• Is this a $4 million fake?

    As Mexico’s struggle to stem looting of historic sites was reported last month, the auctioning of the allegedly fake Mayan statue sold for $4 million (2.9 million euros) at the Paris auction house Binoche et Giquello a few days ago. Arguing for its authenticity, the auctioneers date the object between A.D. 550 and 950 while Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History considers it “a recently manufactured piece that does not belong to any of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures.”

    Mexico, a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention since 1972, has strict laws against the illicit excavation and export of pre-Hispanic artifacts. Still, as reported, “the demand from abroad for pre-Hispanic pieces, especially the US, shows no signs of abating.” The example of the Mayan statue suggests that this demand is giving rise to the manufacturing and the sale of fakes.

    The International Council of Museums (ICOM) acknowledges that the pre-Hispanic and colonial cultural heritage of Mexico and Central America as “severely endangered”. We do not know whether the contested object is a fake. We do know that this is real: As long as the market hungers for these items, ancient sites remain vulnerable to looting. Not only in Mexico, but around the world.

    Photo: Binoche et Giquello

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  • To sell or not to sell…and for what?

    The question of whether art should be sold to raise funds is the topic of an interesting exchange between British art critic Brian Sewell and Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar in “The cash now or the art for ever.”

    The issue has been previously covered here along with a survey posted on this blog. The result shows that of 139 votes, 28 (20%) voted “yes” to the question “Should museums sell objects to cover operating costs?” while 71 (51%) indicated “Only if there is a publicly disclosed policy”. 37 (26%) thought that “Museums should sell objects for acquisitions only” and 3 (2%) voted “It doesn’t matter to me.”

    Photo: Felix Clay

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  • Remembering Donny George: A Tribute from SAFE

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    All those concerned about preserving our ancient past felt a chill down the spine upon hearing the news of Donny George’s sudden passing. Whether or not they knew him in person, a sense of loss was palpable within the community. On March 11, 2011, we lost a colleague and a friend. We also lost an eloquent advocate and a powerful—if gentle—warrior in the fight against the destruction of cultural heritage.

    I met Donny for the first time at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting in Boston. (Six years later this past January, Donny emailed from this year’s Meeting in San Antonio to tell me he was disappointed that there was no SAFE booth there.) In between attending sessions, Donny found respite at the SAFE booth. There, we chatted about how best to accomplish our mission. At our first major event at the booth, Donny offered his encouragement: “The work that SAFE is doing is ...

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  • Deserts of Miscontent

    Two news stories have recently come to my attention, both concerning the illicit/illegal excavation or artifact removal activities of people who certainly shown better; people with either the professional training or “passion for the past” to perhaps be more aware of the consequences of their actions before the fact, not after, when they’ve been caught. The first article concerns the arrest of one James Hamm who, for 50 years, had been conducting clandestine excavations throughout northern New Mexico and Arizona, amassing a relatively large collection of artifacts. Some of these were noted by Hamm himself (in his detailed records, maps, and ‘field notes’) as coming from burials (e.g. the photo above left). Of course, the article implies (and I suggest it goes without saying) that the human remains with which these artifacts were ...

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  • Bilateral agreements at work

    On March 11, 2011, the U.S. returned 14 ancient artifacts to China that had been seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from illicit traffickers in 2010.

    “Following the signing of an agreement between the United States and China in 2009, the two countries have been working closely to prevent illicit trafficking of archaeological objects.” Xinhua reported. The agreement refers to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which restricts the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US.

    These bilateral agreements have been the source of much debate among those who are interested in reducing the incentive for looting and others who wish to collect archaeological material from other nations without restriction.

    Deng Hongbo, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Chinese Embassy was quoted as describing the repatriation as a “telling example of how close our law enforcement cooperation has become, and how firmly we both are committed to this dimension of our bilateral relations.” On this day, there appeared to be no doubt that cooperation between the two nations via the MOU was working to combat the illicit antiquities trade.

    Photo: Northern Qi Dynasty limestone Buddha returns to China (Xinhua)

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  • A Tribute to Dr. Donny George Youkhanna: October 23, 1950-March 11, 2011

    The following is posted by permission of the author, Michael Rakowitz, an artist whose work The invisible enemy should not exist was inspired by the events surrounding the looting of the Iraq Museum.

    Dear Friends:

    Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former Director of the National Museum of Iraq, and former President of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, passed away last Friday at the age of 60. I mourn the loss of an inspiring and courageous figure, a brilliant scholar, renowned archaeologist, a generous teacher, a loving family man, and friend. As most of you know, Dr. George’s story serves as a focus of “The invisible enemy should not exist,” an ongoing project that I have pursued in close consultation with him ...

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  • Bringing Them Home: The Repatriation of Priceless Human Remains and Artifacts to Cambodia

    The atmosphere was one of cordiality, but also marked anticipation, as a small crowd of Australian and Cambodian government officials, Embassy representatives, dignitaries, scientists and concerned citizens gathered in the private residence of His Excellency, Cambodian Ambassador Chum Sounry, on the morning of March 10th, 2011. As refreshments were served and the crowd mingled and exchanged pleasantries, everyone’s attention was eventually drawn to a small table positioned along one wall of the spacious lounge room on which was arranged a black tablecloth and several objects that, from a distance, looked like they might belong on display in a museum. However, on closer inspection, one realized that these artifacts, brazenly looted from one or more prehistoric cemetery sites in Cambodia, likely sometime within the last two years, bear stark witness to the most reprehensible side of the world-wide, multi-million dollar ...

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  • Donny George – a man of knowledge, courage and grace

    The following citation was originally published in January, 2008 in the SAFE Beacon Award Souvenir Journal when we honored Dr. George:

    “I am simply doing my duty. I believe that if the time comes, I am ready to sacrifice my life to save any item of Cultural Property anywhere in the world. But what I am sure of is that I am not alone in this.”

    Born in Habbania, al-Anbar Province, on October 23, 1950, Dr. Donny George developed a relationship with the landscape of Iraq as a youth that inspired a lifetime of study of ancient cultures as both a scholar and archaeologist that has motivated colleagues around the world for more than three decades.

    While pursuing his undergraduate and graduate ...

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  • The curious case of St Louis Art Museum vs the United States

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    In a highly unusual legal maneuver by a U.S. museum seeking to retain recent acquisition, the St. Louis Museum of Art (SLAM) filed a complaint in federal district court on February 15, 2011 asking for a declaratory judgment to prevent federal authorities from seizing a 19th Dynasty Egyptian mask popularly known as Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Attorney Ricardo St. Hilaire has posted a helpful summary of SLAM’s complaint and legal arguments, in which he points out important ownership information that is missing from SLAM’s complaint. According to St. Hilaire, “the museum essentially argues that the US government cannot legally take the mask because the statute of limitations has run out and because there is no reason to believe that the mask is Egyptian property or that it was illegally stolen or smuggled into the United States.” Looting Matters also discusses the ...

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