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.

Can a Picasso save the Phoenicians?

“Who wants those old things when they could just get new ones?”

That’s a joke a friend of mine made when I shared some of my work with SAFE. Although a joke, I thought this raised an interesting dichotomy that isn’t often explored in cultural heritage circles: When does a work of art or object transition from being part of the archaeological record to being something you’d see in a museum of art or design?

Colin Renfrew acknowledges that our treatment of ancient works of art must necessarily be different from modern ones in his book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, explaining that, “there is now the growing realization among art dealers and auctioneers that there is indeed something especially dubious about illicit antiquities. They are not at all the same as Old Masters or Impressionist Paintings, and they always bring with them special problems” (80). The market for modern art objects does not present the same problems that the market for antiquities does, but this does not necessarily mean that the two arenas are mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the International Association to Save Tyre’s latest fundraising endeavor.

I recently attended a press conference where the Association revealed that this December, they will be raffling off a 1914 Picasso painting titled “L’Homme au Gibus” (The Man With the Opera Hat) and valued at $1 million. Participants can purchase a 100 euro ticket for the chance to win the $1 million Picasso painting. There are only 50,000 tickets, but if all of them are sold, that’s 5 million euros going towards the Association’s cause, which is saving and promoting Tyre’s finite cultural heritage.

“At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir?”

According to the Association, Tyre was a major meeting point and center of commercial exchange for the Phoenicians, contributing to the development of democracy, navigation, and crafts. Tyre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, but this nominal honor has done little to tangibly protect the ancient city. Originally threatened by the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, Tyre is now threatened again by the possibility of conflict in neighboring Syria. The Association’s founder, Maha El-Khalil Chalabi, explains that during the civil war, the presence of troops and lack of governmental authority led to looting and destruction of the site. She fears the same will happen again, commenting that, “We are very afraid of what is going on in the region. All of the countries around us are in big trouble.”

Members of the public can purchase a 100 euro raffle ticket for the chance to win this Picasso painting. The proceeds from the raffle benefit the site of Tyre in Lebanon.
Photograph (c) Succession Picasso 2013.

The Association hopes to prevent further damage to the site by stimulating cultural tourism through the creation of both a traditional crafts village and a research institute dedicated to studying the Phoenicians. Chalabi estimates that only a tenth of potential archaeological finds have been excavated at Tyre, leaving the rest of the undiscovered heritage vulnerable to opportunistic looters. The Association will broadcast the raffle results live on the Internet, hopefully educating thousands more individuals around the world about the necessity of protecting cultural heritage.

Some individuals have suggested raising money for archaeological sites in a similar fashion by auctioning off small and relatively unimportant potsherds or other ephemera from the digs. Others have countered this by asking where the line is drawn between significant and insignificant (this article also acknowledges that the concept of “significance” itself changes). At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir? But then again, isn’t that line very similar to the one that we draw between an artifact and a work of art like Picasso’s “Man With the Opera Hat”? I applaud the Tyre Association for striking an inventive and original balance. By auctioning off an item tangentially related to cultural heritage but not directly drawn from Tyre’s resources, they are finding new ways to use modern art to support its predecessors.

Furthermore, one of SAFE’s biggest goals is to raise awareness about the impact of conflict on archaeological sites, and the damage inflicted when we lose cultural heritage. A live broadcast of someone winning a $1 million painting for an original investment of only €100 is almost guaranteed to warrant some media attention. Desperate times call for creative solutions, and using modern art to support cultural heritage is one of the most uplifting things I’ve heard in a long time.

The raffle runs until December, and you can read more about the project on its website at: www.1picasso100euros.com.

The photograph of Tyre is (c) Tim Schnarr, courtesy of UNESCO.

China’s “other” looting problem

One might rejoice at today’s news about the Christie’s owner François Pinault’s offer to return two bronze animal heads to China, a “cause célèbre for Chinese nationalists” has garnered start-studded attention from Ai Weiwei to Jackie Chan, Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Dalia Lama and now the head of the PPR, maker of luxury fashion goods, husband of movie start Salma Hayek. Or, one might ask if this is really a cause for celebration.

