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.

Experts lend opinions to the discussion of unprovenanced antiquities

The New York Times reported on Tuesday, July 10 about the growing tension over new guidelines “making it more difficult for collectors of antiquities to donate, or sell, the cultural treasures that fill their homes, display cases and storage units.” As museums and auction houses react to recent measures taken by the U.S. to stem the illicit antiquities trade, they are increasingly reluctant to acquire items with no documented provenance prior to 1970, the benchmark year the international community adopted in the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Neil Brodie Neil Brodie

Many collectors claim they are being treated unfairly and are increasingly depicted “as the beneficiaries of a villainous trade.” However, SAFE Beacon Award winner and former Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, Neil Brodie, dismisses these claims saying, “Collectors know that without provenance it is impossible to know whether an object was first acquired by illegal or destructive means.” Dr. Brodie is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow and was instrumental in the formation of a new team that will study the illegal trade in antiquities. The team was recently awarded a £1m grant by the European Research Council.

Larry Rothfield, SAFE blog contributor and founder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, pointed out that lack of provenance is not necessarily the only reason these items cannot be sold. Their historical or aesthetic value can affect their sale for any number of reasons. “Even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition,” he said, “most of them would not be acquired anyway.”

The article further poses that the price of protecting the world’s cultural heritage may very well be that some items without provenance will remain in the hands of collectors who may be unable to sell or donate their treasures.

Larry Rothfield Larry Rothfield

SAFE appreciates our supporters for lending their voices to our anti-looting mission in so many ways. Read more articles by Larry on the SAFE blog.

What do you think? Should the US relax its guidelines and laws on provenance or is it more important to keep tightening the noose around the illicit antiquities trade? Is there a solution that allows objects to be donated to museums without encouraging looting and black market trade in the process? Join the discussion by commenting below or contacting us at

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.

Finders Keepers – Craig Childs

As it turns out, the author’s title is unbelievably appropriate as it describes the essence of the entirety of the book – a personal reaction to the discovery of artifacts.

Childs sets out to describe the history behind humanity’s need to understand its past. He artfully crafts a story based in part on his own personal, and very diverse, travels about the globe. He tells of grand discoveries as often as simple broken pots. Childs successfully creates a sense that each item has a tale to tell and is valuable for that alone, if nothing else. He also notes the vast disparity between people of all walks of life in terms of how they interact with, and understand, the past as embodied in ruins and artifacts. Archaeologists, collectors, looters, and families all make their appearances; all lending their views on the issues and all are given due consideration by Childs.

Perhaps comprising the central theme of the book, Childs effectively engenders an appreciation for the natural beauty of not only artifacts, but also of their settings. In this simple observation, he draws attention to perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding many of the artifacts of the world, whether in private collections, museums, or still in the ground: are artifacts art or information? Do they have value on their own or do they require provenance and detailed records of discovery? Who should properly care for them – individuals, museums, or the sands of time?

Childs wavers back and forth throughout the book, between his opinion that humanity’s need to possess items from its past is natural and his personal feeling that artifacts should remain where we find them, left to become one with the earth again in time. For him, the answer is personal and simple, our museums and collections are full to bursting already – we ought to let our discoveries lie in peace to be observed and appreciated in their “natural” state by the next passerby.

However, this is where one comes against at least two main problems with Childs’ conclusions. First, his premise is based on an entirely personal feeling. Such a feeling is obviously difficult to define, as Childs doesn’t fully succeed in convincing the reader that his position is the right one. As such, his position is not particularly helpful in defining how we ought to interact with our past, or how we ought to govern our behavior. Of course, if his goal was to start the discussion surrounding the treatment of cultural sites and artifacts on an entirely new path, Childs could be successful.

Second, the ultimate result of Childs’ “let it lie” mentality is often bound to be precisely the same result as if nothing had been found at all. For all intents and purposes the artifact — all its uniqueness, history, and information – will be lost to humanity. Perhaps this is preferable to the destruction of innumerable sites from the greed or nonchalance of looters and others, but perhaps not. What value has history if no one knows it? Childs tells of several finds he uncovered in his travels, only to leave them to chance thereafter. He argues that our museums and collections are overflowing with artifacts and that we cannot properly care for the ones we already have. Why continue to dig up new artifacts which might not even be seen in a museum, instead languishing away in a climate-controlled basement? One has to admit, Childs has a valid point.

Even so, is there not a value in facilitating the sharing of knowledge and engendering an appreciation for humanity’s past? Who is to say when a new discovery is more than just another pot, and is, in fact, new evidence never before seen? Provided we continue to legitimize the process surrounding digs and the acquisition of artifacts, it seems almost silly to argue that we’re better off leaving things in the dirt. Childs’s personal, almost spiritual, relationship with his process of hiking and discovery is just that – personal. It is not immediately translatable to anyone else.

