ElAnt v2n1 - MUSEUMS AND ETHICS - Publishing Unprovenanced Artifacts

Volume 2, Number 1
June 1994


NOTE: The editors welcome responses to the issues raised by
Dr. McClellan and to the response by Dr Hamma, which should 
be directed to them at:

Murray C McClellan,
Department of Archaeology,
Boston University,

Kenneth Hamma's report, 'J. Paul Getty Museum: Recent Acquisitions', Electronic Antiquity (Vol. 1 Issue 7, February 1994) raises several interesting issues, both about the two artifacts recently purchased by the Getty Museum and about their publication in this new electronic journal format. While I will not attempt to explore fully the thorny topic of scholarly collusion in the illicit antiquities market, I do think that the readers and editors of Electronic Antiquity should seriously consider the propriety of publishing looted cultural material in this journal.

To be sure, it is by no means clear that the Boiotian grave stele and the Panathenaic amphora described by Dr. Hamma were in fact removed from their country or countries of origin illegally or illicitly. In the United States an illicit antiquity has come to be defined as any ancient cultural artifact that did not belong to a public or private collection formed prior to 1983, the date when President Reagan signed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which made the United States a signatory to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (both documents being reprinted in the USIA's Curbing Illicit Trade in Cultural Property , n.d.). Unfortunately, Dr. Hamma's description of these two pieces provides no indication of their history of ownership. From his report, one can only surmise that these pieces were registered by the Getty Museum in 1993.

The Getty Museum is notorious for its flagrant disregard of the American Association of Museums' stipulation that: 'acquisition, disposal, and loan activities are conducted in a manner that respects the protection and preservation of natural and cultural resources and discourages illicit trade in such materials' ( Code of Ethics , American Association of Museums, n.d., p. 8). It has frequently ignored the terms of the Code of Ethics for Art Museum Directors which declares that it is 'unprofessional for museum Directors...to acquire knowingly or allow to be recommended for acquisition any object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties and international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported into the United States' ( Professional Practices in Art Museums [Association of Art Museum Directors, 1992], pp. 17-18). The Getty Museum's policy of acquiring ancient artifacts that have no history of legitimate ownership is detrimental both to efforts aimed at curbing the destruction of archaeological sites as well as to art historical scholarship, as the continuing controversy over the authenticity of the kouros it purchased several years ago exemplifies (cf. R. Elia, 'A Corruption of the Record,' Archaeology , May/June (1994), pp. 24-25.). To be fair, it should be noted that many other museums in the United States have similar unenlightened policies concerning the purchase of antiquities and that the large budget of the Getty Museum only makes it quantitatively and not qualitatively different from these other institutions. However, given the Getty Museum's record of acquisition, it is not unreasonable to assume that the two pieces discussed by Dr. Hamma did not come from a public or private collection formed prior to 1983.

In any case, the editors of Electronic Antiquity ought to consider whether this journal should have a policy concerning the initial publication of an artifact that has been illegally or illicitly exported from its country of origin. The American Journal of Archaeology , for instance, will not 'serve for the announcement or initial scholarly presentation of any object in a private or public collection acquired after 30 December 1973, unless the object was part of a previously existing collection or has been legally exported from the country of origin' (F.S. Kleiner, 'On the Publication of Recent Acquisitions of Antiquities', AJA 94 (1990), p. 525.) and the journal Antiquity has adopted a similar policy (C. Chippindale, 'Editorial', Antiquity 65, no. 246 [March 1991], p. 8.). These journals recognize the fact that scholars who authenicate and comment on the importance of unprovenanced cultural material form an important link in the illicit antiquities market. The editorial policy of these journals also recognizes the fact that the prohibition against the initial publication of illicit artifacts is more of a symbolic than a practical step in the multi-faceted campaign to stop the destruction of archaeological resources and they thus place no restrictions against the discussion of unprovenanced artifacts that have been published elsewhere.

As a pioneer in the emerging field of electronic publications, Electronic Antiquity has the opportunity to influence future generations of on-line journals concerned with the ancient world. If this technology is going to be used to create something other than a discussion group, editorial policies must be developed to address such issues as the one raised here. In this particular case, one solution would be to suggest that those who wish to annouce the purchase of antiquities of dubious origins should do so through some ftp or WWW mechanism and not through scholarly journals.

What, then can we say about the two artifacts in Malibu? Leaving aside the ethical issues of their acquisition by the Getty Museum, what do these pieces add to our understanding or appreciation of late Classical Greece? The black limestone Boiotian grave stele (93.AA.47) is inscribed with a name (Athanias) and an image of a warrior. It undoubtedly came from a tomb that was located in the environs of Thebes. It is larger than the other eight known examples of its type and is decorated in a slightly different manner. Did this stele mark the grave of a young warrior named Athanias, as Dr. Hamma assumes, or had it been placed over the tomb of an elderly Athanias whose family chose an idealized image that reflected some earlier period in the life of their dead relative? Or was it used or reused as a tombstone for someone who had no relation to Athanias? Was it part of a family burial plot or an isolated memorial? Was it a cenotaph for a soldier who died far from Boiotia? What do the skeletal remains and other grave goods associated with this tomb, if any, tell us about the social standing of this individual? These are only some of the questions that became forever unanswerable the moment this artifact was separated from its archaeological context.

The Panathenaic amphora (93.AE.55) is perhaps a bit more informative, though its lack of context imposes equally severe limits to its usefulness for our understanding of Greece in the 4th century B.C. It is one of the rare Panathenaic prize vessels that gives us the name of the Athenian potter (a heretofore undocumented Nikodemos) and is, apparently, another example of the decoration of the Painter of the Wedding Processions. Since the number of amphoras made to hold prize oil awarded in the quadrennial Panathenaic games is known, the number of extant Panathenaic amphoras, to which this piece can now be added, has been used by some scholars as an indication of the survival rate for decorated Attic pottery in general. However, K. Arafat and C. Morgan have recently attacked this view, arguing that the uninscribed Pananthaic amphoras were replicas and not prize vessels (cf. 'Pots and Potters in Athens and Corinth: a Review', Oxford Journal of Archaeology 8 (1989), pp. 326-327). The original context of the inscribed Malibu amphora thus takes on additional importance as scholars seek to understand the mechanisms by which Panathenaic prize vessels were distributed and the processes that led to their entering the archaeological record. The condition of the Malibu piece suggests that it had been placed in a tomb when fairly new. Was this tomb in Eretria, where three similar amphoras have been excavated? Was it found with other inscribed or uninscribed Panathenaic amphoras? Whose tomb was it? Again, the realities of the antiquities market have drawn a curtain over our investigations of the past.

Murray C McClellan

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 1 - June 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606