Museums Grapple With Demands for Return of Antiquities


The repatriation of art, antiquities and other cultural objects – often plundered as spoils of war, or looted from ancient sites and burial grounds – has been much on the minds of museum directors and curators in recent years, as countries such as Egypt, Greece and Turkey step up their claims to objects that have long been on display for museum visitors in the West.

The issue was at the heart of a presentation in the Miami Law library on Tuesday by Dr. Guido Carducci, a law professor at Université Paris-Est who spoke on "Recovery of Cultural Property of Illicit Provenance in Private and Public International Law." The event was the first in a series of lectures presented by the International Graduate Law Programs at Miami Law.

"This is a very fascinating but complex field of law, so I wanted to make the presentation informative on all levels," said Dr. Carducci, a member of both the Rome and Paris bars. The lecture covered such topics as the parties to a dispute, the variety and role of governing law, public international law, and international customary law as it relates to looted cultural property in armed conflict.

"As a 1L, these lectures are a way for me to learn more about a specialized area of law," said Miami Law student Katelyn Flaherty. "I didn't know much about the topic beforehand, so it opened my eyes to some of the international legal issues surrounding cultural property."

Others in attendance had a solid background in the basics, allowing them to consider some of the more nuanced elements of the presentation. "Dr. Carducci's lecture illustrated that international law regarding recovery of cultural property focuses on its illicit provenance," observed David Fagundes, a visiting professor at Miami Law this semester whose regular base is Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. "This provides an interesting contrast to certain domestic regimes, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which enable the return of culturally significant artifacts regardless of the legality of their acquisition."

Miami Law's resident expert on the subject of art, Stephen K. Urice, was also there. Professor Urice teaches Trusts and Estates, Law and the Visual Arts, Museum Law, and Cultural Property Law, and has lectured extensively on provenance issues.

"I am thrilled to have Prof. Carducci begin this year's International Law Lecture Series," said Jessica Carvalho Morris, Director of International Graduate Law Programs. "It is great to start our fourth year with such a fascinating topic. We had so many members of the faculty and students attend the talk, which demonstrated a clear interest in the subject."

Dr. Carducci has taught and published extensively on domestic and international private, economic and public law. He is the former chief of the Legal and Treaty Section at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Before joining UNESCO, Dr. Carducci was a member of the Italian delegation to UNESCO for the negotiation of the 2001 Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. He is teaching a short course at Miami Law entitled "Recovery of Art and Cultural Property in International Law and the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage."

While many museums in countries such as France, Britain and Germany are being challenged on the provenance of some of their most treasured cultural items, the problem is especially acute in the United States, according to an article published in July in Der Spiegel.

"American museums are in a particularly tough position," the article said. "Their curators have been relatively cavalier about acquiring works from shady dealers without digging too deeply into the antiquities' provenance."

Der Spiegel said the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is being asked to surrender 10 of its most beautiful artifacts, while the Washington-based museum of Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute owned by Harvard University, "fears for its precious Sion Treasure of 6th-century Byzantine liturgical silverware." The article also reported that the Cleveland Museum of Art has 22 disputed objects, including "The Stargazer," a 5,000-year-old Cycladic marble figurine once owned by Nelson Rockefeller, as well as one of the oldest statues of Jesus Christ, which depicts him as a "good shepherd."