Skip to content

In Pursuit of Cultural Property Ownership Disputes in Museums Today

Category: On-Demand Programs: Collections Stewardship

This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

Museums are seeing new claims on objects, including large-scale demands for the repatriation of artifacts to their –countries of origin. When handled properly, these situations reflect well on museum leadership. An art insurer, a cultural property attorney, and a curator will address recent cultural property disputes and models for resolution.


Eric Fischer, Senior Vice President, Willis Towers Watson

Suzanne Hale, Registrar & Collections Manager, Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at Colorado State

Jeff Kloha, Chief Curatorial Officer, Museum of the Bible

Jennifer Morris, Attorney at Law, Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC


Eric Fischer: (silence) There we go.

Suzanne Hale: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our session. We are going to get started here in just a minute, but our session is called In Pursuit of Cultural Property:  Ownership Disputes in Museums Today. To get started, we’re going to begin with a poll and it is this one, which is, have you had ownership disputes with your collection? Go ahead and get that one started now. So as people are coming in, you can respond. Okay. And it looks like, wow, it’s pretty balanced so far. Okay. I’m going to go ahead and close the poll, but it looks like it’s pretty balanced and hopefully, everyone will be able to see those results. I don’t know if they went through, but it looked like some people had some concerns to consider. So we’re really happy that you’re here today to hear from our speakers. Just as a quick reminder, the learning object for us are that we like to help you reduce the likelihood of ownership disputes with your collection.

We want to help you help assess when to negotiate collection ownership disputes with internal museum staff and when to seek external support, and also, how to evaluate collection insurance needs regarding collection disputes. My name is Suzanne Hale. I’m the registrar/collections manager at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art in Fort Collins, Colorado. I’ll be doing introductions and helping with the question and answer portion. We’ve got three speaker today, each of whom will be speaking for about 10 to 15 minutes a piece, and then at the end of our session, we will have time to take some questions.

We have Dr. Jennifer A. Morris, attorney at law for Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC. She’ll be addressing recent claims museums are seeing and how they respond both in and out of court. We also have Eric Fischer, senior vice president of Willis Towers Watson. He’s going to be addressing how museums insure against the risk of losses due to ownership dispute. And finally, we have Dr. Jeff Kloha, chief curatorial officer at the Museum of the Bible. He’ll be addressing how museums respond when a claim is made or discovers that a claim might be possible. But to begin, we’re going to have Dr. Jennifer Morris, attorney at law discuss some of the legal issues related to this topic. So thank you, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer A. Morris: Thanks for having me, Suzanne, and thanks to everybody for tuning into our panel this morning. Let’s see if I can navigate myself to the next slide. Here we go. All right. So when we think about ownership disputes in museums today, we’re often going to be dealing with issues of provenance, which is an area that is legally very significant, but legally undefined, which is to say there is no law of provenance. There’s no law saying what should be included in a provenance statement and whatnot. So when we have ownership disputes, they can take many different forms and there can be very many different types of provenance issues. For instance, we often have long gaps in ownership history where we simply don’t know where an object has been or through whose hands it has passed. We often deal with falsification issues or inaccurate or missing records, and then we have problematic provenance, as we call it. When we see certain names or certain locations in an ownership history as is often the case with Holocaust-related disputes.

So if you see an object has changed hands circa 1940 and Switzerland, or something like that, that often trigger some red flags. And then another problem that we see frequently today is that there are evolving standards as to what constitutes an appropriate provenance and what constitutes appropriate paperwork for an object. That’s a theme we will see throughout this panel. So something that maybe was standard practice 50 or 60 years ago, simply doesn’t pass muster these days and it can create some real legal issues. So one area where a lot of these threads come together is cultural patrimony disputes, especially those involving antiquities. And we often have these long gaps of unknowable ownership history with antiquities. Objects can be thousands of years old and we simply don’t know what’s happened between when they created and when they came out of the ground.

