The thorny issue of deaccession

On July 10, 2014, at Christie’s in London, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian limestone statue of an official named Sekhemka was sold to a telephone bidder for £15,762,500 (or $27,001,163, with the buyer’s premium). This sale was strongly opposed by several groups, including the UK Museums Association (MA), the Save Sekhemka Action Group, and Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry.

Why the controversy? It is because the sale violated the general deaccessioning policies of museums. Deaccession—a permanent removal of an object from a museum’s collection, usually through sale—is not undertaken lightly by museum curators. It is usually done only with artworks that are duplicated in the collection or that are too damaged for conservation or display. In good museum practice, the funds generated from the sale are used only for the improvement of the collection.

The UK Museums Association stipulates that the money raised from deaccession should only be used to improve the existing collection. In the United States, the Association of American Museum Directors’ usual standard is that artworks cannot be sold just to fix a leaky roof. The AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, amended on October 4, 2010, specifies that “funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works . . .”

Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds.

Does the Northampton Museum’s expansion of gallery space meet these stipulations? Probably not, as 55% of the proceeds (about £8m) will be used for a major extension project, which will double the size of the exhibition space and create new education and commercial facilities. But this is not a collection improvement project.

What is more alarming is that the Northampton Museum is only one of the many deaccession cases. In 2013, the Croydon Council was criticized for selling twenty-four pieces from the Riesco Collection of Chinese porcelain to raise £8m for refurbishing Fairfield Halls, its local arts center. This sale prompted the Arts Council England’s (ACE) Accreditation panel to remove the Croydon Museum’s accreditation status. Similar issues surrounded the attempt by the Tower Hamlets Council in East London to sell a Henry Moore sculpture in order to ease the financial problems it faced following massive government funding cuts.

The Northampton statue of Sekhemka The Northampton statue of Sekhemka
Mike Pitts from http://mikepitts.wordpress.com

In the United States, in February 2014, the Maier Museum at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA, was sanctioned by the AAMD for selling George Bellows’ painting Men of the Docks (1912) to the National Gallery of Art in London for $25.5 million for the purpose of easing the college’s financial difficulties. The American Alliance of Museums criticized the sale as “a flagrant, egregious violation of our Code of Ethics for Museums, showing total disregard of an important tenet common to the charter of all museums . . .” Similarly, in June, the Delaware Art Museum auctioned off a William Holman Hunt painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868), for $4.25 million which it used to pay outstanding debt and build its operating endowment. The museum was subsequently sanctioned by the AAMD, which means that no AAMD member museums will loan works of art or collaborate on exhibitions with the Delaware Art Museum.

It is my understanding that there were no legal issues in all of these sales. The objects were not bound to any donor stipulation that the museum never sell the object. The issue here is not one of legality, but one of public trust. Public museums are stewards of cultural heritage. Their mission is to protect and preserve the cultural artifacts with which they are entrusted.

Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds. Although the sale of the Sekhemka statue brought $27 million, it is probably a short-term financial gain. If the Arts Council England (ACE) revokes the accreditation status of the Northampton Museum and it loses ACE funding, this sale might prove to be costly in the long run. According to BBC, the ACE granted the museum £166,000 in 2012 and £69,000 in 2014. This is probably why the Art Fund, a charitable supporter of art institutions, decried Northampton’s decision as “financially as well as morally harmful.”

I imagine how heartbroken the New Yorkers were when Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849) left the city for Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges. For those who long loved looking at the masterpiece before entering the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor at the New York Public Library, the deaccession of the Durand painting must have been like losing a family treasure.

Perhaps that was the sentiment that Andy Brockman, an archaeologist working with the Save Sekhemka Group, felt, when he said that the Sekhemka statue “was gifted for the enjoyment and education of the people. It is held in trust for the future. This is selling the family silver.”

What can the public do to prevent the museums from deaccessioning public treasures? Please let SAFE know by commenting below.

(Featured image from Getty Images GB).

 

UPDATE: Arts Council England strips Northampton of accreditation

On Friday, August 1, the Arts Council England revoked the accreditation of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, as well as the Abington Park Museum, as a result of the sale of the Sekhemka statue.  

This sanction speaks much louder than any commentary on the sale: the Northampton Museum has violated the code of ethics of deaccession. Scott Furlong, director of acquisitions, exports, and loans unit at the Arts Council said, “I am confident that the museums sector and wider community will share our dismay at the way this sale has been conducted and support the decision to remove Northampton Museums Service from the scheme.”

