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Standards & Guidelines » CAA Guidelines

Statement on the Importance of Documenting the Historical Context of Objects and Sites

This resolution was unanimously approved by the CAA Board of Directors on May 2, 2004.

In 1993, the collections of the national museum of Afghanistan in Kabul were looted, destroyed, or dispersed. Just a year ago, during a military action, the National Museum of Iraq was looted and stripped. Archaeological sites in both countries are currently exposed to uncontrolled looting. Recently, a member of the CAA Board of Directors reported that thirty-three Byzantine and medieval churches in Kosovo have been looted, stripped, and/or destroyed. There is strong evidence that art objects and objects of cultural heritage from these and other places are being sold on the illicit art market.1 In the present political climate worldwide, cultural patrimony remains at great risk.


In 1954, the United Nations established the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In 1970, UNESCO established a Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. These conventions, and the protocols attached to them, have been widely supported and endorsed by museums, publishers, and other institutions, including the College Art Association.

Building on the principles established by these conventions, we now examine the role of scholars and publishers in upholding them. When a work of art is published or exhibited in a prestigious venue, its market value may increase. Further, if a work’s provenance is dubious or known to be illicit, display or reproduction of that work by a reputable organization may be interpreted as endorsement of its improper status. Publishers, museums, and scholars should therefore follow an ethical policy on the reproduction and display of art with uncertain or problematic provenance.

Projects to research World War II–era art provenances and to return stolen works to owners and their heirs have proliferated. Sadly, recent decades have also seen the looting of art and archaeological artifacts from museums and sites in the Balkans, Africa, China, the Middle East, and elsewhere. In recent years, several scholarly societies and museum professional organizations have attempted to draft working policies that meet a high ethical standard without unduly prohibiting or censoring scholarship and research, or criminalizing innocent museums and scholars. Few, so far, have been completed. CAA has the opportunity to be a leader in this area.

In fall 2003 the Publications Committee of CAA asked the editorial board of The Art Bulletin to research the many facets of this issue and create a formal statement to guide us in our own publications, as well as to offer publicly to the fields of art and art history as a professional standard. The Art Bulletin is the CAA publication that addresses this issue most frequently, and we are fortunate to have a number of editorial-board members with deep experience of the problem, and who speak from a variety of scholarly perspectives.

With this text, CAA has the opportunity to make a significant statement to the fields, one that sets a high standard for our colleagues. This text, drafted with acute attention to the nuance of each phrase and term, was approved by the editorial board of The Art Bulletin and by the Publications Committee in February 2004.


Resolved: That the CAA Board of Directors adopt the following text concerning the importance of documenting the historical context of objects and sites as the official position of the College Art Association, publish it in CAA’s journals and on the CAA website among the organization’s professional standards and practices, and promulgate it to our members and the field at large.

Statement on the Importance of Documenting the Historical Context of Objects and Sites

The College Art Association hereby expresses its condemnation of illicit or otherwise questionable practices in the obtaining of archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects, whether these are by theft, excavation, export, trade, or the wrongful seizure from legitimate owners due to war, insurrection, or civil disturbance. Through the scholarly mission of its journals, The Art Bulletin, Art Journal, and, as well as through its programs and newsletters, the College Art Association remains committed to its role in the dissemination of information to its membership, and expects to contribute toward a dialogue and a better understanding of the issues of context and documentation of objects, and the historical circumstances of their ownership. As a result, the College Art Association discourages practices or procedures that might be construed as giving sanction to the acquisition, trade, and financial enhancement of cultural artifacts inappropriately excavated, collected, or appropriated. Authors submitting manuscripts for publication in The Art Bulletin, Art Journal, and should document, to the best extent possible, the provenance history of objects acquired since the UNESCO draft Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property of 1970. The editors-in-chief, in consultation with advisors and/or the editorial board, reserve the right to request further information from authors, when deemed necessary.


The editors of CAA’s journals always reserve the right to reject content at their discretion.

1. See, for example, “Looting and Destruction in the Kabul Museum,” Far Eastern Economic Review, September 23, 1995; “Loot: Along the Antiquities Trail; An Illicit Journey Out of Egypt, Only a Few Questions Asked,” New York Times, February 23, 2004; “Antiquities Gallery Will Return Two Limestone Monuments to Egypt,” New York Times, April 2, 2004; “Jordan Ready to Return Stolen Antiquities to Iraq,” Reuters, March 30, 2004; “The Treasure Hunter: John Russell Is a Real-Life Indiana Jones, Out to Protect Iraq’s Ancient Artifacts from Looters,” Boston Globe, April 4, 2004: “His Search for Iraq’s Stolen Treasures,” Newsday, March 17, 2004.

Authors and Contributors

The authors of this text are: Suzanne Preston Blier, professor of the history of art and architecture and of African and African American studies at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of Harvard’s electronic project Baobab: Visual Sources in African Visual Culture; Carmen C. Bambach, curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Jeffrey Hurwit, professor of classical art and archaeology at the University of Oregon; and Steven A. Mansbach, professor of twentieth-century art at the University of Maryland, with a particular expertise in modern art of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.