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A golden pectoral ornament made of interlaced, grimacing faces is one of the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art’s most prized works. The museum lets you know that the pectoral was made around 900-200 BCE in what is now Peru and came to Oklahoma in 2013 as a gift from the estate of Mark Landrum, an Oklahoma banker and arts lover. But the museum does not tell you anything about where this artifact was for the several thousand years between when it was laid in a tomb as a burial ornament and when it showed up in their display case.
Very probably, like many of the other pre-Columbian artifacts that have ended up in the United States, the pectoral was looted and smuggled out of Peru. But the Jones Museum does not provide enough information to let you know whether you should worry about this piece or not. This failure of information is even more concerning since the Jones Museum is a member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). In 2008, the AAM admirably pledged to fight the trade in looted antiquities by passing a set of guidelines for its member institutions that own or acquire archeological material and ancient art. We recently put AAM member museums to the test to see whether they were actually complying with these guidelines. What we found is gravely concerning, not just for these museums, but for the United States’ ability to fight the global black market in looted art.
The opening line of AAM’s antiquities guidelines makes their purpose clear: to “promote public trust and accountability for US museums.” To do so, the guidelines require three main actions of member museums. First, they must have a publicly available collections policy, so everyone can know that the museum has rules in place to prevent it from purchasing likely looted antiquities, or even accepting them as donations. Second, museums should be transparent about their acquisitions of any new antiquities, to allow the public to come to its own decisions about whether or not the museum was properly scrutinizing the available information to avoid stolen heritage. Finally, and most ambitiously, “museums should make available the known ownership history of archaeological material and ancient art in their collections” — regardless of acquisition date.
We identified 67 AAM member museums with antiquities in their collections and contacted them to ask whether they were following the AAM’s three antiquities guidelines.
None of the 67 museums were willing or able to give us complete provenance information for all the antiquities in their collections. Only 15 museums offered to provide known provenance information on an item-by-item basis if we wanted. Only three museums provided us with a list of the antiquities they had acquired after the AAM guidelines came into force in 2008. But even these lists did not include complete provenance information. In many instances when museums claimed to make provenance information publicly available, the only information included was a single credit line listing the acquisition’s donor. More dishearteningly, several museums volunteered that they either had little provenance information on any of their antiquities or had not catalogued the information they did have and thus could not provide it to researchers.
Fifteen more museums were willing to give more information about their post-2008 antiquities acquisitions upon request. But several of these museums specified that they would accommodate only the requests of scholars or “serious students” — hardly the general public envisioned in the guidelines. And there’s a big question about how anyone is supposed to identify the antiquities they would want to inquire about. Few of these smaller museums have websites with comprehensive listings of their holdings. Most, like the Jones Museum, have just a few highlights online. Thus, for example, if you are an activist looking for sacred sculpture stolen from Nepal, you’ll have to travel to dozens of museums on the off chance they have a possibly stolen artifact on display before you know enough to make an inquiry. And if that artifact is hidden away in storage, you’ll never know.
The most astounding result of our research was discovering how few museums had complied with the AAM’s simplest requirement: having a public collections policy. Museums have had 12 years to come up with such a policy. They could just have cut and pasted the AAM’s own acquisition guidelines. And yet, only six of the museums we surveyed had bothered to post a relevant collections policy on their website.
Another 21 museums told us their policies were available on request, but these policies were not always easy to get. Most of these museums only responded to our second or third requests. Even after several rounds of follow-up contacts, spaced out over a year, 29 of the museums simply never answered our question about whether or not they had an antiquities collection policy. Although it is possible that these museums may indeed have a relevant collection policy, it certainty cannot be said to be public.
To summarize: less than 10% of museums supposedly bound by the AAM guidelines are in compliance with just the least burdensome requirement, and not a single museum we surveyed was fully compliant with all three.
So, why does it matter? Every antiquity sold without documentation of its history of legal ownership, even if it was not looted, is an encouragement for forgers and looters who hope to sell the antiquities they manufacture or uncover without having to provide a provenance. When a museum buys an unprovenanced antiquity, it directly participates in creating these incentives. When it acquires an unprovenanced antiquity as a donation, it rewards buyers with tax deductions and social capital for purchasing a potentially looted or forged antiquity.
Most of the institutions holding America’s largest antiquities collections, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum, are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). The AAMD, which issued similar guidelines for its members beginning in 2004, tightened its guidelines in 2008, requiring more documentation to prove that antiquities had not been looted at least after 1970. As a result, many American private collectors were left holding artifacts they had planned to donate to AAMD museums, but which those museums would no longer accept. The goal was to discourage collectors from buying undocumented antiquities. But with America’s larger museums more frequently refusing to accept donations of unprovenanced antiquities, spurned donors are testing smaller museums’ willingness to take these donations so they can claim their tax deductions. Thus, smaller antiquities collections could add up to big problems if unregulated, and the current compliance with the AAM guidelines is a discouraging sign for the future integrity of museum collections.
If these museums accept donations of unprovenanced antiquities that larger museums would reject, these more cautious museums’ ethical guidelines become functionally useless. Their sole effect is to allow large museums to wash their hands of the problem without making the problem itself go away. For example, the Jones museum’s website reveals it has recently accepted donations of several other problematic antiquities or sacred objects, like a Mayan painted vessel donated in 2006 (of a type often looted from Guatemala). In 2013, Landrum’s estate also donated an 18th-century sculpture of the Buddha from Myanmar, where similar examples have been stolen for sale to Western collectors. Where did these come from? Since the Jones Museum is one of the museums that never responded to any of our queries, for our research project and for this article, we have no idea.
Some of us have long been skeptical that museums can overcome their need to please donors who are less likely to donate money if the museums refuse to accept the questionable antiquities the donors want tax deductions for. Smaller museums, with their smaller pool of donors, have even more incentive to accept a donation than larger museums. American museums have long promised that they can take care of their own antiquities problems if we just trust them to scrutinize their own collections and apply their own acquisition guidelines. Indeed, several museums did not respond to our inquiries in detail; instead, they gave a general response stating that they were aware of their legal and ethical guidelines for acquiring antiquities and would not violate them. They were asking us to trust them — but without providing any means for us to verify whether our trust was justified. Our research now shows that we can’t even trust smaller museums to put the rules they’ve agreed to in place.
One good thing did come out of our research — a number of museums started working on creating an acquisitions policy after we asked them whether they had one. The next time you see an antiquity in a place of pride in a small museum, we encourage you to ask the same question. Museums have to know that it’s not just wealthy donors they have to please — it’s everyone who loves art and is willing to pay attention to help preserve it.