While Childs himself does not truly reach a firm conclusion, he certainly generates the impression that if he had his way, all the world’s remaining undiscovered ruins and artifacts would remain as they are – unknown to anyone unwilling to backpack for days in the remaining wilderness areas of our world. At the same time, Childs does agree that the work of archeologists is preferable to that of looters, even though he often equates the two in many ways.

His final three examples demonstrating his ethic when making a new find illustrate all the above criticisms. He tells of returning to the site of a long ago discovered basket, an arrowhead on the side of the road, and a prayer stone in Tibet. He again wavers between his natural desire to possess each of these finds, to take them to show others. In the end, his conscience wins the day and he leaves each where he found them — in an important way, treating them as the bits of plant matter and rocks they will soon become.

Childs doesn’t seem to see the problem that strikes the reader in these actions. For example, he states that the basket was clearly purposefully placed where he found it. However, his discovery came on the heels of an arduous and dangerous trek to find a tiny crack where if he poked his head in he could just discern the shadowy form of the basket. Everything about his lengthy description speaks to the probability that the basket merely fell into the crack some hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The arrowhead he leaves behind instead of sharing with his son because he knows it will merely become a dusty member of his own cardboard box collection. Because of this, he opts instead to leave the artifact by the road for someone else to discover. Is it really better than teaching his son about the history that fragment represents? With his decision, this piece of history will likely remain nothing more than roadside gravel. Even though the sentiment is a noble one, perhaps it is too simplistic.

In final example of the prayer stone, the reader feels Childs’s ethic is the most appropriate. These stones were placed for a specific and important purpose. It is an inherently different idea to protect the placement of something placed for a firm purpose.

Of course, it is never that simple. Who is to say what a culture from the past (or even the present) holds sacred? Who gets to decide, particularly if the item is old enough that we don’t rightly know to whom it can be said to “belong?” Even though the questions are difficult, the reader almost feels as though Childs’s approach ignores them rather than answers them.

Even though he acknowledges that there are places where one can hardly walk without crunching artifacts underfoot, Childs also seems to ignore the reality that over time, we can expect humans to continue to grow across much of the land that is currently “undeveloped.” If the best policy were truly to simply leave things as they are, anything we might gain from undiscovered sites or artifacts will be lost to us as we cover the earth with our buildings. Childs seems to believe that this is simply the way it ought to be, that artifacts and ruins should just be reclaimed by the earth. The reader feels this attitude is too simplistic or perhaps simply oblivious.

All in all, Childs’s heart is in the right place and he tells an interesting story of a personal journey across the face of archaeology and collecting. However, in terms of the world at large, the reader feels we should focus on creating better incentives to properly study the artifacts we have, allowing for as much preservation of their context as possible. In many cases, this may mean leaving the items where they were found. But is it really wrong to say that if someone thinks the find is of interest, for knowledge and understanding or simply for aesthetics, that they should be barred from a thoughtful study of them?

Humanity as a whole should be allowed to care about its past, to want to touch it, to understand it – in fact, it should be encouraged to do so. Not all of us can make treks through the wilderness to find these relics from the past – but many of us can make a trip to a museum or follow a designated path to a protected site.

Artifacts are both a part of us and the earth’s history. The fact that each person has different ideas about how we ought to deal with them is what makes the topic so difficult and yet so compelling. Hopefully, opinions like those of Childs will continue to move that discussion along to fruitful outcomes.

Coins matter

In the SAFE feature article “Why coins matter” numismatist Nathan Elkins wrote “Ancient coins are among the most widely collected and demanded objects among American collectors of antiquities.” “We cannot think that ancient coins are less significant than Greek vases—when looted, both are forever divorced from their historical and archaeological contexts and irrecoverable information is lost when the site from which they came is vandalized.” Elkins continued. SAFE agrees.

We are therefore pleased to announce “Coin Matters” as the latest addition to our growing Resources section. Please assist us in keeping our resources fresh and current. We welcome any additional new and relevant links you may have, both on-line and off-line, and appreciate your contribution to our shared interest in increasing the public’s knowledge on cultural heritage issues. To submit your resources and keep this site growing please email

Photo: Nathan Elkins

US Heritage Protection Legislation "inadequate" to Curb Antiquities Market

The pro-collecting lobby urges that the instead of current “restrictive ” laws, the archaeological heritage of all regions should become a free-for all to be “harvested” for collectable antiquities, perhaps with some form of voluntary reporting scheme like Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in place to salvage some of the information which would otherwise be lost. In contrast to this we have views which urge that more should be done to protect archaeological sites from any kind of avoidable damage. On the back of the recent illicit antiquity raids in Utah, Gray Warriner an independent filmmaker has written an interesting essay in the Salt Lake Tribune. His thesis is that in the United States “Current laws are inadequate to protect antiquities” (Salt Lake Tribune 26th June 2009). He urges for a change in legislation to curb the antiquities market which drives the destruction of the archaeological record in the search for collectable atefacts. He likens this to the protection of threatened natural resources such as songbirds. More here.

