Over the last five years, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been at work on one of the largest building programs of any art institution in the country, a $350 million project that has been unveiled in sleek new stages and will be completed by 2013, according to the notes about museums in Phoenix they have been adding 35,000 more square feet of gallery space.
The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum’s new portrait of Drusus Minor has no ironclad record pre-1970.
But the museum has also been building in less visible ways and is set to announce on Monday the acquisition of two high-profile ancient artifacts that seem certain to draw attention not only to the institution’s expansion but also to the complicated long-running debate about antiquities collecting by museums.
The world of antiquities collecting has been reshaped fundamentally over the last several years, after battles between American museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and countries like Italy that have demanded the return of pieces they say were illegally taken from their soil. In 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted standards that led most of its member museums to stop collecting artifacts that were not demonstrably in legitimate public or private collections before 1970, an internationally recognized cutoff date. Objects that surfaced later are more likely to have been stolen from archaeological sites or illegally exported. But those guidelines allow for discretion.
Recognizing that a complete recent ownership history may not be obtainable for all archaeological material and every work of ancient art, the museum directors’ group says, its members should have the right to exercise their institutional responsibility to make informed and defensible judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring such an object. It adds: The museum must carefully balance the possible financial and reputational harm of taking such a step against the benefit of collecting, presenting and preserving the work in trust for the educational benefit of present and future generations.
David Franklin, who took over as director of the Cleveland Museum in 2010 to usher in the era of its expansion, has adopted one of the more staunchly pro-collecting stances among American museums.
And so when two rare opportunities came Cleveland’s way a stunning marble portrait from around the time of Christ thought to be that of Drusus Minor, son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, one of only about 30 such Drusus portraits known to have survived from antiquity; and a beautifully preserved Mayan cylinder vessel with a painted battle scene from A.D. 600-900 the museum did not pass them up.
Though the Mayan vessel is in photographs that place it in New York City in 1969 and was published as part of a notable New York collection in 1973, neither object has an ironclad record going back earlier than 1970.
The marble head, in particular, for which Mr. Franklin said the museum paid a significant amount of its yearly acquisition budget, is likely to raise questions. It was sold at auction in 2004 in France and has no publication record before 1970. But the museum said it believed its history could be traced back to the late 19th century as the property of a prominent family in Algiers.
The marble head was sold to the museum by Phoenix Ancient Art, a leading antiquities dealer in Geneva and New York that does business with many major museums. In 2004, one of the gallery’s owners pleaded guilty in Manhattan to a federal misdemeanor charge of falsifying a customs document about the origin of an ancient drinking vessel.
That same year, the Cleveland Museum bought a bronze sculpture of Apollo from Phoenix Ancient Art that some believe was made by the classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But the origins of the bronze, which will play a starring role in the museum’s new galleries, have been under a cloud of suspicion since the museum bought it. (In 2007, the Louvre withdrew a request to borrow the statue for a Praxiteles show after the Greek government claimed the statue had been fished out of international waters and belonged to Italy.)
Mr. Franklin said he believed that the gallery and the museum knew enough about both the marble head and the cylinder to be confident that they had not been illicitly taken. We’ve done our due diligence, Mr. Franklin said, and we feel that both these objects have a pre-1970 provenance.
Beyond that, he said, he wants to send a signal that museums should continue to collect important ancient art under the right circumstances.
Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility, he said. We don’t want to drive these kinds of objects into private collections forever. Or to see all of them end up abroad. (The new collecting standards have also made it hard for private collectors to sell objects or to donate them to museums, a situation they say is creating a growing category of orphaned artifacts.)
While the collecting guidelines are a worthy way to try to discourage looting and black-market trade, Mr. Franklin said, museums also need to consider carefully the long-term effect on their curatorial strengths. What drives most curators is the desire to purchase and to build a collection, he said, and if all they’re going to do is provenance research day after day, it’s necessary but it’s certainly not inspiring, especially for young curators.
Such a view of acquisitions alarms those who feel that museum collecting continues to be a catalyst for the black market.
Buying poorly documented objects from disreputable dealers is akin to looting an archaeological site and destroying the historical record, said Jenifer Neils, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who earlier served for six years on the museum’s curatorial staff and is an archaeologist with experience in Greece and Italy. While such objects may be aesthetically beautiful, museumgoers are robbed forever of their cultural context.
The Cleveland Museum is not the only museum that has decided to use its discretion to make exceptions to acquisition guidelines. On a Web site established by the Association of Art Museum Directors for listing acquisitions that cannot be shown to have been in circulation before 1970, 13 institutions besides Cleveland have posted pictures and histories of objects they have acquired. The Metropolitan lists 15 objects obtained in recent years.
One of them, for example, a Greek statue from the mid-second to the first century B.C., was a gift of a donor who bought the piece from Phoenix Ancient Art in 2001. The statue, which came fully into the Met’s collection in 2010, is believed to have been in a German collection in the late 1970s, but no report of its existence was published until 2007.
Such overlife-size bronze statues are extremely rare, especially ones of the quality of this piece, the Met explains on the Web site, in justifying its acceptance of the statue as a gift. It represents a major class of Hellenistic honorific statuary not otherwise represented in the museum’s collection.
Mr. Franklin said that the Cleveland Museum would also publish a photograph and information about the marble head on the Web site. But in discussing the new acquisitions, he emphasized that he believed the museum was taking the right course for its own future and for the antiquities.
It’s to the benefit of these objects not to be shunted away into the dark but to exist, he said, comparing many artifacts in the market these days to children of divorce. It’s almost as if the objects themselves need a bill of rights.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 14, 2012
An article on Monday about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s purchase of two ancient artifacts omitted part of the name of the school where Jenifer Neils, who commented on the acquisition of antiquities, is a professor of art history. It is Case Western Reserve University, not Case Western University.