Thursday, May 31, 2012

Controversial St. Louis Museum of Art decision: Groundbreaking or unethical?

Should American institutions hold onto dubiously acquired artifacts, even when their countries of origin ask for them back? 
Ka Nefer-Nefer mask, St. Louis Art Museum, courtesy of The Atlantic

According to an article written in yesterday's Atlantic, the Ka Nefer-Nefer at the St. Louis Art Museum has now become a controversial centerpiece in the long-standing debate about rightful ownership and provenance of antiquities. As Malcolm Gay, Atlantic correspondent writes: 

"In certain respects, the tale of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer follows a familiar script: like many disputed antiquities, the Egyptian funerary mask was unearthed last century and quickly vanished, spending nearly 50 years in obscurity before resurfacing on the European art market in the late 1990s. The St. Louis Art Museum soon bought the mask -- an elaborately tooled cartonnage of blended gold, glass and linen. It has since become the centerpiece in a bitter ownership dispute between the museum, which claims clear title, and Egypt, which charges the mask was plundered from a government storeroom.

But this story went decidedly off-script last year after U.S. officials, acting on Egypt's behalf, entered the fray. The feds informed museum leaders that they believed the mask was stolen, and they intended to use the courts to seize the artifact and return it to Egypt. But where some museums might have simply handed over the goods, St. Louis went on the attack, filing its own a pre-emptive lawsuit that claimed the statute of limitations had expired -- an aggressive challenge from an institution that has repeatedly defied calls to release its grip on this pricey piece of loot."

The story becomes more complicated when we reach its conclusion: "Now comes U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey, who on March 31 handed museum leaders a legal victory, and a moral challenge, when he dismissed the government's forfeiture claim, finding it "devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was 'missing' because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country." (Underline and bold in the original)."

And thus the ethical controversy. Because, as Gay points out, like so many of antiquities, "Viewed in another light, this is a market whose emphasis on the hard-to-find means that plunder is often whitewashed, making it all but indistinguishable from the legitimate market.... Of course, with their legal victory in hand, museum leaders have little incentive to wrestle with this more delicate question. And that's a shame, because to persevere in this litigious and outmoded view of antiquities collecting throws the St. Louis museum out of step not only with its fellow institutions, many of which have negotiated beneficial settlements for similar claims, but also with the American Association of Museums -- which counts the St. Louis institution as a member, and whose updated acquisition guidelines direct members to scrutinize their ancient art collections when "provenance is incomplete or uncertain."
Given the dueling narratives now in the public realm, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer's provenance has never been more uncertain."

Find the full article here. Read the American Association of Museum's stance on antiquities here and catch what the FBI says about stolen art and antiquities here.