December 27, 1998

Date sent: Sun, 27 Dec 1998 10:32:24 -0500
Subject: Boston Museum of Fine Arts
These articles can be found at

New MFA link seen to looted artifacts

Scholars cite works acquired since 1984

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 12/27/98

It was just a year ago that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts turned aside a public demand from the government of Guatemala to return scores of pre-Columbian artifacts that had been looted from ancient Mayan grave sites in that country. In its defense, the museum argued that the artifacts entered the United States legally between 1974 and 1981 - before the MFA committed itself in 1983 to international standards designed to curb the widespread plundering of antiquities. Yet since 1984, the MFA has acquired scores of Greek and Roman antiquities that have no record of prior ownership, according to a Globe inquiry. That is a dead giveaway, scholars say, that most of the objects were illegally excavated and smuggled, mainly from Italy, in the 14 years since the museum says it has abandoned dealings in the illicit market.
Among the artifacts are three valuable Greek vases, commonly found in 2,300-year-old grave sites in the Apulian section of southeastern Italy. In a telltale admission, the museum described the three vases as among a ''host'' of newly discovered artifacts in a 1993 book it published on the MFA's ancient Greek vases. With assistance from several classical scholars, the Globe focused on the origin of 71 classical artifacts that were donated or sold to the MFA by outsiders from mid-1984 to mid-1987. Only 10 of the 71 items have any recorded ownership history, or provenance. The remaining 61 objects, including the three valuable vases cited in the MFA volume, have no pedigree at all, strong circumstantial evidence that most of them had been recently unearthed by grave robbers, according to archeologists.
For the MFA, the findings underscore the institution's continuing challenge - how to reconcile the august image it projects with persistent questions about the integrity of its collecting practices. Like several other major museums, scholars say, the MFA cannot argue that it was unaware that it was acquiring valuable objects that were most likely removed recently from the ground. Even one of the MFA's major benefactors told the Globe the museum often turned a blind eye to evidence the artifacts had dubious origins. And two of its dealers said they cannot vouch for the origin of some of the objects they sold the MFA. Indeed, Alan Shestack, who was the MFA's director from 1987 to 1994, acknowledged last week that during his tenure the museum took insufficient steps to ensure that its acquisitions had not been looted.
''We were not as rigorous as we might have been in those days,'' Shestack said in an interview. At the time, Shestack said, questions were seldom raised about the origin of undocumented artifacts the MFA was acquiring. That leaves Shestack at odds with the current MFA director, Malcolm Rogers. Rogers has said he has no misgivings about the classical antiquities the museum obtained that came with no ownership history. Unlike Shestack, Rogers has repeatedly refused to discuss the MFA's collecting ethics. For the museum, which Rogers recently described as New England's preeminent cultural institution, the Guatemalan and classical acquisitions are bookends on a troublesome year. To the MFA's critics, the two cases underscore the extent to which the MFA, and some of its peer institutions, are ethically tone deaf and oblivious to rapidly shifting international standards. With increasing frequency, countries like Turkey, Italy, and poverty-stricken Guatemala are pressing legal claims against major museums - sometimes with help from the US government. At the same time, officials in countries that sit atop ancient cultures have ratcheted up accusatory rhetoric that ''Western elites'' are guilty of cultural imperialism, colonialism, and racism for preying on grave sites in their countries.
As for the MFA, even some of the dealers the museum has purchased artifacts from acknowledged that the antiquities market is far from pristine. For example, two of New York's best-known dealers who have sold classical artifacts to the MFA, Torkom Demirjian and Jerome M. Eisenberg, admitted that they sometimes have no way of knowing whether the objects they sell to collectors and museums were recently plundered. ''There is no tag on any piece saying, `I am legally excavated and legally exported,''' Eisenberg said in an interview. Asked, for instance, about a dozen undocumented artifacts that came to the MFA after being sold by Sotheby's and Christie's, the two major auction houses, Eisenberg said: ''If you buy it at auction without a provenance, it was probably illegally excavated.'' Demirjian, who was the dealer in one celebrated case involving looted artifacts and is a passionate critic of laws that inhibit the antiquities trade, said he does not believe that artifacts he has sold or donated to the MFA had been recently looted. But, he added, ''It wouldn't matter to me if they were illegally excavated.'' Rogers, who has been the MFA director since 1994, turned down repeated requests for an interview - a posture he adopted after the Globe reported last December that the MFA acquired the pre-Columbian artifacts even though its attorney knew they had been illegally removed from Guatemala. Rogers would respond only to inquiries in writing. But his responses often sidestepped the questions posed by the Globe.
