The Exercise of “Professional Judgment” in the Acquisition of Antiquities Without Provenance

Posted on April 6, 2011


What are buyers required to do before purchasing an ancient object?  Just what is “due diligence” anyway?

In a Huffington Post article on the controversy surrounding the Cleveland Museum’s 2004 purchase of a sculpture of Apollo (the “Lizard-Slayer” sculpture), attributed to Praxiteles, NY-based lawyer William Pearlstein, explains:

Whatever due diligence is, it’s not easy. “There are several levels of inquiry that a prudent dealer, museum curator or collector should undertake,” said William Pearlstein, a New York City lawyer who represents the National Association of Dealers of Ancient and Oriental Art. Among these, he claimed, is researching published material, such as academic journals, auction houses and museum catalogues, as well as the New York- and London-based Art Loss Register (where valuable reported stolen objects are listed). Prospective buyers should also see import and export licenses for objects — were they legal to take out of the source country, were they legal to bring into the U.S. — and obtain a history of the piece’s ownership (known as the provenance) “as far back as you can in the chain of ownership.” They might also contact the relevant cultural ministry in the country from which the object originally came “to find out if the piece is thought of as stolen by the source country.”

This is a clear, concise synopsis of the prevailing view of what constitutes “due diligence” in the context of antiquity collecting.  The article notes that sometimes the fruits of such searches are not helpful, and that in other cases there is no paperwork at all, and museums are required to make judgment calls:

Another problem arises if there is no paper trail (import and export licenses, documentation of where it came from and who has owned it since it was first discovered): was the antiquity brought out of the source country prior to the UNESCO treaty of 1970, when a certain level of documentation was less common, or more recently smuggled? A very high percentage of ancient objects come with no paperwork — perhaps an entire collection of antiquities was brought out of somewhere with a receipt for the lot, but later the collection was dispersed with individual objects going hither and yon with no identifying source material — or very minimal contextual information. The Manhattan-based Association of Art Museum Directors addressed this problem last summer in a report on the acquisition of archaeological material, concluding that “[i]n such cases, museums must use their professional judgment in determining whether to proceed with the acquisition.”

Read the full Is It Possible to “Collect” Antiquities These Days? at the Huffington Post.