December 1, 2008
How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?
By SHARON WAXMAN
THE imminent arrival of Thomas Campbell as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is much more than a simple changing of the guard after the long tenure of his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello. Mr. Campbell, who will take over one month from today, is a 46-year-old curator from the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, and he has a unique opportunity to shift the tone of an enduring and increasingly hostile debate in the world of art and museums: Who should own the treasures of antiquity?
Up to now, the parties on either side of this dispute have stood in opposing corners with their fingers in their ears. The governments of Italy and Turkey have filed lawsuits to force the return of plundered and looted artworks. Egypt has threatened to suspend excavation permits if iconic artifacts are not repatriated. Greece has built a new museum in Athens in large part to justify its renewed demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain.
For the most part, the world’s great museums, like the Metropolitan, have responded only when under direct threat and, even then, they do not acknowledge wrongdoing.
Their willful silence has fostered a culture of distrust that has made the task of reconciliation and cultural exchange more difficult, as the public is treated to spectacles like the fight over the Euphronios krater. A stunningly beautiful vase by one of the greatest artists of ancient Greece, it came to the Met under dubious circumstances in 1972 — court records say it had been excavated by a gang of tomb robbers in Italy. After a long, embarrassing fight, the museum sent the krater back to Italy last January, which then displayed it as part of an exhibition called “Nostoi,” a nod to the ancient Greek epic about the heroes’ return from the Trojan war.
Mr. Campbell is young, British and gloriously new to all this. Unconnected to the traumas of past restitution battles, he may be able to move the museum world forward without also emptying the Met’s halls of Greek amphorae, Egyptian sarcophagi or Etruscan chariots.
The Association of Art Museum Directors has already readied a path for Mr. Campbell. This past summer, the association finally issued new guidelines, which recognize that buying unprovenanced antiquities encourages their illicit trade and recommend that its members purchase only antiquities that can be proven to have been legally exported after 1970, or else removed from their country of origin before that date. (It was in 1970 that Unesco adopted an international convention barring the illegal export and transfer of cultural property.)
The British Museum has adopted this cutoff date, as has the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Met quietly followed suit, but has barely made that fact known.
By publicly embracing the 1970 protocol, Mr. Campbell would be breaking with the policies of his predecessor, Mr. de Montebello, who believes that orphaned antiquities should be rescued by museums, not ignored by them.
Mr. Campbell could also undertake a project more fundamental, and more profound. The Metropolitan needs to come clean about its past of appropriation of ancient art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it needs to tell a much fuller story about its more recent role in purchasing looted and smuggled antiquities.
The Met’s galleries and Web site are mysteriously devoid of recent facts about the provenance of many artifacts. Most visitors have no idea how the treasures on display in the Greek and Roman rooms, the Egyptian antiquities department, or the Byzantine, African, Asian and Oceanic collections came to be housed in the museum.
Who among them knows that Louis Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-born collector and Civil War veteran who was the first director of the museum, appropriated a huge number of antiquities for more than a decade? As the American consul in Cyprus in the 1860s, Cesnola kept 100 diggers busy in Larnaca; his house became a kind of museum. Cesnola smuggled out no fewer than 35,573 artifacts — passing them off as the property of the Russian consul — for which the Met paid $60,000.
The Met doesn’t tell this story. Even many people who work at the Met don’t seem to know it. Plunder is also the provenance of one of the museum’s most imposing artifacts in the Greek and Roman collection — an Ionic capital from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. Massive and graceful, it sits prominently in a gallery on the first floor of the Met.
How did it get here? In 1922, as the Greeks and Turks warred over the port of Izmir, the column was spirited away by American archaeologists along with hundreds of other pieces and sent to the Met. When the hostilities ended, the Turks protested and the theft (or rescue, depending on one’s perspective) became an international incident, recorded in State Department archives. After much negotiation, the Turks ceded ownership of the column in exchange for the return of 53 cases of antiquities, also stolen from Sardis.
Today the label that hangs near the pillar blithely notes its acquisition by the “American Society for the Excavation of Sardis,” as if a group of amateur aficionados simply got together and bought it. The turbulent history of the object does not appear in any Met catalogue or on the museum’s Web site.
For years, the Met also kept secret its purchase of the Lydian Hoard, a spectacular group of 363 gold and silver treasures from the time of King Croesus, bought from smugglers in 1966, 1967 and 1968. It was not until the Turkish government sued the museum and seemed likely to win in court that the Met gave in and returned the pieces, in 1993.
And until the moment it was removed from the museum’s collection, the Euphronios krater gave visitors no sign of its disputed status, no indication of the pitched battle that raged around its possession. One day it simply disappeared.
Such omissions are shameful for an institution dedicated to preserving history. But it is not unique to the Met. Most of the world’s great museums, including the British Museum and the Louvre, tell lies of omission about the objects they display within their walls, too.
This state of affairs must not continue. Mr. Campbell can inaugurate a new era of transparency for all museums, and to recalibrate the Met’s relations with countries that feel aggrieved.
By publicly acknowledging the controversial or otherwise dubious histories of some artifacts and by making the recent past as much a part of the artifacts’ stories as the ancient past, Mr. Campbell can set an example for all museums and build new bridges of respect and cooperation.
Transparency may not end every demand for repatriation. But it will disarm those critics in source countries who know — but rarely acknowledge — that regardless of past transgressions, their treasures may be safer, better preserved and more widely adored in the world’s great museums like the Met.
Sharon Waxman, a former Times reporter who writes at the Web site WaxWord, is the author of “Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.”