Dubious Provenance Pressure Grows for Museums to Return Stolen Objects

A marble cycladic female figurine is on display at Greece's National Archeological Museum on June 6 after its return to the country after nearly 40 years in Germany.

A marble cycladic female figurine is on display at Greece's National Archeological Museum on June 6 after its return to the country after nearly 40 years in Germany.


Part 2: Where Are the Artifacts Disappearing To?

Three weeks ago, a group of experts met in Paris at the invitation of the International Council of Museums in order to exchange information about what is happening in the region. But the experts had difficulty providing reliable knowledge at the secret meeting. "The region is a black hole" in terms of knowledge, said one participant.

Still, it is obvious that major looting is taking place in Syria and northern Iraq. It is also known that Lebanese and Turkish authorities have intercepted many objects at the border in recent months. Turkish officials have reportedly filled several warehouses with seized antiquities. A number of objects have also been discovered at markets in Turkey and Lebanon.

But the lion's share of the stolen objects are simply disappearing. Art dealers claim that they aren't being offered much by way of goods from the Middle East right now and the authorities also haven't registered any major influx of antique objects. So what is happening to the stolen objects?

It is plausible that they will be kept in storage out of public sight over the next 10 to 15 years and will slowly start appearing on international art markets with forged papers just as soon as the current debate over illicit goods dies down. Another possibility is that wealthy collectors in the Arab region or in the Far East are currently expanding their collections.

Experts are certain about one thing. The objects will reemerge at some point in the future -- as has always happened in the past.

Provenance Dubious in Top International Collections

In 2000, British archeologists Christopher Chippindale and David Gill conducted the only comprehensive study of its type ever when they systematically reviewed the reliability of the claimed provenance in the catalogs of seven important international collections of antiquities.

The findings were shocking. Of the 1,396 objects reviewed, 75 percent had no documented provenance. Over 500 of the antiquities didn't have any kind of "object history," meaning they allegedly appeared for the first time in those public exhibitions -- a clear indication they were the product of illegal excavations.

Chippindale and Gill also took pains to review whether the provenance details provided were the same as those provided for the same objects in earlier exhibitions. Here, too, their findings were sobering. Often, objects whose discovery location had been "unknown" in previous exhibitions, had suddenly been assigned to a concrete origin -- another indication that its provenance was likely forged.

Ever since the release of the startling study, archeologists have spoken of "Chippindale's law." "No matter how badly you have assessed the situation, the reality is always worse," says one expert.

Dealing Fast and Easy in World Heritage

Many art dealers claim to have good knowledge of where their objects come from, they're just lacking the right papers. "Do you still have the receipt for every piece furniture that your parents gave to you," asks Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). The Dutchman operates his own business in Amsterdam and is also a private collector. No, he says with disarming openness, he only has one object for which he can say precisely where it was excavated. But he says he does know the history of ownership of his antiques.

What does appear to be clear is that there are few "white" objects being traded, meaning those for which both the site of discovery and previous ownership can be proven. There are also "black" objects, which are known to have been stolen from a collection or museum. But the majority of objects are "gray" because there is uncertainty about their provenance. "Art dealers like to say that gray is white because it clearly isn't black," explains archeologist Luca Giuliani, rector of Berlin's interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Study. "And we archeologists say that gray is actually black because it isn't clear that it's white."

In 1970, UNESCO passed a convention against illicit trade in cultural property, but Germany took 37 years before it ratified the treaty and implemented it in national law. Pressure from abroad hasn't made a difference either. The legal hurdles in the law have been put so high that no a single illegal object has been restored to its proper owner as a result of the regulation.

Growing Awareness

Government officials now want to change that. Monika Grütters, the chief cultural affairs official in Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, is currently preparing a new law that could go into effect at the beginning of 2016 if passed. The legislation stipulates that the only objects that can be bought and sold are those for which the country of origin has already issued. Rules for returning disputed cultural property are also to be eased.

