Center for Art Law

At the crossroads of visual arts and the law.


Is Antiquities Collecting In or Out? It is "In" in Cleveland

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Many experts and private individuals wish for collecting of antiquities to be a practice of the past, similar to smallpox. Heated disputes and “battles” over ownership of antiquities have been raging for decades resulting in canceled auctions, voluntary returns and forced repatriations of ceramics, marbles, bronzes etc. In recognition of the flawed acquisition practices of the last century, many museums in the United States, even the heavy lifters such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Museum in California, found themselves with but one option — to return illegally exported objects to countries such as Italy and Turkey. Many more claims are coming to the fore (Cambodia, Greece, Peru immediately come to mind). In light of these claims and trends, it is particularly curious to observe an American museum invest millions in acquisition of objects without clear provenance dating back to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.*

Just this week, New York Times featured an article about the Cleveland Museum of Art, which readies to unveil 35,000 square feet of new gallery space and is willing to invest in inventory with questionable provenance to showcase. For our digest of the article please read “A Question of Standards.”  Is the Cleveland Museum of Art advocating a relapse in responsible curating and collecting, or is it upholding the mission of public education and museum growth within the standards outlined by the American Association of Museums (AAM)? Namely, AAM expects museums to “rigorously research the provenance of an object prior to acquisition and  make a concerted effort to obtain accurate written documentation with respect to the history of the object, including export and import documents.” In this case, Cleveland seems to have done some provenance research and made some effort to obtain written documentation, but then what? If information dating back to 1970 is not available, as the museum alleges, are the objects rendered permanently tainted and out of reach of the American institutions? or, should they be purchased, insured and displayed until the missing information surfaces and forces the museum to hand over the object to its rightful owner? That time may never come, or research may catch up to the museum and force deaccessioning sooner rather than later.

Undoubtedly, Cleveland’s decisions to purchase the marble bust of Drusus Minor and the Mayan vessel are bold and provocative — a gamble. No challenger emerged yet with standing and evidence of violation if international law.

Sources: For more details on the 1970 Convention, see:

Lyndel V. Prott, “Unesco and Unidroit: A Partnership against Trafficking of Cultural Objects,”  1 Unif. L. Rev. 1 (1996) 59-71; 

Lyndell V. Prott, “International Control of Illicit Movement on the Cultural Heritage: The 1970 UNESCO Convention and Some Possible Alternatives,” 10 Syracuse J. Int’l L. & Com. 333 (1983).

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