1. WASHINTON DC Committee for Cultural Policy - Benin Repatriation Request Raises Tough Questions
March 29, 2017. Benin has requested the repatriation from France of thousands of objects procured during colonial rule in Benin at the end of the 19th century. The length of time that has passed undermines any legal claims for return, but ethical arguments remain. Among the challenges are that items are in the hands of French museums, the Church and in private collections. There is no list of missing items, but the parties pressing for return believe there are 4500-6000 items that should go back to Benin.
Another issue may be the future safety of objects if they were sent back to Benin. The recent direct threats to Benin by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, and the group’s strategy of creating chaos and destruction as a means of cultural genocide (and of generating outraged publicity), raises persistent questions about the security of repatriating significant numbers of cultural objects to that region.
Benin, formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey, was under French colonial rule from around 1892 until 1960, when the country gained independence. France “acquired” most of the treasures from Dahomey during a period of colonial fighting between 1892 and 1894. Missionaries also brought numerous cultural objects back to France during the same period. Benin’s ambassador to UNESCO, Irenee Zevounou, is pursuing negotiations with both the French state and the Church for the return of thousands of cultural objects including swords and thrones, that are thought to now reside in French public and private collections.
The repatriation request is complicated by French and international law, by the lack of an official list of objects, and the fact that the former Kingdom of Dahomey included parts of Nigeria as well as Benin – which country can make the claim? The part of the 1970 UNESCO Convention which covers the repatriation of cultural objects states that the signatory nations must “ensure that their competent services co-operate in facilitating the earliest possible restitution of illicitly exported cultural property to its rightful owner.” But what is “illicitly exported” in this 19th century context? The Convention (although ratified by France in 1997) is not really implemented there – for all practical purposes, at least, since it is a major tribal market and home some of the largest tribal art sales in the world, such as Parcours des Mondes. France also upholds the “inalienability and imprescriptibility” of objects that have been part of French public collections for more than a century.
Neither the Benin government nor the civil society groups requesting return can make a valid argument that the cultural objects would be preserved if they were returned to Benin. Although the political situation in Benin is relatively quiescent compared to its neighbor, Nigeria, there is a potential threat from the Boko Haram insurgency, which has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20,000 individuals and the displacement of over 2.3 million people in the region. While a coalition of soldiers from Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin appeared to have subdued the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic group in 2015, a subsequent division within Boko Haram resulted in debate over whether the group would dissipate, or instead gain strength as a dual insurgency.
On March 20, 2017, Newsweek reported that “Boko Haram Vows to Impose Sharia Law in Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Mali.” Though much of Boko Haram’s activity has been in Northeastern Nigeria, the fact that they’ve named Benin as a target is concerning.
Agreements for long term loans or safe harbor also seem to be part of President Francois Hollande’s agenda on cultural property, and this may be an avenue for discussion, if France tolerates any claim at all. In spite of the cultural destruction that has occurred at the hands of ISIS and other terrorist groups, the granting of safe harbor to items from war zones has often been overlooked in recent years, in part due to misguided concerns that antiquities were being used to finance terrorist activities. A proactive approach using safe harbor as its foundation may do much to protect cultural heritage in countries under threat from terrorism and war.
Hollande has taken direct measures to support just these aims. In a November 2015 address to delegates at the 38th UNESCO Conference in Paris, he proposed bringing Syrian antiquities to France for safekeeping. Since then, in September of 2016, he announced a $100m fund to combat terrorist attacks on cultural sites and “protect the resources of humanity” in the Middle East. In November of the same year he unveiled a plaque for a Louvre Museum conservation facility in Liévin, designed as a haven to hold art and antiquities from countries in crisis until they can be safely repatriated to their country of origin.
A discussion between the parties that focuses on preservation and public access to objects in both France and Benin may be the most fruitful and least fraught with political jockeying – and the most prudent where war and terrorism are present threats.
Image: 16-17th century sculpture from Benin Kingdom, Nigeria Edo State, Benin Empire, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, author Rama, Wikimedia Commons.
2. WASHINGTON DC - Committe for Cultural Policy -Vikan: On Creating a New Culture of Antiquities Collecting in the US
Vikan: On Creating a New Culture of Antiquities Collecting in the US
March 25, 2017. “We are an immigrant nation and we all have a shared interest in the preservation of ancient culture; and we should all value the controlled, legal movement of cultural property as we value the free movement of people, literature, and ideas.” So writes Gary Vikan, Committee for Cultural Policy (CCP) President and former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, in the February 2017 edition of Apollo.
