Why China’s MoU request should be renewed: its undiscovered ancient past

On our Facebook group yesterday, attention was brought to a mysterious stone animal uncovered this past January at an excavation site in Sichuan, China. Weighing 8.5 tons, and at 10ft 10in long, 3ft 11in wide and 5ft 7in tall, what else do we know about it besides its vastness?

What animal is it?
Media reports have called it a horse, a lion, or a panda, a cow, a pig. The latest “conclusion” is that the animal is a mythical rhinoceros, or a hippopotamus.

How old is it?
While most Chinese reports have the statue dating to the Qin Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, other reports speculate that it could have come from the Tang dynasty 618–907, or even Ming Qing 368—1840.

Perhaps most important, what was its purpose?
Archaeologists are reportedly baffled. At this writing, we have not found the discovery in Kaogu, or Archaeology journal, published by Institute of Archaeology, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  On China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage web site, there is one report from Sichuan Daily  mentioning a possible connection to calming floodwaters. What we do know is that the statue has ow become a symbol of good luck during the Lunar New Year, and lovingly nicknamed “史上最萌石兽” or “the most adorable stone animal in history.”

It will take some time for archaeologists to decipher the markings found on the statue’s surfaces, study the skeletal remains of other animals in its vicinity and make sense of the many other artifacts also discovered, including pots and reportedly ceremonial objects. For now, we have to contend with speculations, and hope that the site had not been looted, and will remain intact.

Stone horse and tiger Stone horse and tiger narrowly escaped looters

In 2008, four other stone animals in Guangxi province narrowly escaped being dug up and carted away by looters, thanks to reports from the villagers. Although not as big as the Sichuan animal, these statues appear equally difficult to steal, and equally mysterious. As mentioned in our earlier post about a looted 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high,  when it comes to looting for profit, size no longer matters.

The public hearing to review a five-year renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that restricts certain categories of antiquities from importation into the US takes place today at the Department of State. For SAFE, the most important reason for the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend the renewal to the President is this Most of China’s vast ancient history remains undiscovered. There is much more mystery than there is knowledge about a civilization that spans more than 7,000 years. And the decision must be based on this: Do we want to know more?

We do, because China’s ancient cultural heritage is our shared cultural heritage. As Donny George said, cultural heritage is a human right. We all deserve to know more about our own humanity, knowledge is our right. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the plunder of cultural heritage. The UNESCO 1970 has its flaws, import restrictions alone will not end looting and the illicit antiquities trade that feeds it. But until a better alternative is recommended and implemented, the US must do what it can to safeguard our cultural heritage—not only for China—but for all of us. Anything else is just an excuse.

China’s “other” looting problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should import restrictions on antiquities from Cambodia be renewed?

Weeks before the gavel fell on New York’s Asia Week auctions, Nord Wennerstrom began raising questions about the “iffy provenance” of Khmer artifacts, echoed by Chasing Aphrodite’s post on its Facebook page “For sale at Asia Week auctions: tons of unprovenanced Khmer antiquities“.

Although the lack of published provenance (or ownership history) is not proof of dubious origin, it begs the question: if provenance does exist, what not publish it? For one thing, as Wennerstrom indicates, objects without clean, clear provenance simply do not sell well, if they sell at all. This is not a new phenomenon. But when will the auction houses (and consignors) catch on?

SAFE calls on all antiquities traders to face the fact, and keep in mind the phrase caveat emptor: complete published provenance is good business.

Since 1983 the U.S., has been party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits and prevents the Illicit Import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Legislative implementation occurred in 1987 with the passage of the Convention on the Cultural Property Implementation Act, which requires bilateral agreements with other parties to the Convention. It is important to note, that such agreements cover specific categories of antiquities. not ALL antiquities, and are renewable every five years. They are NOT outright embargoes, or bans, as some opponents would describe them.

As the U.S. considers whether to renew its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Cambodia, SAFE examines the reasons why the MOU was originally signed and why it must be renewed. In this overview, we lay out what is at stake, Cambodia’s endangered cultural heritage, US market demand, Cambodia’s response and public support.

