The Whistle-Blower at the Art Party

A Curator Takes on His Museum

The whistle-blower tours the scene of a crime he is determined to reveal, in a blue seersucker suit and a paisley ascot. He is confident and unafraid.

"Looted," he says, strolling past a boxed display of ancient Greek art. "Stolen," he mutters, pointing to a glass case full of exquisite pottery. "All plunder." Oscar White Muscarella's voice holds its obstinate volume, though employees of the alleged crime scene—the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are everywhere.

"Look at this piece," he asks, pointing to an ancient jar seal on display in "Art of the First Cities," the Met's current special exhibit on Mesopotamian culture. "It's loot. It's that simple. They say it's unexcavated, which is another way of saying it's plundered."

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

A recent New York Times article on the exhibition outlines the difficulties determining the origin of antiquities, suggesting that several of the artifacts on display in "Art of the First Cities" have an indeterminate provenance, the art-world term for the origin and ownership history of a piece of art. The article describes the decisions made by private art collectors, museum curators, and archaeologists as they navigate the ethical implications of buying, presenting, and writing about art that may have been looted from archaeological sites.

But Oscar Muscarella's concerns are more sweeping, his conclusions more damning. Most of the antiquities in museums like the Met are plundered, he believes. "Whether this should all be returned or not is another story," he says. Put simply, his view is that the practice of acquiring antiquities, outside of scholarly excavation, is inevitably immoral. It promotes a trade that Muscarella, during his more animated outbursts, likens to "white slavery." "The important thing now is to stop the looting."

The whistle-blower, who describes himself as a thorn in the side of the venerable Met, has worked in the Near East department at the museum since the mid 1960s. In 1972, he was fired, he says, for speaking publicly about a stolen vase. He fought for reinstatement in court and won, so they're stuck with him. Since then, he says, he feels isolated, and is friendly with only a few of the curators. "They gave me some Mickey Mouse title, and won't call me a curator," says the archaeologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. "I'm a senior research fellow."

Indeed, Muscarella is viewed as a loner. "I don't think I've ever spoken to Oscar Muscarella," says Harold Holzer, the Met's communications director. "I just don't understand why anyone who hates museums would work in a museum."

The publication of Muscarella's book a few years ago on the forgery of ancient Near Eastern culture probably didn't impress his superiors, either. In The Lie Became Great, he exposes the actors he believes are complicit in the crime, including academics and scientists, collectors and museum trustees, auction houses and dealers. Forgery for Muscarella is not just about fakes. He also means the cover-up of theft, the removal of an archaeological artifact from its "original context," and the attempts to obscure its origins.

In conversations with museum officials, academics, dealers, and collectors, a philosophical divide emerges on the ethics of the antiquities trade. Dealers and private owners repeatedly argue that ancient treasures, especially from the developing world, are better off in Western museums and cultural institutions, or with art collectors. Here, they claim, the works can be studied and enjoyed by the devotees of antiquity. And in the West, they can depend on the stability and professionalism of the art community. This view, of course, is centuries old—a pillar of colonialism—and leans heavily on the vaunted superiority of the West, whether technological or ethical.

On the other side, academics and archaeologists will argue that once a piece is ripped from its original context, its value to scholarship is irreparably damaged. Like Muscarella, they point out that many antiquities in Western museums were at some time stolen from their original sites, and the question is how to mitigate the damage in the future.


Photo: Cary Conover
If Muscarella exists somewhere on the fringe of this debate, the most recent war in Iraq may have changed all that. The outrage that followed the sacking of Iraq's museum and many of its archaeological sites has intensified the debate about art theft.

In the end, says Muscarella, the plunder of art is about class. "I'm not a leftist," he says. "But it's the power of selfish, wealthy people, who can do whatever they want, that is annihilating the world's history."


Others will argue that money, spent by museums and wealthy collectors to acquire art, actually helps to record and preserve history.

"Look, there's no point suppressing these pieces by refusing to exhibit them," says David Owen, an archaeologist at Cornell University. "It serves nobody's purpose. They're already extracted from their context." Owen says that the looting in Iraq has hastened a rush to condemn collectors, especially private ones, who, in his view, are not the problem.

"The first step is having these countries control their own situations," he says. "[Iraq] had enormous oil wealth, enormous resources. They pulled all the guards of their [archaeological] sites [in the mid '90s]."

"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."

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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