Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade

The world has been closely following the tumultuous political upheaval behind the devastated state of cultural heritage preservation in Syria. A recent New York Times article describes “a feeling of impotence” that academics and archaeologists are experiencing in the face of the sheer magnitude of the danger threatening the cultural heritage of Syria.

What will it take to stop the relentless destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage?

It is tempting to seek comparable remedies that suit other nations in the Middle East, where political unrest has also rendered cultural heritage exceptionally vulnerable.

In 2008, the United States implemented Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq without proper documentation. This protection (although less robust than what was originally proposed in H.R. 2009/3497) is in place to this day. Since 2011, there have been highly publicized efforts to enact similar regulations for Egyptian antiquities, including an attempt to pass a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose restrictions on the U.S. importation of certain categories of Egyptian archaeological artifacts.

What about Syria? Could antiquities be banned from entering the United States? Would such import restrictions reduce the economic incentive to loot (the very purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention)? How are current circumstances in Syria different from the situation in Iraq, which led to the passage of trade restrictions between 2003 and 2008?

U.S. representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) proposed the bill H.R.2009 (later modified to H.R. 3497) and initiated a momentum that led to the passage of S.1291. Could the other parties who contributed to H.R.2009 help draft and enact legislation to protect Syrian cultural heritage?

Unfortunately, both congressmen have left public office since, and it has been difficult to find out who else originally mobilized this legislative effort. Given the opposition that the bill faced from the art market community, and the eventual passage of a less restrictive bill, a similar political push for the protection of Syrian antiquities might be difficult to come by.

Given that the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria, no MoU request has been made by the Syria government to the U.S. State Department to enable import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S., which has proven an effective means to curb the incentive to loot ancient sites.

On October 2013, the EU implemented this Regulation “to facilitate the safe return to their legitimate owners of goods constituting Syrian cultural heritage which have been illegally removed from Syria… and to provide for additional restrictive measures in order to prohibit the import, export or transfer of such goods.” In the UK, I reported that the Export Control Syria Sanctions Amendment Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 (the Order) was made on July 16, 2014, laid before the Parliament on July 18, 2014, and came into force on August 8, 2014.

On the international level, Syria is a member of the UN. But despite a petition initiated by The Syria Campaign, which collected nearly 17,000 signatures and asks the UN Security Council to “ban the trade in Syrian artefacts,” no resolution toward comprehensive protection of Syrian cultural heritage has thus far been enacted. Last May, UNESCO held an international meeting to decide about the creation of an Observatory to “the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” This is not the same as the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which called on all UN member states to prohibit trade in cultural heritage objects and to adopt other means to ensure the return of said objects to Iraq, which facilitated the passing of the Iraq Cultural Property Protection Act in the U.S.

The UN cannot take action utilizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that task is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. Syrian leaders should keep in mind that the Republic of Syria remains a party to the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol. Non-state actors in Syria should also be aware that they, too, may be held accountable under the 1954 Hague Convention even though they never signed or ratified the Convention. The reason is that Hague ‘54 is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according legal expert Zoe Howe.

Key provisions of Hague ’54 include Article 4 (which obligates combatants to refrain from attacking cultural property unless required by military necessity and to prevent all theft, pillage, or vandalism of cultural property) and Article 19 (which applies the Convention to non-international armed conflicts, also known as civil wars). Sobering thoughts, to be sure.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed piece published yesterday states that Syrian locals are being encouraged to loot sites under a kind of licensing arrangement referred to as an “Islamic khums tax,” which is supposedly based on the monetary value of their finds. It is difficult to understand how this system actually works. I hope that one day more details will be revealed. The op-ed indicates that sources are withheld for security reasons.

So, what can we do?

As stated in 2011 regarding Egyptian cultural heritage protection, SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in Syria, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated.

In his recent interview with the New York Times, Samuel Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (and writer of the Conflict Antiquities) said, “There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots, and glass as an international currency.”

Here’s a thought:

Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Syrian antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day?

In fact, since looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade is a global concern affecting even “first-world” countries such as France and Finland, why not take a pause from acquiring ALL antiquities without proper ownership history post-1970?

A broad-based moratorium would alleviate the burden of proof that artifacts have indeed been freshly looted, in the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The ICOM Red Lists provide guidance as to which specific categories of objects from around the world that are most at risk, should assistance be needed in determining which objects to avoid — if only for a moment!

This would be a symbolic gesture of good will on the part of those who engage in the buying of antiquities which are being destroyed en masse, in some cases to fund the activities of the very destroyers themselves. After all, museums and collectors are the ones who create the demand. Could they be persuaded to take a step back to honor the need to protect, not destroy, the rich heritage in which these relics of our past were created?

Can we all stand together in a symbolic moment of silence to acknowledge such tragic moments as the damaging of the Citadel of Aleppo and nearby monuments by explosives, the raiding of archaeological sites throughout the country, and the looting of more than five museums?

This will send a clear message to the world that wanton destruction of cultural heritage must be condemned and stopped. Regardless of which side of the trade we are on, we can demonstrate our collective commitment to save the past for our future by not aiding and abetting the destruction of our shared heritage — with or without the presence of rules and regulations.


Featured Image: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage/.

 

Bones of contention: The global trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains

These days, research on the depth and breadth of the global illicit antiquities trade, and how best to dismantle and prevent it, grows ever-more diverse. One particularly under-studied aspect continues to fascinate me: the trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains. With licit and clearly illicit faces, deals conducted online (but most likely primarily off-line), this trade forms but one component of a vast global “red market“- the vast, legal and illegal trade in organs, tissues, eggs, blood, even children.

The existence of this trade is especially poignant given the affront to human dignity it represents, as portions of once-living people, with added significance as objects of cultural heritage, are reduced to commodities to buy and sell on the “open” market, not to mention the damage caused to ancient and recent burial sites to provide some of this “merchandise.”

A new paper just published by myself and my colleague Prof. Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney, Australia, presents the first attempt to update, and provide a snapshot, of the online portion of this trade. It is the first relevant attempt, by our reckoning, in more than 10 years. It has been released early-view online in the Journal of Crime, Law, and Social Change (DOI # 10.1007/s10611-014-9528-4), and is now available in the SAFE resources section. In it, we provide an overview and an update, from legal, criminological and archaeological perspectives, of the current scope of the (predominately) online trade in human remains.

Given that this research was conducted on our own time, by necessity we focused on that component of the trade we could actually access-online markets from eBay to private galleries to auction houses. Given that very little published research of this nature has been conducted, and the most prominent examples of what exists focus on such specific contexts as the eBay sale of specimens with potential medico-legal import (e.g. Huxley and Finnegan 2004), we figured it was about time to rectify this.

Our search for archaeological and ethnographic human remains includes everything from mummies to trophy skulls, Tibetan skull-cap “damaru” drums and “kangling” flutes made from human femora and tibiae, to all manner of items marketed as “curios,” as well as primarily cranial specimens allegedly bought and sold for medical research only. Using key word and phrase searches on common search engines as well as mining public-access collector and dealer fora, we created a database that allowed us to quantify this ‘snapshot’ of what is being sold where, and by which kind of dealer (auction house vs. online gallery vs. private, usually anonymous, sellers). This information should provide a baseline for future studies to keep tracking the trade over time, especially when/if laws change in source or demand countries.

Without rehashing all the results in advance of publication, the data in general suggests a small but persistent global trade still exists, primarily conducted by European and North American based dealers selling items (primarily trophy skulls) from as far away as Peru, New Guinea, Vanuatu, West Africa, Naga land in India, and Borneo. More surprising were at least one example of an Egyptian mummy head recently and unsuccessfully offered for sale, with records still available online if one searched the darker corners of the internet. Although the dealer or auction websites that our searches turned up quickly became repetitive, in time, new examples will continuously come to light.

Unsurprisingly, the data suggests that auction houses, smaller online galleries and private (usually anonymous) sellers target different markets (“tribal art” enthusiasts vs. seekers of curios and “oddities” vs. seekers of oft-times professionally prepared medical specimens, allegedly for continued teaching purposes). Substantial overlap occurs. Although rare instance of the altruistic “sale” of human remains can occur, as the photo below from the Mütter Museum “Save Our Skulls” adoption program attests to, usually the exchange of money for human remains is purely profit driven. 

hyrtl skull collection Hyrtl skull collection, Mutter Museum College of Physicians, Philadelphia.

Different marketing tactics were also employed, with the majority of online galleries and some auction houses presenting “back stories” of old collections or collecting trips, occasional reference literature, and dealer biographies to entice potential customers and convince them of the “authenticity” of what they seek to buy. Sadly, the same care was not taken to ensure potential customers of the legality (for transfer of ownership, import or export) of the sale. Indeed, the overall impression gained from our research is that most dealers in such material are more than happy to operate by “caveat emptor” and abdicate responsibility once payment occurs, and (for this trade to exist) it appears that many buyers are willing to play along. Perhaps any sales conducted one-on-one off line are even less transparent?

With the majority of ongoing or recent sales recorded at the time of writing via small, semi-anonymous galleries or private dealers hiding behind eBay handles, this is not surprising. Despite clear policy, our research suggests that enforcement continues to rely too heavily on self-policing or reports from concerned citizens when news of suspicious auctions “go viral.” Although the rules state that only non-Native American remains used/to be used specifically for medical research purposes can be listed, we could detect no evidence whatsoever that any kind of due diligence or proof is required by either buyer or seller. Examples such as this demonstrate this clearly.

Even in the short amount of time between online release last month and now, I’ve discovered or heard about several more examples of ongoing or halted sales of human remains. Ranging from the attempted, but halted sale of an autopsied medical specimen as a raffle prize (thanks be to the astute blogger and animal bone enthusiast Jake of “Jake’s Bones”), to the unexpected donation of three skulls; two likely Caucasian former medical specimens, one a Native American child of unknown context, to a Seattle Goodwill. Fortunately, this donation has inspired others to turn in human remains in their possession to the local Medical Examiner’s office, as opposed to anonymous sale to the highest bidder or being throwing away.

Other examples of dealers in human remains as ‘curios’ have been uncovered, and will be added to a greatly expanded database as we take this research further and reassess motivations for buying and selling in more detail. Our long term goal is to document and publicize as many case studies as possible so as to both raise awareness and help affect legal reform. It is my firm belief that research on any form of illicit or questionably legal activity must also go hand in hand with public awareness.

Deliberate sale of freshly surfaced remains destroys archaeological context, while the sale and seemingly no-questions-asked purchasing of even old medical specimens and ethnographica not only risks breaking local or international law, but also robs a people of unique cultural heritage and, as importantly, steals the dignity of respect in death from the person being sold.

At the end of the day, we must remember that even if only a small component of the global trade in antiquities or ethnographica, the trade in human remains uniquely cross-cuts both the “red” and “grey” market (illicit made licit).

With undoubtedly much occurring off-line and policing of the online trade apparently largely voluntary, much remains to be done to expose those who put profit above all other concerns when handling these “bones of contention.”

