Has the Met Been Rewarded for Looting Antiquities?

The Metropolitan Museum website may now indicate that the famous 2500-year-old Euphronius krater is “Lent by the Republic of Italy,” but that has hardly been the case since the acquisition of the object thirty years ago. Shortly after the Met acquired the krater, Italy claimed that the work had been stolen from a tomb in Cerveteri.

Despite Italian rumblings from the start, the Metropolitan, they say on the basis of switched documents, insisted that they believed the work came from a Lebanese collection. Nonetheless, proof has finally been accepted that the krater, which was purchased for $1 million during the tenure of Director Thomas Hoving in 1972 from Robert E. Hecht, was stolen from an Etruscan tomb the year before.

The Met’s deal includes the return of the krater as well as fifteen pieces of silver looted from the Sicilian site of Morgantina, acquired by the museum in 1981 and 1982. In that instance, although claims of the illegal provenance have been made since 1987, the Met has only recently acquiesced.

While many may not be surprised at the reluctance of the Metropolitan to return the objects, and the complete refusal to admit any wrongdoing in their acquisition policies, more shocking is the manner in which current and former Metropolitan officials have spoken of the matter. In a recent interview (Time Out New York, March 2006) former Director Hoving lauded Phillipe de Montebello’s arrangement with the Italian government. “It was there for 30 years. Now they can exchange it for other great things. They’re going to get fabulous stuff over an indefinite period, stuff they could never buy, never find and never afford if they found it. It’s sensational. It’s a landmark move. It’s gutsy, and I think [Met director] Philippe de Montebello did a great thing.”

Even though Hoving chalks up his acquisition of the stolen krater as the normal practice of the time, saying it occurred in the “days of raw piracy, when nobody cared,” he simultaneously touts his role in formulating the UNESCO
treaty back in 1970.

In his book, Making the Mummies Dance, the former Director wrote about the experience of landing the Euphronius krater: “I sat back at my desk shuffling black and white photos of my passion and felt a near-sexual pleasure. We had landed a work that would force the history of Greek art to be rewritten, perhaps the last monumental piece ever to come out of Italy, slipping in just underneath the crack in the door of the pending UNESCO treaty which would drastically limit the trade in antiquities. We had gained a triumphant work, one of surpassing power and infinite mystery, one, I knew, that would one day reveal surprises.”

One might, however, expect a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the current Metropolitan Director and other officials at the Museum. However, despite overwhelming evidence that the objects were improperly acquired and withheld from Italian collections for decades, Philippe de Montebello seemed less than apologetic.

The United States participated and played a key role in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) agreement signed in Paris in 1970, entitled Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Regardless of the government’s official position, Montebello told the New York Times shortly after the agreement was struck, “I am puzzled 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.” His own words suggest that the only reason that the Metropolitan decided to finally address the Italian claims is because the issue, one he referred to as an irritant, did not appear to be dissipating.

Much to the chagrin of archaeologists everywhere, Montebello minimized the importance of preserving the archaeological context of objects, information that is lost when objects are stolen: “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.” Despite the fact that Montebello claims that the attention given to the issue of stolen objects in recent years has greatly reduced the number of antiquities entering into American collections, the Metropolitan’s policy, dating to 2004, is not particularly rigid. It allows for the purchase of any object with documentation that dates back at least ten years, unless the object is deemed especially important.

Even with the recent decision to return several items, including the famed krater, the Met feels they have achieved something of a victory, a point not lost on Hoving. Montebello thinks the real achievement in the current agreement is not the return of stolen objects, but rather that Italy “has agreed to the principle of a fair exchange of like material.” To wit, the Euphronius krater, in deference to the re-opening of the remodeled Roman and Hellenistic galleries at the Met in Spring of 2007, will remain in New York until early 2008.

This same attitude, that no real wrong was committed, was celebrated at a panel discussion entitled “Who Owns Art” at the New School in New York on March 6th. Montebello said: “I thought that some sort of formula where reciprocity and exchange could be arranged would be successful for both sides and not deprive the American museums altogether of antiquities when the objects were returned to Italy. As you know, Italian museum storerooms are engorged with works of art. It’s not as if they needed them. This is a political statement.” He criticized the Italian government strongly for pursuing their case through the press, calling the process “shabby”. The audience, reportedly composed largely of collectors who paid $25 each to attend the event, was criticized by some as a staged publicity event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel discussion was organized by the New York Times, a paper with notoriously close ties to the Met.

