How museums deal with ethical dilemma of displaying looted art

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm


Every month produces new cases of the "repatriation" of antiquities from Western museums to their countries of origin.

In late May, Italian authorities displayed 25 looted artefacts retrieved from the United States. They included some objects smuggled by the infamous dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2004 for selling thousands of stolen pieces of Greco-Roman art from Italy and the Mediterranean. A few weeks earlier, the Cleveland Museum of Art returned a 10th-century statue of the Hindu god Hanuman to Cambodia. The idol had been hacked from the Prasat Chen temple in Siem Reap in the 1960s before journeying via a litany of dealers into the holds of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1982.

In April, homeland security agents relieved the Honolulu Museum of Art of seven ancient Indian artefacts believed to have been acquired through New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

Kapoor, now in police custody in India, presided over a vast criminal operation that is the focus of an ongoing investigation spanning four continents in an effort to untangle Kapoor's network. For decades, he funnelled stolen antiquities from India and Southeast Asia to private collectors and major museums in the West to the tune of more than US$100 million.

Some of the big American institutions connected to Kapoor include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago and the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco.

In the past 10 years, public collections including the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Met have given up hundreds of tarnished objects. In acquiring these illicit antiquities, museums failed to do due diligence in determining the authenticity and provenance of objects. They have since lost millions of dollars.

But it's not just the financial pain that worries curators and museum chiefs. The headlines generated by such scandals threaten the very acquisitive enterprise of Western museums; mounting demands for repatriation make more difficult the project of building "universal" institutions presenting the art and history of the world.

Sometimes, these claims have little to do with the illicit trade. Writing in The New York Times, Hugh Eakin decried the strong-arming tactics of "art-rich" countries such as Turkey, Greece and Italy.

"Museums' relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly extortionary, demands," he wrote.

As China and India grow on the geopolitical stage, so too have Chinese and Indian demands (often by private groups and individuals rather than governments) for the restitution of artefacts from the West.

As a result, defenders of museums believe that their diverse and cosmopolitan collections are under attack from governments and groups with narrow, nationalist agendas. Critics of Western museums accuse them of complicity in the illicit trade and, at a more general level, of perpetuating the gross inequalities between the West and the rest of the world.

American museums are largely self-regulated, though many subscribe to the stricter guidelines adopted in 2008 by the American Association of Art Museum Directors governing the acquisition of archaeological material. Museums have rarely been forced by legal rulings to give up artefacts. Instead, they have voluntarily - sometimes pre-emptively - handed over the dodgy objects in their collections.

The chief executive of the Getty Trust, James Cuno, fears that universal museums in the West face a deeper challenge from nationalists around the world. Governments and their deputised national museums often couch their demands for repatriation in terms of "repairing the integrity of the nation". Cuno argues that these claims are more theatrical than moral, making cultural property "about politics and the political agenda of ruling elites".

In his view, the universal museum remains the best context in which to engage with art.

The Guardian