• Repatriation and loss of context

    Should we celebrate when archaeological objects are returned to their countries of origin?

    No … and yes.

    No, because the damage has already been done. The archaeological contexts cannot be reconstructed. The scientific information held in the ground for thousands of years has gone for good. Our cultural heritage has been destroyed.

    Yes, because returning objects send out a clear signal to museums (and private collectors) that they should not be acquiring objects that have no recorded “history”. For lack of “history” can so often indicate recently surfaced objects that have been torn from their resting place.

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  • Terminology: is provenience a redundant term?

    Do the worlds of archaeology and collecting use the same terms but mean different things?

    Take the word “provenience” or “provenance”.

    Archaeologists will use the term to indicate the context: “the provenience was in inhumation burial 32 in the Macri Langoni cemetery at Kameiros, Rhodes”.

    Art historians (and with it the writers of auction catalogues) use it to describe pedigree: “the provenience is the famous late Victorian collection of the Revd William MacGregor”.

    Christopher Chippindale and I have attempted to address this question. We suggest the adoption of two separate categories:

    a. The archaeology. Where was it found? Is the context known? Is the find-spot merely “reported”? Is it reliable? Or is the archaeological context lost?

    b. The history. Is the object known from the moment it was excavated? When was it first recorded? Through whose hands did it pass? Does it appear here for the first time?

    Do we need to abandon the language of “provenience”? Should we adopt a more transparent form of presentation?

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  • America’s commitment to safeguarding heritage


    The United States is committed to protecting history and heritage from theft. It is no surprise that our nation demonstrates leadership in this area since an overwhelming majority of Americans (96%) support laws designed to protect archaeological resources, according to a Harris Interactive poll. In addition, more than three in five Americans believe that historical artifacts should not be removed from another sovereign nation without that country’s assent. This public support gives vitality to America’s application of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the preeminent global agreement that aims to safeguard cultural property from theft, illegal excavation, and smuggling.

    Our nation first sought to protect its own cultural treasures when President Theodore Roosevelt enacted the Antiquities Act of 1906. President Reagan built on this legacy by looking beyond America’s borders, signing into law the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), ...

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  • The scale of the market

    In 2005 Arielle Kozloff suggested that the “annual sales of antiquities … amount to somewhere between $100 million and $200 million at this time” (in Kate Fitz Gibbon, Who Owns the Past?). Kozloff is in a position to know: “From 1997 to 2001 she was vice president of the Merrin Gallery, and she is now a private consultant to museums and collectors”.

    Peter Watson has reported that Robin Symes (and partner Christo Michaelidis) held 17,000 objects valued (by Symes) at US$250 million (in Neil Brodie et al., Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (2006)).

    The major auction houses in New York have sold over US$250 million worth of antiquities in the last ten years.

    And what about the other dealers and galleries in New York and beyond?

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  • Cyprus, coins and the American interest

    The recent renewal of the U.S.-Cyprus bilateral agreement to restrict importation of certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. could have taken place with little fanfare. In fact, similar agreements the U.S. had previously signed with Bolivia (extended in 2006), Colombia (initiated in 2006) and Nicaragua (extended in 2005) were hardly mentioned in the general media. The U.S. extension of the agreement with Peru, in June of this year, went practically unnoticed. One month later, however, the agreement with Cyprus was another story. Days after the announcement, the New York Times ran an article about it, and attacks on State Department personnel (responsible for administering bilateral agreements) appeared on the Internet. Among the heated polemics was the assertion that agreeing with Cyprus–a tiny country compared to the U.S.–does not serve the ...

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  • Looking beyond 2007

    In early November 2006 I gave a seminar to our university research group on the return of Italian antiquities from Boston. The news was just breaking about the Getty agreement – the list included many of the museum’s ‘Masterpieces’.

    Then ten months later the Getty’s list has become much longer. The analysis of collectors, dealers and galleries is changing by the week – and it sometimes feels as if it is by the day.

    But what lies ahead?

    1. Museum returns The raid in the Geneva Freeport brought to light thousands of Polaroids showing antiquities which appeared to have been looted from Italy in recent years. We have yet to pass the milestone of the first hundred antiquities identified and returned.

    2. Private collections The Geneva Polaroids have identified objects in North American private collections. Some had already passed into public collections (e.g. the Fleischman Collection at the Getty). Private collectors are now in a quandry. They can hardly donate their objects to a museum which would then find itself facing a formal request from a foreign government. What should they do?

    3. Scale of the market There needs to be some detailed work of the scale of the problem. What is the value of the market in antiquities? How many pieces come from “secure” collections? How many pieces have a known find-spot?

    4. Intellectual consequences We need to be worried about looting because their are intellectual consequences for the study of material culture. Knowledge is being lost and it can never be retrieved.

    5. Public opinion There needs to be engagement with those who care about cultural heritage. And this is where this blog should help. Ask your questions. Give us feedback. Urge us to address the issues. I look forward to hearing your views.

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