Cleveland Museum of Art Acquires Two Ancient Artifacts With Questionable Records

Posted on August 30, 2012


The Cleveland Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of two ancient artifacts has renewed controversy about how museums collect antiquities.

For museums, the practice of collecting antiquities has changed dramatically. High-profile lawsuits filed by countries demanding that museums return allegedly stolen antiquities prompted new acquisition standards from the Association of Art Museum Directors. These standards encourage member museums to acquire art the object was demonstrably in legitimate collections before 1970. These guidelines, however, allow museums to use their discretion.

The Cleveland Museum of Art used its discretion when it snatched up the two artifacts, a marble portrait from the time of Christ and a Mayan cylinder vessel. Although neither had a solid record dating earlier than 1970, the museum used its discretion to make an exception to the acquisition guidelines.

Some defend the use of discretion in acquiring artifacts as necessary for curators to develop their collections. Others disagree. According to History Professor Jenifer Neils, “buying poorly documented objects from a disreputable dealers is akin to looting an archaeological site and destroying the historical record.”