How the Ka-Nefer-Nefer/SLAM case could finally be put to rest

After more than three years of legal battle, the curious case of U.S. v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer finally came to a denouement. On June 12, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decided that the 3,200-year-old mummy mask of an Egyptian noblewoman should stay at St Louis Art Museum (SLAM). To the frustration of many who have been following the case, it was closed because of the attorney’s office’s administrative blunder—it failed to timely file a request to extend the deadline to amend its case. Consequently, the court affirmed the April 2012 decision by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, which stated that the government failed to articulate exactly how the mask was brought to the U.S. “contrary to law.” So Ka-Nefer-Nefer is still on view at SLAM.

But is this really the end of this story?

Maybe there could be a different ending to this story. What if SLAM simply offers Ka-Nefer-Nefer back to Egypt? For the past few years, the antiquities world has seen a tremendous shift in major museums’ and auction houses’ attitude toward repatriation. Recently, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of ArtSotheby’sNorton Simon Museum, and Christie’s all returned tenth-century sculptures looted from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen in Koh Ker. These repatriation cases were all enthusiastically welcomed by Cambodia, with promises of future collaborations and loans for exhibitions.

SLAM, too, can turn this into a golden opportunity. This does not have to be a contentious and costly fight, but an opportunity for a demonstration of good will. Although the cases of Koh Ker sculptures had more obvious evidence that they had been looted (including the feet and bases of the sculptures left in Koh Ker), it is also true that Ka-Nefer-Nefer’s journey to the U.S. has many unanswered questions. For example, Malcolm Gay, a reporter of St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, writes that “an anonymous Swiss collector” in SLAM’s provenance cannot be convincingly identified. David Gill, 2012 Beacon Award Recipient and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, points out that the mask could not have possibly been in Cairo and the Kaloterna collection at the same time. Paul Barford, in responding to David Gill, rightly claims that even after the court ruling, SLAM still has ethical and moral obligation to fulfill.

SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated.

Right now, SLAM is swimming against the tide. Just to mention a few more well-known examples, the Met returned the famous Euphronios Krater in 2006; the Cleveland Museum of Art returned fourteen Italian antiquities in 2008; MFA Boston returned Weary Herakles in 2011 to Turkey, as well as eight antiquities to Nigeria last June. All cases included an agreement that the source countries recognized that the museums had acquired the objects in good faith without knowing their questionable ownership history.

SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated. The twenty-first century is finally moving away from the dark shadows of colonialism. The old guards of the museum world who once put up a fight for retentionism are losing their voices. As a college student, I admit that I do not know all the nuances and intricacies of the cultural heritage law and precedents. What I do know is this: ethics, morality, and good will are more important than retaining an Egyptian mask. SLAM already has the fabulous mummy case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht and many other important Egyptian antiquities, whose ownership is not in question as far as I know.

Perhaps SLAM can consider returning the beautiful noblewoman’s mask back to her home in Egypt, maybe with a condition that Egypt recognizes that SLAM purchased the object in good faith under the limited information available to it in 1998? The Egyptian government has been very appreciative of all the recent repatriations, but has not been afraid to retaliate if agreements were not reached. Look at the case of this German couple, who was honored in a gala at the Egyptian Embassy in Germany for their return of a smuggled relief. But Egypt temporarily severed its tie with the Louvre and refused to permit French excavations on its land in 2009 when the Louvre did not return four wall reliefs stolen in Egypt in the 1980s.

For the Egyptians, repatriation is a question of pride. Former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said that Egypt “will not abandon its right to Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.” SLAM could use this opportunity to establish renewed friendship with Egypt. Who knows, Egypt might loan invaluable treasures for future exhibitions at SLAM, just like Cambodia has done for the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition currently on view at the Met.

If SLAM wants “to continue to provide all visitors to the museum, and the citizens we serve, this rich experience in the ancient art,” as SLAM director Brent R. Benjamin claims, then returning the mask to Egypt would truly serve these purposes.

What do you think?

SAFE recognized in a landmark archaeology encyclopedia

SAFE is proud to announce its contribution to the publication of the landmark Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology.

This eleven-volume compendium, published April of this year, is unprecedented in its comprehensiveness. It contains more than 8,000 pages, 2,600 figures, and 100 tables, which cover international and interdisciplinary issues on archaeology. Edited by Claire Smith, professor in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, Australia, this encyclopedia “includes the knowledge of leading scholars from around the world” and encompasses the breadth of archaeology – “a much broader subject than its public image”- with contributions tapped from other disciplines.

One such contribution is the entry for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone, listed among a handful of others specifically addressing cultural heritage protection. The text begins with SAFE’s core mission: to increase public awareness on looting prevention and cultural heritage protection, by using advertising and marketing techniques. How has SAFE stepped closer to achieving this goal? Various examples of past campaign cards and photos answer this question by vividly illustrating past projects and successes. Perhaps most importantly, however, the entry stresses the fact that increased public awareness has brought changes.

“The editors of the encyclopedia invited SAFE to submit an entry in 2011,” SAFE’s founder Cindy Ho said. “SAFE is honored to have been asked to participate in this important project.” She also explained that since the entry was finalized in 2013, “the damaging effects of political turmoil and armed conflicts on cultural heritage have come into sharp focus. Look at Libya, Mali, Syria, Egypt, and most recently, Iraq.”

The entry also discusses current debates:

While some stakeholders – such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property – may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by more than 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end.

Criticism of source countries as ‘retentionist'; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit ‘hobbyist’ collectors and ‘world museums’ to stock their galleries with ‘artistic creations that transcend national boundaries’ are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

However, repatriation per se does not compensate for the damage looting does.

[I]n SAFE’s view, the issue is not who owns cultural property and where it can be traded, but what we are able to learn from these relics of our shared global heritage – and what we are willing to do to protect it. Whether antiquities are bought and sold in or out of their countries of origin, archaeological record is irreparably destroyed if they are looted.

Regarding public awareness, SAFE writes:

…the debate about the future of our shared cultural heritage is no longer the exclusive domain of academics, museum professionals, dealers and collectors. Members of the general public are becoming aware. They also demand to be heard.

Thanks to the far-reaching scope of this encyclopedia, readers can cross-refer to related entries. Colin Renfrew, Senior Fellow at the University of Cambridge and also 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, has written an insightful entry on the state and preventions of looting and vandalism in “Looting and Vandalism (Cultural Heritage Management)” (pp. 4552-4554). Another SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, explains the importance of placing objects in their rightful cultural framework in his entry, “Cultural Heritage Objects and Their Contexts” (pp. 1960-1966). As all the entries include lists of references and further reading, students and researchers can utilize this book as the go-to reference book for all matters related to archaeology, from heritage management to conservation and preservation.

Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology is fully available online here, and for purchase here. If you library does not have a copy, ask for it!

Do you think all nations should help protect one another’s cultural heritage?

On June 2, 2014, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) will begin its review of Egypt’s request that the US impose import restrictions on Egyptian antiquities in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), made under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO Convention). Written public comments submitted earlier are posted here. (We urge our readers to take the time and read some of the longer submissions where the most reasoned, fact-based arguments are made. To us, substance is a clear winner here, not circular reasoning.)

SAFE has been a proponent of import restrictions as an effect deterrent to stem the trade of illicit antiquities. In Egypt’s case, we wrote on February 1, 2011, “Whether or not legislation is required, until order is restored, we believe that if the demand for Egyptian antiquities is curtailed, if not stopped, the loss of Egypt’s cultural patrimony during this tumultuous time would be curbed.” Earlier this year, we urged the Egyptian authorities to use all legal mechanisms to discourage looting, prevent smuggling, preserve and protect the most precious part of Egypt’s vast cultural patrimony by seeking an MoU with the U.S. 

Why?

Both the United States and Egypt are both states parties to the UNESCO Convention which obliges States Parties to restrict the importation of cultural property stolen from a museum or monument in another participating country (Article 7b), and allows States Parties whose archaeological or ethnological patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage to ask other States Parties for help in protecting the affected categories of materials, through measures that may include restrictions on imports and exports (Article 9). In other words, both nations have, for some decades, already decided to join with the international response to curbing looting and the illicit antiquities trade by being a part of the Convention. By imposing import restrictions on Egyptian antiquities, the US would simply be fulfilling its obligations under the Convention, as it has done since the signing of the first MoU with El Salvador in 1987.

SAFE believes that ALL nations should help protect one another’s cultural heritage. While some stakeholders — such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property — may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now joined by more than 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

Helping to protect another nation’s cultural patrimony by temporarily limiting the importation of its cultural property is the least that any right-thinking nation can do to safeguard one of humanity’s greatest legacies.

What do you think?

 

Laundering phenomena in cultural goods trafficking

The laundering of cultural goods has become such a widespread and insidious phenomenon that it should be a separate discipline unto itself, if only to resolve certain jurisdictional problems. Indeed, cultural goods are often subject to real or fictitious manipulations aimed either at removing or hiding their true origin and provenance or obscuring their illicit exportation to a foreign territory. Both of these actions usually constitute the crime of laundering.

Laundering has recently been sanctioned in many legal systems as a form of criminal conduct, and in the near future these sanctions may receive wider application with respect to cultural property. This application will also be of more practical use to combat the offense of handling (from which laundering most certainly derives), because in many legal systems, the knowledge of the criminal provenance of the received good is required in order to prove the offense of handling. Therefore, it follows that “to turn a blind eye” is not always sufficient to assert a defendant’s criminal responsibility, on the basis of the title of the offense of handling. On the other hand, in order to charge the offense of laundering, it is often sufficient that the defendant have “reasonable grounds to suspect” the illegal provenance of the goods, and that he/she strives to conceal this provenance. Thus, the mens rea (intent) of the offenses in question (handling and laundering) may be different; but the required intent is easier to demonstrate in cases that involve laundering.

Moreover, while in many legal systems the offense of handling can exist only if this crime has a specific crime as its base offense[1]; on the contrary, laundering can be indicted insofar as it is proven that the provenance of the goods is illegal.[2]

Laundering is a useful crime to prosecute, both because, at both a global and European level, many legal instruments such as the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (see list of states party) and the 1990 Strasbourg Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime (see list of states party) offer a series of very strong powers, up to and including the confiscation of the property and/or profits[3]. In addition, due to the exact definition of what constitutes the offense of laundering, the cases in which this offense is perpetrated will be more and more frequent in the future.

In particular, the U.N. Convention’s provisions may prove useful if they are applied to the laundering operations that exist in the antiquities trade. As observed, where cultural property is looted in a source State, stolen, illegally exported abroad or imported using some of the techniques that are described below: the cultural artifact may be defined as property which constitutes the proceeds of a crime, and the Convention requires States Party to establish criminal offenses that penalize the intentional transfer of ownership or concealment of origin of such property (Article 6).[4] States Party are also required to establish measures to enable the seizure of such proceeds of crime, identify and trace property which may qualify as such proceeds (Article 12); respond to requests for confiscation by other State Parties (Article 13); and extradite suspected offenders (Article 16), even where the organized transnational character has not yet been completely established or the defendant has a marginal involvement into a criminal transnational organization. Moreover, according to this Convention, States Party should engage in the widest measures of mutual legal assistance (Article 18), consider conducting joint investigations (Article 19) and other measures of law enforcement cooperation (Article 27), and develop specialist training for law enforcement personnel (Article 29).

