NEW YORK -- Almost lost in the sumptuous display of Mesopotamian antiquities in the Art of the First Cities exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum is a small limestone fragment, triangular in shape and delicately carved.
The piece shows Naram-Sin, a king of the Akkadian empire in the 23rd century B.C., seated beside Ishtar, goddess of love, fertility and war. In the show's catalog it is described as an "extraordinary" example of the era's art.
It also has another distinction. In terms of its archaeological pedigree, it might as well have fallen out of the sky.
Until about four years ago, when a scholar spotted it in the Upper East Side Manhattan home of a prominent collector, the Naram-Sin limestone was essentially unknown. No record of its excavation or history of ownership has emerged. In antiquities circles, that empty space amounts to a warning label: This piece may be the fruit of plunder.
The First Cities show opened in May, on the heels of the ransacking of the Iraq National Museum and as pretty much everyone in the archaeological community was vowing to stanch the trade in stolen antiquities.
But as the story of the Naram-Sin limestone shows, the everyday world of buying, selling and exhibiting is often more ambiguous than that.
The marketplace is full of objects with mysterious pasts -- a lot of them indeed looted -- and it is often unclear which ones are legitimate and which are not.
How to handle such orphan objects -- is it ethical to buy them, to show them, even to write scholarly articles about them? -- is one of the central, and most divisive, issues in the hothouse world of museums, collectors and archaeologists. But the debate has become increasingly public and pointed with the recent events in Iraq.
In the First Cities show, the Naram-Sin fragment is one of at least eight objects in that murky zone without a clear record of excavation and chain of ownership, known in the art world as provenance.
The Metropolitan's director, Philippe de Montebello, said the decision to include these objects in the First Cities show was neither unusual nor untoward. While a lack of provenance can indicate that an object has been illegally excavated, he said that objects without a known provenance also come from legitimate sources, like long-standing private collections. Shunting aside artifacts for lack of documentation, he added, is a disservice to the public and scholars.
"We are an art museum," de Montebello said. "We have an obligation to knowledge. We have an obligation to the object." He pointed out, too, that the Met had more rigorous rules for acquisitions.
But many experts argue that by including such objects in exhibitions, museums abet an illicit trade that destroys archaeological sites and erodes historical knowledge.
'An ethical issue'
"There is an ethical issue," said Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the most prolific lender to First Cities.
"I personally feel strongly and my staff strongly believes that accepting objects of no or dubious provenance furthers and creates an environment for additional looting, and that destroys the cultural heritage."
These experts raise another point: Ripped from their resting places, bereft of their context, these objects are themselves as mysterious as their recent pasts. The scholar who spotted the Naram-Sin fragment thinks it may have been part of a mold used to emboss shields carried by the king's warriors.
Then again, no one can really be sure.
"Without archaeological provenance," the museum display card reads, "both the function and significance of this object remain unknown."
How the Naram-Sin fragment found its way into the First Cities exhibition is a story of three art-world colleagues, each of whom illuminates some central issues in the antiquities debate -- Jonathan P. Rosen, one of the world's most important private collectors of Mesopotamian art; Donald P. Hansen, a New York University archaeologist; and Joan Aruz, the Met curator who organized the show, a glittering sampling of art from the cultures that developed between the Mediterranean and the Indus Valley in the third millennium B.C.
Rosen -- a 59-year-old lawyer and chairman of First Republic Corporation of America, a holding company active in real estate -- has been an avid collector since college. These days, his collection is especially rich in Mesopotamian cylinder seals -- engraved stones used to make distinctive wax impressions. He and his wife, Jeannette, are major contributors to the Met, and have underwritten costly purchases of antiquities for its collection.
Rosen declined to be interviewed or to pond to written questions.
His lawyer, Harold M. Grunfeld, said Rosen never spoke publicly about his collection. But in a statement, he said his client had acquired the Naram-Sin limestone and two other objects of unknown provenance that he lent to the Met for the exhibition "through well-regarded and highly reputable dealers in Europe." He added, "We, as attorneys, are satisfied with their provenance, and the origin and legality of our client's purchases." He did not respond to questions about the dates of the purchases or the identities of the pieces' previous owners.
