Mary Elizabeth Williams

About Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams, an appraiser, earned a degree in Paralegal Studies from New York University. She has worked for David Neligan Antiques and Skinner Auctioneers, been a Teaching Assistant at Smith College Art Museum and at the University of Massachusetts, and was Assistant Supervisor at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The 3rd millenium BC Citadel of Aleppo faces serious risk in Syria

The Citadel of Aleppo, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, is now caught in the fighting between President Basher al-Assad’s military and the Free Rebel Army.  The Citadel has a elaborate history: it was occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Ottomans, Ayyubis, Mamluks, and unsuccessfully besieged by Crusaders in 1098 and 1124.  It is home of the Aleppo Codex, a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible written in the 10th Century A.D.  It is identified in the Bible as Elijah’s cave and as a stopping point of Abram during his journey to Canaan and Egypt.  It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 (“Ancient City of Aleppo,” UNESCO).

As early as May 21, Interpol requested vigilance in Syria to preserve ancient sites, citing that Roman mosaics in the city of Hama were missing and there was a high possibility for irreversible damage.  Their press release stated: “The on-going armed conflict in Syria is increasingly threatening a significant part of the cultural heritage of mankind. Roman ruins, archaeological sites, historic premises and places of worship are particularly vulnerable to destruction, damages, theft and looting during this period of turmoil” (“Interpol Calls for Vigilance on Looting of Ancient Mosaics in Syria,” Interpol, May 21, 2012).

Citadel of Aleppo
UNESCO
The Citadel of Aleppo now caught in the fight between Basher al-Assad and the Free Rebel Army in Syria.

On July 31, UNESCO issued a plea to preserve the Citadel of Aleppo.  They asked Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon to employ international agreements which protect cultural property (“UNESCO Pleads with Syrian Secretary-General to Preserve Citadel of Aleppo,” UNESCO, July 30, 2012).  No action was taken.

In modern day Syria, the city of Aleppo is a commercial center and home to 2.5 million people.  New reports claim that if al-Assad’s forces lose control of Aleppo, the country will fall into Rebel hands. Aleppo has been a war zone for the past four weeks (“Syrian Army Moves on Rebels in Aleppo, Damascus,” Hadeel Al Shalchi, Reuters, August 3, 2012).

The Free Rebel Army made a major push to take the Citadel.  Ahmed, a young rebel fighter stated: “One day soon, we’re going to march inside.  We will make it to the heart of city.”  Muhammad, another rebel, boasted: “Soon you will see us in the Citadel.  And from there, you will see a liberated Aleppo” (“Syrian Rebels Edge Towards Aleppo’s Ancient Heart,” Erika Solomon, Reuters, August 2, 2012).

Last week NBC reported that the Free Rebel Army had taken control of Citadel and using it as a stronghold.  Without any anti-aircraft defense, the Citadel immediately became a major target for al-Assad’s military forces.  Reports also stated that the Free Rebel Forces began taking shelter in a hidden wall behind the outer wall of the Citadel.  Syrian tanks easily broke through the walls, killing the Rebels, and decimating the Citadel’s medieval walls.

Citadel at Aleppo burning Image shot by amateur videographer posted on Youtube shows fire raging through the city around the Citadel at Aleppo

On August 11, The Daily Star of Lebanon reported that the Citadel was being shelled and that the main damage was at the entrance gate.  The New Zealand Herald stated: “One shell demolished the front of the house, leaving a gaping hole where the arched gateway once stood. A second gouged out a crater 3 meter wide in the walled garden and a third smashed into bedrooms and the library”  (“Citadel at Risk as Modern War Rages in Aleppo,” Kim Sengupta, New Zealand Herald, August 14, 2012).

While this article focuses on the Citadel as an important world heritage site, we cannot overlook the deaths in Syria.  The Huffington Post estimates that about 17,000 people have died in fighting– 11,897 civilians, 4,348 soldiers and 884 military defectors.  In addition, the UN reports that as many as 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting (“Syrian Refugee Numbers Surge Again Amid Aleppo Clashes,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2012).  We hope that when the fighting does conclude, the Aleppo Citadel will become a unifying symbol.  It will remind modern, war torn Syrians to be proud of their common historic past and national heritage.

As of today, August 15, the present condition of the Aleppo Citadel is unknown.

