The agreement is made – to the benefit of all the partners. This specifically concerns the return of four vases from Kiel University’s Collection of Classical Antiquities to the Italian government. The artworks are to be returned to the “Tutela Patrimonio Culturale” in 2024. In exchange, the Kiel-based collection will receive loans from the Italian inventory. Prof. Dr Annette Haug, Director of Kiel’s Collection of Classical Antiquities, worked closely with the then Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Culture (MBWK) on the details of the German side of the cultural agreement.
The decision to draw up this contract is based on the international review of the business dealings of Italian art dealer Gianfranco Becchina. This involved the inventory in Kiel, too. Four objects – a bell crater, a Gnathian crater, an Apulian-red figure vase and the well-known loutrophoros – were acquired from Becchina and are very likely to originate from grave robberies in the Apulia region. The loutrophoros was acquired in 1987 with funds from the Kulturstiftung des Landes Schleswig-Holstein (Schleswig-Holstein cultural foundation). The state made it available on permanent loan to the Collection of Classical Antiquities at the Kunsthalle zu Kiel (art gallery). The Kulturstiftung (cultural foundation) was founded in 1984 and converted into a foundation under public law in 1995.
In February 2018, those responsible for the “Tutela Patrimonio Culturale” approached Prof. Dr Annette Haug and the state of Schleswig-Holstein requesting the return of the artworks. This was because “the objects were exported without the authorisation of the Italian government in accordance with legislation applicable there since 1909”.
“We have a moral responsibility to return these pieces,” explained Professor Annette Haug. According to German law applicable at that time, the acquisition was legal - if controversial. “The UNESCO Convention did not apply here until 2007, the Act on the Protection of Cultural Property (Kulturgüterschutzgesetz) came into force in 2016.” Haug worked on a solution together with Dr Manuel Flecker, curator of the institution, and the MBWK.
Through intensive and partnership-based exchange, a bilateral contract was drafted to regulate the return of the objects. Both sides have now ratified this contract so that it is legally valid. According to the agreement, the objects will remain in Kiel until 2024 and will then be handed over in an official ceremony. After that the Collection of Classical Antiquities will close while the Kunsthalle zu Kiel is restored. Once it is reopened, Italian museums will provide the Collection of Classical Antiquities with loans of equal value for a fixed period of time.
“I consider it our responsibility to make the story behind these pieces part of the exhibition. This is why we are planning to exhibit a 3D replica of the loutrophoros that addresses the grave robberies, for example,” said Prof. Haug.
Original classical antiquities are now only incorporated into the collection through foundations, donations or permanent loans. “Our acquisitions have shifted to purchasing plaster casts.” Dr Manuel Flecker, curator of the Kiel University collection, reinforced this by adding: “In principle, Kiel’s Collection of Classical Antiquities now refuses to acquire items from the art trade as the provenance of these objects is usually problematic.”
Kiel’s Collection of Classical Antiquities acquired the vases in the 1980s and 1990s. According to German law applicable at that time, the acquisition was legal, if controversial. “We are not obliged to return the items retroactively, but we have a moral responsibility to give these pieces back,” explained Professor Annette Haug. “Grave robberies destroy international research findings. Only when museums and individuals consistently refrain from acquiring such objects will we have made a decisive step towards protecting cultural property and also towards understanding other cultures. We want to set an example by returning these artworks.”