By Celestine Bohlen
December 11, 2002
irectors of major European and American museums have issued a strongly worded statement affirming their right to keep long-held antiquities that countries like Greece and Egypt, with increasing insistence, have demanded be repatriated.
The statement, signed by directors of 18 museums, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the heads of nine other American institutions, was released last week to a newspaper in London, where the British Museum has resisted Greek demands for the return — even on temporary loan — of the marble sculptures and friezes removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801 to 1803.
That statement acknowledges that illegal traffic in ancient and ethnic artwork should now be "firmly discouraged." But it argues that objects acquired in the past should be "viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era."
Those objects "have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them," the statement says.
Nonetheless, the statement notes that each repatriation case should be judged individually. "The point of the statement was not to take clear-cut positions on any individual case," said James N. Wood, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the signatories, "but really to understand the history, the contribution and the importance of the universal museum as a concept."
Mr. de Montebello, in an interview yesterday, said that the statement was first discussed at an international meeting of museum directors held in Munich last October. He said it began as a largely European initiative; another museum director, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it began as a "call for help" from Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.
Greece has been lobbying hard to have the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, where they would be the centerpiece of a new museum being built at the Acropolis.
The Greek campaign began in earnest some 20 years ago when Melina Mercouri, then minister of culture, made the return of the marbles a matter of national pride. "The marbles were martyred by an Englishman to decorate his house," said the fiery actress. "It was an act of barbarism. For Greeks the Parthenon isn't just any monument, it's the monument. It represents our soul."
Interestingly, neither the British Museum nor any other museum in Britain are listed among the signatories of the statement, which was circulated electronically as directors made changes to the text. The statement first appeared on Sunday in The Sunday Times of London, where Mr. MacGregor is quoted as supporting the statement.
Many major works of art over the centuries have ended up in museums far from their place of origin, and disputes over ownership surface periodically. There are other unresolved restitution cases besides the Parthenon marbles, including the Pergamon Altar, claimed by Turkey, now at the Pergamon Museum of the state museums of Berlin — among the signatories, along with the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, now held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Lord Elgin obtained Turkish permission to remove the marbles from the Parthenon when he was ambassador to the Ottomon Empire, of which Greece was then a part. They were later sold to the British government, which insists to this day that the marbles were legally obtained.
"Today museums would not condone what people did 200 years ago," Mr. de Montebello said. "But you cannot rewrite history. Those were different times, with different ethics and different mores." Mr. de Montebello insisted that the statement did not refer to any recent acquisitions, which are governed by international conventions, including one adopted by Unesco in 1970, and by an increasingly strict interpretations of United States law on stolen property.
In recent years the art world has been rocked by a series of ownership disputes. Heirs of Holocaust victims have laid claim to artwork that was looted by the Nazis, and later improperly sold to collectors and museums. Art-rich countries in Europe, but also Latin America, have become more protective about their cultural patrimony, passing laws that declared anything found beneath the ground to be national property.
Given the perplexing tangle of law, diplomacy and moral claims now facing museums, some directors at the Munich meeting tried to expand the statement to include guidelines for future acquisitions. But that effort failed for lack of a consensus, said one museum director, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Museums feel that they ought to remind people that they are not private collections, that the great works of antiquities are not kept behind closed doors, but that they are out there — to be admired, studied, and viewed," Mr. de Montebello said. "They are there to be seen in the context of other civilizations."