Since our 2009 post on the subject stating that since the objects were taken before current laws were in place, China’s “only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market,” Pinault has found another way. Purchasing the bronzes then “donating” them back to China, “their rightful home”, Pinault has found another solution, and a  way to improve business and diplomatic relations with a nation that boasts an impressive purchasing power by showing respect for its cultural heritage. The sculptures are of two animals in the Chinese zodiac, and were part of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 (Imperial Summer Palace), sacked by French and British troops in the 19th century. China’s mission to track down the many other artifacts looted at that time has been widely published and sometimes criticized.

We will never know if Pinault’s act of generosity would take place if China had not emerged as PPR’s “fastest-growing market for its luxury goods” and if the celebrities had not shown their keen interest. What we do know, is that the return of these sculptures is the right thing to do, even if—and perhaps particularly—when the case of the animal heads is not a legal but a moral issue. For this, we applaud Pinault.

ChinastopplunderYet, on the eve of the decision whether to renew restrictions on the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US, SAFE believes it is time to focus on China’s “other” looting problem, and we think, the most important problem: the plunder of its numerous ancient sites yet to be excavated. In her testimony in support of China’s request for a bilateral agreement that calls for import restrictions, SAFE Founder Cindy Ho said in 2005:

One of the biggest archaeological mysteries in China is the joint tomb of China’s only Empress Wu Zetian, and her husband Emperor Li Zhi. Called Qianling, it is the only tomb in China that holds two emperors and the only Tang tomb that has not been looted. It has yet to be excavated because for half a century, the proper time to excavate Qianling has been heavily debated. While the Chinese government is concerned about security and looting, archaeologists are eager to study the buried artifacts, which are tantamount to completing our knowledge of the Tang Dynasty. Attempted robberies—although presumably thwarted—have made everyone uneasy.

What is buried in Qianling will remain forever unknown if the pillage in China continues. We will never know what the ancient bamboo tablets with ancient inscriptions had to tell us just as the stories of daily life are lost when cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia are looted.  Nor will we ever understand the history of the ancient Northern People, the Chu Culture, much like the Vicús people of Peru, whose culture we know little about because of the illicit antiquities trade.

Nearly 10 years later, the official word is: no excavation of Qianling is considered for at least another 50 years, citing “preservation of the integrity of the tomb site and maintaining the environment of surrounding areas” as the top concern.

Authentic pieces of Yuanmingyuan may not resurface on the auction block any time soon, given the recent notoriety of the case of the animal heads and China’s continued rise as a formidable negotiator in the global arena. But the kind of plunder in the case of Yuanmingyuan is quite different from the kind of looting SAFE is most concerned about: the destruction of intact evidence of our undiscovered past, humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource.

Since January 2009, the US has decided to join with the international response to curbing looting and the illicit antiquities trade by granting China’s request for help in preserving its cultural heritage, our cultural heritage by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). As long as knowledge about our past cannot be revealed because of the threat of looting to feed the antiquities trade, SAFE supports import restrictions as an effective deterrent to looting. As long as another alternative to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (UNESCO) and the Cultural Property Implementation Act has yet to emerge, we urge the Department of State and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend to the President to continue to abide by the US obligations as a member state of UNESCO and reaffirm its commitment to shared global cultural heritage by renewal the MoU for another five years.

This is why until media pressure focuses on the “other” looting problem: the plunder of sites to feed the black market trade of antiquities, we could celebrate the repatriation of the the rabbit and the rat only with cautious optimism and hope that the US would also do the right thing, as Pinault has.

“Declaration on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” to be unveiled at WAC-7 in Jordan

Amid the many discussions that will take place at the Seventh World Archaeological Congress (January 13-18 , 2013) being held at the King Hussein Convention Centerat the Dead Sea in Jordan, under the royal patronage of His Majesty King Abdullah II Bin Al Hussein of Jordan an important four-session series titled “Archaeology as a Target” will begin on January 14, 2013. with a forum entitled “The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and Civil-Military Cooperation: Lessons Learned from a Civil Perspective,” organized by Professor Friedrich T. Schipper (University of Vienna) and professor Patty Gerstenblith (DePaul University College of Law).