And then in these cases, we also deal with issues of missing records, missing witnesses and so on. And then objects may be taken from multiple modern countries. So you have an area where a given antiquity could be from five or six or more different modern countries. So these create all kinds of legal obstacles. And again, these evolving standards can make objects that once seemed like maybe they had good provenance, today are coming under fire. And that’s what’s going on with the two objects on the screen right here. These represent two recent international lawsuits in federal court that are bringing these issues to the fore, both involving antiquities that were out of their presumed countries of origin since at least the 1960s. So this is prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which has long been the benchmark date for museums and collectors in terms of what’s considered an acceptable date for collecting an antiquity, but this is a guideline, not a law.

And what these lawsuits are telling us is that having a pre 1970 provenance, while fantastic, does not necessarily insure a museum or collector from a claim. So even antiquities that have been in the U.S. for a long time prior to 1970 can still be subject to claims by countries that have pre-existing patrimony laws. And this can also be the case with antiquities that have been on display in museum for many of decades. The object on the right for instance was on display in a prominent museum for a long time, yet still came under claim, patrimony writing claim. So even though these antiquities may be privately owned, which is the case with both of these, museums can often be pulled into these disputes as third parties. For instance, if the object has been on loan to a museum, it’s very likely and even probable that the museum could get pulled to the litigation as a third party, having to turn over records, attend depositions and things of this sort.

So to make a long story short, what we’re seeing with these recent lawsuits is that what we may view as a good provenance for an antiquity does not establish or guarantee title. And the question of whether a buyer or a possessor of an antiquity has a legal duty to conduct provenance research is another issue that’s currently being litigated. So in other words, you can’t be too careful and having as much provenance research as possible on these objects is always a good idea. Moving on to the next slide. Similar concerns have arisen lately in discussions about object that may have been acquired in colonial context. There’s been a lot of press lately about museums holdings of objects from Africa, and the same issues are at play with many objects from Asia and the Americas as well. In European museums and European more broadly, we’ve seen a lot of press about reports on objects that were acquired in colonial context.

These countries issuing guidelines about how to handle these objects and even possibly mandating the return of some of these objects. Comparatively, museums in the U.S. have been relatively quiet about how they’re handling these issues, and part of this has to do with the fact that museum in the U.S. are largely not government owned and therefore, cannot be commanded to follow a given policy. So when we’re dealing with decisions on restitution and repatriation, often these decisions are resting on individual museums and their boards, especially when a claim to a given object or set of objects may have merits ethically or morally that may face legal difficulties in terms of statutes of limitations or other procedural hurdles. So museum boards are becoming challenged in these ways and having to find ways to justify returns made solely on an ethical or moral basis. And one recent example that’s been in the news is the Fowler Museum at the UCLA, which announced in April that it would initiate discussions with Nigeria about the fate of certain objects in its collection.

Moving on to the next slide. Other recent disputes about patrimony issues have cropped up surrounding Native American artifacts spurred in large part by the sale of Native American objects at auctions in Europe in the past few years. And this has prompted certain tribal groups within the U.S. to team up with legislators who introduced the bill known as the STOP Act, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act as you see there. Previous iterations of the bill have been introduced in 2016, 2018 and 2020, and there’s now a new version currently pending before The House. And the idea behind this bill is that it would create an export regime requiring tribal review in order to obtain export permits for Native-American cultural objects. And the bill has had certain provisions that have changed with the various iterations, but this potentially could have affect cultural objects of any age and any value.

So a number of trade groups and collectors, and some museums have objected to the STOP Act on the basis that it would threaten the private ownership of all tribal art and artifacts, and was one that their ability to sell or otherwise, just those of the objects that will. And this is something also that could affect NAGPRA’s processes that museums have become accustomed to follow. Quickly on a related note, let me if I can get to the next slide there. On the subject of NAGPRA, I just wanted to quickly mention some developments concerning the collecting of human remains that have on the news lately. You may have seen that the University of Pennsylvania has come under fire lately in the news regarding its possession and use of a number of African-American remains. And this is another area where evolving standards of collecting and concepts of ownership and possession to really change and coming to the fore lately because a number of universities, museums, and other collecting institutions have been discovered to have dozens or hundreds of human remains, particularly African-American remains.