SAFE encourages the U.S. upholds its obligations as a member of UNESCO and confirms our support for important restrictions.

“Retentionist” or just doing the right thing?

According to KVAL.com article “Stolen Italian antiquities recovered from Oregon home” Phillip Pirages, the book dealer whose manuscript pages were forfeited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “was very impressed with how serious the (Italian) government was about reclaiming these[.]”

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa first century, showing a depiction of an old and young satyr, is one of several cultural artifacts taken from Italy that are being returned to Italy, seen during a repatriation ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2012. The objects were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Italy's Carabinieri.

Indeed, Italy is not alone in its determination to reclaim its cultural patrimony. In recent years, many culturally rich “source” countries are quite serious as well in their call for repatriation. While dealers, collectors, and other 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 some 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?

“Once we established that they were stolen, he voluntarily agreed to surrender them,” said ICE special agent Melissa Cooley. “He didn’t fight the forfeiture.”

Citing cooperation, the book dealer will not be charged. Perhaps Pirages has the right idea: doing the right thing is never wrong.

CPAC to review requests by Bulgaria and Belize for Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S.

The U.S. Department of State has issued a Notice of the Meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to take place November 15-17, 2011. The Committee will begin its review of new cultural property requests from the Governments of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Belize seeking import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material. On November 16, an open session to receive oral public comment on these requests will be held from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. If you wish to attend the open session, you must call and notify the Cultural Heritage Center of the Department of State no later than November 2, 2011, 5 p.m. (E.D.T.) to arrange for admission. If you wish to speak at the public session you must request to be scheduled and must submit a written text of your oral comments no later than November 2.

If you cannot attend the open session, you can still support the requests of both Belize and Bulgaria by visiting SAFE’s Say YES to Bulgaria page and Say YES to Belize page for guidelines on how to write and send an informed and effective letter expressing your hope that the U.S. will sign bilateral agreements with both Bulgaria and Belize. Also, add your name to the list of people supporting the preservation of the cultural heritage of Bulgaria.

Click here for more information on bilateral agreements and why SAFE supports them.

Belize 6, Bulgaria 1, Dodge City 50

The governments of Belize and Bulgaria have requested (under article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property) the help of the US in curbing the smuggling of artefacts out of the countries.

The details of these requests can be found on the AIA webpage: “Preserving Archaeology in Belize and Bulgaria: Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) to Consider New Bilateral Agreements to Protect Belizean and Bulgarian Archaeological Heritage“.

As can be seen, there is an opportunity for the public to submit additional comments (the public is already represented on the Committee) concerning their reflections on issues raised in Section 303 (a).1 of the CCPIA. This can be done via the internet (while comments sent by snail mail or hand delivered are accepted, those sent by email and fax will be rejected) until a minute before midnight on 2nd November 2011. The links to the relevant document folders are:

After just under a week of comments submissions, the response has been poor. There are six public comments in the Belize folder (all in support of an MOU to help combat smuggling), and almost fifty comments in the Bulgarian folder (all but one rejecting the idea of an MOU to prevent smuggling of certain types of dug-up material from archaeological sites from Bulgaria to the US antiquities market). Does this accurately reflect US public opinion on antiquities smuggling and the importance of efforts to stop it?

SAFE members and other readers of this blog might consider adding their voice to the public debate to give the CPAC a more accurate picture of public concern and interest in these matters. Those who are unsure what Section 303(a)1 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act says can find it on the State Department website, or clicking here. I have also set out what I think are the main points of the Bulgaria request in relation to Section 303(a)1 here. This is with reference to Bulgaria, but I think the first four comments in the Belize folder are a useful model for those wishing to comment on both.

If you care about looting and antiquity trafficking and think this should be more widely discussed in the public arena, please take the time to submit a comment to support these requests for assistance from one state party of the 1970 Convention to another.

Vignette: help put a stop to antiquities from Belize and Bulgaria disappearing into the black hole of the market for illicit antiquities.

