• Responses
  • by Elizabeth Marlowe
  • May 12, 2017
American Museums First? A Response to Gary Vikan

In his essay “Why US Museums and the Antiquities Trade Should Work Together,” in the January 30, 2017, issue of Apollo, the much-admired former director of the Walters Art Museum, Gary Vikan, laments “the destruction of the system that created America’s great museums: from dealers to collectors to museums and for the benefit of the American public.” The destruction he’s talking about is the result of the recent shift in attitudes toward the collecting of antiquities and other items of cultural property. Efforts to protect source countries’ rights to their material heritage date back to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention enjoined states parties to prevent the illicit import and export of cultural property within their territories. In theory, after that point, the only items of cultural property that could be sold on the international market were those already (as of 1970) outside their countries of origin. In practice, however, the convention did little to curb the acquisitive zeal of foreign collectors. As long as there was no hard proof that a desirable item on the market had been looted or otherwise illegally exported, museums and private collectors showed no compunction about acquiring it.

Archaeologists concerned about the loss of contextual data occasioned by looting joined forces with cultural property advocates and strenuously objected to this “innocent until proven guilty” standard. They claimed that perhaps as much as 85 percent of the antiquities surfacing on the market after 1970 were looted. They argued that it was the collectors’ willingness to buy objects with murky backgrounds that encouraged the looting in the first place. “Collectors are the real looters,” they cried. Museums, collectors, and their allies responded that cultural property claims are predicated on narrow, bogus, or even dangerous forms of nationalism; that the beauty of the objects can still be appreciated even if their context is lost; and anyway that, regardless of their origins, it is better to have the artworks on public view in museum cases than hidden in the ground or in someone else’s less accessible private collection far from the public gaze. With few exceptions, it was this perspective that carried the day for the first three decades following the UNESCO convention.

Then everything changed. Over the course of the 1990s, a combination of disgruntled whistle-blowers, accidentally discovered documents and photographs, and deep investigations by police, journalists, and scholars yielded the first clear picture of the staggering scale of antiquities looting. Also exposed was the direct, knowing complicity of well-established dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museum officials. The fallout from these revelations was public and humiliating. Hundreds of artworks (and counting) from dozens of US collections were returned to Italy and Greece, including star attractions like the Metropolitan Museum’s Euphronios krater (at the time, the most expensive antiquity ever purchased, and still one of the most celebrated). A top curator at the Getty Museum was prosecuted in an Italian court. The American Association of Museum Directors responded to the crisis in 2008 with stringent new guidelines that put the onus on the collecting institutions to ensure that potential acquisitions hadn’t been illegally removed from their countries of origin. Antiquities and other items of cultural property without clear proof of a legal, pre-1970 export date are now assumed guilty until proven innocent, and very few museums in North America or Europe are willing to acquire them.

Gary Vikan was the director of the Walters Art Museum during this tumultuous period, retiring in 2012 after twenty-seven years at the institution and eighteen at its helm. His view of the paradigm shift in museum antiquities collecting is, not surprisingly, ambiguous at best. It is not clear in his Apollo essay whether he is happy or sad that “antiquities are not coming out of war-ravaged Syria” (emphasis in the original; most experts in cultural property will disagree with his assertion). He contrasts this situation, in which “virtually nothing of any monetary or cultural significance is now on the US art market from that troubled region,” with the (good?) old days in the 1980s, when he was a young curator and “vast numbers of important pieces of Byzantine art . . . were pouring westward in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus.” He justifies his “eagerness” at the time “to buy works that we knew, on some level, were recently ripped from the fabric of the Christian Orthodox communities of northern Cyprus,” by comparing it to another activity everyone knew was wrong in the 1980s but did anyway, namely, smoking. He tells this story in fuller detail in his recent book, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, but with similarly ambiguous moral reflection.

In his Apollo essay, Vikan acknowledges that “imped[ing] the trade in looted antiquities” is a “laudable” goal, because it will “preserve the integrity of archaeological sites and . . . maintain the authority of state ownership over national cultural assets.” But that is not his goal here. It is, rather, to figure out how to “unfreeze the pipeline” through which antiquities formerly circulated on the American market. Prior to the tightening of acquisition guidelines in 2008, most private collections eventually ended up in American public museums. The danger to be avoided now, in Vikan’s perspective, is the artworks’ departure from the United States: “Unless we find a solution, these collections [in the hands of private, American collectors] are likely to be sold and dispersed, in many cases to foreign buyers. The American public, of course, will be the loser.” It is hard not to notice the resonances between this perspective and the “America First” rhetoric of the current US political regime. Vikan appears blissfully un-self-aware—blind or indifferent to the global political and economic inequalities that underpin his worldview. Little can be done about that in this essay. Worth analyzing, on the other hand, are the particular mechanisms he proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline.” Despite his civic-minded claims, the main beneficiary of his “solution” would be not so much the general, museum-going “American public” as the private antiquities collectors, and the unscrupulous ones in particular.

