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Why the Indianapolis Museum of Art will no longer buy unprovenanced antiquities

Moratorium will prohibit purchase of antiquities after 1970

The Indianapolis Museum of Art recently decided to impose a moratorium on acquiring antiquities that left their probable country of modern discovery after 1970, unless we can obtain documents establishing that they were exported legally.

The decision to declare this moratorium was an extremely difficult one. The short-term result will be to prevent our curators, particularly those in the fields of Asian and classical art, from soliciting or accepting gifts from generous donors who bought works of art in good faith. It will adversely affect dealers who have heretofore been able to count on IMA as a regular buyer of significant works. But we hope it will be a small step towards stemming the tide of illegal excavation or clandestine removal of accidentally discovered objects from countries the world over.

It will give our curators an incentive to seek out works with clear title and/or evidence of legal export, to conduct further research on objects already in our large collections, and to reach out to foreign museums in search of broad-based exchanges, long-term loans, and exhibitions. It will send a message to the antiquities trade that, with the significant resources at our disposal, we will energetically pursue antiquities not subject to the terms of the moratorium provided that they add materially to our collection. And it may limit the likelihood of the IMA being dragged into a protracted struggle over ownership claims of acquisitions—a struggle which would distract us from the more productive activities described above.

It is our hope that the IMA’s moratorium will encourage other major collecting institutions around the world to take a similar step, along with collectors and dealers. A universal moratorium would seriously impact the clandestine trade in antiquities, which fuels the destruction of ancient sites.

How we got to this point is simple enough. During the generation since the approval of the Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which recognised 1970 as a watershed, US art museums have been slow to adapt to changing international practices, exemplified by the British Museum’s decision in March 2004 to acknowledge 1970 as a bright line. The American argument has been that we are better stewards of cultural artifacts than either private collectors or the trade. And thus objects should be acquired by museums, it has been argued, to protect them.

While this argument has real merit, it is, in my view, trumped by another argument: that by acquiring antiquities that lack a clear, broadly acceptable legal title, we do nothing to stem the tide of the illicit trade in antiquities, and send a message that we are prepared to participate in it provided that no embarrassing evidence comes to light in the aftermath of an acquisition.

As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1981-87, I helped to cultivate the support of two couples whose personal collections of classical antiquities became among the world’s foremost: Leon Levy and Shelby White, and Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. In neither case did I suspect then or now any malevolent intent on the part of these couples in pursuing objects of great quality. On the contrary, I knew them to be drawn to the remarkable breadth of the classical imagination, and by obtaining works of consummate beauty, they were proud to share their commitment with others. I wrote entries in the catalogues of their respective collections, long after leaving the Metropolitan, out of a sense that the works illustrated in those publications were better off known than suppressed. I maintain that position to this day: forswearing the publication of antiquities lacking comprehensive provenance penalises the works and their makers, and does no service to any potential claimants.

It is, instead, the act of purchasing unprovenanced works that connects with a chain of events leading back to their possibly clandestine removal from a country of origin. I believe that it is essential for all of us who care for the evidence of the past to take no actions that might unwittingly contribute to such removals.

Unlike some of my colleagues in the archaeological community, I don’t reflexively disparage private collectors and curators who collected actively in the past. But I believe that the ground has shifted seismically in the past generation, and that the time has come for all—dealers, collectors, and curators—to declare a moratorium on collecting works without adequate provenance.

My position on collecting antiquities has not changed materially in the 20 years since I left the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1987 to direct the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. After arriving there, I organised seven installations over seven years from Italy, France, Mexico, and the United Kingdom as part of the Emory University International Loan Project, extending from 1988-95. Each installation, from national or provincial museums overseas, sought to highlight the value of ­context in excavated material, the pressing need to conserve ­countless treasures in museum storerooms the world over, and the exemplary quality of collections not on view that could circulate to everyone’s benefit.

While at Emory, I gave a paper at a 1992 meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas titled: “Caveat Emptor: the Responsible Growth of Antiquities Collections in America.” In that talk I explained the premises of the International Loan Project and urged my colleagues to pursue long-term loans from foreign collections as an alternative to purchases of works with uncertain provenance.

Our collective goal should be to persuade art-rich countries to join Great Britain, Japan, Israel, and other nations in the creation of a legitimate market in antiquities. Archaeologically rich countries could use funds realised from the open sale of documented antiquities to bolster their efforts to police archaeological sites, and to support research, conservation, and interpretation in museums, while sharing their heritage the world over.

With regard to the fate of objects already in the United States but lacking provenance, I believe it is incumbent on the federal government to create a safe harbour for such works through the Smithsonian Institution, insulating current owners from potential litigation by accepting objects into a newly formed collection subject to legitimate claims, but primarily intended for public edification and enjoyment. In addition to extending tax deductions to donors, the Smithsonian could in turn lend works to other accredited museums, with the proviso that potential claims on these undocumented objects would be addressed by the Department of State, leaving both donors and borrowing institutions immune from penalties or prosecution.

We should look to 1970 not only as a “bright line,” in legal parlance, but as a starting line. Our step in Indianapolis is only a minor one towards the abandonment of narrowly nationalistic claims to perpetual ownership of chance finds below the topsoil of modern states and the adoption of new international norms in protecting, preserving, and sharing the world’s ancient inheritance through a legal antiquities market. American museums can advocate a licit international antiquities market far more effectively from an unambiguous position regarding the high ethical standards of our collecting practices, and can thereby hope to foster the emergence of new practices governing our collective responsibility for the past.

The writer is director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Why Indianapolis will no longer buy unprovenanced antiquities'