New York Times and collecting

I greatly objected to a recent article in the New York Times about collector Shelby White, so I wrote a letter to the Editor. It won't be printed, but enough people seem to have copies of it by now that I might as well add it to my blog.

Dear Sir,

Re. Doubts on Donors' Collection Cloud Met Antiquities Project (10 December 2005)

The article the Times printed on Shelby White and her collection is rather surprising for such a great institution as the New York Times – it is neither news, nor was the innuendo fit to print.

Performing 'due diligence' before buying or selling works of art to check on their provenances – that they are neither looted not stolen - sounds like a wonderful idea, and so very easy. I wish it were.
A collector (not Mrs. White) asked me to look at a Roman copy of an Erechtheion Kore in an auction at Christies New York in May 2004. Although listed in the catalogue as Hadrianic, I felt the sculpture was Julio-Claudian, and by a sculptor from Reggio One (the area around Rome). This particular type of sculpture tends to come in sets of six, but the sets all differ in the execution of details such as drapery, and therefore each group is unique. I have seen the examples around the world, and published and lectured extensively on the type. The details of the carving of the Christies figure would have been enough to identify it, if it was a missing figure from a partial set we know. In theory I know every example of these Erechtheion Kore anywhere in the world, and I am one of the best people alive to have undertaken 'due diligence' on this statue.
I emailed photos of the statue to everyone I knew who had excavated similar figures in Greece, Italy and Albania; I received no answers. I emailed photos to everyone I knew who had similar figures in their museums or store; I received no answers. I emailed photos to a colleague highly placed in the Greek Archaeological Service; again, no answer. I made repeated efforts to ring the Italian Cultural Attaché in London, leaving my cell phone number and messages; nobody bothered to ring me back. I know many people who work on this type of Kore, and many people in archaeology, but I couldn't get a single reply out of them.
I told the auction house that no-one was objecting to the sale. The staff at Christie’s could not have been more helpful, and had been as keen as I had been to check that the piece was not stolen. They gave me free access to the piece before it went on display, and I was enthusiastically accompanied by a student of Jack L. Davis. The student included the statue in her Ph.D., which he approved, so the piece was presumably did not “have anything to do with looting, however indirect".
If I cannot perform "due diligence" on a figure type I know so well and specialize in, I do not understand how anyone else can be expected to do so. Did the collector buy the sculpture? No. Although I know of no other antiquity on which greater due diligence has been attempted, and although it was a fabulous piece that we wanted to buy, we also knew that the lack of long-term history meant that this copy of an Erechtheion Kore would be open to spurious allegations. Had I know at the time that we would have the approval of Jack L. Davis, we might well have bought it.

Your article seems to be suggesting, through the juxtaposition of the paragraphs, that Jane Waldbaum is saying that Mrs White has “hot items”. If this were true, I’m sure she would have said specifically which items were ‘hot’. Your article then goes on to claim that several items in their collection “appear to have been smuggled out of Italy” – the use of the word ‘appear’ clearly covering you against defamation. When it comes to art collectors, we seem to have waived the presumption of innocence, and are presuming everyone guilty without a trial. Provenance seems to be a term bandied about freely and poorly understood. There are very few antiquities that have a secure provenance anywhere, and that includes Italian museums; we tend to know where ‘great’ works come from, but rarely know specifically where anything else originated.

Although UNESCO and the UNESCO Convention are often bandied around by Restitutionists, who would like all art anywhere to go back to wherever they claim it originally came from, UNESCO itself is rapidly becoming a joke. Their refusal to help save art in Afghanistan is well known, preferring to see it destroyed by the Taliban because “it is not our policy to remove cultural property from its country of origin”. I know of several other examples of this UNESCO policy that would rather see art destroyed than temporarily exported, and so by now they are the last group I would bother to contact for help.

Mrs. White and her late husband did and do a great deal of good in archaeology. I should at this point admit that I am one of the many scholars who have benefited from help from Mrs White. Although I have not received one cent towards research or publication, Mrs. White has always been very generous with her advice and offers of assistance in the many campaigns I have been involved in – if I knew of cultural heritage in danger, I would ring Mrs. White before I rang UNESCO or anyone else, because I know that she would offer concrete help rather than platitudes.
Mrs White and her late husband were and continue to be generous benefactors in the field of ancient art, and I have had the privilege of knowing them for many years. As with many collections, there have been the odd problems with a couple of objects, but Mrs White has always been exemplary in sorting these problems out immediately. The quote from Mrs White that she makes her collection available to scholars, and would be more than willing to resolve the situation should anything she bought turn out to be suspect, is one I can vouch for. Later in the same article you confirm this yourselves, making it clear that Mr Levy and Mrs White have done their best to resolve the few cases where items in their collection have been proven to have been smuggled by dealers (not the collectors themselves).

Although some archaeologists have criticized the Levy-White collection - as well as all art collections – others, such as myself, have done the opposite. It is all too easy to criticize anonymously. There seems to be a lot of innuendo about the collection harming the Met in discussions with the Italians, but no clear facts, and all the accusations of wrong-doing your article mentions seem to be specifically directed at the Met and not at Mrs White.
I am a little confused how your writers have made a leap between the new Roman court at the Met, generously funded by Mr Levy and Mrs White, and this now suddenly becoming one of “one of the Met's biggest headaches”. I would love to know your source for this strange statement, as I cannot understand how having so much additional exhibition space would suddenly became a problem. As far as I understand, based on models and plans in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Met, the Courtyard will be used to display the Met’s collections, and not become some sort of private fiefdom for Mrs White as your article seems to imply.

I know most of the great antiquities collectors, and Mrs White is the most intelligent, most generous, and most honest. She shares her collection with scholars, lends it to museums, and promptly attempts to resolve any issues that might arise. The article you printed smears her unfairly, and it is a sad comment on the Times’ journalism.

Claims are regularly made these days that art collecting funds terrorism, and earns more for the Mafia or other dubious groups than drugs. During a recent visit to New York I noticed that public drug-use – particularly cocaine – seems to have become acceptable, but that collecting art now makes one a pariah. At a Benefit at the Met, the seats in the women’s lavatories were covered in white powder – I find that unacceptable, but your authors clearly worry more about the contents of the display cases which thankfully most of the revellers were ignoring.


Dr. Dorothy King

author “The Elgin Marbles” (Random House, 19 January 2006).

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