In Trading Places, Dr. Vikan describes the origins of the encyclopedic museum system in the U.S., and the results of recent, self-imposed regulation which has led to a veritable freeze of the free movement of cultural property.
Vikan proposes a process in which the U.S. could unfreeze the flow of cultural objects and “create a new culture of collecting, which will be sustained by the vast number of antiquities already within borders of the United States.”
Mass collections of antiquities built by magnates such as J.P. Morgan, Henry Walters and others fueled the collections of the museums of the late 19th and early 20th century. Vikan writes, “In those days, collectors benefited enormously from a flourishing legal export trade in antiquities. Walters’ renowned Imperial Roman sarcophagi came to America from a private collector in Rome in 1902, with full oversight by the Italian government. But there was also plenty of loot to be had.” “Loot” that often was acquired through questionable means.
It was this wholesale collecting of antiquities that ultimately led source countries and international organizations to implement laws to restrict the exportation of cultural property. Vikan continues, “In 1970, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The United States was not only the first major antiquities-importing nation to sign on to the 1970 UNESCO Convention; it was the first to pass implementation legislation to give the Convention legal effect. The Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983 created the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, to entertain requests from foreign nations that we in the USA, in concert with other antiquities-buying countries, and stop the importation of broad categories of antiquities that previously had been flowing unhindered into the USA.”
The flow of antiquities exported without source country authority slowed by the 1990s, but Vikan says that the lax culture of regulation that existed within the museum system enabled some many recently imported antiquities to find their way into collections in the U.S. In 2008 a rewrite of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) acquisition guidelines stemmed this flow by establishing guidelines: “AAMD members normally should not acquire a work unless research substantiates that the work was outside the country of probable modern discovery before 1970.”
Vikan discusses the significance of the change in museum culture: “For me, the clearest evidence that the old system is dead is that antiquities are not coming out of war-ravaged Syria. Virtually nothing of any monetary or cultural significance is now on the US art market from that troubled region. I contrast this with the bustling trade in war loot that I encountered as a young curator in the 1980s, when vast numbers of important pieces of Byzantine art – including icons, frescoes, and even church mosaics – were pouring westward in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus. Whole church interiors were then being offered by well-known dealers to established private and museum buyers.”
The AAMD guidelines stopped the flow of looted antiques but had the unintended consequence of placing hundreds of thousands of antiquities (legally imported but not legally exported from the source countries) in limbo. They were legal to own, buy and sell, but museums would not accept the, even as donations. Museums and collectors began to refer to them as “orphans.”
“Orphan” antiquities also included artworks and artifacts procured prior to 1970, but which lacked records of purchase. They might be works of fine art or that glazed pot one of your relatives bought during a trip to Afghanistan in their youth. Or the early icon your great-great-grandmother brought with her when she emigrated from Russia. Items that were acquired legally but the proof of their purchase has long ago disappeared.
To release the orphans from this state of limbo, and to enable them to be collected, curated, and exhibited by museums, Vikan envisions “a new culture of collecting.” This involves the liberation of two categories of antiquities that already exist within the United States – “orphan” antiquities and the vast quantities of antiquities that exist in museum storage, the ones never placed on display for public view.
Vikan envisions an internet database containing images of “orphans”, which “aggressively marketed to their countries of likely origin, with adequate protection of privacy, would be where potential claimants could find large numbers of searchable antiquities in the hands of American collectors and dealers, and make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution.” Anything unclaimed after a period of time would, by default, be considered to have a clear title and therefore be able to reenter the market place.
The complexity of the guidelines for deaccessioning antiquities in museum storage is cited by Vikan as the reason so many stay in basements and storage areas, never seen by the public, and creating an ongoing expense for the museum.
“AAMD guidelines should be revised,” Mr. Vikan says, “and incentives found for getting these works swiftly to public auctions, so that they can re-enter the marketplace of dealers and collectors, and eventually find their home in other museums, where they will be prized and exhibited.”
He concludes, “The net result of these changes in policies as they relate to orphans and to the reaccessioning of storeroom collections would be to build a robust environment in America for the legal, regulated trade in antiquities and, ultimately, to serve our museum collections and the public.”
Note: See a new Comment by Dr. Vikan in Apollo, Blame Games at the Met.