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  • Antiquities And The Rules Of The Game

    "Antiquities Gotcha" threatens some of the world's best museums.
    By Eric Gibson

    One of the disputed Elgin marbles

    The parlor game of the moment is "Antiquities Gotcha." The aim is to ask pointed questions that cast doubt on the collections of any number of elite institutions. For instance: "Did the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, say, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts really come about their holdings of antique vases and statuary in a lawful manner?" Or: "Will former Getty curator Marion True, on trial in Rome for conspiring to traffic in looted art, go to jail?" Or, most momentously: "Will the Met and other museums have to return items in their collections to a country of origin?"

    These are hardly unimportant questions, to be sure. Museums stand for many things in our society, and one of the most fundamental is probity. In theory, no object enters their collections when its authenticity is in doubt. And museums are required to exercise due diligence when they receive a new object, checking its ownership history.

    Still, there have been occasions when certain curators or museum officials have found it convenient not to ask too many questions. Notoriously, in the early 1970s under the directorship of Thomas Hoving, the Met purchased the "Euphronious krater," a magnificent sixth-century B.C. wine bowl. The Met accepted its bona fides, but there was strong suspicion at the time that the bowl had been looted.

    So a certain amount of "gotcha" may be a healthy thing, so long as fair-minded museums do not fall victim to a witch hunt. After all, the laws governing the antiquities trade are now so complicated that no one can be sure of them, and the chain of ownership for any given object--even when it is traceable--may be so tangled that nobody knows who officially owns what.

    But there is more at stake today than the fate of an antique vase or even a curator's freedom. What hangs in the balance is the very future of museums. Or to put it another way, "Whither the Elgin Marbles?

    Greece covets the British Museum's most celebrated trophy--an array of sculptured reliefs removed from Athens's Parthenon and brought to London in the early 19th century. They're emblematic of the antiquities debate and the prize that repatriation zealots most desire. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that if the "gotcha" game spins out of control--and there are already signs that it is beginning to do so, with Greece, Turkey and Peru demanding the return of objects from American museums--Britain will be unable to resist calls for the return of the Elgin treasures. And then the floodgates will truly open.

    The seeds of today's disputes were planted 10 years ago when Italian police, searching the Geneva office of an antiquities dealer, found around 1,000 photographs of artifacts that they said were of dubious origin. Some of the photos reportedly showed vases, now in American collections, with dirt on them or even in the ground, suggesting that they had been illegally excavated and sold. Then, in 2001, police seized a handwritten memoir by Robert Hecht, the biggest antiquities broker of all, who is now on trial with Ms. True. It detailed his dealings over decades with looters and museum personnel.

    Matching objects captured by the photographs with works in American museums, the Italian police have put together a list of around 100 objects they want returned. The most significant is the Met's Euphronious krater, back in the crosshairs.

    Such disputes have erupted since Lord Elgin's day. But this one is unique--first because of the number of works and institutions involved and second because of the claim, by Italy, that it has prima facie evidence of looting.

    But there are broader cultural changes at work here too. Ten years ago, when it was revealed that works of art looted by the Nazis from Holocaust victims had inadvertently wound up in their collections, museums moved quickly to find and return them. Though there is a moral distinction between stealing from families on their way to execution and digging up property that belongs to the state, museums would risk accusations of a double standard if they stonewalled on antiquities now.

    Similarly, American museum directors loudly denounced the looting of the Baghdad Museum's Ancient Near Eastern artifacts in April 2003 and vowed to keep any of the stolen works from entering their collections. They can hardly proscribe illicit trafficking in one area while countenancing it in another.

    Each museum has responded to the Italians' accusations differently, some promising to return objects, others asking for more information. The Met has proposed that, should the Italians' evidence bear out, the museum would shift title of the disputed artworks to Italy but keep them on display here as a long-term loan.

    This solution would have the dual virtue of resolving the dispute while putting the world on notice that, with objects acquired in good faith, the answer to the antiquities problem does not lie in emptying our museums. For in this argument, America's museum directors have not one responsibility but two: to protect the future even as they make matters right with the past.