Rosen has never been accused of wrongdoing, and there is no evidence that he acquired the objects improperly. The limestone fragment may indeed have languished in an old collection before coming on the market.
Still, it is clear that in building his collection, Rosen, like any private collector, has had to negotiate the ambiguities attached to objects with uncertain pasts.
In the search for pieces with pedigree, collectors are necessarily at a disadvantage. Since host governments control artifacts excavated in sanctioned digs, collectors must buy primarily from galleries, dealers and at auction. And while this marketplace contains many legitimate objects -- principally items excavated decades ago, before the proliferation of national laws and international barriers to the illicit trade -- it is also teeming with plunder.
Given such uncertainties, every transaction implies a decision: How much documentation should the collector demand? Does one assume a piece is looted unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, or vice versa?
The scholarly interest of collectors is welcomed by archaeologists, even those who have campaigned against the trade in artifacts whose provenance is not known. But what alarms those active against illegal trade in artifacts is what they see as the insatiable appetite of some collectors for fresh material.
"Collectors who buy unprovenanced pieces form themselves as part of the looting process," said Lord Colin Renfrew, an archaeology professor at Cambridge University in England.
Collectors, and some scholars, reject this characterization. John Henry Merryman, an art-law expert and professor emeritus at Stanford University Law School, said that while preserving objects in their archaeological setting was "an important interest which most good people support," some archaeologists had been too "bullying" in pressing their case. There is "no sense of proportion between what archaeologists want and what other other people engaged in meritorious activities want," he said.
Museums and collectors, he added, play a vital role by preserving art that, while it may lack provenance, has been shielded from war, vandalism or neglect.
"I think the art trade is essential to what museums and collectors do," he said.
Hansen, the NYU archaeologist, had visited Rosen's townhouse before. But as he toured the collection once more, he fixed on an object he had never seen, or heard of -- the jagged, triangular piece of limestone, 10 inches at its widest, depicting Naram-Sin.
What struck him, Hansen later wrote, was the way the horned-crowned Naram-Sin was portrayed as a deity alongside Ishtar. Four prisoners, in humiliating restraints, bespoke the military prowess that made Naram-Sin the dominant ruler of his day. The piece, Hansen wrote, appeared to be one of the few of royal Akkadian patronage to survive.
He set to work on a scholarly article that, while intended for a small readership of experts, could have a profound effect on the piece's standing and monetary worth.
"If a reputable scholar publishes an article about an artifact, they're giving it the imprimatur of authenticity based on their scholarship and expertise," said Jane C. Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, the nation's largest archaeological association.
For that reason, archaeologists are sharply divided about the ethics of publishing articles about artifacts whose provenance is not established.
Hansen's 15-page article, "Through the Love of Ishtar," was published last year in England in what is known as a Festschrift, a collection of articles celebrating an archaeologist's career. (This one honored David Oates, known for his work in Syria and Iraq.)
The issue of the fragment's origins was addressed in a footnote: "Regrettably," Hansen wrote, "there is no known provenance."
It fell to Joan Aruz, the curator, to decide whether to include pieces like the Naram-Sin fragment in the First Cities show.
Met officials declined to make Aruz available for an interview. But in response to written questions, she said she had become aware of the piece through Hansen's article and had been impressed by the way its imagery mirrored themes in the show, including Mesopotamia's domination over neighboring lands.
Aruz said that to keep pieces without provenance out of the show "would seriously damage the work of the scholar." For example, in representing the Bactrian culture, she said the dearth of documented pieces left her little choice but to use the silver box and other artifacts of unknown provenance. As for the Naram-Sin fragment, she said she chose it and the other Rosen contributions of unknown provenance -- a cylinder seal and an incised jar seal impression -- based largely on the recommendation of Hansen, who wrote the short descriptive essays for the show's catalog.
De Montebello says he is happy to have pieces like the Naram-Sin limestone in the show, which runs through Sunday.