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For years, the Greek government has tried to get the British Museum to return to Athens various antiquities -- most famously the Elgin Marbles -- that Greece and others believe were inappropriately removed in the early 19th century. And this year, two of the most prominent museums in the United States -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum -- find themselves in increasingly messy debates over whether some priceless items in their collections were once stolen from collections in Italy.
With less public attention, three universities are enmeshed in international disputes over significant holdings in their collections. Italian authorities maintain that two ancient Greek vases at the Princeton University Art Museum were illegally taken from Italy. Peru is threatening to sue Yale University for the recovery of artifacts from Machu Picchu. And a group of terrorism victims who have been suing Iran for damages are now trying to obtain ownership of invaluable objects currently in a museum at the University of Chicago.
Debates over the ownership of objects in museum collections are not new, of course. And many American college museums have returned to Native American tribes artifacts or bones that were collected over the years. Some experts believe that the cases in the news this month suggest that some academic museums may soon have their hands full with international ownership disputes.
"The visibility of these cases means that more people are going to be dealing with them, and we all need to be talking about this," said Lisa Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries.
Others warned that universities and other museums shouldn't assume that having dealt with the issue of Native American artifacts will allow them to handle these conflicts with ease. "It's some of the same core ethical issues, but the international context makes it much, much more complicated," said Alex Barker, chair of the ethics committee of the Society for American Archaeology, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not that panel.
The cases at the three universities show some of the complexities in that the disputes all involve art that is of great scholarly and artistic importance -- and to the extent that there are "bad guys" in these stories, they are people who are either not at the universities, not alive, or both. But that doesn't mean the universities don't face a messy situation.
Yale, for example, faces the possibility of a suit over artifacts found at Machu Picchu, which had been unstudied for centuries when a Yale team -- alerted by local farmers -- started working there in 1911. Hiram Bingham III, who later became governor of Connecticut, led a series of projects that brought thousands of artifacts to Yale.
Peru's government this month announced that it would sue Yale if the university does not return the artifacts. The announcement ( available online in Spanish) said that Peru had been working for some time with Yale to find a voluntary solution, but that Yale had not been willing to return the collection. Peruvian authorities have said that Bingham received permission to take the artifacts for up to 18 months for study, but that they should have been returned long ago.
Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said that discussions are continuing with Peru, and that Yale's goal "is an agreement under which Yale would voluntarily return a portion of its collection to Peru and collaborate with Peru on exhibitions of the artifacts in Peru and the United States."
Some of the artifacts are visible in a major exhibit on Machu Picchu currently on view at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.
The case involving Princeton is in some ways similar to the disputes involving the Metropolitan and the Getty, in that allegations focus on whether objects purchased by the museums were in fact legally obtained by their former owners.
The vases in question at Princeton's museum are an Athenian red-figure wine-cooler (called a psykter), dating to 510-500 B.C, and an Apulian loutrophoros of about 330 B.C. (The former is the second image from the top on this page from the museum's Web site.) Princeton officials say they have no evidence that the vases were inappropriately obtained. Susan Taylor, director of the museum, said that the vases were purchased "in good faith."
Princeton's museum goes out of its way to draw attention to the issue of provenance -- or tracing the ownership of the items in its collection -- with a special section of its Web site. And the university notes that when an investigation of a Roman monument that the university purchased in 1985 raised questions about the legality of its export from Italy, the university in 2002 returned the monument to Italy.
Chicago's dispute is the most unusual because pressure is being raised by a third party -- not the country of origin. The university's Oriental Institute has had on loan for study since 1937 tens of thousands of ancient tablets, which record how ancient Persia was run as long ago as 500 B.C. Some tablets were returned at various points along the way, while Chicago scholars published extensively on them, and Chicago last year made the first return of tablets since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
A group of Americans who were injured in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem in 1997 -- an attack that was linked to Iran -- have successfully sued Iran for millions of dollars in damages, but since that country will not pay, the group is going after the tablets that remain at Chicago, which are worth millions of dollars.
The university is fighting this idea in court, where hearings continue. Beth Harris, general counsel for the university, said in a statement: "We're sympathetic with the victims of the terrorists, but the law does not allow recovery under these circumstances."
The universities involved in these disputes all declined to have in-depth interviews about the collections or pieces under scrutiny. And experts said that the issues facing these institutions don't always yield easy answers.
"We have to understand that things continue to have potency in multiple contexts," said Peter Welsh, an associate professor of anthropology who is on the board of the Council for Museum Anthropology. "The same thing can be important to multiple people for different reasons. So acknowledging that something means a lot to me because of its potential for contributing to knowledge may also mean acknowledging that the greater claim may be one that comes out of the necessity for preserving cultures."
Welsh and others said that seemingly simple principles are important, such as knowing the relevant laws that apply to the export and import of objects at the time that they were brought into the country. But he added that there are so many changes that a case-by-case basis may be the only way to go. "The lawyers have to thrash it out. So much of it depends on the geopolitics of the time."
Barker, who is vice president for collections and research at the Milwaukee Public Museum, said, "Title is a contested subject and many collections may not have as clear a title as they think." He said that publicity over recent cases has prompted many countries to change their laws and/or the dates that they apply, such that it may be "almost impossible to be current with all of the rules all of the time."
Hanover, of the college museum group, said that she believed higher education museums today are extremely careful about checking on the background of any object they obtain. "They need to be accountable, and I don't know a museum that isn't making good faith efforts," added Hanover, director of the Berman Museum of Art, at Ursinus College.
But she said that in many cases, "provenance is murky," and institutions may well have obtained objects 100 years ago when "archaeologists just took the fruits of their labor with them."
Hanover said that her inclination in such cases is that the objects should go back to the country where they came from. "To me, if it's at all murky, and there's a clear owner, you return it," she said. But she added that in some cases where there are uncertainties about an object's history, those uncertainties may extend to those making a claim on it. "Why should the onus always be on the university where the object resides?" she asked.
It seems clear to many that these issues are not going away any time soon, and that it's not clear that there will be one pattern of handling them. Says Welsh of Arizona State: "Many significant things have been returned from various collections, but Greece still doesn't have the marbles."