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Is Portland's Hindu statue a looted antiquity?

January 4, 2009 | 10:00 am

The often abstract debate over how strict museums should be about shunning ancient artworks of questionable origins -- lest they wind up owning pieces that have been looted and illegally smuggled -- now wears the familiar face of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha. 

A 1,000-year-old stone stele of the god is scheduled to be unveiled at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon on Valentine's Day. Having already drawn criticism from the anti-looting advocacy group SAFE --Saving Antiquities for Everyone -- the Ganesha could soon be exhibit A in the back-and-forth between those who favor a hard line against collecting ancient works whose paths since before 1970 are murky, and those who think it makes more sense to give museums some leeway when hard proof is lacking. Ganesha stele bought by Portland Art Museum

Guidelines adopted in June by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) call for museums to research carefully whether an object they want left its country of origin before November 1970. That's when the United Nations adopted rules to stem cultural looting.

But when the facts nevertheless remain hazy, the AAMD permits museums to make a judgment call on whether to acquire a piece.

When a work is acquired despite doubts, it's expected to be publicized via an Object Registry on the AAMD website. An image is to be posted, along with what's known about the object's past ownership. The idea is to solicit missing information, and to give individuals or nations-of-origin a chance to claim an object as looted goods. The Ganesha stele is the first, and so far only, artifact to be posted on the registry.

The Portland Art Museum bought the piece at auction from Christie's in September; eight years earlier, it had been sold by Sotheby's. "I can't trace its provenance prior to ... the year 2000," admits Maribeth Graybill, curator of Asian art. But leaders of the Portland museum, which follows the AAMD policy, decided to make the purchase.

Here's how their thinking went:


Although it's "a fine example" of its style and period, the Ganesha isn't a rare item, Graybill said, so adding it to a collection in Oregon creates no gap in the art-historical record available to scholars and the public in India. Also, she said, it has lost any sacred attachment to its place of origin: Muslim invaders 800 years ago destroyed all the Hindu and Buddhist temples in northeastern India, so there is no existing ruin to which it could be restored. Also, Graybill said, in South Asian faiths, an image ceases to be sacred "if it is not actively venerated," so the Portland museum feels it isn't violating religious sensibilities by owning the Ganesha.

The museum, she said, balanced "very real concerns about cultural properties against a desire to be a place where the people of Oregon can have encounters with some of the world's most moving and thought-provoking cultures."

When the stele goes on display, Graybill added, it will be "a way to say that India is going to matter at the Portland Art Museum," as well as an opportunity to continue the public discussion of the ethical issues surrounding the antiquities trade and museums' role in it.

Paul Kunkel, a member of SAFE's board, said the Ganesha case shows that "the AAMD guidelines are not nearly as strong as they appear to be," given that a museum subscribing to them could buy a work "not knowing anything" about where it was before 1970.

Graybill said she is still trying to find out more about the stele, having asked other experts to provide information or leads if they can -- so far with no luck. She said she recently wrote to Sotheby's requesting that the auction house look more deeply into past ownership documents she previously was told could not be located.

So far, the only response generated from posting the Ganesha on the AAMD's Object Registry, she said, has been Kunkel contacting her to complain that its acquisition was ill-advised, and notes from some museum-world colleagues, "saying, 'Congratulations, we're glad to see somebody making use of this new mechanism.' "

"We would like to know as much about it as possible," Graybill said, then added, with a laugh, "Our hope, of course, is that it's not looted."

--Mike Boehm

Photo: Stone stele of the Hindu god Ganesha, 11th century India. Credit: Portland Art Museum