During the forum, Professors Gerstenblith and Schipper will propose a “Declaration on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” to the Assembly at the Plenary Session and invite serious contributors to review the text and submit comments via this website link.

The fifteen recommendations included the draft text could hardly be more relevant or complete:

1. In regard to the damage to cultural property in the most recent conflicts, e.g. in Syria, Mali and other countries around the world, WAC expresses its serious concern at the ongoing disregard by States as well as conflict parties, state and non-state, of the instruments of international humanitarian law and subsequent principles to protect cultural property.

2. WAC states that intentional destruction of the cultural property of others – constituting a basic tangible aspect of cultural heritage and identity – is increasingly becoming a central element and high priority target in armed conflicts, and the cultural cleansing of whole regions as a prime goal of warfare, which has to be considered as an aspect of ethnic cleansing and a crime in terms of international humanitarian law.

3. WAC calls on all States to ratify the various instruments of international humanitarian law to protect such cultural property, above all the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague 1954) and its two Protocols (1954 and 1999) as well as the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Paris 1970) and others; to swiftly and efficiently implement them into national legislation and in the sense as originally intended by the conventions, and to observe and enforce them.

4. WAC calls on non-state actors involved in armed conflicts to observe the principles of these international conventions and of customary international law; to respect the cultural property of others, and to refrain from negligently or intentionally destroying or damaging cultural property during conflict.

5. WAC voices its concern about the increasing use by States of private military/security companies in armed conflicts and calls on such States as well as on above said companies to ensure that the principles of international law in general, and such international law concerning cultural property protection in particular, are observed by such companies.

6. WAC reminds individuals as well as conflict parties – state and non-state actors including private military/security companies – that destruction of cultural property has served as a basis for criminal tribunal prosecutions following both World War II and the Yugoslav Wars and that destruction of cultural property in armed conflict will continue to serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.

7. WAC calls on the United Nations to include the principles of cultural property protection in the authorization of any forces deployed under UN mandate; to ensure that cultural property protection is integrated into all Rules of Engagement of forces deployed under UN mandate; to require pre-deployment training in cultural property protection of such forces in general, and of their officers in particular, deployed under UN mandate, and to create the position of expert/liaison officers for cultural property protection in such forces deployed under UN mandate. WAC calls on States that participate in missions under UN mandate to do their utmost to preserve cultural heritage in the areas subject to this mission. WAC further calls on other multinational, international, intergovernmental, supranational etc. treaty organizations, under whose auspices forces may be deployed into conflict areas, to adopt the same principles listed here.

8. WAC calls on the United Nations to explicitly prohibit trade in cultural materials illegally removed from all areas of conflict and occupation (as it did during the Iraq war of 2003).

9. WAC calls on all States and actors – considering the Second Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – to refrain from any interference with cultural heritage – that is to refrain from cultural property preservation, conservation, renovation, archaeological excavation and other forms of such work – in occupied territories, except where strictly required for salvage purposes.

10. WAC calls on all nations and actors to respect the pluralistic religious and cultural heritage of their regions and, in particular, to preserve historic structures, religious buildings and other forms of cultural property of minority groups located within their territory.

11. WAC calls on market nations – considering the First Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and Article 11 of the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – to prohibit the import of cultural objects from areas subject to armed conflict and military occupation and – further considering the principles of the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – to prohibit the import in any way of cultural objects whose provenience is not clearly and thoroughly proven according to best practice international standards.

12. WAC calls on all States that suspended their funding of UNESCO to resume its funding, which constitutes the basic requirement for the fruitful and pacifying work of UNESCO in general and its cultural heritage work in particular.

13. WAC calls on all States Parties to the Second Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and moreover to all States Parties to the said Convention to regularly and substantially meet their obligation to contribute to the Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict established in Article 29 of the Second Protocol.

14. WAC calls on all scholars, in particular its members, to study the instruments of international law that protect cultural property, to consider them in their scholarly work where appropriate, to promote them within their communities and towards the governmental authorities in their home countries, and to carefully and responsibly use them and to refrain from abusing them in a polemic mode.

15. WAC invites all scholars, in particular its members, to actively get involved in UNESCO affiliated NGO-work fostering cultural property protection whenever and wherever feasible and appropriate, in particular via ICOM, ICOMOS, and Blue Shield.

