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.

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 info@savingantiquities.org.

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.

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’.

Buyers Beware

Related to the New York Times story commented here, it’s disheartening to see that nothing has changed since Roger Atwood’s 2007 critique regarding U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues.

Trophy Hunters With Their Eyes on Interiors” is a puff piece that glorifies adventurous exploits in search of the “ultimate” authentic-looking old objects. The story advertises and promotes architects, designers and contractors, and justifies their if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-them fees. Instead, the Times could have told its readers and trophy hunters alike a cautionary tale, which would be much more useful to everyone.

First, importing certain antiquities from countries which have signed bilateral agreements to restrict importation of antiquities is against the law. Not only that, buyers may have to return their coveted purchases to their countries of origin.

At the very least, the article could have mentioned the numerous international and local governmental and non-governmental efforts underway in these ready-for-the-taking-third-world-countries to PRESERVE their remnants of the past.

Finally, genuine history cannot be bought. It is lived. Rich people who seek rich-looking items might do better to live rich lives. Their cobblestones WILL in time acquire “just the right” moss. Theirs too will have the smoothness, color and patina that come from aging. In time, they too could have rich history to leave behind.

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.

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.

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.?

“All the news that’s fit to print”?

A few important omissions in Jeremy Kahn’s “Coin Dealers Sue State Dept. for Details on Import Bans” in the New York Times, on November 17, 2007 should be pointed out:

In the article, Mr. Kahn claimed, “It was the first time the government had barred trade in a broad category of ancient coins…” But this is not true. While the US/Cyprus bilateral agreement does represent the first time that ancient coins have been subject to temporary import restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act, coins have been subject to government-mandated import restrictions for many years in other contexts. For example, Executive Order 12722, which prohibits the importation of ancient coins from Iraq, went into effect on August 2, 1990. This order has been renewed several times, e.g., see section 4 of the renewal dated July 29, 2004. This prohibition remains in effect. In addition, antiquities, coins and other artifacts of Iranian origin have also been subject to trade restrictions for a number of years; importing such items to the U.S. is currently prohibited, and the US Customs and/or the Department of Justice does confiscate such items. In addition, according to the US Customs and Border Protection’s website, “gold coins … originating in or brought from Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, and Sudan are prohibited entry” under regulations administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Mr. Kahn wrongly characterizes import restrictions on Cypriot coins as a sweeping ban. For example, the photo caption in the article reads: “Importing Cypriot coins like this one is now banned.” But according to the U.S. Federal Register, the coins restricted from entering the US under the bilateral agreement are quite specific and listed as:

Coins of Cypriot types made of gold, silver, and bronze including but not limited to:

1. Issues of the ancient kingdoms of Amathus, Kition, Kourion, Idalion, Lapethos, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Salamis dating from the end of the 6th century B.C. to 332 B.C.

2. Issues of the Hellenistic period, such as those of Paphos, Salamis, and Kition from 332 B.C. to c. 30 B.C.

3. Provincial and local issues of the Roman period from c. 30 B.C. to 235 A.D. Often these have a bust or head on one side and the image of a temple (the Temple of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos) or statue (statue of Zeus Salaminios) on the other.

Coins minted in Cyprus outside of the categories specified are not affected. In addition, no import ban exists for these types of coins, or any coin of Cypriot type, if the coin is accompanied by a valid export permit from the Government of Cyprus. Any bona fide museum, university or organization with a need to access and study Cypriot coins, can apply to the Cyprus government for a long-term loan, as described in Section 27 (subsections 1 and 2) of the Cyprus Antiquities Law.

The State Department operates under the provisions of the Cultural Property Implementation Act, the enabling legislation passed on January 12, 1983 and amended December 22, 1987, which implements into US law the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970). As parties to the Convention, Cyprus and the US, as well as more than 100 countries, have agreed to abide by Article 1(e), which includes under the definition of Cultural Property subject to protection, “antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals”. Parties to the Convention have also agreed to abide by Article 9: “Any State Party to this Convention whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological or ethnological materials may call upon other States Parties … to participate in a concerted international effort to determine and to carry out the necessary concrete measures, including the control of exports and imports and international commerce in the specific materials concerned. Pending agreement each State concerned shall take provisional measures to the extent feasible to prevent irremediable injury to the cultural heritage of the requesting State.”

In other words, the US-Cyprus bilateral agreement is fully in keeping with an international legal mechanism that has been in place for decades.

To describe the import restrictions of ancient Cypriot coins without including the proper background information and circumstances does not serve the purpose of pursuing “greater disclosure”, reportedly the basis for bringing the lawsuit. Context does matter. We believe the public deserves better from The New York Times.

As for the lawsuit itself, the 15-page complaint speaks for itself. But consider this fact: it costs as little as $100/month to hire an archaeological site guard; an FOIA attorney in Washington, D.C. typically receives $400 per hour, or more, to sue the federal government.

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.