Antiquities laundering Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered
SAFE

It now behooves me to underline that, according to a shared experience, antiquities are often chosen by criminals in order to launder the proceeds of their crimes. In fact, there is increasing evidence that drugs barons and other offenders are able to launder their money by taking advantage of the ethical and legal twilight in which the international illicit trade in antiquities operates.[5]

Illicitly acquired cultural goods have even been used in a number of cases to obtain loans. When the loans are not repaid, the works of art end up in the vaults of the lending institution. Thus the objects are not only laundered; they lose their educational-cultural values as well.

In many cases, as Simon Mackenzie has observed, “the illicit market for antiquities operates hand in hand with a perfectly licit market. And traffickers in antiquities often find an established open and legal structure in market countries for selling those goods, which through chains of dealers and action houses operates very effectively to maximize the price which can be obtained for art and antiquities.”[6] This is in sharp contrast with the illicit trade in drugs, where the products for sale and market structures are almost always tainted with illegality. In other words, in the illicit drug trade, there is no need for a process of obscuring the drugs’ country of origin and no need to transform the goods’ ownership history, because the goods themselves are illegal on the supply side, on the demand side, and at every point in between. The same is not necessarily true for the illicit traffic in antiquities, which is handled in ways that are similar to the weapons’ trade, where lawful structures and transactions may be used to clothe illegal dealing. Obviously, as the co-mingling between illicit and licit markets becomes more sophisticated and intertwined, the more difficult will be the investigations that are necessary to prosecute these crimes.

Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered[7]. Let me explain this. Many of the triangulations by which cultural goods are physically transferred abroad[8] (exclusively for the purpose of hiding their true provenance), should be re-examined and condemned in view of the issue under discussion. That is: Laundering. Generally, such triangulations are carried out for the purpose of hiding the illegal provenance and relocating the artistic objects to a foreign jurisdiction, especially where the norms are more permissive, thus permitting the eventual marketing and sale of these objects in markets that offer the highest profits[9].

In fact, cultural goods are often exported to those countries which have not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (see list of states party)[10]. These countries are chosen precisely because, from that location, the goods can be transported again and resurface in States that have ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, with the obvious advantage that the cultural goods will not be subject to the controls and limitations in force in cases of import-export between two countries which have both signed these agreements[11].

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place.

Most countries, acting alone, cannot tackle all the triangulations. And according to the shared experience of those who have tackled this problem in recent years, it is pointless for market countries to impose restrictions if source countries and intermediary countries do not impose similar restrictions, because the market will simply shift from one location to another, and the problem will not be solved.

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place[12].

As Neil Brodie has observed, “on occasion, the licensing system in nations such as the UK has been abused in a different way, when for instance exporters have submitted recently imported antiquities for Waverley judgment,”[13] [14]—in effect, submitting to a more stringent process, with the intention to acquire a false provenance (i.e., to locate the cultural items in Britain for more than 50 years).

In addition, these cultural goods are often illicitly exported to another country that is less interested in such items because of their different cultural significance. Indeed, in the importer country those cultural goods often don’t satisfy the artistic criteria as prescribed by its department of national heritage and the export licensing unit will not object to the granting of a license, which would not be granted by the country of provenance[15].

Obviously, all the licenses so obtained serve to bolster the provenance of cultural items that the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate exportation. In this respect, it has been stressed that government department concerned with export licenses or even tax concessions should check provenance of cultural goods which are submitted to them, therefore informing the country of origin whenever appropriate. While this does happen sometimes, this practice should be implemented internationally.

We must also point out that the laundering process adopted by criminals does not only include concealing or disguising the source, location or movement of cultural property. In fact, another particularly insidious form of conduct has unfortunately become widespread within this sector of criminality.

At times, illicitly excavated archeological objects, even when found intact, are deliberately fragmented, or, if found in fragments, are deliberately not restored. Such conduct, which might at first appear to be against the interests of those who commercialize archeological artifacts, is instead useful to criminals who operate in this field. The exportation is, in fact, easier, because a fragmented object can be hidden more easily; and in general, fragments do not attract attention at customs controls, because little value is attributed to them. Usually, customs officials are not experts and do not appreciate the importance of the artifact fragment, which can be underestimated even by experts[16].

Frequently the fragments are subdivided amongst the various participants of a criminal group. By so doing, the group achieves three results: They split the loot of the illicit activity, and they reinforce the ties that link the members of the conspiracy[17]. On top of that, paradoxically, the criminal organization earns greater profits in economic terms, thereby creating a strong and often extortionist bond with the buyers.

Thus, the purchaser becomes part of a dangerous system of sales of fragments, mostly of vases. Generally the vases are of the highest quality and destined to be recomposed, in part or entirely, within a matter of years. This practice reveals a studied and intentional sales policy on the part of mediators and traffickers, who put only a part of the vase on the market, thus increasing the price of each new fragment that appears, making the piece more complete. At times they are used as promotion for other sales.

The purchase of these fragments, (in tomb-robber’s jargon, the so-called “orphans”[18]) which are re-assembled to complete an object of which the principal part is already in someone’s possession, enables the seller to sell, and the purchaser to acquire, as much of the object as much possible.

In this scenario, the purchaser of such fragmented objects not only avoids suspicion, and resulting criticism that comes from acquiring an important object with an illicit provenance, the purchaser even appears to be meritorious, for contributing to the “rescue” of a cultural object that would otherwise be condemned to disappear. According to this often-repeated justification, such purchasers serve as “repositories of last resort”. But this scenario also involves risk. For one thing, when purchasing cultural artifacts in fragments, it is impossible to know the total price of the object until the final fragment that completes the piece changes hands, at which point the price may be very high indeed. And if the seller is apprehended and a fragment is discovered in the seller’s possession that matches other recently sold fragments, the buyer may be forced to return the still-incomplete item.

It is both obvious and significant that the purchasers of these fragmented objects are not immune to censure[19], since the acquisition of artifact fragments without clear provenance can only come from clandestine excavation. Indeed, the market for legitimate acquisitions offers artifacts that for the most part are complete, with accompanying certification and research.

A similar case of criminal conduct is that in which a stolen painting is cut up so as to create different and apparently distinct works of art. This happens when the dimensions of the painting are large, as for example, in the case of a triptych or an altarpiece.  When the object is composed of several lots, it is easier to sell and produces greater profits. In addition, the different compositions thus created, become an obstacle for the research of the goods, precisely because it is not easy to compare the objects that finally reappear, with photographs of the originals. And it is even more difficult if, as is usually the case, the object has been touched up and restored, thus obscuring the illicit provenance of each portion (experts are at times helped in their investigative research by posture and orientation, in appearance, faces, etc. of the figures depicted, and thereby get an indication of the dismembering of the object).

Another expedient, used by criminals who operate in this field, is to touch up or otherwise disguise a cultural good over certain age and/or monetary limits, thus obscuring its national importance.  In this situation, when the dishonest dealer applies for an export license, the export adviser for the export licensing unit does not object to the granting of a license, because he or she does not believe that the cultural good satisfies one or more of the artistic and/or economic criteria as prescribed by the exporter country or by its department of national heritage.

Amenhotep III dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir
Archaeology Magazine
(Left) sculptured head of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III was dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir (right) by Tokeley-Parry, and sold in 1993 for $1.2 million

In this regard, we can remember the Schultz’s case discussed before the Southern District Court of New York[20]. The facts of this case are quite interesting[21]. As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has noted, “Frederick Schultz, a New York dealer and president of an ancient art gallery, arranged to purchase smuggled antiquities from a British restorer by the name of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry who reportedly smuggled more than 3,000 antiquities out of Egypt during the early 1990’s. His method was to make the objects look like cheap reproductions by covering them in plastic and then applying gold leaf and black paint.”[22]

After the cultural objects cleared British customs, Tokeley-Parry restored and sold them on the international art market with Schultz’s help. Furthermore, the Tokeley-Parry/Schultz team created fake documentation for the objects in order to have them as originating from an old collection, called the Thomas Alcock Collection, dating from the 1920’s. Labels for the collection were dipped in tea to give them an aged appearance, and Tokeley-Parry also restored some of the items using a method popular in the 1920’s.

These are the facts, and according to U.S. experts the Schultz’s case is important because after this case there seems to be little doubt that ignoring or dismissing patrimony laws of foreign country has to be deemed reckless and information about where and when the object originated, knowledge of the scope, effective dates and enforcement history of applicable foreign patrimony laws are no longer optional but necessary to avoid U.S. federal criminal liability.

In the civil context, the Schultz case has additional implications. According to a shared opinion, “title to undocumented antiquities can be subject to challenge by countries of origin in civil cases brought in the United States basing ownership on patrimony laws: The burden on a source country will be to prove ownership via the patrimony law and removal of the State owned object across its border after the ownership vesting statute was enacted. No proof of guilty knowledge of the law will be required.”[23], [24]

Thus, as assessed, countries of origin will now have ample incentive to quickly pass or amend and effectively enforce patrimony laws to ensure that they will be recognized by U.S. courts. In fact, as the Schultz case indicates, the U.S. Court will not consider foreign ownership laws to be enforceable if the laws are judged to be void due to vagueness, i.e. confusing, unclear and ineffective[25].

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site”. In addition, the problem of tracing cultural items to the modern day borders of a source country for civil restitution (generally speaking, it is not sufficient to say that they are State-owned because they come, for instance, from the Mediterranean area) can be successfully overcome, says DeAngelis, “if bordering countries agree to cooperate on such recovery efforts and seek return of objects as joint plaintiff.”[26]

Summing up, in the Schultz case, the U.S. Court believes that, when necessary, their Courts can evaluate foreign patrimony laws to determine whether their language and enforcement indicate they are intended to assert true ownership of certain cultural property, and thus create a barrier to the importation of cultural goods owned by a foreign government: Because there is no reason that property stolen from a foreign country should be treated any differently from property stolen from a foreign museum or private home[27].

In other words, in the Schultz case the U.S. Court applied the same principles as established by Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hague, 449 U.S. 302 (1980) decision, which says “for a State’s substantive law to be selected in a constitutionally permissible manner, that State must have a significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts, creating State interests, such that choice of its law is neither arbitrary nor fundamentally unfair”. Obviously, the cultural heritage of a given nation involves contacts that are as strong and significant to the State of origin as required by this case law. Recently, these same principles have been asserted by the Supreme Court of Appeal of England and Wales in the case Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd.

Let’s take a moment to look at other types of laundering operations. One example involves the export of cultural goods, hiding their true context, by belonging to a collection[28]. In many jurisdictions, the export licensing unit will deny a license, regardless of the importance of a particular item, if the artifact is presented as having a relationship with other goods.

Another type of laundering occurs when a cultural item is fictitiously exported in place of a similar object for which export license was obtained. This activity is especially common with respect to serial goods, such as coins or prints.

