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NYT, Met Sing to Collectors: Elizabeth Stone I/V

New York Times & Met Museum Sing To Collectors
"Dirt Archaeologist" Elizabeth Stone Weighs In

By Suzan Mazur

Hungry for love after a trouncing on these pages by antiquities whistleblower Oscar Muscarella [ Antiquities Whistleblower Oscar White Muscarella], New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman and Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello took their "Who Owns Art" show last week to Greenwich Village's New School and an audience packed with collectors.

Coincidentally, the American Council for Cultural Policy, a group headed by the Met's lawyer from the Euphronios purchase days, Ashton Hawkins, is also sponsoring a "Who Owns The Past" panel April 3 at New York's Asia Society.

Many have raised eyebrows over members of the ACCP group supporting a revamping of the Cultural Property Implementation Act -- making it easier to import foreign antiquities -- and what looks like a lobbying for feeding the money machine of globalization at the expense of antiquities, not to mention humanity. ACCP is also pushing its message in book form featuring the musings of collector Shelby White, dealers Arielle Kozloff (ACCP Secretary), Andre Emmerich et al. and ACCP president Ashton Hawkins.

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Liam McDougall, for one, at the Sunday Herald noted "The ACCP has caused deep unease among archaeologists since its creation in 2001. Among its main members are collectors and lawyers with chequered histories in collecting valuable artefacts, including alleged exhibition of Nazi loot."

Not just anybody can rent stages like the New School's by the way. Even if you're charging $25 a seat as the New York Times was, substantial insurance is requested upfront to secure the space. "Dirt archaeologists" might have a tough time coming up with such funds to answer the same question "Who Owns Art?".

But it will take more than wily politics and theatrics to convince the public at large to support a reversal of laws protecting antiquities. Eyes are finally opening, for example, to the knowledge of decades-old collusion of the Met and the NYT regarding antiquities. I'm referring to the Sulzberger publishing family ensconced on the Met's board of trustees and acquisitions committee since the 1970s -- as Oscar Muscarella has established -- while the Times stable of reporters works the Park and Madison Ave. antiquities soirees.

It only raises more questions that the Metropolitan Museum called in select media to release the full Met-Italy antiquities agreement days after the agreement had already been signed (according to New York Sun's Russell Berman) and posted on these pages [Scoop: Suzan Mazur: The Italy-Met Euphronios Accord?].

Sam Smith, editor of Progressive Review/Undernews, picked up the Scoop story the following day noting that "the Met hasn't seen fit to release it [the agreement]. . ."[UNDERNEWS: ENRON FOR THE ART CROWD: THE MET-ITALY BACK STORY].

Smith included in his posting Vernon Silver's Bloomberg News report, which further scrutinized the conflict of interest issue Oscar Muscarella first cited, involving New York City Mayor/Met Trustee/Bloomberg News owner Michael Bloomberg ( the next-door Bermuda neighbor of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi).

While there are no NYT transcripts, tapes or CDs of the "Who Owns Art" event available for at least several weeks, Mesopotamian dirt archaeologist Elizabeth Stone -- an invited panelist who continues to ask "Why was I there?" -- has agreed to share her perspective on the evening.

Elizabeth Stone examining looting at the site of Larsa, Iraq.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Geographic Magazine

Elizabeth C. Stone was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and received her PhD from the University of Chicago. She is a specialist in the archaeology of complex societies in the Near East. Her research began with a focus on the organization of houses and households in ancient Mesopotamian cities, but rapidly expanded to a consideration of the role of neighborhoods in urban organization.

Today she is primarily concerned with the relationship between urban planning and underlying social and political organization in early complex societies.

She has directed archaeological field projects in Syria ('Ain Dara), Iraq (Mashkan-shapir) and now Turkey (Ayanis) in collaboration with Paul Zimansky.

Dr. Stone has published a number of books, including Nippur Neighborhoods, Adoption in Old Babylonian Nippur, and The Iron Age Settlement at 'Ain Dara, Syria, The Anatomy of a Mesopotamian City: Survey and Soundings at Mashkan-shapir as well as numerous articles, including contributions to Scientific American and Science.

Her research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a Fulbright grant. In 2003 she received a $4.1 million USAID grant to help rebuild Iraqi University programs in archaeology and environmental health.