The Metropolitan isn’t the only institution to come under fire for their practices of acquisition, past and current. The Getty, embroiled in a scandal known as “Gettygate”, has been questioned regarding a full half of the antiquities in their large collection. Just recently, the villa (in Paros) of the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True, was raided, and several undeclared antiquities were confiscated. True is, by the way, already facing trial in Italy for the looting of antiquities. This was followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of thousands of undeclared ancient objects in a cache located on the Greek island of Skhoinousa, many of which had been purchased by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Authorities have released few immediate findings, but there was an expressed interest in determining if any of the objects were intended for the already embattled Getty Museum.

The scandals may grow tiresome, but museums, especially public institutions like the Metropolitan, have a responsibility to the public, and they should show an interest in serving more than their legacies.

Pentimento

Several times in recent memory, the restoration of an artwork has led to the re-attribution of a painting, or at the very least, the shift in attribution from a workshop piece to one executed directly by the master. Rembrandt and Titian are the authors of two major works “uncovered” during recent cleaning campaigns.

The discovery of Rembrandt’s unsigned study, <b>Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet</b>, was announced in September of 2005, restored solely under the guidance of Ernst van der Wetering, director of the Rembrandt Research Project, and Martin Bijl, previously of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. No other scholars were consulted or offered the opportunity to view the work, which was set to be seen in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, celebrated this year.

It was determined that the painting had been touched up at a later date, and what had been identified as later repaint, including the sitter’s fur collar and the black background (which masked a change in the shape of the panel), were not congruent with Rembrandt’s original intentions. The restorers argued that another artist after the fact had modified Rembrandt’s painting in an attempt to sell it. Even though the painting had been excluded from Rembrandt catalogues since the early 20th Century, the restoration paid off — it sold for $4,272,000 at Sotheby’s this past January. Thus, as Rembrandt’s painting had been modified once in an attempt to sell the work, the same decision was made again, centuries later.

Before Restoration

Rembrant - Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet

After Restoration

Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet has received the most attention, although there have been other Rembrandts that have entered the market in this manner. In 2003, a supposed self-portrait was found beneath a portrait of a Russian aristocrat, later selling for $11.3 million at auction. Largely responsible is the Rembrandt Research Project, which has more than once consulted with the owner of a newly discovered painting, and then worked with restorers to unveil what is considered to be an original Rembrandt. As fewer and fewer works by the master remain in private collections and fetch ever increasing prices, the incentive to find and authenticate “new” works from the underpaint of modified canvases is on the rise.

Things did not work out nearly so well for the supposed Titian double-portrait that was discovered under a painting depicting Tobias and the Archangel. Previously attributed to the great Venetian master, it had twice failed to sell at auction, first in 1947 and again in 1963.

As in the case of the Rembrandt, the “discovery” was made that the painting had been retouched by an inferior hand, in this case at the death of the master. Since the unfinished work was not saleable as it was — showing an unknown woman and her daughter — it was presumably modified into a religious subject so that it would have wider appeal on the market.

The nearly two-decade-long process of removing what had been deemed repaint had been begun as far back as 1983, and then the work was put up for auction as a Titian, yet again, this past December at Christies’ in London. Every effort was made to justify the importance of the painting
within Titian’s artistic output, with scholars and interested parties variously proposing that the mature female subject was one of Titian’s own daughters, his cousin, or his mistress. Although the sale price was estimated between $10 and $16 million, the bids failed to meet the reserve, and the work went unsold, as it had in its pre-restored state.

Interestingly, in both the cases of the Rembrandt and the Titian, the works were seen to be somewhat anomalous, something that should have raised a question as to either the authorship of the work beneath, or the original intentions of the artist. Without questioning Rembrandt’s authorship of <b>Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet</b>, it was noted that Rembrandt rarely posed his sitters in profile, that the bonnet was atypical of the master, and that the state of the work — an oil sketch — was less common for his oeuvre. For Titian, it was noted that this was the only mother-daughter portrait known by the artist. Yet even though both discoveries fell into the category of unique works, the traits that made them such were used as ways to increase the value of the works, rather than question their authorship.

