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Lord Renfrew vs. the Met, Round 2

January 3, 2009 | 10:00 am

It turns out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's policy for acquiring antiquities is more stringent than Lord Colin Renfrew had thought. Even so, the British archaeologist said Friday that New York's flagship art museum still compares unfavorably with L.A.'s Getty Museum when it comes to closing loopholes that can allow looted artifacts to find their way into museum collections.

Colin RenfrewRenfrew long has called for museums to just say no to collecting ancient works in the absence of firm evidence that their ownership history is in order and they were not dug up illegally and smuggled out of their homeland. To recognize his contributions, the advocacy group SAFE -- Saving Antiquities for Everyone -- is giving Renfrew its Beacon Award for lifetime service Jan. 10 in Philadelphia, and with it a platform to deliver a lecture titled "Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: The 1970 Rule as a Turning Point (or How the Metropolitan Museum Lags Behind the Getty)."

The description of Renfrew's talk on the SAFE website says he will "underline the significance" of last June's decision by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, or AAMD, to endorse using 1970 as a benchmark. The point is to have proof that a piece was not dug up after November 1970, when the United Nations adopted rules aimed at quelling the looting and illegal sale of nations' cultural heritage. The AAMD guidelines urge museums to "thoroughly research the ownership history" of ancient artifacts they want to acquire, "including making a rigorous effort to obtain accurate written documentation."

On Friday, after being unavailable on Wednesday to respond to a Culture Monster inquiry, Met spokesman Harold Holzer said the New York museum had in fact adopted the AAMD's new guidelines last June as its own antiquities policy -- replacing a more lenient previous policy in which the Met could acquire antiquities whose ownership record was clear for just the previous 10 years, rather than since 1970.

"It seems to me that Mr. Renfrew has confused everybody here" by assuming the Met was still operating under its old rules, Holzer said, adding that the museum has not acquired any ancient artifacts since adopting the stricter policy.

But in an e-mail Friday, Renfrew said there was no confusion as to whether the thesis of his lecture still stands: While welcome, he said, the AAMD/Metropolitan policy "leaves much room for manoeuvre" compared with the Getty's approach. "I shall be pointing out in my lecture that [Met leaders] still have a way to go before they have the clear and transparent guidance which the Getty now follows. The Getty has taken the lead and retains the lead!"

He continued: "I do welcome the clear evidence that the Met is heading now in the right direction. So far, however, LA is doing better than NY on the ethical front!"

One problem, according to Renfrew, is that the Met has not made its policy change widely known. Paul Kunkel, a SAFE board member who is helping coordinate Renfrew's lecture, said Friday that he had contacted the Met early last month to make sure Renfrew had up-to-date information about Met policies. Kunkel said the Met's Holzer had told him that the museum now followed the AAMD guidelines. But, Kunkel said, the Met failed to furnish the copy of its policy that he requested. An e-mailed copy arrived this week, he said, after Culture Monster's inquiries about Renfrew's upcoming lecture led to a new round of contacts between SAFE and the Met. "A comment over the telephone is not exactly an official announcement," Kunkel said. "It still is in the realm of something less than a public disclosure." 

The Getty drew widespread attention, including a front-page story in The Times, when it announced in October 2006 that it was drastically tightening its acquisition standards for antiquities. The L.A. museum had been under fire for having dozens of ancient pieces with suspicious origins in its collection; many have since been returned to Italy and Greece, as have similarly suspect pieces from other museums, including the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Getty's policy calls for making "every reasonable effort to investigate, substantiate or clarify" artworks' provenance -- and declares that it will forgo adding ancient relics to its collection if it can't find "documentation or substantial evidence" that artworks left their homeland before the 1970 adoption of the U.N.'s anti-looting rules.

Unlike the Getty's seemingly firm stand against collecting without sufficient proof of provenance, the AAMD guidelines say that when the evidence is incomplete, museums may weigh what's known and make "an informed judgment" that a work is OK to buy or accept as a gift.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Lord Colin Renfrew. Credit: provided by Saving Antiquities for Everyone


 
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