Why I would attend a SAFE Tour

On April 11, 12 and 13, 2014 SAFE Beacon Award winner, Dr. Monica Hanna will be giving guided museum tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, focusing specifically on the Egyptian collections at both museums. 

Dr. Hanna will be joining the ranks of the various journalists, archeologists, museum specialists, and art historians who, since 2004, have been giving SAFE Tours and sharing their expert knowledge about different aspects of ancient objects and their greater context within the field of cultural heritage. As always, with each SAFE Tour, visitors are guaranteed a unique and engaging experience. You will find yourself delving into issues not covered by typical tour guides, such as those dealing with source countries and—potentially debatable—provenances of these ancient artifacts.

Now, I’m not sure how many of you are experts in Egyptian antiquities, but I know that I most certainly am not. Luckily for us though, Dr. Hanna’s expertise can provide a thorough and enriching take on Egypt’s cultural heritage. I myself have seen these collections before and I thought they were both amazing. Indeed, with the Met’s collection of 6,400 objects on view that date from the Paleolithic to the Roman period (ca. 300,000 B.C. – C.E. 4th century) and the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of over 1,000 objects on view that date from the Bronze Age to the Roman Period (ca. 4,000 B.C.E. – C.E. 4th century) I found myself thinking that I could spend an entire day at either location.

However, like any museum exhibit that I visit without much prior knowledge of the subject, there was only so much information that I was able to absorb by reading the information plaques. To be truthful, my main take away from each visit was more of an appreciation of the artifacts than an increase in my actual understanding of them. This is often why I try to take a friend who not only shares my passion for art and archaeology, but who also knows more than I do (or simply has a different area of expertise). If you’ve ever listened to someone who’s passionate about a piece or an artist while at a gallery, then you probably already know how infectious that enthusiasm is. Moreover, you know that you find yourself recalling tidbits about artworks or artifacts that would have otherwise been lost among the hundreds of other facts you read that day.

Brooklyn Museum of Art Brooklyn Museum
Richard Barnes/Polshek Partnership Architects

Thanks to Dr. Hanna, we now have the opportunity to have that very friend with us at the museum. A rising star in the field, Dr. Hanna received her Bachelor’s degree in Egyptology and Archaeological Chemistry from the American University in Cairo. She then went on to earn her Master’s in teaching English as a foreign language and later received her PhD in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Pisa in Italy. Furthermore, Dr. Hanna has been spearheading current efforts to safeguard Egypt’s heritage, with Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review hailing her as “a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” The young archaeologist was also recently featured in Channel 4’s 2013 documentary, Unreported World: Egypt’s Tomb Raiders.

As both an Egyptologist and a native of Egypt, Dr. Hanna will bring the collections of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum to life as she gives a story-filled and enlightening tour of each collection. You will leave not only with a greater appreciation of these collections, but also a deeper understanding of these artifacts and the dangers they face within the greater context of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Metropolitan Museum of Art
FindTheBest

Dr. Hanna will pose questions that we, ourselves, may not normally ask such as: from where have these ancient objects come? How did they get here? Who donated them or were they acquired by the museum? What was the expense? From her firsthand experience with looting and tomb raiders, Dr. Hanna knows all too well that not every artifact comes into a collection through expected means. She will be able to share her tales on how artifacts similar to the ones on display in these museums fall into the black market. As these are tours unlike any other, don’t miss your opportunity to be a part of this unique experience and reserve your tickets today.

 

Past and Present Working Together

Thanks to our sponsor Yadaweya, guests to the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Dinner will be treated to a gift from the Egyptian online fair trade marketplace. This collaboration with SAFE provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on where the past and present cross paths and how this intersection can help preserve heritage of all kinds. To quote their website, Yadaweya “serves as a platform for those interested in discovering Egypt and its cultural heritage.” So not only does it provide artisans the opportunity to continue making their traditional crafts and preserve a skill set that has been passed down through the generations (such as the loom work in this video), it also educates consumers about the historical sites that are home to these artisan communities.

Twelve Egyptian heritage sites are featured on their web site, providing background information about the sites and the artisans that work in the area. By adding this human connection to the heritage sites, Yadaweya emphasizes a point that is sometimes forgotten: heritage sites are not only isolated structures in uninhabited lands.

Yadaweya has previously participated in SAFE Beacon Award Winner Monica Hanna’s campaign to protect the Dahshour site. To them, keeping history alive is vital to its survival. SAFE is pleased to collaborate with Yadaweya in our common cause of preserving heritage for all.

A Treasure Found … and Lost

The recently announced discovery of a hoard of late Roman (circa 407-406 AD) gold and silver objects — dug up by an unnamed metal detectorist in the forest near Ruelzheim, in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state — is both thrilling and appalling.

The news is thrilling due to the nature of the hoard. The date of the objects makes the discovery unique in Germany. The importance of the objects in the hoard is second only to the 1868 discovery of a 1st century AD imperial Roman silver hoard known as the Hildesheim Treasure.

German-silver-bowl Silver bowl with stones set in gold, part of the “Ruelzheim Treasure”
DPA

The “Ruelzheim Treasure” reportedly consists of: three dozen solid gold pendants shaped like leaves (each with seven points); a large quantity of square pyramidal shaped gold buttons, which probably adorned a ceremonial tunic of Roman design; a silver-gilt dish cut into pieces in ancient times (probably to be sold as bullion); a solid silver bowl inlaid with semi-precious stones; a crumpled silver chest plate (probably used as decorative armor); several gold and silver statuettes; and — the most amazing survivor of all — a folding silver bench, known as a curule seat, which reportedly survived intact … that is, until the untrained individual with the metal detector tried to remove it from the ground and broke it into pieces.

News of the discovery is also appalling, not only due to the destroyed silver curule seat, but, more importantly, because the priceless information contained at the archeological site where the hoard was buried has been ruined by the metal detectorist, who removed everything of value that he could find. Soon the amateur was visited by German authorities after they learned that attempts were being made to sell the objects on the black market.

The objects were buried near an old Roman road at the time of an epic encounter known as the Battle of Mainz — which pitted the Franks against an alliance of Vandals, Suevi and Alans near the banks of the Rhine River. Thirty thousand Vandals were said to have been killed during the battle, which culminated on December 31, 406 when the Vandal alliance crossed the Rhine westward into Gaul, forever ending Roman military and political control in that part of Europe. Little wonder that someone—a fleeing Roman magistrate, petit royalty, or bandits perhaps?—would bury a gold and silver treasure near the side of a road but not survive long enough to retrieve it.

As valuable as the “Ruelzheim Treasure” may be in merchant circles, its archaeological and historical value would have been much greater if the integrity of the site had been maintained so that it could be scientifically excavated.

How much damage was done by the amateur with the metal detector? The importance of the various objects in relationship to one another may have been indicated by the burial arrangement. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Clues to the identity, rank  or status of its late 4th – early 5th century AD owner may have been deduced by archaeologists at the burial site. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Other items that may have existed at the burial site, such as ceremonial clothing and jewelry, have not been reported. The looter may have discarded or sold these items before the authorities found him.

The very idea that an amateur would discover a 5th century Roman silver curule seat, then destroy it by trying to pull it from a burial spot, boggles the mind.

As the History Blog tartly observes: “The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy, would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.” Would anyone disagree?

Meanwhile, the search for artifacts and relics in German forests and fields by clandestine metal detectorists continues. More than 21,400 videos of these activities can be viewed on YouTube. Soon, the number of videos will equal the number of Vandals who died at the Battle of Mainz on the last day of December in the year 406 AD.

Curtailing the loss of cultural patrimony by curtailing demand

Three years ago, we made this appeal to the trade: [U]ntil order is restored, we believe that if the demand for Egyptian antiquities is curtailed, if not stopped, the loss of Egypt’s cultural patrimony during this tumultuous time would be curbed. We then conducted a poll on the question: “Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt until order is restored?” Seventy-six percent responded “Yes”; and thirty-six percent went further by responding “Yes. Antiquities trade should stop, period.” What this informal poll shows is unequivocal.

Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt survey results

The US remains a leading market for antiquities. A quick search for “Egyptian antiquities” on the eBay site at the time of this writing yielded more than 180 results, ranging from an “ancient silver pendant” selling for $5 to a “wooden sarcophagus” in a three-day auction with an opening price of $12,665.00, marked down from $14,000, available within 5 miles from midtown Manhattan zip code 10019. It is therefore welcome news to see that, according to this report in the Cairo Times, the world’s largest online auction site eBay has agreed with the US Egyptian Embassy to stop the sale of Egyptian antiquities. While it is unclear from the Cairo Times article if this agreement only applies to eBay in the US (what about eBay in Germany, Japan, etc.?) or when the sales ban will take effect, this is a significant move.

It is encouraging to see Egyptian authorities recognize that putting heat on major market players such as eBay is one way to curtail the loss of the world’s most precious nonrenewable resource.

SAFECORNER has addressed the concern regarding online auctions of antiquities for some time. We therefore applaud eBay for setting aside profit-making and joining the effort to save Egypt’s cultural patrimony, and our shared cultural heritage. We can only hope that eBay affiliates outside the U.S. will follow suit, e.g., by limiting or banning the sale of Cypriot artifacts on eBay Cyprus.

Khachkars and Icons: Looting in pre- and post-Soviet Armenia

Located on the piedmont of the Caucasus mountain range, the country of Armenia illustrates an interesting paradox. It is, on one hand, a nation-state born out of, and partly modeled by, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it is also a country that dogmatically identifies itself with civilizations more than 2000 years-old, and defends the idea of an evolving yet continuous Armenian identity.

Armenia is a country with changing borders as it underwent several episodes of invasions by Ottomans, Russians, Persians. Overall, its modern situation is structured around several antagonistic claims with neighboring countries that have their roots both in long-term historical processes and recent geopolitical development. A recent war and conflicting territorial claims with Azerbaijan, political unrest with Turkey over the recognition of the 1915 Genocide and its support of the Azerbaijan as well as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and, despite, an exit from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, a complex and ambiguous relationship with Russia, are all factors that impacted Armenia’s cultural identity and heritage management.

Landlocked Armenia Landlocked Armenia
Google Earth

Amidst those invasions and torn territories, the Armenian identity was created and preserved through the development of specific features, i.e., religion and script. In 301 AD, Grigor Lusarovich (the “Illuminator”) made Christianity Armenia’s official state religion. This historical event placed Armenia at the heart of Christendom’s history, and the Christian religion at the core of Armenian identity. Consequently, increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a known and widespread phenomenon with particular meaning in Armenia as its Christian heritage has been predominantly emphasized, and, as such, the target of specific attacks.

More generally, changes in regime and social structure impacted the safeguard of cultural and historical objects, either because of their association with a particular ethnic/religious group, or simply as the object of international antiquities trade (and the ensuing looting activities), both aspects that have been going on for almost a century.

Destructive Ideologies

A particularly telling example is the fate of Armenia’s cultural heritage during the 1915 Genocide in modern Turkish territories. If the cost of the cultural destruction that occurred is still unknown several sources report destruction of books, and religious artifacts, using the term “cultural genocide”. Beyond such an expression is a desire to express a large-scale and institutionalized effort to erase Armenia’s presence from a given geographical space. Today, some websites (and even a youtube channel ) specialize in finding “treasures” in Armenian houses on Turkish territory that Armenians supposedly left while fleeing the country .

During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, damages occurring to cultural heritage, and looting/destruction of cultural artifacts were reported by both sides of the conflict. When Armenian news media described the looting of Armenian museums during the pogrom of Sumgait, Azerbaidjan media were denouncing the destruction of Azerii-associated heritage, archaeological artefacts, historical monuments, libraries, and even suggesting the organization of large-scale non-professional excavation of graves and burial mounds throughout Karabakh, and particularly Shusha. However, both sides widely publicize efforts to preserve any type of cultural heritage, although sometimes while modifying slightly the identity of the creator. Thus, the destructions occurring are a bilateral process, and both individual actions and institutionalized programs have been involved in destruction and preservation of South Caucasus heritage.

