What’s a curator to do?

In the comments on yesterday’s entry about the museum raids, I noted that it was virtually impossible for a substantial collection in the United States to be built quickly out of provenanced antiquities because the demand far outstrips legitimate supply. Clutch asked:

So, are all the graduates of curating/gallery studies/museum studies doomed to careers of self-deception or outright fraud? Do you think anything can be done? If the legal/moral supply really is too small, and the demand is large, it strikes me that a “War on Drugs” approach of occasional prosecutions will work no better than… well, the War on Drugs. Do you see a practical course of action that could help?

Assuming the curator wants to work in the North America, there are two approaches I can think of which could help de-loot the system: 1) buy local, and 2) pursue long-term loans and travelling exhibits.

The lust for classical or exotic fureign antiquities seems to me a vestige of the Gilded Age parvenue attitude that prestige and class can be bought. Nowadays, there are all kinds of museums with a more narrow focus on local history.

There’s still a huge traffic in looted local antiquities, mind you, especially Native American and Civil War, but it would be easier to trace the provenance on such pieces and most importantly, to team up with legitimate archaeological excavations and arrange the display of their finds.

The money, though, is in long-term loans and travelling exhibits. This would work both with local antiquities under the control of government agencies (national parks, for instance) and tribal governments, and with other countries’ antiquities.

There are already established loan mechanisms between museums, and many countries with a surfeit of antiquities would doubtless be glad to negotiate long-term loans of stuff they have in storage or can ill-afford to preserve.

First there needs to be a serious culture shift, however. As things stand, curators and the collector class who populate museum boards have been more than content to rationalize their wallowing in the loot trade sty. The froo-froo talk about antiquities “belonging to the world” or worse, the patronizing “we can take care of it better than they can” excuses for trafficking in goods stolen at massive cost in site destruction and even human life, have to stop.

More on yesterday’s museum raids

The New York Times has more details on the busts: Four California Museums Are Raided.

At the center of the investigation are the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery, Jonathan Markell and his wife, Cari Markell, and Robert Olson, who is said in the search warrants to have smuggled looted antiquities out of Thailand, Myanmar and China.[…]

In more than 120 pages of search warrants and affidavits, the authorities described one typical transaction as follows:

The Markells would acquire an object from Mr. Olson and then offer it for sale to the undercover agent for about $1,500. They would provide an appraisal valuing the object at close to $4,990, an amount calculated to get around tax regulations requiring more documentation for bigger donations. The appraisals sometimes falsely stated that the estimated values were prepared at the Southeast Asian Museum in Bangkok. The Markells would then arrange for the donation of an object to a museum.

This is a typical scam. The dealer sells his stolen wares to collectors who then donate them to a museum. The dealer makes bank, the collector gets a fat tax break, and the museum gets goods they can hastily provenance as “donated from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Smythe, Esq”.

In this case, there was a nice tax fraud element too — when will people learn the lessons of Al Capone? — but even without the inflated estimates, this process often serves to obscure theft. It’s an antiquities laundering operation, basically, and everyone in the ring benefits.