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!

Monica Hanna to receive 2014 SAFE Beacon Award

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

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

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

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

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

And we are paying attention.

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

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

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

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

2004 – Roger Atwood

2005 – Matthew Bogdanos 

2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George

2009 – Colin Renfrew

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

2011 – Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

2012 – David Gill

SAFE closes 2013 global awareness campaign with gratitude

SAFE would like to thank you for joining and participating in the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage, marking the tenth anniversary of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and the subsequent founding of our organization.

The amount of insightful stories, shared reflections, and heartfelt comments that we have received over the past six months has truly been remarkable. To be able to highlight your efforts in preserving cultural heritage and to hear so many of you share your thoughts on the fight against looting and the illicit antiquities trade has been not only a pleasure, but also an inspiration.

Together, our combined efforts unite us in honoring the memory of Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, whose call to action spurred the very first of SAFE’s Global Candlelight Vigil in 2007. Since then, it has been most inspiring to observe and showcase the many ways you have all observed our Global Candlelight Vigil. To be sure, this year—a momentous one marking the ten-year anniversary of the looting of the National Museum in Iraq, as well as the founding of SAFE—has been no exception.

Global campaign sparks global responseIndeed, this year’s global campaign truly sparked a global response, with virtual candles lit in over 100 cities from more than 30 countries across the world. We are indebted to each and every one of you who participated in the Vigil and we would like to thank you. We would also like to extend a personal thank you to those who contributed their stories and shared their reflections with us on our website and on our Facebook page under the theme of “10 YEARS AFTER.”


SAFE thanks:

- The Archaeological Institute of America

- Roger Atwood

- Deanna Baker

- Marc Balcells

- Cynthia Bates

- Ben Furnival

- Lucy Blake-Elahi

- Neil Brodie

- Claudia Brose

- Annalisa Cicerchia

- Juan Cole

- Dillon de Give

- Nathan Elkins

- Marsha Fulton

- Senta German

- Steven George

- Melissa Halverson

- Abdulamir Hamdani

- Susan Whitfield Harding

- Matthew Hu

- Damien Huffer

- Beatrice Kelly

- James McAndrew

- Mary Montgomery

- Oscar Muscarella

- Bodil Nilsson

- Past Preservers

- Rick Pettigrew

- Matthew Piscitelli

- Clemens Reichel

- Colin Renfrew

- Sandra Roorda

- Lucille Roussin

- Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan

- Ann Shaftel

- Diane Siebrandt

- Dean Snyder

- Howard Spiegler

- Jeff Spurr

- Rene Teijgeier

- Marni Walter

- Peter Watson

With the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage now at a close, we would still like to invite you to share your thoughts regarding the preservation of cultural heritage and, if you haven’t already done so, light a virtual candle to show your support. While the deadline for submissions to our initiative, “10 YEARS AFTER,” has passed, there is no deadline for you to publicize your reflections or present your thoughts on our website or via social media.

For us at SAFE, one of the most gratifying ways to celebrate this tenth anniversary and continue the fight against looting and the illicit antiquities trade is seeing us all come together as a community and take a stand. SAFE looks forward to continuing this journey together and working to preserve our collective right to cultural heritage. Thank you again for both your commitment and your involvement.

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


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.


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

Research and analysis: there is no substitute

The announcement of Glasgow University’s new team to study the illegal trade in antiquities is welcome news to those who seek the truth about these issues—fact-based truths. The recent years have seen much discussion of these increasingly popular topics, encouraged by the ease of a few keystrokes on the computer. Opinion—whether based on knowledge or not—is too all often disguised as truth simply on the basis of being expressed.

Given our mission to raise public awareness, SAFE has the responsibility to deliver messages that are accurate, and fact based. We therefore applaud this commitment to research, study, analysis, and look forward to the work of Dr. Simon Mackenzie, who heads up the four-year Glasgow project.

We congratulate Neil Brodie, our 2008 Beacon Award Winner, who pioneered academic research in these topics with Professor Colin Renfrew (2009 SAFE Beacon Award Winner) at the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre for his continued efforts. The £1m grant from the European Research Council is a long-awaited gift to us all.

