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Course Spotlight: Loot, Plunder and the Ethics of Art Collecting

Instructor Lyssa Stapleton

The history, or “provenance” of works of art has become an increasingly important consideration for museums when making acquisitions. Acquiring works of art looted by the Nazi regime or from war torn regions is now considered ethically unacceptable. At the same time, museums are filled with legally questionable objects obtained during the last three hundred years. This fall course will examine the ethical implications of collecting, owning, and curating art and antiquities. Students will learn about the historical context of this topic through classroom lectures, then visit local museums to view works in person.

We spoke with instructor Lyssa Stapleton about the course. For course details, and to enroll, click here.

What about your course topic interests you, and how did you get started investigating this area of study?

Several events during the 21st century have brought the status of art and antiquities into the spotlight: The Getty Museum’s return of stolen works of art to Italy and Greece, the looting of the Baghdad Museum, the destruction, looting, and trade of cultural material by the so-called Islamic State, and the return of a number of very important works of art to the descendents of holocaust victims. These cases, among others, represent a turning point in the way we perceive cultural heritage material and have resulted in some extraordinary shifts in the way museums acquire and interpret it.

I am both an archaeologist and a curator, two roles that are often in conflict. As a curator, I’ve been involved in the acquisition of works of art that lack provenance (ownership history). As an archaeologist, I am opposed to the trade in illicit cultural heritage because it fuels the looting of museums and archaeological sites. These combined interests coalesced in my doctoral dissertation Acquiring Antiquity: The Future of Cultural Heritage Collecting and Stewardship in the United States, which examined provenance research methods and resources, museum stewardship, and the development of legal statutes involving stolen, looted, or otherwise illicit works of art.

What can students expect from your class?

This course is an opportunity to consider and examine the concept of cultural heritage. In so doing, students will learn about the trade in cultural heritage material, including antiquities and Nazi looted art. They will research and consider the nature and definitions of cultural heritage, the history and future of art collecting, and the role of ethics, public opinion, and the law in current issues surrounding the acquisition of important works of art. Classroom meetings will include structured topical discussions based on readings and other research materials and students will be asked to compile a case study focusing on a topic their choice, to be presented on the final day of the course.

American GIs hand-carry paintings looted by the Nazis (Photo credit: NARA / Public Domain)

American GIs admire “In the Conservatory”, a masterpiece by Edouard Manet in a mine where it had been stashed by the Nazis. (Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD / Public Domain)

What museums do you plan to visit, and why is it important to see these works in person?

Looted art has often been in the headlines in the last decade and it is a topic that interests a wide range of people. What we think of as art is often cultural expression and can have meaning far beyond aesthetic appeal. Knowing the provenance of a work of art adds to one’s enjoyment of it. I believe that it is important that people realize where the art in museums comes from and what it may mean to the culture that created it or the people who have owned it.

The gold phiale at the center of the legal case known as “U.S. vs An Antique Platter of Gold”. Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

We are fortunate to have several world-class museums in Los Angeles, each possessing phenomenal collections of art and antiquities. Our museum visits will include focused discussions with curators who will provide insight into the acquisition history of specific items, aspects of the museum’s history or current initiatives relating to provenance scholarship. We will visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and discuss the recent acquisition of an 18th century Qing dynasty chaopao (formal court robe). We will visit the Getty Center and meet with members of their Provenance Research Project who will discuss their work and guide us through relevant exhibits.

The third museum is yet undecided and will depend on the interests of the class. These visits will allow students to see specific works of art in a new light. The in-depth discussion with museum staff is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the role of local museums as stewards of these works of art and their efforts to acquire not only for the sake of building their collection, but to broaden visitor experience, preserve precious cultural heritage, and develop scholarly practices that include an awareness of the important of provenance.

Cuneiform tablet. Image from the Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York Press Release “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Wednesday, July 5, 2017 United States Files Civil Action To Forfeit Thousands Of Ancient Iraqi Artifacts Imported By Hobby Lobby”

 

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