Other times, to bolster the legitimate provenance of a cultural item which the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate acquisition, the owner may request notification from data banks, such as IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) in New York, or the ALR (Art Loss Register) in London, which document stolen works of art in their archives. Obviously, if an archaeological artifact is the fruit of clandestine excavations, the resulting research on its criminal provenance will be negative, since it can never have been registered as a stolen object. Even so, by obtaining an IFAR or ALR report, the dishonest dealer (including those who have been found to be in possession of photographs of the excavation[29]), can always show his/her buyer[30] the certificate. And should he/she be questioned, he will have the excuse and documents to sustain his good faith, since he/she had done all that was apparently “possible” to certify the licit provenance of the cultural object. In addition, the notification from data banks will report all the details given by the criminals and, as a result, the forged provenance of the artifact will appear to have been validated.

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site.”

Frequently, that same delinquency “introduces” a cultural good fictitiously into a private collection in order to confer upon it a legitimate provenance and thereby conceal its recent discovery in a clandestine excavation. This occurs especially with respect to serial goods (such as coins), or with collections that are not entirely documented. And one cannot forget that authentic artifacts can be substituted by fake ones, and that such collections can be quickly dismembered following the sale of the most valuable pieces. One should also not underestimate how large these collections can become during the very short time before the selling begins.

This form of laundering is the direct result of past museum policies. For instance, in 1996, shortly after the J. Paul Getty Museum passed a new policy, it acquired a large collection of more than 300 objects of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan origin from a private collector, and as Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis observed, “provenience for 90 percent of these objects was unknown. The documentation relied upon by the Getty was the museum’s own catalog from a loaned exhibition that it held a few years earlier.”[31]

As assessed, critics (and a penal prosecution in Italy) accused the Getty of manufacturing documentation to satisfy its own requirements for provenance and thereby tacitly condoning the flow of illegal antiquities[32].

However, in the penal context to maintain that the cultural goods themselves come from that collection, whereas they in fact never belonged to that universitas,[33] can in itself be considered and punished as an act of laundering.

Another safety measure that the dealer takes is that he/she loans the item to a museum, for a certain period of time. Once the loan period is over, the dealer can say that no claims have been raised by any third party during that time (the statute of limitation is usually very short because the item has been on public exhibition). This type of “ancient art laundering” was a successful practice among museums for many years, and criminals on purpose loaned the items in favour of less-known museums, before selling them to major museums.

To put an object up for auction for the purpose of selling it and repurchasing it through a front[34] or through a company of convenience is a fictitious act, aimed exclusively at “laundering” the object – the primary objective[35]- and thus attributing to it a value that is inherently false and arbitrary. Such conduct is particularly insidious, because it can alter the market value of an entire class of objects[36] (values of individual objects are often uncertain and are often determined by comparison with other works of equal cultural interest), or because, for acquisitions made on the “overt market”, the so called time limit (that is, the time one has to take action to claim the object) is very short.

In this respect, it must be stressed that the most important auctioneers currently have due diligence programs in place that should minimize the risk of selling looted art. As Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess have observed, “Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Austria’s Dorotheum have adopted such procedures, at least formally. But these firms remain the exception in the art market. Many smaller houses and private dealers, lacking either interest or resources, have yet to implement such checks on provenance. How to close the ‘due diligence gap’ remains an important question for art market professionals, governments and others, since many cultural items are not of high value and thus do not necessarily move through Sotheby’s, Christie’s or other premier auctioneers or dealers.”[37]

We must also stress that, at present, many of the codes of conduct concerning auction houses’ dealings require them to establish “to the best of their ability, that the objects they are dealing with or putting on sale are not stolen from excavations”. Obviously it is not possible to make good on this pledge: (a) when their sale catalogs provide no certain provenance, and only vague indications of ownership for many pieces; (b) when the items appear documented in Polaroids or other pictures depicting them just after excavation and, anyway, neither in scientific contexts nor referable to reputable collectors contexts; (c) when the same goods have never been ever studied, catalogued and inventoried by competent Authorities in their country of origin, which should be the case for objects discovered at authorized excavations, and (d) when their export has never been authorized by the Authorities of the country of origin (in this respect, the lack of suitable certification adds argument to their illicit trading).

Abiding by these codes of conduct, the dealers and/or auction house staff should be certain of the licit circulation and have no doubt about provenance: Indeed, according to their own ethical codes, these firms must have positive evidence of clear, genuine and licit provenance in order to vaunt good faith that is necessary to proper dealing. Yet this is frequently not taken into consideration by dealers and staff of many important and/or small auction’s houses. With proper international checks, the required information could be verified and “bad actors” prohibited and punished.

All the above leads us to conclude, without hesitation, that targeted regulation of the crime of laundering is indispensable, particularly when such criminal conduct trades in cultural goods, where laundering mechanisms and maneuvers are so numerous and the profit potential is so high, The establishment of an independent, international anti-laundering agency to monitor the art trade is a method that national and international law enforcement agencies would do well to consider.

Finally, as noted in the preparatory agenda proposing a model law for the protection cultural property to the UNIDROIT Governing Council, “many of the above mentioned laundering maneuvers and mechanisms take place thanks to the permeability of inter-state borders, to the greater fluidity of communications and to the emergence of new markets and purchasers.”[38] In other words, among the many costs and benefits of globalization and trade liberalization, we should count the global trade in cultural goods, i.e., an issue of ever increasing proportion.


[1] For instance, the English legal system acknowledges the offense of handling only if the provisions of the Theft Act are infringed.

[2] Both laundering and handling require that a crime be committed before receiving the goods. But the base or predicate offense (i.e., the crime committed prior) can vary. For example, in order to commit the crime of handling, the goods must come from theft (predicate offense); but in order to commit the crime of laundering, the predicate or base offense can involve any one of variety of crimes. One thing that laundering and handling have in common: both crimes are committed only when a person deals with goods that are the proceeds of other crimes.

[3]Often the cultural object is the profit of other crimes. In fact, they may, for instance, come from illegal excavation, clandestine exportation and so on.

[5] See the introduction by Stefano Manacorda to “Organized Crime in Art and Antiquities, edited by Stefano Manacorda. Selected papers and contributions from the International Conference on “Organized crime in art and antiquities” Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy — 12-14 December 2008″ See also “The Eleventh United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Bangkok, 18-25 April 2005: report prepared by the Secretariat (United Nations publication, Sales No.E.05.IV.7),” chap.1, resolution 1; endorsed by the General Assembly in its Resolution 60/177 of 16th December 2005. 

[7] In this regard, many countries seem to punish every laundering manoeuvre.

[8] I have been investigating a case in which a statue of an Artemis was first exported from Italy towards Japan; then this same statue resurfaced in Switzerland where a very well-known dealer sent this archaeological item to the U.S. market. Asked to return the object, the Swiss dealer was so bold that he/she firstly surrendered a fake, but in the end he/she contributed to return the object.

[9] Up until recently, customary routes for Italian cultural goods have been Italy-Switzerland, Switzerland-London and London-U.S.-Japan-Australia or elsewhere.   

[10] As in the past Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

[11] The red flag theory discussed in the Michael H. Steinardt case, before the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. See the facts, procedural history and decision of the United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold 991 F. Supp. 222 of November 11, 1997; decision upheld and reasoning substantially affirmed (184 F. 3d 131 -2nd Cir. 1999) by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The defendant in-rem in this case, the “antique platter of gold,” was a circa 400 BC libation bowl of Sicilian origin known as a phiale mesomphalos. In its decision, the U.S. Court stressed that concealment or misrepresentation is material if it has a natural tendency to influence or was capable of influencing the decision of the decision-making body to which it was addressed. In other words, “a false statement is material if it has the potential significantly to affect the integrity of operation of the importation process as a whole, and neither actual causation nor harm to the government need to be demonstrated. For a trier of fact to determine whether a statement can significantly affect the importation process, it need ask only whether a reasonable customs official would consider the statements to be significant to the exercise of his/her official duties”. For instance, the designation of Switzerland as the phiale’s country of origin and the listing of its value of $ 250,000 were objectively false and relevant. 

[12] As Stefano Manacorda has observed, “the diversity of penalties applied between authorities and jurisdictions can lead to ‘forum shopping’ among the most cunning criminals, who adopt strategies to avoid prosecution and administrative entanglements in those States and jurisdictions known for the severity of their penal responses.” See Stefano Manacorda, “Criminal Law Protection of Cultural Heritage: An International Perspective,” in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell, page 23.

[13] See “The Licensing of Archaeological Material for Export from the United Kingdom,” a memorandum submitted by Dr. Neil Brodie to the UK Parliament, 16 May 2000.

[14] A Waverley judgment is named after Viscount Waverley, who served as Chairman of a 1950 Committee that was appointed to consider and advise on export policy. As result of the Waverley Report published in 1952, two separate categories of material are recognised by the licensing system: Material which has been in the UK for over 50 years and material imported within that time. Thus, according to UK experts, a distinction is drawn between what is considered to be part of the national heritage (material in Britain for more than 50 years) and what is considered to be traded material (in Britain for less than 50 years). The operation of the licensing system pays great attention to the first category. Indeed, the system is designed specifically to protect the national heritage so that many objects will be reviewed individually. Vice versa, for the second category, the traded material, the requirements are less stringent and licenses are granted more or less automatically. A commentator has observed that the system functions to protect the heritage of the United Kingdom while at the same time allowing the British economy to benefit from marketing the heritage of others.     

[15] During my investigations I also ascertained that criminals import into another country a fake work of art they want to pass as genuine. In these cases criminals are relying on the inexperience of the persons deputed to the checks, as their field of expertise is often only on national works of art.

[16] According to a shared experience, customs officers are estimated to lack professional training in art history, being often unable to identify an ancient artifact and, particularly, to indicate the limit of the legal age of artifacts, as compared to an obviously precarious artistic value. On the contrary, criminals are fully aware of the cultural good values in their possession, and during a search done in Paris in the apartment of a famous dealer I have found a fragment well wrapped in a little leather bag, purpose-built for this fragment.

[17] I and my experts have been able at tracing the criminal links of a conspiracy thanks to the documents collected, and through the fragments and their sub-division amongst the various participants.

[18] The main part or core of an archaeological good (the “mother”) is elsewhere and the fragments are orphans of it. In the past this jargon has been so common that during my investigation I had the chance to see that this same expression had been used in a letter written by a famous U.S. museum curator to a colleague of him/her. He/she claimed that, having firstly acquired a part of a kilix, he/she was the only one entitled to buy all the other orphans (fragments) that were about to appear on the market. 

[19] Once, a curator of a museum said to me and I quote verbatim: “… It is true that I come to realize that we were blackmailed, I mean people knew they had a fragment, and that was an extremely unpleasant part”. However, the curator could have broken his or her ties with criminality denouncing the illicit affairs. In this regard, “… no effort should be spared to avoid giving in to ransom demands, so as to discourage the theft or illegal appropriation of movable cultural property carried out for that purpose. The persons or institutions concerned should consider ways and means of making this policy known” (see, the UNESCO Recommendation adopted in Paris on 28 November 1978).  

[20] See, U.S. v. Frederick Schultz, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit 333 F. 3d 393; 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 12834.

[21] However, the facts of this case are not unusual. In fact, I have recently ascertained that two paintings of a famous Maestro had been covered with a yellowish patina, in order to deceive the Officials for the Italian export licensing unit.

[23] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, pages 6 and 7.