She was the 2002 recipient of the American Schools of Oriental Reserch P. E. MacAllister Field Archaeology Award, a 2003 Research Recognition Award from the State University of New York, and a 2004 Special Membership Service Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Most recently she embarked on a project to use high resolution satellite imagery to investigate both ancient Mesopotamian settlement systems and to record the devastating looting of archaeological sites that has plagued that area in recent years.

Dr. Stone is a member of the anthropology faculty at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

The interview follows:

Suzan Mazur: I've been told by the New York Times organizer of "Who Owns Art," the March 6 panel at Manhattan's New School, that it was months in the planning. Can you tell me when you first found out about it and why you were brought in?

Elizabeth Stone: On the 13th of February was when they emailed me. I wish I could tell you why I was brought in.

Suzan Mazur: Who else was on the stage?

Elizabeth Stone: The other people on the stage were Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello and James Cuno, former director of the Harvard Art Museum and now president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has just completed a big acquisition program. They're very pleased to have had a capital campaign of acquiring pieces which include things like Chinese vases.

And Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy [Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy] at Princeton University, was the other person on the panel. He had a February 8 piece in The New York Review of Books which talked about this.

So, I don't really know what they originally thought they were going to do if the event was months in the planning. If it was only going to be Philippe de Montebello and James Cuno, they would not have much to discuss since they think the same way.

Suzan Mazur: Let's not forget NYT moderator, Michael Kimmelman [Yale/Harvard man]. Some of the ideas for the event were discussed in his Times story "Regarding Antiquities, Some Changes Please" 12/8/5, which Oscar White Muscarella demolished in our interview published Christmas day.

Elizabeth Stone: Kimmelman told me that he had nothing to do with the organization of the "Who Owns Art" event.

Suzan Mazur: Who was in the audience?

Elizabeth Stone: It was difficult for me to see. But my husband was in the audience and he and other people I've spoken to report it was an audience heavily dominated by collectors. There were some well known collectors who I could see.

Suzan Mazur: And dealers?

Elizabeth Stone: It was dark, but certainly from the response, this was an audience that was very much in favor of acquiring unprovenanced material.

Suzan Mazur: How much of the discussion was on antiquities?

Elizabeth Stone: Virtually all of the discussion had to do with antiquities. Occasionally people would bring in paintings, but not very often.

Suzan Mazur: Was the event about the Metropolitan Museum at all?

Elizabeth Stone: Well, the first question went to Philippe de Montebello about the Euphronios vase going back. Yes, that did seem to be the context for what was going on.

Suzan Mazur: According to the New York Sun's coverage the next day ["Met Director Derides Italy's Efforts to Claim What It Calls Looted Art"], Philippe de Montebello admonished Italy for commenting to the media that the Euphronios, Morgantina Silver et al. were looted. De Montebello was quoted as saying: "The whole process of how Italy prosecuted its case in the United States was shabby . . . entirely through the press."

What is your response to this?

Elizabeth Stone: I want to answer your question by going in another direction. Why was I there? I don't know about the Euphronios vase. I'm not a specialist in Etruscan stuff. That's really not what I do.

What I do is Iraq. Because I'm a Mesopotamia archaeologist, I have become engaged in tracking the looting -- first of the Iraqi Museum and now of Iraqi sites. So the subject of the Euphronios was all outside the realm of my understanding. It wasn't something that I had been following with baited breath.

Why was I there? Why didn't they bring in the head of the Archaeological Institute of America, for example? The AIA - the people who do do classical archaeology - who have a lot to say about the subject.

Suzan Mazur: So you weren't really interested in arguing de Montebello's position.

Elizabeth Stone: No, that's just not what I do. I'm a dirt archaeologist.

Suzan Mazur: Did you consider de Montebello's statement strange in light of the conflict of interest involving the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Times - as Oscar Muscarella has established - with the NYT publishing family on the Met's board of trustees for decades?

Elizabeth Stone: I didn't even know about that.

Suzan Mazur: The Sulzbergers are on the board of the museum and also on the acquisitions committee. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was chairman of the Met's board of trustees at one point. And now the March 6 New School event about the Met's return of the Euphronios, etc. is organized by the NYT?