The annulment of the accreditation status is a drastic measure. The last time ACE took such action was in May 2013, when Croydon Museum was removed from the Accreditation Scheme.

The Northampton Council is now illegible for a range of grants and funding, and excluded from future participation with the rest of the accredited museums until August 2019.

I join SAFE in applauding the Arts Council’s ruling.

How the Ka-Nefer-Nefer/SLAM case could finally be put to rest

After more than three years of legal battle, the curious case of U.S. v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer finally came to a denouement. On June 12, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decided that the 3,200-year-old mummy mask of an Egyptian noblewoman should stay at St Louis Art Museum (SLAM). To the frustration of many who have been following the case, it was closed because of the attorney’s office’s administrative blunder—it failed to timely file a request to extend the deadline to amend its case. Consequently, the court affirmed the April 2012 decision by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, which stated that the government failed to articulate exactly how the mask was brought to the U.S. “contrary to law.” So Ka-Nefer-Nefer is still on view at SLAM.

But is this really the end of this story?

Maybe there could be a different ending to this story. What if SLAM simply offers Ka-Nefer-Nefer back to Egypt? For the past few years, the antiquities world has seen a tremendous shift in major museums’ and auction houses’ attitude toward repatriation. Recently, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of ArtSotheby’sNorton Simon Museum, and Christie’s all returned tenth-century sculptures looted from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen in Koh Ker. These repatriation cases were all enthusiastically welcomed by Cambodia, with promises of future collaborations and loans for exhibitions.

SLAM, too, can turn this into a golden opportunity. This does not have to be a contentious and costly fight, but an opportunity for a demonstration of good will. Although the cases of Koh Ker sculptures had more obvious evidence that they had been looted (including the feet and bases of the sculptures left in Koh Ker), it is also true that Ka-Nefer-Nefer’s journey to the U.S. has many unanswered questions. For example, Malcolm Gay, a reporter of St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, writes that “an anonymous Swiss collector” in SLAM’s provenance cannot be convincingly identified. David Gill, 2012 Beacon Award Recipient and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, points out that the mask could not have possibly been in Cairo and the Kaloterna collection at the same time. Paul Barford, in responding to David Gill, rightly claims that even after the court ruling, SLAM still has ethical and moral obligation to fulfill.

SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated.

Right now, SLAM is swimming against the tide. Just to mention a few more well-known examples, the Met returned the famous Euphronios Krater in 2006; the Cleveland Museum of Art returned fourteen Italian antiquities in 2008; MFA Boston returned Weary Herakles in 2011 to Turkey, as well as eight antiquities to Nigeria last June. All cases included an agreement that the source countries recognized that the museums had acquired the objects in good faith without knowing their questionable ownership history.

SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated. The twenty-first century is finally moving away from the dark shadows of colonialism. The old guards of the museum world who once put up a fight for retentionism are losing their voices. As a college student, I admit that I do not know all the nuances and intricacies of the cultural heritage law and precedents. What I do know is this: ethics, morality, and good will are more important than retaining an Egyptian mask. SLAM already has the fabulous mummy case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht and many other important Egyptian antiquities, whose ownership is not in question as far as I know.

Perhaps SLAM can consider returning the beautiful noblewoman’s mask back to her home in Egypt, maybe with a condition that Egypt recognizes that SLAM purchased the object in good faith under the limited information available to it in 1998? The Egyptian government has been very appreciative of all the recent repatriations, but has not been afraid to retaliate if agreements were not reached. Look at the case of this German couple, who was honored in a gala at the Egyptian Embassy in Germany for their return of a smuggled relief. But Egypt temporarily severed its tie with the Louvre and refused to permit French excavations on its land in 2009 when the Louvre did not return four wall reliefs stolen in Egypt in the 1980s.

For the Egyptians, repatriation is a question of pride. Former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said that Egypt “will not abandon its right to Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.” SLAM could use this opportunity to establish renewed friendship with Egypt. Who knows, Egypt might loan invaluable treasures for future exhibitions at SLAM, just like Cambodia has done for the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition currently on view at the Met.

If SLAM wants “to continue to provide all visitors to the museum, and the citizens we serve, this rich experience in the ancient art,” as SLAM director Brent R. Benjamin claims, then returning the mask to Egypt would truly serve these purposes.

What do you think?

SAFE recognized in a landmark archaeology encyclopedia

SAFE is proud to announce its contribution to the publication of the landmark Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology.

