Collecting and Modern Philanthropy

New York University recently accepted a $200 million donation to create an Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The donation was made by the owner of one of North America’s largest private collections of archaeological artefacts, Shelby White, on behalf of herself and her late husband, Leon Levy. The massive scale of the gift has stimulated media interest in the story, and the problems that it raises. Admittingly, there is nothing new in this sort of donation. It is archaeology that has changed. A number of American universities and museums have thus adopted policies against accepting money from collectors such as Leon and White.

But there is clearly no consensus on the issue. Lawrence Stager, a board-member of the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, told the New York Times:

“The jihadists, as I would call them now — who think that to even publish anywhere an item that doesn’t have a provenance is forbidden — this is an utterly ridiculous position,” he continued. “If you took that position, we wouldn’t know anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those were found by Bedouin in caves beside the Dead Sea. None of them were found by archaeologists. If you followed the purists, you would totally ignore it.”

“Jihadists” and “purists”? The lines have certainly been dramatically drawn in the North American debate, as clearly, much is at stake. And even a faculty member of one of the universities that do not wish to receive funds from Leon and White appears ready to change their policy (also in the New York Times):

“If there were basically no strings attached, I think we’d have to sit down and think very hard about our ethical position here,” said James C. Wright, chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr.

“The question is: What’s the line?” he added. “What sort of person’s money would be so dirty that you wouldn’t touch it?”

There is of course so much more at stake here than American academic policies, and the debate deserves some European perspectives, not only because it is European heritage that is the focus of White’s donation to the NYU, but also because of its wider implications for the discipline.

Related stories: “Donor at Center of Artifacts Storm” (The Harvard Crimson, 6 April 2006) / “Doubts on Donors’ Collection Cloud Met Antiquities Project” (New York Times, 10 December 2005).

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One Response to Collecting and Modern Philanthropy

  1. Owen Barton says:

    A few additional items from the NY Times that were not given front page status: a correction, and a letter to the editor.

    April 14, 2006
    Because of an editing error, a front-page article on April 1 about a $200 million gift to New York University for an institute of ancient studies misstated the policy of the University of Pennsylvania on accepting money from the Leon Levy Foundation or from Shelby White, the widow of Leon Levy, who has been accused of buying antiquities looted from archaeological sites. Richard M. Leventhal, director of the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said it “would always carefully consider any monetary gift, and the use for which it is intended.” He said that neither the university nor the museum had a policy of declining to accept Levy-White money.

    A Clash Over Antiquities
    Published: April 5, 2006
    To the Editor:
    Re ”$200 Million Gift Prompts a Debate Over Antiquities” (front page, April 1):

    The ill grace with which some archaeologists have greeted the magnificent Leon Levy and Shelby White gift to their discipline comes as no surprise.

    For the past few decades archaeologists have increasingly adopted postures that assume their own virtue and deny that of others. They do not seem to understand that acquisitors (museums, collectors and the art and antiquities trade) also have valid interests and important roles to play in our nation’s cultural life.

    The interests of acquisitors and those of the general public sometimes conflict with those of archaeologists. But that does not prove that acquisitors and the public are iniquitously wrong.

    Archaeology is an important profession, and archaeologists do important work. They do not, however, inhabit a higher moral universe than acquisitors or the general public. Their growing habit of character assassination of acquisitors is unattractive and unwarranted, and should cease.

    Archaeologists should accept the fact that there can be legitimate differences between them and acquisitors, and adjust to those differences and build on what they have in common.

    John Henry Merryman
    Stanford, Calif., April 1, 2006

    The writer is emeritus professor of law and affiliated professor of art at Stanford.