So there are new conversations that we’re having regarding how these human remains will be handled, particularly when it’s revealed that they may belong to slaves or people whose bodies were taken out of cemeteries, things like this. And this is a conversation we’re familiar having with Native American remains with NAGPRA, but now these discussions are evolving and there’s a push for something similar to NAGPRA called AAGPRA, the African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So this has come to the fore, especially in light of the BLM movement and recent legislation to protect African-American burial grounds. And if this moves forward, this would potentially require museums to make inventories and things like this. So this is very much in the early stages, but it’s gaining a lot of momentum and would certainly have an impact on museums.

And just finishing up quickly, our last slide, a piece of very new news. Even since I last spoke to my co-panelists, there has been a longstanding ownership dispute over a Pissarro painting at the University of Oklahoma that has finally and hopefully come to a close in the past week. This is a dispute that has spawned court cases, both in the U.S. and in France, and is complicated for a number of reasons. But it to seemed to come to a promising resolution in 2016 when the university and the claimant came to a novel settlement agreement that would involve the painting rotating between the university in Oklahoma and a museum in France every few years. And recently, the claimant in France tried to donate the painting to a museum in France, but the museum refused on the basis that this settlement agreement with the requirement that the painting would go back and forth every few years would just be too cumbersome.

And the debate sparked a lot of press because a couple months ago, the claimant in France said she refused to comply with the settlement agreement and she wasn’t going to send the painting back to the U.S. and court in Oklahoma held her in contempt and was fining her a 1,000 or $2,000 every day. So finally, in the past week, the claimant announced that she was renouncing her claim and would transfer title to the university. So this serves as a reminder that when crafting these settlement agreements over disputes, practicality should be at the fore. It was a novel agreement that was widely praised as being fair to both sides, but it’s easy to see from a museum’s perspective, why this kind of arrangement, sending it back and forth over the Atlantic every few years would be very difficult in practice. So that’s it from me. Thanks, Suzanne. Let me know if you have any questions.

Suzanne Hale: Great. Thank you, Jennifer, for a lot of the information, very timely and obviously changing quickly. We really appreciate that. And there will be time for questions at the end for Jennifer as well. We’re going to move to our second poll and it is, does your insurance policy cover collection ownership disputes? Options are yes, no, not sure. I’m going to go ahead and put that one out there so you can respond. And things are coming through right now. Okay. Good. Looks like most people are not sure, which is excellent because that’s why we have got Eric Fischer here today to help us with this question and others. So Eric Fischer is senior vice president of Willis Towers Watson, and he’ll be addressing how museums insure against the risk of losses due to ownership disputes. So thank you.

Eric Fischer: Thank you, Suzanne. Good morning, everybody. One of the great satisfactions of my job over the last 29 years is being able to tell my museum clients that their losses are covered. The collections insurance policy is so broad that just about everything is covered. Unfortunately, title disputes are not covered by a collections insurance policy. The policy states very clearly that it is for physical loss or damage. So an ownership dispute is not a physical loss. We’ve had people try to claim that the loss of the money that they paid for the object is a physical loss and across the board, insurance companies have rejected that. And really the insurance industry reacts very slowly to new types of events that are coming around. I remember back in 1995 when Rape of Europa came out and then with the Egon Schiele case at MoMA 1997, so this goes back over 25 years.

This has been going on that the policies are slowly starting to respond, and it’s only been in the last five years or so that just about every specialist policy, not only in the United States, but globally has built in some kind of defense cost coverage for title disputes. They’re very hesitant to offer any type of coverage for the actual loss of the object itself. And it’s been interesting that since we’ve introduced this defective title defense cost cut coverage, that we’ve seen very few, if any, World War II restitution cases. It’s mostly been heirs of donors from the past coming back saying that, “My parents actually never gave that object to the museum. It was a long-term loan.” And there’s other entities coming back as well. So it’s really a case of bad paperwork as opposed to either national patrimony money or World War II restitution cases.

