Sunday, April 21, 2013

When is Enough Really Enough

No one seems to be asking exactly what these countries want that are protesting the sale of Pre-Columbian art. It certainly goes far beyond stopping a sale. There are interests groups within the U.S. that believe strongly that the firewall for acquisitions is 1970 suggesting that anything acquired and imported into the United States prior to this date will be untouchable. The countries of orgin in Mexico, and Central and South America have not publicly agreed to this date. In addition the basis of their protest on the Barbier sale  pointedly stated a very different time frame.

Peru - 1822 - "The Peruvian government says that it has no information about how the pieces left Peru for the collection.
“It is possible to deduce that their exportation must have been clandestine, given that from April 2, 1822 Peruvian regulations prohibit the removing of archaeological goods without government authorization,” the Ministry of Culture said.
The government said it plans to “act rapidly to place charges that these goods were presumably obtained in an illicit manner.”" Wall Street Journal.

Mexico -  1972/1827 "Mexico raised concerns as to 51 of the objects , which it claims belong to the national government under a 1972 law, and its National Institute of Anthropology and History sent a diplomatic note to the French governing seeking to enlist its help in stopping the auction. Before the 1972 law, Mexico also had export restrictions dating back as far as 1827"

 Costa Rica - 1938 - "Under Costa Rican law, pre-Columbian objects found after October 6, 1938 are public property and can therefore be claimed by the National Museum, the custodian of the country's treasures."

Guatemala - 1966 " Guatemala, which declared national ownership of all archaeological materials in 1966, requested the return of 13 items"

Nord on Art ( commented on the the UNESCO date of 1970 for legitmizing Pre-Columbian acquisitions "A dated, pre-1970 provenance is slowly becoming a collector’s benchmark and is already recommended by the American Association of Museum Directors as a cut off date for acquisitions (though there is wiggle room). However, there are also individual national statutes with widley varying cut-off dates that govern the legal export and/or sale of antiquities. Nor does that pre-1970 criteria settle long term disputes about the acquisition of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes."  Nord is clearly saying that 1970 is a benchmark for the collecting world not the originating countries.

"The French government declined to intervene in the matter. Media reports cite a French diplomat as noting that the French government did not find any of the artifacts on the International Council of Museums' red list endangered cultural objects. " This quote also suggest an interesting dilemna. Does IFAR and ICOM list objects as stolen because the priginating countries say they are stolen. This situation is a parallel to the  problem with the National Stolen Property Act which in some cases has agreed that objects described by a foreign government as stolen are regarded by the U.S. government as stolen. In essence the US government now says that any importer or collector is guilty until proven innocent.

The strategy now that seemingly these countries are organizing their efforts is to bully and harrass the sellers. This can be done relatively inexpensively through the media or local auction site protests. It seems logical that they will use whatever influence they might have to get other countries to enforce laws that may or may not have some tested credibility with their own countries. Tom Mashberg of the New York Times recently advised his readers on April 12th: "The best chance for a quick resolution to the sale may be to generate enough headaches for the auction house, the consignor, and any potential buyers. The New York Times piece will help raise the profile for the auction, but it will also require some vocal and I'm sorry to say expensive, actions on the part of the Hopi or their advocates." This is the strategy of the day regardless of whether in this case you are discussing Hopi masks or in a broader sense the approach to attacking museums, collectors, or dealers inyterested in Pre-Columbian art.

"In most Latin American countries the very idea of pre-Columbian heritage has been a strategy to reinforce national unity."  That certainly might be part of the motivation, but what do these countries want? Do they really want the collecting countries to send back everything  that was taken out of the originating countries since the end of the 19th century? Most of these countries have not created systems to deal with the objects currently within their countries. Do they have the staff or money to stop the looting within their countries or for that matter to process thousands of objects being returned? Probaby not. But some say that doesn't matter the objects still belong to the originating countries. I suspect the same people would argue that objects and archaeoogical sites should have been left to crumble when both private and public collectors removed the objects with the assistance in many instances of government officials. If those with an agenda contrary to collecting are allowed to rewrite history, then clearly they will. Ultimately this conflict seems to be more about politics and money than it does about preserving important works of art.

It should be clearly noted and emphasized here that looting is a problem and that some objects  are stolen. Most appraisers, collectors, and curators are opposed to owning property that  knowingly has been stolen. Much can be done both in the indigenous countries and in the collecting countries by removing the strident accusations and finding balance and areas where there can be cooperative efforts. Maybe that's a bit idealistic but the current direction will not be good for anyone.

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