The Euphronios krater (c. 515 BC), which was part of the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1972, until it was repatriated to Italy in 2006. Photo by Tim Pendemon.

Good Title, Good Sense


I am riveted by public scandals. Not just because of the salacious details, but also because scandals, like good comedy, highlight current attitudes toward particular (mis)conducts. Acceptable conduct yesterday may be subject to scorn today.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of stories exposing the involvement of the world’s richest museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and its highly respected curator of antiquities, Marion True, in the acquisition of 40-odd antiquities allegedly looted from archaeological sites in Italy and Greece. True—a boisterous advocate against the trafficking of antiquities—was revealed as being embroiled in the very conduct she had publicly denounced. Italy had already laid criminal charges against her alleging conspiracy to remove and receive illicit archaeological objects. Greece followed. True became the first, and only, American curator to come under such indictments. Both cases were eventually dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds, but they demonstrated a new willingness on the part of source countries to aggressively pursue cultural-property claims.

Previously, there had been a generally held belief among American curators and collectors that the existing patchwork of international and domestic laws aimed at preventing and penalizing illicit movement of antiquities was all but irrelevant. In 1970, UNESCO had adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, but many countries hesitated in implementing it into domestic laws, for instance the United States (1983), Australia (1986) and France (1997). Some, at the time of the Getty affair, had yet to do so, for instance Germany (2007) and Belgium (2009). Further, the dismissal in a Los Angeles court of Peru’s case against antiquities collector Benjamin Johnson in 1989 demonstrated the legal and evidential difficulties for an aggrieved state when attempting to prove wrongdoing.

The issue is steeped in the histories of the encyclopedic museums of the 18th and 19th centuries. These institutions were created to serve noble purposes: the preservation and display of cultural objects and rigorous intellectual inquiry for society’s benefit. Such aims are enshrined in the mission statements of London’s British Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and similar distinguished bodies around the world. The new museums pursued their “higher” purpose with a utilitarian vigor—wars, colonies and diplomats all ensured a steady stream of foreign antiquities to their display cases. One result of the fighting between British and Napoleonic troops in Egypt was the removal of the Rosetta Stone to the British Museum in 1802, where it is now showcased as a “valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.” 

Across the Atlantic, the Metropolitan established its rich collection of Cypriot antiquities by purchasing them en masse in 1872 from Luigi Palma di Cesnola, a colorful character who served as American consul to Cyprus (and later as the Metropolitan’s first director), allegedly exporting numerous artifacts from the island without proper authority. A century later, under Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan continued to score magnificent objects with suspicious provenances that it chose to ignore, such as the contentious Euphronios krater. 

The Getty saga revealed that public sentiments regarding such practices had changed. In addition, many vulnerable source countries had now developed economically and politically. It was no longer incontrovertible that there was a net public benefit in the acquisition of looted antiquities by Western museums. Ignoring provenance and title-ownership issues now had the potential to damage a museum’s reputation, subject it to considerable financial loss and, in some jurisdictions, expose its senior members to criminal charges. It was perhaps these risks that led Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan, to say regretfully of his antiquities department in 2006 to the New York Times that “we buy almost nothing anymore.”

In addition, the rate of restitution of cultural objects increased significantly. The Metropolitan returned the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2006; 19 pieces from King Tutankhamun’s tomb to Egypt in 2011; and two donated Angkorian sculptures known as the “Kneeling Attendants” to Cambodia in 2013, among other objects. This year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, announced the return of eight donated Nigerian artifacts, probably stolen decades earlier, while the National Gallery of Australia offered to return to India a statue of Shiva bought in 2008 for AUD 5.6 million from disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor. 

Museums are entrusted with private donations and public money, thus major acquisition decisions should be preceded by a rigorous examination of the risks and obligations involved in those transactions. The ability to prove good title should be a key determinant—if this is not established, the transaction is flawed. Examining the hands through which an object has passed will establish its provenance and history, but lawyers are more concerned about “the chain of title”—whether every person in the provenance chain actually had rights of ownership over the object. In particular, an understanding must be reached of the means by which the immediate seller or donor came into possession of the object, with inquiries made, in good faith, to test their story, checks run as to whether the object has been reported as missing or stolen on various international registries (for example, Interpol databases), and proof sought that the object was legally excavated and exported from its country of origin and also legally imported into its present location.  

According to Marion True, in a speech made in June 2000 at a meeting of America’s Association of Art Museum Directors, “If serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” This remains sound advice. In this day and age, museums should not be acquiring works of dubious provenance when they can pursue their grand mission through more cooperative and less destructive means. If culture is the shared inheritance of everybody, as internationalists have constantly asserted, then encyclopedic museums should also adopt this worldview, spreading their resources and expertise globally for the cultural benefit of all. Apart from an anachronistic mindset, what is there to prevent them from doing so?