Hugh Eakin in the current issue of the New York Review of Books discusses the transformation of museum attitudes toward the antiquities trade that was just marked by the AAMD declaring a moratorium on buying antiquities unearthed after 1970. The change of heart, he suggests, is a sea change:
For one, the moratorium implicitly concedes that the antiquities trade is rife with works that recently left the ground and were plundered, or illegally exported, or both. It also stakes out a position that goes well beyond the requirements of US law. But far more important, in choosing 1970 as a cutoff date—the symbolic year of a UNESCO convention against the illicit circulation of material deemed by particular nations to be their cultural property—the museums have eliminated the possibility of acquiring most of the ancient art available for sale today. In effect, the museum directors have made it clear that, for American museums, collecting antiquities has largely come to an end; and with it the system of private collectors and dealers that has sustained it since the late nineteenth century.
Eakin points to a number of events that led to the changing attitude among museum professionals that culminated with this:
Then, in April 2005, Marion True, former curator of the Getty Museum, was indicted in Rome for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to traffic in Italian antiquities. That relatively little of the extraordinary evidence in the case directly concerns True herself is beside the point: the investigation has touched nearly every major US museum, showing that each one had acquired objects that were likely plundered from Italian soil in recent decades. Since the True indictment, no fewer than five leading museums have turned over dozens of prized objects to Rome, conceding Italy to be their rightful owner: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty, the Princeton Museum of Art—and, in late November 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Eakin, however, uses his review of James Cuno’s two books defending the Antiquities trade to pick this new orthodoxy apart.
Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities (The New York Review of Books)