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2013-01-06 - ancient greek ceramics

Where One Hand Ends and the Other Begins: Museum Ethics and the Restoration of Ancient Ceramics

 

Einav Zamir

2013-01-06 - ancient greek ceramics

In February of last year, Kaikodo gallery, a small but well-known commercial venue for Asian art, provided an informational tour of their location to students from the Bard Graduate Center. In what would become a pivotal moment in my development as an art historian, the curator, by way of introduction, held up a small, ancient ceramic cup and proudly announced that its flawless surface was an illusion, and that the object had actually been found “in a million pieces.”

It became immediately obvious that the vessel had been given a thick, unnatural varnish, so as to make it more attractive to collectors. At this point, there was a brief, but discernible shift among my classmates. We remained stone-faced, but glances were exchanged between each of us – it was clear that no one felt comfortable with this restoration.

What I’ve learned since then is that this practice is not at all uncommon, and what’s more, is that it happens in museums and cultural institutions just as often as commercial galleries. In conserving ancient ceramics, viewer appreciation is often considered over viewer education. Of course, these restorations typically begin with the best of intentions. Filling gaps during a reconstruction is, at its core, essential for the long-term structural stability of a piece, as well for protecting the exposed edges of the original fragments from further deterioration, bearing in mind that any added material should always be reversible. However, when a conservator begins to conceal cracks, chips, and break lines for the sake of a smooth finish, a restoration suddenly becomes an aesthetic endeavor, rather than a necessity. Furthermore, by restoring the surface to a pre-break appearance, the conservator is left with two options: to stop there, leaving much of the decorative program fragmented, or to proceed with refilling the missing parts and perpetuate the illusion that the vessel is whole and unchanged from its original state. This is an entirely auxiliary process, as it has absolutely no bearing on the structural integrity or physical decay of the object.

2013-01-06 - ancient ceramics conservationAs one might expect, there are various degrees of re-painting. With ancient Greek objects, the more honest, yet still unobtrusive method avoids using black slip to mimic original decoration, so that the viewer has both a means by which to distinguish original from added components, as well a sense of how the original figures or motifs may have appeared in antiquity. This approach tends to be favored by modern restoration efforts, though heavy refilling is still in practice. In both cases, one must consider that the lines which make up the decoration, by the very nature of their execution, are entirely unique and distinct. In other words, no two marks, even on the same vessel, are the same. Therefore, the restorer cannot possibly “re-do” what was done by the craftsman, but rather must extrapolate the character and quality of the decoration, an entirely subjective endeavor. In doing so, the painter’s work is altered and subverted by the hand of the conservator. One cannot know for certain how a form would have extended into a now missing portion of a vessel. Any guesses are not based on ascertainable data.

What are not immediately apparent in this discussion are the very simple alternatives that exist. An informative label, reconstructive drawing, or digital rendering might accompany an object to fill in the conceptual gaps in a decoration. What’s more, labels should indicate which objects have been heavily restored, and museum websites should point out when repainting has occurred. The British Museum site is better than most in this regard, while the Metropolitan Museum site provides little to nothing in terms of conservation history.

2013-01-06 - Jeffrey Maish Getty Musuem conservator Attic black figure kylix

J. Paul Getty Museum associate conservator Jeffrey Maish examining an Attic black-figure kylix under a binocular stereo-microscope. Courtesy: National Science Foundation.

If the restoration or accompanying labels do not make it immediately obvious which areas of the decoration are new, it is not only dishonest, but can also lead to serious errors in interpretation. Fledgling students of art history are often charged with writing interpretive material on vessels as an exercise in formalist analysis. In these assignments, the student is expected to establish opinions based on line-quality, pattern, movement, and form. If a work has been heavily repainted, then the student is likely considering the conservator’s hand equally to that of the ancient craftsman. The exercise is then entirely wasted, and any understanding of the artist’s intent has been lost.

Finally, by not providing this information, museums appear to have little trust in the intelligence and intentions of their patrons. Much like the curator at Kaikodo, who seemed proud of the heavy handed restoration of her ceramic vessel, museums attempt to sell us their collections, rather than create opportunities for honest and unhindered discovery.