This eleven-volume compendium, published April of this year, is unprecedented in its comprehensiveness. It contains more than 8,000 pages, 2,600 figures, and 100 tables, which cover international and interdisciplinary issues on archaeology. Edited by Claire Smith, professor in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, Australia, this encyclopedia “includes the knowledge of leading scholars from around the world” and encompasses the breadth of archaeology – “a much broader subject than its public image”- with contributions tapped from other disciplines.

One such contribution is the entry for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone, listed among a handful of others specifically addressing cultural heritage protection. The text begins with SAFE’s core mission: to increase public awareness on looting prevention and cultural heritage protection, by using advertising and marketing techniques. How has SAFE stepped closer to achieving this goal? Various examples of past campaign cards and photos answer this question by vividly illustrating past projects and successes. Perhaps most importantly, however, the entry stresses the fact that increased public awareness has brought changes.

“The editors of the encyclopedia invited SAFE to submit an entry in 2011,” SAFE’s founder Cindy Ho said. “SAFE is honored to have been asked to participate in this important project.” She also explained that since the entry was finalized in 2013, “the damaging effects of political turmoil and armed conflicts on cultural heritage have come into sharp focus. Look at Libya, Mali, Syria, Egypt, and most recently, Iraq.”

The entry also discusses current debates:

While some stakeholders – such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property – may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by more than 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end.

Criticism of source countries as ‘retentionist’; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit ‘hobbyist’ collectors and ‘world museums’ to stock their galleries with ‘artistic creations that transcend national boundaries’ are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

However, repatriation per se does not compensate for the damage looting does.

[I]n SAFE’s view, the issue is not who owns cultural property and where it can be traded, but what we are able to learn from these relics of our shared global heritage – and what we are willing to do to protect it. Whether antiquities are bought and sold in or out of their countries of origin, archaeological record is irreparably destroyed if they are looted.

Regarding public awareness, SAFE writes:

…the debate about the future of our shared cultural heritage is no longer the exclusive domain of academics, museum professionals, dealers and collectors. Members of the general public are becoming aware. They also demand to be heard.

Thanks to the far-reaching scope of this encyclopedia, readers can cross-refer to related entries. Colin Renfrew, Senior Fellow at the University of Cambridge and also 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, has written an insightful entry on the state and preventions of looting and vandalism in “Looting and Vandalism (Cultural Heritage Management)” (pp. 4552-4554). Another SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, explains the importance of placing objects in their rightful cultural framework in his entry, “Cultural Heritage Objects and Their Contexts” (pp. 1960-1966). As all the entries include lists of references and further reading, students and researchers can utilize this book as the go-to reference book for all matters related to archaeology, from heritage management to conservation and preservation.

Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology is fully available online here, and for purchase here. If you library does not have a copy, ask for it!

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.

 

Egypt’s heritage: a global concern

SAFE has added Egypt to the “A Global Concern” section of our web site. With recent updates on the dangers to cultural heritage resulting from political unrest, looting, and encroaching civilization, these pages aim to create an overview of what Egypt stands to lose, how cultural heritage is endangered, the market demand for Egyptian antiquities, what Egypt is doing to safeguard its own heritage, and what others are doing and how YOU can help protect Egypt’s heritage.

These pages were written and researched by Beatrice Kelly, with additional research by Tessa Varner. They exemplify the kind the work interns produce at SAFE.

Photo: Mallawi Museum

Saving Cultural Heritage, One Tweet at a Time

Publish, publish, publish. If I have ever heard a mantra for academic archaeologists, it is this. Repeated over and over again to every aspiring undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral candidate, this phrase is the driving force in this field. But for whom are we publishing? More often than not, papers are geared towards other academics, which is a necessary and critical practice to advance research and gain awareness. However, when it concerns looting, smuggling, and trading illicit antiquities, there is an audience that needs even more attention — the general public.

Archaeologists are in a unique position to inform the public of issues regarding looting because many have firsthand experience with it. In the recent article “Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency,” Blythe Bowman Proulx surveyed 3,009 archaeologists and found that 78.5% encountered “looting or evidence of looting while participating in fieldwork of any kind.” Of those archaeologists, 24.1% had encountered “looters on-site and looting activity in progress” (Proulx 2013:119). While Proulx was only able to sample a limited number of archaeologists, she effectively showed that they were no strangers to looting. From my point of view, archaeologists are also in a position to take a stance and have a voice. They have the opportunity to engage with the public by sharing their tales of the destruction of cultural heritage, but the question is, have they done so?

