Professor Colin Renfrew: "Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: A Time for Clarity"


Thursday January 15, 2009
Baisley Powell Elebash Recital Hall CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York
7:00PM – 7:45PM


Lord Colin Renfrew, sponsored by SAFE, speaking to an enthusiastic audience, named museums and individuals responsible for enabling the illicit trafficking of antiquities for profit. Since the UNESCO Convention, provenance of antiquities should reach back to at least 1970. “Many great museums,” says the world renown archaeologist, “including the Metropolitan, have chosen in the past to turn a blind eye to this ruling.” During Philippe de Montebello’s 30-year tenure as Director of the Met, numerous pieces where acquired with questionable provenance. Many were purchased by the museum itself, and many were gifts, most notable of the Met trustee Shelby White, a wealthy private collector. “Approximately 84 percent of the objects appearing in ‘Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection,’ were likely to have been derived from looted archaeological contexts.”

Renfrew, in welcoming the Met’s new acquisition code based upon recent Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) guidelines, urges de Montebello’s newly appointed successor, Thomas P. Campbell, to set new standards in antiquities acquisitions, as well as to question the origin of gifts from patrons such as Shelby White. The Met is to be congratulated for its progress so far in the return of questionable antiquities to their countries of origin. An important role model, the Met has considerable influence on museum practices worldwide.

Renfrew further points out that The Museum of Fine Art in Boston is a major offender in illicit acquisitions. This museum is reluctantly returning some of its looted antiquities, while stubbornly holding onto others. The top half of the statue, “The Weary Herakles,” was presumably excavated and stolen from Turkey in 1980. It obviously matches the second half of the statue on view at the Antalya Museum.

The Getty on the other hand,” says Renfrew,” is showing both by its adoption of a clear and rigorous acquisition code based upon UNESCO’s 1970 Rule, and its willingness to return known looted antiquities, well over 40 pieces, back to their homelands, that it has already embraced the responsible spirit required of today’s world class museums.”

Professor Lord Renfrew holds new hope for preserving cultural heritage throughout the world, and praises SAFE for raising the consciousness of ordinary citizens who may be unaware of this travesty. “Museums and individuals alike must be held accountable for making possible the illicit trade and the theft of cultural identity.”

—Phyllis Halterman

“Prof. Renfrew was a knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. He integrated both archaeology and the law which I thought was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed his lecture.”

Leila Amineddoleh, attorney and lecture attendee