The Repatriation Of Art

An Scholarship essay for Sotheby's Institute on issue around the repatriation of art and how they affect the Art Market. 2012.

To what extent has the repatriation of art works influenced the international art market?

Recent and ongoing repatriations of art have taken place as a result of acquisitions being made of artefacts that had little or no provenance. As a means of deterring further results, such as this, major museums and collectors are very careful to follow new standards in ethical trade, concentrating on only making acquisitions of pieces with a well documented origin. As the art market functions on a supply and demand basis, the issue at hand- as they narrow their focus on works put on the market to meet the new ethical demands, is whether this could have a detrimental affect on suppliers, dealers and auction houses alike. By observing recent repatriations by major American museums to Italy we can understand all of the issues that come into play on such a varied and complex issue, and further hypothesise monetary risks its continuation could have on the art market.

The first fully documented case of accusations made against a major collector with an implied indictment for returning stolen antiquities was the prosecution of Gaius Verres by Marcus Tullius Cicero in the 1st century BCE. Verres was a Roman magistrate and governor to Sicily around 74 BCE. He used his power against the Sicilian people acquiring not only great monetary wealth at their expense, but also plundering many of the temples and private houses of great works of art in his pursuit for private ownership. When Verres returned to Rome in 70 BCE, Sicilians requested Cicero (a prominent lawyer, among other things) to prosecute him. The trial and Cicero’s speeches were later published as the Verrine Orations (Miles, M. M., 2008, pp.119-128).

Although in the case of Verres his formal legal indictment was not art theft but extortion from the Sicilian people; Cicero supports his primary indictment by using proof of Verres’ plundering of art to support his extortion case. “According to Cicero’s presentation, what gives the art taken by Verres greatest value is its sacred associations: religion made images or other items truly important to the populace…” (Miles, M. M., 2008, p.170). “He frequently expresses the sense of outrage (we) Romans should feel that Verres illicitly took religious objects intended for communal use from others for use in his own house or villa” (Miles, M. M., 2008, p.154). It’s clear from this case that issues around ownership of antiquities is not new, and it brings in to light many of the same arguments countries, like Italy, are giving in their pleas for repatriation: the need to obtain these objects as a means to national pride (as they are important to the people) and because they were acquired as a direct result of pillaging (an illegal act).

Private ownership of statuary and paintings quite likely began in the second century BCE (Miles, M. M., 2008, p.156), this perhaps ignited the beginning of a long-standing history of ancient sites being pillaged for private ownership of antiquities. “For decades, U.S. museums, and private collectors who donated objects to them, had been purchasing antiquities at auction or from dealers. With objects of unclear provenance, or ownership history, an attitude of don’t tell don’t ask prevailed…” (Framolino, R., 2011). When presented with an option to obtain a rare or great example of antiquity, or to turn it down simply for its question of provenance, the former would often succeed. However, this presents the underlying issue of why repatriations have come in to play, and indeed how new ethical standards of trade were originated: to protect items from being pillaged in the first place.

The first universal convention to deal solely with the protection of cultural property (specifically in the event of armed conflict) was the 1954 Hague convention. Although this was specifically a result of the trauma caused by WWII and the damage caused to cultural property, either by looting or casualty, it exemplifies the beginning of the world’s focus on and desire to protect antiquities (Kino, C., 2003).  The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) convention in 1970 represents the art community and world leaders broadening the scope of its endeavours to protect antiquities from illegal acquisition.

As stated in the convention notes, UNESCO passed its convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. However attendance by a nation does not imply governance of the principles outlined in the convention, it must then be ratified by a nation through implementation of legislation with national jurisdiction indicting the ethical imperatives discussed. As stated in its preamble, “…the protection of cultural heritage can be affective only if organised both nationally and internationally among states working in close co-operation”(UNESCO, 1970). America did not “co-operate” at first, not until it ratified the convention in 1983, by passing legislation in the form of the Cultural Property Implementation Act (Cuno, J., 2008, p.27).

It is no wonder then that when we examine recent repatriation from American museums to Italy we find that the works in question were acquired between the years of 1970 and 1983, before legislation was passed – enough time for collectors and museums alike to fill their stores. However it would only result in their later disappointment. Within the past 5 years, museums have returned to the Italian and Greek governments more than 100 artifacts worth nearly $1 billion (Frammolino, R., 2011). Notable museums are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returning 21 pieces, including a Greek vase known as the Euphronios Krater (McGuigan, C., 2007), the Cleveland Museum of Art returned 14 pieces in 2009 (Povoledo, E., 2009), and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, returned 13 in 2007 (Slayman, A., 2007). The most notable being the J. Paul Getty Museumin California whom returned 40 artifacts in 2007, not including one of the most controversial pieces in documented art repatriations: a 2,400 year old statue of a woman thought to be Aphrodite. The statue was later returned to Italy in 2010 (Frammolino, R., 2011).