For more information please visit:
Al Jazeera August 4, 2012 coverage “Syria Rebels Converge on Aleppo Citadel”
Aleppo Citadel Friends
Wall Street Journal Update on Fighting
UNESCO’s Site on the Ancient City of Aleppo 

UNESCO mourns loss of cultural heritage in Bamiyan valley

The Bamiyan Buddhas will not be rebuilt.  Instead, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has decided instead to transform the site into a sanctuary where the international community can meditate on the losses of cultural heritage and contemplate how to change the pattern of destruction that leaves the world without a past.  They have chosen Andrea Bruno, an architect who has been involved with the project since 2001, to spearhead the site design.

The decision not to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were bombed by the Taliban in March 2001, is practical for many reasons.  The site is more than just rubble– rubble weighing more than 60 tons– it is tied like a spider web to political, religious, economical, and archeological issues.  As I discussed in my article, Ten years later: The Buddhas of Bamiyan, UNESCO was faced with a myriad of plans.  It has taken 11 years for UNESCO to come to some conclusion about the future of the site and not rebuilding is a heartbreaking choice.

The site will focus on the empty space left behind by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.  Bruno describes his plan as “ecumenical,” “aiming to enhance the emotional and aesthetic experience of viewing the empty niche.” (Anna Somers Cocks, “The victory of the void, a defeat for the Taliban,” The Art Newspaper, May 31, 2012)  He explains, “The void is the true sculpture.  It stands disembodied witness to the will, thoughts and spiritual tensions of men long gone.  The immanent presence of the niche, even without its sculpture, represents a victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite.” (Andrea Bruno, Id.)  A viewing platform and lighting will be built to allow visitors to take in the full beauty of the site.  Bruno emphasizes that the construction will be minimal, easy to remove without harming the site, and built by local laborers in mere months.

Bamiyan Valley
UNESCO
The Bamiyan valley with two empty niches where the giant Buddha’s once stood.

The community of the Bamiyan valley consists mostly of Shia Muslims. For them the decision not to rebuild the Buddhas is beneficial both economically, religiously and politically.  In fact, the new plan takes into account their needs.  Rebuilding the Buddhas would be incongruous with the Muslim tenant against using images and could make the community vulnerable to a second Taliban attack.  The Bamiyan valley has been peaceful since the Buddha bombings, but suffers economically from the decrease in tourism.  The new site will bring international travelers to the valley and promises to increase the poor standard of living in the valley.

The new Bamiyan site is just one part of UNESCO’s new campaign to bring about peace and protect heritage sites.  In an April 6, 2012 letter to The New York Times Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, quite convincingly described this mission.  She wrote: “It may seem incongruous to denounce crimes against culture and call for their protection at a time of political instability and humanitarian crisis, but it isn’t.  Protecting culture is a security issue.  There can be no lasting peace without respect. Attacks against cultural heritage are attacks against the very identity of communities.  They mark a symbolic and real step up in the escalation of a conflict, leading to devastation that can be irreparable and whose impact lasts long after the dust has settled.  Attacks on the past make reconciliation much harder in the future.  They can hold societies back from turning the page toward peace.  So protecting cultural heritage is not a luxury.  We cannot leave this for better days, when tensions have cooled.  To lay the ground for peace, we must act now to protect culture, while tensions are high” (Irina Bokova, “Culture Under Fire,” The New York Times, April 6, 2012). As I read these words I reflect on cultural heritage we have lost, a past gone forever, and the plans for the new Bamiyan site.  At first I am brought to tears, but then the drum beat of battle enters my ears.

The new Bamiyan site will be a symbolic reminder to us all that cultural heritage is a powerful force.  It emboldens us, as human beings, to become involved and join organizations such as Saving Antiquities for Everyone.  The new Bamiyan site can and will ignite the international community to take action against the cycle that perpetuates the destruction of cultural heritage.

Bamiyan Community
The New York Times
Residents of the Bamiyan Valley hope that the UNESCO site will bring positive changes.

 

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

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 the problem that can arise when the army of one nation occupies another. Historically, the world community did very little to protect national patrimony from plunder and destruction. Conquering armies believed they possessed the right to despoil a apparently defeated enemy. What about the interest of future generations in their nation’s cultural property? Should they be deprived of their national artistic heritage merely because their country was defeated in battle? The protection of national patrimony from plunder has ramifications beyond the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. (Leonard D. DuBoff, Sherri Burr, Michael D. Murray, Art Law: Cases and Materials, 2004, 32).

