After Returning Looted Antiquities, Dallas Museum of Art Scores Long Term Loan of Etruscan Treasures

Here’s one of my favorite pages on the Dallas Museum of Art’s website. It’s a new place where the museum lists all of the works of art it has deaccessioned since director Maxwell Anderson took the reigns of the museum and issued in a new era of transparency. In addition to the mosaic that was returned to Turkey last year, you’ll find a few Greek and Etruscan objects that have been returned to their rightful owners. Click on each of the objects and you discover salacious back stories. Like this one, Calyx krater, a simply Greek ceramic from south Italy that dates back to the 4th century BC. According to the DMA’s website, the piece was purchased from Gianfranco Becchina. Who’s Becchina, you ask? Well, the DMA spells it out:

Gianfranco Becchina is a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents. In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.

And Becchina isn’t the only shady character that has done work with the Dallas Museum of Art over the years. Click on an Etruscan terracotta sculptural relief from c.500 B.C., and you’ll find out that the DMA acquired the object through Giacomo Medici. A seemingly respectable name, but it turns out the Medici’s in the 1990s had evolved from grand cultural patrons to cultural thieves:

In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.

Then there’s Edoardo Almagià, a New York-based antique dealer who sold the DMA this lovely Greek urn at some point before U.S. Customs officials raided his apartment in 2006.

You may have heard about some of these guys. The New York Times has reported on the Italian governments’ aggressive efforts to clamping down on art smuggling, which has caused something of an international hub bub, as museum’s fear their collections will be called into question and governments haggle over problems of extradition.

But last year, when Anderson announced the museum’s new DMX cultural exchange program by signing an agreement with the Republic of Turkey, he set the tone for how the museum would handle these kinds of issues. Turkey has been the most aggressive country seeking the return of looted antiquities, which has irked some museums. But at Anderson’s lead, the DMA reached out to Turkey and voluntarily alerted them of smuggled items in their collection. Now he has done the same thing with the Italian objects, returning them to their country of origin, and establishing good relations in the process.

This isn’t all about being a good cultural neighbor, however. Just as with the Turkey agreement, the DMA will benefit with high-profile art loans as a kind of quid pro quo for the restoration of the looted objects. Beginning tomorrow and continuing through 2017, the DMA will be the first institution in the world to exhibit items excavated from an Etruscan tomb in Spina. It is a coup for the museum and one that underscores the shrewdness of the strategy. At today’s auction house prices, the DMA could never hope to acquire objects of this significance for their permanent collection. However a series of long-term loans acquired through the building up of relationships between various counties means that the DMA will expand its offerings without needing to expand the coffers necessary for growing collections.

You can find the press release about the exchange below, but first, this sentence jumped out at me in the press release: “The transfer was completed in collaboration with the Foundation for the Arts and Munger Fund, which held ownership of three of the works for the benefit of the Museum.”

If you have read the November issue of D Magazine, you will have learned (or been reminded) that the Foundation for the Arts is a private non-profit foundation established in 1963 to hold ownership of the collection of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which merged with the DMA in that year. The purpose was to protect the MCA’s contemporary art collection, a reasonable concern considering that one of the reasons the MCA was founded just a few years earlier was because of a protest against a contemporary art show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts featuring Pablo Picasso and others whom some local ladies-who-lunch (and chat about McCarthy) deemed “communist.” In short, private foundations can protect challenging art from a skittish public. But through the years, the role of the Foundation expanded, including, we now know, acquiring art works through shady dealers that were looted from their country of origin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insinuating that the Foundation for the Arts was knowing involved in the illegal art trade. Many museums were taken in by these dealers, and there were even instances of major museums employing curators who were later taken to court over allegations of shady dealings in antiquities. But this little detail does highlight the complications that arise when you have a private foundation acting on behalf of a public museum. Besides winning an important loan for the DMA, the Anderson-era has welcomed in some refreshing transparency.

Here’s the release:

etrusc

FIRST DISPLAY OF EXCAVATED ETRUSCAN TOMB

TO OPEN AT THE DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART TOMORROW

EXHIBITION PART OF ONGOING COLLABORATION WITH ITALY

LAUNCHED THROUGH DMA’S CULTURAL EXCHANGE PROGRAM

DMA and Italian Officials Sign Agreement to Continue Long-Term Partnership

October 31, 2013 Dallas, TX — A set of art objects from a 5th-century B.C. burial site in Spina, Italy, which have never previously been displayed or loaned, will go on view at the Dallas Museum of Art tomorrow. The exhibition is the first display of this excavated tomb since its discovery almost a century ago, and features four Attic red-figure vases, dating from 470–400 B.C., a 5th-century B.C. silver fibula, a bronze statuette from the latter half of the 5th century B.C., and an alabaster vessel. The works will remain on view through 2017 in the Museum’s second floor galleries.

The group was discovered together in the summer of 1926 in a grave at Spina, one of 4,000 tombs excavated in the ancient Etruscan city since 1922. The works will make their world debut at the DMA as part of the Museum’s cultural exchange program, DMX, which is designed to establish collaborations for the loans of works of art and sharing of expertise in conservation, exhibitions, education, and new media. The program promotes cross-cultural dialogue and provides audiences at home and abroad with expanded access to artworks that span time period and culture.

