• Captain Gunter’s "loot": Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction

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    The sale of a 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694.00) at London auction house Woolley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 “Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin, October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King’s Dragoon Guards.”This engraving not only increased the box’s value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.

    All is Fair in Loot and War?

    Whether we regard items such as the Captain Gunter box as “stolen,” “plundered,” “contraband,” “spoils of war,” “ransacked,” “pillaged,” or as Gunter appropriately chose “looted,” the taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself. Art Law: Cases and Materials perhaps says it best:

    This historical sketch [referring to Roman activities] emphasizes ...

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  • Cause for Alarm?

    This link points you to a description of a new “reality” TV show slated to descend on St. Augustine, Florida, and 13 other American cities and towns this year. The gist? Let’s dig up private and public property to unsystematically hunt for “treasure” that can “tell a story of the past.” Cause that’s exactly what archaeology is all about, right?! Apparently, their host “has been digging up artifacts for 20 years, so he’s not some random digger.” What, with a metal detector? This cavalier attitude couched as socially responsible television is even more disturbing to me. Further telling to me is the statement by St. Augustine city archaeologist Carl Halbirt that the property owners he’s spoken with (independent of those eventually selected for the show) are “interested in the archaeology and preserving the past and that’s what we’re trying to do with a systematic approach.”

    Most likely, some of these very same property owners have been part of direct negotiations related to past and ongoing cultural heritage management projects and salvage excavations…actual, systematic archaeology in other words. Apparently, the show’s producer has had her hands in several other “reality TV” winners, such as “Super Nanny” and “Reality Hell.” Does this bode well for the prospects of this show treating archaeology and history with any kind of respect? I doubt it… I hope that the networks will take a good, long look at the merits of this show before agreeing to host it, including independent evaluations of premise and practice by the archaeological community. Only time will tell… The St. Augustine Record has kindly provided the email address and phone number of the casting producer.

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  • Looking ahead: 2012 and beyond

    With 2012 now upon us, SAFE looks forward to the coming year with anticipation, and offers a few predictions.

    As discussion and publicity surrounding the repatriation of antiquities continues and public awareness and media focus on the actions of source countries (Italy, Greece, Peru, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, etc.) increase, the return of cultural patrimony will accelerate during 2012 and the years that follow. The question is no longer whether such artifacts will be returned. In most cases, the only question is when.

    Repatriation by U.S. museums and collectors in recent years (some 130 artifacts have already returned to Italy; the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s return to the upper half of the Weary Herakles to Turkey occurred this past year; Yale University’s transfer of Macchu Picchu artifacts back to Peru began in 2011 and will be ...

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