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  • Met: U.S. isn't the only looter
    20.04.2006 By Matthew O'Rourke, Times Staff Writer

  • Museum director Philippe de Montebello asks why other nations aren't being asked to return stolen artworks.

    The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday accused foreign countries seeking the return of looted antiquities of targeting museums in the United States without examining the practices of institutions in other nations.

    Philippe de Montebello, the museum's longtime director, spoke at a luncheon at the National Press Club addressing some of the issues raised in the current debate over cultural patrimony. The Met recently agreed to return 21 looted artifacts to Italy, including the Euphronios krater, a 6th century BC painted vase prized by the museum, after Italian authorities claimed the piece was stolen from an Etruscan tomb.

    "I must say I am puzzled at one thing, which is the absence of claims against collectors and museums in Germany, Spain, the U.K., Switzerland, Denmark and Japan, among others," De Montebello said. "They were buying from dealers at least as much as the dealers now under indictment in the United States. I think we should reflect on why only the U.S. is being the target of claims."

    According to De Montebello, there is a need for "source countries" of works of art to develop a "licit market" to stop the flow of looted objects to museums abroad.

    "The Japanese model is an excellent and proven one by which some objects have been declared national treasures," De Montebello said. "There is no looting in Japan."

    Under this model, he said, objects declared "redundant" — those for which there is a significant sampling in Japan — can be sold and exported legally. This legal market, he maintained, undercuts black-market traffic.

    The world has entered an "era of pronounced nationalism," De Montebello said, in which nations have increasingly declared art and antiquities to be the property of the state.

    In part as a result of this, he said, international treaties and laws passed in the United States have hampered museums' efforts to obtain new art objects.

    In addition, under the United States' National Stolen Property Act, "foreign patrimony laws could be the standard for determining that objects removed from their source country were indeed stolen," De Montebello said.

    The Met could have invoked a statute of limitations when dealing with the Italian authorities, he added, but chose to take the high road and not do so.

    "We're grateful to Italy's willingness to accept a framework based on the principle of reciprocity and compensation," he said. "We're grateful they continue to make antiquities found on their soil available to our visitors."

    As part of the Met's agreement with the Italians on the return of the 21 objects, Italy is to loan the Met objects said to be of equal beauty and cultural significance.

    De Montebello several times referenced the value of "universal" or encyclopedic museums such as the Met, which collect broadly across geography and time and allow visitors to experience many cultures. "The universal museum is the cultural family tree," he said, "where all people can find their roots."

    Although he made it clear that he does not advocate selling art on the international black market, De Montebello also said that, ironically, its presence has helped to save artifacts that might otherwise have been lost.

    "Instead of being melted down by the peasant or whoever finds it on his or her property for the nominal value of the metal, [they] will now realize that it is worth a great deal more," he said. "On the one hand, it is an incentive to illicit actions, but on the other there is no question it has had its value on preserving works of art."

    Lashing out at the media, De Montebello said that there needs to be a better representation of "all sides" involved in the cultural patrimony debate.

    "It surprises me that so many members of the press appear to be captive to a small number of repeated quotes by archeologists that do not represent the majority of the profession," he said.

    Even so, he added that investigative reporters should continue to be "skeptical toward what museums' spokespersons say."

    But of his own museum, he said: "Our views can withstand the sharpest scrutiny. We hold the high moral ground."