2007-02-05 Duccio di Buininsegna Madonna and Child
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Duccio(?) at the Met

In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, following the lead of Director Philippe de Montebello, made their most expensive acquisition in the history of the institution when they purchased a small painted panel attributed to the late Gothic Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna.

This past summer, a debate ensued when ArtWatch President and Columbia Professor James Beck questioned the authenticity of the work, and the Met presented its case via the press. In response, Professor Beck sent the following letter to the New York Times, in an attempt to rectify certain fallacies that had appeared in an item printed on 8 July. It never appeared in the Times, nor was the letter acknowledged by its editors.

JULY 15, 2006

To the Editor,

Mistakes of fact and interpretation in the July 8 Times item entitled “Authenticity of a Met Masterpiece is Challenged” require comment.

(1) The Met’s claim that “virtually every scholar of Duccio accepts this picture as Duccio” is misleading. One expert, Professor Florens Duechler, who was himself a curator at the Met’s Cloisters, did not in his monograph of 1984. In 1997, a monograph by Andrea Weber (Cologne: Könemann) omits the picture altogether from his catalogue of Duccio’s works. In fact, the first known published reference to the painting was in 1901, at which time it was attributed not to Duccio of ca. 1300 but to Sano di Pietro, a 15th century Sienese artist.

(2) The central interview in the item was with Luciano Bellosi, one of the world’s few bona fide Duccio experts. He is quoted as highly enthusiastic about the Duccio attribution. What the item failed to report is that Bellosi has never actually seen the painting. In an interview with Lee Rosenbaum published July 10, 2006 (culturegrrl.blogspot.com) he admitted as much:

“No, unfortunately I didn’t see it with my own eyes, only by photographs….I know it is a very important question. It is always necessary to see the works of art in reality to be sure what they are….Art historians like Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy [of the Met] are very capable to judge the works of art with their eyes. I know their capacity. I trust in them for that.”

Actually, none of the experts who have written monographs on Duccio over the past 50 or more years ever saw it! As Bellosi himself acknowledges, it is of major importance from the point of view of proper connoisseurship.

(3) To support its Duccio attribution, the Met claims that the parapet or perspective shelf in their painting influenced a picture located in the Museo Civico of Montepulciano. The item failed to include my response, namely that the pictures are diverse in size, scale, format, function and derive from different artistic traditions. The Montepulciano Madonna and Angels has three standing figures within an arch, while the Met’s tiny picture is a rectangular tableaux with a single group, a conception congenial to 15th century Flemish and Italian portraits, where the parapet functions spatially as a plane in front of the sacred images. In making this claim, the Met asks us to believe the impossible: that an anonymous pupil copied the notion of the parapet from the master, yet it never again appears in any of Duccio’s
works, nor in the works of any of his great pupils, Pietro Lorenzetti, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. That scenario would be unique in art history.

(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. [Full text of e-mails available on request.]:
(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. 
[Full text of e-mails available on request.]: 
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2005, 2:28 PM
To: Christiansen, Keith
Subject: RE: greetings from Italy
Dear Keith: ……I would be dishonest if I did not mention to you that I personally have some problems with the painting….

(5) The item also failed to include my response to the Met’s suggestion that its scientific testing proved the Duccio attribution. To begin with, it is most indicative that these tests were conducted after the purchase, not before. Besides these tests cannot prove an attribution—they can at best rule out certain kinds offorgeries or misattributions.

(6) The item failed to include my reasons for bringing the Duccio error to public attention. I believe that when a mediocre object is classified as a great work by a great artist, that artist is unfairly diminished and the public is misled.
Sincerely,

James Beck (Professor)

2006-05-03 - Fra Angelico Christ Crowned with Thorns

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?

2006-05-03 - Euphronios krater

Has the Met Been Rewarded for Looting Antiquities?

The Metropolitan Museum website may now indicate that the famous 2500-year-old Euphronios 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.