The coverage for defense cost is extremely valid. It doesn’t have any type of trigger. It doesn’t state whether or not that you can retain your own counsel or the insurance company will appoint counsel. And the level of coverage is very modest. Usually for museum policies, it’s between 100,000 and 250,000 per year. So that can be eaten up pretty quickly, depending on the complexity of the case. And again, what we’re seeing is that a lot of museums are trying to handle these things quietly at first before they come to the insurance company. So a little early notification is best. If you have somebody coming to you, you receive the letter saying that, “You have something in your collection that is ours.” It’s always best to notify your carrier. But again, you’re not going to find coverage for the object itself. It’s only the defense cost. And when this first came up, there was questions about being able to legally cover title insurance in the Marine, which is what most collections insurance policies are, property policy that you would have to go into the title insurance marketplace, much like the title insurance for your home.

And in certain states, title insurance carriers for fine arts had to go to the state insurance commissioners to get permission to write title insurance for collections. There are specialist title insurance policies out there. They’re object specific. You’re not going to find a blanket title policy for your museum. And simply because there are just way too many objects and way too many story out there. And the way that the federal insurance marketplace works is they underwrite each individual item and the premium is a one-time premium it’s based on the value of the object. And that premium is usually between one and 3% of the value of the object and the rate is determined on the provenance. So if there is a gap, like Jennifer says, between 1935 and 1950, there’s going to be issues.

One of the only title insurance policies ever sold was there was a provenance got between 1800 and 1900. And the object is simply, there was no object there. And so they were charged the full rate because who knows where that could have come from? The title insurance policy lasts for as long as you own it. So it’s a one-time premium. Defense costs are included. There’s no cap on the defense costs and if you are forced to surrender the object, it is the value stated in the policy. And if that value increases over time, you can change that accordingly with an additional premium. One interesting thing about the specialist title policies, it does not cover for misattribution or fake, and it does not cover for government confiscation. So if the object is confiscated, you’re sending it to a country where it came from and the government confiscates it saying, “It should have never left our country,” the title insurance policy would not cover that.

We had a case with a private collector who actually went to the catalog raisonné of the deceased artist and got them to say that this was part of his body of work. And later on, it was determined that it was a fake. There was no coverage for that under this policy that even though this collector did everything correctly, unfortunately, it was not his. So he did not get any settlement from that. Just as a side note, he did sue the catalog raisonné for falsely attributing it and he won that case. There have been very few policies sold simply because of the cost, the underwriting process is very rigorous. By the time you answer all of the provenance questions and the underwriting process, you have a pretty good idea whether you need the coverage or not.

And in the United States, the one company that was the driving force, if you Google fine art title insurance, this company will come up. As of last year, they stopped writing title insurance. It just wasn’t profitable for them and they’ve gotten out of the market. So if you want title insurance, now you’re going to have to go into the London market and look there. There are on private collector policies, in some auction house and some dealer policies, they have built in defective title coverage that would cover the object, but the level of that coverage is not very great. So if you have a high-valued work of art, you’re not going to be able to cover it in full. You would get some kind of a partial compensation. The theory behind that… And also, it has to be something transacted during the policy term. So it’s not retroactive back to years gone by.

And another reason why you’re not going to a blanket type of coverage for museum policies. As I mentioned before, there’s been very few World War II restitution cases under this deflective title, defense cost coverage. Everything that I’ve seen, it’s poor paperwork. As collections objects become an asset class, heirs to donors are going back and looking and saying, “Mom and dad gave away this very valuable work of art. Let’s take a look at the paperwork.” And they are finding that the paperwork from the ’50s through the ’80s is incomplete or not there at all. And they have made very good cases that in fact, the museum object that’s even a session into the collection, they thank the donors in their annual report for their gift, that the paperwork isn’t complete, and they have a case that it’s not 100% the museum’s and the defense cost coverage has kicked in.

Again, just touching real quick, I’m running up on time is that you’re not going to see it for museum. And the coverages that are provided out there are only for items being acquired during the policy period. Underwriters are feeling that there’s so much better due diligence now, so much better paperwork, so much higher level of professionalism that they’re willing to give a bit of coverage for that. But the language is very strict. There’s lots of outs for the insurance company if you don’t do a very strict due diligence requirements internally, and the way the insurance market is now, it’s going to be even tougher to get. We’re in what’s now called the hard market. Insurance policies are more restrictive. They’re more expensive. Underwriters are very risk adverse right now, and to think that they would open themselves up to ghosts from the past unnecessarily, they’re just not going to do it.

