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The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities: Professional, Legal, and Ethical Perspectives (A Symposium Held at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, February 24, 2007)

The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities: Professional, Legal, and Ethical Perspectives (A Symposium Held at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, February 24, 2007)

Edited by Robin F. Rhodes. Pp. xii + 175, figs. 12. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind. 2008. $25. ISBN 978-0-268-04027-7 (paper).

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The eponymous symposium of this book was not really about the acquisition and exhibition of classical antiquities, as its title suggests, but about the acquisition of looted or stolen classical antiquities. It gathered together in one room various protagonists in, or at least perspectives on, the “cultural property debate”—the debate over to what extent the trade in and collection of antiquities and other cultural objects should be regulated or ethically circumscribed.

These proceedings are required reading, not least because of Nancy Bookidis’ definitive account of the theft and subsequent recovery of 270 artifacts from Corinth Archaeological Museum in 1990. All but six have since been brought back—most were found packed in fish crates in Miami in 1999. Bookidis, assistant director of the Corinth Excavations, points out that although there were 232 museum thefts in Greece within a six-month period between 1989–1990 (a startling number), only the Corinth material has ever been recovered. She thinks that the Corinth success is due to the staff making photographs of all the stolen pieces publicly available, so pieces became more difficult to fence—an example for other museums to emulate.

In one important respect, some of the book’s contributions have already been overtaken by events. Several authors discuss the so-called 10-year rule advocated by the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) 2004 “Report on Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art,” though this report has now been superseded by a 2008 revision. The 10-year rule recommended that an AAMD member museum might approve an object with incomplete provenance for acquisition when it could be documented that the object had been out of its country of origin for more than 10 years. In 2008, this “rule” was abandoned, and instead the AAMD now recommends that such an object should only be acquired if it can be documented that it was out of its country of origin by 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Kimerly Rorschach offers a tantalizing explanation for this apparent change of heart. University art museums compose more than 20% of the membership of the AAMD. These museums are embedded within an educational context, and thus, are sensitive to the complaints of colleagues about the consequences of unconstrained acquisition policies. Furthermore, most universities hold significant quantities of federal funding, which places an obligation upon them, and thus their museums, to adopt codes that adhere to national and international legal standards. In Rorschach’s view, the 10-year rule was not fit for such a purpose. It would be interesting to know more about the internal politics of the AAMD, and whether the directors of large museums (such as the Metropolitan or Cleveland) were ultimately persuaded or even outvoted by their less public but more numerous university colleagues in the discussions that preceded the 2008 revision.

One thing missing from the book, and from the cultural property debate more generally, is consideration of what—following Gill and Chippindale’s (“Material and Intellectual Consequences of Esteem for Cycladic Figures,” AJA 97 [1993] 601–59) astute terminology of material and intellectual consequences—might be called the social consequences of the illicit trade: its cost to the general public in socioeconomic terms. Some contributors do touch upon possible social costs; Malcolm Bell, for example, mentions the educational and economic losses that looting causes to local communities, and Stefano Vassallo hints at broader criminal articulations. But what are really needed at this juncture are programs of sustained research into these issues. What is the full socioeconomic potential of a well-excavated and presented archaeological site? Are academics who study and publish unprovenanced artifacts supporting a criminal enterprise? Nobody really knows the answers to such questions. Perhaps it is because the necessary research is difficult in a contemporary setting. It can actually be dangerous, and relevant information is often suppressed (sometimes by academics who derive professional and perhaps monetary reward from it). Nevertheless, such research is essential if the cultural property debate is to extend beyond its present legal and intellectual frameworks and engage with issues that are arguably of more public concern.

Most contributors seem to be of the opinion that unethical museum acquisitions are the root of the problem. Not surprisingly, James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, takes a different view, and in defending the collecting policies of large art museums he takes the opportunity to outline some of the ideas he discusses in more depth in his book Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton 2008; see review by D.W.J. Gill, AJA 113 [2009] Central to his defense is the notion that national patrimony laws are intended to retain cultural property within its country of discovery because such property is deemed an important component of national identity. Cuno argues that the relation between national identity and cultural property is a false one, and that cultural property often has no historical or natural connection with the people who currently occupy the land in which it is located. Thus, he claims that the theoretical underpinning of national patrimony laws is fatally flawed. With the essential link broken between cultural property and national identity, there is no compelling reason why cultural property should be taken into public ownership and offered legal protection at the national level. For Cuno, cultural objects are art, and as such they transcend the petty nationalisms of the modern world, and should more rightly be considered the property of the international community.

