On March 6, at the New School in New York, Michael Kimmelman, The Times's chief art critic, moderated a discussion about antiquities and their provenance. He opened by delving into the topic of the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently agreed to return to Italy. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity, from the conversation:
JAMES CUNO: The same people who argue for agreements like Unesco say the illicit trade in antiquities has increased exponentially. Actually, the trade has gone elsewhere than to museums. Museums are collecting far fewer objects of antiquity than ever before. But private collectors are not. And those private collectors may not be in the United States. They may be in the Gulf states, in Japan, wherever. What the agreement has done is drive the market from the public to the private domain.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: The Unesco system shares an assumption that the goal is to get everything into some public domain. I think that for the vast bulk of art, the right place for it to be is in the private world, governed by market rules. It's a very important fact about art, including antiquities, that it enriches the lives of people who live with it, not just people who visit museums.
That is, museums are not buying much of the stuff anymore so the market has shifted to private collectors.
DE MONTEBELLO: Between 1970 and 2006, we're talking about 36, 37 years, during which time a great number of very substantial objects of great merit have found their way into collections and onto the market. Archaeologists say we should not buy them. Then what should be done with them? Condemn them to oblivion? Or bring them into the public domain and to the attention of possible claimant nations?
CUNO: Or what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? We don't know where they were found. Some Bedouin showed up with them. Should people have said, Nope, sorry, we can't touch them? That's the choice museums now are told to make.
And here's an interesting exchange:
DE MONTEBELLO: If one of those tablet fragments Elizabeth Stone spoke about earlier chanced upon her desk with a fascinating inscription on it but no legitimate provenance, she would not be allowed to publish it: the Archaeological Institute of America forbids it.
STONE: And I won't.
DE MONTEBELLO: Does that advance knowledge?
STONE: No, but when you publish, as a scholar, you're authenticating the object. And when you authenticate it, its value goes up.
As I've repeatedly said, a sticky problem.