Recent lecture at Santa Clara provides insights into contemporary art collecting
The Santa Clara
May 17, 2018
I visited the British Museum for the first time in June 2015 and spent hours wandering through the halls, marvelling at cases filled with artifacts collected from ancient civilizations around the world.
Every day, millions of people in previously or currently empire-possessing Western nations have similar experiences in museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to the Louvre in Paris. Oftentimes, the experience alone is so absorbing that we forget to ask an important question: How did these artifacts get here?
“The Ethics of Art Collecting,” a recent event presented as part of the Santa Clara classics department’s 2017-2018 lecture series sought to examine how certain artifacts arrived in museums outside of their country of origin and the ethics of their acquisition.
The answer lies not just in centuries of Western colonial activity, but also in the millenia-old intertwining of conquest and the capture and transportation of cultural property from their home countries, either to be displayed in public areas or to be held in private collections. Even in the post-colonial era, private citizens of powerful nations continue to make illicit purchases of art from the previously colonized world.
In 2017, a civil complaint filed by federal prosecutors alleged that the arts and crafts supply company Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million for “artifacts, comprised of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae and cylinder seals,” according to a Department of Justice press release. The crates in which the artifacts arrived were misleadingly labeled as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles.”
The case sparked renewed interest into the dark side of art trade.
Hobby Lobby paid $3 million in reparations to the United States government to end the civil action in 2017. The president of the company, Steve Green, said in a statement that Hobby Lobby was “new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” according to “The New York Times.” The artifacts were returned to Iraq in early May 2018.
Kenneth Lapatin, the keynote speaker of the Santa Clara event and curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, started his lecture by recalling the collecting habits of both the Roman Emperor Augustus and the powerful Italian Renaissance Medici family. He also mentioned the Hobby Lobby case, albeit in a much less flattering way.
Lapatin also emphasized the efforts made by the museum to improve the ease of legitimate art acquisition. In fact, the museum now has an entire room dedicated to the history of art collecting and works to establish the provenance, or origin, of each object in their collection. However, Lapatin did note that it is often difficult to establish the original owners of some of the museum’s more ancient objects.
Sometimes, as a result of public pressure, UNESCO rulings and ethical codes established by the Association of Art Museum Directors interactions between nations and the museums that contain their historical objects can be built on mutual respect and collaboration.
Louise Chu, associate curator of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, worked with foreign governments in the acquisition of Harald Wagner’s collection of Teotihuacan murals in the mid-1970s.
According to the M.H. de Young Museum, the murals were stolen from their original site in the 1960s before they were acquired by Wagner, a prominent resident of San Francisco.
“His gift created a tangle of legal and ethical issues,” reads a statement from the de Young Museum website. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, rather than ignoring the ethical issues surrounding this acquisition, spent years crafting “a model of institutional responsibility in the sensitive area of restoring lost cultural patrimony” in collaboration with the Mexican government.
“The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco completed extensive conservation efforts before a fully illustrated publication of all the murals was published,” according to the de Young Museum. Over half of the murals were then “voluntarily return[ed]” to Mexico, where they were put on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
As the program of the lecture stated, “The ethics of collecting antiquities is applied ethics at its most complicated,” especially in the eyes of the museum directors who must reconcile their prerogative from the board of trustees to expand and improve their respective collections with their ethical obligations to the rights of nations to retain their own cultural properties.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.