*                                  *                                  *

Vikan proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline” by means of a “comprehensive internet database with images of all orphan works along with all information known about their history.” “Ophans,” in his definition, are works whose legal exportation from their country of origin prior to 1970 cannot be documented. The database will be “aggressively marketed to the [objects’] countries of likely origin,” allowing them to search it for their stolen cultural property and “make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution.” He also seems to be proposing a statute of limitations for such claims: “But inevitably, as time goes by and when no claims are made on the vast majority of posted works, there will be a marked thawing of that channel connecting collectors to museums to the public—a de facto ‘repose’ of title borne of transparency. The orphans will, in effect, be granted an amnesty.” The absence of claims, he implies, would be sufficient proof that the objects weren’t stolen, at least as far as title goes; and thus US museums—or, it should be added, any other collector, public or private, American or foreign—would be free to acquire them. Vikan uses noncommercial euphemisms to describe what would happen next: “Some pieces will be traded to other dealers and collectors, but most, I’m convinced, will eventually find their way into museums” (my emphasis). But it is clear that the primary function of this database would be to restore marketability to currently unsellable orphan antiquities.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that such a database is possible. Let’s assume that it really is “comprehensive” and “transparent” and includes “all orphan works,” not just the ones owners are currently looking to sell. Let’s pretend that owners will willingly divulge “all information known” about their objects’ modern histories, including potentially embarrassing or incriminating details. Vikan is excited about this database’s power to “unfreeze” the antiquities market. But let me briefly indulge a different fantasy. Consider the potential of this Platonic ideal of a database to recover some of the losses to history and knowledge caused by the illicit trafficking in antiquities. Armed with this tool, historians would worry a little less about forgeries distorting our understanding of ancient culture, since we could just look up which artworks had surfaced in the hands of dealers known to have trafficked in fakes, and stay away from all of them. We could use the database to match portrait heads with the statue bodies from which they were separated by vendors looking to make two sales instead of one. We could study the database closely and discern patterns, such as all the works of a particular type or featuring a distinctive characteristic that surfaced on the market around the same time or in the same region. From this we might be able to reconstruct dispersed assemblages—a hoard of Hellenistic gold jewelry, or a group of bronze, second-century imperial portraits—and link them to specific, looted sites. Such assemblages, tied to a particular ancient context such as a temple or a tomb, can teach us far more about the ancient world, its social practices and material culture, than a single, uncontextualized object. Vikan’s database could help reconnect the thousands of free-floating works in private collections to their ancient settings.

But all this is idle daydreaming. For one thing, even though Vikan claims that his database would encompass “all orphan works,” it is clear that he means only the ones in private, American hands, not those already in museums or abroad. The research value of so limited a sample is, of course, badly compromised. A panopticon with a partially obstructed view is not a panopticon.

A bigger problem with Vikan’s database is that there is no enforcement mechanism, no neutral body for oversight, and thus no way to ensure that the information provided by collectors is accurate or complete. Why would it be? Why would owners, motivated by a desire to sell their collections and/or to obtain legal “amnesty” for their stolen contents, volunteer compromising or unflattering details in a public record? Most collectors believe they are buying from reputable dealers. But if the database really were to divulge everything everyone knows about each object’s ownership history, it is likely that it would expose disreputable links in the chains: “who purchased it from the trunk of a car on Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi in Naples”; “who smuggled it out of Egypt in a shipment of vegetables”; “who purchased it from an unnamed contact of Jiri Frel’s” or “from a guy on a beach somewhere in Europe in 1978.” Even if such details didn’t trigger repatriation claims, their unsavoriness would, at the very least, reduce the market value of the objects. Good luck getting anyone involved in the trade to disclose them voluntarily.

*                                  *                                  *

Let’s return to Vikan’s own words about why the database would succeed in “unfreez[ing] the pipeline.” How can he be so confident that “no claims” will be made on the “vast majority of posted works,” if as much as 85 percent of the unprovenanced material that surfaces on the market may have been looted? Vikan is confident for the same reason all those museums were confident, for the first thirty years after the UNESCO convention, that they would get away with buying stolen art: because looting is nearly impossible to prove after the fact. It must be remembered that only the country from which an object was removed (in violation of that country’s national ownership laws) can file a restitution claim. Thus, it must be demonstrable not just that an object was looted, but that it was looted from within a particular nation’s borders. Most looted antiquities come from holes dug in the ground at night by tombaroli (grave robbers), who dispatch them to middlemen, and who have every incentive to keep mum about the exact findspot. Unless the looters inadvertently leave behind a broken-off piece of the object (or, in one unusual case, its entire bottom half), there is rarely any evidence left to tie the object back to the hole it came out of. Scholars can make educated guesses about a work’s regional origins based on style, facture, material, and so on, but those regions rarely coincide with any one modern nation’s territory. A high-quality marble portrait of a first-century Roman empress could have come from almost any of the more than forty modern countries that now occupy the expanse of the Roman Empire. Barring the discovery of external, documentary evidence of the portrait’s looting from a particular country (such as a photo of it in the archive of a particular trafficker), a viable restitution claim for such a work is indeed a near impossibility, as Vikan suggests.