Elizabeth Stone: All of that makes sense in retrospect, but at the time I couldn't figure out what I was doing there. Somebody had to be there to voice a contrary point of view given the panel that they had. I tried to talk to some people who follow the art market more seriously than I do before I went, but I knew that I wasn't the right person.

Suzan Mazur: You weren't probably going to take them on.

Elizabeth Stone: Not in the same way. I mean what am I going to do on a panel like this? I'm going to talk about Iraq because that's what I know. I don't know what goes on in Italy.

SM: The other point is that I had a conversation with the NYT organizer of the "Who Owns Art" event and she told me that the Met was not a part of the discussion, and therefore there wasn't a conflict of interest regarding the NYT hosting the talk. She was vaguely aware of the controversy about the Sulzbergers holding positions on the Met's board and acquisitions committee.

Elizabeth Stone: I would say the focus of two thirds of the discussion had to do with the collecting practices of major museums like the Metropolitan.

Suzan Mazur: I understand most people on the panel advocated looting in essence.

Elizabeth Stone: They paid lip service and said that nobody likes to have looted sites but went on to say that you can't prove objects have been looted unless you really can have written documentation like there was in the case of the Euphronios vase. Under the circumstances, yes, oh dear, we seem to be a little bit wrong and we need to send the thing back.

Suzan Mazur: Was there talk of digging up antiquities for a percentage? That's the legislation Berlusconi was pushing for but failed to get - 5% of the market value to the "diggers" who turn the antiquity over to the state. What they do in Britain.

Elizabeth Stone: People on the panel were holding up Britain as a model of how this should operate.

Suzan Mazur: Who was saying that?

Elizabeth Stone: I think it was James Cuno and de Montebello.

Suzan Mazur: Really. That people who dig up antiquities should be paid a percentage?

Elizabeth Stone: Right. I think also Professor Appiah was arguing that.

Suzan Mazur: They were in favor of it?

Elizabeth Stone: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: That's astonishing.

Elizabeth Stone: And they tried to make the argument, which I think is false and certainly is false to the area that I know, that most of the artifacts found are found when someone is building a house or plowing or whatever and what's the poor guy to do. If he takes it into the government, they'll arrest him for digging up antiquities.

Suzan Mazur: They're talking about digging up antiquities for a percentage on a global basis?

Elizabeth Stone: Global basis. All over the world.

Suzan Mazur: Did you find it odd that there seems to be a disregard for the value of the site and the culture that produced the antiquity? Never mind siftng the soil, the seeds etc. - the story's all on the vase.

Elizabeth Stone: I find that absolutely stunning. And I think that in the article in the NYT, and this was repeated at this event, but in slightly different words, Philippe de Montebello said that, well 98% of what we know - and I think he was talking about Greek vases - comes from the object and not from the context.

But you wouldn't even know that these were Greek without the context. You wouldn't know what they were, let alone all the other kinds of information that you can bring in.

I mean I mentioned two objects from Iraq where the context is crucial. One of them is the Mesopotamian flood myth which predates the Biblical story by at least 1,000 years. We only know about that because of a series of pieces of unbaked clay tablets that were stuck together.

If those fragments had not been dug up by archaeologists, they would never have made it into the market because the market only deals with complete tablets, so they would have been destroyed under the circumstances.

And the other is called the "White Lady" - one of the most important pieces in the museum. The piece was stolen as part of the looting of the Iraq Museum, but has since come back. She was found in a 4th millennium context, so she's one of the world's earliest pieces of professional sculpture. And she's incredible. But she would have been dated 3,000 later had she been found out of context - related to the classical world - because people didn't sculpt in marble again for 3,000 years.

So here is a situation where the context is absolutely crucial for understanding the object. I mean it's fine if you want to talk about Greek vases that we know a lot about. We know the artist and we can slot them into a scheme. But that scheme is based on a lot of knowledge and material that has come from Greece.

Suzan Mazur: Was there a push for the view at this event that art is the common property of man?

Elizabeth Stone: Yeah. That's especially the point of Professor Appiah who believes in "Cosmopolitanism."

Suzan Mazur: De Montebello was saying that as well?

Elizabeth Stone: Yes, but I think that was really Professor Appiah's point. I mean that was where he was pushing the discussion.

