Out the Door

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After successfully re-claiming scores of Greek and Roman antiquities from American museums, the Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli has made his first agreement to retrieve works from an American private collection. Shelby White, the New York philanthropist, agreed to return ten pieces from the collection that she assembled with her late husband Leon J. Levy.

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The Leon Levy and Shelby White Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art /METROPOLITAN MUSEUM

White is, of course, also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She and her husband donated $20 million to finance the Met’s newly expanded Greek and Roman galleries, parts of which bear their names. Some of the pieces she’ll be returning to Italy were until recently on long term loan to the Met, which has already returned scores of ancient works from its permanent collection. Earlier this month it removed from its galleries the Euphronios krater — its last disputed treasure — or is it just the last for now? — and packed it home to Italy.

One interesting point here is that White, who always insisted that she and her husband had acquired all the items in good faith — and the Italians, for their part, have not claimed that they were involved in any criminal act — wanted the Italians to promise that they would never pursue items from her collection again. What Rutelli agreed to instead is that Italy would not lay claim to any additional objects that were included in a 1990 Met show drawn from the White/Levy collection, a show that some scholars suspect was full of items that may have been looted from archeological digs. But he would not rule out claims against other works that she owns if evidence should emerge that they were looted.

One ominous quote in the Times story from an unnamed person involved in the negotiations between White and the Italians: “The truth is, because she’s lent so many of her pieces, she was very visible. Other collectors tend to keep their antiquities at home.” What this might mean for future museum loan shows of ancient art is not encouraging.

One other ominous quote. Someone asked Rutelli whether Italy was looking into other private collections. “The coming year,” he said, “will be full of surprises.”

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