Butterflies and antiquities: no laughing matter

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Peter Laufer
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

A post on Illicit Cultural Property highlighted an interview between John Stewart of The Daily Show and the author Peter Laufer which drew a parallel between art trafficking and the illegal trade of endangered species. Indeed, a similar parallel can be also be made between endangered species hanging “dead on the wall” as Laufer describes them, and looted antiquities ripped out of context on a collector’s mantelpiece. Worth a viewing. Thanks, Derek, for bringing this to our attention.

Preserving Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria

The Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues weblog has called attention to a campaign to preserve Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria which lays in the northwestern part of modern Bulgaria.

Like so many other places in Bulgaria, the site is being systematically destroyed by treasure hunters. I have discussed the destruction of Bulgaria’s archaeological record and cultural heritage several times before and I am glad to see attention brought to this preservation campaign. Readers will recall that Bulgaria was highlighted in the “Under Threat” list by Archaeology Magazine, which I and Kimberly Alderman both discussed (“Archaeology Magazine’s Under Threat List Includes Bulgaria” and “2008 Archaeological Sites Under Threat“, respectively). Anyone who has browsed through several volumes of Archaeologia Bulgarica knows what a negative impact systematic looting and destruction of archaeological sites has on the material record as it has affected virtually every site in Bulgaria.

I have already made a small donation to the initiative and would urge other concerned readers to do likewise.

Individuals may learn more and donate to the preservation effort by clicking here and following the “donate” link.

In the Limelight: Female figurines and provenance

Applause must be gathered for a small exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. Hosted by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, The Fertile Goddess prominently focuses on the topic of provenance as a format for discussion. One wonders why the curators made such bold statements about the museum’s collections. Perhaps this was allowed because of the unique position of the Sackler Center as an institution functioning simultaneously within and beyond the confines of the museum’s hierarchy. This space in the Brooklyn Museum, known as the “Herstory” gallery, explores the guests of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party with The Fertile Goddess on view until May 31, 2009.

The didactic text that amazed me is set as a prominent wall panel placed in the center of the exhibition. It discusses the acquisition of collections “through archaeological excavations, as gifts or loans, or by purchase.” For example, the Halaf figurine on display was purchased from a dealer. Its provenance is unknown and its reconstruction is also questioned. The plaque recognizes partage and later retention by countries of origin while relating information about the current collections policy. “Brooklyn Museum curators now check an object’s history to determine if its acquisition follows international, U.S., and country-of-origin laws and professional ethics codes before a purchase or the acceptance of a gift.” This is an amazingly bold statement by a U.S. art museum revealing the new era we live in where past behaviors are unacceptable.
Read more. . .

The curators, Maura Reilly and Madeleine Cody, also explain that provenance is “guessed at by comparison with excavated examples.” For some scholars, this is still an acceptable form of identification. However, the panel asserts that “such an archaeological context can provide essential evidence for authenticity, function, and dating that cannot be determined from the object alone.” More art museums need to realize that too much is lost when objects are ripped from the ground and they are forced to compensate by searching in the dark for answers. Of the nine figures on view, only two were scientifically excavated. New feminist re-examinations of these figurines challenge earlier interpretations, suggesting that they depict ancient women as active subjects who may have held the reins of power. This is shown in the work presented by scholars, Ellen Belcher and Diana Craig Patch, during a panel discussion on March 14, 2009. Also discussed was the possibility of false reconstructions as well as the fakes and forgeries that saturate the market.

Within the exhibition, the visitor’s agency for interpretation is expressed by asking, “Who is she?” The objects may be talisman, ritual or magical objects, votive offerings, the embodiment of a cultural ideal of the female form, or images of goddesses. By involving their audience, the curators provide an option for the visitor to interpret history for themselves.


December 2008 Edition of Kunstrechtspiegel Online, Back Issues Available

In December the fourth 2008 installment of the Kunstrechtspiegel (“Art Law Looking-Glass”), a publication of the Institut für Kunst und Recht (IFKUR – “Institute for Art and Law”), was placed online. Back issues are also freely available online.