SAFE congratulates newly appointed CPAC Chair Patty Gerstenblith

The White House just announced President Obama’s intent to nominate key Administration posts, including Prof. Patty Gerstenblith as Chair of Cultural Property Advisory Committee.

Gerstenblith’s biography reads: Patty Gerstenblith has been Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. She also serves as senior advisor to the International Arts and Cultural Property Committee of the ABA Section on International Law and served as editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Cultural Property (1995-2002) and as a member of the United States Cultural Property Advisory Committee (2000-2003) in the U.S. Department of State. She teaches and publishes in the field of cultural heritage and law and the arts. Her most recent article, “Controlling the International Market in Antiquities: Reducing the Harm, Preserving the Past,” was published in the Chicago Journal of International Law. Gerstenblith received a BA from Bryn Mawr College, Ph.D. in Art History and Anthropology from Harvard University, and JD from Northwestern University. Upon graduation, she clerked for the Honorable Richard D. Cudahy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The Senator and a US No-Questions-Asked Antiquities Market

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New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently supported a seminar organized to question the rationale behind part of the US International Cultural Property Protection Program. I found that disturbing and have written to her to ask why, and whether she supports this program and feels it should be strengthened or disabled. Members of SAFE – particularly those based in New York – might want to do the same.

Import restrictions on Italian antiquities extended

Today’s Federal Register announced that import restrictions imposed on certain archaeological material originating in Italy have been extended for another five years. The material represents the pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman periods of its cultural heritage, ranging in date from approximately the 9th century B.C. through approximately the 4th century A.D. The determination was made under the terms of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act that implemented the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In addition, coins have been added to the list of items covered by the restrictions.

SAFE supports the decision and applauds the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for continuing to recognize import restrictions as an effective deterrent against the destruction of cultural heritage, and the fact that coins “are an equally important historical source and are no less important ‘antiquities’.

CPAC review of MOU between U.S. and Italy

Last week, the U.S. Department of State issued a Notice of the Meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to take place May 6-7, 2010. The committee will review a proposal to extend the MOU between the U.S. and Italy concerning the current import restrictions on archaeological material. You can register to speak or simply sit in during the public session (May 6th 9:30-11AM) by calling the Cultural Heritage Center. Note that if you do wish to speak at this meeting, comments are limited to 5 minutes and must be submitted for the committee’s review by April 22, 2010. Even if you cannot be attendance at the CPAC meeting, you can still make a difference by faxing a letter to the Cultural Heritage Center (also by April 22). Please refer to SAFE’s “Say YES to Italy” page and to the AIA’s guidelines to write an informed and effective letter expressing your hope that the U.S. will extend their bilateral agreement with Italy.

More False Claims about Lobbying on Antiquities Issues

David Gill has recently addressed claims made by Peter Tompa that appear to have little basis in fact. Tompa is a lobbyist who represents commercial trade interests. He has alleged that the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) “was involved in behind-the-scenes lobbying on behalf of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities, the Cypriot government body that issues excavation permits that allow CAARI affiliated archaeologists to excavate on the Island.” The assertions are not substantiated further.

Ellen Herscher, the vice president of CAARI and an independent scholar, responded to Tompa’s claims after they were posted to the Museum Security Network. She stated:

CAARI’s Director and several trustees publicly submitted statements in support of the agreement. This position is in accordance with CAARI’s Code of Ethics, which states that the organization “is dedicated to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites in Cyprus and the information they contain.” There was no “behind-the-scenes lobbying” involved.

Secondly, “CAARI-affiliation” has nothing to do with the granting of excavation permits in Cyprus. Permits are the sole responsibility of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus.

It is unfortunate that the ACCG continues to publish these erroneous statements, despite the fact that CAARI has responded and refuted them in the past.

Gill asks the question:

Are “false claims” being deliberately planted by some of the North American coin-collecting community as part of the background to the test case over the coins seized in Baltimore? (For some more discussion of the “test case”, see Gill’s “The Baltimore Coin Test Case“).

The question is a provocative one, especially in the context of other false claims recently made by one group Tompa is involved with, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG).