Going forward, I just don’t see it in the near future that you’re going to see a blanket coverage. You may even see elimination or restrictions on the coverage that are found in most specialist museum policies right now. Underwriters are looking to cut back on claims and we are seeing claims come up for bad paperwork. I don’t have much hope for the next few years of getting expanded coverage. Obviously, one of the biggest domestic insurer and the one who spent a ton of money and really got out in front of the media to push this coverage gets out of it. I think it’s a signal that there just isn’t the appetite in the insurance marketplace for this type of coverage. And that is it for me.

Suzanne Hale: Thank you very much. Yeah. Some very interesting issues to consider. Thank you. Next, we have Dr. Jeff Kloha, chief curatorial officer for the Museum of the Bible, to address how museums respond when a claim is made or discovers that a claim might be possible. So thank you very much, Jeff, for being here today.

Dr. Jeff Kloha: Great. Thank you, Suzanne, for the invitation to participate and Jen and Eric, for your helpful contributions. I’ve been invited to discuss how museums respond when a claim is made or discovers that a claim might be possible. So what I’ll do today is a brief narrative case study of what Museum of the Bible did beginning in 2017 to resolve some issues. So for a Museum of the Bible, the moment that a discovery about a potential claim occurred really was in July of 2017 when a forfeiture settlement was announced whereby 5,500 objects purchased by Hobby Lobby in 2009 would be returned to Iraq. This was only about four months before this major new museum was to open in Washington, D.C., which was funded in large part by the owners of Hobby Lobby.

The criticism in the media and by academics at the time was withering, and in my opinion, appropriately so based on the acquisitions in 2009. It was at this point that the board of the museum realized probably for the first time that it had serious issues with the collection, as well as a significant credibility issue. The first step they did was to seek to hire a consultant to chart a way forward to assess the collection and to resolve any outstanding issues. They engaged Tom Kline of Cultural Heritage Partners who started with the museum in August 2017. And just in full disclosure, Jen Morris, who presented earlier is a senior associate with Cultural Heritage Partners and was very helpful to us in working on provenance issues in 2017 and 2018, especially.

I became involved with the museum about three weeks after the announcement in July of 2017 when I first started with the museum, July of 2017. When I arrived, it became clear that cuneiform was not the only issue in the collection. Throughout the collection, items acquired between 2009 and 2014, at which point, controls were put in place on the acquisition process, it was quite clear that acquisitions during that period were suspect. The documentation is very weak. Now, the collection staff, all of whom had joined the museum after 2014, knew of the issues and had significant concerns, but unfortunately these concerns had not made their way to the museum leadership, or at least they had not fully registered with museum leadership prior to July of 2017.

So the approach recommended by Tom Kline and implemented by the collection staff was to assume that nothing had sufficient documentation of history, export, et cetera, until it could be independently verified. So we essentially assumed that every object was not sufficiently documented until we could verify it. And then we would recommend to the board various actions to resolve the issues. And in almost every case, the resolution would be to return the items to either the country of origin or to the entity that we thought would be the rightful owner. I would add that our team did this all while under intense scrutiny by many parties, many of whom I have to say, we’re hoping that we would fail in our project. So what did we learn through this process? And I’ll summarize and then go through a specific case study. Four points that I’ll summarize. First, we found it helpful to confirm our policies and procedures and goals first before we thought about PR. That is we didn’t engage this as a PR We engaged as a collection issue and the PR was a consequence of our policies and processes.

Second, our approach, encouraged by Tom Kline and I’m quoting him directly, a phrase he used again and again and again is transparency is our friend. That is as we approach the issues in the collection, we would be transparent with our board. We would be transparent with potential claimants. We would be transparent with the public about the issues that we faced and how we would resolve these issues. I will say sometimes that seemed to turn out pretty well in the PR world. Sometimes it did not, but that’s been our operating method really since 2017. The next two learnings are more external. That is of course, cultural heritage matters are complex and when these get reported in the press, most reporters will probably simplify even to the point of oversimplification to try to communicate to their audience, some notion of the story. So don’t expect if these things make the news that there’ll be long form engagement in most cases.

