The provenance of the museum’s Greek exhibits has been questioned, sparking controversy
The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, was on a high note as “From Chaos to Order,” an exhibition of ancient Greek art, made its first major traveling exhibition in years, having made stops at museums in Florida and South Carolina before that. Preparing to head west.
“The idea was to look at the origins of Greek art in a new way,” said Michael Bennett, a former curator at the St. Petersburg Museum who organized the show of works from the Geometric Period, around 900 to 700 B.C. New to say about Greek art.
But earlier this year, when the exhibit was scheduled to move to the Denver Art Museum, staff there balked because many of the 57 artifacts lacked detailed provenance. Denver museum officials noted that none of the antiquities, on loan from businessman and collector Sol Rabin, were known to have been looted, but that some were purchased from sellers accused of handling stolen antiquities in the past.
The Denver Museum recently had its own scandal when it returned four artifacts to Cambodia. Its director, Christoph Heinrich, proposed postponing the Florida Expo in the hope of resolving the source problems.
“I am sure you are aware of how the changing legal and ethical standards and perceptions of collecting and displaying antiquities are the front and center of many museums of world culture today, including our own,” Heinrich wrote to officials in St. Petersburg. He called the bid risky, noting that Denver had “recently seen negative press for a small number of our legacy groups and our affiliations with red flag dealers.”
The show never made it to Denver. Two months later, Bennett, a curator at the St. Petersburg Museum, was placed on leave. A month later, he was fired.
The exact circumstances surrounding Bennett’s dismissal, which upset his supporters in St. Petersburg, remain unclear. Museum officials declined to detail their reasons, saying they could not discuss personnel matters, but in a statement they stressed the importance of adhering to the highest industry standards in a changing world, and said they had begun a full review of the provenance of the museum’s collection.
This episode highlights a broader debate currently taking place in the art world.
While many museums once actively pursued ancient items with little regard to the history of their ownership, in recent decades curators have come to adopt more stringent standards designed to ensure that the antiquities they acquire or display are not looted or stolen. In recent years, dozens of artifacts have been returned to countries around the world after museums admitted they were misled in transactions, or did not make adequate inquiries about the origins of the artworks.
Bennett said in an interview that he was never given a valid reason for his dismissal, but was told at one point that his leave was related to the Museum Association’s reaccreditation issue, without further details. He said his office was sealed with tape and he was escorted out of the building. A letter from the museum’s attorney to his lawyer about his dismissal, which was obtained by The New York Times, noted that as an at-will employee, he could be fired at any time without cause, but added that “if cause is required to terminate the employment of Dr. Bennett, the State Department will have More than enough reasons to do so, as Dr. Bennett well knows.Bennett said that despite his repeated requests, he was not told any reason nor given the opportunity to discuss it.
Board member Robert Drabkin said he believed the source issue was a factor but was told there was more than one reason for the dismissal.
Some experts noted that it was reckless for Bennett and the museum to hold the exhibition without doing more to investigate the origins of some of the objects.
But Bennett, his supporters and many other curators said they feared the dismissal would be an overreaction to concerns raised in Denver. Several current and former lecturers, board members, and others associated with the museum said they were dismayed by his dismissal, and two donors cited his dismissal as a reason for withdrawing planned archaeological gifts to the museum.
“The response was exaggerated,” said Belinda Dumont, a member of the St. Petersburg Museum’s board of directors. “I think the hysteria about provenance is very misleading because the items are valuable to bring to the public.”
In a statement, Anne-Marie Russell, who became the museum’s director and CEO after the exhibition began touring, and Piers Davies, chair of its board of trustees, described their efforts to comply with best practices in the field.
“It is our responsibility, as a museum, to protect and preserve works of art – objects that represent humanity’s highest aspirations – forever,” the statement said. “Yet we do so amid the reality of a dynamic and constantly evolving world.”
Bennett’s supporters point out that the artifacts involved in this case are not known to have been looted. But by modern standards, they exist in a kind of uncertainty about provenance without the kind of prior ownership histories that most museums look for now when acquiring ancient objects, but which many did not always claim in the past while building their collections.
Some Greek objects were subject to intense scrutiny by the dealers or galleries that sold them. A few came from Robert Hecht, a prominent antiquities expert who investigators say often handled stolen objects. He died in 2012.
“There is no logic at all because because the dealer is allegedly a red flag dealer, all the things he sold are red flags,” Rabin, the owner of the business in question, said in an interview.
Many major American museums with antique collections contain items that they or a donor acquired from Hecht, who was one of the world’s leading antique dealers.
But there is no doubt that museum standards have evolved.
In recent decades, museums have accepted best practice guidelines for not acquiring an object without clear, documented evidence that it either left its country of origin before 1970, or was legally exported after 1970. The guidelines for museums that accept short-term loans are more relaxed to Somewhat compared to acquisitions – in some cases, displaying works with an incomplete history is encouraged because it may stimulate people with new information to come forward. But the guidelines also state that museums should carefully research and consider risks before moving forward with loans.
Most of the 57 items on display at the St. Petersburg fair lack evidence that they were actually outside Greece by 1970, according to Denver’s analysis.
Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the museum studies program at Colgate University, said that with so many questions about the history of the artifacts, it was surprising that Bennett “would give his scholarly license to this collection, which remains in private hands, and” display it repeatedly in museums. .
Before going to St. Petersburg in 2018, Bennett worked for many years at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he was viewed as America’s leading expert on Greek and Roman art. But two of his purchases there have also come under scrutiny.
The Greek bronze statue of Apollo, which the museum still holds, was of incomplete origin, and an ancient Roman portrait of Drusus Minor had to be returned to Italy. Bennett said he agreed to purchase the Greek statue only after scientific tests showed it had been excavated more than a century ago. He also contributed to the research that led to the return of the Roman artifact.
Since Bennett’s firing in Florida, two of his fellow antiquities curators have spoken out on his behalf. Michael Padgett, former curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, wrote to the board of trustees in St. Petersburg, paying tribute to Bennett.
Carlos Bacon, former chief curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in an interview that Bennett should not have been fired, but should have been told about the problem “and given an opportunity to explain and fix it.” He. She.”
Neither the Rollins Museum of Art, in Orlando, Florida, nor the Gibbs Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, where the exhibition toured, raised any issues about the loaned items.
Patti Gerstenblith is an expert on cultural heritage issues and a professor at DePaul University The law school said questions about the artifacts went beyond red flags. “What’s higher than red?” she asked.
She said that these warning signs are not necessarily evidence of illegality; Just that the organizers should have done more due diligence.
Rabin, who currently serves as chair of the Committee on Ancient Art at the Harvard Art Museums, said his collection of Greek art, which numbers about 700 pieces, was built over several decades, on the advice of Bennett and David Mitten, professor emeritus. of Classical Art and Archeology at Harvard, who died last year. He said two of the pieces on display were recently loaned to other major museums.
Rabin said he did not ask the dealers he worked with for complete source information, but sought clear assurances that the items had not been stolen.
In his dealings with Hecht, Rabin said: “I will look him in the eye. He says: No, this is good. These are legitimate pieces, so I bought them.
The reality is that for decades old objects were moved without any inspection that is now considered routine, Bennett said. As a result, he said, there are many legitimate objects that do not have a fixed ownership history, but should not be considered looted.
A better approach, he suggested, is to publicly display items with gaps in their provenance in ways that promote scholarly research but also invite broader scrutiny.
“People often talk about orphan art,” he said. “I think they need homes. I think it’s good to know where they are and what they are like to understand them better, and then we can have a discussion.”
Geraldine Al-Sanea Contributing reporting from St. Petersburg, Florida.