On November 13, 2009 The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) convened for an interim review of the bilateral agreement with Italy and asked for public comment to be restricted to Article II. Among other things under Article II, which covers Italy’s obligations, Italy would allow long-term loans to American institutions, access to scholars, and prosecute antiquities traffickers within its own borders. Evidently, the CPAC asked that public comment be confined to Article II due to the concerns of many members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) who felt that Italy was favoring institutions that had returned objects to Italy and that more longer term loans ought to be made. Indeed, there were several AAMD members at the interim review who gave presentations to the CPAC (their written comments have been posted online).

Immediately after the interim review, Tompa insinuated that archaeologists departed from Article II and raised the specter of coins and their potential inclusion in the upcoming renewal with Italy (see Tompa’s “Interim Review of the Italian MOU“). He later claimed, innacurately, that Stefano De Caro, who spoke on behalf of Italy’s Culture Ministry, argued that all coins made within the borders of what is now modern Italy should belong to Italy (see Tompa’s “Is the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy the Best Steward for Coins?“). However, after being challenged, he conceded that he may have misunderstood.

The ACCG’s founder, who was not even present at the interim review, then authored a press release alleging that archaeologists opportunistically raised the issue of coins; he also portrayed the AIA representative’s comments as radical (see Sayles’ “Archaeologists Plead for Import Restrictions on Common Coins“; for a more balanced view, see the AIA representative’s reflections on the interim review). While Sayles pretended as if there is not near universal agreement among the archaeological community that looting and indiscriminate sourcing for the antiquities trade is detrimental to archaeology, he failed to note that many collectors have themselves voiced concerns that the status quo, which the ACCG seeks to protect, requires some internal reforms in the trade. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the ACCG is oriented more towards the concerns of commercial dealers rather than to collectors or the interests of preservation.

Wetterstrom, president-elect of the ACCG and its representative at the interim review, then authored an editorial in the Celator (a collector magazine that he operates) claiming that archaeologists at the meeting received special treatment and were not limited in the length of their presentations. He also writes that he was cut off early while reading his written comments that the CPAC already had in front of them (Tompa has reproduced Wetterstrom’s text in his “Another Perspective on CPAC and the Interim Review of the Italian MOU“).

Sayles then solicited another online press release, prompted by Wetterstrom’s editorial (“Collectors Claim Bias Epitomizes State Department Committee Management“). Here, Sayles falsely reports that “Other speakers, who advocate import restrictions on coins, were reportedly allowed to exceed the published time limit with comments ranging up to 30 minutes.”

In spite of the repetition of the claims by ACCG leadership, they have no basis in fact.

1) Archaeologists (note the ACCG’s use of the plural) were not afforded any special treatment. All speakers were allowed only five minutes and were told to finish if they reached their time limit. Wetterstrom, like all other presenters, received a full five minutes and was cut off only after exhausting his time while reading his letter verbatim. All other speakers made “off-the-cuff” presentations. The only individual who made a longer presentation was Stefano De Caro who had traveled from Rome for the meeting, and who spoke approximately 20 minutes. Although it is implied he was improperly given excess time, the ACCG fails to note that foreign dignitaries are customarily not limited in the length of their presentation. This is proper since they represent the countries who have petitioned for an agreement with the U.S. government. As regular attendees of CPAC meetings, the ACCG is well aware of this fact.

2) Archaeologists did not raise the specter of coins. The order of presentation clearly demonstrates this since Tompa and Wetterstrom spoke before any archaeologist. Both individuals urged the committee not to consider coins any future renewal of the agreement and both made reference to the “test case.” Archaeologists and numismatists who addressed the issue of coins during their presentations were simply responding to arguments made by Tompa and Wetterstrom that coins were not worth protecting because they are “common” or “cheap” on the market. But if one requires further proof, compare the written comments of Kerry Wetterstrom and Wayne Sayles, submitted to the CPAC in advance of the interim review, with the letter submitted by Sebastian Heath, the AIA representative. It is clear from the letters that, contrary to the ACCG’s portrayal of events, the ACCG were focused on arguing that coins not be considered in the future. On the other hand, the AIA representative made no suggestion that coins be included in a renewal and instead had prepared to focus on Article II of the MOU as requested. It was only in oral comments that archaeologists and numismatists were forced to respond to issues beyond Article II that were raised by representatives of commercial interests.

