THE VALUE OF ART IN TODAY’S WORLD
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Helen may have been the face that launched a thousand ships, but Mona Lisa is a face that launches around six million people a year to catch a glimpse of her. The Mona Lisa resides in the Salle des États in the Louvre (Paris, France). As of 2005, she was given a new, refurbished room that contains special lighting to eliminate any shadows cast by the frame, new protective glass to better show Da Vinci’s translucent optical effects, specially designed acoustics to help absorb crowd noise, and even her own curator, whose entire job and responsibility is looking after her. 1
Why so much fuss over one, relatively small painting? The Mona Lisa is considered priceless and a national treasure by the French people and regarded as the most famous painting throughout the world. After she was stolen in 1911 and subsequently missing for two years, the French government has grown more and more protective—encasing her in bulletproof glass to protect her from further damage after recent attacks from disgruntled patrons who threw things like paint, acid and sharp objects at her. Because she is so valuable and beloved, unlike most famous works of art, the Mona Lisa does very little travelling; she has visited the United States only once, when she was loaned directly to President Kennedy from January 8 to February 3, 1963. 2 If the world wants to see Mona Lisa, they must come to her in Paris.
It’s not just the Mona Lisa either. Recently, art and artifacts have been causing world-wide drama over ownership and who had the right to the art: those who paid for it or those who produced it. This is the case with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and their Greek love goddess statue. Purchased in 1987, despite warnings from the museum’s chief conservationist Luis Monreal, this statue, thought to be Aphrodite, was purchased for a record price of $18 million (which is closer to $33.3 million in today’s dollars). Monreal suspected that the statue had not been part of a private Swiss collection (as the museum’s then-curator Marion True said) because of dirt in the folds of her robe and her lack of documentation, and he was right. The statue had been acquired illegally (through tomb-raiding) after 1939, “the cutoff date after which Italy no longer allowed ancient artifacts to be removed without government approval.” In December, after a tug-owar between the US and Italy and several lengthy trials, Aphrodite was returned to Italy, along with hundreds of other questionable artifacts from other museums (like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) across the United States. “Some pieces will end up in warehouses—after all, it’s not as if Italy doesn’t already have an embarrassment of art riches. For the Italian government, which views the return of Aphrodite and all of the artifacts as a major achievement, the fact that these historic treasures will be enjoyed by only a fraction of the people who saw them at the Getty and the Met means nothing. ‘It’s not about that,’ True and Hecht’s former Rome prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, told The Daily Beast. ‘It is the principle—and the provenance.’”3
Indiana Jones constantly claimed “this belongs in a museum,” but whose museum does the art belong in?
Top: Sebastiano Missineo, Minister of Culture from Italy, and Karol Wright, Senior Curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum, stand near the cult statue of a goddess thought to be Aphrodite.
Bottom: Peruvian artifact from Yale's collection.
After several years of bitter disputes, Yale University announced this past November that they would return thousands of Incan artifacts taken from Machu Picchu (between 1911 and 1915) to Peru. "It has always been Yale's desire to reach an agreement that honors Peru's rich history and cultural heritage and recognizes the world's interest in ongoing public and scholarly access to that heritage," a statement issued by the university said. Originally, both sides agreed to give Peru legal title to the artifacts, but problems arose over a dispute about how many artifacts would be returned. Filing a lawsuit against Yale in 2008 and escalating to a more aggressive international media campaign in October, the Peruvian government sought to pressure the school over the artifacts, including sending a letter from President Alan Garcia to President Barack Obama seeking the U.S. leader's help. While the artifacts are making their way back to Peru in early 2011, there is no Peruvian museum for these artifacts yet. Garcia plans to ask San Antonio Abad University in Cuzco to take temporary custody of the artifacts when they are brought back; he will then ask Peru's Congress to establish a special budget to create a museum and research center in Cuzco as a permanent home for the collection. 4
These cases are just a sampling of the debates surrounding the value and ownership of art in today’s world market, proving that finder’s keepers does not always apply. So, who has the right to own the art (if art can be owned)? With other major museums taking their cue on questionable pieces of art from the Getty and Yale, have we opened a Pandora’s Box of art ownership?