Colin Renfrew on unprovenanced antiquities: challenges, scandals and responsibilities

In less than 18 minutes, Professor Colin Renfrew covers a lot of ground and an array of issues in the 2008 video “The issue of unprovenanced antiquities” here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). It’s a summary of the issues SAFE addresses, well worth viewing.

Beginning with how he came around to take a “purist position” against publishing unprovenanced material, Renfrew recalls founding the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre with Neil Brodie, the scandal at Sotheby’s and Peter Watson‘s investigations, the UNESCO Convention, and Britain’s implementation of The Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act in 2003.

Critical of collectors of antiquities without context, Renfrew also admonishes a number of museums which “are quite disgraceful and lead the world in purchasing antiquities without provenance…in effect, indirectly, they’re supporting and financing the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage.” They include the Metropolitan Museum of Art*, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He points out the J. Paul Getty Museum for acquiring looted objects against his objections “but they didn’t want to be told that at that time.” This refers to the scandal in the recent book Chasing Aphrodite. Although, he adds, “the Getty has now I think, learned from experience and now has an acceptable acquisitions policy…”

The video ends with the Sevso Treasure scandal as well as the problem of the incantation bowls.

Thank you, Web of Stories, for sharing these informative videos with us on SAFE’s Colin Renfrew Facebook page. We look forward to highlighting some other videos in upcoming posts.

*A year after the video was taped in 2008, upon receiving confirmation about the Met’s adherence to AAMD guidelines Renfrew congratulated the Museum for making progress at SAFE’s New York City lecture “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: A Time for Clarity”. The confirmation arrived 2 weeks before the lecture.

Colin Renfrew asks: What about ongoing looting?

Professor Colin Renfrew, 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Winner voiced his concerns that the problems of ongoing looting of archaeological sites around the world were not addressed in the lecture Looted art and its restitution: moral and cultural dilemmas for the twenty-first century, given by Professor Richard J Evans on Monday 7 June 2010 at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Professor Renfrew also spoke about the fact that although repatriation of looted antiquities from Iraq were mentioned, no reference was made about “the Metropolitan Museum’s being constrained to return antiquities to Italy, which had been illegally removed… in recent times.” (View video clip here. © Wolfson College, Cambridge)

Professor Evans focused on historical looting giving examples dating back to Jason and the Argonauts, and issues related to repatriation and restitution of Nazi art loot. Also brought up was contentious topic of the Parthenon sculptures, more commonly (but some believe, misguidedly) known as the “Elgin marbles” and whether they should be returned was the first question from the audience. Professor Evans will become Wolfson College’s fifth president in October, 2010.

Colin Renfrew asks for clarity in New York City

Following his rousing lecture in Philadelphia at the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Lecture & Reception Professor Colin Renfrew will be speaking tomorrow at a lecture in New York City entitled “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: a Time for Clarity” at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, located conveniently at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Prof. Renfrew will argue that a point of crisis has been reached in the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage, and that this can be met only by a general agreement not to acquire unprovenanced antiquities.

We invite all those who have questions for Prof. Renfrew about his position on these matters to take advantage of this rare opportunity and attend this lecture, which is free and open to the public. (Photo: Collin O’Brien)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art releases "Collection Management Policy"

SAFE is pleased to confirm a June 17 report CultureGrrl blog post that “the Met will indeed adhere to AAMD’s new, stricter standard.”

In an email sent to Prof. Colin Renfrew and SAFE president Cindy Ho on January 2, the Met’s Elyse Topalian, Vice President for Communications said:

“I understand from an internet advertisement that you intend to deliver the SAFE Beacon award lecture, entitled “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: the 197O Rule as a Turning Point (or How the Metropolitan Museum lags behind the Getty)” and that you “ask how long the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum can maintain the policies that led them to acquire the notorious ‘Euphronios Vase’?”.

