April 2, 2015

Honolulu Museum of Art and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents Collaborate: A model for the Repatriation of Looted Art

By Lynda Albertson

In 2014 Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter, part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, contacted the Honolulu Museum of Art having determined that a 2000-year-old terra cotta rattle may have been looted and tied to the antiquities looting case against New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.  

Kapoor has long been suspected of being
at the heart of an international antiquities smuggling operation which allegedly has sold illicit artifacts, either directly to or through donors, to major museums around the world.  The effect of this one trafficking network has had long-reaching impact to collections at some of the worlds greatest art museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Australia, the Norton Simon Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and now the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Proactive in his approach Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost and his staff worked to identify seven suspect works of art from within the Hawaiian museum’s collection.  Five objects were purchased directly from Subhash Kapoor, one was given to the museum by the dealer as a gift, and the seventh piece was sold by Kapoor to a private investor who subsequently donated it to the museum's collection. 
In a taped video interview on KITV which can be found here Director Stephan Jost is heard to say They don't belong here. They're stolen,"  "On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we've had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don't belong here."
This quote from a museum head stands in stark contrast to recent remarks made by James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which operates the Getty Museum.  Cuno has made strong statements in both the New York Times and the quarterly magazine Foreign Affairs arguing that wholesale repatriation to source countries who cannot adequately protect their heritage is not in the best interest of the public as a whole.   In the FA article Cuno stated that "Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite."

In the New York Times article Mr. Cuno was interviewed to have said “Calamity can happen anywhere, but it is unlikely to happen everywhere at the same time,” “I say ‘distribute the risk,’ not ‘concentrate it.’ ” when referring to recent issues in areas impacted by Da'ish and other profiteering looters in countries plagued by civil unrest and war.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, told the New York Times journalists that given the extent of the conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq and northern Africa museums should take on a conservative stance on repatriation, stating  “I think this will put an end to the excess piety in favor of the repatriation model.”

While the ultimate repatriation of the objects photographed here, taken by AP photographer and journalist Jennifer Sinco Kelleherbeing packed up for their departure from the Honolulu Museum of Art, are not headed to countries currently embroiled in civil war, the contrast between each of these museum director's stance on their collections is something worth underscoreing.

Should museums ethically stand behind the return of looted antiquities in their collections on a county conflict case by case basis as Mr. Cuno and Mr. Vikan believe?  

In on Op/Ed piece this week Franklin Lamb, author of "Syria's Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve" has said he has not seen widespread support for the delay of repatriation in cases in Syria.  He has stated that  "Syrian officials and scholars interviewed [by] me overwhelming reject this point of view as does the Syrian public. Some have noted that using the destructive frenzy by Islamic State extremists to lobby against repatriation seeks to justify discredited practices and reeks of neo-colonialism."


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