The looting of the Summer Palace on October 18th and 19th, 1860 is considered by many as one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history. The Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, occurred in two stages between 1839 and 1860 after trade relations broke down between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. During the war, British forces razed historic Chinese sites and looted Chinese “souvenirs.”

Interesting enough, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace occurred under the orders of the British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin responsible for the “preservation” of the metopes, friezes, and pedimental sculptures of the Acropolis, now in the British Museum. The destruction of the Summer Palace, a brash act of pyromania, led to the death of hundreds of eunuchs trapped inside the compound and the “pillaging” of some 1.5 million relics. This signaled the end of the Opium War. In October 2010, China lamented the 150 year anniversary of the Opium War and the burning of the Summer Palace.

Captain Gunter’s inscribed box is only one of the many items that he “looted” from the Summer Palace. On May 19th, 2011, Duke’s Auctioneers of Dorchester Captain Gunter’s descendants sold eleven pieces from the Summer Palace, including a 18th Century Qianlong period yellow jade pendant with a carved dragon for £478,000. In the auction catalogue, Duke’s identified the pieces as “acquired” from the Summer Palace, rather than the more controversial term “looted.” The Gunter family still holds possession of an extensive collection of artifacts– ivory chopsticks, jade boxes, jade chimes, bowls, and a jadeite belt hook estimated to be worth over £2 million. Guy Schwinge, an expert from Duke’s, recounts his visit to the Gunter estate in May 2011. He stated in The Daily Mail:

When I arrived at the house and was shown into the sitting room, I was not sure what I was going to see. We discussed the market for Chinese works of art over a cup of coffee and the results we had achieve at our recent Melplash Court sale, which included many Chinese works. The family then began to pull the most stunning pieces of jade from the back of a display cabinet in the corner of the room. I was stunned by the quality and number of pieces of jade that emerged from the cabinet. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. (The Daily Mail, May 4, 2011).

The future of these items is still not known.

The “looting” that took place at the Summer Palace is not an isolated incident. In fact, the Chinese Cultural Relics Foundation predicts that over ten million cultural objects were “plundered” from China between 1840 and 1949. The 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace looting, coupled with China’s growing wealth and status has ignited a strong and unified movement to return Chinese antiquities to their homeland.

The Chinese Art Market

However, instead of going to public museums, most Chinese antiquities enter private collections, displayed as a sign of wealth and power, not patriotism. Andrew Jabobs, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in 2009:  

At its core, such mixed signals [of the Chinese search for relics] are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization of imperial powers? Or, is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade dependent economy? (The New York Times, “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums,” December 17, 2009).  

The China Daily, agreed that the motives of China’s wealthy class to purchase of antiquities is questionable. They wrote, Although patriotism is playing a part in this hunting to recapture looted treasures, experts say that majority of buyers are in fact more interested in the investment potential of ancient works–and the glamour (Cheng Yingqi, The China Daily, December 15, 2010).

The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings (Scott Rayburn, “China Antique Sales Raise Record Sums”, The China Daily, May 23, 2011). The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually. After the October 2011 sale of “looted objects” from the Summer Palace, Tom Flynn, author of the blog ArtKnows, stated:

Recent auctions in the UK–even those held in the British Provinces–have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel– and indeed how high they are prepared to bid–to secure Imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete (Art Knows, October 27, 2011).

In recent years, major auctions houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have opened locations in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong– each enjoying enormous success. For example, a 2010 auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong specializing in Asian art totaled a record $447 million (Giles Turner, “Buying Frenzy for Chinese Art,” Financial News, May 12, 2011).

Government Regulation

The sale of artifacts “looted” from the Summer Palace is complicated by China’s export laws and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States. China’s Ministry of Culture issued “Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Import and Export of Art” on July 17, 2009. Article 5 of the provision states: “Art works are prohibited from being imported or exported if they contain content which:  

(1) violates the basic principles of the Constitution of China;

(2) endangers the unification of the country, national sovereignty or territorial integrity;

(3) divulges state secrets, endangers state security, honor or interests;

(4) incites ethnic hatred, discrimination, or harms ethnic unity or habits and customs;

(5) propagates or publicizes cults or superstitions;

(6) disrupts social order or stability;

(7) advocates or publicizes obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, horror, or instigates crime;

(8) libels, slanders or harms the legal interests of others;

(9) deliberately tampers with history or severely distorts history;

(10) harms public morals or ethnic cultural traditions; or

(11) other content prohibited by laws, regulations and rules.” (Nancy M. Murphy, “Provisions on the Managements of the Import and Export of Art,” July 17, 2009).