[24] In Ratzlaf v. United States (510 U.S. 135, 149, 126 L. Ed. 2d 615, 114 S. Ct. 655, 1994) the U.S. Court relied on the venerable principle that ignorance of the law is no defence to a criminal charge. 

[25] See, the case of Government of Peru v. Benjamin Johnson. In this case, as said, the Court suggested that Peru’s statutes could be interpreted to be export restrictions, not assertions of title.

[26] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 7

[27] As assessed by presiding U.S. district judge Jed S. Rakoff in his ruling of the Schultz’s case: “If an American conspired to steal the Liberty Bell and sell it to a foreign collector of artifacts, there is no question he could be prosecuted … the same is true when … a United States resident conspires to steal Egypt’s antiquities”.   

[28] If a cultural good is presented at the export control hiding such a provenance (for instance, from a collection), and then this good is found in another country, there are some who do not see this object as being illicitly traded, and restrictions such as non-alienability or trust have often not been enforced in a foreign jurisdiction.   

[29] Once, I seized some frescos and their photos which show two walls of a room pertaining to a rich Roman villa of the Vesuvian areas, of Pompei or Herculaneum, or of those sites which disappeared with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. According to the opinion of my experts, they were undoubtedly photographed during a phase of the clandestine dig. That we are looking at an illegal dig is obvious from an examination of the photos which show the conditions of the dig itself: The site of an archaeological excavation carried out by specialist technicians has very different characteristics from those shown in the photographs in question, in which the removal of the earth to free the frescoes is being conducted without any scientific criterion whatsoever, but instead with the one and only aim of being able to remove the paintings as quickly as possible. The photographs themselves also show beyond doubt that we are dealing with a room of a Vesuvian villa; the typology of the frescoes themselves is indisputably Campanian, but also because the pile of earth mixed with lapillae (clearly visible in the photos) is exclusively typical of the Vesuvian areas. Accordingly, the request to the Art Loss Register with regard to the frescoes in question was fictitiously submitted by the dealers; since these came from an illegal dig (circumstance of which all the players were well aware thanks to the photographs), they could never have been amongst listed stolen art works.

[30] Often museums, especially if one considers their past policies.

[31] See Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 15. 

[32] As observed, at the end, the Getty Museum suffered not only a moral loss, but a financial one, even if the objects had not been totally purchased but partially donated, due to the costs expended to acquire, curate, conserve, and maintain objects in its collection.

[33] Universitas, meaning “a collection of goods.

[34] As assessed, traders often try to take lower risks and they do not buy the item from the liaison dealer but they take it on consignment.         

[35] During my investigations I have found a little page in the premises of a well-known dealer I searched. It reads: “The amphora we bought at auction is not ours!” (the word “ours” was underlined).

[36] The high market value of looted art can induce the criminality to do their “best” in order to excavate more and more archaeological items. In this regard, the museum curators have been the purchasers who often paid more, either because sometimes they split with dealers the illicit gain; or because they had to pay the silence of dishonest dealers; or because the laundering operations called more and more intermediaries into the affairs, thus increasing the prices.

[37] See Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess, “Art Market,” in The 2010 Yearbook of Cultural Property Law, page 120.

[38] See “Item No. 9 on the agenda: Triennial Work Programme 2009-2011; Proposal for a Model Law on the Protection of Cultural Property (submitted by the Secretariat)” at the 88th session of the UNIDROIT Governing Council in Rome, 2-23 April 2009, page 6.


Edited by Paul Kunkel, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone.

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 


When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

What lies ahead: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 2)

In my first interview with SAFE Founder Cindy Ho, we discussed how and why SAFE was founded and some of the challenges of starting an organization. In this installment, Cindy talks about whether she thinks the organization has been effective in reaching its goals and her continued belief in its mission to raise public awareness, ten years after she first had the idea. The interview concludes with an appeal to people she calls “those who know.”


DB: How does SAFE get funded to do all this work? Who donates to SAFE?
CH: In the beginning I funded SAFE to cover only small expenses until I resigned from my job two years later. We spent very, very little. In fact, we were so frugal that I had to be reminded to distribute printed materials we spent money to produce. Others also donated more than work. It was this kind of can-do attitude across the board that gave SAFE its start. I was running a grassroots organization, supported by the people it served, before I was even familiar with the term.

Funds came in as membership fees; we also did well with revenue-generating events. Still, SAFE’s existence was never about the amount of money it raised, but a shared commitment to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission. People worked for SAFE because it was something they had to do. This wealth of human resource made SAFE a well endowed operation from the start. Five years ago Sam Paley, one of our advisors, told me that we were functioning like a multi-million dollar enterprise without the multi-millions. If so, just imagine what SAFE could produce with a fraction of those millions…This was the definition of success, or so I was told.

DB: What is your definition of success?
CH: I could say success is when there is no more looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade. But that is not realistic; it is also not SAFE’s mandate to reach that goal. Years ago at our first benefit event, I said that success meant that SAFE didn’t need to exist any longer. When everyone is aware of what is at stake, then the decision to destroy or preserve cultural heritage becomes a conscious decision. That’s when SAFE can declare success. I still believe in this.

But SAFE alone cannot reach this goal. It can only happen with a concerted effort among those who know to tell those who don’t yet know what is at stake. It will take many people and organizations, working collaboratively, to achieve this success.

There are now a number of other web sites and blogs that also address the issues of looting and the illicit antiquities trade with the potential to reach the general public and SAFE recognizes and encourages these efforts with the Beacon Awards. But I don’t know of any other independent nonprofit organization with this focused mission. Oscar Muscarella said, “That [SAFE] is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs.” I agree.

But success is not at all impossible. Look at the environmental movement. While the struggle to save the planet continues, and some even argue that it’s too late, there can be no argument that people know that it’s important to recycle and save energy. To pollute has now become a conscious decision. How much time and effort did that take?

As long as there are unexcavated ancient sites with information about our ancient past that has yet to be revealed, it is not too late to save cultural heritage from being irreversibly destroyed. Saving this undiscovered past is what SAFE is about.

The New Mexico State Parks system recently ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti's poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide. "I've seen how hard our park field staff work at taking care of the parks at every level, from keeping restrooms clean to protecting and educating about irreplaceable natural and cultural resources," State Archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Procter said. "They face huge challenges in getting our visitors to understand why some things belong to ALL of us. It seemed to me that our staff could use every possible source of help in getting this message out and showing that they are not alone in promoting it." The New Mexico State Parks system ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti’s poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide.

DB: What about short-term success, surely you can name some examples?
CH: Raising public awareness can be a numbers game which means the wider the reach, the greater the success. To reach unlimited audiences, the organization decided to focus its efforts online some years ago. Judging by the statistics on social media and web traffic, SAFE is reaching that goal. SAFE has become the go-to destination for people who want to know and network with interested others.

There is no denying that in the years since SAFE came into existence that public awareness about these issues has increased. What has this awareness produced? Colin Renfrew most generously commented to the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage that “many of the good things that have happened in this area over the past decade would not have happened without SAFE.” If so, SAFE could not have done this without the participation of the experts.

UNESCO's office in Kabul is using these "LOOTED" cards  SAFE produced UNESCO’s office in Kabul is using these “LOOTED cards SAFE produced

SAFE has received generous support from donors and other like-minded organizations, which enabled us to create awareness-raising campaigns and materials I am proud of. They are not only innovative and fun to produce, they have been found useful around the world to create more awareness. SAFE videos and presentations have been viewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times. SAFE has earned the trust from key opinion leaders around the world who have not only lent their names, but rolled up their sleeves to work with us in the kind of collaboration I could only wish for ten years ago. This collaboration may be the most powerful and rewarding aspect of SAFE.

Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE's "Say YES to Egypt's Heritage" button. Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE’s Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage button

DB: Why do you feel SAFE is alone in this mission, so far?
CH: SAFE is alone, but not entirely. There are other organizations dedicated to preserving cultural heritage; some existed long before SAFE. But they don’t focus on the looting problem or the illicit antiquities trade, or raising public awareness. One reason is fundraising.

Changing hearts and minds takes time. Ten years after I first had the idea, I feel that SAFE has only begun. We all have only begun to become more aware. Donors seeking quick return on investments would prefer faster, more tangible results. While one can see and even touch an old monument restored, public awareness is ethereal. With the explosion of social media, effectiveness has now become more measurable and visible, but how this translates to donor contributions remains to be seen. Also, SAFE does its work in the US—a major “market country”—where antiquities are bought and sold for profit, often with no questions asked. Many people who routinely support the arts, history, or archaeology, have been engaging in very same behavior that SAFE points out as destructive. Organizations often steer clear of focusing on looting and the illicit antiquities trade because of this. It is hard to raise funds for a mission few grantors are informed about. But for me, these are all the reasons why SAFE needed to exist in the first place. Still, I can comfortably say that SAFE has done what it set out to do.

DB: In retrospect, do you still believe in SAFE’s mission, given these difficulties?
CH: Yes, now even more than before. Everyday, somewhere around the world there exists the possibility of a new discovery about our ancient selves that could inform us all. Looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade makes the collection of the information that everyone deserves impossible. Cultural relics become mere things. If knowledge belongs to all of us, then we are all responsible for safeguarding our shared humanity. And it is up to those who know to inform the rest, because there is nothing inevitable about wanton destruction.

How else could anyone understand that when a looter steps on an object in a tomb looking for something to sell, much more is broken than the object itself? How could one realize that removing an archaeological object from a National Park is against the law, that a museum acquiring objects with dubious provenance is not acceptable, that bringing back a treasured find from Peru or Greece might risk having it confiscated? How could one know that trading and collecting looted antiquities promotes the destruction of our shared heritage? We can’t protect something unless we know that it needs protecting. And ten years later, too few people are aware, still.

No doubt this is a lot of work. It takes us away from our immediate concerns: our careers and our routines; it takes us out of our comfort zones. But it is no different from any other cause, or any other endeavor that matters. When SAFE took to the streets to collect signatures, we found that it wasn’t difficult to educate the unknowing public. But what SAFE, or any one organization, can accomplish is limited, given the enormity of the task.

Public awareness is not a panacea. It is fundamental to—but only part of—the solution, like import restrictions, site security, or law enforcement. Awareness does not guarantee action. What is guaranteed is that there is no action without awareness.

DB: What do you see in SAFE’s future?
CH: SAFE’s future depends on the quality of the work it delivers, which in turn depends on the input it receives from those who know. Will there be a shared belief that there can be no long-term solution to combating the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade without public awareness? Will there be a true commitment to doing whatever we—expert or not—can to help protect everyone’s right to cultural heritage, for ourselves and for our children? The fact that SAFE is able to serve its mission today still is entirely the result of these two factors. But it’s not even about SAFE. Someone, some organization, must serve this mission. And until there is another focused effort to inform the public, SAFE has to keep going. What other option is there?

Public awareness is convincing only when it is based on fact and reasoned analysis. Otherwise, no matter how loud you shout, opinion is just noise and there is enough misinformation out there in the blogosphere. This is why SAFE must continue its work only with those who have done the research and analysis, for which there is no substitute. Without this, SAFE should not add more noise to the din.

