Unesco under fire for using Met objects in anti-trafficking campaign
Advertisements said that the works were recently looted, but Met documentation shows that they have a much longer provenance
13th November 2020 20:28 GMT
Similarly, another ad in the series with the headline “Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative” depicted a funerary monument that the Met says is thought to be from the city of Palmyra in Syria and created during the first three centuries AD, placed on a bookcase next to some tasteful vases and a fuzzy armchair. “This priceless antiquity was stolen in the National Museum of Palmyra by Islamic State militants during their occupation of the city, before being smuggled into the European market,” the ad read. “The trade in antiquities is one of the terror group’s main sources of funding.”
But the Met’s online database shows that the sculpture was acquired by the museum in 1901.
“The Real Price of Art campaign, created with the communication agency DDB Paris, draws on the language of the worlds of art and design to reveal the dark truth behind certain works,” Unesco says at its website. “Each visual presents an object in situ, integrated into a buyer’s home. The other side of the decor is then revealed: terrorism, illegal excavation, theft from a museum destroyed by war, the cancelling of a people’s memory… Each message tells the story of an antique stolen from a region of the world (Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America).”
The ads are keyed to the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Unesco convention against illicit trafficking in cultural property, which the agency is celebrating this weekend. An international conference on the theme of illegal trade is planned from 16 to 18 November.
A spokesman for the Met says: “When this came to our attention recently, we immediately reached out to Unesco to have the Met images removed from the campaign—and they assured us that that will take place.” The museum makes many high-resolution images of objects in its collection that have entered the public domain available online; it remains unclear why Unesco or the DBB ad agency decided to use these specific works, but they are among the top results when searching for similar objects—such as “head of buddha” or “funerary relief”—on the Met’s website.
Cinoa, the international federation of art and antiques dealers associations, also protested the inclusion of the images. “The campaign is fraudulent, with the desired intention to mislead the public on the provenance of works of art and to damage the credible reputation of the art trade and collectors,” Cinoa’s president, Clinton R. Howell, wrote in a letter today to the director general of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay.
The original ads inaccurately described the provenance of the objects drawn from the Met’s collection, giving them an illicit history. For example, alongside an image of a Buddha head dating from the fifth to sixth century and originating in Afghanistan, which appeared in an ad perched on a sideboard next to books and a lamp, a description reads: “This antiquity belongs to the Kabul Museum. In 2001, a large part of its collections was smashed into pieces by the Taliban. As the group was overthrown later that year, this priceless item was looted by local dealers and smuggled into the US market.” The headline over the text proclaimed: “Terrorism is such a great curator.”
In fact, the Buddha head has been in the Met’s collection since 1930, according to documentation at the museum’s website. The acquisition clearly precedes the 1970 Unesco convention prohibiting trade in illegally trafficked art.