A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin
armenica.org

The destruction of Khachkar in Nakhitchevan exemplifies a large-scale, institutionalized case of destruction. While not objects subject to the international antiquities market, the destruction and looting of those sculptures in Djulfa (or Jugha) calls for public awareness. Khachkars are situated at the border between artifact and monument. Part of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010, khachkars are carved stone steles representing crosses and closely associated with Armenian communities. In Armenia itself, there are more than 50,000 of those steles , bearing witness to more than 1500 years of transmitted traditions and know-how. The cemetery of Djulfa in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhitchevan was a medieval site with more than a thousand khachkars (up to 10,000 thousands). Despite denials by the Azerbaijani authorities, this destruction has been documented through testimonies, videos, and satellite imagery, as a recent study carried out by the AAAS showed the deliberate progressive destruction of the site since the early 2000s . The study was supported by amateur videos showing soldiers destroying the steles with a sledge-hammer. Despite support from the ICOMOS, the position adopted by UNESCO is unclear at best, and the Azerbaijan authorities have not only made any fact-finding mission in the area impossible, they’ve also denied the very existence of Armenian cultural heritage in this area which was, following their version, previously inhabited by Caucasian Albanians.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the looting and destruction of Armenian (and non-Armenian goods on Armenian territory) that took place during several episodes of unrest in the region. They resulted from the ideological struggle of conflicting nationalisms. However, other sources mention the existence of a different type of looting and destruction– one motivated by economic, financial imperatives, and aimed at providing Armenian cultural artifacts to the international antiquities market.

Icons for sale

The most prominent aspect is the traffic of religious icons that has been taking place for at least 40 years. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, several sources revealed the existence of an almost institutionalized traffic, connecting western art dealers with local mafia across the USSR.

Michel van Rijn makes mention of this system in his autobiography, that stands out for its absolute lack of remorse, and by its insights into the world of the international antiquities market. That market relied both on the structures developed by the USSR to acquire some currency, and on the fate of church property during the XXth century in this part of the world.

Novoexport (Новоэкспорт) was an enterprise set up by the government to sell goods from the Union to foreign visitors. This initiative was developed during the Perestroïka in order to keep the state reserves afloat by selling “overpriced rubbish” (Van Rijn 1991) to westerners. As with most other Soviet institutions, Novoexport shops were accompanied by a tedious bureaucratic system that provided each item with excessively stamped paperwork certifying its origin, authenticity, mode of acquisition, etc… Art dealers who bought the worthless items sold by Novoexport were provided with valid documentation to carry objects out of the Soviet Union.

Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat'an The Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat’an, 17th century
Melkianicollection.com

Van Rijn met Dergazarian, an icon dealer in Beirut, Lebanon, at some point in the 1980s. Dergarzarian, an Armenian, introduced to the art dealer the infinite business possibilities offered by the “treasure trove” Armenia was, both in terms of its cultural wealth and the ease with which they could be smuggled out of the country. Soon, the two collaborators flew to Yerevan in order to meet with the local intelligentsia, diplomats, and local KGB agents largely involved in the traffic. Business, it seems, was done with “rubles and French brandy”. At this point van Rijn not only realized the potential for business, but also the scale of the traffic. The scheme was fairly simple. First, van Rijn needed to acquire a valuable icon. This was done through his contact with the Armenian mafia whose members he met through Dergazarian. In order to gain their trust, van Rijn also starts dealing with human trafficking, smuggling people out of the Soviet Union. Let’s note here that it is not unexpected to see antiquities associated with other “items”like (as it is the case in Cyprus) heroin. In Armenia, this dual trade was managed by the local mafia. Through them by the time of the Perestroika, van Rijn had access to an extensive and efficient network and stock of different types of artefacts, mostly icons. He would find an icon with equivalent features (size, theme) in one of the Novoexport shops and simply use the official license to launder and export the illicit goods to Europe (another technique consisted in modifying custom declaration forms in Poland)

This was far from being an isolated case. During the economic reforms of the 80s, dealers bought private antiquities that they exported through diverse methods in western countries, as people seemed willing to sell their family treasures– mostly 18th- 19th century icons– on the black market. Officials at all levels of the hierarchy were involved in this trade including Russian administrators and foreign diplomats. Van Rijn mentions the case of a Finnish diplomat stopped at the border where Russian customs, neglecting the diplomatic status of the suspect, found undeclared antique goods in his luggage. In Russia, the smuggling of cultural contraband is a criminal offense under the Part 2 of Art. 188 of the Criminal Code.

Religious icons are still the object of an intense traffic– especially from the Caucasus region. Last year, an Israeli citizen was caught at the Armenian-Georgian border , trying to smuggle out eighteen undeclared, unlicensed icons. A few years earlier Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev gave to visiting President Medvedev five russian icons confiscated by the customs. In 2009, in the region of Krasnodar, the customs police arrested an Armenian citizen who was trying to smuggle two “ancient icons” into  Ukraine after covering them with a layer of mastic .

These are only a few examples of a long-lasting traffic. If national and international regulations have improved the situation, much is left to be done, both at the level of local protection and on the international antiquities market. Furthermore, this market creates a demand for Armenian antiquities, and a structure for its illicit exportation, thus encouraging destructive behaviors in museums and archaeological sites.

Treasure hunt

Indeed these institutional issues have an impact at another level. In parallel to the smuggling of religious art, other types of destruction take place resulting in damages to the archaeological sites themselves.

The development of archaeological projects in Armenia led to the emergence of treasure hunting. A UCLA news report noted that, after the discovery in Areni cave of the world’s “oldest shoe”, some reporters said that they were looking for shoes filled with gold, “which sparkled a wild looting spree throughout the country” . Indeed, whether related to this particular case or not, several cases of looting of archaeological sites have been witnessed in Areni by the project team and at least at two other locations by the author. At one of those sites, a group of people from the neighboring village explained that they were looking for burial, gold, and old objects in order to sell them. On two occasions, archaeological artifacts (bronze daggers, prehistoric pottery) were identified on the stands of the “Vernissage”, the flee market of Yerevan.

In any country this phenomenon would be an unfortunate yet possible outcome of the development of archaeology and broader access by the public to its results. However, the UCLA news highlights some of the outreach projects planned by the international team in Areni to sensitize the local communities to the value of their heritage.

Several types of destruction have been presented here. Some are the result of nationalism and ideological struggle, while others answer to an international demand for antiquities. In parallel with a more systematic enforcement of international laws and an adaptation of legislation regulating existing loopholes in local criminal codes, cultural heritage professionals, art historians, and archaeologists need to keep developing projects which integrate local communities in their research and encourage an ever-increasing commitment of the public to the protection of its history.

Laundering phenomena in cultural goods trafficking

The laundering of cultural goods has become such a widespread and insidious phenomenon that it should be a separate discipline unto itself, if only to resolve certain jurisdictional problems. Indeed, cultural goods are often subject to real or fictitious manipulations aimed either at removing or hiding their true origin and provenance or obscuring their illicit exportation to a foreign territory. Both of these actions usually constitute the crime of laundering.

Laundering has recently been sanctioned in many legal systems as a form of criminal conduct, and in the near future these sanctions may receive wider application with respect to cultural property. This application will also be of more practical use to combat the offense of handling (from which laundering most certainly derives), because in many legal systems, the knowledge of the criminal provenance of the received good is required in order to prove the offense of handling. Therefore, it follows that “to turn a blind eye” is not always sufficient to assert a defendant’s criminal responsibility, on the basis of the title of the offense of handling. On the other hand, in order to charge the offense of laundering, it is often sufficient that the defendant have “reasonable grounds to suspect” the illegal provenance of the goods, and that he/she strives to conceal this provenance. Thus, the mens rea (intent) of the offenses in question (handling and laundering) may be different; but the required intent is easier to demonstrate in cases that involve laundering.

Moreover, while in many legal systems the offense of handling can exist only if this crime has a specific crime as its base offense[1]; on the contrary, laundering can be indicted insofar as it is proven that the provenance of the goods is illegal.[2]

Laundering is a useful crime to prosecute, both because, at both a global and European level, many legal instruments such as the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (see list of states party) and the 1990 Strasbourg Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime (see list of states party) offer a series of very strong powers, up to and including the confiscation of the property and/or profits[3]. In addition, due to the exact definition of what constitutes the offense of laundering, the cases in which this offense is perpetrated will be more and more frequent in the future.

In particular, the U.N. Convention’s provisions may prove useful if they are applied to the laundering operations that exist in the antiquities trade. As observed, where cultural property is looted in a source State, stolen, illegally exported abroad or imported using some of the techniques that are described below: the cultural artifact may be defined as property which constitutes the proceeds of a crime, and the Convention requires States Party to establish criminal offenses that penalize the intentional transfer of ownership or concealment of origin of such property (Article 6).[4] States Party are also required to establish measures to enable the seizure of such proceeds of crime, identify and trace property which may qualify as such proceeds (Article 12); respond to requests for confiscation by other State Parties (Article 13); and extradite suspected offenders (Article 16), even where the organized transnational character has not yet been completely established or the defendant has a marginal involvement into a criminal transnational organization. Moreover, according to this Convention, States Party should engage in the widest measures of mutual legal assistance (Article 18), consider conducting joint investigations (Article 19) and other measures of law enforcement cooperation (Article 27), and develop specialist training for law enforcement personnel (Article 29).

Antiquities laundering Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered
SAFE

It now behooves me to underline that, according to a shared experience, antiquities are often chosen by criminals in order to launder the proceeds of their crimes. In fact, there is increasing evidence that drugs barons and other offenders are able to launder their money by taking advantage of the ethical and legal twilight in which the international illicit trade in antiquities operates.[5]

Illicitly acquired cultural goods have even been used in a number of cases to obtain loans. When the loans are not repaid, the works of art end up in the vaults of the lending institution. Thus the objects are not only laundered; they lose their educational-cultural values as well.

In many cases, as Simon Mackenzie has observed, “the illicit market for antiquities operates hand in hand with a perfectly licit market. And traffickers in antiquities often find an established open and legal structure in market countries for selling those goods, which through chains of dealers and action houses operates very effectively to maximize the price which can be obtained for art and antiquities.”[6] This is in sharp contrast with the illicit trade in drugs, where the products for sale and market structures are almost always tainted with illegality. In other words, in the illicit drug trade, there is no need for a process of obscuring the drugs’ country of origin and no need to transform the goods’ ownership history, because the goods themselves are illegal on the supply side, on the demand side, and at every point in between. The same is not necessarily true for the illicit traffic in antiquities, which is handled in ways that are similar to the weapons’ trade, where lawful structures and transactions may be used to clothe illegal dealing. Obviously, as the co-mingling between illicit and licit markets becomes more sophisticated and intertwined, the more difficult will be the investigations that are necessary to prosecute these crimes.

Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered[7]. Let me explain this. Many of the triangulations by which cultural goods are physically transferred abroad[8] (exclusively for the purpose of hiding their true provenance), should be re-examined and condemned in view of the issue under discussion. That is: Laundering. Generally, such triangulations are carried out for the purpose of hiding the illegal provenance and relocating the artistic objects to a foreign jurisdiction, especially where the norms are more permissive, thus permitting the eventual marketing and sale of these objects in markets that offer the highest profits[9].

In fact, cultural goods are often exported to those countries which have not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (see list of states party)[10]. These countries are chosen precisely because, from that location, the goods can be transported again and resurface in States that have ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, with the obvious advantage that the cultural goods will not be subject to the controls and limitations in force in cases of import-export between two countries which have both signed these agreements[11].

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place.

Most countries, acting alone, cannot tackle all the triangulations. And according to the shared experience of those who have tackled this problem in recent years, it is pointless for market countries to impose restrictions if source countries and intermediary countries do not impose similar restrictions, because the market will simply shift from one location to another, and the problem will not be solved.

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place[12].

As Neil Brodie has observed, “on occasion, the licensing system in nations such as the UK has been abused in a different way, when for instance exporters have submitted recently imported antiquities for Waverley judgment,”[13] [14]—in effect, submitting to a more stringent process, with the intention to acquire a false provenance (i.e., to locate the cultural items in Britain for more than 50 years).

In addition, these cultural goods are often illicitly exported to another country that is less interested in such items because of their different cultural significance. Indeed, in the importer country those cultural goods often don’t satisfy the artistic criteria as prescribed by its department of national heritage and the export licensing unit will not object to the granting of a license, which would not be granted by the country of provenance[15].

Obviously, all the licenses so obtained serve to bolster the provenance of cultural items that the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate exportation. In this respect, it has been stressed that government department concerned with export licenses or even tax concessions should check provenance of cultural goods which are submitted to them, therefore informing the country of origin whenever appropriate. While this does happen sometimes, this practice should be implemented internationally.

