Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, April 10, 2009

Getty to Return Roman Fresco

The past few years have been sad for museums and archaeologists, but things are looking up. After many high profile scandals rocked the world of antiquities trade, things seem to finally be heading in the right direction. Museums now are ceasing their shady dealings and are being open about where their artifacts came from and how they got them. Not that the problem of looting is solved of course, but every small step helps in ending the practice. When a looter digs up an artifact and sells it on the black market, everyone looses. The country of origin looses a small piece of its history and archaeologists loose valuable information about the context of that artifact. The latter by far has the biggest impact because every shred of information regarding context, no matter how small, helps us better understand history as a whole. It is infuriating and frustrating that looting happens at all, but as long as there is a market for stolen artifacts, the practice will continue.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in California is no stranger to scandal. Marion True and her alleged dealings in looted artifacts is a stain on the whole archaeological community as well as the Getty itself. The facts about what Ms. True did and didn't do are complicated and I'm not going to pass judgment on her here. What I will say, though, is that her high profile court case has led to many positive changes in museums around the country. Many "hot" artifacts from the Getty (and many other institutions) have been returned to their country of origin, which is were they belong. I fully support museums from around the world housing artifacts from other countries, as long as those artifacts were acquired legally and are professionally studied. Returning artifacts to their country of origin can't give us back lost information regarding context, but at least the artifacts are returned to their rightful owners. The Getty recently agreed to repatriate a Roman wall painting, not because of international pressure, as has been the case in the past, but because of changed attitudes at the institution. The Getty apparently saw newly published images of another repatriated fresco and realized that the fragment they had was from the same wall. I applaud the decision to send the fresco back to Italy and hope that this positive step is a sign of continued and expanded cooperation between American museums and museums throughout the world.