Sunday, September 25, 2005

Who's got the loot?

The venerable Getty Museum has allegedly been collecting looted art pieces for years. The evidence is pretty damning despite their claims they, "didn't know it was looted.":
•  A 1985 memo shows that Getty officials learned from dealer Giacomo Medici that three objects the museum was acquiring had been taken from ruins near Naples decades after Italian law made it illegal. The Getty completed the $10.2-million acquisition anyway.

•  An acting curator accused the Getty in a 1986 resignation letter of turning a blind eye to problems in the antiquities department. With eerie prescience, he said the museum's "curatorial avarice" would someday lead to an external investigation and demands from a foreign government for the return of looted artifacts.
This is one of the dirty secrets of the art community. Art theft and trade in looted objects is nothing new, much of it is driven by private collectors who secret their stashes and presumably gaze upon them behind closed doors while fiendishly twirling a mustache. Art museums have for decades held themselves as above such trade, but the reality is, as the Italian law first states, "all ancient objects uncovered from Italian soil after 1902 were state property and could not be sold or exported without government permission," much of the older collections in some of the great museums fall into this questionable category. There is an ongoing legal fight between Egypt and Germany over the famous bust of Nephertitti.

Much of the artifacts that were looted from Iraq following the invasion are already on the market though there is an ongoing effort to return as much as possible. In that case, much of the documentation on the objects was destroyed during the looting.

It is hard to know what to do about the objects that were collected during the years when documenting an objects' origin was only thought of in terms of determining an objects authenticity and thus its worth. The Indiana Jones, "That belongs in a museum," mentality was a quaint idea then. Private collections were the destination for most of the world's priceless objects, in fact most of the public museums' collections are made up of privately held objects either donated or on loan to the museum.

The public good argument can be used to justify questionable actions, such as the Getty's. Yet it is also a public good to ensure that a nations treasures and their ownership of such objects are respected.

- Murphy

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