 “They [Egyptian archaeologists] live in an isolated world…”

Making those outside the field of archaeology sensitive to the endangerment of cultural heritage is not easy. It is difficult to inspire them to take action even if they have heard the plea. In a December interview, Egyptologist Dr. Monica Hanna reflected on the current state of antiquities in Egypt and the citizens’ connection with their heritage – or lack thereof. She states that “The don’t feel it’s part of their heritage. Even the Egyptian social studies schoolbook – the way it presents [Ancient] Egypt and modern Egypt, [they] are two hermetically sealed entities.” The sudden increase in looting across Egypt after the 2011 uprising may have highlighted this disconnect between the Egyptian people and their monuments, but it has also underlined the fact that when people care, they will go to great lengths to take a stand.

The onus to inspire courage and action to protect cultural heritage falls on every person involved in the field, including archaeologists. In a more recent interview, Hanna noted that archaeologists in Egypt “live in an isolated world…They think they are the experts so no one has the right to talk about antiquities except for them.” The thought that archaeologists are the only ones who can control the dialogue on antiquities must be banished. The public also must have a voice. There are an overwhelming number of platforms that can accomplish this– platforms that have started revolutions. Hanna has begun the process in Egypt by garnering over 25,000 followers on Twitter2,400 followers on Facebook, and 6,500 fans of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. She encourages everyone to share their stories of antiquities looting, regardless of who they are.

Example of a tweet Example of a tweet

Spreading the word and starting dialogues with the general public about cultural heritage destruction is of the utmost importance. While there is enormous pressure on archaeologists to publish academically, it is vital that discussions about these issues also take place via forums that are also used by non-academics. For instance, a quick search of users associated with the keywords “archaeologist” or “archeologist” on Twitter– one of the most popular social media platforms– yielded just about 350 results. Of course, while these results may not encompass all the archaeologists active on Twitter, it suggests that only a fraction of the archaeology community is fully utilizing a free tool that has 241 million active users a month.

Where are the voices of those 14,429 archaeologists worldwide that Proulx found in her research (Proulx 2013: 117)? If one archaeologist such as (Monica Hanna) is reaching over 26,000 with information about looting, imagine how much we’d learn from the 2,355 archaeologists (according to Proulx) who also experienced looting firsthand.

Not sure how to get started? Hear directly from Dr. Hanna when she delivers the free lecture, “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” and accepts the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award on April 10 in New York City.

It is time to become a little more comfortable with publishing via platforms that are not traditional academic journals.  All one has to do is TweetLikeShare. I swear it is that easy.

And remember: “instead of us preserving the antiquities, it is the antiquities that are protecting us. For it is through heritage that we can understand the things around us…” – Dr. Monica Hanna

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.

SAFE bulletin to feature selected news and opinion

Since 2006, SAFE’s e-newsletter news&updates has been alerting our subscribers to matters related to cultural heritage preservation, upcoming SAFE events, and new developments in the organization. Beginning this issue at the end of each month, news&updates will again feature our own selection of relevant news articles and reports highlighting some of today’s most pressing concerns in the fight against looting and the illicit trade of antiquities and cultural heritage.

We understand that the abundance of articles, news reports, and commentaries frequently and readily available on the Internet can become overwhelming. But not all content is created equal. To help you navigate through the information overload, we will cull from news reports and contributions from the SAFE community to deliver what we consider the most relevant and valuable in the monthly news&updates. With this bulletin, SAFE takes another step towards achieving our mission to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage worldwide.

So stay informed and subscribe to news&updates. And, as always, please feel free to share you own news and reports and let us know if we missed anything. For daily news and reports, visit SAFE on Facebook and Twitter. We thank intern Michael Shamah for this inaugural bulletin:

In the News

Penalties imposed on two amateur German archaeologists (Ahram Online) – Egypt’s antiquities ministry imposes penalties on two German amateur archaeologists who stole samples of King Khufu’s cartouche from the great pyramid.

Aussie leads Project to measure Iraq’s heritage destruction (SBS) – A 3-year project to “create the world’s first database of those damaged heritage sites and create a path to restore what can be restored.”

Peru thwarts antiquities smugglers (Latino Fox News) – Pre-Columbian textiles were discovered under a glass frame of family photos, while en route to Spain.

How did the US lose voting rights in UNESCO, and why? (IB Times) – What does this mean for Cultural Heritage?

Stolen religious artefacts have been repatriated (Cyprus Mail) – “The majority of artefacts were in relatively good condition although some bore clear signs of vandalism.”

Tutankhamun’s sister goes missing – Egypt issues international alert (Telegraph UK) – Egypt issues an international alert for return of a beautiful statuette of Tutankhamun’s sister, stolen with hundreds of other artefacts, when the Malawi Museum was looted amid clashes between police and Islamists this summer.