To many scholars, the evidence is compelling. ''There is no doubt that there is a pattern by the MFA of acquiring looted material that was illegally excavated in Italy,'' said Boston University archeologist Murray C. McClellan. ''They have not lived up to their own standards, and they have to be called to account for that.'' Unlike Rogers, others who have dealt with the MFA were more willing to discuss its acquisitions. One MFA benefactor, who has had extensive dealings with its classical department over the years, said the MFA has taken artifacts from him knowing they had been looted. When the department ''sees a piece they really want, the provenance doesn't become as important as it should be,'' said the benefactor, who discussed the issue on condition that his name not be used.
The benefactor, though he said he does not deal directly with smugglers, said the dealers he buys from do. But over the years, he said, the museum's classical department cared little where the piece originated - unless the acquisition was ''likely to create a fuss.'' On some pieces, he added, the MFA was complicit in helping to alter provenance information to make the objects appear to be clean. But McClellan, who is hopeful the museum can be persuaded to change course and abide by its ethical code and international conventions, described the allegedly illicit acquisitions as ''willful ignorance, not a conscious conspiracy.'' McClellan and other classical archeologists who looked over the Boston museum's acquisitions expressed chagrin about many of the pieces, saying the evidence, though circumstantial, strongly suggests the artifacts were looted in recent years from sites in the Mediterranean, most of them in Italy. Among the objects with no provenance are numerous vessels from Apulia, marble busts, and a Greek vase that originated in Tuscany. Another piece with no pedigree is a rare Mycenaean terracotta idol from about 1,300 B.C. that McClellan called ''one of the most important pieces of religious art of the Second Millennium.'' ''If it had not been looted, and we knew where it came from, it would be world-famous for its historical significance. As it is, it's merely a curiosity in a corner of the museum,'' McClellan said. Public attention to the MFA's acquisition of antiquities comes amid growing international focus on cultural property issues, tougher laws in source countries, and UN-led international conventions intended to curb the widespread plunder for profit that has decimated ancient sites. Hardest hit have been countries like Guatemala, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and poor nations in Africa, such as Mali. Also vulnerable have been war-torn nations like Iraq, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. But the outcry, led by archeologists, has been countered, often in heated debate, by some museums, dealers, and collectors who insist that laws against the antiquities trade are unreasonably harsh, leading to a thriving black market that prompts some museums to mask the origin of their acquisitions. What's more, countries such as Italy and Greece, lacking evidence pointing to the precise site where an object was looted, seldom press claims. And US legislation in 1983 that implemented the UN agreement contains loopholes that protect collectors and museums from forfeiture laws. Some judges, though, have begun to pay greater deference to the notion that objects looted abroad can be classified as stolen property in American courts, a trend that has unsettled the museum world. Most museums, including the MFA, have adopted guidelines since 1970 that recognize the legal right of countries like Italy and Turkey to protect ancient grave sites, an obligation that Shestack advocated in a speech in 1986, the year before he took the MFA's helm.
Shestack argued then that museums, by continuing to acquire problematic antiquities, ''would not only be risking our reputation, but would be encouraging or at least seeming to be encouraging, or winking at, illicit activity in the international art market.'' But it was on Shestack's watch, from 1987 to 1994, that the MFA acquired many of the classical antiquities that archeologists say were probably taken from grave sites in Italy. Others have been acquired since Rogers took his place. They include some 7th century B.C. cups from burial grounds near Rome that raised suspicions at the MFA, but were nonetheless accepted in 1996 - a gift from a longtime overseer. At the center of the storm over the museum's ethics is Cornelius C. Vermeule III, the MFA's longtime curator of classical antiquities who retired in 1996.
A scholar world-renowned for his connoisseurship, and a beloved figure at the MFA and in the local art world, Vermeule developed a swashbuckling reputation for his acquisition habits. Even in retirement, Vermeule's decisions still preoccupy lawyers. It was Vermeule who arranged the MFA's questionable acquisition of the top half of a Heraclean figure the Turkish government wants reunited with the bottom half that sits in a Turkish museum. In another case involving the alleged theft of precious Athenian coins from Turkey, it was Vermeule who had the MFA authenticate them for the owners, despite evidence they might be ''hot.'' And like many curators of his generation, who scoured the world for prized pieces long before the plundering of ancient grave sites was officially proscribed, Vermeule continued to buy artifacts as if the rules had never changed, according to McClellan, the BU archeologist.
