Museum directors hope the artwork they display will inspire visitors - but not necessarily to ask, "Did they steal that?" Yet that is precisely the question being asked at museums from New York's Metropolitan to California's Getty and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The former antiquities curator of the world's richest museum, the Getty, goes on trial next week in Italy on charges that she helped the museum acquire stolen art.
Armed with new information from the memoirs of a controversial art dealer, Italian authorities want at least 42 items in the Getty collection returned. New York's Met may have to return a "supergem" of its collection, a 6th century BC painted vase. They want at least 22 items back from Boston's MFA, including a prized 2,500-year-old Greek vase.
The revelations have stunned the public, but cries of "Gimme my stuff back!" have been resounding through the art world for centuries - mostly falling on deaf ears. Greece still wants the Elgin marbles back from Britain. (They were named for Lord Elgin, who chiseled them off the Parthenon two centuries ago.) Greece may well get them soon, say observers, because the political climate and national attitudes about culture have changed.
The bad old days of Indiana Jones-style museum acquisition no longer fly. Countries have laws regarding the exportation of artwork, and what's legal in one country may not be in another. And even if it's legal, it may not be ethical.
Many in the art world say the media blitz surrounding the Italian charges makes this a defining moment. From here on, says Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it will be more difficult for museums to have questionable items in their collections. "It's only going to get more and more embarrassing for them," he says, "as attorneys general start saying, 'What is a nonprofit organization doing with this kind of ethics?' "
Even more important, art professionals hope the publicity will educate a public that appears not to care about or understand the murky world of "provenance" - that is, where a particular artwork comes from. "If we were talking about the importation of material from native American dig sites to China or Japan, we would be very aware of the damage being done to the cultural patrimony of the United States," says Malcolm Bell, an archaeologist and art history professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The public needs to be aware of this problem so museum boards know what they think."
But provenance is tricky, even for experts, especially the provenance of antiquities. Paintings, drawings, and other works of fine art are generally well documented. But when it comes to items that could have come out of the ground yesterday or 3,000 years ago, how to proceed taxes the most experienced art connoisseur. A thriving black market for items looted from poorly guarded excavations or dug up and sold by impoverished locals keeps experts on the lookout for illicit treasures as well as forgeries. Museums often rely on third parties, such as art dealer Hicham Aboutaam, cofounder of Phoenix Ancient Art with offices in New York and Geneva. Mr. Aboutaam says people bearing "prized family heirlooms" walk into his offices regularly.
This past year, a woman in her 80s came to him with two items she said her stepfather had gotten from Tutankhamen's tomb.
"Naturally, I didn't believe her," he says with a laugh. "But we had to investigate, all the same. We asked for any documents she might have, insurance papers, old photos, anything that might give some indication of where the items [a funerary jar and a statue of Osiris] came from," he says. She had nothing, but the inquiry intensified when Aboutaam discovered the woman's stepfather was Frank Compton, author of Compton's Encyclopedia. He had been researching topics in Egypt during the time King Tut's tomb was opened.
While Aboutaam and his team ultimately concluded the items were not from Tut's tomb, "they were genuine Egyptian antiquities," he says. The woman signed and notarized an affidavit, Aboutaam guaranteed his research, and the pieces were sold to a major US museum. (Such is the sensitivity of the issue that the museum asked not to be identified in an article discussing charges against the Getty.)
Museums are skittish about provenance policies, particularly museums with large collections. Many fear strict policies will drive art into private collections and encourage an already thriving black market. The first big step toward changing those attitudes came with a 1970 UNESCO draft treaty banning the purchase of looted art. The most important provision of the treaty: the exclusion of all artworks purchased before 1970, effectively grandfathering in the vast collections of museums worldwide. But the United States didn't ratify the treaty until 1983, and US museums have been slow to clarify their policies on provenance. Ironically, the Getty Museum has one of the strictest provenance policies on record. It states unequivocally that no works without airtight documentation will be purchased by the museum from 1995 onward.
While the spotlight may be painful for museums being targeted, the attention is an important tool for change, says Johanna Keller, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University in New York.
"Issues of provenance are coming up now because there's an effort to understand history in terms of cultural fairness," she says. "Provenance begins to look like an important cultural issue because we need to be talking about who owns what culture ... and culture is valuable not just for financial reasons, but because of what it tells us about who we are."