I confess there's a degree to which I do not disagree. I think it is much better if everybody has access to the art of the world and understands the art of the world and not just the art from within their own political borders. But the point is that if you're stealing it, no one is going to be very enthusiastic about having a lot of these long-term exchanges and loans which would make all kinds of art accessible to a wide range of people.

Suzan Mazur: And then you're putting it in a private museum. I mean the Met is a private institution - not to mention a secretive one - although it gets public money.

Elizabeth Stone: Professor Appiah's idea is that art shouldn't just be in museums but should be in everybody's houses so they can live with it. He's very much somebody who thinks that the market should allow art to circulate everywhere so everybody can have everything.

Suzan Mazur: Wow.

Elizabeth Stone: That was what he was advocating. I do think it's a complicated process because Americans would not have cared about what happened to the Iraq museum, for example, if they hadn't already been exposed to Mesopotamia through going to museums. That I think it is true.

And I think museums serve a purpose under those circumstances whether they're public or private. So long as they open their doors.

And I do think our understanding of the cause and effect and the morality of collecting has undergone an evolution after 1970. That was a real wake-up call for a lot of people. Archaeologists with whom I'd worked had a few antiquities at home back then.

Then in 1970 the profession woke up and agreed. Then some museums like the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the university museum in Philadelphia stopped purchasing antiquities.

Suzan Mazur: But as late as 1990 the Met was still at it. According to Vernon Silver of Bloomberg News, the Met tried to buy the Euphronios kylix depicting Sarpedon being carried off the Trojan battlefield by Sleep and Death - the same theme as the Euphronios krater now on loan from Italy to the Met and scheduled to go back to Italy in 2008. The Met attempted to purchase the cup via Sotheby's within days of the Hunt-Sotheby's auction of June 1990 where the piece was sold to art dealer Giacomo Medici.

Medici is now appealing an Italian court's 10-year sentence for antiquities smuggling. Bunker Hunt had purchased the looted cup from dealer Bob Hecht, who's now on trial in Rome for antiquities trafficking. And Hecht originally bought it from Medici. So the piece was perfectly laundered - having been exhibited at numerous American museums through the years.

Elizabeth Stone: I know for a fact that there's a statuette, for example, in the Met which almost certainly comes from Iraq. And it's on exhibit and it says it was acquired in the 1990s. Where? How? I don't know. But there are plenty of pieces that are on exhibit that say they were acquired in the 1990s.

One of the other peculiar things is that Philippe de Montebello was talking about how the average art museum's purchases (as opposed to donations in art and antiquities) were only $150,000 a year and he said that includes the Met. That suggests the Met didn't buy anything for eight years after it bought the Euphronios vase. That was $1 million. That struck me as a very peculiar number.

One of the things that bothered me was that he was using various statistics which I certainly wasn't in a position to refute.

Suzan Mazur: Was he putting these figures up for the audience to see?

Elizabeth Stone: No. He was just giving statistics such as a total of two billion dollars in art sales over a certain period, which if true has to include things like Rembrandts, and then argued that museums only spend this very small amount on antiquities. But here you are comparing the entire art market with that of antiquities, and are not including the donations that art museums get from private collectors.

Suzan Mazur: Why do you suppose the event was organized? Was it crisis management? Is there some type of lobbying going on perhaps to prevent the return of the Euphronios krater to Italy? What are your thoughts?

Elizabeth Stone: It might have been designed to keep collectors quiet. That is, the museums really benefit from the donations of collectors. And if the collectors really get nervous. . .

The place we ought to be is where we are when it comes to buying Brazilian parrots, buying fur coats and things like that. It's no longer a thing you do. It's no longer fashionable. And what you need to do is make that clear to the wealthy -- that it's no longer fashionable to collect antiquities because of the ethical problems. When you've done that, it's going to stop. It's really going to stop.

On the other hand, at the moment the museums are not going to stop with the materials they have and I can guess that's why the event was set up, I'd say it was to reassure the collectors to keep collecting so that the items continue to flow into the museums.

Suzan Mazur: Have you ever met Bob Hecht or Marion True?

Elizabeth Stone: No.

Suzan Mazur: You're an Iraqi antiquities expert. Was there discussion about the looting of Iraq to any great degree?

Elizabeth Stone: Only when I brought it up.

Suzan Mazur: You brought it up and were there comments from the others?