SAFE applauds this galvanizing thought-provoking effort. We eagerly await the final Declaration and the reception by WAC-7 participants and the world at large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.

.

Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage is up for debate as the Iraqi government calls for the return of an archive currently being studied and preserved by the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Iraq’s ministry of Culture and Antiquities is making claims that the United States, given the responsibility of preserving and studying the archive, has held onto the materials for too long, and now it is time that these cultural items be returned to their intended custodians: the Iraqi people and government.

Iraqi Tourism and Archaeology Minister Liwaa Smaisim has gone as far as cutting all ties with US Archaeological exploration in the country in an attempt to put pressure on the US Government to return the items, “They moved the archives in 2003; the agreement that was signed at that time between Iraq and the American side was to bring them back in 2005 after restoring them, but now we are in 2012,” Smaisim was quoted recently in The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication.

Discovered in a flooded basement of a secret police building by US forces, the archive consists of early Torahs, children’s learning materials, family photographs, and other personal items were collected through systematic raids into Jewish homes by Iraqi secret police looking for ‘evidence’ of Zionist sentiments during the 1950’s. The US soldiers were looking for weapons of mass destruction, but found instead the remnants of the daily lives of the Jewish population that once thrived in Baghdad.

The Jewish community in Iraq, and specifically Baghdad, was once a thriving, affluent, and tight-knit community in the years leading up to WWII (Gat 1997, 6). However, in the growing tension between Iraq and Israel, and the political struggles that would lead up to the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the Iraqi Jews were severely oppressed and persecuted from the first anti-semitic legislation enacted in 1933 to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries in the 1950s. Today it is said that there may be less than 20 Iraqi Jews living in the country.

Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, claims that the return of the items are critical to presenting Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage to the people of Iraq, “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity…To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multi-ethnic” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press

Regarding the claim for the items, the US government has acknowledged that the Iraqi government has the right to make a claim for the archive, yet the NARA is still carrying out preservation and attempting to digitize the collection of Hebrew, German, and some English texts. The total costs of the preservation project could exceed $3M, possibly $6M (Washington Post).

The historical conundrum of ‘who owns the past’ has reared itself yet again in the middle of this embroiled debate. While the Iraqi Government, struggling to maintain its archaeological materials and protect its historic sites from illegal looting and destruction, is making a claim based on the need to present this material and educate the Iraqi public about diversity, some Jewish activist groups claim the initiative to be in extremely poor taste considering the treatment of Jews leading up to the mass Exodus to Israel. Can a country, whose Iraqi-Jewish population remains nearly non-existent, make a valid claim for cultural objects belonging to that group? Some argue that the materials should be returned to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, where 90% of the Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora currently resides.

Regardless of who has proper claim of the materials found in that basement in 2003, it is clear that the strained relationship between the Iraqi government and US Archaeological exploration teams is putting significant archaeological sites at risk, namely Babylon. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based heritage advocacy group has been barred from access to the site – famous for its once hanging gardens and Tower of Babel- due to the diplomatic tensions created by the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The WMF is desperately trying to garner support for Babylon’s installment on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to an oil pipeline running straight through the site (Laub 2012). According to the Associated Press report, the WMF was in the process of training Iraqi authorities on site preservation and attempting to prepare Babylon’s bid for a spot on the UNESCO list when support from the Iraqi government was pulled. This extraction of US archaeological teams in Iraq due to the struggle over the archive has essentially kicked WMF out of any efforts to secure the site for the future.

Qais Rashid, Head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage indicated in the report that the strained relations was a ‘big loss’ for the department, as US resources were relied upon heavily in training and education in the Iraqi heritage sector.

The situation regarding the archive, and the security of the Babylon site will remain in the balance as rights to ownership and to safeguarding continue to be contested for political purposes.

UNESCO mourns loss of cultural heritage in Bamiyan valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prominent coin dealer and hand surgeon thought he was selling real stolen coins

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon, a professor of orthopedics at Brown University School of Medicine, and a dealer in ancient coins, pleaded guilty on July 3, to attempted criminal possession of stolen property, a misdemeanor offense, for trying to sell what he thought were authentic ancient Greek coins that he believed had been looted from Sicily. But the coins are, in fact, forgeries. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos told the court, the coins are “exquisite, extraordinary, but forgeries nonetheless.”

