Fordham Museum Helps Resolve Art Trafficking Case
By Jennifer Udell, PhD, Curator of University Art and the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art
Since June 1st 2021, the Fordham Museum has been closed to the university community. On that day approximately 99 objects in the collection, most of which were on view, were seized by the Manhattan D.A.’s office as evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation and Grand Jury trial being brought against a trafficker in ancient art. While Fordham is neither the target of the D.A.’s case nor believed to be complicit in any way, the material seized back in June did indeed pass through the hands of the subject of the investigation. What this means is that although William Walsh, who donated his collection to Fordham in 2006, acted in good faith when he acquired the objects on the market, they actually belong to Italy.
But what may seem like an altogether terrible situation for the Museum and the University is actually the opposite. First, by cooperating fully with the Manhattan District Attorney during the entire process Fordham has demonstrated its commitment to returning looted objects to their country of origin, in our case, Italy. This position works in tandem with the pledge not to acquire antiquities without demonstrable provenance (ownership history). Together, these actions (which are at the core of best museum practices in the United States) help prevent the illegal export of archaeological materials and the concomitant destruction of their archaeological context that occurs when such objects are looted. The position adopted by American museums curtails demand for “unexcavated” material — that is, material without ownership or findspot information — which in turn helps slow the destruction of archaeological sites at the hands of tomb robbers.
Second, our students have a front-row seat to how issues relating to provenance legislation unfold not only in the courts but in the day-to-day operation of the Fordham Museum. Thus, the current situation lets us pull-back the curtain on the kinds of negotiations that often occur behind the scenes between American museums and source nations, and which often lead to good results all around for all stake-holders.
So what does a favorable outcome for all involved look like? In Fordham’s case it will comprise the University’s official recognition of Italy’s legal ownership of the objects, followed by direct negotiation for the long-term loan of the same objects. In the best case scenario, they will be “returned” to the Republic of Italy but they will remain “in residence” at Fordham for exhibition and study.
The University reached a similar agreement with Italy in 2008, concerning a 9th century B.C.E. cinerary urn in the shape of a hut (See Figure 2). The urn was permitted to stay at Fordham on long-term loan because Italy is in possession of hundreds of other examples, many of which are not on view. When the Republic of Italy agreed to this arrangement with Fordham, they were also acknowledging our cooperation, transparency, and good faith negotiation when evidence of the hut’s illicit origins were presented to us, at the same time as recognizing the Fordham antiquities museum as an essential and unique pedagogical campus resource.
At the moment the museum, and the artifacts seized by the D.A., are in limbo. We are awaiting the judge in the case to sign a turnover order, in which Italy takes the legal possession (if not literal possession) of the objects. After this, we will be free to approach the Italian authorities with a request to retain them all on long-term loan. While it is likely many will come back to Fordham, some may return to Italy and be put on display in museums close to their original findspots. This decision is at the complete discretion of the Italian Minister of Culture. Nevertheless, were this to happen, another unexpected benefit of our cooperation with Italy may occur: namely, the ability to petition for other ancient objects to come to Fordham on loan and in exchange for the those that were repatriated. This scenario is attractive in that it serves to return culturally significant material to Italy at the same time as it brings new objects to the Fordham Museum.
In the meantime the museum remains closed so that the empty cases which until recently held Greek, Etruscan, and South Italian vases may be cleaned. When (and if) they return they will be reinstalled with new labels explaining their complicated modern history and reflecting their new legal status as objects on long-term loan from the Republic of Italy. If they are replaced with new material in exchange, the museum labels will indicate that as well. Importantly, the empty cases will provide students a singular opportunity to rethink the installation of the Museum collection as a whole.
At the beginning of June the plan was to make the total reinstallation of the museum the focus of the upcoming Museum Studies seminar this fall, but it looks as if that idea will have to wait for the spring, or until the turnover order is finally executed. Instead, the students will be mounting an exhibition of Fordham’s collection of ancient Roman glass. This material, offered as a gift in 2018, was fully vetted by the Italian authorities prior to its official acceptance by the Museum. Because this material does not have the “sensational” modern history as the some of the other objects in the museum, our upcoming exhibition on Roman glass will be able to focus on ancient glass manufacturing techniques, forms, functions, trade-patterns, and patronage. Most importantly, it won’t be seized by the D.A.’s office.