We must also point out that the laundering process adopted by criminals does not only include concealing or disguising the source, location or movement of cultural property. In fact, another particularly insidious form of conduct has unfortunately become widespread within this sector of criminality.

At times, illicitly excavated archeological objects, even when found intact, are deliberately fragmented, or, if found in fragments, are deliberately not restored. Such conduct, which might at first appear to be against the interests of those who commercialize archeological artifacts, is instead useful to criminals who operate in this field. The exportation is, in fact, easier, because a fragmented object can be hidden more easily; and in general, fragments do not attract attention at customs controls, because little value is attributed to them. Usually, customs officials are not experts and do not appreciate the importance of the artifact fragment, which can be underestimated even by experts[16].

Frequently the fragments are subdivided amongst the various participants of a criminal group. By so doing, the group achieves three results: They split the loot of the illicit activity, and they reinforce the ties that link the members of the conspiracy[17]. On top of that, paradoxically, the criminal organization earns greater profits in economic terms, thereby creating a strong and often extortionist bond with the buyers.

Thus, the purchaser becomes part of a dangerous system of sales of fragments, mostly of vases. Generally the vases are of the highest quality and destined to be recomposed, in part or entirely, within a matter of years. This practice reveals a studied and intentional sales policy on the part of mediators and traffickers, who put only a part of the vase on the market, thus increasing the price of each new fragment that appears, making the piece more complete. At times they are used as promotion for other sales.

The purchase of these fragments, (in tomb-robber’s jargon, the so-called “orphans”[18]) which are re-assembled to complete an object of which the principal part is already in someone’s possession, enables the seller to sell, and the purchaser to acquire, as much of the object as much possible.

In this scenario, the purchaser of such fragmented objects not only avoids suspicion, and resulting criticism that comes from acquiring an important object with an illicit provenance, the purchaser even appears to be meritorious, for contributing to the “rescue” of a cultural object that would otherwise be condemned to disappear. According to this often-repeated justification, such purchasers serve as “repositories of last resort”. But this scenario also involves risk. For one thing, when purchasing cultural artifacts in fragments, it is impossible to know the total price of the object until the final fragment that completes the piece changes hands, at which point the price may be very high indeed. And if the seller is apprehended and a fragment is discovered in the seller’s possession that matches other recently sold fragments, the buyer may be forced to return the still-incomplete item.

It is both obvious and significant that the purchasers of these fragmented objects are not immune to censure[19], since the acquisition of artifact fragments without clear provenance can only come from clandestine excavation. Indeed, the market for legitimate acquisitions offers artifacts that for the most part are complete, with accompanying certification and research.

A similar case of criminal conduct is that in which a stolen painting is cut up so as to create different and apparently distinct works of art. This happens when the dimensions of the painting are large, as for example, in the case of a triptych or an altarpiece.  When the object is composed of several lots, it is easier to sell and produces greater profits. In addition, the different compositions thus created, become an obstacle for the research of the goods, precisely because it is not easy to compare the objects that finally reappear, with photographs of the originals. And it is even more difficult if, as is usually the case, the object has been touched up and restored, thus obscuring the illicit provenance of each portion (experts are at times helped in their investigative research by posture and orientation, in appearance, faces, etc. of the figures depicted, and thereby get an indication of the dismembering of the object).

Another expedient, used by criminals who operate in this field, is to touch up or otherwise disguise a cultural good over certain age and/or monetary limits, thus obscuring its national importance.  In this situation, when the dishonest dealer applies for an export license, the export adviser for the export licensing unit does not object to the granting of a license, because he or she does not believe that the cultural good satisfies one or more of the artistic and/or economic criteria as prescribed by the exporter country or by its department of national heritage.

Amenhotep III dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir
Archaeology Magazine
(Left) sculptured head of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III was dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir (right) by Tokeley-Parry, and sold in 1993 for $1.2 million

In this regard, we can remember the Schultz’s case discussed before the Southern District Court of New York[20]. The facts of this case are quite interesting[21]. As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has noted, “Frederick Schultz, a New York dealer and president of an ancient art gallery, arranged to purchase smuggled antiquities from a British restorer by the name of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry who reportedly smuggled more than 3,000 antiquities out of Egypt during the early 1990’s. His method was to make the objects look like cheap reproductions by covering them in plastic and then applying gold leaf and black paint.”[22]

After the cultural objects cleared British customs, Tokeley-Parry restored and sold them on the international art market with Schultz’s help. Furthermore, the Tokeley-Parry/Schultz team created fake documentation for the objects in order to have them as originating from an old collection, called the Thomas Alcock Collection, dating from the 1920’s. Labels for the collection were dipped in tea to give them an aged appearance, and Tokeley-Parry also restored some of the items using a method popular in the 1920’s.

These are the facts, and according to U.S. experts the Schultz’s case is important because after this case there seems to be little doubt that ignoring or dismissing patrimony laws of foreign country has to be deemed reckless and information about where and when the object originated, knowledge of the scope, effective dates and enforcement history of applicable foreign patrimony laws are no longer optional but necessary to avoid U.S. federal criminal liability.

In the civil context, the Schultz case has additional implications. According to a shared opinion, “title to undocumented antiquities can be subject to challenge by countries of origin in civil cases brought in the United States basing ownership on patrimony laws: The burden on a source country will be to prove ownership via the patrimony law and removal of the State owned object across its border after the ownership vesting statute was enacted. No proof of guilty knowledge of the law will be required.”[23], [24]

Thus, as assessed, countries of origin will now have ample incentive to quickly pass or amend and effectively enforce patrimony laws to ensure that they will be recognized by U.S. courts. In fact, as the Schultz case indicates, the U.S. Court will not consider foreign ownership laws to be enforceable if the laws are judged to be void due to vagueness, i.e. confusing, unclear and ineffective[25].

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site”. In addition, the problem of tracing cultural items to the modern day borders of a source country for civil restitution (generally speaking, it is not sufficient to say that they are State-owned because they come, for instance, from the Mediterranean area) can be successfully overcome, says DeAngelis, “if bordering countries agree to cooperate on such recovery efforts and seek return of objects as joint plaintiff.”[26]

Summing up, in the Schultz case, the U.S. Court believes that, when necessary, their Courts can evaluate foreign patrimony laws to determine whether their language and enforcement indicate they are intended to assert true ownership of certain cultural property, and thus create a barrier to the importation of cultural goods owned by a foreign government: Because there is no reason that property stolen from a foreign country should be treated any differently from property stolen from a foreign museum or private home[27].

In other words, in the Schultz case the U.S. Court applied the same principles as established by Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hague, 449 U.S. 302 (1980) decision, which says “for a State’s substantive law to be selected in a constitutionally permissible manner, that State must have a significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts, creating State interests, such that choice of its law is neither arbitrary nor fundamentally unfair”. Obviously, the cultural heritage of a given nation involves contacts that are as strong and significant to the State of origin as required by this case law. Recently, these same principles have been asserted by the Supreme Court of Appeal of England and Wales in the case Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd.

Let’s take a moment to look at other types of laundering operations. One example involves the export of cultural goods, hiding their true context, by belonging to a collection[28]. In many jurisdictions, the export licensing unit will deny a license, regardless of the importance of a particular item, if the artifact is presented as having a relationship with other goods.

Another type of laundering occurs when a cultural item is fictitiously exported in place of a similar object for which export license was obtained. This activity is especially common with respect to serial goods, such as coins or prints.

Other times, to bolster the legitimate provenance of a cultural item which the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate acquisition, the owner may request notification from data banks, such as IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) in New York, or the ALR (Art Loss Register) in London, which document stolen works of art in their archives. Obviously, if an archaeological artifact is the fruit of clandestine excavations, the resulting research on its criminal provenance will be negative, since it can never have been registered as a stolen object. Even so, by obtaining an IFAR or ALR report, the dishonest dealer (including those who have been found to be in possession of photographs of the excavation[29]), can always show his/her buyer[30] the certificate. And should he/she be questioned, he will have the excuse and documents to sustain his good faith, since he/she had done all that was apparently “possible” to certify the licit provenance of the cultural object. In addition, the notification from data banks will report all the details given by the criminals and, as a result, the forged provenance of the artifact will appear to have been validated.

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site.”

Frequently, that same delinquency “introduces” a cultural good fictitiously into a private collection in order to confer upon it a legitimate provenance and thereby conceal its recent discovery in a clandestine excavation. This occurs especially with respect to serial goods (such as coins), or with collections that are not entirely documented. And one cannot forget that authentic artifacts can be substituted by fake ones, and that such collections can be quickly dismembered following the sale of the most valuable pieces. One should also not underestimate how large these collections can become during the very short time before the selling begins.

This form of laundering is the direct result of past museum policies. For instance, in 1996, shortly after the J. Paul Getty Museum passed a new policy, it acquired a large collection of more than 300 objects of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan origin from a private collector, and as Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis observed, “provenience for 90 percent of these objects was unknown. The documentation relied upon by the Getty was the museum’s own catalog from a loaned exhibition that it held a few years earlier.”[31]

As assessed, critics (and a penal prosecution in Italy) accused the Getty of manufacturing documentation to satisfy its own requirements for provenance and thereby tacitly condoning the flow of illegal antiquities[32].

However, in the penal context to maintain that the cultural goods themselves come from that collection, whereas they in fact never belonged to that universitas,[33] can in itself be considered and punished as an act of laundering.

Another safety measure that the dealer takes is that he/she loans the item to a museum, for a certain period of time. Once the loan period is over, the dealer can say that no claims have been raised by any third party during that time (the statute of limitation is usually very short because the item has been on public exhibition). This type of “ancient art laundering” was a successful practice among museums for many years, and criminals on purpose loaned the items in favour of less-known museums, before selling them to major museums.

To put an object up for auction for the purpose of selling it and repurchasing it through a front[34] or through a company of convenience is a fictitious act, aimed exclusively at “laundering” the object – the primary objective[35]- and thus attributing to it a value that is inherently false and arbitrary. Such conduct is particularly insidious, because it can alter the market value of an entire class of objects[36] (values of individual objects are often uncertain and are often determined by comparison with other works of equal cultural interest), or because, for acquisitions made on the “overt market”, the so called time limit (that is, the time one has to take action to claim the object) is very short.

In this respect, it must be stressed that the most important auctioneers currently have due diligence programs in place that should minimize the risk of selling looted art. As Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess have observed, “Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Austria’s Dorotheum have adopted such procedures, at least formally. But these firms remain the exception in the art market. Many smaller houses and private dealers, lacking either interest or resources, have yet to implement such checks on provenance. How to close the ‘due diligence gap’ remains an important question for art market professionals, governments and others, since many cultural items are not of high value and thus do not necessarily move through Sotheby’s, Christie’s or other premier auctioneers or dealers.”[37]

We must also stress that, at present, many of the codes of conduct concerning auction houses’ dealings require them to establish “to the best of their ability, that the objects they are dealing with or putting on sale are not stolen from excavations”. Obviously it is not possible to make good on this pledge: (a) when their sale catalogs provide no certain provenance, and only vague indications of ownership for many pieces; (b) when the items appear documented in Polaroids or other pictures depicting them just after excavation and, anyway, neither in scientific contexts nor referable to reputable collectors contexts; (c) when the same goods have never been ever studied, catalogued and inventoried by competent Authorities in their country of origin, which should be the case for objects discovered at authorized excavations, and (d) when their export has never been authorized by the Authorities of the country of origin (in this respect, the lack of suitable certification adds argument to their illicit trading).

Abiding by these codes of conduct, the dealers and/or auction house staff should be certain of the licit circulation and have no doubt about provenance: Indeed, according to their own ethical codes, these firms must have positive evidence of clear, genuine and licit provenance in order to vaunt good faith that is necessary to proper dealing. Yet this is frequently not taken into consideration by dealers and staff of many important and/or small auction’s houses. With proper international checks, the required information could be verified and “bad actors” prohibited and punished.

All the above leads us to conclude, without hesitation, that targeted regulation of the crime of laundering is indispensable, particularly when such criminal conduct trades in cultural goods, where laundering mechanisms and maneuvers are so numerous and the profit potential is so high, The establishment of an independent, international anti-laundering agency to monitor the art trade is a method that national and international law enforcement agencies would do well to consider.

