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Museums can lift your spirit. Just don't look too closely at some of the antiquities

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

(Read caption) Gold of Costa Rica and Panama in the The Art of the America’s Wing, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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All over the world, great museums showcase pieces of the past for people of the present. We marvel at ancient craftsmanship. A stroll through a museum can be restorative and mind-expanding, as a recent walk through the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reminded me. It is a grand space and its fascinating collection.

But not all museum pieces are created equal. A Thomas Seymour sideboard is one thing, an Egyptian jar another, a Mayan cup yet another. The sideboard has a pedigree. You know the chain of custody over the centuries. Its provenance is clean. The Egyptian jar is a little problematic, given that Egypt was under foreign rule until the early 20th century and thus didn’t have complete say over its patrimony.

How did Egyptian objects come to the MFA or other Western museums? A note at the MFA explains that the “Egyptian Antiquities Service generously awarded a portion of all archaeological discoveries to the institutions that conducted the digs.” Fair enough. But there’s no such note in the Mesoamerican collection. And there’s no escaping the troubling past of some of the pieces. You see, most Mayan antiquities in American and European museums were looted.

Think about it. Who provided those pieces of a former civilization to dealers, collectors, and museums? Rarely are they a gift from a government. National laws usually prohibit private ownership and export of national treasures. Most likely, they were robbed from ancient graves, smuggled out of the country, sold to art dealers, traded among collectors (acquiring a patina of respectability as the paper trail grew), and eventually donated by a generous patron who may not have been aware that grave robbers started the process.

Like a lot of bad practices, the modern world has tried to put a stop to archaeological plundering. You may be surprised, though, at how recent the effort is. In 1970, a United Nations convention called for an end to trafficking in looted objects. In 1983, the United States adopted a law abiding by the convention. Still, arbitrary as it may seem, a line was drawn. Some of the Mayan pieces at the MFA were donated in 1988. They may have entered the US earlier. No one is sure. The Guatemalan government has asked for their return, saying that since 1947 Guatemala’s laws have prohibited antiquities leaving the country without a permit.


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