University Museums May Be the Best Repository for Private Antiquities Collections Lacking Provenance

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Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Marlowe is an associate professor of art and art history at Colgate University. Marlowe’s research spans antiquities looting and repatriation, the art market, and the decolonization of museums.

The harms of looting—whether colonial plunder or tomb-robbing for cash—have, by this point, been well established. Religious rites go neglected and communal ties fade when sacred statues are stolen from rural shrines. The spirits of ancestors attain no peace when their physical remains and the belongings buried with them are dug up. Out of context (and with traffickers often deliberately erasing information about their origins), ancient artworks become little more than pretty things, unable to teach us anything new about the culture that produced them.

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Conversely, as the general public’s understanding of these issues grows, the potential reputational harm to museums that acquire such looted objects also increases.

For these reasons, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, the two leading professional museum organizations in the United States, issued guidelines in 2008 urging member institutions not to acquire items of cultural heritage (whether through purchase or donation) that lack proof of legal export from their country of origin, or that weren’t already outside their country of origin prior to 1970 (the year of a major UNESCO Convention devoted to these issues). Although there are loopholes and exceptions, defenders of cultural heritage are encouraged that most US museums today adhere to these guidelines.

The hope is that collectors, denied both the tax breaks and the social capital that spur museum donations, will think twice before acquiring artifacts that can’t be donated due to missing provenance. Absent collector demand for such objects, the incidence of looting will diminish.

But one consequence of this well-intentioned policy is that, today, tens—maybe hundreds—of thousands of antiquities already in private hands before 2008 face an uncertain future. Unable to donate them to a museum, what options do collectors have to ensure the long-term care of their holdings? Some are returning to market; I have also heard stories of flummoxed heirs simply stashing an unwanted family collection in the attic or even taking it out with the trash. The recent Waystation Initiative at UCLA helps collectors (or their heirs) repatriate objects to their country of origin. This may be appropriate in many cases, but equally often, the physical damage and/or loss of knowledge entailed in trafficking leaves the source country unidentifiable or the decontextualized objects themselves undesirable to source country officials or community descendants.

Is there any way to ensure the long-term care of these objects without (re)normalizing poorly provenanced, potentially looted artifacts in museums today? I believe there is.

University Museums Are the Best Equipped for Provenance Research

The best stewards for these privately held collections, I believe, are university museums openly committed to provenance research, repatriation, and public education about cultural heritage and museum ethics. As part of donation agreements with private collectors, such museums could agree to make the objects the focus of courses centered on provenance research and related issues. A key goal of the research would be to trace as complete an ownership history as possible and identify the most likely country of origin for all the objects. Once that is established, the institution would initiate contact with appropriate cultural officials, rather than wait for source countries to make a claim, as is more commonly the case. The university museum would make the first move, and the conversation would begin with,  “this is probably yours; what would you like us to do with it? Would you like it back?”

If the source country wants the objects to be repatriated, back they would go. . If not, models are now emerging in the field for co-stewardship, in which title transfers to the probable source country, but the museum retains possession through a long-term or indefinite loan agreement.

There may be cases where identified source countries do not want or are unable to participate in such arrangements. Letters from campus provenance researchers offering repatriation may go unanswered; or the source country may find the evidence is too slim for them to take responsibility for the objects. In such cases, the material would not be returned to the collector, so as to prevent use of the new research to increase its market value. Instead, the university museum would accession the object(s), with the understanding that, should future research yield more information, the conversation with the source country can be reopened.

University museums are particularly well-equipped and -positioned to do this work, and to use unprovenanced artifacts to educate students and the public about the history and harms of looting. Courses and exhibitions addressing difficult, unflattering, or sordid histories are protected by the principle of academic freedom. These topics potentially connect a number of academic disciplines, including anthropology, religion, chemistry, history, art history, geography, sociology, and law, and would present opportunities for innovative, collaborative teaching. Students can train in the methods of provenance research (including oral history, with collectors), a field certain to grow in the coming years. The repatriation process would foster ties between the university and cultural officials, scholars, and curators in the source country, possibly leading to student and/or faculty exchanges and continuing research collaborations.

A Path Forward for Private Collectors

What would private collectors donating their collections get out of this? If the provenance research undertaken by the university museum results in the objects being repatriated (whether physically or through transfer of title), the collector would get no tax credit for the “donation,” since foreign countries are not 501(c)(3)s. But they would get other benefits, chiefly, the guaranteed safety and preservation of their collection, without saddling their heirs with the burden of its care.

Their collecting activity and understanding of their collection would be the focus of oral history interviews about how, when, and why the pieces were acquired, how they were displayed over time, and other dimensions of their “object biographies” or “itineraries.” The fact that the collector acquired them during a period when the rules and attitudes around the collecting of antiquities was shifting would be part of the narrative, but the goal would be to understand, not to judge or shame. The collector could relay the story of the acquisitions with candor, without risking legal jeopardy or unflattering media attention. They would be contributing meaningfully to knowledge and the public good.

Some independent professional entity, perhaps a subcommittee of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, would be needed to manage this as a program, matching up collectors and university museums with appropriate expertise, and ensuring that it doesn’t simply become a way for them to ignore the 2008 guidelines and acquire new goodies for their museum. For ethical reasons, the program should exclude collectors who also deal on the side, as well as university museums that ignored the 2008 guidelines.

The university museum would have to demonstrate the capacity and desire to teach, research, and/or display topics related to the history of collecting, heritage management, and museum ethics, as well as a commitment to repatriation. A clear deaccessioning policy must be in place to ensure that the pieces never return to the market. To maximize the educational benefits of this program, the university museum must also commit to sharing the fruits of the research online, including a complete database of the artifacts and all the documents associated with them.

I have presented this idea in a handful of scholarly articles and public talks. Every time, I hear from frustrated university museum directors who have had to turn away offers of collections from alumni because of the 2008 guidelines, who tell me their institution would be happy to use the objects for the kind of anti-looting teaching I am proposing. But some cultural heritage advocates have expressed concern to me that this program would weaken the impact of the 2008 guidelines, while also normalizing and even justifying the activities of collectors who should have curbed their acquisitive impulses after the 1970 Convention. Their collections, they suggest, are best simply ignored. In my view, however, education is a more powerful tool than shame or neglect.

The goal should be to teach students, the general public, and potential future collectors why they shouldn’t want to own objects that have been wrenched out of their physical, cultural, or historical context. In addition to repatriation, I believe that courses and exhibitions that educate the public about the harms of looting are the best way to achieve this broader goal, and are the best possible use of already-looted artifacts.


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