Definitely there are more people knowledgeable about these issues today than ten years ago. There are more books and classes and lectures on the subject; even university programs offering advanced degrees that address looting and the illicit antiquities trade. I hope that those who know, those who do the research and the study, and archaeologists who have had firsthand knowledge of looting would continue to work with SAFE.

We only have the rights we are willing to fight for. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind for future generations, and future generations to come? Much of ancient history is still undiscovered, unexcavated and undocumented. Are we willing to do nothing while looting and the illicit antiquities trade continue to destroy information locked in this undiscovered past that belongs to all humanity? What are we willing to fight for here and now, so that our children’s, and their children’s lives could also be enriched as ours have been by our ancestors? These are questions for all of us.

Regardless of what happens, SAFE has done its part. If the collective will is there, it should continue to serve its mission.

DB: How can archaeologists do more to help?
CH: Archaeologists and other experts have been publishing on these issues for a long time. But most academic publications and conference discussions (and their accompanying papers) reach only a select few and are completely inaccessible to the general public: they are not publicized and are priced for institutional purchases only. For example, an article in an academic journal tells us that an overwhelming number of archaeologists have encountered widespread looting in the field. Everyone should know this. Many such publications that inspired me and taught me are similarly out of reach. This is a pity, because “ordinary” citizens are not only capable of understanding, most are ready to support archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, as a Harris Poll confirms.

I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause.

I founded SAFE to be the conduit to bring this knowledge to a wide audience, with the ultimate goal towards long-lasting solutions. I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause. Those who are serious in their interest to protect the sanctity of information—or archaeological context—about the ancient past, would do well to want to share what they know with the general public. I understand this requires an extension of one’s vision. Saving cultural heritage requires a very long vision: enthusiasm, fervor and conviction do not suffice. Neither do research and analysis alone.

I also want to appeal to professional associations and the academic establishment to support not only the study of these issues, but the means to advocate for the cause. Could looting and the illicit antiquities trade be more widely included in the annual conferences where archaeologists gather to learn and to share? If archaeologists themselves have experienced the damaging effects of plunder, are they also aware of the possible solutions so they can contribute to them? In the US, are they adequately informed about the Cultural Property Implementation Act, and CPAC? Could there be workshops or seminars at the annual conferences to cover legal mechanisms which ultimately aim to protect the very field archaeologists dedicate themselves to? Could there be a fund set aside to finance the attendance at CPAC meetings so that those who know don’t have to pay their own way to testify in Washington? Could there be legal assistance offered to those who do speak out about the issues and are threatened by those who don’t agree with them? These are questions for all those who know.

DB: Can you tell us something about this Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage?
CH: I came up with the idea with Donny George in 2007 to remember the looting of the Iraq Museum and to raise awareness about the ongoing plunder of ancient sites. This year, on the 10th anniversary, we decided to offer our web site and social media channels to showcase the work of others as a sign of appreciation, and in anticipation of future opportunities for collaboration. This furthers our mission, and also celebrates our own founding. It’s something like a birthday party, where we inviting our friends to join in. This is also an open call for the needed collaboration I described.

DB: Thank you Cindy, for this interview.
CH: Thank you, Deanna, for giving me the opportunity to observe the 10th anniversary in this way.

Looking back on the last ten years: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 1)

I first heard of SAFE through Liz Gilgan eight years ago. It was Liz, a founding Board member, who expanded my understanding of looting and the illicit antiquities trade and how source countries, archaeologists, and SAFE were fighting to protect the world’s cultural heritage. After hearing her speak at Boston University’s Archaeology Club, I became a volunteer. Now, on the 10th anniversary of SAFE’s founding, I am reminded of the beginning of my own involvement with the organization, which led me to interview its founder, Cindy Ho. I am intrigued by how Cindy—an advertising professional—came up with the idea of SAFE; how she decided to focus on looting and the illicit antiquities trade, why she chose raising public awareness to combat those problems, and her thoughts on the future of SAFE.

The 2013 SAFE Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage invites us to share our reflections on cultural heritage. This two-part interview gives me the opportunity to ask Cindy for her reflections; it also answers my own questions about the organization I admire and continue to support.


DB: What motivated you to start SAFE?
CH: It all began with the news about the looting of the Iraq Museum. The more I heard about the “catastrophe that has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq”* and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. Looting wasn’t taking place only in Iraq but everywhere, and it’s been going on for many years. It wasn’t only the theft and destruction of beautiful objects in a museum, but the plunder of ancient sites and the irreversible loss of knowledge that was even more damaging. And the problem was growing in size, scope and complexity every day. [*In a press release issued April 15, 2003 the Director of the British Museum said: “Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq.”]

SAFE founder Cindy Ho SAFE founder Cindy Ho

What was not complex, however, was the fact that the connection to our ancestors, our cultural heritage, must be protected. I’ve always thought of ancient cultural heritage the way one thinks of an old person as “everyone’s grandmother or grandfather.”  When the remnants of ancient civilization were stolen or destroyed, it was as though my own heritage was at risk.

But it’s not about antiquities for the sake of the objects. As a visual person, I’ve discovered that an object can become instantly beautiful, or more beautiful, when I know what it was, how it was made, and who made it, and why. I was interested in preserving the knowledge and understanding antiquities reveal that inspire us and enhance our own lives, here and now.

Before 2003, like most people, I took cultural heritage for granted. The news from Iraq made me realize how vulnerable it was and how little I had known about these threats to the very core of our humanity. How could I, how can we, afford to not know? When I discovered that there was virtually nothing about this that was easily accessible to the general public, raising awareness became the something that I had to do.

DB: What did you do then? How did SAFE come about?
CH: It didn’t take me long to decide on creating a global awareness campaign, given my career in advertising. I thought: if the news reports could move me to act, what would happen if I could rally the help of others once they also became aware?

The two friends I told encouraged me and offered to help, and we began having meetings in coffee shops about what to do next. Their interest confirmed that I was on the right track. The campaign needed a name, and my friend came up with Saving Antiquities for Everyone, SAFE.

SAFE 2004 fundraiser Crowds gathered at the first SAFE fundraiser in New York City

But enthusiasm was not enough. I knew that I needed help from two distinct groups: experts in spreading the word and experts in the issues. I placed tiny pro bono ads in Advertising Age and Adweek and emailed the academics, citing “time, energy and commitment” as my qualifications. How else could I raise awareness responsibly?

DB: So you were still working at a job at this time?
CH: Yes, full time at an ad agency. I was so single-minded and driven that I couldn’t help but share what I had just learned and planned to do. I hung a recruitment poster on my office door; I asked photographers, artists, and writers I was working with; I even tried to recruit my boss, who said, “Cindy this is great, but why would people care? The world is filled with problems—how will you convince people to pay attention to this particular cause? You’ll need ad campaigns on TV, in the newspapers…” Clearly, a global awareness campaign using traditional media channels would take too long, and wouldn’t nearly be enough. Volunteers kept coming in almost daily, but “why would people care” would stay with me as a constant reminder of what the ultimate challenge was.

DB: Who were those first volunteers? How did they help?
CH: Advertising and media consultants, public relations and publicity professionals responded. There were also archaeologists who had long been frustrated by the continued destruction of cultural heritage. The shock of the news brought us together with a single commitment: to inform others and to create a platform for action. Our otherwise disparate group had little more in common other than the knowledge that allowing the destruction of cultural heritage to continue was wrong.

Volunteers did research and came up with ideas: great, innovative ideas, borne out of a raw enthusiasm and an almost unstoppable eagerness to act, while I myself was learning and figuring out the next steps in a whirlwind of new experiences. Everyone knew from the start that there’d be no papers published, no career advancements (although this is no longer the case), and no pay. Just a lot of work, a lot of learning, and a lot of trial and error—all done without any reward or personal gain other than the opportunity to right a wrong.

SAFE's debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members SAFE’s debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members

DB: What were some of your first projects?
CH: In a matter of weeks, we had gone well beyond the original idea of advertising people creating a campaign. Our first rudimentary web site—safenow.net—was launched only three weeks after that fateful day in April, when the Iraq Museum was looted. Two months later, volunteers distributed flyers at a Grateful Dead Concert. In July, SAFE received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and began accepting tax-deductible donations. The next month, we launched a campaign lasting until the end of 2003 to advocate for emergency legislation that prohibited the importation of Iraqi antiquities into the US. By then, we also had the support, advice, and endorsement of experts around the world.

The next year, the growing web site was relaunched with the new and current domain name: savingantiquities.org. We held a benefit event, launched our first student competition, hosted a book signing event for Roger Atwood’s Stealing History and launched our first SAFE Tours at the Met.

In January of 2005, SAFE rented a booth at the AIA Annual Conference in Boston—the only booth to hold scheduled events. The next month, I resigned from my job to work full-time freelance, eventually giving that up at the end of the year to volunteer for SAFE full time. As long as I felt that SAFE was filling an unmet need, I was willing to fully commit to doing its work.

SAFE distributed these wristbands to raise awarenessIn February 2005, three SAFE members testified to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington, DC, in support of import restrictions of antiquities into the US from China. For the first time, SAFE represented the general public with signatures collected in New York City parks and on the web site. Later that year, five of us repeated the same effort on behalf of Italy, presenting twice as many petitions to the Committee. That year, we also co-sponsored a panel discussion with LCCHP and held a lecture on book theft, had several more SAFE Tours, and held another student competition.

It was time that my project SAFE became incorporated as a bona fide organization. We applied for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3), which we received at the end of 2005. SAFE was a full-fledged nonprofit organization, by law, and in action. Meanwhile, the bar kept rising, internally and externally. The more SAFE produced and the better the results, the more there was to do.

DB: Was the transition from working in an ad agency to running a nonprofit organization difficult?
CH: Coming from advertising, the pace took me awhile to get used to. The whole world was being looted. There was just so much to do, so much to tell! The possibilities seemed limitless and I felt impatient.

Working with volunteers from around the world I never met was also a challenge. It became more time-consuming as the number of applicants grew each day. Aside from assessing their skills and availability and matching them with appropriate tasks, I needed to explain what the issues truly were, sometimes directing them to read a book first. Most people were not used to volunteering this way. In the end, it didn’t take more than a small number of very dedicated people to get things going. And I told myself the process of recruitment was just another way of raising awareness.

Becoming a nonprofit was another huge step. I was spending more energy and time on learning what that all meant than doing the actual work itself: the rules and requirements, the filings, processes and policies, etc. Fortunately, other volunteers with relevant skills made the process smooth and successful. It was another story transitioning from a loose group of fervent individuals to the reality that SAFE was now a bona fide organization that no longer was my sole responsibility. Volunteers who were not used to seeing their ideas not implemented immediately.

Also, it took a lot of work, and reworking, to craft messages that speak to the general audiences that are based on academic research, created by experts coming from a completely different training, discipline, and culture. But this isn’t unique to SAFE. Surely it’s not the first to advocate for a cause that took a lot of explanation, and where the work came before the organization, especially when it chartered a new course to serve an unmet need. If it weren’t so challenging, I probably wouldn’t have dedicated so much of myself to it; and learnt as much as I have.


Stay tuned for my next interview where I will ask Cindy how SAFE got its support, and what lies ahead . . .

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.

