Courtesy SMMWe’ve been learning a lot about ancient Italian artifacts here at the museum this summer as we host A Day in Pompeii exhibit. So I was surprised to see news in the New York Times last week about an Italian art artifact controversy.
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has just reached an agreement with the Italian Cultural Ministry to return 40 objects that the Italian government claims were looted from Italy decades ago. A former curator form the Getty is also currently on trial in Italy for trafficking looted art.
It’s all a good reminder that much of what we see in museums can have shady pasts. They say that the British Museum in London has more Egyptian artifacts than all of the museums in Egypt combined. Centuries ago, cultures from exotic locations were exploited by archeologists. I know in Pompeii, during the 1800s some very sketchy practices took place to hype up the appeal to tourists of newly found artifacts in the volcanic flow debris.
Interestingly, the Italian Cultural Ministry over the past couple years has reached similar agreements with museums in New York and Boston that had possession of disputed artifacts. It appears – that in Italy at least – a culture is trying to reclaim its roots.
And from reading the International Herald Tribune, Italy’s Minister of Culture recognizes there’s a Catch-22 to these efforts. Cracking down on looted items makes it “impossible for serious institutions to purchase illegally,” says Francesco Rutelli, but adding “such a decisive fight against art trafficking makes looting more attractive, in the sense that (the items) have a higher value because there are fewer. An object that a few years ago could be bought for $400,000, today is worth $4 million.”