Finally, as noted in the preparatory agenda proposing a model law for the protection cultural property to the UNIDROIT Governing Council, “many of the above mentioned laundering maneuvers and mechanisms take place thanks to the permeability of inter-state borders, to the greater fluidity of communications and to the emergence of new markets and purchasers.”[38] In other words, among the many costs and benefits of globalization and trade liberalization, we should count the global trade in cultural goods, i.e., an issue of ever increasing proportion.


[1] For instance, the English legal system acknowledges the offense of handling only if the provisions of the Theft Act are infringed.

[2] Both laundering and handling require that a crime be committed before receiving the goods. But the base or predicate offense (i.e., the crime committed prior) can vary. For example, in order to commit the crime of handling, the goods must come from theft (predicate offense); but in order to commit the crime of laundering, the predicate or base offense can involve any one of variety of crimes. One thing that laundering and handling have in common: both crimes are committed only when a person deals with goods that are the proceeds of other crimes.

[3]Often the cultural object is the profit of other crimes. In fact, they may, for instance, come from illegal excavation, clandestine exportation and so on.

[5] See the introduction by Stefano Manacorda to “Organized Crime in Art and Antiquities, edited by Stefano Manacorda. Selected papers and contributions from the International Conference on “Organized crime in art and antiquities” Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy — 12-14 December 2008″ See also “The Eleventh United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Bangkok, 18-25 April 2005: report prepared by the Secretariat (United Nations publication, Sales No.E.05.IV.7),” chap.1, resolution 1; endorsed by the General Assembly in its Resolution 60/177 of 16th December 2005. 

[7] In this regard, many countries seem to punish every laundering manoeuvre.

[8] I have been investigating a case in which a statue of an Artemis was first exported from Italy towards Japan; then this same statue resurfaced in Switzerland where a very well-known dealer sent this archaeological item to the U.S. market. Asked to return the object, the Swiss dealer was so bold that he/she firstly surrendered a fake, but in the end he/she contributed to return the object.

[9] Up until recently, customary routes for Italian cultural goods have been Italy-Switzerland, Switzerland-London and London-U.S.-Japan-Australia or elsewhere.   

[10] As in the past Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

[11] The red flag theory discussed in the Michael H. Steinardt case, before the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. See the facts, procedural history and decision of the United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold 991 F. Supp. 222 of November 11, 1997; decision upheld and reasoning substantially affirmed (184 F. 3d 131 -2nd Cir. 1999) by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The defendant in-rem in this case, the “antique platter of gold,” was a circa 400 BC libation bowl of Sicilian origin known as a phiale mesomphalos. In its decision, the U.S. Court stressed that concealment or misrepresentation is material if it has a natural tendency to influence or was capable of influencing the decision of the decision-making body to which it was addressed. In other words, “a false statement is material if it has the potential significantly to affect the integrity of operation of the importation process as a whole, and neither actual causation nor harm to the government need to be demonstrated. For a trier of fact to determine whether a statement can significantly affect the importation process, it need ask only whether a reasonable customs official would consider the statements to be significant to the exercise of his/her official duties”. For instance, the designation of Switzerland as the phiale’s country of origin and the listing of its value of $ 250,000 were objectively false and relevant. 

[12] As Stefano Manacorda has observed, “the diversity of penalties applied between authorities and jurisdictions can lead to ‘forum shopping’ among the most cunning criminals, who adopt strategies to avoid prosecution and administrative entanglements in those States and jurisdictions known for the severity of their penal responses.” See Stefano Manacorda, “Criminal Law Protection of Cultural Heritage: An International Perspective,” in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell, page 23.

[13] See “The Licensing of Archaeological Material for Export from the United Kingdom,” a memorandum submitted by Dr. Neil Brodie to the UK Parliament, 16 May 2000.

[14] A Waverley judgment is named after Viscount Waverley, who served as Chairman of a 1950 Committee that was appointed to consider and advise on export policy. As result of the Waverley Report published in 1952, two separate categories of material are recognised by the licensing system: Material which has been in the UK for over 50 years and material imported within that time. Thus, according to UK experts, a distinction is drawn between what is considered to be part of the national heritage (material in Britain for more than 50 years) and what is considered to be traded material (in Britain for less than 50 years). The operation of the licensing system pays great attention to the first category. Indeed, the system is designed specifically to protect the national heritage so that many objects will be reviewed individually. Vice versa, for the second category, the traded material, the requirements are less stringent and licenses are granted more or less automatically. A commentator has observed that the system functions to protect the heritage of the United Kingdom while at the same time allowing the British economy to benefit from marketing the heritage of others.     

[15] During my investigations I also ascertained that criminals import into another country a fake work of art they want to pass as genuine. In these cases criminals are relying on the inexperience of the persons deputed to the checks, as their field of expertise is often only on national works of art.

[16] According to a shared experience, customs officers are estimated to lack professional training in art history, being often unable to identify an ancient artifact and, particularly, to indicate the limit of the legal age of artifacts, as compared to an obviously precarious artistic value. On the contrary, criminals are fully aware of the cultural good values in their possession, and during a search done in Paris in the apartment of a famous dealer I have found a fragment well wrapped in a little leather bag, purpose-built for this fragment.

[17] I and my experts have been able at tracing the criminal links of a conspiracy thanks to the documents collected, and through the fragments and their sub-division amongst the various participants.

[18] The main part or core of an archaeological good (the “mother”) is elsewhere and the fragments are orphans of it. In the past this jargon has been so common that during my investigation I had the chance to see that this same expression had been used in a letter written by a famous U.S. museum curator to a colleague of him/her. He/she claimed that, having firstly acquired a part of a kilix, he/she was the only one entitled to buy all the other orphans (fragments) that were about to appear on the market. 

[19] Once, a curator of a museum said to me and I quote verbatim: “… It is true that I come to realize that we were blackmailed, I mean people knew they had a fragment, and that was an extremely unpleasant part”. However, the curator could have broken his or her ties with criminality denouncing the illicit affairs. In this regard, “… no effort should be spared to avoid giving in to ransom demands, so as to discourage the theft or illegal appropriation of movable cultural property carried out for that purpose. The persons or institutions concerned should consider ways and means of making this policy known” (see, the UNESCO Recommendation adopted in Paris on 28 November 1978).  

[20] See, U.S. v. Frederick Schultz, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit 333 F. 3d 393; 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 12834.

[21] However, the facts of this case are not unusual. In fact, I have recently ascertained that two paintings of a famous Maestro had been covered with a yellowish patina, in order to deceive the Officials for the Italian export licensing unit.

[23] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, pages 6 and 7.

[24] In Ratzlaf v. United States (510 U.S. 135, 149, 126 L. Ed. 2d 615, 114 S. Ct. 655, 1994) the U.S. Court relied on the venerable principle that ignorance of the law is no defence to a criminal charge. 

[25] See, the case of Government of Peru v. Benjamin Johnson. In this case, as said, the Court suggested that Peru’s statutes could be interpreted to be export restrictions, not assertions of title.

[26] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 7

[27] As assessed by presiding U.S. district judge Jed S. Rakoff in his ruling of the Schultz’s case: “If an American conspired to steal the Liberty Bell and sell it to a foreign collector of artifacts, there is no question he could be prosecuted … the same is true when … a United States resident conspires to steal Egypt’s antiquities”.   

[28] If a cultural good is presented at the export control hiding such a provenance (for instance, from a collection), and then this good is found in another country, there are some who do not see this object as being illicitly traded, and restrictions such as non-alienability or trust have often not been enforced in a foreign jurisdiction.   

[29] Once, I seized some frescos and their photos which show two walls of a room pertaining to a rich Roman villa of the Vesuvian areas, of Pompei or Herculaneum, or of those sites which disappeared with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. According to the opinion of my experts, they were undoubtedly photographed during a phase of the clandestine dig. That we are looking at an illegal dig is obvious from an examination of the photos which show the conditions of the dig itself: The site of an archaeological excavation carried out by specialist technicians has very different characteristics from those shown in the photographs in question, in which the removal of the earth to free the frescoes is being conducted without any scientific criterion whatsoever, but instead with the one and only aim of being able to remove the paintings as quickly as possible. The photographs themselves also show beyond doubt that we are dealing with a room of a Vesuvian villa; the typology of the frescoes themselves is indisputably Campanian, but also because the pile of earth mixed with lapillae (clearly visible in the photos) is exclusively typical of the Vesuvian areas. Accordingly, the request to the Art Loss Register with regard to the frescoes in question was fictitiously submitted by the dealers; since these came from an illegal dig (circumstance of which all the players were well aware thanks to the photographs), they could never have been amongst listed stolen art works.

[30] Often museums, especially if one considers their past policies.

[31] See Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 15. 

[32] As observed, at the end, the Getty Museum suffered not only a moral loss, but a financial one, even if the objects had not been totally purchased but partially donated, due to the costs expended to acquire, curate, conserve, and maintain objects in its collection.

[33] Universitas, meaning “a collection of goods.

[34] As assessed, traders often try to take lower risks and they do not buy the item from the liaison dealer but they take it on consignment.         

[35] During my investigations I have found a little page in the premises of a well-known dealer I searched. It reads: “The amphora we bought at auction is not ours!” (the word “ours” was underlined).

[36] The high market value of looted art can induce the criminality to do their “best” in order to excavate more and more archaeological items. In this regard, the museum curators have been the purchasers who often paid more, either because sometimes they split with dealers the illicit gain; or because they had to pay the silence of dishonest dealers; or because the laundering operations called more and more intermediaries into the affairs, thus increasing the prices.

[37] See Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess, “Art Market,” in The 2010 Yearbook of Cultural Property Law, page 120.

[38] See “Item No. 9 on the agenda: Triennial Work Programme 2009-2011; Proposal for a Model Law on the Protection of Cultural Property (submitted by the Secretariat)” at the 88th session of the UNIDROIT Governing Council in Rome, 2-23 April 2009, page 6.


Edited by Paul Kunkel, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone.

Monica Hanna to receive 2014 SAFE Beacon Award

The archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna will be the next recipient of the SAFE Beacon Award for her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting situation in Egypt.

Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted – most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past – and our shared history – has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.

While mainstream media reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and those responsible for the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting, we can be thankful for the efforts of “ordinary” Egyptians who have joined together to use social media to keep the rest of the world informed about what is happening to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.

Using social media tools to their fullest potential, Dr. Hanna created and steadfastly maintains Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, while also contributing to other social media platforms. She continues to inform us in lectures and interviews, and she mobilizes others to do the same. In fact, it is impossible for anyone truly concerned about the critical situation in Egypt not to be informed by Dr. Hanna’s dedicated and diligent reporting. This past August, SAFE intern Beatrice Kelly included a small part of Dr. Hanna’s documentation in “How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?” and noted:

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself.

And we are paying attention.

With more than than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Dr. Hanna is an inspiration. No wonder Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review writes, “Hanna is a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers describes her as, “amazing …a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”

SAFE is honored to present the 2014 Beacon Award to Monica Hanna. In the coming months, we will continue to highlight Dr. Hanna’s important work and roll out our plans for celebration. Please follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates.

March 21, 2014 UPDATE: Information about the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award can be found here. Dr Hanna’s Twitter followers number more than 28,000.


The SAFE Beacon Awards recognizes outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about our endangered cultural heritage and the devastating consequences of the illicit antiquities trade. Since 2004, awards have been presented to authors, journalists, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists:

2004 – Roger Atwood

2005 – Matthew Bogdanos 

2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George

2009 – Colin Renfrew

2010 – Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman

2011 - Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

2012 – David Gill

Archaeology for non-archaeologists (like myself)

Recently I had the challenge of talking about the damage of tomb raiding upon cultural heritage to a general audience. In order to present my ideas in a clear, concise and didactic way, I used a particular comparison which comes out of my work as a criminologist and a criminal defense attorney: in a nutshell, how an archaeological dig is comparable to a crime scene.

When introducing the risks of archaeological looting to a general audience, one first must understand the conception people have about archaeology and archaeologists. Sometimes, this mental image can be an authentic misconception. This also happens with criminologists –if you knew how many times, after telling someone I do not know that I am a criminologist to I get the “So you are a CSI, huh?”– or other professions where media images have distorted the reality.

