Provenance of a museum's Greek exhibit is questioned, fueling a debate
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Provenance of a museum's Greek exhibit is questioned, fueling a debate
This exhibition, explores an expressive period of Greek art from 900 to 700 BCE that is characterized by balance, symmetry, and rhythm, all aimed at refining the concept of beauty down to its elemental core.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, was riding high as “From Chaos to Order,” an exhibition of ancient Greek art, became its first major traveling show in years, making stops at museums in Florida and South Carolina before preparing to head west.

“The idea was to look at the origins of Greek art in a new way,” said Michael Bennett, the former St. Petersburg curator who organized the show of works from the Geometric period, circa 900 to 700 B.C. “We felt it had something new to say about Greek art.”

But earlier this year, when the exhibition was scheduled to travel to the Denver Art Museum, the staff there balked because many of the 57 artifacts lacked detailed provenances. None of the antiquities, on loan from businessperson and collector Sol Rabin, were known to have been looted, but some had been purchased from sellers who have been accused of handling stolen antiquities in the past, Denver museum officials noted.

The Denver museum had recently had its own scandal, when it returned four artifacts to Cambodia. Its director, Christoph Heinrich, suggested postponing the Florida exhibition in the hope that the provenance issues could be resolved.

“I am sure you are familiar with how the changing legal and ethical standards and perceptions of collecting and displaying antiquities are front and center for many world culture museums today, including ours,” Heinrich wrote to officials at St. Petersburg. He described the show as a risk, noting that Denver had “experienced recent negative press for a small number of our legacy collections and associations with red flag dealers.”

The show never made it to Denver. Two months later, Bennett, the curator in St. Petersburg, was put on leave. A month after that he was fired.

The exact circumstances of Bennett’s dismissal, which dismayed his supporters in St. Petersburg, remain unclear. Museum officials declined to detail their reasoning, saying they could not discuss personnel matters, but in a statement they stressed the importance of adhering to the highest industry standards in a changing world and said that they had started a complete provenance review of the museum’s collection.

The episode highlights a wider debate now rippling through the art world.

While many museums once actively pursued ancient items with little concern for their ownership histories, curators in recent decades have come to embrace stricter standards designed to ensure that antiquities they acquire or display have not been looted or stolen. In recent years, scores of artifacts have been returned to countries around the world after museums acknowledged they had been misled in transactions, or had not made sufficient inquiries about the artworks’ origins.

Bennett said in an interview that he was never given a good reason for his dismissal, but was told at one point his leave was related to the issue of reaccreditation to a museum association, without further elaboration. He said that his office was sealed with tape and that he was escorted from the building. A letter from the museum’s attorney to his lawyer about his dismissal, which was obtained by The New York Times, noted that as an at-will employee, he could be fired at any time without cause but added that “if cause were required to terminate Dr. Bennett’s employment, MFA would have more than sufficient grounds to do so, as Dr. Bennett well knows.” Bennett said that, despite his repeated requests, he was never informed of any cause and was never given a chance to discuss it.

A board member, Robert Drapkin, said that he believed the provenance issue was a factor but that he was told there was more than one reason for the dismissal.

Some experts suggested that it had been reckless for Bennett and the museum to mount the exhibition without having done more to investigate the origins of some of the objects.

But Bennett, his supporters and several other antiquities curators said that they feared the dismissal was an overreaction to the concerns raised in Denver. Several docents, current and former board members and others associated with the museum said that they were dismayed by his firing, and two donors have cited his dismissal as the reason they are withdrawing planned gifts of antiquities to the museum.

“The response was exaggerated,” said Belinda Dumont, a board member at the St. Petersburg museum. “I think the hysteria about provenance is deeply misguided because the items are valuable to be shown to the public.”

In a statement, Anne-Marie Russell, who became the museum’s director and CEO after the exhibition began touring, and Piers Davies, the chair of its board of trustees, described their efforts to comply with best practices in the field.