Under the recommendation of then antiquities curator Marion True, the Getty bought the statue in 1988 at a record price of $18 million. The London dealer that offered the sculpture to the Getty was honest in its lack of provenance, saying only that its prior owner had been a collector just north of Italy. In fact, both Marion True and other Getty officials sought out various opinions on whether or not to purchase the piece. Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, insisted that the statue was a risky acquisition. He noted that obvious recent fractures to the statue along with soil residue pointed to the likelihood that it was a recent object of looting. In fact, from the beginning the statue made headlines, both by Italian officials purporting it had most likely come from a site near Sicily, to news reports with headlines like, “Was this statue stolen?” Surprisingly, none of the aforementioned issues deterred the Museum. As there was a lack of evidence to support the theory of it being looted and the fact that its acquisition would create a high amount of revenue from patrons. The Getty museum’s acquisitions group was happy for the sculpture to be the star of the show (Frammolino, R., 2011).

Soon after the purchase of the statue, Marion True, ironically, became a poster child for acquisitions reform; returning hundreds of items possessed by the Getty that were known to have been looted. She even pushed through a policy in 1995 pledging that the Getty would acquire antiquities only from documented collections. However the “Venus of Morgantina” (as the Aphrodite sculpture is know in Italy) was still suspect in the eyes of Italian officials, unfortunately they had minimal evidence. In 1995, in a raid on a Geneva warehouse owned by suspected looter Giacomo Medici, the Italian government found hundreds of Polaroid photographs of freshly excavated artefacts, which they knew were on display in major institutions around the world. The Getty contained the majority (Frammolino, R., 2011).

In December 2004, as a result of convicting Medici of trafficking in illicit archaeological objects, Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri focused his attention on True – indicting her as co-conspirator.  Ferri brought with him evidence in the form of the Polaroid photos found in the seizure that were linked to objects attained from Medici by True, including one that was not, the Aphrodite sculpture (Frammolino, R., 2011). Two years into the criminal trial the Italian state and region of Sicily dropped civil charges against True.  The resulting agreement was that all of the objects would be returned to Italy, including Aphrodite, despite a lack of evidence to its actual theft (Povoledo, E., 2007).

Although this case is an inflated example of the risks of acquisitions made of pieces with little or no provenance it well exemplifies the risks involved by institutions and public collectors obtaining them. In fact, it is a fear of the potential repercussion that has started this more stringent practice in acquisitions.

The question still remains as to how this could affect the market? Art World Intelligence (AWI) is an independent agency that consults with scholars in art history, archaeology, international relations, and cultural security to quantify data on annual sales; average price paid and trade volume; additionally, art at risk of repatriation in the Market. It is clear from the data found on their website that Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities were at a peak for risk of repatriation in 2007 however, they have been steadily falling ever since. Annual sales volume has subsequently fallen, while the price paid has steadily risen (Art World Intelligence, 2010). Providing a view that the implementation of these new standards in trade has not affected the market, because with fewer items to choose from, more is being paid for what there is.  Perhaps then the art market will not be affected much by the recent bout of repatriations, or at least not yet.

If the trade volume dips severely, the art market could suffer as a result – as there are fewer objects with provenance records versus those without. It has been well documented that theft and looting has not decreased as a result of the new restrictions on demand in the art market. Recently Greece made news headlines regarding new stricter spending and decrease in public workers, which means there has been a reduction in the amount of security on archaeological sites and in museums. Jack Davis, director of Classical Studies in Athens, stated this month in an interview that small scale looting in the Mediterranean area has become worse in recent years, and that although there is no proof; the items are most likely sold to private collectors, never to be seen by the public again (Boyd, C., 2012). This purports another issue, if works continue to be sold on the black market and are no longer in museums, then it’s not only the country where they were looted from that suffers, but the whole world who may never see them as they are probably now being stored behind a curtain in some secluded villa.

This brings in to play the question of who owns antiquity? (Also the title of a prominent book by James Cuno, the current President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in California)(2008). Cuno explains countries claims for repatriation as a form of nationalism. He gives examples of how the current legislation is corrupt, and often political in nature stating: “anytime the legitimacies of cultural property requests and strategic foreign policy advantages coincide, the United States approves the foreign governments request” (2008, pp.36-39). Outlining the idea that any cultural claim is illegitimate if made for the solitary reason of its patrimony. He argues that modern cultures no longer reflect the time and customs of the time and place the artifacts were created (2008, pp.8-9). Additionally, the market consumes the objects and they no longer serve archaeologists and scholars with site-specific information on the historic origin, or the people who created them. Therefore their repatriation serves no purpose but to boost the egos of nationalist nations (2008, p.6). He goes on further to claim that the new principles have done nothing to stop looting and have succeeded only in inhibiting the global movement of art (2008, p.39).

Author and historian Roger Atwood disagrees with Cuno (2008), and in fact denounces Cuno’s credibility, accusing his stance as collaborating with museums whose intent is only to reinstate previous unethical purchasing methods. Atwood argues that museums, passing themselves as ‘custodians of the past’, are smug and arrogant; that this viewpoint creates a climate for the destruction of ancient sites. The ‘loot’ plundered there assures a huge monetary profit to the thieves selling items to institutions that wish they could continue to claim ignorance. He believes that countries have a right to protect their archaeological heritage from looters, and one way of doing that is to deter their enablers, like Cuno (2008).