Vikan presents his proposal as a fair, innovative, broad-minded solution to a relatively new problem. In fact, what he offers is a system weighted even more heavily in favor of the collectors and the collecting institutions than the pre-2008 status quo. His basic maneuver is to take the onus off the purchasing institution to prove that an object wasn’t stolen and to put it back on the aggrieved source country to prove that it was. It would be, in other words, a return to “innocent until proven guilty.” He goes even further with that vaguely defined “amnesty” or “de facto ‘repose’ of title” that would kick in “inevitably, as time goes by.” This seems to suggest that source countries would have a limited window of time within which to claim an item listed in the database. If new evidence proving illicit trafficking surfaced later, beyond the statute of limitations, no claim could be made. So no more returns like that of the Euphronios krater, which occurred decades after the Metropolitan Museum acquired it, thanks to a chance discovery by the Italians of new evidence of looting.

Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the amnesty component effectively transforms Vikan’s orphan database into a laundering operation. Input the post-1970 portrait head you bought from a guy who bought it from a guy in Switzerland, and wait eighteen months or three years (or however long Vikan intends). Out it comes, squeaky clean and ready for market. And not just ready but improved, its value bolstered by a spiffy new certificate testifying to the absence of prior claims and nullifying any future ones. Of course, we know that the absence of claims proves nothing about whether an artwork was actually stolen. A seal of good housekeeping from Vikan’s database can provide no reassurance to informed would-be buyers who don’t want to own stolen property or encourage the destruction of the historical record caused by looting. But it certainly would provide reassurance to uninformed or unscrupulous owners who care chiefly about the security of their investment. In this regard, a certificate from this database would resemble those art dealer–issued “certificates of authenticity”: zero epistemological significance, but often great financial value.

In addition to the legal and financial laundering, the orphan database might perform a sort of moral laundering as well, allowing the objectionable act of selling possibly looted cultural property to masquerade as civic virtue. Entering that data can be spun as an act of scholarship, a contribution to knowledge and the greater good. The material rewards at the end are so much icing on the cake. But the actual harm the database could cause is, in fact, tremendous. Currently, fears of possible claims, social opprobrium, and perhaps even a genuine desire not to encourage plundering are at least giving many collectors and institutions pause. Eventually, a depressed market will reduce the incidence of looting. Enter Vikan’s database, however, and those qualms evaporate. Indeed, the protections offered by the proposed amnesty would make antiquities one of the safest niches in the art market, likely to attract all sorts of newcomers to the field. By the laws of supply and demand, this would doubtless result in a resurgence of looting. For this reason, Vikan’s proposal is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In addition to his amnesty-granting database, Vikan offers a second solution to the problem of the frozen antiquities pipeline. Museums should cast off the stigma and red tape surrounding deaccessioning, and sell off the “storage dwellers,” those “second- and third-tier antiquities” that clutter museum basements and drain resources but that will “never be exhibited.” In other words, museums need both to empty their basements of excess antiquities and to buy new ones!

Here’s an alternative. Rather than spending millions in pursuit of beautiful, “first-tierantiquities that look good all by themselves in spotlit vitrines, but about which we have no contextual information, and which arguably cannot by themselves teach us anything new about the ancient world, and which may have been illegally removed from their (unknown) countries of origin or which may be forgeries—rather than that, museums could redirect some portion of their acquisitions budgets toward the stewardship of the objects they already own. Even “second- and third-tier” artworks have stories to tell, and often they are stories that can reach different audiences from those reached by the standard art-museum narratives about beauty and style. Collecting histories, materials, conservation, forgery—these are all fascinating topics that have attracted increasing attention in recent years, both in the academy and in some of the more progressive museum installations, such as the “Exploring the Past” galleries on the bottom floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the “Looking at Art” displays at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Who knows what revelations might come from dusting off Vikan’s “storage dwellers” and reexamining them through some of these new museological lenses? What is certain is that the American public—as well as the international community, both of scholars and of cultural property advocates—would be the winner.

Elizabeth Marlowe is associate professor of ancient and medieval art at Colgate University and the author of Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship, and the History of Roman Art (2013).


© 2020 Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture
West 86th is a publication of the Bard Graduate Center and the University of Chicago Press