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Who Owns the Past? The Controversy Over Antiquities

Roundtable discussion at the Nasher Museum discusses a black market

One of the antiquities in the Nasher Museum's Pre-Columbian collection. The museum no longer buys antiquities because of questions of ownership.
One of the antiquities in the Nasher Museum's Pre-Columbian collection. The museum no longer buys antiquities because of questions of ownership.

Sometimes the story behind a museum object is as dramatic as the object itself.

A roundtable discussion at the Nasher Museum of Art on "Who Owns the Past?" Thursday evening brought together experts on American and classical archaeology, law and museum curating to discuss the illegal trade of antiquities, objects created so far in the past that they don't have any immediate link to modern culture.

The event was organized by art history doctoral student Lindsey Mazurek in conjunction with the Sept. 15 opening of "Eat, Pray, Weave," the Nasher Museum's exhibition of pre-Columbian Peruvian antiquities. Many of the 75 pieces currently on display are from art collectors Paul and Virginia Clifford who donated their collection of artifacts to Duke in 1973.  The exhibition fueled a discussion on how governments and museums are trying to return these antiquities to their rightful homes.

Although few museums, such as the Nasher Museum, no longer buy antiquities, many like the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum are still expanding and renewing their collections.

"There aren't really answers to many of those questions [of origin in the Nasher Museum's Pre-Columbian collection]," said Kimerly Rorschach, the museum's director. "No one at the time of acquisition of this collection was the least bit worried about cultural property issues. With today's hindsight, we feel that they should have been."

Archeologist and roundtable participant Carla Antonaccio, the chair of Duke's Classical Studies department, said the definition of an antiquity is often up to an individual country's bilateral agreements with other governments. The United States, for example, has signed many such agreements after the scope and severity of the illegal antiquities trade became clear in a series of recent scandals involving auction houses and high-profile museums.

Antonaccio, who has excavated in Sicily for more than two decades, worked with the Italian government in the 1990s to repatriate stolen sculptures and silver objects. The ancient dig sites had been looted in broad daylight and later sold to the Metropolitan and Getty Museums. Although the Sicilians' repatriation efforts were successful, Antonaccio said many museums continue to purchase undocumented antiquities.  

"Some museums have argued that it's better for them to buy objects illegally rather than having these rogue billionaires buying them and no one getting to see the objects," Antonaccio said. "To me, this is not a compelling argument. Nobody should be acquiring antiquities illegally."

Deborah DeMott, a Duke Law School professor, shared one recent case of an undocumented antiquity: a Cambodian statue of an athlete known as the Duryodhana that "turned up" in Sotheby's 2010 auction catalog. The statue's original location and age are well-known -- the statues feet remain firmly planted in front of the temple it once guarded. After the owner put it up for sale, Sotheby's contacted the Cambodian government and found the country wanted it back on Cambodian soil. The owner is under investigation.

Archaeologist Vincas Steponaitis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said getting Americans to shirk the habit of acquiring Native American artifacts as souvenirs is a different challenge altogether.

"Everybody in the Southwest digs up Indian sites as a hobby," Stepnaitis said. "It took decades for judges and juries to think that it's okay to convict people who dug up these sites."

First-year student Amber Oliver, who attended the roundtable talk, said she plans to pay more attention to informational placards the next time she visits a museum.

"Museums need to make sure they give [visitors] more information about how their new exhibitions got there," Oliver said.