Return Policy

January 12th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

When it comes to voluntarily repatriating art, who pays the shipping?

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The Responsibility Project

Museums demonstrated a lot of goodwill at the end of 2010, voluntarily returning artwork that they’d realized belonged elsewhere. And while returns in the art world are so often announced with a triumphant press release (to gloss over the real story, which is often one of intrigue and Customs Enforcement officials), some of the stories that marked 2010 seemed to stem from a genuine desire to return property to its rightful place.

For instance, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts discovered that a 620-year-old embroidered tapestry, which it had purchased from a New York City art gallery in 1946, had likely been stolen from the drawer of a church in Trent, a town in northern Italy, during World War II. Torie Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance, refused to speculate on how the work ended up in New York, but she did tell The Boston Globe that her satisfaction came from knowing the museum made the right decision.

A similar feel-good story came out of Ohio last week when the Toledo Museum of Art announced it was returning an 18th-century porcelain centerpiece purchased in 1956 from a New York Gallery to its rightful home in Dresden, Germany.  “Nereid Sweetmeat Stand,” which depicts a mermaid holding a shell and is part of a 2,200-piece dinner set commissioned in 1737, had been hidden by the Dresden Museum in a castle during World War II (it had been on loan since 1920 by the family who owned it).  The Toledo Museum of Art had purchased the centerpiece for about a third of its estimated $300,000 (Customs officials value it at more than $1 million).

But as another recent case demonstrates, if you’re a museum returning art that wasn’t stolen, repatriating it isn’t quite as clear cut as packing it gently in a box and sending it off. 

As The New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Museum wanted to return about 4,500 pre-Columbian artifacts to Costa Rica that it had acquired from the estate of Brooklyn railroad magnate Minor C. Keith in 1934. The twist: The artifacts aren’t considered stolen, since Keith took them before Costa Rica enacted a law in 1938 restricting the export of archaeological artifacts, and the Brooklyn Museum is apparently keeping the best works for itself. According to the Times, “the museum simply decided that its closets were too full, overstuffed with items acquired during an era when it aimed to become the biggest museum in the world. So it offered the pieces to the National Museum of Costa Rica, which accepted but has yet to raise the $59,000 needed to pack and ship the first batch.”

The Association of Art Museum Directors publishes its policies on the practice of “deaccessioning,” which is essentially the sale or transfer of works in the collection for the purpose of improving the museum or adding to its collection, but it doesn’t take a stance on who pays for returns (this is customarily negotiated in private between museums). Brooklyn Museum spokeswoman Sally Williams responded to our email query about its own policy by responding that the museum has no formal policy, but that “…if the transfer is being made out of our spirit of collegiality and cooperation, we would expect that an institution that was really interested in the works would be willing to take on the responsibility for transportation.”   

At first blush, it might seem that the Brooklyn Museum should simply pick up the tab for shipping, since it plans on keeping the most valuable pieces and had already attempted deaccessioning the remaining works to other institutions including the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. However, since the National Museum of Costa Rica appears to regard the gift as a windfall, maybe it’s more appropriate for them to pay the shipping costs.  

What’s your stance on the return of the artifacts? Since the Brooklyn Museum is culling its collection simply to clear storage space – and not returning items that are considered stolen – is it correct to send the artifacts C.O.D.? Or should it offer to split the shipping costs? In general, who should bear the cost of repatriating art and artifacts?