The new law has the potential to create considerable pressure for Parzinger and many of his colleagues. Germany may only have ratified the UNESCO treaty in 2007, but 1970 is considered by the international community to be the line in the sand date.

Those who purchased objects since then without really knowing the provenance will not have violated the law under the new rules, but they will have a moral problem on their hands. One of the world's most famous archeological collections, the British Museum's Near East objects, consequently ceased purchasing works at the end of the 1960s for which the provenance is unclear.

Awareness of the problem is slowly starting to grow in Germany. In recent years, management of many public collections has been taken over by a new generation of museum managers. They are now faced with reviewing the controversial legacies amassed by their predecessors, who continued buying objects on the art market until just a few years ago.

Hermann Parzinger, president of Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says: "We will always be prepared to return things if it can be proven that they are of illegal origin."

Hermann Parzinger, president of Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says: "We will always be prepared to return things if it can be proven that they are of illegal origin."

The Badisches Landesmuseum, a state collection, in Karlsruhe, has been the subject of criticism for decades now because of its buying policies. But this summer it returned two Cycladic objects to Greece, bringing an end of what had been an endless dispute between the two parties. The abstract antique statues from the Greek island have been popular with collectors for decades now and are exclusively the products of illegal excavations.

"Often, the passion for collecting and the voracity of curators leads to a situation in which they become complicit in the illegal trade," says Eckart Köhne, who is both director of the museum and president of the German Museums Association. "In archeology, one can't just assume innocence if that person is buying an object that reportedly comes from an anonymous Swiss collection."

Köhne argues that museums need to own up to their responsibility and do as much as they can to research the origins of their antique objects in the same way that many museums in Germany have approached art looted by the Nazis. At the very least, Chancellery culture official Grütters wants to force government-owned collections to provide greater transparency. "I have requested that the museums include a progress report on the status of provenance research in each annual report," she says.

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spiegelfun 12/11/2014
It's interesting that the writer seems unaware of much of the backstory here. American museums have been pioneers in these changes in policy, perhaps because they are much more active in making purchases more recently than many European collections. This isn't new news in many parts of the world.
Wobeewib 12/13/2014
2. Looted Art
If you expect Putin to return Art looted by the Red Army to Germany, you may as well expect them to return Konigsberg and East Prussia.
hakanselvi07 01/03/2015
3. It is a matter of ethics
It is a bit late but still very nice news especially for second world countries or countries that might experience some troubles for a period of time. Turkey was one of those countries that has lost some of her prominent historical items during the the 1st WW and during her war of independence. Most of the items were either stolen by mainly western "archeologist" or were lent for maintenance but never returned. Hittite boğazköy sphinx was returned lately (2011) but there are still some other items which 'most' of the Turkish people can't see for generations since they have been displayed in German museums. -Pergamon Altar - Taken during 1868-1878 -Prayer niche of Beyhekim Mosque-Taken in 1907 -Some pieces from Troy -Taken during 1871-1890 Historical works are universal but they are more meaningful in their original place. (Sorry in advance for any possible mistakes since I'm not archaeologist)
Protest 01/07/2015
to hakanselvi07: [From Wikipedia] In 1878, the German engineer Carl Humann began official excavations on the acropolis of Pergamon, an effort that lasted until 1886. The excavation was undertaken in order to rescue the altar friezes and expose the foundation of the edifice. Later, other ancient structures on the acropolis were brought to light. Upon negotiating with the Turkish government (a participant in the excavation), it was agreed that all frieze fragments found at the time would become the property of the Berlin museums. --- So, there you have it. The Turkish government agreed to the export, and as such there is no legitimate claim for the Pergamon altar to be returned to Turkey. Moreover, since the Turks were responsible for the massive destruction of the Akropolis when they occupied Athens, I'm not sure that they have the necessary credentials to be considered as protectors of the world's historical treasures. Sorry, but those are the facts.
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