Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Orphaned Antiquities – Problems Solved, or Expanded?

The “fuzziness” of cultural property laws regarding the acquisition and ownership of antiquities has put private collectors and museums in a tough spot:  if collectors discover that they may not legally “own” the objects already in their collections, but museums are wary of accepting possibly “tainted” pieces, what is one to do about these “orphaned antiquities”?
A recent article in The Art Newspaper discusses how US museums are promising to be more open about lack of provenance.  But are these new rules too flexible?
At the end of January the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) changed its guidelines and improved its online database of objects without a definite provenance.  Members are now required to disclose a complete record of an object’s past and the museum’s reasons for acquisition, and these objects are given the status of “limbo or orphan state.” Since 2008 the AAMD has required members and donors to provide provenance records dating back to 1970 (as opposed to just the 10 years required previously). The new guidelines, however, stipulate that: “Recognizing that a complete recent ownership history may not be obtainable for all archaeological material and every work of ancient art, the AAMD believes that its member museums should have the right to exercise their institutional responsibility to make informed and defensible judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring such an object if, in their opinion, doing so would satisfy the requirements set forth in the Guidelines below and meet the highest standards of due diligence and transparency as articulated in this Statement of Principles.”
The AAMD believes that the new guidelines will create a more transparent and proactive dialogue between donors and institutions, and therefore will result in more objects entering the public domain.  Critics of these guidelines, however, fear that members are given too much leeway to make exceptions to the rules.  Essentially, the guidelines are just that:  guidelines.  If an object’s provenance does not extend back to 1970 then it should not be acquired…unless there are “good reasons” (refer to pages 6 and 7 of the Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art; link below).
The ethics of collecting have been under scrutiny for quite some time now.  The financial loss, not to mention the damage done to the institution’s reputation, associated with improper acquisition are strong incentives for museums to remain vigilant.  However, stringency regarding provenance information can leave those private collectors trying to do the right thing in a lurch. Will more flexible guidelines result in less “orphaned antiquities”? Or will this flexibility bring a flood of “fuzzy” artifacts into museums? This remains to be determined.  One positive point, however, is that by not only encouraging but requiring thorough research into an object’s past, these regulations will help objects re-enter the public domain and, possibly, result in more objects being returned to their countries of origin.
Strengthened Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Artifacts (January 30, 2013)
Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art (revised 2013)
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on
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