Provenance of the museum collection

This webpage provides information about objects that are looked after and presented by the National Museum of Antiquities. It addresses the most common questions to the museum regarding ownership and acquisition issues. This page will be regularly updated on the basis of current themes. If you would like to know more or if you have additional questions, please send an e-mail to info@rmo.nl.

For more than two hundred years, the National Museum of Antiquities has looked after and presented a rich and extensive collection of antiquities from the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, the Mediterranean region, Egypt and the Middle East. The collection consists of gifts and bequests and has grown through excavation, acquisition, exchange and purchase.

Provenance history

For each object, in addition to historical information, the provenance history is also important. This story is inextricably linked to the object. The National Museum of Antiquities is aware of the fact that there are different views on the ownership of cultural goods, the legal framework and the self-regulation in the Code of Ethics for Museums. The museum is also aware that the manner in which the origin of cultural objects is viewed today differs greatly from that in the past.

Acquisitions, then and now

In the past, aesthetics and a strong relationship to the museum’s own collection were deemed more important than the provenance and context of an object. The legal frameworks of the past allowed this and the public did not question this practice. Since the 1990s, this has been changing and museums are only expected to acquire collections with a reliable collection history. The National Museum of Antiquities believes this is a good development.

Frequently asked questions

1. How did the antiquities end up in the National Museum of Antiquities?

The museum’s collection consists of objects that have been acquired by donation, inheritance, purchase, exchange and excavation since 1818. Today, the National Museum of Antiquities is careful to ensure that there are no doubts about the legitimate origin and history of new acquisitions.

2. Is the National Museum of Antiquities the owner of the antiquities on display in the museum?

The National Museum of Antiquities is a foundation appointed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to manage, conserve, enrich and disclose the national antiquities collection. The museum itself is not the owner, the collection belongs to the Dutch state. In addition to 200,000 museum objects, the National Museum of Antiquities also manages an archive spanning two centuries.

3. How does the National Museum of Antiquities ensure that the objects are properly cared for?

The National Museum of Antiquities employs various specialists, such as collection managers and conservators, who regularly examine the condition of the objects and take action when necessary. In the museum building and the depots, but also at the various loan locations, temperature and humidity are carefully monitored and kept stable to ensure that the collection is preserved as well as possible.

4. Why are many Dutch antiquities in the National Museum of Antiquities?

The National Museum of Antiquities is the central place for antiquities in the Netherlands, where until 1945 the most important Dutch archaeological finds were housed. In recent years, the museum’s role in the Netherlands has shifted. It increasingly functions as the custodian of a national collection of antiquities that must be accessible both physically and digitally. The museum works together with the Cultural Heritage Agency, provinces, municipalities and local initiatives to make this heritage visible in various ways, including through long-term and short-term loans.

5. Do excavated finds in the Netherlands automatically go to the National Museum of Antiquities?

No, not anymore. Until 1945, many Dutch finds were assigned to the museum. After the Second World War, excavated antiquities became property of the provinces or municipalities where they were found. Sometimes, it may be decided to add new finds to the national antiquities collection and these pieces then go to the National Museum of Antiquities. This happens in consultation with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

6. Why does the National Museum of Antiquities display objects from other countries?

According to Caspar Reuvens, the first director of the National Museum of Antiquities, Dutch history was strongly linked to the Classical world. That is why, since its foundation in 1818, the museum has collected not only Dutch antiquities but also objects from the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Middle East. This division has remained in place. The museum also emphasises the importance of showing multiple cultures, today precisely to stimulate mutual respect and inclusiveness.

7. The National Museum of Antiquities has been excavating in other countries for more than sixty years. Has this always been done with the permission of the local authorities?

Excavations by the National Museum of Antiquities have always been carried out with the permission of the local authorities. The first excavation that the museum organised abroad was in Crete in 1956. Since then, the National Museum of Antiquities has carried out archaeological research in various countries, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

8. Is the National Museum of Antiquities allowed to take finds from its own excavations abroad to the Netherlands?

No, nowadays all archaeological finds remain the property of the country where they were found. The country in question can, of course, decide to transfer finds. In the past forty years, the National Museum of Antiquities was gifted excavated material from Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

9. The National Museum of Antiquities manages colonial cultural objects. Should they be returned?

The National Museum of Antiquities has nine objects from former Dutch colonies. So far, the museum has found no indications that these antiquities were acquired involuntarily or unjustly. The museum holds more archaeological objects from countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, that were colonised by other countries in the past. The National Museum of Antiquities regularly investigates the available provenance information of colonial cultural objects. If a country of origin submits a well-founded claim, the museum, after confirmation from its own research, will advise the owner of the national collection, the State of the Netherlands, to unconditionally return the object in question.

10. Does the National Museum of Antiquities hold and display looted art?

Looted art is cultural property that has been acquired under wartime conditions and without the owner’s consent. Nowadays, colonial art acquired without permission is also considered looted art. The National Museum of Antiquities is constantly researching the acquisition history of the antiquities in its collection. If there are indications that an object was acquired by looting, the museum will advise the owner of the national collection, the State of the Netherlands, to return the object unconditionally.

11. Do collections from other countries belong in the National Museum of Antiquities?

The display of antiquities from different regions and cultures is educational and contributes to cultural tolerance and understanding. Since there are different views on the possession of antiquities from other countries, the National Museum of Antiquities is guided by legal considerations. Antiquities acquired in the past in accordance with the legal framework of the time are the property of the Dutch state. The National Museum of Antiquities is also committed to the 1970 UNESCO convention on illegal trade in cultural goods. There are regular discussions with countries of origin about past and present acquisitions. This can lead to a reconsideration of the right of ownership.

12. Can the National Museum of Antiquities acquire an object if the provenance information is missing or incorrect?

Nowadays, a reliable provenance history is a prerequisite for acquiring an ancient object. Formally, the provenance history is the path taken from the location where the object was found to the museum, including all intermediaries and owners. For most antiquities, this history is incomplete, because many antiquities collections were created when evidence was not yet required. In practice, the National Museum of Antiquities then falls back on legal frameworks, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Only if the collection has such extraordinary significance for science or, for example, consists of objects with a uniform character and low monetary value, may an exception be made to this practice in accordance with the ethical and legal frameworks.

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14. Can the National Museum of Antiquities show human remains and objects from graves? Is that not desecration?

The removal of objects and human remains from graves without the consent of relatives is grave desecration. The antiquities in the National Museum of Antiquities cannot be related to living persons, so permission cannot be obtained. The country of origin then acts as the owner and may or may not grant permission to excavate a grave. The National Museum of Antiquities considers it important to tell the stories of life and death in antiquity. The museum tries to do that with respect, but acknowledges that there are different views on the display of grave finds.

15. How many times has a request for restitution been submitted to the National Museum of Antiquities?

In the twenty-first century, there have been two occasions when an object in the museum collection has been requested back by a country of origin. One of these antiquities was transferred to Italy by the Minister of Education, Culture and Science. Important provenance countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Greece, have not made any claims so far. In addition, the National Museum of Antiquities has returned two objects to heirs of the original owners in the 21st century because they were Nazi looted art. The museum also occasionally receives requests from regional museums and municipalities to transfer local heritage. Although transferring national heritage to municipalities is possible in principle, the conditions that apply to the long-term protection of antiquities usually cannot be met. Because the National Museum of Antiquities considers it important that the national collection is visible and accessible to everyone, the museum grants many temporary and long-term loans to regional museums.

Read more on the page Definitions provenance and museums

  • This page was last updated on 25-10-2021.