There were some notable exceptions, and I think some really outstanding reporting that came up, and I’ll show you some examples later on, but by and large, this complex topic doesn’t translate well into our modern mass media. Finally, and related to the PR issue, when there are positive resolutions, constructive resolutions that occur, it’s not likely that these will get a lot of press attention. And I’ll give you a couple examples later on. There seems to be more interest in stories where things went awry rather than situations where things turned out positively. As a case study, I’m focusing on the return of ultimately the 34 fragments of papyrus documents to the Egypt Exploration Society Holdings in Oxford, England. And I have to give a little backstory to help understand how we got there. Before my arrival in 2017, the collection staff were quite aware of the challenges of the papyrus materials. Not only those acquired from an individual named Dirk Obbink, but from other dealers as well.

Sometime in 2016, it was determined that many items that had been displayed previously in traveling exhibits and were in process of publication academically could not be exhibited and the publication process had to be put on hold, because it was clear that the items did not meet the standards of museums, associations, or academic societies. But at that point, the items were simply kept in storage and no effort to resolve the issues was made. They were simply left alone. However, again, in 2017, the board tasked the collections department with resolving the issues. So in October of 2017, in conjunction with Tom Kline, we presented a document to the board’s museum of the directors, which presented the steps taken to that point prior to the museum’s opening and proposed resolutions. In the case of the papyri, we determined that we would need to contact the Cultural Heritage Department of Egypt and seek to return the items. That first contact was made in the well, January of 2018. We reached out both to the embassy here in Washington, to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and to the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

And in April of 2018, we hosted director of the Coptic Museum here at Museum of the Bible, showed him a number of the items, gave him a stack of images, basically every item that we thought might originate from Egypt, and told him that we wanted to return the items and that we were interested in sponsoring research and perhaps exhibition opportunities in conjunction with the Coptic Museum. I provide all that as background because at that point in 2017 and into 2018, we assumed that all the Egyptian items were simply the result of some kind of market actions, probably from illegal excavations, somewhere along the way. There simply was no documentation. Even after reaching out to dealers, nothing was provided and we therefore had a dead end in our research process. Dirk Obbink was one of several dealers of this material. At the time of the sales, between 2009 and 2013, he was a professor at Oxford University, well-respected papyrologist, who was a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, which published the holdings of the Egypt Exploration Society, which have been in Oxford for well over 100 years, by this point.

So, he is a respected individual in the field, and at the time when these acquisitions were made, he was seen as a reliable partner in the process. However, very early on, there were some anomalies and things that looked inconsistent, which led again, the collection staff to have some concerns. And in particular, the last sale in early 2013 involved some allegedly early New Testament fragments, which were sold, but not delivered. So there was a close and the sales agreement whereby cash was transferred, but the objects were retained by Professor Obbink for research. At the same time, there are some rumors floating around about an alleged First-Century Mark. And maybe you’ve seen this in the blogs or in the news. There was some discussion because it was never seen by scholars. It was never made public. It was referred to occasionally. There seemed to be some things linking it to Obbink. There seemed to be some things linking it to Museum of the Bible, but again, no one had ever seen the document and it had never been positively identified.

In the spring of 2019, two things resulting from our efforts at transparency led to the identification of this item and ultimately, to the return of the items to the Egypt Exploration Society. First, a academic society, the Society of Biblical Literature wanted to hold a seminar on the ethics of First-Century Mark scheduled for November of 2019. And our director of our scholars initiative, the research arm at the museum, Dr. Mike Holmes, was asked and agreed to participate, and we decided right away that we would share with the other panelists, the information that we had, including the documentation in advance of the session, so that the discussion could happen productively and hopefully, a resolution found for what this item was and how best to deal with it.

Just about the same time, the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Volume Number 83 was published, which much to our surprise, included a publication of a manuscript of the papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark. And we were able to determine in conjunction with the Egypt Exploration Society, that this was indeed the item listed on the invoice in 2013 and the rumored First-Century Mark. So we reached out to the EES right away and in June of 2019, we shared with them our documentation and images of every piece of papyrus in our holdings. Unbeknownst to Obbink, they had retained records, backup copies of their collection. So they were able to sort through and identify in the first phase, 13 items, which had been removed without authorization from their collection. Ultimately, they identified 34 items, which have since been returned to the EES.

