U.S. museums have clearer guidelines on acquiring ancient art today than just a few years ago. In 2008, both the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) recommended that museums acquire no object unless it was exported legally after 1970 or had left before 1970 the country in which it was discovered. That was the year a Unesco accord recognized a nation’s right to control cultural property created or found within its borders. AAM guidelines state that when documentation is unclear, a museum “should be transparent about why this [acquisition] is an appropriate decision.” AAMD guidelines say a museum may use “an informed judgment” but “must carefully balance” the risks and benefits of acquiring the object.
Museums once had “an approach to collecting ancient art which was ‘Don’t buy anything that you know to be stolen,’” says Maxwell L. Anderson, CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and chairman of an AAMD task force on cultural property. “I said we have to flip that to, ‘Don’t buy anything unless you know it’s not stolen.’” AAMD and AAM differ in scope—the former includes some 200 museum directors, the latter some 18,000 museums—but they cooperated to ensure “there was no daylight between their guidelines,” says Erik Ledbetter, chief of staff of the AAM guideline task force.
A policy adopted by the Smithsonian regents in 1973 states that museum officials must determine that an object considered for acquisition was not “unethically acquired from its source, unscientifically excavated, or illegally removed” from the country in which it was found, and, further, that it entered the United States legally. The provenance of acquired objects, the policy says, “shall be a matter of public record.”