Antiquities Authority arrests looter attempting to steal buried Byzantine-era coins (J post) – Judean Mountains have now become recent targets for coin looters.

‘Make sure your collections traded legally’ (Korea Times) – Korean officials say that most of 150,000 cultural properties are outside Korea. They were looted and traded illegally during the Korean War or Japanese colonial rule.

Myanmar Buddha sculpture returns home after wild ride (CS Monitor) – An 11th-century Buddha was returned to Myanmar, after 20 years abroad. SE Asian countries, including Myanmar and Cambodia, have been trying reclaim cultural artefacts from the West through legal battles.

Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq (LA Times) – One of the largest returns of antiquities by an American Institution

 

The latest on SAFE blog

Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop - Damien Huffer’s summary of proceedings, explores the connections between the areas of criminological practice and the antiquities trade.

Introducing Confrontations - Confrontations invites friends and members of the SAFE community to share their firsthand experiences, whether through personal accounts, pictures, or photographic essays. Tell us what happened: What did you do?

Confrontations #1: A Young Boy’s Temptation - The first of the ‘Confrontations’ blog series, about Michael’s encounter with a pile of excavated coins in the marketplace of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Ton Cremers and the Museum Security Network: A SAFE tribute - Long before social media, there was the Museum Security Network; but most of all, the pioneer spirit of its founder Ton Cremers.

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation - A post at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik Ambassador: “As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.”

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

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

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. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes

Conclusion

There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

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.

10 Years After: Have We Done Enough?

I’m currently studying history of art with archaeology at University College London, and I’m SAFE’s new intern for summer 2013. I’ll be working primarily on the Middle East raising awareness about the danger to sites in those countries as well as doing research on the market for antiquities from sites in those regions. I will also be contributing to the SAFE blog, Twitter and Facebook as part of SAFE’s mandate to raise public awareness.


2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a virtual candle!

When I was in kindergarten, a family friend used to take me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Staring in speechless awe at the lushly wallpapered rooms and sublime paintings, I was most enraptured by the hauntingly empty frames. Who would steal a work of art from the public? It never occurred to me as a teenager obsessed with Indiana Jones that the crime Jones committed  himself was far worse than what had happened in the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Swooping into archaeological sites, Jones destroys the context of the priceless artifacts he uncovers, thereby preventing us from fully understanding the past societies who left this evidence behind.

While I’ve come to realize that Indiana Jones doesn’t necessarily set the best standards of archaeological excavation, it has inspired me to have a life-long love of art and archaeology. It is crucial that future generations are able to learn to love ancient artifacts just as I have, but that won’t be possible if looting and destruction continues at its current rate. That is why SAFE is such an important organization. By raising awareness of the threats to our global cultural heritage, and hosting this candlelight vigil each year, SAFE is pushing that heritage’s protection into the limelight.

I’m incredibly passionate about the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, and while those cases are covered in the media, there is comparatively little attention paid to the widespread destruction of archaeological artifacts through looting and conflict. The events earlier this year in Mali really highlighted for me the extent to which cultural heritage is still not at the forefront of the public’s mind. We like to pigeonhole the destruction of cultural heritage a something that others do (like the Bamiyan Buddhas), when in fact it happens in our own backyard. Furthermore, it will continue to happen unless individuals across disciplines and across geographic boundaries agree to work together to stop it.

Ten years after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, less than half of the objects taken have been returned. Why is there not more outrage at this fact?

It pains me to see news stories about eye-wateringly steep prices for the latest auctioned antiquity with no discussion of provenance or due diligence. How is it possible for an institution as prestigious as the Smithsonian to still become embroiled in a controversy about illicit excavation in the 21st century? I hope that this Candlelight Vigil will continue to spread the word that looting affects more than just the source country, and that it’s far from a solved problem. Looting destroys our shared global heritage, and I hope that by lighting this candle, I can do something about it. After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the five-year old who, in some alternate universe, is still gazing, enraptured, at the hauntingly empty frames that hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

CONSERVATION CAN BEGIN AT HOME!

We are grateful to Professor Colin Renfrew, who is currently on fieldwork in Greece, for taking the time to send the following reflections in observance of our 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, received his PhD from Cambridge University writing his thesis on Neolithic and Bronze Age Cultures of the Cyclades and their external relations. After receiving his degree in 1965, he joined the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Sheffield. In 1972, he became Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. He took up the position of Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University in 1981. In 1990, he was appointed Director of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. He directed excavations at Sitagroi and Phylakopi in Greece and Quanterness in Orkney. He has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Ancient Monuments and Advisory Committee of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and the Managing Council for the British School at Athens. He is the author of numerous books including Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (2000) and received the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award.