In response to your question, please be advised that in June 2008 the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art accepted the Association of Art Museum Directors’s June 4, 2008 Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art, and on November 12, 2008, the Board of Trustees adopted a revised Collections Management Policy incorporating those guidelines. I enclose a copy of the Museum’s Collections Management Policy for your reference. Philippe de Montebello served on the committee developing the AAMD guidelines, as he did for the museum group’s 2004 guidelines.”

SAFE is now pleased to make available the Metropolitan Museums’s new Collections Management Policy to our readers, which Ms. Topalian has told us is “not confidential” and “posting is due to be completed soon” on the Met’s website (

In addition to the Beacon Award lecture in Philadelphia Professor Colin Renfrew will deliver a lecture in New York “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: a Time for Clarity”. Prof. Renfrew tells SAFE that, “although the AAMD guidelines are only advisory…I think this is a huge step forward.” This newly published “Collection Management Policy” will be studied further and discussed in Professor Renfrew’s upcoming lectures.

SAFE welcomes this news as the Met now conforms with the requirement that museums disclose their acquisition policies. Museums play an essential role in the safeguarding of cultural heritage, especially the Met, as one of the world’s leading and most beloved cultural institutions. (Rafael Macia/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

"AAMD members should be more transparent about acquisitions"

On Looting Matters today, David Gill wrote:

“The AAMD needs to resolve the issue of long-term loans of archaeological material. And AAMD members should be more transparent about acquisitions and learn to respond to requests for information.”

Professor Colin Renfrew’s Jan 10 Beacon Award Lecture in Philadelphia and Jan 15 in New York will touch upon these issues.

SAFECORNER wishes all a very Happy New Year.

2009 SAFE Beacon Award Recipient Prof. Colin Renfrew: "I’m much in favour of collecting…"

“…so long as it doesn’t involve objects recently taken from the ground. In my opinion all too many collections are scandalous for this very reason. I don’t mind so much people buying antiquities looted a century ago, but not if the items in question entered the market post-1970 when the convention on the illegal trade in antiquities was signed.” Professor Renfrew said in Sarah Jan Checkland’s article in the Financial Times My favourite things in which he was described as “archaeologist and campaigner against the trade in illicit antiquities.”

This coming January, Prof. Renfrew will receive the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award in a rare visit to the United States. He will give a lecture “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: the 1970 Rule as a Turning Point (or How the Metropolitan Museum lags behind the Getty)” and also discuss the ethics of excavating and collecting, and the merits of the once popular but now rare “partage” system in the SAFE Tour “Collecting the Right Way” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Photo: Ben Stansall

Debate: Colin Renfrew and James Cuno

On BBC’s “Today”, Colin Renfrew, a former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, locks horns with the Art Institute in Chicago director James Cuno, over issues of ownership, due diligence, and museum acquisition practice.

Professor Renfrew is recipient of the SAFE 2009 Beacon Award Winner. Dr. Cuno authored the book “Who Owns Antiquity?”

Also read about the debate between Dr. Cuno and Dr. Donny George in the earlier SAFECORNER post “James Cuno: ‘There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object in it that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else.'”

University Suppresses Report on Provenance of Iraqi Antiquities

The following article appeared in Science Magazine on October 26, 2007 and is reproduced here with permission from the author, Michael Balter.

University College London (UCL), one of Britain’s premier universities, has become embroiled in a dispute over its handling of a large collection of religious artifacts that may have been part of the illicit trade in archaeological relics from Iraq in recent years. Last year, a committee of experts UCL established to investigate the matter concluded that “on the balance of probabilities,” the artifacts were illegally removed from Iraq, and in the past months Iraqi officials have taken steps to recover the relics. Their actions come after UCL agreed this summer to return the collection to its owner, a wealthy retired Norwegian businessman who had sued UCL for their recovery. As part of a settlement of that suit, UCL agreed not to publish the committee’s report.

