The Future of the Past – Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century

A timely discussion on legal issues around collecting antiquities


Excerpt: Highlights from the Asia Society New York panel discussion on collecting ancient art and antiquities on March 18, 2012. (12 min.)

Watch the complete program

NEW YORK March 18, 2012 — Asia Society's panel discussion The Future of the Past: Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century convened renowned international art dealers, legal experts, curators, and scholars for a timely look at some of the challenges, and thorny legal issues, surrounding the collection of antiquities. The panel included Naman Ahuja, Kate Fitz Gibbon, Kurt A. Gitter, Arthur Houghton, James Lally, James McAndrew, Julian Raby and Marc Wilson. Vishakha Desai, Asia Society President and CEO, and Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum Director and Senior Vice President, Global Arts and Culture programs, moderated the program.

Desai opened with a comment on how "Objects have been part of the world arena for millennia" and the appropriateness of having the discussion during Asia Week, an annual celebration of both traditional and contemporary Asian. Next to speak was Kate Fitz Gibbon, an attorney specializing in art law and estate planning as well as an editor and contributing author of more than seven books on Asian art, introduced the topic from a law and enforcement perspective. Fitz Gibbon stressed how the U.S. leads the way with laws concerning artwork and that there are no time limits regarding stolen art. No matter how many times an artwork changes hands, she noted,
 "Under the current legal system we inherited from Britain, stolen is stolen forever."

The first part of the discussion centered on China, India, and Japan, starting with James Lally regarding the hold imposed on imports of Chinese art to the U.S with questions about how the 2009 U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has affected the trade.

Lally, an international art dealer, expert on Chinese art, and former president of Sotheby's North America, clarified the MOU and its laws regarding anyone bringing art into the U.S. that has not been in China before January 15, 2009. He punctuated the U.S. is the only country to sign the MOU and stressed how important art dealers outside this country are hesitant to deal with U.S. customs, leading to many antiques never being shown. "The effect (of the MOU) in the United States has been been fairly dramatic... although it's mainly because of misunderstandings or simply a climate of fear."

Marc F. Wilson, Director and CEO of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City from 1982 to 2010, spoke about the symbiotic relationship between art and commerce and the climate of fear that permeates the contemporary art collecting world. Wilson commented that this climate of fear is leading towards a demonization of collecting and museums are driving away one of the most important engines of support: the private collector. "I happen to believe that art and commerce have always gone together." Following his statement that "Younger people, mainly college students have been deliberately misled into the impression that everything in museums is stolen," Desai added that "There is a perception of morality infused with legality."

Next, Desai opened the dialogue with Kurt A. Gitter, M.D., co-founder of the Gitter-Yelen Foundation in New Orleans, who gave a historical overview of art collecting in Japan, arguing that the Japanese got a system going early enough that became a model for avoiding the type of problems that are now arising in China, India and Cambodia. "In 1897, the government of Japan, more than a hundred years ago, found funds to help for the preservation of these temples and shrines and the restoration of art objects. This was beginning of national treasures and important cultural property."

The next panelist was Julian Raby, the Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who spoke about how the Japanese have throughout the 20th century promoted their work in an ambassadorial manner, offering a distinct attitudinal difference with China.

Next, Desai addressed scholar Naman Ahuja regarding the changes taking place in India both as an art source and an art-collecting country. This portion of the discussion centered around the effect of "museum morality" — the impact it has on institutions outside Europe and the U.S., and how this is reflected in American museum policy.

Ahuja, Associate Professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture at JNU, New Delhi, presented an insightful presentation on disagreements among disciplines and outdated laws that are fomenting the opposition to collecting ancient art. He also elaborated on how the archaeological argument has guided policy in India regarding antiquities and he concluded by saying we need to find a common ground among archaeologists, art historians and museum curators.

Chiu opened the second part of the discussion by discussing issues around cultural property sensitivity and its guidelines. She acknowledged how in the U.S. we have some of the best collections of Asian art and raised the question on how to best use it and work with our colleagues in Asia. Raby said that one way to deal with the increasingly rich mosaic of Asian art in this country is through exhibitions and long-term loans. "We are possibly on the cusp of a new model, a model that moves away from ownership to stewardship."

Arthur Houghton, a former Foreign Service officer and diplomat, spoke about the changing landscape that has created uncertainty and even an atmosphere of fear among collectors and museums. Cultural guidelines by the American Association of Museum Directors (AMD), he noted, have required museums to turn away objects. This has had major consequences, and to prove this point Houghton designed a small study involving Roman art collections that are no longer available for study, conversation or curatorial caretaking.

Chiu followed up by clarifying the AMD guidelines by which museums have a responsibility to research an object's provenance and post the object on the AMD website. She emphasized the guidelines are to ensure museums are acting properly.

Wilson reminded listeners that are work and live in a "legalistic society" and characterized AMD guidelines as an "an electric fence — the horse knows not to go there." Raby further clarified AMD guidelines: a collector who has no documentation for a given object can still acquire it if there is no evidence it was definitely exported after 1970. Raby also addressed ways to increase knowledge both on local and global levels, creating more encyclopedic museums while lessening looting. A couple of the proposed strategies: (1) Advocacy around creation of legal markets (there is a possibility of private and public coming together). (2) Collaboration through an atmosphere of reciprocity (i.e. reciprocal museum loans). Raby emphasized how these issues are not just of a legal and practical nature but deeply emotional.

Chiu punctuated the emotional aspect of collecting and how colonial violence left a heritage of trust deficit. Ahuja responded with an example of Great Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum's hesitancy to lend India a throne that had belonged to its last monarch due to a perceived danger of India's refusing to return the piece.

The final expert to contribute to the panel was James McAndrew, a forensic specialist who spent 27 years as a Homeland Security and U.S. Customs Senior Special agent. McAndrew had some practical guidelines for collectors, underscoring how often the word "fear" came up during the symposium. He covered issues regarding looting and protection of archaeological sites and underlined how by the time an object gets into the U.S. it's important to remember that undocumented doesn't necessarily mean looted, emphasizing that if collectors properly document their imports, they should have nothing to worry about and leave the burden with the source country.

At the end of the discussion a member of the audience brought up the point the symposium was centered on institutions and objects, leaving out the people/individuals who are the actual protectors of the cultural property.

Desai invited William Pearlstein to the stage to give closing remarks. Pearlstein, a lawyer, is a member of the ACCP (The American Committee for Cultural Policy), a nonprofit organization comprised of legal and arts professionals and scholars, whom he characterized as "the last best hope" to balance U.S. policy, getting it back to the middle ground, and extended an invitation to the audience and panelists to become part of the discussion by contacting ACCP through its website.

Reported by Natalie Alarcón