Dr. Weiss was arrested on January 3 during the 40th Annual New York International Numismatic Convention at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in possession of a silver coin that purported to be an early 4th century BC Greek type known as a Katane Tetradrachm, which he valued at $300,000-350,000. According to the criminal complaint, Dr. Weiss told a confidential informant: “there’s no paperwork. I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago…. I know where this came from.”

Authorities seized the coin, having been informed by Captain Massimo Maresca, of the Italian Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, that “Italian law, namely the Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage, has vested absolute and true ownership of all antiquities found in Italy after 1909 in the Italian government, and that the Italian government never gave Dr. Weiss or anyone permission, consent or authority to remove said coin from the ground or removed it from Italy,” according to the criminal complaint.

Investigators soon discovered that Dr. Weiss was also trying to sell another coin, an Akragas Dekadrachm, purportedly dating from 409-406 BC, which Dr. Weiss valued at upwards of $2.5 million, and a third coin, which were soon to be auctioned by Nomos AG, which is co-owned by Dr. Weiss, as part of a collection dubbed “Selections from Cabinet W.” At the request of the NY District Attorney’s office, the three coins were examined by academic experts, who considered the coins to be genuine. To be certain, Assistant District Attorney Bogdanos had the coins analyzed using an scanning electron microscope, which revealed them to be modern forgeries.

News that the Weiss coins are forgeries — and so well made that even leading experts could not detect them — has the close-knit fraternity of high-end coin collectors abuzz. Surely coin collectors must be asking:

1. Where did these top-quality forgeries come from? How were they made (pressure molded or struck)? How many more examples by the same forger have circulated, and when did they first appear?

2. If experts who examined the coins at the request of the NYDA’s office were unable to determine the Weiss coins are forgeries, what hope do dealers, auctioneers, and collectors have when the next undocumented Greek or Roman coin with scant provenance and a six-figure price tag appears on the market? Will this case prompt coin dealers, auctioneers and collectors to agree that verifiable provenances and scientific testing are necessary for all coins above a certain price level.

Dr. Weiss was sentenced to 70 hours of community service (providing medical care to disadvantaged patients in Rhode Island), was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each of the three coins in the case, and forfeited another 20 ancient coins that were seized from him at the time of his arrest. The judge also ordered Dr. Weiss to write an article for publication in a coin collecting magazine or journal warning of the risks of dealing in coins of unknown or looted provenance. The awareness raising impact of that article should be significant.

Contrary to a report on the case published in the July 3 New York Post, no order has been issued by the Court for the forgeries to be destroyed.

Cultural heritage attorney Rick St. Hilaire provides a cogent legal analysis of the Weiss case here.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos is a 2006 SAFE Beacon Award recipient and the author of “The Thieves of Baghdad,” about the looting of the Iraq Museum and resulting exploding black market in its antiquities in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Read more about the case and Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss here.

Your voice for cultural property in Greece

Here is an effective  public-awareness video produced by the  Association of Greek Archaeologists, which has recently appeared on Greek television news:

The campaign’s central message — “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours” — is a reaction to deep cultural budget cuts being made as part of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European economic establishment. It is a reminder that the world is full of no-questions-asked collectors willing to give culture criminals considerable sums of money to possess their own private piece of knocked-off “ancient art”. Such buyers are not only a threat to the heritage of today’s citizens but that of their children too. The hands in the video are those of the agents of the collectors and dealers of the international antiquities market.

Federal Court Judge rules that 10th c. Khmer statue remains at Sotheby’s … for now

In a 30-minute conference held on the 21st floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan today, Judge George B. Daniels ruled against the government’s request for “a warrant to arrest” the 10th century Khmer sandstone sculpture, known as a Dvarapala, which is the subject of the in rem civil forfeiture action known as United States of America v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture [case number: 12 Civ. 2600 (GBD)]. If granted the warrant, the Government would transfer the sculpture from Sotheby’s warehouse to federal custody at another New York City warehouse. (Read about the case in the earlier post by Damien Huffer’s “Sotheby’s “Off-Base” on Cambodian Antiquities Again”.)