Police (Mossos d'Esquadra) investigation of a crime scene in Catalonia Police (Mossos d’Esquadra) investigation of a crime scene in Catalonia
ACN

In that sense, people who still have an idea of the archaeologist wearing a fedora hat and holding a whip, usually have a more Hollywood-style conception of archaeology, in which not only is the archaeologist a valiant athlete who fights tribes, traps and tribulations, but someone who embarks on a treasure hunt in order to get a one-of-a-kind artifact which will (no doubt) be labeled as a spectacular find. In sum, an archaeology which is object driven and in which the archaeologist is a collector him/herself.

Nothing further than the truth. Real archaeology is not so much object-driven as information-driven. Archaeology is a science that has the goal of enriching the knowledge of our past through the study of remnants, whatever these may be: skeletons, coins, textile, jewelry, architectural remnants…

Archaeologists working in a dig in Catalonia, Spain Archaeologists working in a dig in Catalonia, Spain
D.G. Patrimoni Cultural – Jordi Play

In real archaeology, there are three very important elements that are essentially interconnected: the find, its context and its sense. In other words, the site of the find is at least as important as the find itself. For an archaeologist, therefore, it is essential not only to assess what object has been found but also what has been moved or taken.

In that sense, it is very easy to draw parallels between an archaeological dig and a crime scene investigation where the haste is not welcomed. Just imagine a detective à la Indiana Jones, touching everything and leaving his fingerprints everywhere. The ‘good’ detective, like the real archaeologist, looks for information about what happened at the crime scene by studying what remains behind in the crime scene and how those remains are placed –again, the importance of the context.

However, every day, looters in different parts of the world ignore that very easy to grasp comparison and destroy the remnants of our shared past at an alarming pace. Of course, their motivations are radically different from those of archaeologists and seem very hard to change. But, people from different fields and organizations like SAFE, in raising awareness of this issue, try to inform a wider audience of the perils of the destruction of the non-replaceable cultural heritage. Many people are still not aware of the risks facing our cultural heritage. If simple comparisons like the one I presented here help more people understand the work of real archaeologists and bring attention to this problem, so much the better!

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 


When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation

The following is posted at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik. 


Dear friend,

Many of you have been instrumental in launching unforgettable exhibitions that explored Egypt’s rich history. Thanks to you, millions of Americans have a special relationship with and fascination for my country’s unique contribution to human civilization, shaped over the course of generations. So many young minds have been stimulated by these exhibits with questions of who are these people and how did they create this? For our children’s sake, we need to keep these experiences and opportunities accessible to everyone.

Considering your interest in preserving and promoting Egypt’s cultural heritage, I wanted to share with you a recent article written for the Washington Post by Egypt’s Minister for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim. In it, he called on the United States and its citizens to help Egypt combat theft of historical and archaeological treasures, a worrisome trend exacerbated by Egypt’s current security situation. He also requests vigilance from auction houses and other cultural institutions that may come across suspect items. Minister Ibrahim reminds us all that, “It is our common duty, in Egypt and around the world, to defend our shared heritage.”

I would welcome your thoughts on how we, as a community that cares about Egypt’s treasures, can raise awareness of these tragic incidents and prevent further harm.  I would also encourage you to spread the word about antiquities thefts through social media. As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.

Should you have any questions in this matter, don’t hesitate to email the embassy at Culturalheritage@egyptembassy.net

Thank you again for your dedication to the people, history and culture of Egypt at this especially sensitive moment.

Mohamed Tawfik
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Washington DC

Syria’s cultural heritage in danger: What can we do?

SAFE Volunteer Sandra Roorda observes the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection on the situation in Syria.


Amidst the public and political clamor surrounding the current conflict in Syria, and as many argue over how to prevent further civilian casualties, a wide swathe of cultural institutions and organizations from both diplomatic and NGO communities has stepped forward to warn that, in addition, the country’s rich cultural heritage is being looted and destroyed. As Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund states, “The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension.” To be sure, the conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people, but it is also stripping them of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage, resulting in a loss felt not only by the Syrian people, but also by the world at large.

World Heritage Sites in Danger

The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has devastated the country’s cultural heritage, with UNESCO reporting that 93% of the country’s total cultural sites are currently within areas of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites, six have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites, with some structures already destroyed or seriously damaged by shelling or looting. Indeed, recent aerial footage also reveals several of these sites to be pockmarked with holesthe token remnants of looters excavating cultural objects and antiquities.

Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo.
UNESCO and Professor Abdulkarim

Currently listed as in danger by UNESCO are the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the site of Palmyra, Cracs des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Of course, countless other sites and structures that lend to Syria’s rich cultural heritage have also been damaged and are further threatened by continued fighting—the breadth of which is perhaps demonstrated by the World Monument Fund’s recent decision to list all of the cultural heritage sites within the entire country of Syria as part of its 2014 World Monuments Watch.

The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk

ICOM's Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
ICOM

UNESCO and the World Monument Fund are hardly the only organizations—cultural or otherwise—adding or connecting Syria to an endangered list. In an event last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

Held during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and attended by members of both diplomatic and NGO communities, the event served to raise awareness surrounding the issues of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage by specifically outlining the categories and typologies of cultural artifacts and goods most vulnerable to illicit trafficking during the conflict. Indeed, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has reported a dramatic increase of illegal excavations of archeological sites and increased looting of museums in Syria, with the threat of illicit trafficking and trade of cultural property on the rise. As Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO states, “In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by UNESCO, ICOM’s Emergency Red List aims to help counteract illicit trafficking by not only categorizing the types of objects most at risk, but by also providing a succinct guide for museums, auction houses, art dealers, and collectors on how to facilitate the identification of potentially stolen or looted items, and which subsequent authorities to inform. The publication covers a wide spectrum of artifacts and antiquities, categorizing writing, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, accessories and instruments, stamps and cylinder seals, and tessera and coins.

Joining in the announcement of the Emergency Red List, Assistant Secretary of States for Population, Refugees, and Migrations, Anne Richard, stated:

“The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people, but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were—in better times—a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life—a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future. Today, with the release of the Red list, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.”

Richard goes on to call on the international community to remain vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from purchasing or acquiring such objects.

Syrian volunteer networks mobilize and come together to help safeguard the country's heritage. UNESCO reports that, “Volunteer networks from local communities all over the country have mobilized themselves and come together with a common objective to protect their cultural heritage. These networks provide additional security in protecting archaeological sites from illegal excavations, and safeguarding museums from looters.
Photo via UNESCO and ICOM

Further attempts to counteract the illicit traffic and trade of Syria’s cultural heritage include the digitization of the remaining inventory and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums, in order to simplify the identification and the registration of any missing artifacts. Additional testimonies, images, and videos from the public, as well as from various national and international archaeological and heritage-based initiatives, are assisting in these digitized databases. As UNESCO states, “All this collated information will facilitate a more effective response against the illicit trafficking of cultural property out of Syria, and help potential restitution cases in the future.”

A Call to Action: Syria and the International Community

Attempts to combat the looting of Syrian antiquities and counteract their illicit trade are made difficult and further complicated for a variety of reasons, not least of which are due to the literal combat taking place on the ground.

That the continual fighting of the ongoing conflict in Syria renders site protection on the ground difficult and often thwarts attempts to protect the country’s cultural heritage brings to light what some may view as the apparent limitations of such international agreements as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in ICCROM's e-learning course Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in the e-learning course, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict.
ICCROM and Lina Kutifan, DGAM

That being said, there are a number of efforts—both coordinated and individual, and implemented by both diplomatic and NGO communities—that are taking place to address the looting and the subsequent potential for the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. While fighting and shelling proves an obstacle for on-the-ground site protection, effective monitoring of the situation and statuses of these sites, combined with the methodical documentation of antiquities and cultural property still accessible to archaeologists and members of the cultural heritage community, is of the utmost importance. As previously mentioned, the digitized documentation of the archival inventory of Syrian museums, for example, could be instrumental in potential restitution cases in the future.

Additionally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in association with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has partnered with the DGAM, in coordination with UNESCO, to hold several e-learning courses for Syrian cultural heritage professionals. The first of such courses, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict, took place at the beginning of this year at the Damascus National Museum and provided around 75 DGAM managers, directors, curators, architects, and staff—not to mention Syrian cultural heritage researchers and conservation experts—with some of the necessary knowledge and training materials to build their capacities in helping preserve the country’s cultural heritage.

The Syrian audience welcomed this show of professional solidarity from the international heritage community, the success of which prompted the next e-learning course and video conference, which took place last month. Says ICCROM of the initiative:

“In organizing the course, ICOMOS and ICCROM call on all parties associated with the situation in Syria to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect Syria’s precious cultural heritage sites and institutions. A call was repeated at the beginning of the course to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to respect museums, monuments, and historic cities.”

Further seminars and courses are envisaged as part of a long-term effort, in addition to further knowledge, experience, and advice, which may be offered during Syria’s recovery phase. Certainly, preserving Syria’s cultural heritage can serve as not only an anchor for promoting social cohesion and national unity during the recovery phase, but it may potentially aid in promoting economic stability based on tourism, which, before the conflict, accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.

Participants and trainers in ICCROM's e-learning course, via video conference Participants and trainers in ICCROM’s e-learning course, via video conference.
ICCROM and Rohit Jigyasu

As one of the trainers for the initiative, Rohit Jigyasu, President of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) states, such endeavors could effectively become a benchmark for a “paradigm shift in how we can build capacity and promote awareness for heritage conservation using new information technology.”

Our Public Responsibility

Given the situation and the myriad of associated issues, many of us may ask ourselves, “Well, what can we do to help?” As members of the public, we too can play our part, by not only making ourselves and others aware of such issues, but also by simply refraining from buying cultural goods and antiquities from conflict zones—Syrian or otherwise. After all, supply must meet demand, and a collective decision to stop buying these antiquities may go a long way to curb theft and looting. In the end, this combination of action—raising awareness surrounding the issues of looting and illicit trafficking—combined with inaction—refusing to engage in the purchase and trade of antiquities from conflict zones—may prove essential to preserving what remains of Syria’s rich cultural heritage.

Drawing Parallels: SAFE and the National Museum of Iraq

In light of such issues, it is hard not to draw the comparison between the current crisis in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, following the collapse of the Saddam regime. While the various circumstances and the context for each situation differs, many of the issues and the challenges facing Syria’s cultural heritage and archeological sites are, in many ways, similar to those in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion.

Indeed, many of our SAFE readers and contributors have similarly commented on this parallel during our 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE was borne out of the travesty surrounding the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and now, during the tenth anniversary of both the looting of the museum and the founding of this organization, it seems particularly poignant to warn of the similar dangers affecting not only Syria’s cultural heritage, but of heritage sites across the globe. The memory of what happened in Baghdad serves as a perpetual reminder, wherein circumstances of the past can hopefully manifest as lessons for the future.

Additional Information and Further Resources

 The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk can be found here.

The link for UNESCO’s website, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property in Syria, can be found here.

Updates on the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage on the ground can be found through DGAM’s website—in both Arabic and English—here.

For previous SAFE articles and information regarding the conflict in Syria and the destruction of its cultural heritage, please click here.

Preserving cultural heritage in the United States

We thank SAFE Volunteer Melissa Halverson for her contribution to the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.


One of my favorite stories stemming from a career as an anthropologist and museum professional lies in what is right in our efforts to preserve cultural heritage.

Looting affects all geographic areas of the United States and an estimated 90% of known archaeological sites in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado (US Congress, 1988).  A major issue with looting in the U.S. lies in the fact that objects become the property of whoever owns the land in which they were found. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 to reduce illegal looting and trafficking. It also attempts to reconcile American Indians with human remains and sacred and ceremonial objects that had been taken from them and found their way to museum collections around the country.  In the majority of cases, NAGPRA has helped to solidify trust and good relationships between local American Indian tribes and museums.

Melissa Halverson at museum The author posing with some arctic artwork at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

During my undergraduate and graduate research, I worked with NAGPRA compliance by gaining tribal approval to amplify ancient DNA and to study some skeletal samples that had not yet been returned to the tribe.  A few years ago, I interned at Washington state agency and got to see how meaningful our efforts to curb looting really can be.  An American Indian burial had been discovered in someone’s front yard during a routine water line inspection and I got to assist with the excavation.  Local tribal representatives came out to the site and shared the day with us.  At the end of the experience, the human remains and burial objects were returned to the tribe for proper burial. This individual was a tribal member. Anti-looting laws helped bring him back home where he can rest with his ancestors.  He is no longer in any danger of ending up on a museum shelf or being traded on the black market (learn more about Washington State American Indian tribes here).