The trend is likely to only increase. In February, it was announced that an original Frans Hals portrait of Pieter Jacobsz Olycan was discovered underneath heavy repaint that had caused the work to long be identified as a copy. Once worth just a few thousand pounds, it is now expected to fetch 7 million pounds at auction. In this case, the delay in identifying the true master of the work was exacerbated by the fact that Hals himself is believed to have changed the costume on his sitter, covering the original suit with a fur-trimmed coat.

While restorers have always been interested in the notion of discovery, uncovering heretofore unseen details of well-known works, this process of treasure-hunting on old master paintings is even more ominous. Good paintings will be destroyed at a faster pace, with the hopes — whetted by x-ray studies — of finding better, or at least more marketable, paintings beneath. As the art market clamors for more originals in what should be a finite pool, the temptation will grow to discover more works by the master painters, even incomplete ones, ones that the artist never intended to sell or show, hidden under the paintings of others.

Reproductive Rights?

ArtWatch has previously reported on the way in which museums exert their power to suppress discussions in public forums that do not favor their actions or points of view. Shortly after reporting on the MoMA’s possession of an Egon Schiele painting claimed to have been looted by Nazis during WWII in December of 2004, David D’Arcy, a long-time contributor to National Public Radio, was suspended, supposedly for not presenting the issue in a balanced way. ArtWatch continues to be concerned that museums, with their powerful boards of directors and their far-reaching influence, exert an undue pressure on the media to report favorably on the issues that affect them.

While that may be the case for large institutions, what is surprising is that smaller ones will also use the means at their disposal to limit discussions that they do not deem favorable to their interests. An example can be found perhaps were one might least expect it, in the small Italian town of Livorno.

Professor James Beck was recently asked to review an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum on Fra Angelico (October 2005-January 2006) for Apollo Magazine. Critical of the museum’s attempt to arbitrarily re-write the chronology of the artist, the review called into question the value of the exhibition on a scholarly level.

As the review was being prepared, the Press Office at the Met had to be contacted in order to obtain permissions to reprint images from the show for the review. One painting considered for publication in Apollo was Christ Crowned with Thorns owned by the Parrocchia di Santa Maria del Soccorso (Livorno). Egle Zygas, Senior Press Officer responded that Livorno’s Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori (which has the work on deposit) would only release the image on two conditions: “one, that the attribution not be questioned; and two) that no disparaging comments be made about the work. If those conditions are fine with you, we are allowed to release an image to you or to your editor.”

The work ultimately appeared in the review, as a full-page color illustration, where it was used to demonstrate the chronological inconsistencies inherent in the exhibition.. The incident, however, is chilling for the effect it could have on a scholar’s ability to discuss a work of art. If the thesis of an art historian’s argument is not advantageous to the institution that owns the rights to the work, will they be denied permission to reproduce the images necessary to make their case?

Louvre Atlanta, 2006-2009

The phenomenon of the traveling exhibition has always been a powerful tool, used by museums to boost attendance rates and bring works of art to a population that otherwise might not get the chance to see them.

But at what cost? ArtWatch has raised the issue of the danger of transporting works in the past, most recently when the Bargello Museum in Florence shipped Verrocchio’s bronze David to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art for an exhibition from November of 2003 to February of 2004, followed immediately by a two-month residency at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Celebrated as the first time that the sculpturehad ever left its native Italy, the work, as frequently is the case, was restored for the occasion. New David, new venue, and large crowds.


The motivation is not purely altruistic, but a financial one. Attendance for special exhibitions far outpace those of the regular collections, and that increased attendance is reflected in sales. The High Museum, for example,had a record year in its gift shop the year it sponsored an exhibition of Olympic rings, and the <b>David</b> was intended to produce the same results. Hence, as the show drew near, Florentine paper products were imported to entice museum-goers. The High Museum’s new expanded site at the Woodruff Arts Center also doubled the size of the museum store and, hopefully, revenues. Also more than doubled in the last few years is their museum entrance fee, which was $6 in 2000, and is now $15.

