Reclaiming the Past: The Problem with Provenance

Deep in the British Museum lie some of the world’s most controversial artifacts: fragments of the Parthenon. Every day, people flood in and out, eager to catch a glimpse of the pieces of Greece’s most famous temple. Displayed throughout the hall are slabs of frieze detailing the Panathenaic procession, totaling 274 of the original 524 feet in length. Also showcased in the room are 15 of the original 92 metopes and 17 pedimental figures, including the extremely life-like torso of Iris. As I walked through the gallery two years ago, I watched viewers from across the globe hover around each sculpture, unable to tear their eyes away. A sort of hush echoed off the marble, as if no one could bring themselves to disrupt someone else’s quiet observation. Undeniably, these pieces evoked a sense of wonder, prompting one to ask perhaps the most important question: How did this all get here?

The question is one of provenance, the study of the ownership history of art and artifacts. The answer is rooted in centuries’ worth of appropriation, greed, and political instability. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, British lord of Elgin, received permission from Ottoman Sultan Selim III to visit the Acropolis and take back whatever pieces he wished. However, many historians argue that the document given to Bruce did not explicitly grant him permission to take the temple’s artwork. In 1816, Bruce himself testified to Parliament that he believed taking the pieces was likely a crime. His moral scruples, however, did not prevent him from negotiating a price with the British crown, who purchased and later displayed the ancient artwork in the British Museum. 

Nearly 2,000 miles away sits an empty room in the Acropolis Museum of Athens, Greece, awaiting the day the “Elgin Marbles” find their way home. Multiple Greek governments, including the current one, have petitioned Britain for the return of the fragments of its most famed temple, but the British government continues to deny their requests. Although many scholars have argued that the British Museum is better equipped to house these artifacts, this means very little. Outside of their original environment, the Elgin Marbles are greatly diminished and rendered incapable of representing their home country’s history. While the British Museum is capable of preserving the physical integrity of the ancient art, it is incapable of providing the surrounding historical context offered by the Acropolis Museum, instead preserving a history of appropriation and cultural theft. 

This is only one of many problems arising due to inadequate acknowledgment of the provenance of artworks. In an age of information and heightened social awareness, it is no longer acceptable for art dealers and museums to trade and exhibit artifacts without researching the means by which they were acquired. In 2010, former Princeton University antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett was charged with working in conjunction with Edoardo Amalgia, an Italian antiquities dealer, and two others in trafficking stolen artifacts. They were accused of trafficking nearly two dozen ancient Etruscan works that they then sold or donated to several major U.S. museums.

Even as recently as 2018, the Italian government has been trying to recover these works of art, but has been fighting a losing battle. After a decades-long lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum over the allegedly illegal acquisition of the work Statue of a Victorious Youth, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that the statue should be repatriated. However, the Getty Museum has rejected the ruling and declared in an official statement that the museum “will continue to oppose” efforts to remove the statue, arguing that even though the statue was initially smuggled out of Italy, it was found in international waters and “has never been a part of Italy’s cultural heritage”. Many experts disagree, pointing out that the statue, made around 100 BCE, did not leave Italy until around 1965. This fact, in accordance with the UNESCO Convention of 1970, which protects cultural property and gives countries’ whose artifacts were stolen a recognized right to demand the return of trafficked artifacts, substantiates Italy’s claim that the Getty has no grounds to continue to house the statue. 

The signing of the UNESCO Convention has been a catalyst in spurring the international community to recognize the importance of provenance when it comes to artistic and cultural preservation. Since its passage, some museums, like the Pergamon, a popular museum in Berlin, Germany, stopped collecting artifacts and now regularly researches the history of their collection. According to Aljazeera in 2017, Pergamon director Markus Hilgert and his team have reviewed the files of hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the museum to “ensure that they were legally obtained.” Efforts such as these promote not only the ethical acquisition of art but are also crucial in creating a global environment of respect and transparency in dealing with culture. 

While the international community attempts to hold countries and museums accountable, international conflicts continue to threaten the safety of both artifacts and historical sites. The civil war in Syria has led to the devastation of the Mosul museum in Iraq and the temples of Baalshamin and Bel in Palmyra, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Furthermore, ISIL has been accused of trafficking and profiting off of pillaged artifacts, many of which are still being searched for today. With any luck, these artifacts, along with so many more, will be returned to their rightful homes and finally fill the spaces reserved for them in the empty galleries of their home countries.

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