By many accounts, Vermeule had virtual autonomy within the MFA. In 1993, with the help of a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermeule's department published a book signaling that it was still playing by old rules. The 1993 book, ''Vase Painting in Italy,'' matter-of-factly suggests that three of the Apulian vases it prizes most highly were newly discovered. Two of the vases, attributed to the Darius Painter, a name given by scholars to one of the finest artisans in the Greek civilization that flourished in Apulia about 2,300 years ago, have been hailed in one MFA annual report as ''two of the greatest South Italian vases in America.'' In the museum's book, the MFA's curators wrote: ''Recent years have seen a host of new vases by the Darius Painter with rare or unique mythological subjects ...'' The MFA vases, acquired in 1987, 1989, and 1991, ''are among the most splendid of the new mythological works,'' according to the book. The vase acquired in 1991 is jointly owned by the MFA and by Leon Levy and Shelby White, New York collectors whose collecting habits have long been controversial. To archeologists, the language in the book is an unwitting admission that the MFA knew the prized vases were probably stolen from grave sites. In his written response to the Globe's questions, Rogers acknowledged that none of the three vases had any known owners before the museum acquired them. ''Museums like the MFA should know better,'' said David W. J. Gill, an archeologist at the University of Wales at Swansea and an international authority on antiquities looting. Plainly, Gill said, the reference in the book ''means the objects were newly surfaced, and since they had no declared history, any museum curator should have been highly suspicious of them.'' Gill and a colleague, Christopher Chippindale, have done pioneering research on undocumented antiquities. For example, after the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited Levy and White's classical collection in 1990, a study by the two men disclosed that of the 230 objects in the show, 217 had no known history before the collecting couple acquired them. Vermeule and White did not respond to requests for interviews. The MFA said it would not permit Vermeule's successor, John Herrmann, to be interviewed. White, in a recent article in the International Journal of Cultural Property, wrote that she and her husband do not buy artifacts that are stolen from museums or unearthed from ''known'' archeological excavations. In the wheat-growing region in Apulia, virtually all of the loot comes from thousands of ''unknown'' grave sites, sealed tombs of the Greeks' ancient dead that often contain painted vases of the type favored by Levy and White and the MFA. ''It's difficult for the Italian government to prove the vases were stolen since there is no documentation to prove they were in the ground,'' lamented Marina Mazzei, the Italian archeologist in charge of government efforts to slow the looting in Apulia. ''So just like so many vases, they magically appear on the market, as if they came from nowhere.'' Mazzei, during a visit last spring to the pockmarked wheatfields with a Globe reporter, said the tombaroli, or tomb robbers, have taken tens of thousands of vases over the last 15 years, so brazenly that they often employ mechanical excavators. The dramatic rise in looting in the early 1980s, Mazzei said, coincided with the growing popularity of the vases with American and European collectors and museums. But with few resources, and vast territory to police, she said, Italian authorities are almost powerless to stop the looters. Besides, she said, with unemployment so high in southern Italy, ''there is a high level of crime directed at the living.
So to many laymen, stealing from tombs is not considered criminal, because the tombaroli disturb the dead, and not the living.'' Organized rings of thieves smuggle much of the plunder into Switzerland, with its lax statutes and reputation as an international fencing crossroads. There, the plunder is sold to collectors and dealers. Just across the Italian-Swiss border, in scenic vacation towns like Lugano and Ascona, antiquities shops are ubiquitous, and some dealers openly admit that their wares have been recently excavated. In one shop last spring, a score of Apulian vases, some of museum quality and bearing prices as high as $40,000, were displayed in glass cases. Lying on the floor in a corner was a piece of Roman armor identified by the shop owner as from the 1st century A.D. It was still caked in mud. ''It's from a 100-year-old Italian collection,'' the dealer said with a smile and a wink. The inexorable link between generous Italian supply and insatiable collector demand has long raised questions about what the principals know, or choose to know, about the origin of the objects they acquire. Eisenberg, a major figure in the antiquities trade, said he would not ''knowingly buy a piece that's been smuggled.'' In fact, he argued in an interview that the vast majority of antiquities are of no use to archeologists and ought to be traded freely like modern artworks. ''Ninety-eight percent of items that are excavated offer no new or useful information for archeologists. So collectors and museums should be able to acquire these objects,'' said Eisenberg, whose views anger many archeologists. Strict laws against export, he added, force the art market to hide information and, sometimes, prompt museums to doctor provenance information. As for ''minor pieces'' that most collectors buy, Eisenberg said, ''We know they come out illegally. But no one bothers about them.'' Of the major pieces he has sold, to the MFA and other clients, he acknowledged: ''There is a likelihood that some material may have been smuggled. No one knows ultimately where these things come from.'' The MFA, though it made some of its acquisition records available to the Globe, refused to disclose the identities of dealers who have sold classical antiquities to the museum. But dealers seeking tax deductions often donate artifacts to curators they sell objects to. The MFA's list of donor-dealers amounts to a ''who's who'' of dealers, and some collectors, who have been involved in controversy over the origin of some of their acquisitions. They include London dealer Robin Symes, Demirjian, White and Levy, and the late Lawrence Fleischman, a major purchaser of undocumented antiquities whose collection was acquired in 1995 by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Two major collectors who face claims by foreign governments seeking the recovery of artifacts are also among MFA donors: Maurice Tempelsman, the New York financier and companion to the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; and Jonathan H. Kagan, one of the defendants in Turkey's lawsuit demanding the return of the Athenian coins. Kagan has donated numerous undocumented antiquities to the MFA, including nine ceramic cups from the 7th century B.C. that McClellan says were probably unearthed from the same tomb complex, in Latium, the site of an ancient culture near Rome that predated the Greek colonization of Italy. Through his lawyer, D. Lloyd Macdonald, Kagan declined a request for an interview. Also among the dealers who have sold classical artifacts to the museum is Robert E. Hecht Jr., a Paris-based antiquities specialist who was once declared persona non grata by the Italian and Turkish governments for his alleged role in selling plundered antiquities.