It is difficult to prevent the looting of the cultural heritage in faraway places. But you can help prevent looting, and undermine the traffic in illicit antiquities, by ensuring that your local museum (and local private collectors) have a clear and published ethical acquisitions code — and that they stick to it!

If museums did not buy or accept gifts of “unprovenanced”  — i.e.  usually looted — antiquities, collectors would not buy them.

Some museums (such as the British Museum, and more recently the Getty Museum) now have a published acquisitions code which determines that they will NOT acquire (by purchase, loan or gift) antiquities which have appeared on the market after 1970, the year of the relevant UNESCO
Convention (unless their existence prior to that date is securely documented by contemporary publication). This means such museums no longer give support to the illicit trade by acquiring possibly looted antiquities. It is massively important that the Getty took that admirable step a few years ago, and their acquisitions are now promptly published, so that the world can see what is going on.

Does your local museum have an ethics code of that kind? Does it publish all its acquisitions, and their background – i.e. that they were known before 1970 (and could thus not be looted AFTER that date)? Does it have any exhibits on loan which do NOT conform? As a citizen you are entitled to know the answer to that question. So ask, and demand a clear answer.

The (American) Association of Art Museum Directors has a website where museums can publish any acquisitions they wish to make which do not strictly conform with the 1970 Rule. Why do they need this? Ask your local museum where they stand on this issue. Exercise a little citizen power to highlight the grey areas of museum practice: they ultimately give comfort to the illicit trade.

—Colin Renfrew

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.

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FROM THE FIELD: Change of Time, An Interview with Abdul Wasay Najimi, Conservation Architect for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Professor at Kabul University

In the summertime, thousands of visitors flock to Bagh-e Babur, “Babur’s Garden”, an historic park in the heart of Kabul. Presiding over the garden is the entombed 16th-century Emperor Babur the Conqueror, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, for whom the garden is named. In the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he praises the location for its scenery, gardens, orchards, and semi-arid climate. “Within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls,” he observes. “But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.”

Five centuries later, the public enjoys this same ambiance. Enclosed by perimeter walls, fertile rows of cypress, hawthorn, and cherry trees adorn the cascading terraces of the garden. Groups congregate on the pavilions. Couples stroll lazily along the water channels. Families picnic beneath the shade of the trees, eating kebabs, chatting, and resting in the dry heat.

Babur’s Garden did not always paint so splendid a picture. By the end of the Mujahideen civil war (1992-95) much of the garden was destroyed. It lingered in this state of disrepair through the Taliban regime (1996-2001).  And it was not until 2003 that restoration work was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), joined by Dr. Abdul Wasay Najimi, a conservation architect. Most of the work was completed by 2007 with facilities for cultural and recreational activities, including a caravanserai (inn with large courtyard and area for caravans), garden pavilion, swimming-pool, and Queen’s Palace complex.

It was at the garden that we filmed an interview with Dr. Najimi about his work as a conservation architect as part of the series, Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. The interview can be watched in the short video, Who is the Conservation Architect?, which showcases Dr. Najimi’s work for AKTC, including conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum. Today, Dr. Najimi is instructing in the history of the architecture of Afghanistan full-time at Kabul University, teaching a younger generation to appreciate their cultural heritage, so that in time, more of Afghanistan’s remarkable architecture may be preserved.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with the Babur’s Garden project?

AWN: The first time I saw Babur’s Garden was in the Taliban’s time. It was in 2000. One of my former students was involved in the project. He had some funds from HABITAT to plant some trees that you can see at the lower part of Babur’s Garden. He also wanted to build a door for the garden.

Generally, the garden was completely destroyed. All its old trees were cut down. The place we are sitting at was destroyed. The structure was in place. The garden was ruined and there were no windows or doors or anything. All the surrounding houses were in ruins. I came with him to see what his plans were and what he was doing. For the second time, when I came in 2002, we started a deep survey and study of Babur’s Garden. Naturally, it was as I described before. Slowly we surveyed and developed a design and we implemented the plans. Now you see the results.

Q: When you were abroad (working towards your PhD), were you following the issues related to Afghanistan?

AWN: Since 1986, I have had direct working relations with Afghanistan. But not all my activities were related to historical sites and buildings. There were no such projects then, and also, there was no funding or budget for this kind of work. To earn a living, I worked with other organizations working in Afghanistan, organizations for development of cities and rural areas and such. But throughout this period, there were projects and missions once in a while from UNESCO or something organized by myself, where I traveled and studied historical sites closely, and wrote on them.