[The statue remains at Sotheby's subject to a restraining order that requires Sotheby's not to move the Dvarapala from its warehouse and to make it available for viewing by the government.]

The outcome of the conference was clear at the outset, when Judge Daniels told Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Cohen Levin that he “hesitates” to grant the government’s request to remove the statue from Sotheby’s warehouse at this time, because after he received the Government’s verified complaint, the Judge received an April 4 fax from Sotheby’s legal counsel Peter G. Nieman that challenges some of the government’s allegations. The existence of Sotheby’s April 4 fax, Judge Daniels said, required him to determine whether sufficient probable cause exists to grant the government’s request to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse at this time.

In response, Ms. Levin said that no rule exists allowing Sotheby’s to send the Judge its April 4 fax, because Sotheby’s is not a party to the case, merely a temporary custodian of the property. Therefore the fax should not be considered in the Judge’s decision.

Ms. Levin then repeated the contents of her own April 4 fax to the Judge, citing Rule G of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states that in order to establish probable cause, the Government’s must: (a) file a verified complaint; and the verified complaint (b) must state the grounds for subject-matter jurisdiction, in rem jurisdiction over the defendant property, and venue; (c) must describe the property with reasonable particularity; (d) if the property is tangible, must state the location of the property when the action is filed; (e) must identify the statute under which the forfeiture action is brought; and (f) must state sufficiently detailed facts to support a reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet its burden of proof at trial — all of which the Government had done.

The Judge’s response: the Government’s verified complaint and two-page application for a warrant are “appropriate” but do not constitute probable cause for granting the Government’s request to remove Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse.

Judge Daniels asked Ms. Levin whether there was any “urgency” in the Government’s request to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse. Ms. Levin responded no. The Government does not expect Sotheby’s to violate the Judge’s restraining order (which requires the Cambodian statue be kept safe and secure in Sotheby’s warehouse and available for viewing by the Government).

Judge Daniels then questioned whether the Government of Cambodia had requested the US Attorney to request the warrant that would remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse. Ms. Levin said yes and agreed to send a copy of Cambodia’s request to Judge Daniels.



In a bid to establish probable cause, Ms. Levin repeated the basic elements of the Government’s verified complaint. She asserted that the type of warrant requested by the Government is necessary, and should not have been considered unusual or unexpected by Sotheby’s, as Sotheby’s has argued. Ms. Levin added that, in the past, the Government has seized such items under similar circumstances from Sotheby’s, therefore Sotheby’s was familiar with the process and should have known what to expect. In certain of those cases, Ms. Levin said, the Govemment has determined that Sotheby’s indeed acted as an honest broker and should retain physical custody of the disputed item until the matter is resolved. But this is not one of those cases, Ms. Levin continued, since the Govemment alleges here that Sotheby’s continued to market and attempted to sell the Dvarapala after Sotheby’s own paid expert told the auction firm that the statue was “definitely stolen.” The expert has been identified by the New York Times as Emma Cadwalader Bunker, who is a grand-daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker.

[The Government's complaint references the Khmer scholar Eric Bourdonneau, who located a temple known as Prasat Chen, located at a site known as Koh Ker, deep in the Cambodian jungle, and found the base (known as a Bima pedestal) on which the Sotheby's statue and its mate, a similar statue now at the Norton Simon Museum, once stood. The measurements that Bourdonneau made of the feet, which are still attached to the Bima pedestals at Prasat Chen, match the Sotheby's and Norton Simon statues, which are both footless.]

[The Government's complaint also quotes the Sotheby's expert as saying in an email to Sotheby's: "I have been doing a little catchup research on Koh Ker (the site from this the statue was reputedly stolen), and do not think you should sell the Dvarapala at public auction. The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from. I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.” Later, the same expert emailed Sotheby's again, telling them the opposite: that the Cambodians may not complain complain after all: "I think it best that you know all this," the expert writes, "but think that legally and ethically you can happily sell the piece." In a third email quoted in the Government's complaint, responding to Sotheby's request to show the sales description that the expert had written to Cambodian authorities, the expert refused, saying "There is NO WAY that I can send what I write to [the Minister of Culture]…. Sending the writeup specifically would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Sotheby’s then notified the Cambodian Culture Minister of its intention to sell the Dvarapala in November 2010 but did not receive an immediate response.]

