In the Fall issue of The Journal of Art Crime, David Gill, in his column "Context Matters" looks at "Compliance and the Antiquities Market." Here's an excerpt from his column:
Over the years there has been a major change in the way countries have sought to reclaim archaeological material that had been looted. Claims have been made against the background of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This was accepted by the USA in 1984 and by the United Kingdom in 2002.
Attempts to reclaim material were extended and tended to take time to go through the legal channels. Such disputes included the Kanakaria Mosaics to Cyprus, the Dekadrachm Hoard and the Lydian Treasure to Turkey, and the Aidonia Treasure to Greece. The case of the Sevso Treasure is unresolved as although it was certainly removed from its archaeological context by unscientific means, it has not been possible to confirm where this hoard was found.
The seizure of the Medici Dossier in the Geneva Freeport (and related photographic archives in Basel and in Greece) has allowed the Italian authorities to adopt a different strategy. Images of objects in a fragmented state or still covered in mud have been an emotive force in the rhetoric surrounding the returns. Museums that were reluctant to negotiate were persuaded that bad publicity could be avoided if discussions about returns were initiated. In one case a major North American museum was shown images in 2005 and less than a year later had arranged to return 13 antiquities to Italy. It was, and is, hard to argue that something was in “an old collection” when the object had been recorded in a distressed state subsequent to the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Yet compliance has been reluctant in some quarters. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was aware nearly twenty years ago that the torso of a Weary Herakles fit the abdomen and legs of a statue that had been excavated at Perge in southern Turkey. The presentation of a collection history that suggested that the torso had surfaced in Germany in the 1950s was a distraction. The situation was made more complicated as the donors had retained part ownership of the torso. Full title was eventually transferred to the MFA.
David Gill is Head of the Division of Humanities and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, UK. He is a former Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome. He returned to Newcastle University as a Sir James Knott Fellow where he laid the foundations for Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) written with Michael Vickers. He was appointed Museum Assistant in Research in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge where he had curatorial responsibility for the Greek and Roman collections. He then moved to Swansea University where he was Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology. His Sifting the Soil of Greece: the Early Years of the British School at Athens (1886-1919) (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2011) was published to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the School.