Exhibition HISTORY LOST, and Colin Renfrew presentation at the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece


ATHENS: Benaki Museum, September 11 – October 22 2006.http://www.benaki.gr/ANEMON PRODUCTIONS, 5 Stisihorou st., 10674 Athens, Greece, Tel: +30 210 7211073, 7229388, Fax: +30 210 7211073, e-mail: info@anemon.gr http://www.anemon.gr/

2005 Anemon Productions produced The Network, documentary about the illicit trade in antiquities (read a review of this documentary at:http://www.museum-security.org/thenetwork.html)

The exhibition, and presentation by Colin Renfrew at the Benaki Museum, October 9, 2006

A multi-media travelling exhibition about the illicit trade of antiquities in Greece, Cyprus and the world, which will be housed in four European archaeological museums (Athens, Nicosia, Corinth, Nemea).Consisting of an exhibition with texts and illustrations, multimedia presentations on touch screen surfaces, interactive games and video screenings, it reaches out to a diverse public, telling the story of one of the most destructive attacks on world heritage taking place today.The exhibition takes place at a time when the ethics of Western museums are being intensely debated, together with the measures necessary for the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage.Examples from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Turkey, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq are presented -countries which during the last years have successfully reclaimed antiquities, illegally exported and sold abroad.The History Lost exhibition is compact and very informative at a basic level, aimed at raising awareness about the vast problem of illicit dealings in cultural property both in source countries and in ‘consumer’, or market countries. Most unfortunately this far the exhibition has only been on display in source countries. The struggle against the illicit trade in antiquities cannot be won without diminishing the demand for antiquities in consumer countries. Infamous collectors such as the Levy-Whites, the Fleischmanns, Ortiz, Ferrell, dubious dealers like Robin Symes, De Medici, Hecht, and museums, such as The Getty, the Metropolitan, the Japanese Miho, or museums such as the Leiden, The Netherlands, museum too willingly displaying the Miho collections, the Royal Academy in London showing the Ortiz collection,  the Saint Louis Art Museum that bought a looted Egyptian mask from the convicted Aboutaams dealers, museums in Berlin, Karlsruhe, Munich, Copenhagen, and several American museums should have seen an exhibition like History Lost many years ago. Maybe, maybe it would have opened their eyes in time, and prevented them from getting involved with unprovenanced antiquities. Again: maybe, for former Metropolitan Mseum director Thomas Hoving wrote in his memoirs Making the mummies dance, that after 1970, when the Unesco convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was drafted, the ‘age of piracy was over’.It only seems satisfactory that this arrogant former museum director admitted that there was piracy going on before 1970. However, it did not stop him from buying the Turkish Lydian treasure that was illicitly excavated. Hoving knew very well it originated from an illegal dig, hid the treasure for some 15 years in one of the Met storage rooms, and when finally displaying the hoard deliberately gave a wrong provenance: East Greece.The conviction that the age of piracy was over did not stop Hoving from illicitly buying this treasure, nor did it stop him to force the Turkish state to spend a huge amount on lawyers to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.

Besides, what did Hoving do with all those objects that had been acquired as pirate loot?

Even very recently the present director of the Metropolitan, Philippe de Montebello, was the main obstacle to return the Euphronios Krater to Italy, notwithstanding the very obvious fact that the provenance information Robert Hecht gave Thomas Hoving about this beautiful vase already 30 years ago appeared to be based on lies.A major wrong in the problem of illicit antiquities is that the consumers again and again decide which legal rules and ethical standards are applicable. Hoving easily decided that the age of piracy was over without doing anything at all to correct the wrongs done during the age of piracy.It was quite disappointing that Professor Colin Renfrew started his October 9, 2006, speech at the Benaki museum with the statement that ‘bygones should be bygones’ for museums adopting a deontological code about buying antiquities. It is hard to imagine that the founder of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the MacDonalds Institute of Cambridge University really meant the impact of his statement. Renfrew was most right that there will be no progress without deontological codes. How to deal with acquisitions that took place in the era before the deontological code is not to decide by Renfrew nor the museums, dealers or collectors, but by the source countries that were robbed of their heritage.Renfrew’s speech was larded with examples of museums and dealers involved in illicit antiquities. It is known that Renfrew hardly has any inhibitions mentioning names and facts. Contrary, Levy-White (“I would not call them distinguished”), dubious collectors supported by dubious museums, the Metropolitan displaying the Levy-White collection, the Getty giving legality to the Fleischmann collection that really is nothing less than a for the larger part unprovenanced antiquities collection, Ortiz and the Royal Academy, the Boston Museum (“on my black list”), and, this really showed courage on Renfrew’s Side, the Benaki Museum that recently accepted a donation from Robin Symes.The Marion True/Getty deontological code about acquiring antiquities, stating that the museum will never again buy any antiquities if these antiquities have not been properly published, was put by Renfrew in the right, dubious perspective. After accepting this code the Getty itself put up an exhibition of the unprovenanced Fleischmann collection and published a catalogue. So, the Getty turned the world upside down by publishing an unprovenanced antiquities collection thus paving the road to achieve this collection. After this 20 million dollars deal Getty curator Marion True received a 450 thousand US dollars private loan from the Fleischmanns. True was forced to leave the Getty, sold her house in Los Angeles, and is now living in France while on trial in Italy. Only recently Greek police confiscated antiquities with an obscure origin at her villa in Greece.Well known cases such as the Sevso silver treasue (Bonhams in London will try to sell this treasure soon), the Lydian, Aidona and Salisbury hoards were part of Renfrew’s speech.Looting in China (“The Chinese government is not doing enough to stop looting”), Iraq, Peru (Sipan), Nepal (The Gods are leaving the country), and Mali (Djenne) were mentioned by Renfew. I really missed mentioning of presently pending cases such as the Ka Nefer Nefer mask at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Huari Statue at the Kimbell Art Museum, or recently recovered antiquities from Peru. Renfrew did have some very useful recommendations:

·        All respectable museums should publish acquisition codes (such as the Berlin and Philadelphia Declarations)

·        Source countries should never lend anything to museums without an acquisition code

·        Source countries should never lend anything to exhibitions with unprovenanced antiquities. 

These recommendations really mean that source countries should never lend anything to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for 30 years after ‘the age of piracy was over’ this museum still does not have a deontological code about acquiring antiquities.The History Lost exhibition is most useful for educational and awareness building purposes. It deserves plenty chances to be displayed in important trade countries in Europe and the United States. Notwithstanding the very approachable design of this exhibition, and the very clear information it offers one might hope that Professor Colin Renfrew will always be available to support this exhibition with his fascinating speeches, for fascinating it was in the Benaki auditorium with over 400 very interested persons present.Maybe it was more than just coincidence that on the very day of Renfrew’s speech Greek police managed to confiscate more than 500 Neolithic objects in an Athens raid, and arrest a suspect stating the objects were family heirlooms. According to Renfrew a reference like this to the origin of illicit objects would read in auction housecatalogues: “Excavated during World War I, from the collection of a respectable family in Alexandria”. (The founder of the Benaki museum, Antonis Benakis, originally was from Alexandria).

Ton Cremers

October 14, 2006 


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