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  • On alert for looted art
    15.04.2006 By Stephan Salisbury

    Local museums cite strict rules ensuring artifacts aren't illicit.

    There's turbulence at the Met, hand-wringing at the Getty, sorrow in Austria, determination in Italy - all over loot.

    Looted art, that is.

    But in Philadelphia and environs, waters are not being roiled by illicit or stolen art mysteriously landing in local institutions.

    Thanks to policies long in place that aggressively discourage trade in cultural booty, this region's museums and academic institutions have turned their backs on the Indiana Joneses of the art and antiquities market and their dealer middlemen.

    "Very, very few antiquities are offered to us, and I won't say we turn them down or accept them; it varies," said Richard M. Leventhal, the Williams director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. "But the policy is very, very strict. The burden of proof is not to assume it's legal and, therefore, if the paperwork isn't there, we'll take it. The burden of proof is the exact opposite. Unless you can unequivocally demonstrate to us that this is legal, we're not interested at all."

    Several countries that have served as cradles of human culture are now actively looking at museum collections around the world with an eye toward reclaiming possibly stolen or looted objects.

    Perhaps inspired by the aggressive efforts of Italian authorities to retrieve what they deem stolen artifacts from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, countries such as Peru, Turkey and Greece are gearing up to make their own claims.

    The Met has agreed to return to Italy 21 objects that authorities there contend were smuggled out of the country. Austria decided not to fight a U.S. court decision ordering Austria to relinquish five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis. The works have just been returned to 90-year-old Maria Altmann, whose aunt is featured in Klimt's famous 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the five.

    An invigorated archaeological community, which is speaking out loudly now about the ethics - or lack of ethics - in the international art market, has stoked the controversy over illicit trade in cultural artifacts.

    The Philadelphia region - in particular the University of Pennsylvania and archaeologists and anthropologists at Bryn Mawr College - has been in the forefront of those arguing that the trade in looted and stolen art and antiquities is almost wholly destructive.

    An artifact in the ground, they say, can be far more valuable in specific information it conveys about the past than any number of beautiful objects arrayed in timeless museum space.

    Bryn Mawr has a policy of discouraging faculty and students from even accepting research money from wealthy donors whose own collections contain suspect objects.

    "Professional standards of ethical behavior are how we archaeologists explain what archaeology involves," said James C. Wright, chair of Bryn Mawr's department of classical archaeology.

    "It's not a trivial matter" to accept such money, he said. "We'd be implicated in their unethical behavior."

    Even scrupulous collectors can be ensnared by vagaries of the market. A few years ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art reached an agreement with German authorities for the return of five pieces of armor stolen from Dresden during World War II. In 1953, collector Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch purchased the armor unsuspectingly. It was donated to the Art Museum in 1977.

    Kienbusch published catalogs of his collection, which eventually led Dresden authorities to bring the matter up with the Art Museum.

    Anne d'Harnoncourt, museum director, said distribution of information about the armor was key to its return to Dresden. She said the museum also was slowly researching its collections with an eye toward repatriating any art looted by the Nazis. All artworks in the museum's collections that changed hands between 1933 and 1945 are being researched, with results posted on the museum Web site.

    Such research into a work of art's ownership history, or provenance, is extremely time-consuming, d'Harnoncourt noted. But the Internet makes wide dissemination possible.

    So far, the museum has posted images and detailed provenance for 144 works on its Web site; 37 more works are listed with no images. During its research, researchers discovered two 19th-century paintings in the collection - Pensive Young Brunette by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Nude Reclining by the Sea by Gustave Courbet - that had been seized by the Nazis.

    Both works were recovered by the Allies in 1945 and returned to the legitimate owners. They later sold the works to collector Louis E. Stern, who gave them to the museum in 1963.

    "Transparency is a big issue here," said Leventhal, of the Penn Museum. "It must be public. Here are the documents, and if the host country wants to question the documents, you need to start a dialogue. It has to be all public."

    That was the way the Art Museum worked with Dresden.

    It is also the way Leventhal's museum, which has had a strict policy against acquiring illicit antiquities since 1970, approaches claims made on its extensive collection of Native American artifacts and remains.

    Since 1990 federal law has required museums to repatriate certain kinds of Native American funerary, sacred and other objects, as well as human remains.

    To do this, the museum has inventoried its extensive Native American collection and contacted hundreds of tribes in North America. So far, tribes have made 32 claims for objects or remains and have completed 20, reclaiming human remains and relics of all kinds.

    Robert W. Preucel, the museum's associate curator of North America collections and an associate professor of anthropology, said the federal mandate has led to a much richer relationship between the museum and indigenous groups.

    "They teach us," he said, "about the proper care, about the objects we hold in trust for them. It's a way of rebuilding a relationship that had crumbled."