These provisions, in summary, give the government complete control over any and all works of art which enter or exit the country. These rules can be broadly interpreted and make it almost impossible to export Chinese antiquities from the country. The provisions also have created an underground trade, or black market, for Chinese antiquities.

Furthermore, the United States entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with China on January 14th, 2009, “acting pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, to which both countries are party; and desiring to reduce the incentives for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the rich cultural heritage of China.” (United States, Department of State). For this reason, the trade in Chinese antiquities, particularly items that are newly discovered or have no established provenance, has shifted from the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. For more information on the China MOU visit  SAFE’s web site here and SAFECORNER’s coverage at “Bilateral Agreements at Work,” “Trying to put ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again,” and “Cultural Heritage in Danger: Reacting to the New York Times.”

Yuanmingyuan Park, which houses the remaining Summer Palace relics, recently called upon foreign museums to return the “looted” relics. According to the United Kingdom’s The Daily Telegraph, the main target of this action was the British Museum (Peter Foster, “China to Study British Museum for Looted Artefacts,” The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2009). Experts, however, are doubtful that items will ever be returned from international museums. Instead, some argue that the government’s public campaign is an attempt to encourage private collectors in China to return or donate the antiquities to the Yuanmingyuan Park. In November 2011, the Yuanmingyuan Park called for a boycott of auctions selling “looted” relics. This, along with the founding of several non-governmental organizations such as the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, has led to aggressive action to retrieve the 1.5 million relics “stolen” from the Summer Palace (“China Experts to Search Abroad for Looted Relics,” France 24, October 19, 2009).


Questionable Auction House Sales

The art world was stunned on March 7, 2009 by what is now being called the “Yves Saint Laurent Fiasco.” The Times’ Richard Morris reported: “The fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the art world” (The Times, March 7, 2009). At an Asian sale at Christie’s Paris a pair of bronze animal heads, once of a set of twelve that made up a water clock at the Summer Palace, achieved a hammer price of £28 million. The bidder, Cai Mingchao, a once trusted Christie’s client, promptly refused to pay. In a statement he said his intentions were to “draw attention to this sale of looted treasure…. There is an indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artifacts that were looted from the country” (The Times, March 7, 2009).

Christie’s options included: (1) sue for the payment, drawing attention to the fact that they are selling known “looted” goods; or (2) attempt to re-auction the heads to buyers now aware of the questionable provenance and potential for a title claim. Both options would damage Christie’s image, respectability, reliability, and result in extreme legal fees. The bronze animal heads were returned to the consignor. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Christie’s may receive some form of payment. Cai Mingchao was, therefore, successful in his statement about “looted” goods. This episode served as a wake-up call. As a result, auction houses in the United Kingdom now require pre-registration applications, financial references, guarantees, and deposits at least three days before Asian art sales. Such measures limit the possible economic losses for auction houses. Yet, these pre-registration requirements they do not prevent the loss of reliability and reputation that are key to the auction business.

This brings us back to Captain Gunter’s gold box.  Was the risk of auctioning an obviously “looted” item worth Woolley and Willis’ premium return on $764,694? Granted, the Gunter family currently has possession, but who truly owns such “looted” items? Where should they go, what should happen to them? These are questions not only relevant to the Captain Gunter case, but to the all the artifacts “stolen” or “looted” from the Summer Palace.

Photos Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis, The Daily Mail, and The Times.

Ten years later: The Buddhas of Bamiyan

In March 2001, more than a decade ago, the Taliban army dynamited, mined and gunned down two 1,400-year-old Buddhist masterpieces. Named “one of humanity’s most notorious cases of art vandalism” by the Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2011), the Taliban leveled the 125-foot-tall Eastern Buddha dating from 544-595 and 181-foot-tall Western Buddha dating from 591-644. The Buddhas, located on the historical Silk Road, are testimonies to the exchange between Indian, Hellenistic, Roman and Sassanian influences in Buddhist art. The monuments have been defaced throughout their history–heads and legs removed–but their total annihilation at the hands of the Taliban is stomach-churning. Ten years later the future of the sites is still under debate. 

