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

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bronzes Find New Home at the Getty

In my last post, I discussed the J. Paul Getty Museum's return of a Roman fresco to Italy. The past few years have seen a multitude of illegally acquired artifacts returned to their country of origin and it is a process that I applaud and encourage. But what about American museums? Are they doomed to be picked clean by European institutions who claim the rights to their artifacts? Despite the fears of many, the answer is no. Many museums house artifacts that, according to UNESCO accords, are the legitimate property of the museums that house them. Many such artifacts were purchases in the 19th century and early 20th century, and though we may disapprove of such sales now, at the time they were bought legally.

Returning artifacts to their country of origin is great, but when American museums where ironing out the details of such agreements, both sides decided that an atmosphere of cooperation was essential. Being a scholar means sharing information with your peers and the public, and without cooperation both at home and abroad, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge suffers. Countries of origin have no desire to close American museums and take their artifacts, and a new loan to the Getty is proof of the renewed cooperation across the Atlantic. The National Archaeological Museum in Naples is loaning the Getty two nearly life size bronze statues found at Pompeii. Large bronze statuary is extremely rare, for reasons I have talked about before, and the fact that Italy is letting the Getty house these artifacts proves that there is a new found trust between American institutions and those in Europe. Let's hope that such actions encourage more loaning of artifacts, because the only way to advance the fields are archaeology, history and art history is openly share knowledge and resources.