The Table of Contents of the latest issue includes:

Editorial: Die Bekämpfung des illegalen Handels mit archäologischen Kulturgütern: Neue Wege auf der Internetplattform eBay
(“The Abatement of the Illicit Trade with Archaeological Cultural Goods: New Ways on the Internet Platform eBay”)

Kerstin Odendahl


Antiken, Recht und Markt
(“Antiquities, Law and Market”)

Reinhard Dietrich


U.S. Declaratory Judgment Actions Concerning Art Displaced During the Holocaust

Jennifer Anglim Kreder


Rückführung illegal verbrachter italienischer Kulturgüter nach dem Ende des 2. Weltkrieges (Emanuel C. Hofacker)
(“The Repatriation of Illegaly Traded Italian Cultural Goods after the End of the Second World War”) (Emanuel C. Hofacker)

Annette Froehlich

Der Einfluss des Urheberrechts auf die Restaurierung von Werken der bildenden Künste (Daniel-Philipp Häret)
(“The Influence of Copyright on the Restoration of Works of the Visual Arts”) (Daniel-Philipp Häret)

Erik Jayme

Die Nadel und der Heuhaufen – ein Einblick in den Bereich der Provenienzforschung
(“The Needle and the Haystack – a Look in the Area of Provenance Research”)

Jörg Wünschel

Kunstsammlungen im Zugriff von Fiskus und Erben: Vortrag von Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg
(“Art Collections in the Access of Finances and Inhertance: Lecture of Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg”)

Nicolai Kemle

Handbuch Kunst und Recht (Thomas Hoeren et al.)
(“Handbook of Art and Law”) (Thomas Hoeren et al.)

Nicolai Kemle

IFKUR – News 4. Quartal 2008
(“IFKUR – 4th Quarter 2008 News”)


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.)

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

Brent Benjamin to join CPAC: "An outrageous appointment…"

The Museum Security Network has started a discussion over the appointment of St. Louis Art Museum director Brent R. Benjamin as a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. “Doing so the USA will defame itself internationally.” Ton Cremers, one of the Museum Security Network’s moderators and creator of the original Museum Security Network mailing list protests. The St. Louis Art Museum has been criticized by Zahi Hawass, secretary general for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, for “not returning the mask and has threatened to turn the dispute over to authorities.”

Members of the coin collecting and lobbying community have called the appointment “positive news” and “as protecting the rights of collectors.” Are the political powers of lobbying winning out over issues concerning cultural property?

Read about the controversy here and on the LOOTING MATTERS blog, in which David Gill asks, “Does the Bush administration mean to send out a signal that it does not care about claims on cultural property in North American museums?”

SAFE hopes this appointment does not represent a change in direction for CPAC. To date, CPAC has not turned down a single MOU request from any country, a laudable record among those of us who are concerned about stopping looting worldwide.

Photo: St. Louis Commerce Magazine

What cultural nations do…

My eye was initially caught by the large photo in the article (Egypt to retrieve ancient statue from Netherlands) about a case that has already been in the news recently about the shabti bought by a private collector which has been identified as coming from Sakkara and having been stolen. The accompanying text contains, unintended by the author, a comment which raises a question. It says:

the export of archaeological artefacts is strictly forbidden from Egypt, as from other cultural nations.

So what do we call nations which do little to prevent and punish the import of precious archaeological evidence which has been looted from the archaeological record in other countries only to be sold as aesthetically pleasing collectable gee-gaws? Cultural? I think not. It’s nice to see from this case that some private collectors are trying to find out where “their” treasures come from and have scruples.

SAFE applauds Penn Cultural Heritage Center

Nearly forty years ago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum led the way in the adoption of ethical museum collecting practices by issuing the “1970 Philadelphia Declaration,” which renounced the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities by collecting institutions. This long and distinguished history of leadership now takes an important new turn with the launch of Penn Cultural Heritage Center under the directorship of Dr. Richard Leventhal.

SAFE applauds the creation of this new center, which you can read about in their August 18 Press Release.

Heritage Action, a British grass roots heritage protection organization

Heritage Action is a British grassroots organization concerned about the protection of the cultural heritage. It describes itself as a group of ordinary people standing firm and taking ethical, responsible action to defend extraordinary places. These extraordinary places are the historic landscapes of various regions of Britain, with their numerous traces and monuments left by the ancient inhabitants who had lived there before. This is the common cultural heritage and yet sorely threatened by numerous agencies and elements of the modern way of life. They say: “We believe that this generation holds its heritage in trust for future generations and we should never break this trust. From this comes our single purpose — to build a powerful voice for action on all threatened heritage places”.