“It is shameful that a university should set up an independent inquiry and then connive with the collector whose antiquities are under scrutiny to suppress the report through the vehicle of an out-of-court settlement,” says Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, U.K., and a longtime critic of trade in antiquities of questionable provenance. Renfrew was one of three experts appointed by UCL in early 2005 to look into allegations about the provenance of the Aramaic incantation bowls and to propose new antiquities guidelines. Neil Brodie, an archaeologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and former research director of Cambridge’s Illicit Antiquities Research Centre–created by Renfrew in 1996–calls suppression of the report “an attack on academic freedom, because the illegal trade in antiquities is a legitimate research subject.”(CREDIT: QFT PHOTOGRAPHY LTD., COURTESY OF C. RENFREW)

Salah al-Shaikhly, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told Science last week that Iraqi authorities have asked British authorities to block the export of the bowls and that the Iraqi government hopes to go to court to recover the bowls “in a matter of weeks.” The removal of the artifacts, al-Shaikhly says, is “a great loss to the Iraqi national heritage.”

The affair has also caused considerable discomfort within the university’s Institute of Archaeology, which has played a leading role in developing strict antiquities rules. “I deeply regret the fact that the panel’s report will not be published,” says UCL archaeologist Kathryn Tubb, who co-wrote the institute’s guidelines. “The results of the deliberations were to have informed future policy for the whole of UCL.”

UCL officials have refused to comment on the matter, and Martin Schøyen, the owner of the bowls, declined to be interviewed for this story. But a series of press statements on the Schøyen Collection’s Web site ( explains that “any assertion that the bowls in the Schøyen Collection might be looted is incorrect.” The Web site notes that the artifacts came from a Jordanian collection “built over many years.”

The UCL committee of inquiry’s report–a copy of which Science has reviewed–concludes that the bowls most likely left Iraq illegally sometime after August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Schøyen subsequently bought them from dealers based in Jordan and London. The 94-page report says that the committee found “no direct evidence that positively contradicts or impugns Mr. Schøyen’s honesty” in his account of how he obtained the bowls and credits him with “openness” in the way he purchased them. But it sharply criticizes UCL for agreeing to store the bowls without looking into their origins or “the manner in which Mr. Schøyen came to possess them.”

“A potentially damaging position”
During the 5th to 8th centuries C.E., many people living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) buried pottery bowls under the thresholds of their houses to ward off evil demons. The bowls were inscribed with biblical passages and other incantations in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language. Today, about 2000 of these Aramaic incantation bowls are known to exist in public and private collections around the world. Schøyen owns one of the two largest collections, numbering 656, and beginning in 1995, loaned 654 of them to UCL’s Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies to be cataloged and studied. The research was led by linguist Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in collaboration with UCL’s Mark Geller, an expert in ancient languages. (Away all demons! Ancient Mesopotamians used bowls inscribed in Aramaic to repel evil spirits. CREDIT: COURTESY OF ERICA HUNTER)

In September 2003, a documentary aired on Norwegian public television that questioned the provenance of a number of antiquities in Schøyen’s collection–which is based in Oslo and London–including the incantation bowls. According to the committee’s report, questions from the program’s producers led UCL Vice-Provost Michael Worton to write Geller on 2 December 2003, directing him to make arrangements to return the artifacts to Schøyen–an order that the report says was never carried out. (Both Worton and Geller declined to comment on this and other matters related to the bowls.) UCL also consulted its attorney, who, according to the committee report, told UCL on 10 September 2004 that it was in “an anomalous and potentially damaging position” because it might be violating international and British antiquities laws by keeping the bowls–or returning them to Schøyen–if the bowls had been removed illegally from Iraq.

In early 2005, UCL set up the committee of inquiry that, Worton explained in a 16 May 2005 press release, would allow UCL “to be absolutely clear about the provenance of these bowls, and to satisfy ourselves that they were not removed illegally from their country of origin.” He said the committee’s report would also “provide a model for best practice in dealing with the complex cultural issues that can arise from such situations.”