Now, the reason I bring all this up again and the continued efforts here, we’ve been at this for about two and a half years at this point. And by the spring of 2019, or sorry, by the spring of 2020, we had resolved the issues with the Egypt Explorations Society. We had been in conversations with the governments of Iraq and Egypt for the return of items to them. We had initiated and sponsored two scientific research projects on our Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which also then determined that there were likely forgeries. So a few other items, which we won’t get into here. But by this point, the museum leadership and really the entire museum wanted to move beyond these matters. So we released a statement signed by the chairman of our board about the return of the items to Egypt and Iraq, and summarizing the steps that we had taken since July of 2017 to resolve issues.

As you can imagine, this generated a lot of interest and there were long-form pieces in National Geographic, New York Times, NPR, as you can see on the screen. I will say I was rather impressed with the coverage by those three outlets. I sat down for hour, in some case, two-hour long interviews, which were recorded with the reporters, and I thought they fairly represented both how problematic the acquisitions were between 2009 and 2013, but also acknowledging the steps that the museum had taken since 2017 to resolve the issues. We also knew that a article was being prepared by Ariel Sabar, a very highly regarded investigative reporter about Dirk Obbink. And again, sat down for interviews with him and provided other staff for interviews with him as well. That article occurred in June of 2020 in the Atlantic Magazine. And again, a really a masterful piece of reporting, and I think very, fairly represents what happened. Gratified to see that he was not able to find anything that we didn’t already know about the museum.

He found a lot about Dirk Obbink that we didn’t already know, but again, a fantastic piece of reporting, and I encourage you to take a look at that, especially to understand how the market in some cases, has worked in the past. I wish I could say that the positive steps that we took and the positive steps that resulted were reported, but again, it seems like the media was mostly interested in stories of slip-ups. So two positive things I’d like to highlight of things that resulted from our actions. First, with the Egypt Exploration Society, they agreed that scholars who researched the items in conjunction with Museum of the Bible would be permitted to publish the items as part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series. So the major goal that we had in the first place to publish these and make these available to the public would be met, and we did so in a collaborative way with the Egypt Exploration Society. Very grateful for that.

Second item relates to a step we took regarding a manuscript that was looted from a Greek monastery in 1917. Our curator, Brian Highland, our curators by the way, have become a very adept at provenance research and short shortly here. Our curator determined that some marks made inside the cover of a manuscript and our collection tied it to this looting incident in 1917, where hundreds of manuscripts were looted from the monastery, ended up in collections around the world, including several in the United States. We already had a relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We approached them and said that we would like to return this to them, and they of course, were very grateful and very positive. They’re loaning us manuscripts that will be on display. His all holiness will be visiting us in October for a celebration. And unfortunately, for better or for worse, I should say, this really did not make any media news in the U.S., although I was interviewed in Greek TV, national news in Greek television.

My point being that we took these steps in an effort to be transparent and to resolve the issues, not merely for PR. And in fact, if you’re doing it for PR, you might not get any benefit out of it. So just to summarize again, some learnings that we took away, the policies are the most important. We worked with a PR firm, but the PR firm really relied on how we were implementing our policies and the steps that we were taking. We didn’t develop a PR strategy and then resolve the issues to meet that. Rather, the PR strategy was based around our policies and procedures. And I think that was a helpful step and excellent advice from our outside council. Again, I think transparency was helpful. We assumed that these would be public knowledge at some point, whether immediately or 10 years from now, and we decided that it would be best to resolve things as quickly as possible.

And again, media is media. We found some reporting to be very thorough, other reporting, to be rather fascial and surface. And I’ll just say that not everything you read about how we resolve the issues is accurate, but that’s to be expected in today’s media environment. So I’ll stop with that. And we’re happy to be of any assistance to any individuals regarding reaching out to countries of origin, working with Homeland Security or the State Department to resolve these issues and really seeking to be good stewards of these items which are in our stewardship for this time to pass on to future generations. Thank you.