I am proud to have collaborated on such a wonderful project and it was an amazing feeling to use my skills in archaeological excavation to make a small difference for the American Indian tribe, the safety of the human remains and archaeological materials, and the stability of local cultural heritage.

Looting is everyone’s concern

SAFE is grateful to Marni Walter for sharing this reflection with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.


During the early years of the new millennium, the scope of antiquities looting and destruction of cultural heritage seemed to drastically expand. To all the archaeological damage done for profit to feed the demands of various art markets, we were forced to add incalculable threats from political unrest and wartime conflict.

At that time I was working as an editor at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for the American Journal of Archaeology, while also enrolled as a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University. In heritage management courses, we would compile statistics on the unprovenanced antiquities (most of them!) in the high-end auction catalogs, scrutinize the collections of prominent collectors, and report on the imbalances in wealth of the “source” countries versus the places of import. At the AIA, we debated about whether we should continue to publish using the longstanding von Bothmer publication fund (as Dietrich von Bothmer, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became increasingly criticized for acquisitions, such as the Euphronios krater, in an earlier era of museum practices).

Marni Walter at prehistoric site The author recording excavation details at a prehistoric site in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

We were thrilled when a hefty manuscript by Christopher Chippendale and David Gill landed on the AJA editorial desks: this important and thorough study was published in July 2000 as “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting” (AJA 104:463–511). In fact many excellent studies were published in the early 2000s onward that showed the cold hard numbers on archaeological losses. It has been gratifying to see the growth in academic attention to many aspects of cultural heritage protection, with entire conferences (like the subject of my last post) dedicated to the subject. Sharing research among specialists is vital to moving forward, but we also need to talk to everyone else, and gain the support of the widest possible range of people.

When in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and many others throughout Afghanistan, and in 2003 thieves looted and vandalized the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the need for broad support (including military personnel among many others) was suddenly more obvious. These events were not at all accidental or collateral war damage, but deliberate actions of hostility. Of course war, and its spoils, have been around since antiquity itself, but now unprecedented levels of media attention followed. Ten years later the reports and the images from the ransacked museum are still vivid. Many people recognized—even in the midst of the human tragedies of war—the dramatic loss of knowledge and spirit of the “cradle of civilization,” and the senseless, destructive impulses that caused it.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work.

We are fortunate that SAFE was borne out of these circumstances, founded as a response to a dramatic event, but recognizing that the problems would require more ongoing and widespread attention. No single solution will stop or curb looting to any significant degree, but one common thread will help greatly: the public, anyone with any interest in archaeology, history, art history, cultural diversity, etc. So many people are just as fascinated, if not more so, after learning how we gleaned a whole story, an entire village or camp scenario, from mapping the locations of all the stone tools, or bits of ceramics, and whatever small puzzle pieces we found. Many of them will sympathize, and help, if they are aware of the issues.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work. It could be showing a community the importance of context for what local excavations revealed, or writing in support of a bilateral agreement, or contributing stories or research summaries to SAFE. Whether working on public awareness and action, legislative and policy changes, improved security, or research on causes and effects, SAFE, for ten years running, is an ideal venue to bring all these approaches together.

We can hope that all our efforts will add up to a broad change of public attitude. Convince the next generation of would-be collectors that it’s so old school to hoard priceless artifacts in their houses as knick-knacks on the mantle. Modern “collectors” would rather support an excavation and its related museum displays or public programs. These collectors will find it so much more satisfying to potentially have an excavation or museum display in their name, along with all the information and discoveries that were revealed from it. Future vandals will know that plundering their country’s museums will only rob themselves and their own people of a collective source of wealth. It’s an ideal world, but one worth working toward.

Ultimately, it’s not about saving every individual artifact on the planet. It’s about cultures of all varieties and sizes flourishing and retaining their uniqueness, the pieces that tell their story. It’s about respecting cultures and environments that are not our own, and, to paraphrase SAFE founder Cindy Ho, choosing to live in a world with a rich cultural heritage.

Photo: “The opposite of looters’ pits. Scientific excavation is key to a wealth of information about the past,” by Marni Walter

What lies ahead: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 2)

In my first interview with SAFE Founder Cindy Ho, we discussed how and why SAFE was founded and some of the challenges of starting an organization. In this installment, Cindy talks about whether she thinks the organization has been effective in reaching its goals and her continued belief in its mission to raise public awareness, ten years after she first had the idea. The interview concludes with an appeal to people she calls “those who know.”


DB: How does SAFE get funded to do all this work? Who donates to SAFE?
CH: In the beginning I funded SAFE to cover only small expenses until I resigned from my job two years later. We spent very, very little. In fact, we were so frugal that I had to be reminded to distribute printed materials we spent money to produce. Others also donated more than work. It was this kind of can-do attitude across the board that gave SAFE its start. I was running a grassroots organization, supported by the people it served, before I was even familiar with the term.

Funds came in as membership fees; we also did well with revenue-generating events. Still, SAFE’s existence was never about the amount of money it raised, but a shared commitment to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission. People worked for SAFE because it was something they had to do. This wealth of human resource made SAFE a well endowed operation from the start. Five years ago Sam Paley, one of our advisors, told me that we were functioning like a multi-million dollar enterprise without the multi-millions. If so, just imagine what SAFE could produce with a fraction of those millions…This was the definition of success, or so I was told.

DB: What is your definition of success?
CH: I could say success is when there is no more looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade. But that is not realistic; it is also not SAFE’s mandate to reach that goal. Years ago at our first benefit event, I said that success meant that SAFE didn’t need to exist any longer. When everyone is aware of what is at stake, then the decision to destroy or preserve cultural heritage becomes a conscious decision. That’s when SAFE can declare success. I still believe in this.

But SAFE alone cannot reach this goal. It can only happen with a concerted effort among those who know to tell those who don’t yet know what is at stake. It will take many people and organizations, working collaboratively, to achieve this success.

There are now a number of other web sites and blogs that also address the issues of looting and the illicit antiquities trade with the potential to reach the general public and SAFE recognizes and encourages these efforts with the Beacon Awards. But I don’t know of any other independent nonprofit organization with this focused mission. Oscar Muscarella said, “That [SAFE] is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs.” I agree.

But success is not at all impossible. Look at the environmental movement. While the struggle to save the planet continues, and some even argue that it’s too late, there can be no argument that people know that it’s important to recycle and save energy. To pollute has now become a conscious decision. How much time and effort did that take?

As long as there are unexcavated ancient sites with information about our ancient past that has yet to be revealed, it is not too late to save cultural heritage from being irreversibly destroyed. Saving this undiscovered past is what SAFE is about.

The New Mexico State Parks system recently ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti's poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide. "I've seen how hard our park field staff work at taking care of the parks at every level, from keeping restrooms clean to protecting and educating about irreplaceable natural and cultural resources," State Archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Procter said. "They face huge challenges in getting our visitors to understand why some things belong to ALL of us. It seemed to me that our staff could use every possible source of help in getting this message out and showing that they are not alone in promoting it." The New Mexico State Parks system ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti’s poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide.

DB: What about short-term success, surely you can name some examples?
CH: Raising public awareness can be a numbers game which means the wider the reach, the greater the success. To reach unlimited audiences, the organization decided to focus its efforts online some years ago. Judging by the statistics on social media and web traffic, SAFE is reaching that goal. SAFE has become the go-to destination for people who want to know and network with interested others.

There is no denying that in the years since SAFE came into existence that public awareness about these issues has increased. What has this awareness produced? Colin Renfrew most generously commented to the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage that “many of the good things that have happened in this area over the past decade would not have happened without SAFE.” If so, SAFE could not have done this without the participation of the experts.

UNESCO's office in Kabul is using these "LOOTED" cards  SAFE produced UNESCO’s office in Kabul is using these “LOOTED cards SAFE produced

SAFE has received generous support from donors and other like-minded organizations, which enabled us to create awareness-raising campaigns and materials I am proud of. They are not only innovative and fun to produce, they have been found useful around the world to create more awareness. SAFE videos and presentations have been viewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times. SAFE has earned the trust from key opinion leaders around the world who have not only lent their names, but rolled up their sleeves to work with us in the kind of collaboration I could only wish for ten years ago. This collaboration may be the most powerful and rewarding aspect of SAFE.

Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE's "Say YES to Egypt's Heritage" button. Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE’s Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage button

DB: Why do you feel SAFE is alone in this mission, so far?
CH: SAFE is alone, but not entirely. There are other organizations dedicated to preserving cultural heritage; some existed long before SAFE. But they don’t focus on the looting problem or the illicit antiquities trade, or raising public awareness. One reason is fundraising.

Changing hearts and minds takes time. Ten years after I first had the idea, I feel that SAFE has only begun. We all have only begun to become more aware. Donors seeking quick return on investments would prefer faster, more tangible results. While one can see and even touch an old monument restored, public awareness is ethereal. With the explosion of social media, effectiveness has now become more measurable and visible, but how this translates to donor contributions remains to be seen. Also, SAFE does its work in the US—a major “market country”—where antiquities are bought and sold for profit, often with no questions asked. Many people who routinely support the arts, history, or archaeology, have been engaging in very same behavior that SAFE points out as destructive. Organizations often steer clear of focusing on looting and the illicit antiquities trade because of this. It is hard to raise funds for a mission few grantors are informed about. But for me, these are all the reasons why SAFE needed to exist in the first place. Still, I can comfortably say that SAFE has done what it set out to do.

DB: In retrospect, do you still believe in SAFE’s mission, given these difficulties?
CH: Yes, now even more than before. Everyday, somewhere around the world there exists the possibility of a new discovery about our ancient selves that could inform us all. Looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade makes the collection of the information that everyone deserves impossible. Cultural relics become mere things. If knowledge belongs to all of us, then we are all responsible for safeguarding our shared humanity. And it is up to those who know to inform the rest, because there is nothing inevitable about wanton destruction.

How else could anyone understand that when a looter steps on an object in a tomb looking for something to sell, much more is broken than the object itself? How could one realize that removing an archaeological object from a National Park is against the law, that a museum acquiring objects with dubious provenance is not acceptable, that bringing back a treasured find from Peru or Greece might risk having it confiscated? How could one know that trading and collecting looted antiquities promotes the destruction of our shared heritage? We can’t protect something unless we know that it needs protecting. And ten years later, too few people are aware, still.

No doubt this is a lot of work. It takes us away from our immediate concerns: our careers and our routines; it takes us out of our comfort zones. But it is no different from any other cause, or any other endeavor that matters. When SAFE took to the streets to collect signatures, we found that it wasn’t difficult to educate the unknowing public. But what SAFE, or any one organization, can accomplish is limited, given the enormity of the task.

Public awareness is not a panacea. It is fundamental to—but only part of—the solution, like import restrictions, site security, or law enforcement. Awareness does not guarantee action. What is guaranteed is that there is no action without awareness.

DB: What do you see in SAFE’s future?
CH: SAFE’s future depends on the quality of the work it delivers, which in turn depends on the input it receives from those who know. Will there be a shared belief that there can be no long-term solution to combating the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade without public awareness? Will there be a true commitment to doing whatever we—expert or not—can to help protect everyone’s right to cultural heritage, for ourselves and for our children? The fact that SAFE is able to serve its mission today still is entirely the result of these two factors. But it’s not even about SAFE. Someone, some organization, must serve this mission. And until there is another focused effort to inform the public, SAFE has to keep going. What other option is there?

Public awareness is convincing only when it is based on fact and reasoned analysis. Otherwise, no matter how loud you shout, opinion is just noise and there is enough misinformation out there in the blogosphere. This is why SAFE must continue its work only with those who have done the research and analysis, for which there is no substitute. Without this, SAFE should not add more noise to the din.

Definitely there are more people knowledgeable about these issues today than ten years ago. There are more books and classes and lectures on the subject; even university programs offering advanced degrees that address looting and the illicit antiquities trade. I hope that those who know, those who do the research and the study, and archaeologists who have had firsthand knowledge of looting would continue to work with SAFE.

We only have the rights we are willing to fight for. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind for future generations, and future generations to come? Much of ancient history is still undiscovered, unexcavated and undocumented. Are we willing to do nothing while looting and the illicit antiquities trade continue to destroy information locked in this undiscovered past that belongs to all humanity? What are we willing to fight for here and now, so that our children’s, and their children’s lives could also be enriched as ours have been by our ancestors? These are questions for all of us.

