Assembling shows and permanent collections at major galleries is a much dicier calling than it used to be. The troubling possibility that art looted by the Nazis might be hanging on their walls has prompted curators to look harder at what they buy, borrow and accept as gifts. The new sensitivity about art uprooted during the Second World War has spread to other kinds of collections as well. The first piece of art repatriated by the National Gallery of Canada was a limestone relief sculpture of a holy man, called Figure of an Arhat, dating from about AD 700, given back to China in April. Exactly when that fragment was lopped off a Chinese cave temple wall isn’t known for sure, but gallery director Pierre Théberge suspects it was illicitly exported in the 1940s. “We returned it because we knew exactly where it came from,” he says. “It’s a very clear case.”
The standard applied by the gallery was a stringent one: give the artwork back if you know where it came from and are sure no legitimate authority approved its export. But Dan Rahimi, director of collections for the Royal Ontario Museum, which has one of the world’s great troves of Asian artifacts, says the National Gallery’s move does not set a standard—beyond showing how every case must be judged individually. “They were under no obligation to return it by law or by convention,” Rahimi says. “And I would add to that, the National Gallery of Canada does not collect much Chinese art anyway; it wasn’t an important part of their
collection, so they felt that they could give it back.”
The main rule book binding museums is the 1970 UNESCO convention that prohibits the trade in stolen and smuggled cultural objects. But it applies only to countries that sign on, and only then to art and artifacts illegally exported after the country became a signatory. Rahimi notes that China signed in 1989—long after the vast majority of the ROM’s remarkable collection was accumulated. What about the objects that were taken from China during wars 7 and upheaval in the first half of
the 20th century? “That’s
how a lot of the stuff left China, there’s no question about that,” Rahimi says. “The fact is that every museum in the world acquired things from countries when they were unstable. Until recendy, that wasn’t an issue. We have to consider those things on a case-by-case basis.” Such considerations are now a big part of the daily curatorial work of major museums. Currendy, the ROM is displaying treasures from a spectacular 1,800piece collection of Chinese and Middle East antiquities donated last year by philanthropist Joey Tanenbaum. Last month, a ROM curator went to Beijing to discuss the contents of the new collection with Chinese officials. No big issues came to light—but there were no assurances that China won’t raise any later. “They told us they will look into this,” Rahimi said. “They are interested.” It could be that Figure of an Arhat will not be the last Chinese treasure whose journey to Canada turns out to be a round-trip.
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