ARCA alum Julia Brennan recently spoke at a meeting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to members of the International Council of Museums about the role of conservators in preventing looting of antiquities in the field.
Brennan, a textile conservator, and Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage, presented a paper, “The Role of Conservators in the Illicit Art and Antiquities Trade: Responsibilities and Opportunities,” at the Interim Meeting for the Legal Issues in Conservation Working Group, International Council of Museums, Conservation Committee, (ICOM CC LIC) on October 18.
The Legal Issues in Conservation Working Group focuses on policies affecting conservation professions and wanted to listen to people who had been in the field describe to conservators what to look for when trying to spot a looted or stolen antiquity.
Ms. Brennan, a graduate of ARCA’s Postgraduate Program in International Art Crime program in 2010, has worked in the field of textile conservation for more than 25 years. Her extensive field work in Asia and Africa has included establishing textile museums, national artifact databases, and training museum staff and monk body in the protection of cultural property. The presentation elaborated on Ms. Brennan’s thesis “Deterring the Illicit Art Trade and Preserving Cultural Heritage: Redefining the Preventative Conservation Mandate”. The talk was a call to action for the conservation community, illustrated through looting case studies, and practical solutions and changes in practice for conservators, as well as professional liability.
In the presentation, Ms. Brennan acknowledged that conservators are sometimes part of the laundering of illicit antiquities, cleaning away dirt before the objects make their way through the art market.
“The trial of Marion True was a wake up call for people in the field,” Brennan said. Coincidentally, her presentation occurred the same week that the legal case against the former curator of the Getty Museum terminated. “Here was a case that heralded a change in international attitudes about museum collecting and served as a wake-up call for encyclopedic museums to cease their cavalier and illegal practices of acquiring without sound provenance.”
According to Brennan, conservators should work to write reports on objects in line with Object ID guidelines, in case something happens to a piece later, and check with looted art databases and other organizations to determine if an object has been reported stolen.
If an object looks suspicious, conservators can contact UNESCO, INTERPOL, IFAR, customs officials, and the Art Loss Register, Brennan suggested.
“Art collectors are flocking to high-end galleries and auction houses around the world and buying billions of dollars worth of antiquities each year,” Brennan wrote. “And with the passion of the serious connoisseur, they proclaim themselves preservers of the past. This is far from the truth: most antiquities have been stolen from an archaeological site at some point in history.”
Brennan discussed the conservation codes of ethics as well as the importance of ICOM’s Red List, Object ID, the Getty’s MEGA project in Jordan, AAM’s new Standards of Acquisitions, teaching proper cataloguing, outreach, and self-education.
Ms. Brennan encouraged conservators to learn about the laws, conventions, illicit trade, auction house practices, and be pro active. “The profession most intimate with artifacts’ actual materials, whether it is paintings, ceramics, bronzes, or textiles, needs to be more forensically directed, and serve as hands-on watch dogs for the world’s cultural patrimony,” she said. “Collaborating with law enforcement, ICE, FBI, insurance companies and setting up a conservator call-list was one practical suggestion like a “conservation corps” that partners with museums and other cultural institutions.
She provided several models of cross disciplinary projects where protection of cultural property overlaps with health care, environmental protection and eco tourism.
Using the notorious 1989 Indiana based AUTOCEPHALOUS GREEK-ORTHODOX CHURCH OF CYPRUS and THE REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS, Plaintiffs, v. GOLDBERG & FELDMAN FINE ARTS, INC., and PEG GOLDBERG, Defendants, Ms. Brennan analyzed the case from the role of the conservator. In examining the motivations, she pointed out that the underlying theme was greed and financial gain. The destructive restoration of the mosaics (including flattening what were curved artifacts) was irreversible. She went on to discuss the expanded role of conservators in the chain of custody of antiquities and all artifacts, and the important physical material role they play in the protection of cultural heritage both in source and market countries, the field, as well as large international museums. She emphasized that conservators hold an important card in the final ethical treatment or ‘cleansing’ of illegally gained artifacts.
Washington DC-based Ms. Brennan frequently lectures to historical societies and collectors on the care and display of textiles. She currently teaches preventative conservation workshops in Thailand.