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

Neil Brodie: It is no surprise that the looting continues.

We thank Neil Brodie for joining pur 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with the following statement. Dr. Brodie, an author of “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” with Colin Renfrew, is a SAFE Beacon Award Winner in 2008.


Ten years ago, in 2003, I was reading a lot about the looting of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq. I was writing a bit about it too. At the time, I was research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which had been established five years earlier, partly in response to the archaeological looting that had followed the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq was firmly on my agenda, but Iraq wasn’t the only country in the news — for several years Afghanistan had been dominating headlines and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 1999 return of three objects to Italy was a portent of things to come. In the decade following 2003, the developing Italian campaign to recover looted objects from museums drew attention away from Iraq, and over the past few years Iraq has been all but forgotten as archaeological site looting has gained hold in Syria and Egypt, and in the museum world attention has shifted to acquisitions of illicitly-traded artifacts from Cambodia and India.

Looking back, one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.

There is an uneasy sense that the reactive response to looting is media-led, and probably for good reason. The most revealing, insightful and ultimately influential studies of the antiquities trade have been by journalists. I could name them here but they know who they are, so I will spare their blushes. The best reporting of site looting in Iraq was also by journalists. But while media research is good, it is also transient and its impact on public policy is limited. Policy makers look for hard empirical evidence and coherent reasoned arguments. Whether rightly or wrongly, they turn to academic and other professional experts. Yet there is only a small handful of archaeologists, museum curators, art historians, lawyers and criminologists who make it their business to investigate the antiquities trade, and despite the high-profile media reporting of the past ten years, the number and identities of the people involved haven’t changed much. The appropriate experts have failed to mobilise in numbers adequate for the job at hand. The inadequate response of the archaeological community has been particularly regrettable in this regard. Many archaeologists are quick to complain about looting but slow to engage in work of any kind that might help towards a solution. It is easier for them to point the finger at museums.

“Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.”

One reason for this seeming failure of scholarship is that research needs to be multidisciplinary, which is difficult in a university environment where different subjects often seem to speak different languages, and where career-enhancing “excellence” is more easily assessed in well-worn disciplinary paradigms. Another reason is that high quality information about the trade is not forthcoming. Several scholars have produced good ethnographic studies of looters or subsistence diggers at source, but there is nothing comparable for demand — no ethnographic reporting of rich and powerful collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills or wherever. Presumably these collectors and their confederates are lawyered-up and easily able to deflect academic enquiry in a way that the people who actually do the digging aren’t. This is a sorry reflection on the self-professed “objectivity” and “disinterest” of academic research, which instead exhibits a clear and understandable self-interested desire to avoid unproductive legal quagmires. But it does highlight one of the problems associated with information gathering.

Another problem is the withholding of information. I am asked on almost a weekly basis by journalists what evidence there is of Syrian artifacts appearing on the open market. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether or not Syrian artifacts are appearing on the open market. I do know that a lot of Iraqi material never appeared on the open market. While I was writing this piece, AFP quoted an Iraqi source reporting that the United States and Iraq had reached agreement over the return of more than 10,000 artifacts that had somehow made their way into the United States over the past ten years. Perhaps in the the year 2023 AFP will be reporting the return of 10,000 Syrian artifacts, at which point I will be happy to answer questions about Syrian artifacts on the market, though by then of course, media attention will have moved on. No one has asked me about the recent AFP announcement — Iraq is last decade’s news. But there is a more serious point. Assuming the source is reliable, AFP also reported that the two sides had agreed not to reveal how the artifacts came to be in the United States. Why not? Perhaps because Syrian artifacts are travelling through similar channels and seizures are imminent? Or perhaps instead because someone has something to hide. With no mention of any arrests or indictments the latter explanation seems more likely. Is there a cover-up?

While information about the acquisition and exchange of illicitly-traded artifacts is suppressed or witheld it inhibits productive research into the trade and ultimately the formulation of novel and progressive policy aimed at constraining demand. Without such research, the fall-back position is for globally-ineffective local interventions, ameliorating symptoms but not tackling the cause. It is no surprise that the looting continues.

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.
Courtesy news.com.au.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

10 Years After: Have We Done Enough?

I’m currently studying history of art with archaeology at University College London, and I’m SAFE’s new intern for summer 2013. I’ll be working primarily on the Middle East raising awareness about the danger to sites in those countries as well as doing research on the market for antiquities from sites in those regions. I will also be contributing to the SAFE blog, Twitter and Facebook as part of SAFE’s mandate to raise public awareness.


2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a virtual candle!

When I was in kindergarten, a family friend used to take me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Staring in speechless awe at the lushly wallpapered rooms and sublime paintings, I was most enraptured by the hauntingly empty frames. Who would steal a work of art from the public? It never occurred to me as a teenager obsessed with Indiana Jones that the crime Jones committed  himself was far worse than what had happened in the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Swooping into archaeological sites, Jones destroys the context of the priceless artifacts he uncovers, thereby preventing us from fully understanding the past societies who left this evidence behind.

While I’ve come to realize that Indiana Jones doesn’t necessarily set the best standards of archaeological excavation, it has inspired me to have a life-long love of art and archaeology. It is crucial that future generations are able to learn to love ancient artifacts just as I have, but that won’t be possible if looting and destruction continues at its current rate. That is why SAFE is such an important organization. By raising awareness of the threats to our global cultural heritage, and hosting this candlelight vigil each year, SAFE is pushing that heritage’s protection into the limelight.

I’m incredibly passionate about the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, and while those cases are covered in the media, there is comparatively little attention paid to the widespread destruction of archaeological artifacts through looting and conflict. The events earlier this year in Mali really highlighted for me the extent to which cultural heritage is still not at the forefront of the public’s mind. We like to pigeonhole the destruction of cultural heritage a something that others do (like the Bamiyan Buddhas), when in fact it happens in our own backyard. Furthermore, it will continue to happen unless individuals across disciplines and across geographic boundaries agree to work together to stop it.

Ten years after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, less than half of the objects taken have been returned. Why is there not more outrage at this fact?

It pains me to see news stories about eye-wateringly steep prices for the latest auctioned antiquity with no discussion of provenance or due diligence. How is it possible for an institution as prestigious as the Smithsonian to still become embroiled in a controversy about illicit excavation in the 21st century? I hope that this Candlelight Vigil will continue to spread the word that looting affects more than just the source country, and that it’s far from a solved problem. Looting destroys our shared global heritage, and I hope that by lighting this candle, I can do something about it. After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the five-year old who, in some alternate universe, is still gazing, enraptured, at the hauntingly empty frames that hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

CONSERVATION CAN BEGIN AT HOME!

We are grateful to Professor Colin Renfrew, who is currently on fieldwork in Greece, for taking the time to send the following reflections in observance of our 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, received his PhD from Cambridge University writing his thesis on Neolithic and Bronze Age Cultures of the Cyclades and their external relations. After receiving his degree in 1965, he joined the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Sheffield. In 1972, he became Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. He took up the position of Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University in 1981. In 1990, he was appointed Director of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. He directed excavations at Sitagroi and Phylakopi in Greece and Quanterness in Orkney. He has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Ancient Monuments and Advisory Committee of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and the Managing Council for the British School at Athens. He is the author of numerous books including Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (2000) and received the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award.


It is difficult to prevent the looting of the cultural heritage in faraway places. But you can help prevent looting, and undermine the traffic in illicit antiquities, by ensuring that your local museum (and local private collectors) have a clear and published ethical acquisitions code — and that they stick to it!

If museums did not buy or accept gifts of “unprovenanced”  — i.e.  usually looted — antiquities, collectors would not buy them.

Some museums (such as the British Museum, and more recently the Getty Museum) now have a published acquisitions code which determines that they will NOT acquire (by purchase, loan or gift) antiquities which have appeared on the market after 1970, the year of the relevant UNESCO
Convention (unless their existence prior to that date is securely documented by contemporary publication). This means such museums no longer give support to the illicit trade by acquiring possibly looted antiquities. It is massively important that the Getty took that admirable step a few years ago, and their acquisitions are now promptly published, so that the world can see what is going on.

Does your local museum have an ethics code of that kind? Does it publish all its acquisitions, and their background – i.e. that they were known before 1970 (and could thus not be looted AFTER that date)? Does it have any exhibits on loan which do NOT conform? As a citizen you are entitled to know the answer to that question. So ask, and demand a clear answer.

The (American) Association of Art Museum Directors has a website where museums can publish any acquisitions they wish to make which do not strictly conform with the 1970 Rule. Why do they need this? Ask your local museum where they stand on this issue. Exercise a little citizen power to highlight the grey areas of museum practice: they ultimately give comfort to the illicit trade.

—Colin Renfrew

Why the looting of the National Museum of Iraq still matters

Like those Americans of my parents’ generation who can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or of my generation who can remember their reaction to the breaking news of the September 11th attacks, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq remains, ten years later, a watershed moment for the global archaeological community and those of us who work to document and mitigate the illicit antiquities trade. The scale of the plunder, and its seemingly preventable nature, shocked everyone who witnessed it or viewed the frantic efforts of those tasked with dealing with the aftermath. For me, it was troubling enough to hear, and then have confirmed, that the United States was once again going to war in the Middle East, and for reasons that many suspected were false even at the time they were being announced. Given that I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona at the time, I routinely spent each day immersed in archaeological theory, method, and site data from around the world, including the numerous civilizations that flourished in today’s Iraq; the Mesopotamia of the ancient world. Thus, knowing that not only was a war of uncertain parameters and unknown duration already underway (with the inevitable loss of military and civilian life), but that priceless cultural institutions would also be under threat, made watching events unfold all the more troubling.

Interviews with Donny George and other museum officials during and after the fact really drove home how tragic this loss was. Coupled with the sacking and burning of much of the National Library, this tragedy was propelled to unbelievable proportions. Although I don’t think it will ever be known to what extent US troops were ordered to guard the museum, or whether or not their neglecting of this order made the looting easier, it has long been understood (since colonial days, really) that the risk of looting increases in times of armed conflict. For my cohort and I, all archaeologists in training just beginning to accrue field and museum curation experience, we could at least intuitively grasp how damaging the event was. Later professional and life experiences would just confirm this.

One positive outcome of this tragedy was, of course, the founding of SAFE; the only nonprofit with an expressed goal to raise public awareness of new developments and new research pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade. SAFE was founded in 2003; however it did not exist as a nonprofit until 2005. Although the looting of the Iraq Museum served as the impetus to found SAFE as a direct response of this event in 2003, I didn’t hear about its existence until my dawning realization of the scope of looting itself My archaeological “formative period” came about in the Southwestern United States (at the University of Arizona) where, for three years, I was fortunate enough to participate in excavations in settings as diverse as the Sonoran desert near Tucson to the Pacific Islands. Both of these locations do also suffer from looting and site vandalism (which I’d later observe), but the wide open spaces make encountering looting a rare occurrence unless you look for it. I had enough on my plate just learning the archaeological ropes!

The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict.