“It is our responsibility, as a museum, to safeguard and preserve works of art — objects that represent the highest aspirations of humankind — in perpetuity,” the statement said. “Yet we do so amid the reality of a dynamic and constantly evolving world.”

Bennett’s supporters note that the artifacts involved in this case are not known to have been looted. But by modern standards, they exist in a kind of provenance limbo without the sort of prior ownership histories that most museums now seek when acquiring ancient objects but that many had not always demanded in the past as they built their collections.

Some of the Greek pieces drew heightened scrutiny because of the dealers or galleries who had sold them. A few came from Robert Hecht, a prominent antiquities expert who investigators say often dealt in stolen objects. He died in 2012.

“There is absolutely no logic that because a dealer is claimed to be a red flag dealer that all things he sold are red flags,” Rabin, the owner of the works in question, said in an interview.

Several major U.S. museums with antiquities collections hold items that they, or a donor, acquired from Hecht, who had been one of the world’s leading dealers in ancient artifacts.

But there is no question that the standards for museums have evolved.

In recent decades museums have agreed to best-practice guidelines not to acquire an object without clear, documented evidence that it had either left its country of origin before 1970, or had been legally exported after 1970. Guidelines for museums accepting short-term loans are somewhat more relaxed than for acquisitions — and in some cases even encourage the exhibition of works with incomplete histories because it might spur people with new information to come forward. But the guidelines also say museums should research rigorously and consider the risks before going ahead with loans.

Most of the 57 items in the St. Petersburg exhibition lacked evidence that they were already outside Greece by 1970, according to the Denver analysis.

With so many questions about the history of the artifacts, it was surprising, said Elizabeth Marlowe, the director of the museum studies program at Colgate University, that Bennett “would lend his scholarly imprimatur to this collection, which is still in private hands, and display it repeatedly in museums.”

Before going to St. Petersburg in 2018, Bennett had worked for many years at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he was viewed as a leading U.S. expert in the field of Greek and Roman art. But two of his purchases there also drew scrutiny.

A Greek bronze statue of Apollo, which the museum still holds, had a patchy provenance and an ancient Roman portrait of Drusus Minor had to be returned to Italy. Bennett said he had only agreed to buy the Greek statue after scientific tests showed that it had been excavated more than a century ago. He also contributed to the research that led to the return of the Roman artifact.

Since Bennett’s firing in Florida, two fellow antiquities curators have spoken out on his behalf. Michael Padgett, former curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, wrote to the board of trustees in St. Petersburg, praising Bennett.

And Carlos Picon, the former head curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, said in an interview that Bennett should not have been fired, but should have been told what the issue was “and given a chance to explain and fix it.”

Neither the Rollins Museum of Art, in Winter Park, Florida, or the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, where the exhibition toured, raised issues about the loaned items.

Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural heritage issues and a professor at DePaul University College of Law, said that the questions about the artifacts went beyond red flags. “What’s higher than red?” she asked.

She said these signs of caution are not necessarily evidence of illegality; just that the organizers should have done more due diligence.

Rabin, who is currently chair of the Ancient Art Committee at the Harvard Art Museums, said his collection of Greek art, which runs to some 700 pieces, was built up over several decades, with the advice of Bennett and David Mitten, an emeritus professor of classical art and archaeology at Harvard University, who died last year. He said that two of the objects in the show had also been on loan recently to other major museums.

Rabin said he had not asked dealers he worked with for full provenance information, but had sought clear assurances objects had not been stolen.

In dealing with Hecht, Rabin said: “I would look him in the eye. He would say, ‘No, these are fine. These are legitimate pieces,’ so I purchased them.”

Bennett said the reality is that for decades ancient objects changed hands without any of the vetting that is now considered routine. As a result, he said, there are many legitimate objects without established ownership histories but which should not be considered looted.

The better approach, he suggested, would be to openly exhibit items with gaps in their provenance in ways that foster scholarship but also invite wider scrutiny.

“People often talk about orphaned art,” he said. “I believe they need homes. I believe it’s a good thing we know where they are and what they are for us to understand them better, and then we can have a discussion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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