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December 01, 2008

NYT Op-ed: Thoughts for Tom Campbell at the Met

Oped graphic 

I have an op-ed in today's New York Times that talks about the imminent arrival of Thomas Campbell as the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on January 1. I write: 

"Mr. Campbell, who will take over one month from today, is a 46-year-old curator from the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, and he has a unique opportunity to shift the tone of an enduring and increasingly hostile debate in the world of art and museums: Who should own the treasures of antiquity?"

The piece goes on to talk about the "culture of distrust" that currently exists between source countries and the great museums of the West, and how the Met has an opportunity to change this with the changing of the guard.

"By publicly embracing the 1970 [UNESCO] protocol, Mr. Campbell would be breaking with the policies of his predecessor, Mr. de Montebello, who believes that orphaned antiquities should be rescued by museums, not ignored by them.

Mr. Campbell could also undertake a project more fundamental, and more profound. The Metropolitan needs to come clean about its past of appropriation of ancient art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it needs to tell a much fuller story about its more recent role in purchasing looted and smuggled antiquities.

"The Met’s galleries and Web site are mysteriously devoid of recent facts about the provenance of many artifacts. Most visitors have no idea how the treasures on display in the Greek and Roman rooms, the Egyptian antiquities department, or the Byzantine, African, Asian and Oceanic collections came to be housed in the museum.

"Who among them knows that Louis Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-born collector and Civil War veteran who was the first director of the museum, appropriated a huge number of antiquities for more than a decade? As the American consul in Cyprus in the 1860s, Cesnola kept 100 diggers busy in Larnaca; his house became a kind of museum. Cesnola smuggled out no fewer than 35,573 artifacts — passing them off as the property of the Russian consul — for which the Met paid $60,000."

 I welcome comments, and have already received a half-dozen emails from readers with passionate views on this topic. Please post them here, or at the Facebook page for Loot, which can be reached via this site.


David Gill

1970 is an internationally recognised date for recently surfaced antiquities. The recent returns from North American collections (public and private) to Italy have included items acquired in the 1970s; the Sarpedon krater was purchased in 1972.

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