The Whistle-Blower at the Art Party

A Curator Takes on His Museum

"The fault is not ours," says Owen, who curates a large collection of Mesopotamian artifacts at Cornell. "These countries are in their infancy when it comes to teaching people to respect their past."

Not everyone agrees. "Implicit in that argument," says Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, the U.S. official in charge of the recovery efforts for the Baghdad Museum, "is that when the conditions exist [to safeguard antiquities], you need to return them. The regime is gone, and now there's a lawful authority to turn the stuff over to." And archaeologists point out that before 1991, Iraq had an effective national antiquities department.

At the center of the debate is the role of art market demand in the theft of archaeological treasures. Ann Gunter, curator of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., must consider the public appeal of the works she acquires. But, she says, "being trained as an archaeologist I have a great deal of concern with the source issue. Demand for material encourages looting of sites—especially in a wartime situation when a country is much less capable of policing its sites."

The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit "Art of the First Cities"
photo: Cary Conover
The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit "Art of the First Cities"

According to Gunter, the Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has stringent guidelines on cultural antiquities. She says the museum will not accept or acquire—for "purchase, gift, bequest, or loan," items that were removed from their country of origin after 1973. "We have to demonstrate that an object has acceptable provenance."

Only by determining the full provenance of artifacts can institutions identify just how brazen a theft may have occurred. The Met joined a number of other museums three years ago to launch the Provenance Research Project to provide histories for European paintings and Judaica that may have been illegally obtained during the Holocaust. And while there is a great deal of focus on art removed from Iraq in the months during and after the last war, the looting in that country started in earnest during the first Gulf War, over 12 years ago.

According to law enforcement officials, it is not difficult to hide the origins of antiquities. "There is nothing," said one official, "to prevent a dealer from saying, 'Oh, this piece came from a family in Syria that dug it up on their farm.' " But there are ways to prove a piece was stolen. In one case a Chinese wall etching was traced from New York all the way back to a cave in China that was missing a piece of wall exactly the same size.

When it comes to determining the provenance of an artifact, much of the necessary information rests with art dealers, the middlemen between museums, private collectors, and the various original sources of art. Torkom Demirjian, the owner of the Ariadne Gallery on Madison Avenue, hopes there will be an international database to help buyers and sellers determine which works might be stolen.

"The best way to safeguard against this [art theft]," says Demirjian, "is to deal with professionals, not people of dubious origin." Demirjian says that when he buys art, he asks the sellers how long they have owned a piece, and where they acquired it. If they can't answer these questions, he says, "chances are, I won't take the risk."

"Cry as much as you want for a kind of divine valuation," Demirjian cautions, stressing that private ownership is a good answer to the problem of art loss. "People don't preserve anything that they don't think is valuable."

Oscar Muscarella remembers a conversation he had with Patrick Moynihan, when the senator from New York authored the CCPIA, or the Convention on Cultural Property Information Act in 1983, the domestic law that ratified parts of the UNESCO convention prohibiting the illegal trade in cultural property. Many in the archaeological community feel that Moynihan watered down the document's language to placate art dealers who were concerned about restrictions on their trade.

"I was a social liberal at the time, and I liked Moynihan," says Muscarella, who was asked to testify at the CCPIA hearings. "I went and talked to him during a break, and told him that I felt the law would help destroy other people's cultures. And you know what he said to me? He said, 'It's just the third world flagellating America.' "

Oscar Muscarella seems to have set himself up for Herculean disappointment. It is probably safe to say that he will never convince museums to acquire only properly excavated art. His friend John Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art says that despite his tremendous respect for Muscarella, he doubts he is the messenger who will turn the tide on art theft.

But the whistle-blower shows no signs of quieting down, and he has no illusions about the path he has chosen. "I'm not Don Quixote," says Muscarella, walking down the grand staircase adorned with the names of the Met's trustees.

"I realize there are windmills."

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