Although Cuno and Atwood have very differing viewpoints the argument between the two of them condenses the entire issue: looters should be deterred, the public should not be deterred from being able to see new acquisitions in their local museums, and the art market should not be restricted for political reasons alone. It is a complex issue and indeed the repercussions of these new principles crosses from the art market and museums to the populous – both foreign and local. So what can be done to guarantee a decrease in looting while still ensuring that the suppliers in the art market can continue to provide a service to its buyers and later to the populous at large?

In 1969 Paul M. Bator started writing ‘An Essay on the International Trade in Art’ that was later published in 1982 by the Stanford Law Review (1982). When I first came across this paper I feared its information would prove a bit dated, as there have been so many changes to legislation and practice since its publication. What I found were some great, current, ideas for reform in the art market and how the art world could benefit from a few simple changes.

First, looking at issues of looting: countries should increase their regulations on policing archaeological sites (1982, p. 311). Previously, I mentioned how Greece recently cut back on their policing practices, and it’s clear that any continuation of this will only succeed in perpetuating matters. Some may argue that one of the main targets by looters are the more remote or unknown sites, for this it would be prudent for countries to enlist public support (1982, p.312). If the public was given even a small incentive to providing their local government with information on potential looters, or targeted spots, then not only would the amounts being stolen be minimized but would also succeed in instilling national pride and deterring individuals from interacting with the black market, as they would be looked down upon for doing so by their neighbors. Next, export regulations: the very volume of trafficking is testimony that existing export regulation is ineffective (1982, p.317). Therefore, performing more thorough searches and tightening regulations could minimize the risk of items being extradited from their home country. Perhaps a resolve would be to create a world import/export treaty in order to insure that illegally exported objects are barred from import into another country (1982, p.327).

Export embargoes need to be drastically curtailed. This could open up the market place to items that may be in duplicate form in their home country, and to objects that have already been documented as excavated (1982, p.366). Eventually, countries could tax acquisitions on pieces with little or no provenance and put the money into an international fund that could help with the costs of widening policing and import/export regulations.  Lastly, constitutions for claims of repatriation could be granted only if knowledge of the objects’ theft was documented before the time of purchase by the current owners. That’s not to say that I myself am in cahoots with the museum and am a sole supporter of the Cuno perspective. As a patron of these large institutions I believe that they, rather than the private villa example, provide the correct housing for antiquities.

Many of the aforementioned suggestions have, undoubtedly, been taken in to consideration before. If not, I am certain at some point they all will. As it stands, the art market has not suffered greatly to date. The art institutions and home countries to the ‘orphan’ works are doing all they can to make the best of a complex situation. For example, following the many repatriations to Italy, the Italian government not only promised future lending of objects, but also lengthened the amount of time they could borrow them for. In fact, this week was the opening of a new exhibition at the Getty entitled “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” which includes many objects on loan by Italy (The Getty Trust, 2012). This example along with many other instances that are the same proves, that art institutions will not suffer from a lack of great works to share with their public and this month’s exhibition has proved that in the case of the Getty, they are not missing Aphrodite… too much.

List of References

 Art World Intelligence, 2010. Market Trends. [Online] Available at:<; [23 March 2012].

Atwood, R 2008, ‘Guardians of Antiquity?’, Archaeology, 61, 4, p. 18, MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 12 March 2012.

Bator, P.M., 1982. An Essay on the International Trade in Art. Stanford Law Review, 34 (2), 275-384.

Boyd, C., 2012. Protecting Greek Antiquities in Lean Times, The World. [podcast] March 14, 2012. Available at: <; [Accessed 10 March 2012].

Cuno, J, 2008. Who Owns Antiquity?. 1st ed. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Frammolino, R. , 2011. The Goddess Goes Home, Smithsonian Magazine, [online] Available at:<; [Accessed 12 March 2012].

Kino, C., 2003 . Who owns looted art?, Slate Magazine, [online]. Available at:<>%5BAccessed 25 March 2012].

McGuigan, C., Whose Art Is It?, Newsweek, [online]. Avaliable at: [Accessed: 25 March 2012

Miles, M. M., 2008. Art as Plunder. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Povoledo, E, 2007. Some Charges Dropped Against Former Curator. The New York Times, 15 December. 7.

Povoledo, E, 2009. Cleveland Museum Returns Works To Italy. The New York Times, 03 July. 2.

Slayman, A, 2007. MFA, Italy Reach Settlement. Art & Antiques, 30 (1), 26-26.

The Getty Trust, 2012. Getty Villa Exhibition on Aphrodite Extends Beyond Goddess of Love and Beauty. [online] The Getty Trust. Available at:<; [Accessed 19 March    2012].

UNESCO. 1970. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 [ONLINE] Available at:[Accessed:28 March 12].