The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University has received a monumental gift of ancient Mediterranean art that doubles the size of the museum's antiquities collection and includes objects nearly 5,000 years old.
The gift from an anonymous donor, to be officially announced today, was collected from the 1920s to the early 1980s and includes about 220 pieces in gold, terra cotta, bronze, ceramic, marble and amber.
"It actually complements the older collection," said Duke archaeology professor Carla Antonaccio. "I'm not telling my students they have to go to Raleigh now" to study the N.C. Museum of Art's ancient objects.
About 60 antiquities -- including 45 pieces from the gift -- will be on view in a new exhibit titled "The Past Is Present," opening at the Nasher on Feb. 15. Other objects will be available for students and scholars to study. Museum officials and classics professors declined to identify the donor but said the gift came from someone with longtime Duke ties, not an alumnus.
The gift comes amid a roaring controversy about ancient objects looted from excavation sites and acquired by museums.
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Art have returned antiquities to Italy and Greece under questioning about how the objects were unearthed. Meanwhile, former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and American art dealer Robert Hecht are on trial in Rome on charges of trafficking stolen artifacts. And looting in Iraq has become an urgent concern among archaeologists.
Kimerly Rorschach, who became the Nasher's director in 2004, said the museum has turned down several gifts of antiquities since her arrival because of incomplete documentation. When the anonymous donor approached the museum in 2005, she assumed the same problem would exist.
"You say, "Well, do you have a bill of sale for this?' " Rorschach said. "To our delight, we were able to accept."
The Nasher is working on a policy for accepting antiquities, but Rorschach said she is inclined to turn down gifts that aren't documented before 1970, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted a convention to tighten antiquities trade. Both the Getty and the British Museum have adopted the same standard.
"You don't want to acquire things that are excavated recently," Rorschach said. "There is a link between the market and clandestine looting of sites. We don't want to contribute to that in any way. ... Pretty soon, the Iraq War will be 10 years ago, and we know we won't want to be acquiring work that was sold at that time."
Malcolm Bell III, a University of Virginia archaeologist and a leading proponent of stricter museum acquisition policies, lectured Friday at the Nasher. He and Antonaccio are co-directors of excavations at Morgantina, a major archaeological site in Sicily that dates back to 1000 B.C.
"It is extraordinarily difficult to excavate areas raided by looters," Bell said, noting that thieves with metal detectors damage artifacts they think are worthless and rip objects from their original context. "The art market erases the history of ownership that museums otherwise work very hard to protect."
At a Friday preview of the gift, Anne Schroder, curator of academic programs, stood before a Greek Droop cup from the sixth-century B.C. It was done in the hallmark burnt umber-and-black style known as black figure, and Schroder pointed out the intricate figures painted underneath horses and warriors and the detailed patterning toward the stem.
"It sends chills up my spine," Schroder said.
Other highlights of the new collection include an exquisite sculptural gold disc with four bees and a flower, possibly worn as a pendant in the seventh century B.C., and an almost perfectly preserved amber dolphin from Southern Italy.
The exhibit allows stunning visual connections: A Greek white ground lekythos, or storage vessel, from the fifth century B.C., shows a woman with a mirror in the background; the same case holds an Etruscan mirror of near-identical shape.