Monday, April 23, 2012

The Future of the Past - Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century

The transcript of the program, The Future of the Past - Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century, has been posted here:

The program sponsored by The Asia Society and the American Committee for Cultural Policy largely focuses on Asian Art, but in so doing, raises serious concerns about how the United States Department of State and US Customs makes and enforces import restrictions on cultural goods.  Kate Fitz Gibbon, a former CPAC member who now practices as an attorney in New Mexico, set the tone of the event:
We had recently very dramatic, highly publicized raids of California museums accusing them back in 2008 of accepting donations of so-called stolen art from Thailand. These made the front pages for weeks, though it later turned out that bad law and bad facts resulted in a lot of dropped cases.
Other cases that never make the paper come as unpleasant surprise to ordinary folks. An elderly lady from Los Angeles puts some ceramics that she bought at a flea market up for sale on the internet, and then finds four Homeland Security agents on her doorstep. They have a letter from the Minister of Culture of Mali claiming her artifacts were stolen.

A probate lawyer in Albuquerque calls US Customs when he discovers some Pre-Columbian art in an estate. "Any problem?" He asks. "No problem," they say, "it's all stolen. Agents will be by to collect it."

These kinds of actions don’t reach the papers. Most of the time the people involved don’t even realize they have been the victim of a misinformed or overzealous agent, but if we allow a declaration of blanket ownership by a source country to trigger a violation of our National Stolen Property Act, and we assume that lack of documentation is proof of guilt, then we have an end to art collecting, sooner rather than later.

When art becomes stolen through an administrative declaration, a flourish of the pen, then all art collecting is at risk. This applies not only to antiquities but to the myriad of other objects that are claimed as national cultural heritage in many countries: photographs, paintings, sculpture, documents, coins, textiles and costumes.  We'll be hearing later today about the Association of Art Museum Directors' decision not to purchase or accept for donation artworks that cannot be proven to have come into the United States before 1970. To my mind this rule is a self-administered slow poison, completely illogical and not required under any law.

There are already hundreds of thousands of objects, mostly minor, that cannot be donated under these rules. In another ten years, there will be many thousands more as owners pass away.

If art collecting is no longer honored, then the benefits to institutions of art collecting will end. If institutions aren't exciting places for collectors, collectors will stop supporting institutions. Archeology, which is supported by this enthusiasm and by the museum system, will suffer in turn.

This should be sobering stuff for anyone interested in the preservation of the past.

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