More Talk With: Philippe de Montebello

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Let’s conclude that conversation with the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

LACAYO: As you know, a number of nations have cultural property laws that effectively lay claim to anything found in the ground on their territory, or that require export permits for anything over, say, 100 years old. China has a request pending with the State Department for the U.S. to bar the import of anything from that country that’s over a century old. Do you think the scope of cultural propperty laws can be too broad?

DE MONTEBELLO: There are scenarios that clearly are reasonable, and some outrageous. The request from China was rejected [so far] as unmanageable and unreasonable. And at some point the U.S. might say, well, wait a minute, we’ll cooperate with you on this, but every time we put out a DVD, 24 hours later it’s for sale all over China. so a sense of parity and fairness should prevail.

Source countries also have their role to play in safeguarding their archeological sites and prosecuting people involved in thefts — because not everything is taken from a site to sell to a wicked American museum or an American collector. A lot of these things are taken by people who are poor and who dig up gold and silver to melt it down. With American museums over the last few years being a non-existent factor in antiquities collecting, why has there been an increase in looting of sites around the world?

LACAYO: Many archeologists believe that any commercial trade in antiquities should be banned, whether that means the sale of objects to private collectors or museums. They say it encourages the looting of archeological excavations, and with that comes the loss of crucial information about an object’s cultural context.

DE MONTEBELLO: Archeologists presumably became interested in archeology by visiting museums. They forget this very conveniently. They become practicing archeologists and then their only interest is in the “find spot.”

One can question whether one particular discipline can arrogate to itself the right to everything that’s in the ground. There are many different contexts, many different ways to look at these objects. So you have a discipline that goes too far in claiming that an object is of no merit, of no value, the moment it’s out of the ground and you don’t know who buried it. That’s one context. It’s obviously a very precious one, because once an object is out of that context the information is not retrieveable. But it’s not the only context.

LACAYO: Does the Met buy in the antiquities market any longer?

DE MONTEBELLO: Almost not at all.

LACAYO: Michael Brand, the director of the Getty, told me recently that his museum will still buy, but much more carefully.

DE MONTEBELLO: Oh yes, but just a fraction of what it did before. And you pay far larger costs, because a huge premium is placed on works with secure provenance. Our acquisitions are, I don’t know, less than one tenth of what they used to be.

LACAYO: Will you be vetting objects that you receive as gifts, to ensure that they meet the same acquisition standards as the museum’s purchases?

DE MONTEBELLO: We apply the same standards to gifts, bequests and purchases. And now we apply it to loans as well.

LACAYO: Do you mean an object being leant to the Met from another museum?

DE MONTEBELLO: From a collector. From another museum I think it’s likely to be all right.

LACAYO: Do you worry about the future of the universal museum, the ones, like your own, in which works from all cultures are gathered together? It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, that China might one day become more aggressive, not just about asking other nations to impose import bans on Chinese objects, but about demanding the return of things already in foreign museums.

DE MONTEBELLO: I can’t imagine mankind being so self-destructive intellectually as to do away with the universal museum. No, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. But those institutions that have collections should consider themselves fortunate to have what they have, because increasingly they will not be able to build their collections. The museums in Berlin, Paris, London, New York have mature collections. A few things will be added here and there, but less and less in the archeological area.