Heritage Action is a rallying point for anyone who feels that society is deaf to the threats to heritage places and aims to help individual voices to be heard loud and clear by the public, the media and the authorities. “We aim to promote an appreciation of the value of these places, highlight threats to them, and encourage the public to become involved in responsible but vigorous action to preserve them. Each individual threat needs publicity and, if necessary, pressure on site owners, commercial interests, local authorities, and heritage bodies.”
It is the latter field that the group has been making its presence felt in recent years.

The organization however has a more specific shared interest with SAFE. It has recently identified the exploitation of archaeological sites and monuments of Britain as a source of collectables as a threat to their integrity and heritage values. Last year it began a campaign to heighten awareness of this, “metal detecting, calling time on erosion”. One element of which was a so-called “erosion counter” which attempts to show in real time the scale of the undocumented damage this hobby is doing to the archaeological heritage of the British Isles. This should be drawn to the attention of all those collectors and dealers out there who claim that the looting problem in the UK has been solved by the Portable Antiquities Scheme which they argue is therefore a pattern that should be followed eslewhere… Even if the Heritage Action estimate is wrong, and the number of artefacts actually being removed and the associated information lost without any record is a half or third of what those figures suggest, would the rate of loss be acceptable? In fact, I personally think there is evidence (which I will be publishing is due course) to suggest that this estimate might be a little on the low side.

The ACCG "Benefit Auction"

I have critiqued the goals, motives, and tactics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) several times (those unfamiliar with the ACCG are urged to consult a list of some relevant web-postings at the end of this discussion). For those who do not know, the ACCG is a 501 (c) 4 organization to which financial contributions are not normally tax deductible since up to 100% of its funds can be used for the purposes of political lobbying. According to its website, the goal of of the ACCG is to maintain a “free-market” in all coins. It has lobbied against legislative measures designed to protect archaeological and historical sites from destruction. A possible financial motive for its activities may be apparent in the fact that its founder and most of its officers are ancient coin dealers, and the majority of its financial contributors (especially the larger contributors) are ancient coin and antiquities dealers and auction houses.

In November of last year, the ACCG announced it was suing the U.S. Department of State under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more transparency on the process under which it decided to impose import restrictions, at the request of Cyprus, on certain ancient coins of Cypriot type. Many who are familiar with the “blogstorm” last fall about these issues will recall that several vocal ACCG members and dealers were alleging various conspiracies between archaeologists and State Department officials( links here and here to relevant posts, some of which reference dealer accusations). A “benefit auction” for which the ACCG has been soliciting donations, which it will auction on August 17, 2008, has now sparked my interest.

…Read the rest of the post at Numismatics and Archaeology: “The ‘ACCG Benefit Auction’ and Intrinsic Interests.”

Good Faith, Due Diligence, and Market Activities

Recently, I have been taking note of the use of the term “good faith” and particularly how the term is used by opponents of import restrictions on antiquities that do not have proper documentation, repatriations of looted material, and advocates of a “free-market” in ancient objects.

Yesterday, David Gill reported that a relief fragment from an Egyptian tomb was repatriated to Egypt after it had been withdrawn from a sale at Bonhams (London) earlier this year, when someone from the Metropolitan Museum of Art recognized it from an Egyptian tomb, where it was once in situ (“Tomb of Mutirdis (TT410): Update,” Looting Matters, 30 June 2008). A spokesperson for Bonhams would not identify the individual or dealership from whom they acquired the object, but stated that it appeared to have been acquired in “good faith.”

Also on David Gill’s weblog, and elsewhere, there has been discussion of the Association of Art Museum Director’s (AAMD) new guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities (“AAMD and Antiquities: a Revised Position,” Looting Matters, 5 June 2008). In light of this, he has recently discussed the use of a 1970 vs. 1983 date in response to Lee Rosenbaum, who suggested the 1983 cutoff date for repatriations (D.W.J. Gill, “Towards a Ceasefire in the ‘Antiquities Wars': a Response to Lee Rosenbaum,” Looting Matters, 26 June 2008; id., “The ‘Antiquities Wars': Further Thoughts,” Looting Matters, 27 June 2008; L. Rosenbaum, “Towards a Ceasefire in the Antiquities Wars: The Next Step (Part I),” CultureGrrl, 25 June 2008; id., “Towards a Ceasefire in the Antiquities Wars: The Next Step (Part II),” CultureGrrl, 27 June 2008). Peter Tompa, current president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and an attorney, has also weighed in on the debate (“Memo to AAMD Members: Pick 1970 or 1983 as a Trigger for your Cultural Property Returns,” Cultural Property Observer, 26 June 2008). While Gill and Rosenbaum prefer different dates based on various legal and ethical precedents, 1970 (as per the 1970 UNESCO Convention) and 1983 (as per US legislation subscribing to the UNESCO Convention via the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA)), respectively, Tompa suggests that repatriations be based on the date that a foreign nation’s request for import restrictions on cultural property is recognized by the U.S. Department of State be used as the guideline. He also makes the statement early on that “Repatriation decisions should never be taken lightly, particularly when lack of provenance information does not necessarily mean lack of good faith.”