Elizabeth Stone: No. Except isn't Iraq a mess.

Suzan Mazur: I'd like to talk with you at length about Iraq in a separate interview, but is there anything briefly you'd like to say about the situation there at the moment?

Elizabeth Stone: Actually, the one conversation that was brought up was that nobody knows where the Iraqi stuff's going right now. It's not showing up in the market. That was in the discussion, that is peculiar.

It might also be related to the American Association of Museum Directors' recent statements on ethical policies, which are that you shouldn't buy anything that is unprovenienced if we haven't known about the object's existence for 10 years. The solution for the dealers and museums, of course, is just to build more warehouses. Then once it's been out of the country for 10 years everything's supposed to be fine. So that may be what's going on with the Iraqi stuff, which is covered by the embargo.

Suzan Mazur: Is there anything else you'd like to highlight about this event?

Elizabeth Stone: Yes. I think there's one thing which it took me a while to figure out. That is, I had a discussion with Michael Kimmelman the day before the event. He called me up and said he'd start by talking to Philippe de Montebello and then he was going to turn to me and ask me to explain AIA's position on the Euphronios krater. Which is fine except that he didn't.

He turned to Philippe de Montebello first and then he asked me why is this entire discussion about antiquities happening now?

I have no idea why it's happening now. This all has to do with issues in Italy. So I was completely blind-sided by that particular question and that wasn't the question I was expecting. And I was never asked the AIA's point of view. The only thing that happened was that there were a few snide remarks made about the AIA.

Suzan Mazur: Really. What did they say?

Elizabeth Stone: Well, they were mostly dismissing things that the AIA was saying. That the AIA had an unrealistic position blah blah blah. That was the only question that I was told I was going to be asked and I wasn't.

Suzan Mazur: An unrealistic position -- the AIA's position that objects should stay in the ground.

Elizabeth Stone: Right. A lot of the conversation was anti-nationalism and whether this was coming from Professor Appiah or from the others - it was all against people being very nationalistic.

And Cuno said, for example. . .

Suzan Mazur: It's a political push for the money machine of globalization and resulting diminishing of humanity?

Elizabeth Stone: Cuno made the argument that Italy had been founded five months after the Met and so what do the Italians care.

Suzan Mazur: Italy had been founded five months after the Met?

Elizabeth Stone: As a country. I then pointed out that Americans don't have the same feeling about their antiquities that people do where they can trace themselves back generation after generation after generation in the same general part of the world. Because America is a country of immigrants.

And then James Cuno said what does a Moroccan immigrant to Italy care?

I said yes most Italians -- if you look at their genetics -- are not that dissimilar from the Romans and the Etruscans.

Appiah next accused me of rasicsm. So It really got to be a little odd.

Suzan Mazur: I think one of the curious things about this is that not just anybody can go over to the New School and rent the auditorium for a forum. It costs a lot of money.

Elizabeth Stone: They were charging $25 a seat.

Suzan Mazur: The party renting has also got to front a lot of money for insurance. It's not like the dirt archaeologists can just go in there and have their say next on the stage. So the event was shaky also from that standpoint.

Elizabeth Stone: The whole thing was bizarre.

Suzan Mazur: Especially in light of my interviews with Oscar White Muscarella, where he skewered Michael Kimmelman, Philippe de Montebello and the Met and the Sulzbergers regarding their collusion. And then for Kimmelman and de Montebello to come out in defiance - to stage this event in front of an audience of collectors is wild.

Elizabeth Stone: I thought of pulling out of the event right at the end when it was clear after I looked at the publicity. I think that on the New School website I wasn't mentioned at all. And on the NYT website, it was de Montebello, Cuno, Appiah and "others".

Suzan Mazur: Well, I'm glad you were able to share some of the highlights of what happened at "Who Owns Art," because you can't get a transcript or CD of the event for weeks, that is if the NYT decides to release it at all.

Elizabeth Stone: Well, why did the NYT put on the event if they're not going to use it? It's all very odd.

Suzan Mazur: Thanks very much for your comments Elizabeth and I look forward to talking in Part II about Iraq, which is so important.



Suzan Mazur's stories on art and antiquities have been published in The Economist, Financial Times, Connoisseur, Archaeology (cover) and Newsday. Some of her other reports have appeared on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox television news programs. Email:

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