities collection was off view due to our multiphase $350 million renovation and expansion project,” said Caroline Guscott, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland Museum of Art. By the time the museum reopened in 2010, all of the galleries featuring antiquities were redesigned and reinstalled; any holes in the display that the return of pieces to Italy may have caused were filled in by new acquisitions.

Even more importantly, perhaps, the resolution of the ownership of looted antiquities has been accompanied by “a new era of cultural exchange between Italy and the MFA,” Amelia Kantrovitz, a spokeswoman for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston stated. The agreements bringing about the return of objects have included promises of loans from those countries and promises to share information about future acquisitions of antiquities on the part of the American museums. “The MFA was the first American museum to return objects to Italy, on September 28, 2006, and, in turn, the first to receive a loan from the Italian government” — a Roman statue of Irene, the Greek goddess of peace, the spokeswoman said. Other, subsequent loans have included Roman antiquities and Renaissance paintings.

Yet all the demands and often grudging returns, sometimes prompted by the State Department, have not taken place without debate and heated defenses by museum directors in the US. Former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello labeled the calls for repatriation “rhetorical claims. They have no basis in anything except home consumption in politics and pronounced nationalism. I am not one of these people who believes in re-writing history. Where do you stop? At what point then is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Sidon in Lebanon? In the 19th century it was brought from Sidon when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman empire. Where do you stop? On what grounds should you return and not return?” James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, argued in his 2008 book Who Owns Antiquity (Princeton University Press) that “antiquities are the cultural property of all humankind” and that nationalistic calls for them to be returned to their place of origin has nothing to do with culture or antiquities but everything to do with politics. “Culture knows no political borders,” he wrote. “It never has. It’s always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid; and it’s always moved across borders or bears the imprint of earlier contact.”

Lyons noted that the demands for the return of objects in the Getty’s collection can “seem endless. You wonder, ‘When will it end?’” But the resolution of the claims “has been handled in a way that has allowed us to form new relationships with Italy, Sicily, and Greece for loans, exhibitions, research, exchanges, and joint conservation.” She described the new relationship with these countries as “an open door” that’s leading to “fantastic loans coming in. Visitors to the Getty will see new objects.”

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