Regardless of what happens, SAFE has done its part. If the collective will is there, it should continue to serve its mission.

DB: How can archaeologists do more to help?
CH: Archaeologists and other experts have been publishing on these issues for a long time. But most academic publications and conference discussions (and their accompanying papers) reach only a select few and are completely inaccessible to the general public: they are not publicized and are priced for institutional purchases only. For example, an article in an academic journal tells us that an overwhelming number of archaeologists have encountered widespread looting in the field. Everyone should know this. Many such publications that inspired me and taught me are similarly out of reach. This is a pity, because “ordinary” citizens are not only capable of understanding, most are ready to support archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, as a Harris Poll confirms.

I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause.

I founded SAFE to be the conduit to bring this knowledge to a wide audience, with the ultimate goal towards long-lasting solutions. I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause. Those who are serious in their interest to protect the sanctity of information—or archaeological context—about the ancient past, would do well to want to share what they know with the general public. I understand this requires an extension of one’s vision. Saving cultural heritage requires a very long vision: enthusiasm, fervor and conviction do not suffice. Neither do research and analysis alone.

I also want to appeal to professional associations and the academic establishment to support not only the study of these issues, but the means to advocate for the cause. Could looting and the illicit antiquities trade be more widely included in the annual conferences where archaeologists gather to learn and to share? If archaeologists themselves have experienced the damaging effects of plunder, are they also aware of the possible solutions so they can contribute to them? In the US, are they adequately informed about the Cultural Property Implementation Act, and CPAC? Could there be workshops or seminars at the annual conferences to cover legal mechanisms which ultimately aim to protect the very field archaeologists dedicate themselves to? Could there be a fund set aside to finance the attendance at CPAC meetings so that those who know don’t have to pay their own way to testify in Washington? Could there be legal assistance offered to those who do speak out about the issues and are threatened by those who don’t agree with them? These are questions for all those who know.

DB: Can you tell us something about this Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage?
CH: I came up with the idea with Donny George in 2007 to remember the looting of the Iraq Museum and to raise awareness about the ongoing plunder of ancient sites. This year, on the 10th anniversary, we decided to offer our web site and social media channels to showcase the work of others as a sign of appreciation, and in anticipation of future opportunities for collaboration. This furthers our mission, and also celebrates our own founding. It’s something like a birthday party, where we inviting our friends to join in. This is also an open call for the needed collaboration I described.

DB: Thank you Cindy, for this interview.
CH: Thank you, Deanna, for giving me the opportunity to observe the 10th anniversary in this way.

Looking back on the last ten years: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 1)

I first heard of SAFE through Liz Gilgan eight years ago. It was Liz, a founding Board member, who expanded my understanding of looting and the illicit antiquities trade and how source countries, archaeologists, and SAFE were fighting to protect the world’s cultural heritage. After hearing her speak at Boston University’s Archaeology Club, I became a volunteer. Now, on the 10th anniversary of SAFE’s founding, I am reminded of the beginning of my own involvement with the organization, which led me to interview its founder, Cindy Ho. I am intrigued by how Cindy—an advertising professional—came up with the idea of SAFE; how she decided to focus on looting and the illicit antiquities trade, why she chose raising public awareness to combat those problems, and her thoughts on the future of SAFE.

The 2013 SAFE Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage invites us to share our reflections on cultural heritage. This two-part interview gives me the opportunity to ask Cindy for her reflections; it also answers my own questions about the organization I admire and continue to support.


DB: What motivated you to start SAFE?
CH: It all began with the news about the looting of the Iraq Museum. The more I heard about the “catastrophe that has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq”* and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. Looting wasn’t taking place only in Iraq but everywhere, and it’s been going on for many years. It wasn’t only the theft and destruction of beautiful objects in a museum, but the plunder of ancient sites and the irreversible loss of knowledge that was even more damaging. And the problem was growing in size, scope and complexity every day. [*In a press release issued April 15, 2003 the Director of the British Museum said: “Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq.”]

SAFE founder Cindy Ho SAFE founder Cindy Ho

What was not complex, however, was the fact that the connection to our ancestors, our cultural heritage, must be protected. I’ve always thought of ancient cultural heritage the way one thinks of an old person as “everyone’s grandmother or grandfather.”  When the remnants of ancient civilization were stolen or destroyed, it was as though my own heritage was at risk.

But it’s not about antiquities for the sake of the objects. As a visual person, I’ve discovered that an object can become instantly beautiful, or more beautiful, when I know what it was, how it was made, and who made it, and why. I was interested in preserving the knowledge and understanding antiquities reveal that inspire us and enhance our own lives, here and now.

Before 2003, like most people, I took cultural heritage for granted. The news from Iraq made me realize how vulnerable it was and how little I had known about these threats to the very core of our humanity. How could I, how can we, afford to not know? When I discovered that there was virtually nothing about this that was easily accessible to the general public, raising awareness became the something that I had to do.

DB: What did you do then? How did SAFE come about?
CH: It didn’t take me long to decide on creating a global awareness campaign, given my career in advertising. I thought: if the news reports could move me to act, what would happen if I could rally the help of others once they also became aware?

The two friends I told encouraged me and offered to help, and we began having meetings in coffee shops about what to do next. Their interest confirmed that I was on the right track. The campaign needed a name, and my friend came up with Saving Antiquities for Everyone, SAFE.

SAFE 2004 fundraiser Crowds gathered at the first SAFE fundraiser in New York City

But enthusiasm was not enough. I knew that I needed help from two distinct groups: experts in spreading the word and experts in the issues. I placed tiny pro bono ads in Advertising Age and Adweek and emailed the academics, citing “time, energy and commitment” as my qualifications. How else could I raise awareness responsibly?

DB: So you were still working at a job at this time?
CH: Yes, full time at an ad agency. I was so single-minded and driven that I couldn’t help but share what I had just learned and planned to do. I hung a recruitment poster on my office door; I asked photographers, artists, and writers I was working with; I even tried to recruit my boss, who said, “Cindy this is great, but why would people care? The world is filled with problems—how will you convince people to pay attention to this particular cause? You’ll need ad campaigns on TV, in the newspapers…” Clearly, a global awareness campaign using traditional media channels would take too long, and wouldn’t nearly be enough. Volunteers kept coming in almost daily, but “why would people care” would stay with me as a constant reminder of what the ultimate challenge was.

DB: Who were those first volunteers? How did they help?
CH: Advertising and media consultants, public relations and publicity professionals responded. There were also archaeologists who had long been frustrated by the continued destruction of cultural heritage. The shock of the news brought us together with a single commitment: to inform others and to create a platform for action. Our otherwise disparate group had little more in common other than the knowledge that allowing the destruction of cultural heritage to continue was wrong.

Volunteers did research and came up with ideas: great, innovative ideas, borne out of a raw enthusiasm and an almost unstoppable eagerness to act, while I myself was learning and figuring out the next steps in a whirlwind of new experiences. Everyone knew from the start that there’d be no papers published, no career advancements (although this is no longer the case), and no pay. Just a lot of work, a lot of learning, and a lot of trial and error—all done without any reward or personal gain other than the opportunity to right a wrong.

SAFE's debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members SAFE’s debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members

DB: What were some of your first projects?
CH: In a matter of weeks, we had gone well beyond the original idea of advertising people creating a campaign. Our first rudimentary web site—safenow.net—was launched only three weeks after that fateful day in April, when the Iraq Museum was looted. Two months later, volunteers distributed flyers at a Grateful Dead Concert. In July, SAFE received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and began accepting tax-deductible donations. The next month, we launched a campaign lasting until the end of 2003 to advocate for emergency legislation that prohibited the importation of Iraqi antiquities into the US. By then, we also had the support, advice, and endorsement of experts around the world.

The next year, the growing web site was relaunched with the new and current domain name: savingantiquities.org. We held a benefit event, launched our first student competition, hosted a book signing event for Roger Atwood’s Stealing History and launched our first SAFE Tours at the Met.

In January of 2005, SAFE rented a booth at the AIA Annual Conference in Boston—the only booth to hold scheduled events. The next month, I resigned from my job to work full-time freelance, eventually giving that up at the end of the year to volunteer for SAFE full time. As long as I felt that SAFE was filling an unmet need, I was willing to fully commit to doing its work.

SAFE distributed these wristbands to raise awarenessIn February 2005, three SAFE members testified to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington, DC, in support of import restrictions of antiquities into the US from China. For the first time, SAFE represented the general public with signatures collected in New York City parks and on the web site. Later that year, five of us repeated the same effort on behalf of Italy, presenting twice as many petitions to the Committee. That year, we also co-sponsored a panel discussion with LCCHP and held a lecture on book theft, had several more SAFE Tours, and held another student competition.

It was time that my project SAFE became incorporated as a bona fide organization. We applied for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3), which we received at the end of 2005. SAFE was a full-fledged nonprofit organization, by law, and in action. Meanwhile, the bar kept rising, internally and externally. The more SAFE produced and the better the results, the more there was to do.

DB: Was the transition from working in an ad agency to running a nonprofit organization difficult?
CH: Coming from advertising, the pace took me awhile to get used to. The whole world was being looted. There was just so much to do, so much to tell! The possibilities seemed limitless and I felt impatient.

Working with volunteers from around the world I never met was also a challenge. It became more time-consuming as the number of applicants grew each day. Aside from assessing their skills and availability and matching them with appropriate tasks, I needed to explain what the issues truly were, sometimes directing them to read a book first. Most people were not used to volunteering this way. In the end, it didn’t take more than a small number of very dedicated people to get things going. And I told myself the process of recruitment was just another way of raising awareness.

Becoming a nonprofit was another huge step. I was spending more energy and time on learning what that all meant than doing the actual work itself: the rules and requirements, the filings, processes and policies, etc. Fortunately, other volunteers with relevant skills made the process smooth and successful. It was another story transitioning from a loose group of fervent individuals to the reality that SAFE was now a bona fide organization that no longer was my sole responsibility. Volunteers who were not used to seeing their ideas not implemented immediately.

Also, it took a lot of work, and reworking, to craft messages that speak to the general audiences that are based on academic research, created by experts coming from a completely different training, discipline, and culture. But this isn’t unique to SAFE. Surely it’s not the first to advocate for a cause that took a lot of explanation, and where the work came before the organization, especially when it chartered a new course to serve an unmet need. If it weren’t so challenging, I probably wouldn’t have dedicated so much of myself to it; and learnt as much as I have.


Stay tuned for my next interview where I will ask Cindy how SAFE got its support, and what lies ahead . . .

Neil Brodie: It is no surprise that the looting continues.

We thank Neil Brodie for joining pur 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with the following statement. Dr. Brodie, an author of “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” with Colin Renfrew, is a SAFE Beacon Award Winner in 2008.


Ten years ago, in 2003, I was reading a lot about the looting of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq. I was writing a bit about it too. At the time, I was research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which had been established five years earlier, partly in response to the archaeological looting that had followed the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq was firmly on my agenda, but Iraq wasn’t the only country in the news — for several years Afghanistan had been dominating headlines and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 1999 return of three objects to Italy was a portent of things to come. In the decade following 2003, the developing Italian campaign to recover looted objects from museums drew attention away from Iraq, and over the past few years Iraq has been all but forgotten as archaeological site looting has gained hold in Syria and Egypt, and in the museum world attention has shifted to acquisitions of illicitly-traded artifacts from Cambodia and India.

Looking back, one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.

There is an uneasy sense that the reactive response to looting is media-led, and probably for good reason. The most revealing, insightful and ultimately influential studies of the antiquities trade have been by journalists. I could name them here but they know who they are, so I will spare their blushes. The best reporting of site looting in Iraq was also by journalists. But while media research is good, it is also transient and its impact on public policy is limited. Policy makers look for hard empirical evidence and coherent reasoned arguments. Whether rightly or wrongly, they turn to academic and other professional experts. Yet there is only a small handful of archaeologists, museum curators, art historians, lawyers and criminologists who make it their business to investigate the antiquities trade, and despite the high-profile media reporting of the past ten years, the number and identities of the people involved haven’t changed much. The appropriate experts have failed to mobilise in numbers adequate for the job at hand. The inadequate response of the archaeological community has been particularly regrettable in this regard. Many archaeologists are quick to complain about looting but slow to engage in work of any kind that might help towards a solution. It is easier for them to point the finger at museums.

“Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.”