This collaboration with Italian authorities is part of an ongoing partnership that began in 2012, when the DMA transferred ownership of six objects in its collection to Italy in recognition of evidence attesting to their being looted several years earlier. The transfer was completed in collaboration with the Foundation for the Arts and Munger Fund, which held ownership of three of the works for the benefit of the Museum. Those objects, which include three kraters, dating from the 4th century B.C., a pair of bronze shields from the 6th century B.C., and a head of an antefix, an architectural decoration for a tiled roof, dating from the 6th century B.C., remain on long-term view at the DMA. The loan of art from Spina marks the official signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Italian Ministry of Culture, which emphasizes continued collaboration between the Museum and Italian officials.

“We are honored to cement a partnership with our Italian colleagues and grateful for the opportunity to bring this group of works from Spina to audiences in Dallas and to those visiting our city. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to display these objects together, and to highlight their combined role in ancient funerary practices,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Museum’s Eugene McDermott Director. “In our digital society, access to cultural knowledge is ever growing. The DMX program builds on the possibilities of access by nurturing a collaborative approach to the exchange and presentation of artworks and expanding dialogue on cultural heritage—not just among cultural institutions but with our communities through the exhibition of a diverse range of artworks.”

The Italian Minister for Cultural Assets, Activities and Tourism, Massimo Bray, announced: “I am particularly pleased about the successful outcome of the negotiations that led to the return of six objects whose provenance was in question. I am, moreover, satisfied that we are able to offer a splendid long-term loan from the tomb and contents found in the Necropolis of Spina, now conserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Ferrara, which will offer to the viewing public in the United States a group of important archaeological objects in context. While thanking the Director of the DMA, Maxwell Anderson, for his high moral approach in resolving the problem, I would also like to take this occasion to thank the persons, on both sides, whose tireless work contributed to the signing of this important Cultural Agreement. ”

Under Anderson’s leadership, the DMA has expanded its focus on access through a number of initiatives in addition to the DMX program. Through its DMA Friends membership program, which the Museum launched in January 2012, anyone who wishes to join the Museum may do so for free. The membership includes opportunities for increased access to Museum programs and staff through an à la carte rewards system determined by active participation. Earlier this year, the DMA received an IMLS grant to research opportunities to extend the program to other institutions, including the Denver Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The DMA has also expanded its conservation program with the opening of a new conservation studio and gallery, which focuses on new research opportunities and allows audiences to view the conservation process live through a large glass wall. The Museum also previously launched the Laboratory for Museum Innovation with seed capital to develop collaborative pilot projects in the areas of collection access, visitor engagement, and digital publishing.

The DMX program was launched in October 2012 with the appointment of Sabiha Al Khemir as the Museum’s first Senior Advisor of Islamic Art. Al Khemir, the founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, supports Anderson and senior staff in building the Museum’s DMX partnerships. Last December, the Museum signed a memorandum of understanding with the Turkish Director General for Cultural Heritage and Museums, O. Murat Süslü, marking the first initiative of the program. Al Khemir and Anderson are continuing to travel worldwide to further the Museum’s connections with the great collections of Islamic art. They are presently in conversations with officials from Indonesia as well as several other countries.

 

About the Burial Objects

The objects come from Tomb 512 of the necropolis of the ancient Etruscan city of Spina. The city was located at the mouth of the River Po, and its cemeteries were located on the top of some coastal strips of land created by river debris. The cemeteries were in two different areas: Valle Pega and Valle Trebba. This tomb was located at Valle Trebba. The set of grave goods delineate the social status of the deceased person and reaffirm the person’s familial role in the community. The objects on view include:

  • an oinochoe (wine jug) by the Shuvalov Painter. The ceramic Attic red-figure oinochoe from 435–430 B.C. depicts the mythical figure Polynices offering a necklace to Eriphyle, who is seated before him;
  • an oinochoe by the Eretria Painter. The ceramic Attic red-figure oinochoe from 470 B.C. depicts a woman running to the left;
  • an Etruscan silver fibula from the second half of the 5th century B.C.;
  • an Etruscan bronze statuette from the second half of the 5th century B.C.; and
  • an alabaster alabastron, a container for perfume and unguents.
  • a kylix (drinking cup) by the Ferrara Painter. The ceramic Attic red-figure kylix from the end of the 5th century B.C. shows a hero or god, perhaps Attis, standing by a tree;
  • a bell krater by the Sini Ferrara Painter. The ceramic Attic red-figure krater from 420–400 B.C. shows Theseus punishing Sinis for his cruel ruse against passersby; two ephebes are on the other side of the vase;

 

About the Dallas Museum of Art

Established in 1903, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) ranks among the leading art institutions in the country and is distinguished by its innovative exhibitions and groundbreaking educational programs. At the heart of the Museum and its programs is its global collection, which encompasses more than 22,000 works and spans 5,000 years of history, representing a full range of world cultures. Located in the vibrant Arts District of downtown Dallas, the Museum welcomes more than half a million visitors annually and acts as a catalyst for community creativity, engaging people of all ages and backgrounds with a diverse spectrum of programming, from exhibitions and lectures to concerts, literary events, and dramatic and dance presentations. In January 2013, the DMA returned to a free general admission policy and launched DMA Friends, the first free museum membership program in the country.

The Dallas Museum of Art is supported, in part, by the generosity of DMA Partners and donors, the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Texas Commission on the Arts.