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Summary: The Future of the Past: Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century

The Future of the Past: Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century,

March 18, 2012  The Asia Society Museum, New York

A Committee for Cultural Policy sponsored symposium, The Future of the Past: Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century, brought a distinguished panel of arts experts to The Asia Society Museum in New York in March 2012. The program opened with an outline of the conflict between two U.S. laws. The 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act protects foreign archeological resources by limiting imports when a looting crisis occurs, while granting safe harbor to items long held in the U.S. Santa Fe art lawyer Kate Fitz Gibbon explained how another U.S. law, the National Stolen Property Act, is used to enforce foreign laws that assert state ownership of all cultural property. This law makes title to hundreds of thousands of artworks already in museums and private collections questionable. Under it, even possession of an artwork claimed by a foreign nation can be a crime. Selective prosecutions and seizures have left collectors frightened and discouraged museums from acquiring items that entered the U.S. many decades before. Former Getty Museum curator and diplomat Arthur A. Houghton described the exacerbating effects of the adoption of rules limiting acquisitions of art that entered the U.S. after 1970 by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in 2008. This policy has created hundreds of thousands of “orphan artworks” whose legal status is unquestioned, but which cannot be gifted to U.S. museums. Many archaeologists urge that objects without approved provenance should not be studied or published.

Moderator Dr. Vishaka Desai, President of Asia Society, asked how U.S. policy compares to state policy in China, India and Japan.  James Lally, an international art dealer, said that anxiety regarding the U.S. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China, a bilateral agreement restricting import of items up to the Tang period, is preventing art dealers from bringing Chinese art into the U.S., and stopping U.S. museums from acquiring objects that are sold freely in Europe. Museums are so unwilling to risk criticism that they refuse many objects that could be properly acquired under the MOU. “They hire three lawyers and they say, “Protect me under all possible eventualities,” he said. At the same time, the market for antiquities in China is exploding. Public auction sales in the U.S. for Chinese art in 2011 were about U.S. $300 million; sales inside China, according to Chinese statistics, amounted to over $15 billion for 2011 – more than fifty times the U.S. sales. Lally questioned the logic of prohibiting Americans from participating in the global market.

Marc Wilson, former director of the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, confirmed China’s displacement of other world art markets. Wilson said that there is a crisis situation for museums that extends far beyond Chinese art, “a general fear and stigmatization, even demonization, of collecting and of the institutions that collect, show, educate on behalf of the public, mainly museums. Younger people, mainly college students, have been deliberately misled into the impression that everything in museums is stolen. Everything! This is very bad because then you circulate throughout our entire nation a people growing up with pejorative behaviors toward museums.”

Wilson stressed the unintended consequences of adopting too stringent acquisition requirements. “The fact has been, out of fear, to freeze acquisitions. This is definitional creep. … The real fact is to paralyze acquisition committees.” Wilson expanded, “The museums themselves are driving away one of the most important engines of support, a relationship had heretofore been symbiotic between the collector [who]… found a natural partner with the museum.” He said that the adoption of unworkable standards for acquisition has disastrous results for the public, which benefits from donations, public access, display and scholarship.  “When it comes time to disperse wealth, the collector takes the museum into account in the will. That is going away. I know of a number of incidents where the museum has said, “I am sorry, you have no documentation.” The museum will not end up with the collection. The museum will not end up with that support.”

Houghton emphasized the challenges to museums of a witch-hunt headed by anti-collecting vigilantes, quoting from the Knight Foundation’s WikiLoot project to “identify looted antiquities in American museums by … a crowdsourcing approach to the thousands of looted objects in US museums.”

            Dr. Julian Raby, Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Museum of Art of the Smithsonian Institution said there were ongoing discussions between the AAMD and the Archeological Institute of America regarding loosening the rule on accessioning promised gifts that do not meet the pre-1970 criteria. He pointed to the comparative ease of working with Japan, which places trade restrictions on only a small number of very important cultural properties. Dr. Kurt Gitter of the Gitter-Yelen Art Study Center in New Orleans, described the wisdom of Japan’s policy and the benefits of being able to legally acquire important works of art, despite the Japanese government’s right to buy any object on the market. Other panelists seconded Dr. Gitter’s view that Japan treats the global circulation of Japanese art as a form of cultural diplomacy. Dr. Raby compared this to Chinese arts officials’ perspective, describing “one of our Chinese colleagues being asked whether she would ever consider Chinese objects that were duplicates being allowed out of China, and if I recall she said, “Even if there were 4,000 I wouldn’t countenance it.””

The panel moved on to discuss strategies and solutions. Dr. Naman Ahuja of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi placed India at the opposite end of the policy spectrum from Japan. He noted that the Indian government disincentives domestic art collection through ownership restrictions and a registration requirement that goes back to 1878. Dr. Ahuja pointed to the value of archaeological preservation as “a noble argument.” At the same time, he said, “we are living in a world which is multicultural and globalized… who are we as archeologists to deny people in diaspora, refugees, their right to their cultural patrimony, cultural memory?”  He chastised groups that focus too exclusively on the right of collectors, noting that archeologists and museum personnel have to find a way to build cooperation and to halt the looting that has persisted in India.

Moderator Melissa Chiu, Director of The Asia Society Museum, responded that Asia Society used to have a model of bringing great art from Asia to the U.S., but that has changed to a partnership model with institutions in Asia. Raby suggested strategies including advocacy for the creation of legal markets utilizing the Japanese or the British model and resurrecting partage as a collaborative process involving local archaeologists and scholars.

Raby noted that the Smithsonian has been operating under policy similar to the AAMD’s for almost 40 years, and that as a result, its Chinese collection looks, “like something of a fossil. It reflects types and regions that were uncovered in the early 20th century… How do we deal with this increasingly partial picture of the rich mosaic of Chinese art?”  Raby noted that this is a global, not just a Chinese issue, and that while the tensions between nations have made dialog almost impossible, it is important to increase knowledge on both a local and a global level, to create more encyclopedic museums, and at the same time lessen looting.

Wilson reminded panelists that other factors, including internal economic development, threatened artistic heritage more than any looting. He noted, “A couple weeks ago the mayor of Beijing justified the mowing down of the house of Liang Sicheng. They said “Oh, we’ll build a reproduction, and it’ll be much better.” That’s the same argument that was used 80, 90 years ago to take the murals off the walls of Guangsheng Si. The other one is national sovereignty. Do you have the right under national sovereignty to destroy things which you find inimical – Bamiyan – or to sell those which you consider to be irrelevant? If you believe in absolute sovereignty you would say yes.”

Former Homeland Security expert James McAndrew brought the discussion back to the legal challenges to art dealers and collectors, saying that importers are still able to bring in art by complying with the strict letter of the law. But he also noted that while the burden of proof is on the source country to establish how and when an object left its borders, the timeframe has changed: “It’s not 1970. The ball game has advanced. The government is looking now at when the country established a natural ownership law. 1932 or 1934 for Italy. They may say 1906, some countries have 1897. Pick a date. It’s not much past the twentieth century. It’s up to them.” He said that U.S. enforcement policy is reactive. “US agencies receive requests from foreign governments. How big is that? You get a massive request on fancy letterhead from the Supreme Council of Antiquities from Iraq or Egypt or Thailand… of course you have to react. You don’t have much of a choice.”

The program closed with thanks from William Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Committee for Cultural Policy, who described its goals to bring US cultural policy back to a reasonable middle ground through public education, legal initiatives, and direct dialog with museums, scholars, and government entities. Additional public symposia are planned.

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