Suzanne Hale: Thank you, Jeff. Obviously, the situations are very complicated, but I do appreciate you being here today and addressing some of these things that have happened to your institution and how you guys have been handling them. There are a couple of questions that have come up in the Q&A area. And I know that some of them are pretty broad and probably would take another session to address, but I thought maybe some of you might want to take a look at those and that would be… Here, let me get back to the ones that are published, which is how has the process with fraudulent come around artifacts been different than the repatriation process of 2017? Another, what about objects from European museums took via the acts of war from countries like Egypt, India, China in the 1880s? Those are interesting questions and one that would take some time to address, but if anyone would like to take a stab at it, please do.

Dr. Jeff Kloha: Well, just go back to the Greek manuscript from the monastery in 1917, presented a pretty interesting case because we could probably make a case to hold onto that manuscript. There are prominent American institutions that have manuscripts from exactly the same incident that are choosing to hold onto theirs, despite requests from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but again, as part of our transparency and just wanting to operate in an ethical manner, we chose to return it and reach out to them to offer it as soon as we discovered the issue. So there’s a difference between legal and ethical, and I think institutions need to make their own choices on how to handle those on a case by case basis.

Dr. Jennifer A. Morris: And I would just echo on the [inaudible 00: 56: 07]. And often, we’re talking about incidents that occurred 100 years ago and we’re dealing with international legal issues. So we have these [inaudible 00: 56: 21] problems, lack of documentation problems, and sometimes may not have a strong legal team, strong, ethical, or moral basis to suggest the return of objects. So at that point, it’s really up to the institutions in question to start the discussions to see if they can work something out. Nobody likes litigating. It’s long, it’s stressful, it’s expensive. So anytime we can encourage people to come to the table and work things out amicably, that’s obviously the way to go.

Eric Fischer: As far as insurance is concerned, again, the language for the defense of defective title coverage is so broad. It’s anytime anybody from anywhere makes a claim and it’s also for lenders. So if you have objects in your building on loan and somebody makes a claim for that and you’re brought into the litigation or that lender looks to you to help with the defense cost, that coverage comes from the policy. It’s not much, but it is there.

Suzanne Hale: Yeah. And anything else from Jeff? Do you have any other thing to add or any other topics too that are related? Because I think we just have a couple more minutes here before we get to the end of the session.

Dr. Jeff Kloha: Yeah. Just a comment. There’s a comment Eric made about treating a collection as an asset. That was actually an important decision. I’ll just speak from our side here at the museum. The board chose to not regard the collection as an asset, which I think was a good call and save some problems later on on our side. So I know there’s differences of opinion on that, but we don’t treat it as an asset.

Suzanne Hale: That is good. I think that would be in keeping, I think, with a lot of collections management type policies. So that is good. Yeah. There’s a lot to consider in this session. I know that the laws are changing quickly and it seems like they’re evolving and trying to stay ahead of things is tricky, it seems like, or at least stay on top of things.

Dr. Jennifer A. Morris:  I just saw a new question in the Q&A about what an object maybe has been returned and then an alternate party makes a claim that it should have been returned to them and said, “Yes, this does happen more often than you would think.” And there are situations also where for instance, a museum has made a voluntary return, trying to do it expeditiously and make right by the people involved, and then soon thereafter, it comes out that maybe there were other interested parties as well. So this does happen. These issues are often hugely complicated and it takes a long time to work through all the facts. So even when people try to do their best to get it right, there are often complications.

Eric Fischer:  We see it all the time, divorces, bankruptcies, especially when people use their company to purchase works of art and then the company goes bankrupt, there’s a divorce, the museum is often left holding the back. They have to store the work of art because they’re trying to return it and the courts rule that it’s the safest place. So they’re incurring costs until that ownership dispute is settled.

Suzanne Hale:  Great. Well, in the last minute, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who attended. Please download the handout, which is our presentation or slides if need be and our contact information is on there too. Thank you to Jeff, Eric, and Jennifer for being here today and presenting, and thank you for those people who are attending the conference. We really appreciate it.

Dr. Jennifer A. Morris:  Thanks, everybody.

Eric Fischer: Thank you.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.