The Cleveland Museum of Art goes Transparent. Returns Looted Treasures to Italy

Posted on November 21, 2008


Donkey Head Rhyton, Greece, 475 B.C.

Donkey Head Rhyton, Greece, 475 B.C.



  • Maybe it was an Indiana Jones type archaeologist who first acquired some of the treasures from ancient Italy and smuggled them home.

Maybe it was more sinister figures that committed theft and profited from their looted treasures.

  • The fact is the Cleveland Museum of Art has done the right thing to correct the mistakes of the past, even if the mistakes were not theirs to begin with.

The museum has agreed to return 14 looted artworks in question to Italy.

The agreement between the museum and the Italian government is friendly and both sides have emerged from the process in a win, win agreement.

Timothy Rub the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art said that he is very pleased with outcome of the agreement between the museum and the Italian government.

  • Rub said, the museum decided to immediately deal with the claims made by the Italians in a thoughtful and transparent way to resolve the provenance of the objects that date back to Etruscan and late Gothic periods.

I am sure that it was a painful and difficult process for all those involved. The objects came to the museums collection in the 1970s and 1980s.


  • Read the full account and view the objects that are to be returned here in the article.


  • You might be asking yourself, How could a major American Museum have Looted art in their collections and not know?

The fact is the looted art business is very sophisticated and profitable. Even the experts as in this case are often fooled.

  • Today the world is a far more open and transparent book. The information technology that exists today, that we almost take for granted did not exist 20 or 30 years ago.

Collections like the one at the Cleveland Museum of Art contain thousands of objects perhaps in the case of Cleveland tens of thousands.

  • Each object must have a documented provenance.

Provenance is the history of the object, its origin, its linage of ownership along with the recored transactions of the objects exchange from owner to owner.

  • Often those records are incomplete, lost to history because of time; destroyed by natural disasters, like (volcano’s) and war, (world war II and now Iraq) or just thrown out by the next successive generation as estate trash or clutter.

 This opens the door to those who would profit from the sale of such objects in their possession.

Those who might undertake the re-construction of records to create a legitimate provenance.

These individuals at experts too.

  • Individuals who count on the lack of information and the inability to trace an object across the vastness of the world with limited resources, man power.

 Today the world has as they say gotten much smaller. Information now is shared at the click of a mouse.

Museums host their collections on the Internet. Visitors and investigators can search a museum collection from their desk anywhere in the world. But this change in technology has also given those individuals who would deceive more power to create false records too.

  • Museums face the daunting task of managing their records their collections, especially those museums that have been around for a long time. Large and small the same rules and standards apply.

In the past provenance was not as stringent as it exists today. Museum professionals have set the modern standard very high and they require rigorous and a transparent provenance to establish the legitimate ownership of an object. Where in the past such standards were perhaps not yet invented or followed. Today that has changed.

  • When Alexander looted conquered cities and took his treasures there was not a worldwide web, no modern technology.

With the period that followed World War II and now Iraq all of that changed, but there are still many treasures lost and not accounted for and being searched for today nearly 70 years post World War II.

Large museums have full time staff members who are experts in the provenance of collections where smaller museums may rely on volunteers to get this important work accomplished.

  • Resources, money are precious and often not prioritized for such time consuming and expensive investigations into permanent holding in a museum collection.

That is until someone shows up and makes a claim.

  • Then it is all about how that claim is handled and Cleveland I think sets the standard for the modern ethics of collection management.

Transparent, thoughtful, and honest action and most important regardless of cost, doing the right thing is the key to success.

Over the span of history many, perhaps millions of mistakes have been made around the world in the search of legitimate provenance for an object.

  • Every museum in the world has an object of questionable history in their collection.
  • You as a collector may to hold an object of question in your personal collection.

Be assured that the next time that object or artwork changes ownership it will be looked at far more closely than in the past.

  • Always make sure you have the best most transparent provenance for any artwork or historical object you buy or that is donated to you or your museum.

Even the private collector should establish a solid collection policy that establishes the rules of behavior for you the collector or you as the museum professional to follow.

  • If an acquisition does not meet the standard of your policy then do more research or walk away.

But remember this case in Cleveland where all parties concerned won and take your lead from their courage and actions.

  • Resources for you the collector or museum volunteer or professional

Northern States conservation Center offers classes and material on collection management and policies.

Another great Resource in Conservation on line “COOL”

Good Luck