From 1991 or even 1990, I became more involved and I went to Bamiyan on behalf of UNESCO once or twice. Once, I went to Munar-e Jam. From ’93 onwards I was in Herat for two years with a Danish organization. We reconstructed some of the significant sites there. For a while after that, I was not very involved. But since 2002, after AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) opened an office in Kabul, we identified some sites/projects for reconstruction in Kabul. After 2005, I also got involved with Herat. Since then (2002), I have been directly involved in different projects.

Q: How many important projects did you work on at this time?

AWN: In Kabul, one of the most important projects was the revival and reconstruction of Bagh-e-Babur. Others were repairing, strengthening, and restoring the Timur Shah Mausoleum and garden, and reviving and repairing a residential area known as Ashiqan wa Arifan, in the old city of Kabul.

We further developed to include [restoring] a series of historical mosques, historical public baths, fixing roads and streams, and helping provide drinking water. Similarly in Herat, our important projects included reconstruction of an area in Herat, close to the center of the city; we reconstructed some of the houses as a sample.

Q: What role did Afghans have in reconstruction of the garden?

AWN: Generally, all we have done has been done through Afghans. To the extent possible, Afghans have also done the expert and technical work. AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) is an international organization and naturally wants to work with international standards. For this reason, we occasionally had international observers or experts whom we consulted with in case of need and asked for advice… Thus, it was both satisfactory and enjoyable. During these talks, my colleagues and I learned a lot academically and they (the international experts) also admired the restoration of old building material, the style, and the way of old work. They would see how to reuse the material that had been used before, again, and get a good result out of it.

Q: What are the plans for the future of Babur’s Garden?

AWN: Babur’s Garden, after its reconstruction was completed in 2006, I think towards the end of 2006, found a new administration. We tried to form a trust or administrative organization for the garden. It would be run by an executive board with help from the municipality, which used to run the garden, and the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is responsible for preservation of historical sites and buildings. The executive board members are representatives of AKF, the Kabul municipality, and the Ministry of Information and Culture.  The day to day management of the garden is conducted by the trust or organization called “Organization for Protection and Preservation of Babur’s Garden”.  The organization is registered with the Ministry of Economics and is run according to regulations of NGOs.

Q: And the idea is that the garden will be independent in future?

AWN: No. The idea is that in the past, many years ago, the garden was run by the municipality, and they sold tickets for entrance to the garden. Now, the garden is at the beginning of its reconstruction, and it has some expenses to be paid occasionally for its preservation and protection. The decision was made that the garden can have revenue from selling entrance tickets, from renting out for cultural events, and if there is a shortage of money/budget, it will ask for help from aid organizations so that it can manage its own expenses. According to government regulations, the municipality did the same thing. So it is permitted. The organization/trust is a non-profit. They need to manage all their expenses and income themselves. At the end of each year, their accounts are audited by auditors that have so far been international auditors and a report is made on their expenses.

Q: Was the team from Babur’s Garden involved in the restoration of Timur Shah Mausoleum as well?

AWN: Our team was really big. One team worked with Babur’s Garden. The other worked on Timur Shah Mausoleum and then on the walls and the gardens there. We had another team that was working in the old city. Some of the engineers, who gained work experience here, went and worked with other organizations, or made their own companies. Some of them went to Herat with me. We had the same program there regarding training of young people and such. For now, our work has decreased in Kabul, and we try to go and work in some other provinces where we didn’t have access before.

Q: How has the collaboration from local people been? How much do they know about historical sites?

AWN: Local people know about the value of historical sites and buildings… Unfortunately, during the war, there were many limitations. Poverty was increasing and roads were closed. Many people started to think that if they dig the historical sites, and find some historical or antique artifacts, and sell them, they can earn a living. Unfortunately, this led us to lose some of our important and historical artifacts.

When there is no specific responsible organization, the local people also slowly become careless, especially when it comes to buildings and such. In some places, historical buildings and locations have been misused, and that may have caused their destruction. In other places, lack of any preservation efforts and existence of snow and rain has led to destruction. Sometimes, it has been a case of military use or buildings being employed in some manner during the fighting. Or the government has used the structures for military purposes. The people have often used buildings as shelters. The important point is that there is little public knowledge about historical artifacts of our country. And the officials, even if they are responsible, they are not fully active and accountable on raising awareness. We still have the problem that on one front, we need to raise public awareness through radios and TVs and through schools and teaching, and on the other front we need to work to improve the organizations that are responsible for this job of preservation.