Gill’s question about whether or not false claims are being deliberately fabricated is penetrating, especially in the context of the misrepresentation of events at CPAC’s interim review. Is it indeed hoped that the spin put on these events will construct a reality that is more conducive to their litigious activities? In this regard, it is worth noting that one of the points in the ACCG’s 37 page complaint about the seizure, which they staged, states that archaeologists argued that the agreement with Italy be extended to coins, while failing to note that they brought up the question of coins in the first place (pdf here, see point 80).

Sebastian Heath’s account of CPAC Meeting

On November 13, Vice-President for Professional Responsibilities of the AIA Sebastian Heath attended the public hearing in Washington DC to review Italy’s request that the bilateral agreement with the US to restrict importation of antiquities be renewed. His account of the hearing has just been posted on AIA’s web site.

Such hearings [as well as bilateral agreements, or Memoranda of Understanding (MoU), Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) and the 1970 UNESCO Convention] have been the subject of much discussion and debate on SAFECORNER. Our organization SAFE advocates for import restrictions as an effective deterrent to looting; a detailed report of the China hearing can be found here.

Thank you, Dr. Heath, for sharing your insights.

Gill considers the current legal action pending against the US Department of State regarding the import of antiquities

From “Why are ancient coins from Cyprus featured in a suit against the US Department of State?,” PR Newswire, 26 June 2009:

 

SWANSEA, Wales,June 26/PRNewswire/ –David Gill, archaeologist, considers the recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit on the US Department of State.

The FOIA suit was served in November 2007by three numismatic organizations; one of the three is based in Brussels, Belgium. The alliance objected to the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) restricting the import of ancient coins minted in Cyprus as part of a wider memorandum of understanding (MOU). CPAC was responding to concerns by the Government of Cyprus that the illicit searching for ancient objects (including coins) was destroying the archaeological heritage of the Mediterranean island. CPAC states, “The MOU offers the opportunity for the U.S. and Cyprus to cooperate in reducing the incentive for further pillage thereby protecting the context of intact sites for scientific study.”

Coin collectors were also concerned about the 2009 MOU with China. This agreement also restricted the import of certain categories of coins.

As a result, one of the three numismatic organizations decided to test the resolve of the US Department of State in April 2009by attempting to import a small number of coins from Cyprus and China in defiance of the newly established laws. These items were detained when their flight from London touched down in Baltimore.

Are these aggressive legal tactics really for the benefit of collectors, or are there other factors at work?

Read the full discussion:

http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2009/06/antiquities-ancient-coins-and-changing.html

The US signs bilateral agreement with China to protect cultural heritage

After nearly four years and amidst much anticipation and speculation, the US has agreed to grant China’s request to implement import restrictions on antiquities into the US, as fellow state parties to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970). This bilateral agreement, or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), takes effect beginning January 16, 2009, and will be considered for renewal in five years. The details of the agreement can be found here.

SAFE applauds the US decision to uphold its commitment to safeguarding cultural heritage and continues to support the implementation of import restrictions as an effective tool to curb the devastation of the world’s shared cultural heritage.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security to look into "Ka-Nefer-Nefer" mask case

The AP article “St. Louis museum proud of its ancient mask purchase, but Egypt calls it a steal” reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now looking into the case of the “Ka-Nefer-Nefer” mask, which many people believe to have been stolen from Egypt. The article recounts the meticulously documented discovery of the mask by Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim, which “resurfaced in 1998 when the St. Louis Art Museum in Missouri acquired it.”

“Egypt has a right to the mask.” Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s antiquities authority, demands, while Brent Benjamin, Director of the the Saint Louis Art Museum asserts that “[t]o date, we have not seen information that we believe is compelling enough to return the object.”

Mr. Benjamin has been nominated by President Bush to join the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), which makes recommendations to the President regarding importation restriction requests from state parties to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970).