A UNESCO-sponsored team headed by Erwin Emmerling began working on the sites in 2002. By 2004, the site, stone walls, and rubble fragments weighing up to 60 tons were secured. However, portions of the site remain inaccessible due to “antipersonnel missiles.” Now, the debate over the next step continues. There are currently three options: 

(1) Do nothing. Secure the rubble and pieces to prevent further damage. In his International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) publication The Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan: Safeguarding the Remains Michael Petzet writes: “Preserving the stature after the deconstruction could be combined with the idea of refraining from any intervention, keeping the site unchanged as a kind of memorial to the act of vandalism by the Taliban, which upset the world.” It has been suggested that leaving the rubble could in-fact be the best option since it would encourage tourism and be economically beneficial to the area. 

(2) Total reconstruction, which would include the creation of replacement parts lost over thousands of years of cultural war-fare dating back to Genghis Khan. Emmerling noted: “For centuries the Buddhas’ heads have been lost, so it would not be a reconstruction, it would be a new head. No restorer wishes to do this kind of work.” 

(3) Anastylosis. Article 15 of the Venice Charter by ICOMOS states: “Only anastylosis, that is to say, the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts can be permitted. The material used for integration should always be recognisable and its use should be the least that will ensure the conservation of a monument and the reinstatement of its form.” This option would both secure the site, prevent further destruction by recreation attempts, and guarantee reversibility– all tenets of modern conservation theory. Anastylosis is favored by both Erwin Emmerling and Michael Petzet. 

It should be noted that some positive discoveries have come about from the cultural destruction. New discoveries on the statue’s materials and construction, as well as original coloration have been made by analyzing over 300 fragments from the two Buddhas. 

The Bamiyan Buddhas are emblematic of cultural heritage in danger, and have become a galvanizing image for the preservation movement. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, that holds true. The media coverage and press images of exploding rock and empty caverns are forever burned into our consciousness.

A Sigh of Relief in Libya

After months of negative reporting on heritage sites in the Middle East, finally there is some good news from all five of Libya’s UNESCO heritage sites. Both the 2,000 year old Roman city of Sabratha and the ruins of Leptis Magna, which had been occupied by Anti-Gaddafi forces since August, sustained little damage. In fact, Fadel Ali Mohammad, Libya’s new minister of antiquities, reported minimal damage to Sabratha after his visit in early September.

Anti-Gaddafi forces are committed to preserving heritage sites and preventing looting. The rebels resisted bombing the Tripoli’s Libya Museum, even after Gaddafi’s officers took up camp in the galleries during the final days of the war, sleeping on mattresses beside marble Roman Venus’ and Neolithic grinding stones. Like Augustus Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler before him, Muammar Gaddafi manipulated Libya’s ancient history to his own self aggrandizing agenda. Now rebel forces are reclaiming the country’s history and re-opening the store rooms of the Tripoli museum, which hold treasures from around the world gathered by Libya’s monarchy. They have posted volunteer guards at heritage sites and at Tripoli’s museum.

August, Luke Harding of The Guardian newspaper reported dramatic scenes of symbolic liberation in Libya. On August 19 he wrote: “On Friday a small platoon of opposition fighters officially liberated it (Sabratha)– climbing up the back of the theatre’s spectacular colonnaded facade. At the top they tore down the green flag fluttering above the ruins– a symbol of Muammar Gaddafi’s hated regime…. In the Sabratha theatre’s giant auditorium the rebels tried to set light to the flag. Behind them were a series of exquisite Roman panels. They depicted muses, gods, three fleshy graces–one with an impressive bottom and another holding an oval mirror and a series of masked comedy actors. The flag failed to catch fire, so the fighters stamped on it instead” (“Libya rebels claim Roman city of Sabratha from regime,” August 19, 2011). Harding’s August 29 article, “Letter from Tripoli: Inside the museum were hidden portraits of Libyan nationalists, Gaddafi had wanted to be his country’s sole hero,” recounts his tour of the Libya Museum by volunteer guards. He describes the liberation of the museum as dramatic as a Livy’s recount of the Rape of the Sabine Women. Harding writes: Naiem [one of the volunteer guards] told me how he and other locals liberated the museum on Sunday 21 August– the day the rebels surged into western Tripoli, and a popular insurrection erupted inside it. The Gaddafi soldiers were armed; the locals had no weapons other than a small harpoon used for fishing trips” (August 29, 2011). It is striking how familiar these scenes appear.

We have heard similar stories since the beginning of historical record. Cultural heritage is constantly at risk simply because of it’s innate symbolic power and ability to motivate, or manipulate, popular masses. Although the news of that Libya’s cultural heritage sustained little damage during this most recent rebellion is positive and uplifting, vigilance is imperative and justified.