Based on the success of previous exhibitions, the High Museum has now embarked on a more ambitious program of importing art objects, teaming up for a three-year deal with the Musée du Louvre in Paris. For a price of around $13 million (the actual sum has not been disclosed, though the compensation has been called “substantial”), the Louvre will lend to the High Museum (or, the “Louvre Atlanta”) some of its most famous artworks for a series of exhibitions. Already slated for shipment is Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, author of  The Book of the Courtier, which will be in Atlanta for the first of nine shows, “Kings as Collectors,” from October 2006 to March 2007, at which point it will be replaced by Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. While those works may be the superstars of the loan agreement, approximately two hundred other works will be shipped from Paris to begin their long-term stay in the new Anne Cox Chambers wing of the museum. While some of the objects chosen for travel have never left France before, also unprecedented is the length of their absence from the Louvre. It is also the first time in the Louvre’s history that they have agreed to lend not just single objects, but entire collections to another museum for an extended period. At the end of the loan, much of what had been sent to the High Museum will find its new home in the new $100 million Louvre satellite museum in the city of Lens.

So what has led to this unprecedented situation, wherein the Louvre is literally renting out its great masterpieces? It seems as if the Louvre, while getting 60% of its operating budget from the French government, is looking for other ways to raise capital in response to recent rumblings that the museum may be receiving a cut in its federal funding. These financial concerns are surprising in light of the record attendance reported
for 2005 at 7.3 million visitors, up from the previous record of 6.7 million in 2004, with the increase largely credited to the popularity of The DaVinci Code. Yet the Louvre is seeking greater autonomy from the French state, and part of the money from the “Louvre Atlanta” deal, contributed by American corporate sponsors, will be used by the Louvre to fund facility improvements, specifically the remodeling of their 18th century rooms.

As part of the partnership, the two museums will trade staff members as well, so that the Parisian institution will also get a closer look at the marketing strategies, corporate sponsorship, and fundraising techniques that American museums have been employing for quite some time. And undoubtedly they can learn a lot from the High, who had such tremendous success in their capital campaign that their chief fundraiser was jokingly nicknamed the “pickpocket.”

Despite the geo-political veil that has been cast onto the agreement — showing the collaboration of two countries that have had considerable tension over the past few years — many have been critical of the program, viewing it as a prestigious museum renting its objects out to the highest bidder. As can be expected, much of the criticism has come from within France, with the argument that the French people, rather than the museum itself, own the works and that they should not be made inaccessible to the people of that nation for the financial benefit of the Louvre. There is also some resentment that smaller French museums have had a difficult time procuring loans from the Louvre in the past, yet their shipment to Atlanta can be accommodated for the right price.

A French editorial in  La Tribune de l’Art asked if American museums were more “transparent” than those in France, after noting that even after American online sources broke the story of the “Louvre Atlanta” deal, the Louvre was less than forthcoming about the objects that were to be sent abroad. To wit, criticisms have been made of the museum’s “culture of secrecy” that are, in reality, not dissimilar to those complaints made of American institutions for their unwillingness to openly share information about their collections and operations.

The aura of international diplomacy aside, big business is a much larger player in the newly brokered deal. In order to raise the $13 million to facilitate the agreement, private donors as well as corporate sponsors had to be tapped. In addition, once the Louvre deal began to arise, the costs of the High Museum’s remodeling increased as well, as amenities were added to accommodate the expected crowds, bumping the overall project budget to $163.9 million, with other reports hovering at $178.4.

While some of that money came from private donors, Delta Airlines came aboard as the lead corporate sponsor of the venture, despite having filed Chapter 11 last September and suffering a net loss of $1.2 billion in the last quarter of 2005. Delta will provide air travel and cargo shipping for the exhibition. Other corporate sponsors for the venture include Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting, and UPS.

The Louvre’s unprecedented action — renting out a portion of its collection for an extended period of time — has upped the level of concern regarding the loaning of artworks. Not only do the objects continue to be subjected to the substantial dangers of transport, but museums have continued their descent into corporatocracy, with no end in sight.