By 2006, I had completed my Bachelor’s, as well as a Master’s degree at the Australian National University, and my focus had shifted to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and bioarchaeology (the investigation of daily life, behavior, and human-environmental interaction from data contained in the skeleton, in the context of burial practices). The more I studied and worked in the field, the more I appreciated how much is lost when burials are dug up in the hunt for rare artifacts to sell. Burials uniquely represent one-off events; snapshots of the life and death of an individual and community. Perhaps more than any other category of archaeological site, burials are truly irreplaceable. Attending the 2006 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Manila, Philippines, first exposed me to how severe looting had become in Southeast Asia.

Having already seen examples of the open sale of artifacts accidentally surfaced while farmers ploughed fields in Vietnam, causing me to wonder how many more sites similar to the c. 3,800 BP cemetery site I was currently helping to excavate were out there, I had an inkling of things to come. Presentations given by the Director and staff of Heritage Watch (a Cambodia based NGO specifically focused on the antiquities trade) truly opened my eyes. Seeing slide after slide of sites reduced to moonscapes and incredibly rare burial objects openly sold due to international greed and weak laws, despite the best efforts of local and Western archaeologists, broke my heart and made me unwaveringly determined to help in efforts to expose and combat this threat, in Cambodia and beyond. By 2010, after returning to Vietnam and Cambodia to excavate and learn more, working at numerous sites around Arizona (and seeing vandalism and pot-hunting first hand), and finally returning to Australia in 2008 to commence doctoral studies, I felt I had learned and seen enough to be able to meaningfully contribute. In 2010, I began to guest blog for SAFE, as well as begin my own blog to discuss cases, galleries, legal issues and the ‘demand’ side of the market in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia. My own current research, conducted with colleagues at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, seeks to clarify the dimensions of this market, especially concerning South and Southeast Asian antiquities, to a degree not attempted before.

Although objects from the Iraq Museum remain unaccounted for and the museum remains only occasionally open to the public, events such as the scramble by civilians, museum and military personnel to remove and safely store thousands of priceless manuscripts from libraries and mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there do suggest that the global community is much less willing to be silent in the face of conflict-driven heritage destruction. In time, the collective efforts of INTERPOL, private investigators, journalists and governments in cooperation could recover even more objects stolen on that fateful April 10th, but to me the larger point is that the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is symptomatic of the economic disparities between supply and demand countries, and the greed of those who fuel the no-questions-asked antiquities trade, that will continue to reduce countless sites to rubble before they can be excavated, let alone published and curated to share with the world.

Having just come from the latest (78th annual) meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in which thousands of delegates (myself included) presented the results of our latest research, I can safely attest that global research output is very vigorous. However, except for the occasional passing reference or resigned statement, there is still nowhere near enough acknowledgement of what the antiquities trade is doing to the world’s remaining archaeological record, despite the pervasiveness of looting and illicit dealing worldwide and the archaeological questions rendered moot because of it. Of course, the effects of looting also include hampering the efforts of many nations to establish museums with fully up-to-date acquisition and curation policies, and then to effectively safeguard those priceless pieces of cultural and national patrimony that they contain. The severe damage inflicted to the collections of the Iraq National Museum is just one poignant example.

As cutting edge research to document and mitigate the antiquities trade, excavate or salvage new sites, and create more context-driven and secure museums continues, let us all take a moment to remember not just what was lost when the Iraq Museum was looted, but what good has come from recovery efforts. Without the noble front-line fight of Donny George and his staff, much more would have been destroyed. Without the help of Iraqi religious leaders and governmental authorities, much more would be unaccounted for. The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict. Only by doing this can we ensure that the tide will continue to turn in favor of the preservation of the material remains of humanity’s shared past.

On the other side of this equation, it is vital for those who investigate the illicit antiquities trade from legal or criminological perspectives to seek out and maintain dialogues with archaeologists (both foreign and local) in all areas of the world where looting still occurs. As my own research continues to demonstrate to me, effective legal reform and prosecutions must rely on documentation of artifact authenticity, illegality of export, and likely archaeological context together. The clear explanation of what knowledge is lost, and how it fits into the bigger picture, when an object is ripped from the ground (or separated from its records when stolen from a museum) is something only archaeologists who have excavated intact sites and seen looting face to face can provide. Organizations like SAFE that continue to work to bridge these gaps are still sorely needed.

Dr. Damien Huffer
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
University of Sydney
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2006, Australia

SAFE kickstarts global awareness campaign with appreciation

Beginning today, on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE will observe The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a global awareness campaign “10 YEARS AFTER” which focuses on our core mission: to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.

Until October 1, we will highlight the following on our web site and social media outlets:

• the efforts of institutions and individuals dedicated to global heritage preservation;
• the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade;
• how public awareness can contribute to the solution;

and apropos to the theme of 10th anniversary…

• the many ways you participated in our Global Candlelight Vigil around the world, which began in 2007 with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna’s call to action.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

Ten years after the event that precipitated the founding of our organization, we wish to pay tribute to all those who supported us and worked with us; and most of all, those who continue to do so. Taking this opportunity to honor your work is how SAFE wishes to celebrate our own 10th anniversary, and look to the future. And the future of our past.

This is why we designed this special 10th anniversary Global Candlelight Vigil to invite your thoughts and reflections. Initial responses to our invitation have already come in, they are posted here and here, and on Facebook beginning today. Please read Howard Spiegler’s reminder not to forget the efforts to recover artworks looted by the Nazis; René Teijgeler’s concern about the situation in Syria as it parallels Iraq’s; Dean Snyder’s personal tribute to Dr. Youkhanna; Abdulamir Hamdani’s summary of a report on the current situation in Iraq, to be delivered at a seminar in conjunction with the exhibition CATASTROPHE!  TEN YEARS LATER: THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ’S PAST; Steven George’s expression of appreciation; Senta German’s observation on the impact of the looting of the Iraq museum on raising public awareness. Thank you for your participation, we look for your upcoming contributions.

Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage is up for debate as the Iraqi government calls for the return of an archive currently being studied and preserved by the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Iraq’s ministry of Culture and Antiquities is making claims that the United States, given the responsibility of preserving and studying the archive, has held onto the materials for too long, and now it is time that these cultural items be returned to their intended custodians: the Iraqi people and government.

Iraqi Tourism and Archaeology Minister Liwaa Smaisim has gone as far as cutting all ties with US Archaeological exploration in the country in an attempt to put pressure on the US Government to return the items, “They moved the archives in 2003; the agreement that was signed at that time between Iraq and the American side was to bring them back in 2005 after restoring them, but now we are in 2012,” Smaisim was quoted recently in The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication.

Discovered in a flooded basement of a secret police building by US forces, the archive consists of early Torahs, children’s learning materials, family photographs, and other personal items were collected through systematic raids into Jewish homes by Iraqi secret police looking for ‘evidence’ of Zionist sentiments during the 1950’s. The US soldiers were looking for weapons of mass destruction, but found instead the remnants of the daily lives of the Jewish population that once thrived in Baghdad.

The Jewish community in Iraq, and specifically Baghdad, was once a thriving, affluent, and tight-knit community in the years leading up to WWII (Gat 1997, 6). However, in the growing tension between Iraq and Israel, and the political struggles that would lead up to the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the Iraqi Jews were severely oppressed and persecuted from the first anti-semitic legislation enacted in 1933 to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries in the 1950s. Today it is said that there may be less than 20 Iraqi Jews living in the country.

Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, claims that the return of the items are critical to presenting Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage to the people of Iraq, “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity…To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multi-ethnic” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press

Regarding the claim for the items, the US government has acknowledged that the Iraqi government has the right to make a claim for the archive, yet the NARA is still carrying out preservation and attempting to digitize the collection of Hebrew, German, and some English texts. The total costs of the preservation project could exceed $3M, possibly $6M (Washington Post).

The historical conundrum of ‘who owns the past’ has reared itself yet again in the middle of this embroiled debate. While the Iraqi Government, struggling to maintain its archaeological materials and protect its historic sites from illegal looting and destruction, is making a claim based on the need to present this material and educate the Iraqi public about diversity, some Jewish activist groups claim the initiative to be in extremely poor taste considering the treatment of Jews leading up to the mass Exodus to Israel. Can a country, whose Iraqi-Jewish population remains nearly non-existent, make a valid claim for cultural objects belonging to that group? Some argue that the materials should be returned to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, where 90% of the Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora currently resides.

Regardless of who has proper claim of the materials found in that basement in 2003, it is clear that the strained relationship between the Iraqi government and US Archaeological exploration teams is putting significant archaeological sites at risk, namely Babylon. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based heritage advocacy group has been barred from access to the site – famous for its once hanging gardens and Tower of Babel- due to the diplomatic tensions created by the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The WMF is desperately trying to garner support for Babylon’s installment on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to an oil pipeline running straight through the site (Laub 2012). According to the Associated Press report, the WMF was in the process of training Iraqi authorities on site preservation and attempting to prepare Babylon’s bid for a spot on the UNESCO list when support from the Iraqi government was pulled. This extraction of US archaeological teams in Iraq due to the struggle over the archive has essentially kicked WMF out of any efforts to secure the site for the future.

Qais Rashid, Head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage indicated in the report that the strained relations was a ‘big loss’ for the department, as US resources were relied upon heavily in training and education in the Iraqi heritage sector.

The situation regarding the archive, and the security of the Babylon site will remain in the balance as rights to ownership and to safeguarding continue to be contested for political purposes.

Digital awareness in the time of looting

The Egyptian uprising, which began in early 2011 and led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a transitional government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has had a devastating effect on archaeological sites throughout the country. Since the beginning of the revolution, illegal digging and looting at Egyptian archaeological sites, as well as break-ins at artifact storehouses, have increased 100-fold. This increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the breakdown of security and order across the country, political instability, economic necessity, backlash against the old regime and old-fashioned greed. El-Hibeh is one of these threatened archaeological sites.

Located approximately 200 miles from Cairo, the ancient city mound was founded during the Third Intermediate Period, and contains remains from the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, and early Islamic periods. Carol Redmount, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been excavating there since 2001. As early as June 2011, her team began receiving reports and photographic confirmation of extensive looting occurring at the site. Egyptian officials claim marauding gangs of looters, many of who allegedly escaped from jail during the revolution, are now robbing Egypt of its precious cultural heritage.

In an interview with PRI’s The World, Redmount describes the site in May 2012:

[The] cemetery has been thoroughly looted, body parts are strewn everywhere, pieces of mummies have been left out in the open. Bones are everywhere. Now they’re are largely dis-articulated, sometimes you can see the packages of mummy cloths, jawbones, skulls, sometimes toes still with flesh attached. It’s horrific.

mummies
Dr. Robert Yohe
Looted mummies at el-Hibeh

In response to the looting, Redmount launched the Facebook page “Save el-Hibeh Egypt.” The goal is to raise awareness not only about el-Hibeh but about the extensive looting occurring across Egypt—and the site appears to be doing just that. With over 1,700 members, the archaeology community and other interested parties are using the page as a forum for discussion, generating awareness via reports and photographs from the field, as well as sharing the latest news coming out of Egypt. Web-based social media like Facebook has the potential to play a pivotal role in raising awareness about threatened cultural heritage around the world. If these sites can ignite a multi-country revolution, why can’t they help prevent the looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities, as well? Lend your support and join “Save el-Hibeh Egypt” today!

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.