The saga continues. Photo: AP file

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

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.”

America’s commitment to safeguarding heritage

The United States is committed to protecting history and heritage from theft. It is no surprise that our nation demonstrates leadership in this area since an overwhelming majority of Americans (96%) support laws designed to protect archaeological resources, according to a Harris Interactive poll. In addition, more than three in five Americans believe that historical artifacts should not be removed from another sovereign nation without that country’s assent. This public support gives vitality to America’s application of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the preeminent global agreement that aims to safeguard cultural property from theft, illegal excavation, and smuggling.

Our nation first sought to protect its own cultural treasures when President Theodore Roosevelt enacted the Antiquities Act of 1906. President Reagan built on this legacy by looking beyond America’s borders, signing into law the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), which authorizes the president to enter into bilateral agreements that promote the preservation objectives of the UNESCO Convention. Since the CPIA took effect, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) has successfully evaluated requests by nations seeking American assistance when those countries’ archaeological heritage was jeopardized by pillage. The result of CPAC’s work has permitted the president to take action against the illegal trafficking of historical artifacts while simultaneously forging constructive international partnerships. Since 1983, the White House has approved several bilateral agreements that have assisted our friends and neighbors in Canada, Italy,and elsewhere. Continuing this tradition of American leadership is CPAC’s recognition that the looting of particularly identified types of ancient coins can place a nation’s archaeology in jeopardy. When coins are bound to the archaeological record in a significant and inseparable way, they become infused with irreplaceable historical information. To strip such coins from the ground without first evaluating and documenting their evidentiary value steals history. The forward-looking agreement between the United States and Cyprus, given effect on July 16, 2007, acknowledges this conclusion.

When Congress enacted the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, it determined that America’s unique archaeological resources were endangered and required protection. In the same way that the United States acted to secure the cultural heritage found within its borders, our country assists other sovereign nations do the same, thereby helping to protect our collective global history from large-scale transnational looting and trafficking. It is expected that America will continue to vigorously pursue laws, policies, and enforcement programs designed to safeguard domestic and international cultural resources for the benefit of future generations.

Rick St. Hilaire
Vice President (former), SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Cyprus, coins and the American interest

The recent renewal of the U.S.-Cyprus bilateral agreement to restrict importation of certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. could have taken place with little fanfare. In fact, similar agreements the U.S. had previously signed with Bolivia (extended in 2006), Colombia (initiated in 2006) and Nicaragua (extended in 2005) were hardly mentioned in the general media. The U.S. extension of the agreement with Peru, in June of this year, went practically unnoticed. One month later, however, the agreement with Cyprus was another story. Days after the announcement, the New York Times ran an article about it, and attacks on State Department personnel (responsible for administering bilateral agreements) appeared on the Internet. Among the heated polemics was the assertion that agreeing with Cyprus–a tiny country compared to the U.S.–does not serve the interests of the American public.

So what makes the Cyprus agreement so contentious? The inclusion of coins. For the first time, the U.S. will restrict the importation of specific ancient coins with Cyprus mint marks, concluding that “Coins constitute an inseparable part of the archaeological record of the island, and, like other archaeological objects, they are vulnerable to pillage and illicit export.” (See Federal Register)

Perhaps it is time we discuss the importance of ancient coins. Are they important beyond the money they fetch on the market? Since coin collecting is a popular hobby, is there a responsible way to collect without contributing to the destruction of the archaeological record? How do they compare to other ancient artifacts such as vases or statues? What can coins tell us aside from the date stamped on them? Should those of us who don’t collect coins care … and why?

The U.S. joined the international Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970) more than two decades ago and passed implementing legislation that provides the mechanism by which bilateral agreements with other countries also party to the Convention are considered.

As citizens, we are expected to follow the law, and we expect our governments to honor treaties and agreements with other sovereign nations. We understand that not every single one of these laws will serve the interests of every single individual.

Is it time to question whether bilateral agreements truly serve American interests? Clearly not. It is instead time to accept the reality that unbridled destruction will no longer be ignored to serve the interest of a few.