There are ethical guidelines set by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) that provide best practices for museum acquisitions of antiquities. Such guidelines do not have any force of law behind them. Some museums follow these rules to the letter, some may unintentionally violate these best practices, and some, like the J Paul Getty Museum, have knowingly tossed these ethics into the wind and ignored them.
In 1988, the Getty Museum in California purchased a 7 1/2 ft marble and limestone statue thought to depict the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The $18 million acquisition was the last purchase in a series of transactions that saw the statue travel from Italy to Los Angeles. When the statue arrived at the Getty, there was still dirt on the base of it and it had been recently broken into 3 pieces (so it could be smuggled out of Italy easily). However, the curator who had directed the purchase, Marion Truth, assured the museum administrators that the artifact was completely legal.
There is much evidence that this statue had in fact been taken out of Italy after 1970, putting it in violation of the 1970 UNESCO agreement, AAMD’s guidelines, and Italy’s own cultural heritage laws saying that anything that came out of Italian ground after 1909 belonged to Italy. In addition to the recent fractures and dirt, the object came with a paper-thin false provenance that could have been torn though if a little bit of research had been done. The statue appeared to come out of nowhere, no antiquities expert had ever seen or heard of it before, increasing the suspicion that the object had been looted.
The statue was eventually returned to Italy in 2010, the last of about 50 other looted objects that were in the Getty collection. But the 22 years between acquisition and repatriation were not smooth sailing. After making their claim to the statue, the Italian government increased the pressure against the Getty by indicting the curator Marion Truth with violation of their patrimony laws. This was an unprecedented turn of events which ended up uncovering a large number of connections between the Getty and black market antiquities dealers, leading to many arrests and convictions.
I think what is most striking about this case study is not the blatant violation of museum ethics by the Getty, but how the case was handled by the Italian government. In international repatriation claims, museums have all the power to ignore claims from other countries. There is very little that can be done to museums, as the AAMD and UNESCO rules do not have much power behind them. The extreme move the Italians took in seeking prosecution, one of the first for a repatriation claim such as this, shows how countries must resort to drastic measures to reclaim parts of their heritage that they desire. We must find ways to return the power to the countries that have lost their heritage and would like it back. Loan agreements and partnerships between museums and countries would be a great first step.
Chasing Aphrodite: These guys wrote a whole book on this case, I have just scratched the surface.