New Guidelines for the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials of Ancient Art

February 2009Art & Advocacy

This summer, both the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) issued new guidelines for the acquisition of archaeological materials and ancient art. The Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art, issued in June 2008, and the AAM Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art, issued in August 2008, bear striking similarities, as well as interesting differences.

Both sets of new guidelines call for museums acquiring archaeological materials and ancient art to: (1) thoroughly research the provenance (ownership history) of a proposed acquisition; (2) obtain accurate, written documentation of the history of the object, including import and export documents; (3) require sellers and donors to provide all documentation and information in their possession related to the object; and (4) comply with all applicable U.S. laws.

Perhaps the most substantive feature shared by both sets of new guidelines is the recognition of November 1970 — the date the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted its Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property — as a watershed date for what the AAMD describes as “the application of more rigorous standards to the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art.” Both sets of guidelines recommend that an object being acquired be shown to have been either outside its probable country of modern discovery before November 1970 or legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after November 1970. Both sets of guidelines, however, provide an “out” for museums to use their judgment to acquire works that lack a complete provenance.

There are some differences between the new AAMD and AAM guidelines that are worth noting. For example, while the AAM guidelines direct museums to address claims of ownership by third parties and seek to voluntarily resolve them, the AAMD guidelines additionally call for museums to alert a third party to its right to ownership and initiate the return of the object when they gain information that establishes that third party’s right to ownership.

The AAMD guidelines also affirm the value of the licit market for the legal sale and export of works of art in deterring looting, and encourage the creation of licit markets by urging nations to provide the means for the legal sale and export of such objects. Finally, the AAMD calls for museums to post on the AAMD website an image of, and information on, any work that is acquired without a complete ownership history showing that the work was outside the probable country of modern discovery before 1970 or exported legally thereafter.

The AAM guidelines have additional important and unique directives, the foremost being a clear direction that “museums should not acquire any object that, to their knowledge, has been illegally exported from its country of modern discovery or the country where it was last legally owned.” Thus, where the AAMD guidelines could be read to permit acquisition of an object that is known to have been illegally removed from its country of modern discovery if it was done before 1970, the AAM guidelines would not countenance such acquisition. Also, the AAM guidelines call on museums to make available the ownership history of their existing collections of archaeological materials and ancient art and conduct research on objects in their collections that have an incomplete or uncertain provenance.

Though all of these guidelines are non-binding and unenforceable in court, they are a genuine step in the right direction in the effort to curb the illegal and unscientific looting of archaeological materials and ancient art and the illicit trade of these objects in the worldwide marketplace. In particular, recognizing November 1970 as a watershed date — while it does not resolve the issue for objects obtained before 1970 — puts into place a higher standard for future behavior in line with the modern ethos regarding the collection of antiquities. The art world should anticipate self-policing and enforcement steps by the AAMD and the AAM. As the AAMD guidelines point out, “[m]ember museums may, however, need to seek legal advice with regard to specific acquisitions.”