One reason for this seeming failure of scholarship is that research needs to be multidisciplinary, which is difficult in a university environment where different subjects often seem to speak different languages, and where career-enhancing “excellence” is more easily assessed in well-worn disciplinary paradigms. Another reason is that high quality information about the trade is not forthcoming. Several scholars have produced good ethnographic studies of looters or subsistence diggers at source, but there is nothing comparable for demand — no ethnographic reporting of rich and powerful collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills or wherever. Presumably these collectors and their confederates are lawyered-up and easily able to deflect academic enquiry in a way that the people who actually do the digging aren’t. This is a sorry reflection on the self-professed “objectivity” and “disinterest” of academic research, which instead exhibits a clear and understandable self-interested desire to avoid unproductive legal quagmires. But it does highlight one of the problems associated with information gathering.

Another problem is the withholding of information. I am asked on almost a weekly basis by journalists what evidence there is of Syrian artifacts appearing on the open market. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether or not Syrian artifacts are appearing on the open market. I do know that a lot of Iraqi material never appeared on the open market. While I was writing this piece, AFP quoted an Iraqi source reporting that the United States and Iraq had reached agreement over the return of more than 10,000 artifacts that had somehow made their way into the United States over the past ten years. Perhaps in the the year 2023 AFP will be reporting the return of 10,000 Syrian artifacts, at which point I will be happy to answer questions about Syrian artifacts on the market, though by then of course, media attention will have moved on. No one has asked me about the recent AFP announcement — Iraq is last decade’s news. But there is a more serious point. Assuming the source is reliable, AFP also reported that the two sides had agreed not to reveal how the artifacts came to be in the United States. Why not? Perhaps because Syrian artifacts are travelling through similar channels and seizures are imminent? Or perhaps instead because someone has something to hide. With no mention of any arrests or indictments the latter explanation seems more likely. Is there a cover-up?

While information about the acquisition and exchange of illicitly-traded artifacts is suppressed or witheld it inhibits productive research into the trade and ultimately the formulation of novel and progressive policy aimed at constraining demand. Without such research, the fall-back position is for globally-ineffective local interventions, ameliorating symptoms but not tackling the cause. It is no surprise that the looting continues.

If Donny George had been a criminologist…

… We would have lost a fantastic archeologist, for sure. Do not get me wrong. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, we would have had a person with the astounding intellectual prowess and amazing human nature in our ranks. But things are what they are and Dr. George will be remembered in the annals of archaeology –not criminology– as the passionate scholar he was.

When SAFE asked me to contribute in this amazing project, I decided from the very beginning that I wanted to present a different view of Dr. George. I am sure that most of the readers know the life, deeds and works of Dr. George as well as the palms of their hands.

Let us remember how, in horror we all witnessed the destruction that the Iraqi war brought in terms of human lives, and, as in other armed conflicts, to cultural heritage. As in many other recent conflicts, we were powerless as we witnessed international treaties being disregarded on so many fronts. In terms of cultural property treaties, the list includes the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its two protocols of 1977 (Articles 38 and 53 of Protocol I and Article 16 of Protocol II) as well as the Hague Convention of 1954 which forbids the use of cultural institutions as either targets or fortresses. However, the poor National Museum in Baghdad was located in the line of fire.

Donny George holding slab Donny George with antiquities stolen from an excavation site
The Telegraph

I always considered that Dr. George’s most amazing deed was his passionate defense of the National Museum both in the time of horrible turmoil and afterwards. I cannot imagine the emotional impact of witnessing how, after the battle was fought and the Museum was left unguarded for 96 hours (until the afternoon of the 12th of April), the Museum became the victim not only of the armed conflict but also of an enraged mob that identified the museum with Saddam’s regime and of looters.

Because, today, the destruction of cultural heritage and looting are considered to be crimes against cultural property, criminology is the perfect discipline for understanding such key events in Dr. George’s life. Two theories might apply. One is “Routine Activity Theory”, a micro-level theory developed by Cohen and Felson in 1979 in order to explain the behavior of individuals engaged in predatory street crime. The core of the theory is that criminal activity revolves around the routine activities of a certain population. The rate of such activities is dependent on three factors: a suitable target (in art crime, the value of a property), a motivated offender (a person with criminal inclinations and the ability to carry them), and the absence of a capable guardian (either a formal or informal one) with capacity for intervening. I am sure Dr. George would see how this theory may explain what happened to his beloved but unguarded museum.

The other theory I might apply to this incident is “Anomie”. Émile Durkheim coined the term and discussed it in two of his works:–“The Division of Labor in Society” (1893) and “Suicide” (1897). Durkheim refers specifically to “dérèglement”, a synonym for anomie, which is a general societal condition. “Dérèglement” is etymologically interpreted as a state of corruption, evil, agitation, torment, impiety, and intemperance that leads to general suffering and torment. All of these terms can be applied to societal conditions at the time of the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum as revealed in testimony and reports and are in line with Durkheim’s general assumptions that a disorganized social condition leads to suffering and distress.

It is interesting that I still use the case of the Baghdad Museum in many of my courses to illustrate these theories. (Might this be a Freudian homage to Dr. George?). Perhaps, wise as he was, he knew about these criminological theories. If not, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to sit with him and discuss how these theories might bring explain the events of those chaotic days. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, there would have been no need for me to do so. Once again, I state that I cherish his work, his spirit, his discipline and his deeds…
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Dr. George.

Memories of a Broken Museum: Ten Years of SAFE

SAFE is grateful to Roger Atwood for sharing this personal reminiscence with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. The photos accompanying this reflection are previously unpublished and exclusively SAFE’s.


A little over 10 years ago, after a long flight from Washington and an overnight taxi ride from Amman, I arrived at the ruined Iraq Museum. By then, it was known around the world that thousands of artifacts had been stolen in the chaos following the arrival of American troops in Baghdad. There was still some question about how many artifacts had been robbed and exactly how the looting had happened, questions that would be answered over the next few months by journalists, investigators and the museum’s towering curator of antiquities, Donny George. On that day in May 2003, it was clear only that looters had wrecked one of the Middle East’s great institutions while American troops, who now sat desultorily in lawn chairs near the entrance to the museum, had been unwilling or unable to stop it.

I had expected to find the museum in some disarray, judging from news reports. Yet nothing could prepare me for what I saw. After a long interview with Donny in his office, I wandered down the hallways and galleries and found the place completely ransacked. It was a scene of total destruction. In offices, bookcases had been overturned and file cabinets emptied of their contents, their papers lying all over the floor. A desk stood on its side, boxes were overturned, windows broken. A large, metal safe looked like it had been wrenched open with a crowbar, its door flung open to reveal … nothing. An empty safe. In one corner there were some blackened papers, as if someone had tried to start a fire. In the galleries, the glass from busted display cases lay scattered on the floor. Bits of stone lay around, as if someone had taken a hammer or chisel to a now-disappeared sculpture. Most alarmingly, apart from those U.S. soldiers outside, there seemed to be no security at all. No one stopped me as I wondered from room to room. I seemed to have the whole place to myself.

A few days later, Donny and the museum’s director Nawala al-Mutwali led me and a few other journalists on a tour of the ruined galleries, including many I had not seen that first day. We saw where looters had dragged the ancient, iron masterpiece of naturalistic sculpture known as the Basetki statue down a flight of stairs, breaking each stair as they yanked it along. Where the Warka vase had stood, we saw just a broken pedestal and a pile of broken glass. In room after room, Donny showed us shattered vitrines, empty shelves, damaged stone carvings. One large sculpture, I can’t remember which one, stood at a strange angle out in a hallway; apparently the looters had tried to haul it away but gave up because it was too heavy. Crude hammers and other tools lay on the floor.

Here and there were signs of how the museum’s staff, at least some of the staff, had tried to prevent the destruction. Foam padding lay underneath the largest stone sculptures. Curators had placed the padding to protect the pieces if they fell during the aerial bombardment that preceded the invasion, Donny explained. Much of the collection had been moved off-site, to protect it from just this sort of disaster, he said. I asked him about the Sippar library, a collection of 800 cuneiform tablets dating from the early first millennium B.C., which had been widely reported destroyed in the looting. “It is safe. It is out of danger,” he said, in that voice of warm reassurance and authority.

Amid all this destruction, I was surprised to hear Donny express some optimism that the museum could rebuild and reopen. Maybe it could recover the stolen objects. He and Matt Bogdanos, the American army colonel, were already working up plans to persuade, cajole or bully the thieves to return as much of the loot as could be traced. “The theft was like a wound to my body, like somebody had cut me,” Donny told me that day. But he added, “The collection is basically intact. We can rebuild.” Over the next year or so, it became clear that about 15,000 objects had been stolen, mostly cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals taken from the museum’s storerooms. I understand that most have since been recovered, including many, but not all, of the marquee items that were carted away from the main galleries. Donny worked for the rest of his life trying to rebuild the museum, recover its stolen antiquities and reopen it to the public, even after he was forced to flee the country due to threats to his family in 2006.

SAFE was born of the international outrage at the theft in the Iraq Museum and –even worse – the pillage of archaeological sites all over Iraq by looting mafias looking for treasures to sell on the global antiquities market. A group of scholars, students, professional and members of the public came together in 2003 to say, this must never happen again. As the memory of that appalling act of vandalism in Baghdad fades a little, I’m glad SAFE continues to work to call attention to the destructive power of the illicit antiquities trade and to the legacy of Donny George. That spirit — his spirit — of acknowledging the loss of heritage while working without discouragement to put the pieces back together, that determination to keep the problem of looting in the public eye, are what motivated Donny and what inspires SAFE. I’ve been proud to be a part of this organization.

Happy 10th anniversary, SAFE.

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.
Courtesy news.com.au.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

Diane Siebrandt on Iraq’s cultural heritage and current preservation efforts

The following statement and photographs are contributed by Diane Siebrandt, in observance of the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE is grateful for her insightful reflection.

Diane Siebrandt worked in Iraq overseeing the American Embassy’s Cultural Heritage Program between 2006 and 2013. She was able to visit much of the country during her time there, gaining first-hand knowledge while working on numerous sites, including archaeological ruins, modern cultural monuments and religious structures. Prior to that, she was part of the Regime Crimes Liaison Office that excavated and analyzed material from mass graves found in Iraq. Diane is currently a PhD student at Deakin University, focusing on tracking the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and how it relates to peaks and ebbs of violence.


Assyrian Hall, Iraq Museum The Assyrian Hall at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Iraq

I also had the great privilege to know Donny George and speak with him on multiple occasions about the cultural heritage of Iraq. He truly was an inspiration and is greatly missed.

While there were many mistakes made before, during and after the war, I think it is important to remember that there are a number of individuals who have fought the hard fight to turn to the positive and do some good. I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to implement and manage a cultural heritage program for Iraq while working for the US Embassy in Baghdad from 2006 until early this year (2013). In conjunction with the Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center, I managed numerous successful cultural heritage projects, some of which continue today. Just to name two, the Future of Babylon Project, and the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, resulting in the establishment of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage are both great achievements. Providing refurbishments to the Iraq Museum was also a success, as well as providing training opportunities for cultural heritage specialists from across Iraq. The full list of programs is still viewable on the Embassy’s website: http://iraq.usembassy.gov/projects.html

One of the reliefs of a “Mushussu” animal figure on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate One of the reliefs of a “Mushussu” animal figure on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate
Caliphal Palace at Samarra Documenting conditions inside the Caliphal Palace at Samarra

It is disheartening to see that Iraq and her people endure continued violence and unrest.

Human suffering persists while museums remain closed, archaeological sites still suffer from the hands of looters, agricultural encroachment and maintenance neglect, while the plight of the country is now largely forgotten. Thank you SAFE for being a driving force to keep Iraq in the news, we cannot forget.

My fight continues by working on my PhD, which highlights cultural heritage issues in Iraq. I am part of a team that is creating the world’s first database that documents the destruction of heritage that occurred in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. My own thesis focuses on evaluating complex inter-cultural relationships between foreign and indigenous personnel and their role in the destruction or preservation of cultural heritage in Iraq.

I remain hopeful, if a bit uncertain, about what the future holds for Iraq’s cultural heritage, but look forward to the day when the country is stable enough so all people can visit the wonders of Mesopotamia.

“He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.

He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion, but then was brought to peace.” (The Epic of Gilgamesh 1.5-8).

—Diane Siebrandt