Last week, it was brought to the attention of the Iraq Crisis Discussion List that some rare Iraqi Jewish books were smuggled out of Iraq and traded in Israel (“Rare Iraqi Jewish Books ‘Surface in Israel,'” Yahoo! News, 27 June 2008). There has been a protracted discussion on the Iraq Crisis Discussion List, to which many have contributed, including Jeff Spurr, Dorothy King, Paul Barford, Michael Balter, John Robertson, Patty Gerstenblith, Donny George, Peter Tompa, and others (visit the June and July archives to view individual contributions to the thread). Mr. Tompa and Mr. Barford have both blogged about the discussion and pertinent issues (P. Tompa, “Jewish Books Smuggled from Iraq to Israel,” Cultural Property Observer, 28 June 2008; P. Barford, “‘Stuff Happens': US ‘Torah Rescue’ from Iraq?Cultural Heritage in Danger (SAFECorner), 30 June 2008). In regard to a related issue on these Iraqi Jewish books, Tompa again brings up “good faith”: “In any event, the Torah described in the article would not easily fit into either category so I think we must assume (unless proven otherwise) that all concerned have acted in good faith.”

It was also reported this month that a Norwegian soldier who served in Afghanistan attempted to donate a hoard of coins and an ancient bottle he acquired there to a museum in Oslo and that Afghanistan is now seeking the return of the illicitly exported – and probably looted – material (N. Berglund, “Afghanistan Seeks Return of ‘Stolen Treasures,'” Aftenposten: News from Norway, 18 June 2008). Dorothy King provided a short discussion of it on her blog (“A Little Afghan Looting…Updated,” PhDiva, 23 June 2008). In the comments section of this post, Peter Tompa commented:

“This soldier should be given the benefit of the doubt. It is likely he bought these artifacts in good faith from desperately poor farmers who found the material, and I will assume this to be the case unless and until someone proves otherwise. This only became a story when the archaeological blogs picked it up. I suspect they helped egg on the Afghan Museum authorities to demand the repatriation of this material and an investigation. Before the Communists and Taliban took over, the government tolerated sales of minor artifacts such as this. A change of sensibilities in the elites that run the archaeological establishment, will not change the facts on the ground. Desperately poor farmers will sell whatever they find to whomever will buy it. Better to put in some system akin to Treasure Trove, that records everything, rather than assume Afghanistan has the funds and archaeologists necessary to conserve every piece of ancient history in its museums.”

A comment by Sebastian Heath in response to Tompa on the same entry is worth reading as well as his “Say What?Mediterranean Ceramics, 23 June 2008.

The purpose of this post is not to “slam” Mr. Tompa. I have respect for him and he uses more discretion and reason than many of the dealers with whom I have tried to have discussions in the past (to be clear, Tompa is not a dealer, but rather a collector). Instead, I am trying to highlight a fundamental difference in perception and argumentation that people on different sides of the “antiquities debate” have. Tompa, for example, seems to present the notion that “good faith” and “the benefit of the doubt” are enough for the trading of antiquities. On the other hand, David Gill, among others, have argued the need for stronger “due diligence” processes in the acquisition of antiquities by dealers, collectors, and museums.

In the early spring of 1999, a 60 kilogram parcel of ancient coins, which was only part of a larger shipment, estimated to be in the neighborhood of a ton (literally), was intercepted at Frankfurt Airport (R. Dietrich, “Cultural Property on the Move – Legally, Illegally,” International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002): 294-304). The coins were falsely declared and were spirited out of Bulgaria and destined for sale in the United States. The Bulgarian national was and still is an active coin dealer and wholesaler to other dealers in the United States. Online correspondence on ancient coin discussion lists indicate this dealer was selling coins en masse to other dealers and collectors at a major North American coin show just a few months after customs officials released the parcel under peculiar circumstances (see the article for fuller discussion of the release from customs). Many collectors were excited by these coins and I am certain they purchased them in “good faith,” but does this excuse the way in which they made it to the marketplace? Although they may have been buying in “good faith,” were the dealers and collectors that purchased from this importer practicing adequate “due diligence”? Were they asking about how he acquired them, and if so, simply taking his word for whatever answer he might have supplied?

