Ancient Art, Modern Crime ; A Respected Art Curator Goes on Trial Next Week for Allegedly Buying Stolen Antiquities. Hers Is Not the Only Major Museum under Scrutiny

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Museum directors hope the artwork they display will inspire visitors - but not necessarily to ask, "Did they steal that?" Yet that is precisely the question being asked at museums from New York's Metropolitan to California's Getty and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The former antiquities curator of the world's richest museum, the Getty, goes on trial next week in Italy on charges that she helped the museum acquire stolen art.

Armed with new information from the memoirs of a controversial art dealer, Italian authorities want at least 42 items in the Getty collection returned. New York's Met may have to return a "supergem" of its collection, a 6th century BC painted vase. They want at least 22 items back from Boston's MFA, including a prized 2,500-year-old Greek vase.

The revelations have stunned the public, but cries of "Gimme my stuff back!" have been resounding through the art world for centuries - mostly falling on deaf ears. Greece still wants the Elgin marbles back from Britain. (They were named for Lord Elgin, who chiseled them off the Parthenon two centuries ago.) Greece may well get them soon, say observers, because the political climate and national attitudes about culture have changed.

The bad old days of Indiana Jones-style museum acquisition no longer fly. Countries have laws regarding the exportation of artwork, and what's legal in one country may not be in another. And even if it's legal, it may not be ethical.

Many in the art world say the media blitz surrounding the Italian charges makes this a defining moment. From here on, says Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it will be more difficult for museums to have questionable items in their collections. "It's only going to get more and more embarrassing for them," he says, "as attorneys general start saying, 'What is a nonprofit organization doing with this kind of ethics?' "

Even more important, art professionals hope the publicity will educate a public that appears not to care about or understand the murky world of "provenance" - that is, where a particular artwork comes from. "If we were talking about the importation of material from native American dig sites to China or Japan, we would be very aware of the damage being done to the cultural patrimony of the United States," says Malcolm Bell, an archaeologist and art history professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The public needs to be aware of this problem so museum boards know what they think."

But provenance is tricky, even for experts, especially the provenance of antiquities. Paintings, drawings, and other works of fine art are generally well documented. But when it comes to items that could have come out of the ground yesterday or 3,000 years ago, how to proceed taxes the most experienced art connoisseur. A thriving black market for items looted from poorly guarded excavations or dug up and sold by impoverished locals keeps experts on the lookout for illicit treasures as well as forgeries. …

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