Artefact scandal a salutary lesson

by Sally Blundell / 23 March, 2012
The saga of artefacts gifted by New Zealand ending up for sale in a London antique shop is a salutary lesson.
It began with a simple question of provenance: how did a statuette of the founder of Canterbury, John Robert Godley, end up in the window of London antiquities dealer Douglas Barrett? That was in 2009.

By the end of the year, three further items – artefacts originally gifted by New Zealand to the Commonwealth Institute, then transferred to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2002 – were found on the antiquities market without provenance and without having gone through standard museum deaccessioning processes.

The Listener reported on the unfolding affair last April, quoting prominent New Zealand gallery director Jenny Harper saying, “Is this the arse-end of colonialism?” Since then, freelance museum consultant Katherine Prior has

tracked down the sale of five more statuettes from the same Empire Builders series as the Godley figure – all without provenance; all, she writes, “severed from history”.

Following an inquiry instituted by the Commonwealth Education Trust, three of the items identified in the Listener article – a model pataka, a Maori poupou and the Godley statuette – have since been returned to the museum. The fourth, a 19th-century Maori pare (a finely carved lintel), was sold, first to a private “museum” in Sydney, then to a buyer in New Zealand.

The appearance of these items on the private market is mired in a tangle of claims and counterclaims. What went on may not be illegal but it certainly seems unethical. In November 2009, then director Gareth Griffiths told the Commonwealth Education Trust that “to my knowledge no items have been disposed of”. But a police report identified three receipts made out to Barrett and signed by Griffiths totalling £115,000 “for the purchase of items from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum”.

Griffiths later said through his solicitor, “Any objects were disposed of with the knowledge and agreement of trustees.” But the trustees told the police they had no knowledge of cheques received for the sale of any objects.

Although a more recent police inquiry into allegations of theft found “insufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges”, the saga does raise significant questions about director-trustee relationships and trusteeship in general. As Barrett later told the UK’s Art Newspaper, “How can this have gone unnoticed by the board of trustees?”

“I don’t believe there’s any way they could have known,” says British Empire and Commonwealth Museum board chairman Neil Cossons on the phone from England. “I don’t believe the trustees have been negligent in the sense that they could have prevented any of this material going out. Trustees are not hands-on. We relied on [Griffiths] – Griffiths holds the answers.”

The museum almost certainly has no future. Its accounts for 2010 include £222,000 (NZ$425,000) of income from “the sale of artefacts and other unauthorised transactions” undertaken by “a former company employee”. (Griffiths was dismissed in February 2011 for “abuse of his position as director and the unauthorised disposal of museum objects”.) Plans to relocate the museum to London have been cancelled, and an intended exhibition on Palestine has been shelved, having already chalked up £500,000 in costs. The trustees, says Cossons, see “no prospect of reopening … The key thing now is to find a good home for the collection and to make best use of it in terms of public access.”

Meanwhile, the much-awaited collection audit is finally under way, and Cossons says the trustees expect to reach “some accommodation” with Barrett over items he bought from the museum.

Discussions on the fate of the pare are also under way. Senior adviser Elizabeth Cotton says the Ministry for Culture and Heritage is working with the New Zealand buyer and the museum to determine legal ownership. If it finds ownership remains with the museum, Cossons says, the trustees will gift the taonga back to New Zealand.

Back in the UK, the Charity Commission for England and Wales has received three complaints about the museum, including one from Harper, director of Christchurch Art Gallery, on the grounds that the museum “is no longer fulfilling the very public and functional trusts of a charitable museum”.

“This kind of incident shows the need to continue to voice concern and to do so publicly,” she says. “The more that professional people and the public are aware of these situations, the more careful they will be in making donations and the more scrupulous they will want the museum to be.”
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