A couple of years ago, Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) acquired a very rare coin of Brutus commemorating Caesar’s assassination and paid approximately $23,000 for the coin (a wholesale price), which it in turn would have tried to sale for around $30,000 (D. Alberge, “Swoop by Customs Returns Brutus to Scene of the Crime,” Times Online, 15 June 2006; L. Worden, “Ancient Coin Buyers, Beware,” COINage Magazine 42.11 (Nov. 2006)). The Greek government claimed the coin was smuggled out of Greece and the coin was returned. Mr. McFadden of CNG acted in “good faith” in buying the coin and returned it to the Greek embassy when asked to do so. But how extensive was the “due diligence” process? The Times Online article stated:

“Mr McFadden, whose company is regarded as one of the world’s leading specialists in Greek and Roman coins, told The Times: ‘He did some work for Nino [Scavona] in the 1980s … One doesn’t refuse to deal with someone because he has a slightly shady background.

‘One looks at the deal on the table. We’re business people. If there’s any indication something’s not legitimate, we don’t deal in it.'”

Here is an excerpt from the COINage Magazine article:

“‘After the cash was seized,’ McFadden said, ‘his daughter kept phoning up, asking when her father could get his money back.’ That provided a clue that the man was indeed the seller. ‘That’s something that happened after the fact,’ McFadden said. ‘Not only did I not know about it, but I couldn’t have known about it.’ After all, it was the coin dealer who vouched for his ability to sell the coin. ‘If someone brings a coin in to you and says they own it and they can sell it to you and they guarantee the authenticity — obviously I’m aware of any recent reports of theft, so if the coin had been reported stolen, I would have known about it — then there’s nothing more one can do,’ McFadden said. Longtime coin dealer Wayne Sayles, executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, agreed. ‘There is no tradition in the world market for the background-checking of sellers, nor is there any real reason for it,’ Sayles said. ‘There are pertinent and applicable laws in most countries that deal with import, theft, etc., and dealers do, in my experience, try diligently to follow those laws as they apply at the point of sale.’ Sayles lamented that ‘we may have lost an opportunity to contest a claim that seems to be arguable on several grounds.’

It is clear that existing due diligence processes in the antiquities trade are not as rigorously applied as one might hope and much of the existing processes seem to rely very much on the mere word of profiteers and suppliers. “Good faith” purchases and dealings are not enough. Dealers and collectors would add dignity to their activities if they were to follow the example of the AAMD and adopt more stringent due diligence processes and acquisition guidelines. This would decrease the demand for recently looted material by diminishing the market for it and profitability of it.

(Image of an Egyptian relief withdrawn from a Bonhams sale and now repatriated to Egypt. Source: D.W.J. Gill, “Tomb of Mutirdis (TT410): Update,” Looting Matters, 30 June 2008)

This post has been cross-posted from Numismatics and Archaeology: “Good Faith, Due Diligence, and Market Activities.”

James Cuno’s Illogic

James Cuno’s new book, Who Owns Antiquities?, continues to push the case he has been arguing for several years now in print against current international conventions designed to protect cultural heritage from looting. Such conventions, he has suggested, are in bad faith. “If only current international agreements were intended to preserve archaeological knowledge,” Cuno has written elsewhere. “If only they were meant to make sure that we know where the world’s archaeological objects were found and that its archaeological sites are preserved. But they are not. They are intended instead to preserve the integrity of one nation’s cultural property at the expense of the world’s interest in international exchange.”

Bad faith, of course, could equally well be charged against those with an interest in international exchange — the museums and collectors who benefit from current international agreements allowing them to purchase artifacts without having to show that the provenance of these objects is legitimate (or even having to register their purchase at all). If only such agreements were intended to preserve archaeological knowledge. If only they were meant to make sure that we know where the world’s archaeological objects were found and that its archaeological sites are preserved. But they are not. They are intended instead to promote the interest, not of the world but of individual collectors and museums, at the expense of the integrity of one nation’s cultural property.

If Cuno does not choose to complain about agreements that favor collectors and museums, it is because he believes that harm done to archaeological knowledge is always and only caused by retentionism. The source of all evil, retentionism not only prevents “the world” from benefiting from the chance to own antiquities — it actually puts archaeological objects at greater risk. This is supposedly illustrated most dramatically by what happened in Afghanistan, where a retentionist policy meant that excavated artifacts were hoarded in the Kabul Museum, making it easy for them to be destroyed by the Taliban.

It is not difficult to see a problem with Cuno’s logic here. Suppose the Taliban had inherited a museum built on internationalist principles rather than retentionist ones. Does Cuno really believe that they would then not have still considered whatever artifacts the museum held idols to be destroyed? The Taliban policy of iconoclasm would have been pursued regardless of whether the previous policy had been internationalist or retentionist. The only difference would have been that rather than destroying only Afghan artifacts the Taliban might also have destroyed items loaned or exchanged by other museums under an internationalist system.