The committee–comprised of David Freeman of the London law firm Kendall Freeman; Sally MacDonald, now director of UCL Museums and Collections; and Renfrew–took testimony from three dozen witnesses, including Schøyen and two London-based antiquities dealers who, the committee determined, sold him many of the incantation bowls. Schøyen and the dealers told the committee that nearly all of the bowls had come from the family collection of Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian antiquities dealer who reportedly died in 2001. But the committee found “unconvincing” two Jordanian documents that Schøyen offered in support of his claim that the incantation bowls had been legally transferred from Jordan to London.

In an interview with Science, one of the two London dealers, Chris Martin, says that Rihani had some incantation bowls in his collection at least “3 or 4 years” before the 1991 Gulf War. The committee calculated that Martin sold Schøyen 444 of the incantation bowls, of which at least 300 came from Rihani. After a time, Martin says, Schøyen began to buy directly from Rihani and, according to the report, acquired another 174 bowls this way.
The committee’s report cites the testimony of four experts in ancient Mesopotamia that nearly all known incantation bowls come from Iraq, which since 1936 has forbidden the export of antiquities except for exhibitions and research. “The bowls were present in Iraq when the 1936 Law came into force … [and therefore] were the property of the State of Iraq” at the time that Schøyen purchased them, the report concludes, even if Schøyen may not have realized this. Nevertheless, the committee found that, under U.K. law, Schøyen could still claim title to the bowls if he had already possessed them for 6 years and could demonstrate that he had bought them in good faith.

Claiming the bowls

The committee’s report, dated 27 July 2006, contains a number of recommendations, including that it “be published in full.” Indeed, Renfrew told Science, the panel prepared the report “in the expectation that it would be published.” Nevertheless, the panel proposed delaying publication for 6 months while copies were sent to Schøyen, the antiquities departments of Iraq and Jordan, London’s Metropolitan Police, and two other British government agencies. Although UCL officials have declined to comment on any aspect of the affair, Renfrew says UCL attorneys told the committee early in 2007 that the university would “omit the legal arguments and conclusions and recommendations” in summaries being sent to Iraq, Jordan, and the police.

The report has not been published, however. On 9 March 2007, the Schøyen Collection announced that it was suing UCL to recover the incantation bowls. A press release explained that it “has become frustrated with the waste of time and money caused by a lengthy and inconclusive inquiry into its provenance” and added that it had “los[t] confidence in UCL’s conduct of its inquiries.”

Meanwhile, on 26 June, Schøyen and UCL issued a joint press statement signaling an end to the litigation. “Following a searching investigation by an eminent panel of experts, and further inquiries of its own,” the statement declared, “UCL is pleased to announce that no claims adverse to the Schøyen Collection’s right and title have been made or intimated” and that “UCL has no basis for concluding that title is vested other than in the Schøyen Collection.” The bowls have been returned, the statement said, “and UCL has agreed to pay a sum in respect of its possession of them.”

Jenina Bas, media spokesperson for the Schøyen Collection, declined to say where the bowls are now located, citing “security reasons.” However, Shaked told Science that they are still in the United Kingdom. Al-Shaikhly says that Iraq did not immediately make a claim on the bowls because “lawyers in England are very expensive.” He adds that culture ministry officials in Baghdad discussed the matter for several months before agreeing to proceed.

In the meantime, Shaked says that he plans to continue his research. “It is my responsibility as a scholar to work on any ancient artifact that has information to tell us,” he told Science, staking out one side of a bitter debate among archaeologists about whether researchers should work with unprovenanced antiquities (Science, 28 April 2006, p. 513). The other side believes that researchers and collectors are morally obligated to carry out what archaeologists call “due diligence” into the provenance of the antiquities they work with. “Due diligence is at the heart of the discussion about the antiquities market,” says archaeologist David Gill of Swansea University in Wales. “If respected international institutions are unable or unwilling to release the findings of this process, archaeologists begin to smell a rat.”

Renfrew agrees with Gill’s assessment of the situation. He calls suppression of the report a “huge mistake” and believes it was motivated by the university’s desire to avoid a costly legal battle. “If so,” Renfrew says, “they have sold their souls for a mess of pottage.”