November 28 2013
Sicilian Art on the Do-Not-Travel List
Sicilian Art on the Do-Not-Travel List: A look at some of the important artworks that have been banned for travel by Sicily's regional government.
By HUGH EAKIN
Published: November 26, 2013
Sicily's regional government has set a travel ban on 23 of the island's most important artworks, a decree that says such works, many of which were recently lent to museums in the United States and elsewhere, should not circulate abroad except under extraordinary circumstances.
A seven-foot Greek goddess returned by the Getty Museum is on Sicily's "immovable" list.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Antonello's work 'The Virgin Annunciate' was lent to the Met in 2005, but Sicily says it will no longer leave the island.
The do-not-travel list includes paintings by Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina, ancient Greek sculpture and a rare ensemble of Hellenistic silver that was returned to Sicily in 2010 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an earlier restitution agreement.
The policy shift, enacted in June but largely unnoticed outside Italy, reflects growing concerns by Sicilian officials that their most important treasures are too often out of the country, while their own museums suffer. The decree says that loans to foreign museums "have not produced benefits" for Sicily and have not occurred under "conditions of reciprocity with the borrowing institutions, which often offer in exchange works of inferior cultural value and renown."
Sicilian museums are facing a "financial crisis," said Sergio Gelardi, the general director of Sicily's culture administration.
By keeping more works at home, he said, the island hopes to draw more tourists.
For any works approved for loan, the Sicilian decree institutes substantial fees, calculated as a percentage of the insurance value of the work, to be paid by the borrowing institution.
It appears that the rules have been invoked in only one loan agreement, an antiquities exhibition currently at the Cleveland Museum of Art that was planned before the rules took effect. As a result, it is not yet clear to what extent Sicily intends to impede such transfers.
Sicily's regional government, because of its autonomous status within the Italian system, has broad leeway to make its own cultural policies, and the new rules contrast with Italy's own lending policies, which have become more liberal in recent years. They also fly in the face of a series of restitution agreements over looted antiquities in American museum collections, including the landmark 2006 accord between the Met and the Italian culture ministry.
In exchange for turning over to Italy and Sicily 21 disputed antiquities, the Met has received a series of loans from Italy "of equivalent beauty and artistic/historical significance."
Among the objects relinquished by the Met, the Hellenistic silver, which is known as the Morgantina silver, was subject to a continuing loan arrangement and is supposed to return to the Met for four years in 2014. Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, said that the loan of the silver would take place when the Met returns other material borrowed from Italy.
But in an email on Tuesday, Mariarita Sgarlata, Sicily's highest cultural official, said that Sicily hoped to modify the terms of the silver loan. "At the moment, we are looking for an alternative solution to propose to the Met, one that would be mutually advantageous to Sicily and the New York museum."
Asked about that statement, Mr. Holzer said, "We have not received any notification from Sicily and we will review any such proposal with an open mind."
Malcolm Bell III, an archaeologist at the University of Virginia who is co-director of excavations at Morgantina, a site near Aidone, Sicily, from which the silver is believed to have been looted, said: "The flaw in the agreement, from the Sicilian point of view, is that during the period when the silver goes back to New York, there is nothing in its place at the little Aidone museum. But when the silver is in Sicily, Italy must lend the Met works of equal beauty and value."
In recent years, Sicily, long a victim of looting, has gained back some of the most prized ancient art in the world, including a seven-foot limestone and marble Greek goddess from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But many of the works reside in small regional museums that struggle to draw visitors. According to a report this year in the Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, the museum in Aidone, which houses the silver and the cult statue, received 13,410 visitors in 2012.
A new administration that took power in Sicily in the last year has expressed disappointment with existing loan practices. In 2005, for example, the Sicilian region sent, on its own initiative, three Antonello paintings to the Met for a much publicized exhibition. Now, those three paintings are on the "immovable" list.
"It's perfectly understandable," said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met who negotiated the museum's 2006 restitution accord with Italy. "Sicily doesn't have the depth. If you take away one of these top pieces, you've created a big gap."
The issue developed during the spring, when the Getty and Cleveland museums were finalizing a loan show of Sicilian antiquities that grew out of the Getty's earlier restitution agreement with Italy. Sicilian officials informed the museums that the show's two star objects, the Charioteer of Mozia and a gold phiale, might not be permitted to travel to Cleveland. As those talks were taking place, the ban was being drawn up in Sicily.
In July, after its enactment, the Sicilian government asked the Cleveland museum for loan fees totaling roughly $260,000 to keep those two works in the show. (Sicilian officials said that fees for the entire exhibition, which included more than 60 items from Sicily, would have been about $550,000 under the new rules.) Loan fees of this sort are not unheard-of, but Italy does not charge them, and American museums that borrow from foreign institutions typically pay only for insurance and shipping.
In the end, Sicily accepted a counter offer from Cleveland to send a group of important works to Palermo at the museum's expense in 2015, and the exhibition was saved. The deal called for the loans to Sicily to be of "equivalent cultural significance" as the Sicilian loans to Cleveland, and stated that they should include Caravaggio's "Crucifixion of St. Andrew" from Cleveland's permanent collection.
Such bargaining could become an important feature of the new rules, according to Salvatore Settis, an Italian expert in cultural heritage law. "In the current Italian and Sicilian environment," Mr. Settis said, "laws are there to allow for exceptions, and exceptions are permitted in order to allow for negotiation, and negotiation will be about what to get in exchange."
Timothy Potts, the director of the Getty Museum, expressed concern about the new loan restrictions, noting that American museums have often contributed in other ways, including costly conservation work on borrowed objects, and that fees could be prohibitive for smaller museums.
While the Getty's return of antiquities removed a "formal barrier to collaboration," he said, it was "naïve to think that, once the restitutions had been made, there would automatically be a huge increase in loans."
A version of this article appeared in print on November 27, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Citing Inequity, Sicily Bans Loans of 23 Artworks.
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