Directors must guide museums to adopt strict acquisitions codes

Why do marquee museums such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York buy or accept stolen antiquities? I think they’re caught in a time warp. A century ago most museums and collectors felt very free to collect whatever they wanted. And of course a century ago not all countries had antiquities laws. But now, certainly since the UNESCO convention of 1970, every museum should know what the score is and some [such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston] are really in denial. Of course, they will all say they never knowingly buy looted antiquities. The point is they shouldn’t buy something if they don’t know where it comes from. Do you think recent events, especially with the Getty trial in Italy, will force museums to change their ways? Well, I hope so. The Getty antiquities collection can’t be described as all that important, but the Metropolitan Museum should be regarded, can be regarded, as one of the world’s great museums. They’ve agreed to give back the Euphronios krater but [longtime Met director] Philippe de Montebello has not apologized as far as I’m aware and he’s still saying that it’s all a misunderstanding… The [Met] trustees, having spent a million dollars in 1972 – worth 10 times that today, I suppose – on an object they have to give back don’t seem to be asking themselves: What went wrong? There is a code of acquisition which respectable museums are adopting. The British Museum, for instance, has only had [the code] for about 10 years, so we can’t say it’s terrifically ahead of the times, but it is a very strict code. Do you believe the Met has Greek antiquities that have been stolen? It has unprovenanced Greek antiquities. It has early Cycladic antiquities, for instance. So the main difference between responsible policy and what you call an «internationalist» policy of acquisition is having specific and extensive documentation of artifacts? It would be a very good thing if governments of countries with a rich archaeological heritage – Greece, Italy, Turkey, Mexico, and so on – would formulate a policy saying that they would no longer lend anything at all to museums that did not have a proper acquisition code. The code would have to be close to the British Museum’s code, which basically states that if an antiquity appeared on the market after 1970, that is if you can’t document it before 1970, you should not touch it unless you know exactly where it came from. The 1970 rule is crucial. If an antiquity was looted 200 years ago, that’s probably water under the bridge. You say the public must differentiate between responsible and irresponsible museums. There’s a role the public should play here. How should the public hold institutions accountable? What they should do is ask: Where is the published acquisitions code? Then they should ask someone who is well-informed if it’s an acceptable acquisitions code. Any museum can say «We never knowingly buy looted antiquities,» which may or may not be true. You also say the individuals who are involved in illicit antiquities should be held accountable as well. How should that be done? The trustees of the Metropolitan, for instance, are failing in their public duty, in my view. They are good men and women, but they’re not very well informed and of course they take advice from the director. In this day and age, a director that does not lead his or her museum to adopt an appropriate acquisitions code would do well, in my opinion, to resign. Have you been assisting Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis or the ministry on how to formulate updated policies on dealing with antiquities looting? I’ve had no serious contact with them. Greece has a well-intentioned archaeological service but it doesn’t have terribly intelligent laws. In Greece, if [an antiquity] is returned to Greece, people think that everything is OK then. That’s a little old-fashioned. The reason the looting matters is that it destroys the record of the past. It destroys information… So just restoring objects to Greece is slightly meaningless. There’s no reason why [the antiquities] shouldn’t come back, but… the Greek legal system hasn’t really yet come to focus on the problem of lost information. It’s the looting that matters, not where the antiquities go. It’s not good enough just to get looted antiquities back. The damage has already been done. How do you stop the looting? The only way to stop looting is to attack the market. And the only way to attack the market is to start at the top. If rich collectors don’t get tax concessions and nice cocktail parties in smart museums then they probably won’t collect. Mr Voulgarakis has often proclaimed that the ministry is going to go after museums to get back Greek antiquities. But have they thought it through clearly? They’ve got to get it right otherwise they will take a museum to court and they might lose. I’ll give you an example. When there was a big exhibition in Karlsruhe [in Germany] in 1976 on the art of the Cyclades, it turned out to be full of looted objects. I was one of the people who wrote for the catalog but I didn’t know what was going to be in it until I saw it. I was shocked. A high proportion, at least half the objects, were relatively recently looted Cycladic antiquities. The Greek government did not protest formally at that time. When the Keros hoard [which had been published in the catalog for the Karlsruhe exhibit] came up for sale later at Sotheby’s through the Erlenmeyer collection, the Greek government said: It’s advertised as the Keros hoard, it comes from Keros, why don’t you do something since it must have recently been looted? The Greek government got an injunction against Sotheby’s but the judge was given evidence that some of this material had been exhibited years before, in 1976 in Karlsruhe, and that no protest had been made. The judge said: You’re out of time, sorry.