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How the MIA traces the ownership of old art

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The black market in stolen art and antiquities rivals drug trafficking and the slave trade. A recent report estimates $3 billion worth of contraband art is sold on the world market every year. Now, increasingly, the world's museums are being held responsible for verifying the legitimate origins of their collections.

Italian authorities claim the MIA has a two-foot Greek vase that was looted from Italian soil. So far the MIA has said only that it has not been contacted by the authorities. If they do contact the MIA, the museum states it will respond in an appropriate and responsible manner.

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Professor Mark Stansbury O'Donnell says the illegal art market is similar to drug trafficking. He says punishment alone can't quell it; something must be done to stem demand.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

That's been its track record, according to Professor Mark Stansbury O'Donnell, head of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas.  "The MIA's reputation as far as I know is very good," he says.

Stansbury O'Donnell specializes in Greek and Roman antiquities.  He thinks that the MIA's practices are generally above board.

"I've heard from colleagues that they're very forthright and active rather than stalling," says Stansbury O'Donnell. "I mean, a number of museums are hiding their head in the sand."

In the 1970s the museum world began enforcing ethical standards for acquiring art and artifacts. Imagine two simple vases, similar in style, made in the same Italian village by the same potter centuries ago. One was dug up 200 years ago, bought by a 19th-century tourist and was eventually donated to a museum. The other remained in the ground, was dug up just a couple of years ago and sold to a 21st-century tourist, who then offered it to a museum. Under today's trade rules, the first vase is completely above board; the second vase is contraband. 

Stansbury O'Donnell doesn't think the MIA has much to worry about regarding the legitimacy of its antiquities collection. For one thing, it simply hasn't collected many antiquities since new laws on the exporting and importing of artifacts were put in place. For another, the MIA can't afford to be as active in acquiring antiquities as a museum like the Getty.  

"So," says Stansbury O'Donnell, "I think they have made a good faith effort, and if something does turn out to be stolen or looted then it's certainly probably not the institute's fault."    The MIA has shown its good faith before; in 1999 it returned an illegally imported Greek kylix to Italy. 

In truth, almost all museums' collections are the legacy of national conquests, pillaging, tomb raiding, and other less than honorable means. Italy is pursuing its stolen art because it has the means and infrastructure to do so. But what about art stolen from underdeveloped countries in Africa, Asia and South America? Or funerary art stolen from the grave mounds of American Indian sites right here in the United States? 

One of the single largest incidences of looting and raiding occurred in Europe during World War II.

In 1998 the American Association of Art Museum Directors developed guidelines for the identification and restitution of works looted during the Holocaust. Under then-director Evan Maurer, the MIA actively reviewed its collection. 

"My guess is this is just the tip of the iceberg"

Erika Holmquist-Wall is the curatorial assistant for the department of paintings and modern sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She spends a lot of her time cataloging and researching the MIA's permanent collection. Holmquist-Wall likes to think of herself as a modern-day Nancy Drew. When the MIA received a grant to conserve its artwork, many of the paintings were taken down and cleaned. She says what she found underneath was a revelation.

"I quickly learned to get as excited about the back of a painting as the front of a painting because there was so much to be found, none of it had ever really been documented before.  You have wax seals, you have customs stamps, you have inscriptions, and inventory stamps of famous 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century collectors," says Holmquist-Wall. "There's just a miniature narrative on the back which has to be reconstructed." 

In one particular case the narrative turned out to be quite dramatic. A wax seal on the back of a 17th-century Dutch painting confirmed that it had once belonged to the famous art collector, Baron Alphonse von Rothschild.

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Associate MIA Curator Erika Holmquist Wahl says she likes to think of herself as a detective, sleuthing for clues to track down a painting's history. She stands before a Dutch painting which was once seized by Hitler's Nazis during World War II.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"We knew that the Rothschild inventories were cataloged; every painting was accounted for. We also knew that these paintings were looted during wartime by Hitler and the Nazis," says Holmquist-Wall. "And we also knew that a lot of the works from the Rothschild collection were actually designated for Hitler's Fuehrer Museum that he was designing for Linz, Austria, amassing this museum that would be even greater than the Louvre."

Holmquist-Wall says if there's one good thing you can say about the Nazis, it's that they kept detailed records. She was able to verify that the Nazis indeed seized the painting for Hitler's museum. With a little more digging, she discovered that the painting had been recovered along with many other items from the Rothschild collection at the end of the war. The painting was returned to the Rothschild family before it was put out onto the market, so the MIA knew it was not handling hot Nazi contraband. 

In the antiquities world, Professor Stansbury O'Donnell says restitution can be more complicated. The harm done by a tomb raid or other looting can't be reversed by simply retrieving the stolen goods. Once an antiquity has been taken from a site and surreptitiously put on the market its history has been lost. Scholars like him are left without the knowledge to theorize on the object's use and value. Stansbury O'Donnell empathizes with many curators who must decide whether to add an item to their collection. 

"If you see a line in an inventory saying, 'Red figured greek vase,' well, there's one vase, but which one?" asks Stansbury O'Donnell. "You want to match that with the one you want to buy, but there's no photograph, there's no description, so frankly there's never going to be 100 percent certainty."

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David Teniers' "Prodigal Son"
MIA

At the MIA, Holmquist-Wall says despite all their detective work, curators rarely trace back every owner of a single painting. Art collectors and dealers don't like to reveal their trusted sources. But she says every time scholars write new works or stumble across old documents, they may be providing museums with important clues.

"Even just tracking down the littlest bit of information and figuring out that that puzzle piece fits, it's pretty amazing," says Holmquist-Wall. "I love the thrill of the hunt, sitting in a dusty library looking at these archives. There's something to be said for it when you're tracking something like that down because you know you're adding to the body of history on that painting, and every painting has a story to tell."

The story of the Greek vase at the MIA is still playing out. Italian police hold a key piece in that puzzle: a photograph of a looted vase that appears to match the one at the MIA.  What remains to be seen is how and when the Italians will pursue the claim they raised last fall and how the MIA will respond.