The Bourne acquisition

On 4 June 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted new guidelines for the acquisition of archaeological and ancient art objects. Going forward, it recommended that a member museum should only acquire an object when there is evidence to show that it was out of its country of modern discovery before 17 November 1970, or exported legally after that date. The AAMD recognised that there are likely to be objects in circulation that were out of their countries of modern discovery before 1970, but without validating provenance. In such cases, the AAMD recommended that if after appropriate due diligence a member museum concludes that an object was likely to have been out of its country of discovery before 17 November 1970, the object could be acquired but a record of the acquisition should be posted on a new web-based Object Registry. The posting on the Object Registry would constitute a public record of the acquisition, allowing any dispossessed owner to identify the object and make a recovery claim to the museum concerned. On 23 January 2013, the AAMD amended its 2008 guidelines, allowing the acquisition by gift or bequest of objects without the necessary pre-1970 provenance provided a promissory agreement had been reached before the 4 June date of the 2008 guidelines.

By March 2018, the Object Registry listed entries for 1,117 objects in 28 museums. The largest aggregate entry for a single institution comprised 358 objects in the collection of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, many of them previously owned by John Bourne. They reflect the museum’s accession in 2009 of 301 objects from the Bourne collection. Aspects of the acquisition have been discussed by Roger Atwood and Donna Yates. Bourne had been assembling his collection since the 1940s, but as the histogram shows, he bought most of his objects after 1970.

As the above example shows, the individual Walters’ Object Registry entries for the Bourne objects state that they were acquired because ‘Communications between the Walters Art Museum and the donor of this gift began in April 2005’. This entry justifies the acquisition by making reference to the amended 2013 AAMD guidelines. Gary Vikan, however, who was director of the Walters at the time of the Bourne acquisition, seemingly contradicts these statements on the Object Registry when he reveals that he first heard about the possible availability of the Bourne Collection ‘near the end of 2008’ [1] – in other words, a few months after the 4 June date of the 2008 guidelines. Before then, in 2000 when he first met Bourne, his hope had been that Bourne might lend the Walters ‘a piece or two’ [2]. At that time, Bourne had promised his collection to the College of Santa Fe.

Vikan defended the acquisition of the Bourne collection by reference to the ‘Vikan Doctrine’ of due diligence, transparency and good faith engagement:

… the acquisition of a work or art would be conducted with full and rigorous investigation and documentation of the work’s history, whether it be a proposed purchase, a promised gift, or a possible long-term loan. If acquired or accepted as a gift or loan, it would then be promptly published on the Walters’ website and on the Object Registry of the Association of Art Museum Directors … the Walters would promptly and openly respond to any plausible claim for repatriation of the work from a possible source country [3].

The confusion over the date of the acquisition agreement does little to foster confidence in the transparency component of the Vikan Doctrine, but what about due diligence, the ‘full and rigorous investigation and documentation of the work’s history’? The only provenance information provided for the overwhelming majority of Bourne objects on the Walters’ website is the date of Bourne’s purchase and the name of the vendor. There are hardly any indications of provenance dating back to before the date of Bourne’s purchase, and while it is always possible that the objects had been in circulation since before 1970, from what is published they might equally have been fresh out of the ground and new on the market. Accepting material with such flimsy documentation of provenance surely runs counter to the Vikan Doctrine and indeed to the ethical principles of the AAMD guidelines.

In the exhibition catalogue of the collection, Vikan mentions that the acquisition was accompanied by a ‘bequest of $4 million for the research, conservation, display, and teaching of the arts of the ancient Americas’ [4]. It would be hard for any museum to refuse a bequest of that size. Perhaps hard enough for the Walters to have suspended Vikan’s Doctrine and evaded the AAMD’s guidelines.


  1. Vikan, Gary, 2016. Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director. New York: SelectBooks, at page 269.
  2. Ibid, at page 269.
  3. Ibid, at page 270.
  4. Vikan, Gary, 2012. Foreword, in Dorie Reents-Budet (ed.), Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection. Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum.

