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.

References

  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.