[The Goverment's complaint also references a January 20, 2011 Sotheby's internal email, which says in part: "You no doubt know that we will be selling a sculpture in our New York Asian sales that is known to have come from a specific site in Cambodia and or which we only have provenance from 1975... While questions may be raised about this, we feel we can defend our decision to sell it..." Finally, in a letter dated March 24, 2011, the day of the auction, Cambodian authorities demanded that the Dvarapala be removed from the sale, and that Sotheby's facilitate its return to Cambodia.]

Ms. Levin concluded her argument by asserting that Sotheby’s is neither an appropriate nor neutral third party in this case and should not be permitted to hold the Dvarapala, which it should have known was considered stolen under Cambodian law. She added that the Judge should reject Sotheby’s argument, that it had consulted the UNESCO art law database and found no cultural property laws for Cambodia dating back to 1900, as the Government complaint alleges, because the UNESCO database contains a disclaimer stating that users must perform their own due diligence.

[A simple Google search would have pointed Sotheby's to an article about Cambodia in Volume 17 of Cultural without Context, published by the MacDonald Institute at Cambridge University, references a 1925 Cambodian cultural property law that applies in this case, but does not appear in the UNESCO database].

Ms. Levin also noted the U.S. customs routinely cares for precious artifacts. [Seized million-dollar artworks and antiquities are stored at the heavily guarded ICE facility at The Fortress in Long Island City.]

While Ms. Levin was speaking, Judge Daniels thumbed through some papers and noted that Rule G(3)(b)(iii) states a warrant to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse did not seem necessary, and is not required so long as a restraining order remains in place. So the Goverment’s request was denied. The next step, Judge Daniels said, is to proceed to a forfeiture hearing, which requires interested parties to file a claim no more than 30 days after the Government posts its final public notice. Therefore, the Court must wait until June 5 to determine whether there are any parties to the case other than Cambodia and Sotheby’s consignor.

“It makes sense for the parties to exchange discovery information in the meantime,” said Judge Daniels, and if more information and witnesses are needed, the parties should provide that no later than July 7.

The next conference in United States of America v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture is scheduled for Wednesday, June 20 at 10:30 AM.

 

 

Hot off the presses! Princeton reaches accord with Italy

Not long after Yale University agreed to return objects originally taken from Machu Picchu to Peru, another of the most prestigious American universities, Princeton, has agreed to return eight ancient pieces to Italy that were illegally excavated and exported. Like the Yale-Peru agreement, the accord between Princeton and Italy will promote scholarly exchange, with Princeton having access to scholarly archaeological digs in Italy and the ability to receive long-terms loans from Italian institutions. By doing the right thing and returning the looted pieces, they benefited ten-fold!

Read the New York Times article about the deal here.

Yale to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru

Here’s the BBC’s coverage of the major repatriation effort between Yale University and Peru: the return of thousands of artifacts taken from the site of Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago. I believe this a truly momentous event in the world of cultural heritage repatriation, for it involves both one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, and one of the most-visited and most-loved archaeological (and now archaeological-tourist) sites in the world. Hopefully, Yale’s clout will inspire other major Western institutions holding objects of questionable provenience to follow suit.

The details of this agreement show that repatriation can be mutually beneficial for both the home nation and the outside institutions where these objects often end up; there will be a scholarly exchange between Yale-based American and Peruvian academics, as well as a traveling exhibit of the pieces to bring the pieces to an even wider audience than they have encountered by being at the school.

Some might say that keeping objects such as these in American and European museums is more beneficial than sending them home, because it inspires Westerners who see them on display to want to visit the places where they originally came from. In this case, given that Machu Picchu is one of the most famous ancient sites in the world, and has such a strong hold in popular imagination, I can’t imagine that many people need the prompting of a few artifacts in a museum to want to go to Peru and see it for themselves!