Met Chief, Unbowed, Defends Museum's Role
04.03.2006 By RANDY KENNEDY and HUGH EAKIN
Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum.
It's not the kind of reception museum officials normally give one another, but when Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, addressed his fellow museum directors this month at a meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., he was treated to a standing ovation.
In the weeks since the Met announced a landmark agreement with Italy for the return of close to two dozen prized Classical antiquities, Mr. de Montebello has been hailed as the man in the white hat for his willingness to part with some of the museum's finest treasures in the face of evidence that they were probably looted.
But in a wide-ranging interview last week, just a day after he returned from signing a final agreement in Rome, Mr. de Montebello made it clear that his philosophy about collecting and even the cultural value of an international market in illicit antiquities has changed little in 29 years at the museum's helm.
He offered no apologies for the way the Met has built one of the world's greatest Classical collections, often by acquiring works with little knowledge of their origins, to the dismay of archaeologists. And while he stressed that museums should abide by the law, he questioned the wisdom of some cultural-property laws and recent American court decisions that have exposed museums to greater liability for their collecting.
"I am puzzled," Mr. Montebello said, "by the zeal with which the United States rushes to embrace foreign laws that can ultimately deprive its own citizens of important objects useful to the education and delectation of its own citizens."
Dressed in a charcoal double-breasted suit and showing little jet lag from a hurried overseas trip, Mr. de Montebello, who will turn 70 in May, said he became motivated to begin negotiating with the Italian government for the return of the objects only when he concluded that the issue would not go away. "I began to reflect: What's the best way out?" he said.
The accord provides for the return of the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl, considered one of the world's finest; 15 pieces of Hellenistic silver; and four other Classical vessels.
Fresh evidence emerged over a decade ago in a warehouse raid to strengthen 30-year-old claims by Italy that the krater had been illegally taken from an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, near Rome. But for the Met, the negotiations began in earnest only last year.
By then, Mr. de Montebello said, he had begun to see the antiquities dispute as a growing impediment to good relations with Italy, with which the Met cooperates on borrowing and lending works for major exhibitions.
"They're our friends, they're our colleagues," he said of his Italian counterparts. "You want to get irritants, you want to get vexing issues, behind you."
Even after signing the agreement, which will return the vase to Rome by early 2008, Mr. de Montebello said he remained highly skeptical of recent international trends that have drastically reined in museums' antiquities collecting and ratcheted up pressure for artifacts to be returned to their source countries.
In large part, this phenomenon has grown out of a growing antiquities debate: is knowledge better served by collecting and exhibiting objects in museums or preserving them in their original archaeological context?
While the archaeological perspective has gained strength in recent years, Mr. de Montebello said he believed that the importance of ancient objects' exact historical context had been overstated.
"It is regrettable that archaeological sites, which since the beginning of time have been plundered, continue to be plundered and that in many instances important information is lost," he said.
But he added, "It continues to be my view and not my view alone that the information that is lost is a fraction of the information that an object can provide."
"Ninety-eight percent of everything we know about antiquity we know from objects that were not out of digs," Mr. de Montebello said, and he cited the Euphronios krater painted by one of the most important Greek vase painters of antiquity as an example.
"How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in supposedly Cerveteri it came out of?" he asked. "Everything is on the vase."
Mr. de Montebello took issue with archaeologists like Malcolm Bell of the University of Virginia, who directs excavations at Morgantina, the ancient city in Sicily from which many experts believe the Met's Hellenistic silver was looted from a third-century B.C. house. For years, Mr. Bell has led the charge to have the silver returned.
But Mr. de Montebello insisted that Mr. Bell's certainty about the silver's origin, which is not shared by all archaeologists, was damaging in itself.
"I will concede that it is wrong and clearly wrong to remove objects from a site clandestinely without proper documentation," he said. Yet he added, "To perpetuate forever that these things come from Morgantina, that is also a sin."
When a reporter mentioned that Mr. Bell had shown him the hole in Morgantina where Italian officials said the silver was found, Mr. de Montebello bristled.
"There are lots of holes in Sicily please," he said, betraying an impish smile. "And lots of people smoke. And I believe in Santa Claus, too."
In a telephone interview on Monday, Mr. Bell denied that he had ever claimed absolute certainty about the origin of the silver. "The issue is, when objects are removed from their original context illegally and clandestinely, it is very difficult to prove they are from a particular place," he said. "If you can produce a convincing case for their source with the evidence you have, then that's what you are obliged to do."
Over the course of a two-hour lunch in his fifth-floor office framed by a view of Central Park on one side and a Claude Lorrain landscape on another Mr. de Montebello grew more expansive as he relaxed. As he approaches what are likely to be the final years of his directorship, he clearly relishes what he sees as a major coup an accord that both guarantees the Met long-term loans of antiquities rarely seen in the United States and also absolves the museum of any wrongdoing.
Yet at the same time he sought to play down the deal's place in his legacy. "I think if in the course of 29 years this looms as one of the most important things I've done," he said, "I would be a very disappointed man."
Still, he took credit for coming up with the returns-for-loans concept, noting that the museum had returned numerous other objects in the past, "both voluntarily and under pressure," without getting anything in exchange. Asked whether the Met's agreement was pushing Italy to be more open about loans, he said, "It would seem to me that that would be a logical conclusion to draw."
But repeatedly, he lamented the general shift in thinking about antiquities collecting that has forced museums to change their practices and given the claims of countries like Italy so much weight.
"It has huge consequences," he said. "It means that the amount of archaeological material that is acquired by American museums which has already enormously diminished in the last few years will become a trickle."
Of the Met, he said, "We buy almost nothing anymore."
According to the museum's current policy, adopted in September 2004, it can acquire only works whose documentation dates back at least 10 years, although it can make an exception for any work of special importance or merit.
While acknowledging that looting is destructive, he took pains to argue that the centuries-old trade in plundered antiquities has actually had its benefits.
"The truth is unattractive as it may be the black market, to a certain extent, is responsible for the preservation of a great many objects," he said. And despite growing claims to the contrary, he maintained that large public museums like the Met had little part in driving the illicit trade.
"There is no way if you have even a very passing grade in arithmetic," he said, "that you could construe the minuscule amount of purchases made by American museums as having any impact on what is happening in that part of the world."
Asked whether any of the old guard among his fellow museum directors had resisted the recent adoption of stricter standards for collecting, Mr. de Montebello, rising from his chair at the end of the interview, said: "I am the old guard. And I didn't resist."