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

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

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

My process

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

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

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

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

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

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

Giza Holes

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

"A Primer on the Restitution of Looted Antiquities"

The Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Cultural Heritage & Arts Review, a publication of the American Society of International Law’s Interest Group on Cultural Heritage & the Arts, is now available by subscription.

One of the articles “The Ancient World Meets the Modern World: A Primer on the Restitution of Looted Antiquities” can be found on Herrick, Feinstein LLP‘s web site. Authored by Herrick attorneys Howard Spiegler and Yael Weitz, it discusses the unauthorized excavation and smuggling of cultural artifacts and the legal issues involved in efforts made to reclaim stolen cultural property in the U.S., as well as the trend toward the resolution of claims without litigation. It is adapted from the lead article of Volume 6 of Art and Advocacy, the quarterly newsletter of Herrick’s Art Law Group.

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.

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

What happened to the China MOU request?

Three years ago, on February 17, 2005, the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee held public hearings to consider China’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would restrict importation of certain types of cultural property from China to the United States for a limited period of time (five years, subject to renewal).

China made the request of the U.S., as both countries are parties to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970). Among other things, this convention obliges State Parties to prohibit the importation of cultural property stolen from a museum or monument in another participating country (Article 7b), and allows State Parties whose archaeological or ethnological patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage to ask other State Parties for help in protecting the affected categories of materials, through measures that may include restrictions on imports and exports (Article 9). Furthermore, the U.S. enacted the Cultural Property Implementation Act to make adherence to the UNESCO 1970 into law in 1983.

According to the U.S. State Department’s website on cultural property:

“The U.S. State Department must consider the committee’s findings and recommendations when the committee’s report is submitted …within 150 days of referral of a request to the committee for an agreement”

But more than 1000 days after the hearings, we hear nothing about a decision.

What we are aware of, is that since February 17, 2005, MOU agreements with Italy, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mali, Guatemala, Peru, Cyprus have been renewed, and Colombia became the twelfth country to have been granted a request. Cambodia’s Agreement is being considered for a third renewal right now, as we speak. In other words, not only has every request for a Memorandum of Understanding been granted, but each one has been extended, at least once, except for Canada.

So, why not China?

We urge the U.S. Department of State and the President to put this request from China back on the agenda. We ask those in whom we entrust to protect our most important non-renewable resource to put aside any political or economic reasons that have derailed the decision to consider this: Every day that goes by without the import restrictions is another day we are not doing everything we can to protect the evidence of our undiscovered past.

As a sovereign nation, China has the right to seek assistance from the international arena to protect its cultural heritage. Like the U.S., China is a State Party to the UNESCO 1970. When other countries such as Greece, India, Italy, Peru, the Philippines have signed similar bilateral agreements with China, perhaps the question should be:

Why not the U.S.?

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.