Cuno argues correctly that national cultural patrimony is a social construct, an idea that took root in 19th-century Europe when ethnically homogeneous nations began to invent themselves and take definition from whatever cultural, linguistic, or historical resources were available. But art, too, is socially constructed, at least in its contemporary garb of a material commodity with a use value that is solely aesthetic. Opinions differ as to exactly when in early modern Europe what Alsop (The Rare Art Traditions [New York 1982] 37) calls “art-as-an-end-in-itself” was invented, but the idea of aesthetic engagement, central to and underpinning Cuno’s art museum mission, was a product of 18th-century thought.

One only has to look at the example of the Euphronios krater to understand the ramifications of that fact. The krater was originally made for mixing wine at aristocratic banquets. It was, no doubt, a luxury product but still poorly ranked in value and preciosity against vessels made of gold and silver. Even scholars who disagree with Vickers and Gill’s radical devaluing of Attic figure-decorated pottery (Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery [Oxford 1994]) would concur: “gold and silver are and always have been infinitely more valuable than pottery” (J. Boardman, “Craft Arts,” CR, n.s. 46 [1996] 123), though the contemporary antiquities market sometimes shows otherwise. The Metropolitan Museum bought the Euphronios krater in 1972 for $1 million. Nineteen years later, in 1991, New York collector Michael Steinhardt paid $1.2 million for a third-century B.C.E. Sicilian-Greek gold phiale, which would have been about $400,000 at 1972 prices (using the calculator available at The fact that the Euphronios krater sold for more than twice the price of the Steinhardt phiale is due to the value that modern society places on aesthetic production. It was not always so. The idea that the Euphronios krater was, is, and always will be regarded as a high-price, exclusively aesthetic object is no more secure ontologically than the equivalent claim that it is an inalienable component of Italian national identity.

But has Italy ever made such a claim? According to Vassallo, Italian law asserts the principle that “the state is the owner of all objects ... which are of artistic, historical, or archaeological interest” (88). This seems a reasonable position, and one perfectly compatible with the internationalist agenda espoused by Cuno. It has an intellectual legitimacy that can be traced back to Antoine Quatremère de Quincy’s 1796 Lettres à Miranda sur le déplacement des monuments de l’art de l’Italie, and, in law, as Mary Ellen O’Connell describes, to the 18th-century jurist Emmerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law, Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns. In this light, the state of Italy is acting as proxy for the international community in protecting art and archaeology of international importance from destruction or misappropriation.

As a sovereign state, Italy expects its laws to be respected by citizens of other states. Colonies were not sovereign states, and Cuno notes correctly that most ex-colonies enacted national patrimony laws soon after achieving independence. But with sovereignty at stake, it is as likely that these laws were drafted to stop what was perceived to be foreign interference and theft as it is that they were intended to bolster national identity. O’Connell quotes Amadou-Mahatar M’Bow, director general of UNESCO in 1979, who called upon states to return material expropriated during the colonial era. He spoke of the “resentment and discord” that such actions caused, and looked forward to a time of “mutual respect between nations.” Respect entails recognizing a nation’s sovereign right to govern itself, and this right is directly challenged when foreign countries seek to remove cultural objects illegally or use threats to force a country to change its laws. Cuno’s so-called modest proposal is just such a threat (24). His suggestion that countries should change their laws to suit the needs of art museums—or else the art museums will continue to ignore them—does nothing to enhance mutual respect.

Although a symposium such as this ought to provide an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and possible compromise, in practice participants often end up talking past one another. To some extent, that has happened in this volume. Although in his summing up, the moderator Robin Rhodes suggests diplomatically that Cuno and Charles Williams reveal a convergence of goals in calling for better access and circulation of the world’s antiquities (156), it is hard to see how Cuno’s proposed policy of extracting concession through coercion has anything in common with Williams’ desire to see widespread international exchanges. Such exchanges conducted among mutually respecting nations are almost certainly an important part of any resolution of the cultural property debate. Strong-arm tactics of the sort advocated by Cuno are not.

Neil Brodie
Archaeology Center
Stanford University
Stanford, California

Book Review of The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities: Professional, Legal, and Ethical Perspectives, edited by Robin F. Rhodes

Reviewed by Neil Brodie

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Brodie

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