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Museums and illicit trafficking in cultural objects

Detail from “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Gustav Klimt. The  painting was the subject of a successful claim for restitution to the rightful owner in 2006. Source: Neue Galerie, New York.

Patricia Anderson, Getting Square with Galleries’ Thieves, Plunderers and Opportunists, Daily Review, 15 April 2015

Museums began their lives as the public face of the private fetish. The Vatican, the British Museum and the Louvre all bear witness to this simple fact. Their opening to the public allowed for the exposure of ‘booty’ and also of a mindset that the remnants of other civilisations — especially classical ones — would provide a gloss to one’s own.

Today, the means by which the contents of museums were acquired is being exposed to considerable scrutiny. In America, the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick and the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, to name a few, were established in the engine room of American industrial growth, rapacious speculation and exploitation. Federal income tax in 1894 was 2% and the so-called robber barons (which Theodore Roosevelt was the first to tackle) were able to circumvent even this.

Much of Britain’s wealth, which expressed itself on the walls of country houses and splendid townhouses before finding its way to her national museums was harvested from the slave trade, the cotton mills in Birmingham, the sugar plantations in the West Indies and coal seams at a convenient distance from the gravel drive.

Everywhere chickens are coming home to roost. The most publicised example is the Elgin Marbles — soon to be renamed the Parthenon Marbles, which the Greek government is determined to repatriate to Greece. Portions of its frieze, its metopes and its pediment sculptures were removed from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805, because he believed them to be at risk from Turkish forces. Today the soon-to-retire director Neil McGregor puts an eloquent case for keeping the marbles in the British Museum (Beware of Greeks bearing lawyers, The Australian, December 2, 2014) but matters have been inflamed by the museum’s loan of one of the marbles, the headless figure of the river god Ilissos to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg. None have been lent since they were acquired in 1816.

Curiously no-one seems to be making a fuss about ancient Babylon’s Ishtar Gate which has been a star in the firmament of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum since the early 20th century. Surely a case of letting sleeping lions lie.

Australian Museums too have been tarnished by a spate of ill-advised purchases from a shadowy New York based antiquities dealer. Subhash Kapoor has been on trial in India and is pursued in America for the theft of antiquities from Indian temples. Antiquities worth more than $100 million dollars have been confiscated from his premises.

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See also: Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt, Why aren’t American museums doing more to return Nazi-looted art?, The Conversation, 7 May 2015.

The Museums and Galleries Australia Alliance (of which CAMD is a member) supports the importance of due diligence in determining provenance before acquisition and condemns the illicit trafficking of cultural material.  See the full Alliance statement here.