The Metropolitan and the Oxus Treasure

For years ArtWatch has called upon the world’s museums, including New York’s own venerable Metropolitan Museum, to move towards “transparency” and to be open with information regarding art works, particularly in the context of restoration projects and provenance for objects in its collection. Implicit in this call is the need for intellectual and academic freedom, so that honest and meaningful debates can occur.

The unwillingness of the Metropolitan Museum to tolerate dissent or discussion has become even more apparent in the past weeks. Dr. Oscar Muscarella (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania), archaeologist and senior research fellow at the Metropolitan, expressed in December (London Times, 19 December 2003; see below) his opinion that the British Museum’s Oxus Treasure, a collection of 180 objects typically identified as 6th-century B.C. Median or Achaemenian, is fake. The issue of forgeries in Middle Eastern art has been a topic addressed previously by Muscarella, most notably in his book The Lie Became Great (2002). The incomplete archaeological facts regarding the uncovering of the Oxus Treasure — named for the river on which it was supposedly found in 1877 — along with the atypical stylistic features of the works, have led Muscarella to label them as modern.

Despite the obvious displeasure of the British Museum, the controversy would likely have ended with the London Times item, had it not been for the venomous response of Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in defense of a “sister institution”. Besides the expected denouncement of Muscarella’s position, and the statement that his opinions did not reflect those of the institution, Montebello criticized Muscarella, noting that he was “marginalized” within the museum and that he only remained there because of the “exigencies of academic tenure”.

Muscarella has crossed paths with the Metropolitan before. Since his arrival there in 1964, he has cited the museum’s sketchy acquisition policy as well as its possession of an abundance of forgeries. After publicly blowing the whistle about a stolen vase, he was fired from the Met in 1972, and reinstated only after a lengthy legal battle. As persona non grata, he has continued his attacks on the Metropolitan, claiming that the famed Cycladic harp player was a forgery and that in addition a host of objects at the recent “Art of the First Cities” exhibition were plundered.

More important than the individual battles is the overarching issue: How can there be a real discussion of these issues of looting and forgeries, as well as restoration, if the staff of the museums, the individuals with access both to the objects as well as their records, are severely bound by what Montebello calls ” the time-honoured processes for professional discourse and debate”? And how thorough will that debate be if it all occurs behind closed doors within the museum establishment, who, whether or not we care to admit it, has a vested interest in maintaining the perception of authenticity across its collection? Rather than branding the public’s interest in forgeries as “antiestablishment”, Montebello would serve the entire art community better if he moved towards a policy of transparency rather than self-protection.