There is no logical link between retentionism and iconoclasm, pace Cuno. Nor is there a logical link between retentionism and the looting of the Iraq National Museum, Cuno’s other incendiary claim. Antiquities in Iraq, in fact, were among the safest in the world under the retentionist regime of Saddam Hussein (at least until the sanctions regime and the no-fly zone sapped his power). What put the Iraq National Museum’s collection of antiquities at risk was not retentionism, but the failure of American forces to secure the Museum grounds after smashing Saddam’s government to smithereens.

The lesson here is not that retentionism is a better policy than internationalism. It is, rather, that the fate of cultural heritage depends less on a country’s legal framework — retentionist or internationalist — than on its power to enforce whatever laws it has, and its will to protect (or, in rare instances like the Taliban, its will to destroy) its cultural property. A police state in which the leader cares about cultural heritage is one in which law and order will be maintained, and cultural property secured and conserved. Conversely, a free country with an internationalist cultural heritage policy but inadequate resources for maintaining law and order (whether in general or with regard to cultural property in particular) will be susceptible to the ravages of looting. And, of course, the greater the demand from collectors individual and institutional, the more at risk heritage will be, whatever the legal regime in place.

If Cuno really is concerned about knowing where objects are found and about conserving archaeological sites, it would make far better sense for him to stop obsessing about retentionism and focus instead on what the museum and collecting community could do to direct resources towards policing efforts. Individual contributions by wealthy contributors would be wonderful, but an even stronger measure would be for collectors to call for a tax to be levied on all purchases of antiquities, with the revenues generated by the tax dedicated to anti-trafficking efforts.

To own or not to own: Is that the question?

“Who Owns the Past?” “Who Owns Antiquity?” “Who Owns Culture?” “Who Owns Art?” “Who Owns Objects?” “Who Owns History?” A flurry of similar-sounding questions has been circulating in the media for some time now. Varying on the same theme, they are used as headlines in an array of formats: books, articles, lectures, panel discussions, etc.

While these questions raise some interesting points, we would like to ask some of our own:

1. “Who Owns __?” advocates imply: The right to ownership and possession of artifacts trumps all other considerations.

SAFECORNER asks: By focusing on ownership, are we neglecting the single most important point: the discovery of our yet-unknown past through protection, and the proper excavation of, ancient sites and tombs and burial grounds? What about the “past” / “antiquity” / “culture” / “art” / “objects” / “history” that remains underground? What part do these arguments have in stemming the plunder of cultural heritage caused by looting and the illicit antiquities trade?

2. “Who Owns __?” advocates contend: International conventions and national laws have failed because looting persists.

SAFECORNER asks: Instead of challenging the best legal mechanisms we have, should not more effort be made to observe and respect them? We don’t throw away the criminal justice system because crimes are committed, do we?

3. “Who Owns __?” advocates insist: The importance of archaeological context is overstated, because virtually everything we need to know is inherent in the object.

SAFECORNER asks: If not found in graves, or in context, what could the Tilya Tepe hoard tell us about ancient Bactria if it had been discovered as loose pieces of beautiful gold jewelry? One doesn’t need to be an Afghan to appreciate the value inherent in discovering an untouched ancient site. Conversely, aside from speculations, what do we know about who was buried in the now-looted tombs of Cerveteri? What do we really know about the Vicús culture, which has been looted to near-extinction, or the civilization that created the artifacts looted from Batán Grande, now on display at the Met?

4. “Who Owns __?” advocates suggest: The stakeholders in these debates are archaeologists versus acquirers: museums, dealers, and private collectors.

SAFECORNER asks: What about the rest of us? Many people from all walks of life who are not archaeologists, collectors, museum curators, dealers, nationalists, or socialists also feel very strongly about these issues. Our opinions also matter. After all, it is public opinion that shapes politics and policies and the politicians who create them. UNESCO is an organization of member nations that choose to join. And sovereign nations are governed by politicians who exercise power on behalf of the public, for the most part.

5. “Who Owns __?” advocates argue: Nations that did not exist in ancient times have no inherent right to ancient artifacts found within their territories. For example, does Italy really have the right to claim objects taken from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which was actually built before the Italian state was formed?

SAFECORNER asks: Is a nation ever too young to assert its sovereignty or jurisdiction? What about the United States? Barely over a couple hundred years old since our founding fathers created the nation, should we give up all claims to Native American artifacts? Revoke the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?

Finally, we recommend that ALL stakeholders ask themselves this question: what are we going to do to stop the continued destruction of our “past” / “antiquity” / “culture” / “art” / “objects” / “history”?