Monday, April 24, 2006


Black Cloud Over the Met

It's an unfortunate metaphor: Cai Guo-Qiang's Clear Sky Black Cloud, puffing a whiff of gloom over the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at noon every day from now till Oct. 29. The black cloud of the Met's antiquities mess may take longer to dispel. That's because the museum's trove of "beauty that may be booty" (borrowing a description of the Getty's holdings, from the Wall Street Journal) probably goes far deeper than the handful of works being returned to Italy. Even Italy itself may ask for more, as acknowledged in the museum's agreement with the Italian Culture Ministry.

Another case in point: In my 1982 book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf), I quote from my interview with Norbert Schimmel, one of the great benefactors of the Met's Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek and Roman departments:

Norbert Schimmel says that he now generally does not buy objects that were once attached to buildings. Gesturing towards paintings displayed in his Manhattan apartment that had been hacked out of an Egyptian tomb, he said he was now "ashamed I bought these." He added that he does not like to buy objects that left their countries of origin after the effective dates of laws banning their export, "but when I see a nice object, I believe it left before. Sometimes I ask. In Europe, everybody buys and they don't ask any questions." Schimmel noted that even if you ask questions, you are unlikely to get illuminating answers. "Dealers never tell you exactly where something was found. They say, 'Anatolia,' and then they tell you all their stories."

So many objects, so many stories. And yet, in public comments, Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, continues to assert that museums should acquire important objects of doubtful provenance, so long as their research reveals no compelling evidence of a rightful owner. After all, better to preserve them for the public benefit.

This stance puts him at odds, though, with many of his colleagues, who believe that whatever they do about unprovenanced objects already in their collections, they should at least not compound past errors by acquiring more of them. But even AAMD [the Association of Art Museum Directors], in its newly released standards, condones acquiring objects that are known to have been out of their country of origin for 10 years. In other words: if you can hold onto a hot pot for 10 years, it may cool down.

PdM does have one excellent idea. In a recent address to the National Press Club in Washington, he extended an olive branch to the archeologists on whom he has heaped considerable scorn in several public forums:

I would like to take this opportunity to invite---and I say this publicly today---for the first time, I invite the leadership of the AIA [Archaeological Institute of America] to engage with museums in a civil discourse in good faith, in an open dialogue to resolve our differences. We should do so for the benefit of the world's cultural and artistic heritage, more likely to be preserved if we have a united agenda, and for the enhancement of knowledge.

Here's hoping.

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