Hecht, the Globe reported in April, played a central role in a $1.8 million sale to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art of a 3d century B.C. silver trove. Italian authorities have an affidavit from the professional grave robber who helped unearth the objects from Morgantina, a Greek city-state in Sicily. During an April telephone interview, Hecht defended the trade in looted antiquities and ridiculed laws, like Italy's, that seek to prevent the plundering of grave sites. The MFA refused to divulge its relationship with Hecht, or even acknowledge that they had done business with him. But the voluble Hecht boasted in the interview that in mid-1997 he sold the MFA a rare silver cup, called a skyphos, at a price reported to exceed $400,000. Asked where the silver artifact originated, Hecht replied: ''What does it matter?'' Unlike most of the MFA's classical acquisitions examined by the Globe, the skyphos has a listed provenance. The MFA said Hecht told them the piece was once in an American collection and provided the museum with a letter from a third party attesting to the fact that Hecht has had the skyphos since the 1950s.
The museum refused to make the letter public. If there is no public evidence the MFA has changed its habits, other institutions have. Shestack, who is now the deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said that because of the increased international and public focus on grave robbing, "Museums are much more aware of the consequences of this kind of collecting. They are much more fastidious." But during the seven years he ran the MFA, Shestack conceded, the museum relied on its dealers for written assurance that the artifacts the MFA bought were clean. "The legal counsel, then, was not as sensitive to these issues. The dealers often didn't want to tell us anything about the prior ownership," Shestack said. "The lawyers almost always said that if a dealer signed a guarantee the work was clean, then everything was OK. "No one ever said, 'We're not going to buy it if it doesn't have a clear provenance,"" he added. Ironically, Shestack said, the museum did demand a thorough legal review of the pre-Columbian collection offered to the MFA by Landon T. Clay, one of its trustees. The review, at an estimated cost of $30,000, concluded that there was no reason for the MFA not to take it. Last December, the lawyer who did the review admitted in an interview that he knew in 1987 that Guatemalan law forbade export of the artifacts. In his 1986 speech calling for higher ethical standards, Shestack recalled, "I cried out for stringent laws that would give museum directors a reason for not doing the evil thing. So then when the directors encourage you to acquire certain things, you can say, 'No, I can't. I'll go to jail."" He added: "But if there's a gray area in the law, you don't have an out." The gray area, he noted, remains. Oddly, Shestack's candid recollection contradicts Rogers, who in both the Guatemala and classical areas has insisted there has been nothing amiss in the museum's behavior. Partly, there are legal reasons for that: The Guatemalan government has just hired New York attorneys Lawrence M. Kaye and Howard Spiegler, two aggressive litigators who handle Turkey's claims, to seek restitution of the pre-Columbian artifacts. Even with the legal threat, some lawyers and art historians say Rogers has a responsibility to assure its public that the museum's behavior sets a moral standard for the community it serves. "The MFA needs to make an unambiguous statement that it will no longer acquire undocumented antiquities," said McClellan, the BU archeologist. "This is one more opportunity for the MFA to say, 'Our eyes have been opened. We take responsibility for what's happened. We've done wrong in the past, but we'll now do better.' But they seem unwilling to say that publicly." Other museums, most notably the once avaricious Getty, no longer acquire undocumented antiquities. And the Getty has done so unambiguously. Marion True, the Getty's curator of ancient art, who now devotes much of her time to helping countries in the Mediterranean rim devise strategies to stop looting, told a conference at Rutgers University last month that the Getty ceased buying undocumented antiquities because it was not possible to be certain they were clean. "This is because of the all-too-common practices among so-called reputable dealers of forging provenance documents and signing false statements on warranties," she said. The Getty, True added, chooses to spend money on other projects, "rather than continue to struggle through the mire of deception that pervades the market." This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/27/98.

Main Indexpage