Eiteljorg takes artifact ownership dispute to court: Quarrels over origins rare but troubling for museums

August 18, 2008

A New Mexico man claims an artifact in the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art's collection was stolen from him in 1984 before it was purchased and donated to the Indianapolis museum in 1989.

Artifacts dealer Robert Vandenberg says the American Indian war shirt-a long, fringed shirt made of hide-is worth as much as $200,000 and he is asking the Eiteljorg to hand it over.

The museum, on the other hand, says Indianapolis businessman Harrison Eiteljorg had clear title to the shirt when he gave it to the museum named for him.

Museum leaders have allowed Vandenberg to examine the shirt and worked with him to resolve the situation, but ultimately questioned his documents, which include conflicting reports on whether Vandenberg actually owned the shirt he reported stolen.

Vandenberg threatened to sue, and the Eiteljorg took the case to Marion Superior Court in June, asking a judge to decide who should have the shirt. The case was moved to federal court Aug. 4 and a pretrial hearing is set for October.

Although Eiteljorg officials declined to comment on the pending litigation, Director of Collections Amy McKune said disputes are unusual at the Eiteljorg and other museums due to strict rules about documenting an object's chain of possession.

"I've been in the museum field for more than 20 years and I've really not dealt with a case like this previously," McKune said.

The Eiteljorg, which has about 5,000 pieces in its collection, has had one other ownership claim in recent history. In 1996, it turned over a Tlingit clan hat-a red, green and black painted cedar headpiece-under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Under the 1990 federal law, museums had to publish an inventory of their artifacts, then American Indian tribes could reclaim items used in burials or those that were communally owned and not rightfully sold.

Harrison Eiteljorg purchased the hat and donated it to the museum, according to the federal register. The Tlingit, whose territory stretched along the western shoreline of Canada into Alaska, contacted the museum about the headpiece, triggering further research into its provenance before it was transferred to them.

Museums spend a great amount of time researching an object's origins before adding it to their collections. Sellers and donors alike are expected to have a receipt showing how they acquired a piece, and research often can trace ownership back for generations to when the object was created. But many older artifacts have gaps in their records or, in rare cases, false paperwork.

At the Indiana State Museum, officials can take years researching a gift or acquisition, even going so far as calling family members of a potential donor to see if there's agreement about donating.

"In some ways, collecting is a very tedious business," said Dale Ogden, ISM's chief curator of cultural history. But it's best to proceed slowly, he said, since ownership claims "are a museum's worst nightmare."

Ogden has worked at the Indiana State Museum 23 years and can remember only three cases where there were serious questions about an object's title-including a recent claim by the city of Gary that a painting donated to the museum was once part of a collection displayed in city schools.

City officials and museum leaders have reached an agreement to display the Frank Dudley painting "The Landing of the Fishing Boat" in Gary, said Jim May, ISM's vice president of museum programs.

Indianapolis Museum of Art CEO Max Anderson has advocated nationally for museums to do more to stem the trade in illegally exported antiquities. The topic is heating up for two reasons: More countries are going after illegally exported works, trying to get them returned to their national collections, and the illegal market is blossoming, as plunderers target war zones such as Iraq.

But it's not a new problem. International leaders came together in 1970 and formulated a convention on acquiring antiquities, stating that any object exported from its country of discovery after 1970 must have a paper trail.

The United States didn't sign the pact until 1983, and there's been debate nationally about whether museums are required to use 1970 or 1983 as the cutoff date. Anderson has argued that the earlier date is more appropriate, saying museums must do the most they can to dry up the market for stolen objects.

In 2007, the IMA announced its commitment to using 1970 as the "bright line" for when an object's paperwork must be held to tighter scrutiny. In June, the national Association of Art Museum Directors followed suit. The association also debuted a Web page, built and hosted by the IMA, where museums could post about objects with gaps in ownership records.

The IMA is working to post much of its 50,000-piece permanent collection online, but it has not had an ownership claim against an object in its collection in recent history, said Chief Registrar Katie Haigh.

However, it is involved in a pending case in which a donor tried to give the museum a collection of objects. During the IMA's research, it became clear there were questions surrounding the title to the collection. Haigh declined to give more specifics on the objects or the donor.
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