Q: What was the worst period for cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

AWN: It is now and it was in the past 30 years of war. The main reason is that it was hard to preserve historical sites, traveling was difficult, there were few professionals and experts of historical artifacts in the country, everyone was on the move, everyone was a migrant. But the problem still continues.

Q: What is the impact of security on preservation work?

AWN: Security impacts everything. If there is fear and worry somewhere, there is lack of certainty. Any work, from business to personal and governmental activities, will be harmed. Luckily, since we have so far worked in Kabul and Herat, and also, the way we worked, we had very close relations with the public. We also occasionally have consulted the government offices that were responsible for preservation. We have never had any (security) problems. If you are working in a place that is hard to access, and is not safe and secure, sending professional staff and required material and equipment would be difficult. I have to say this, that the history has proved that civilization will grow in a place where there is security. Where there is peace among a community or in an area, the civilization has grown, progress has happened and economy has grown. During the war, all decisions are quick decisions, and while taking quick decisions, one can’t make useful decisions for the future.

Q: How do you see the future in three or four years?

AWN: Well, God knows better about the future. We can’t predict. But, from a personal and professional commitment viewpoint, I can only say that for me, it has been proved that in implementing such projects, we need to educate the youth. So that, we can train architects that are interested in the profession, have an understanding of the profession, and can work for the future, so that we can offer these people to our society.

It is for this reason that since 2009 we have had a more serious collaboration with Kabul University. I have gone there regularly on behalf of AKF and have taught there in the section related to history of architecture for Afghanistan, specifically regarding conservation and preservation. Also, this year we will invite some people from abroad to hold short term, expert classes for students in Polytechnic University Kabul and Kabul University simultaneously to restore the motivation for professional work, the style of professional work.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a 2012 John F. Richards Fellow for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and is directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She also holds an MSc in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

Digital awareness in the time of looting

The Egyptian uprising, which began in early 2011 and led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a transitional government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has had a devastating effect on archaeological sites throughout the country. Since the beginning of the revolution, illegal digging and looting at Egyptian archaeological sites, as well as break-ins at artifact storehouses, have increased 100-fold. This increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the breakdown of security and order across the country, political instability, economic necessity, backlash against the old regime and old-fashioned greed. El-Hibeh is one of these threatened archaeological sites.

Located approximately 200 miles from Cairo, the ancient city mound was founded during the Third Intermediate Period, and contains remains from the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, and early Islamic periods. Carol Redmount, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been excavating there since 2001. As early as June 2011, her team began receiving reports and photographic confirmation of extensive looting occurring at the site. Egyptian officials claim marauding gangs of looters, many of who allegedly escaped from jail during the revolution, are now robbing Egypt of its precious cultural heritage.

In an interview with PRI’s The World, Redmount describes the site in May 2012:

[The] cemetery has been thoroughly looted, body parts are strewn everywhere, pieces of mummies have been left out in the open. Bones are everywhere. Now they’re are largely dis-articulated, sometimes you can see the packages of mummy cloths, jawbones, skulls, sometimes toes still with flesh attached. It’s horrific.

mummies
Dr. Robert Yohe
Looted mummies at el-Hibeh

In response to the looting, Redmount launched the Facebook page “Save el-Hibeh Egypt.” The goal is to raise awareness not only about el-Hibeh but about the extensive looting occurring across Egypt—and the site appears to be doing just that. With over 1,700 members, the archaeology community and other interested parties are using the page as a forum for discussion, generating awareness via reports and photographs from the field, as well as sharing the latest news coming out of Egypt. Web-based social media like Facebook has the potential to play a pivotal role in raising awareness about threatened cultural heritage around the world. If these sites can ignite a multi-country revolution, why can’t they help prevent the looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities, as well? Lend your support and join “Save el-Hibeh Egypt” today!

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.

Syria’s heritage under threat

SAFE has added Syria to the Global Concern section of our web site. Written by Bastien Varoutsikos, these pages describe the dangers to Syria’s cultural heritage as war, looting, and encroaching civilization threaten to erase a precious piece of our past.

Bastien Varoutsikos is a a PhD archaeology student from Harvard University, working in the Near East and the Caucasus on mesolithic/neolithic periods. He has spent most of the past 8 summers travelling, living, and working in different countries of the area, mostly Armenia, Turkey and Syria. He has been increasingly interested in finding ways to make his practice of archaeology more relevant to the public through outreach and education program with local communities.

We are thrilled to welcome Bastien to SAFE and we look forward to reading his future work.