Collectors are the real looters (1)

In 1993, archaeologist Ricardo Elia wrote that ‘collectors are the real looters’ [1]. He was making the crucially important point that the illicit trade in cultural objects and the associated looting of archaeological and cultural sites is a demand-led phenomenon. Yet, in contradiction to that fundamental reality, policy initiatives intended to protect cultural sites from looting are generally source-directed, or look towards interrupting supply to the destination market. (That is when they are not in reality concerned with documentation or reconstruction). Look at the ongoing looting in Syria, for example. The March 2014 UNESCO/EU International Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage calls for capacity building in Syria and neighbouring countries. The September 2013 International Council of Museums (ICOM) Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, the December 2013 EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013, and the February 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 are all intended to stop supply. Apart from some vaguely characterized strategies of ‘awareness-raising’, there are no practical actions aimed at reducing demand.

One reason that no action is being taken against demand is that nothing much is known about the organization and operation of the destination market. And that is a scandalous situation for us to find ourselves in. Remember that Elia was writing about demand back in 1993, nearly a quarter of a century ago now. But during that time only a few scholars have taken the time to research the nature of the destination market and of the collecting that helps shape it.

I made the point in 2006 that scholarly research into late-twentieth century (and now early-twenty-first century) collecting of cultural objects is a minority pursuit compared to research into the collecting practices of earlier centuries [2]. The following histogram shows the chronological range of papers published since 1989 in the Journal of the History of Collections, the foremost international journal for such research. The main focus of scholarly interest has been the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Histogram 1

The next histogram zooms in with a decade-by-decade breakdown of the twentieth century. Very little research has been published into late-twentieth century collecting. The few papers that have been published concern paintings and modern manuscripts, nothing that is likely to have been illicitly traded. These histograms between them demonstrate convincingly the general absence of scholarly interest in recently assembled collections of unprovenanced and most likely illicitly traded objects and their market contexts.

Histogram 2

Sociologist Angela Brew has written that ‘Research sometimes avoids attempting to solve society’s closest and most pressing problems, instead choosing to escape from the world to pursue knowledge of that which is distant and socially unproblematic’ [3]. How true. But there is a sad outcome of the scholarly reluctance to investigate modern day collecting. It encourages a misdirected policy response to a problem that appears in consequence to be intractable. This scholarly evasion must now be considered part of the problem and a topic worthy of research in its own right.


[1] Elia, Ricardo, 1993. A seductive and troubling work, Archaeology 46(1): 64-69.

[2] Brodie, Neil, 2006. Smoke and mirrors. In E. Robson, L. Treadwell and C. Gosden (eds), Who Owns Objects? Oxford, Oxbow: 1–14.

[3] Brew, Angela, 2001. The Nature of Research Inquiry in Academic Contexts. London: Routledge, at 78.

Mile-high collecting

I have been attending meetings about how to stop the illicit trade in cultural objects for more years than I care to remember. (And if something concrete doesn’t happen soon, it will be more years than I am able to remember). Pretty near the top of any agenda is the need to raise public awareness of the issues involved. (Which are that buying illicitly-traded objects creates a demand which is fed by a trade which causes looting which damages and destroys cultural heritage). It doesn’t take long for someone to start talking about the potential of inflight magazines for reaching out to a good cross-section of the public. The travelling public at least, the type of people who might be expected to take an interest in such things.

The British Airways High Life magazine is a case in point. Published monthly, it is found in most seat pockets on all British Airways flights, domestic and international. The December 2015 issue showed exactly what might be possible. It featured a well-illustrated article called Tusk Force, describing how poaching threatens the survival of elephants in Kenya and reporting on conservation strategies that are in place to save them. Good stuff. The same issue carried a piece by BBC world affairs editor John Simpson reminiscing about the time he bought what he believes to be Northern Song bowl from a bunch of tomb robbers in Beijing for ‘a hundred bucks’. He knows he really shouldn’t have, but he ‘can’t help thinking that the gang of skinny, jokey little characters from remotest China have brought something wonderful to light from the depths of the earth’. That’s all right then. Not really what is envisaged though at the meetings I attend.

High Life is produced and published for British Airways by Cedar Communications Ltd of London. The small print advises that ‘… opinions expressed in High Life do not necessarily reflect the views of British Airways or the publisher’. Let us hope they don’t. Let us hope too that the millions of passengers reading Simpson’s piece do not follow his example.