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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where Have All the Artifacts Gone?

It seems that every time I look at the news lately, there's an article about antiquities and illegal dealings. The most recent news I've found is that the Cleveland Museum of Art will be returning a whopping 14 artifacts to Italy. The artifacts were allegedly all stolen from Southern Italy, but the museum seemingly acquired them innocently. Last November, The Cleveland Museum of Art signed an accord with Italian authorities which guaranteed the return of the artifacts. I wrote about Cleveland's Apollo Sauroktonos and the debate about its provenience, but that statue is not one of the artifacts being returned. This story has it all; an American museum and the Italian government getting along, the willful return of known stolen artifacts and an agreement to conduct long term loans between Cleveland and Italy.

Sounds great, right? Returning stolen artifacts to their rightful owners is the right thing to do, but I'm forced to ask about the fate of these artifacts. Italy, with it's mile long list of museums, has more Greek and Roman artifacts than it knows what to do with. Where are these Cleveland artifacts going to be housed and who is going to study them? Italy owns them, fare and square, but don't they currently have a good home in Cleveland? If the artifacts are going to be returned to Italy and displayed and studied, I'm definitely on board with their repatriation. But what if these artifacts are put in a box in the basement of some museum. I think Italy would be the first to admit that it doesn't need another red-figure krater. Would it have been possible for Italy to take official ownership of these artifacts while letting Cleveland "borrow" them? These are all very complicated questions and the answers are not black and white. Please don't get the idea that I am against the return of illegally acquired artifacts, because I most certainly am not. I am concerned about how these artifacts are used, though, and I want to make sure that everyone has the chance to view them and learn from them.