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SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated.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

Public hearing on Egypt’s request for import restrictions of antiquities into the US

On June 2, 2014 the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) held a public session in consideration of Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts into the US.

There were approximately 40 attendees in addition to the members of the Committee and Cultural Heritage Center personnel. Of the 11 presenters, eight spoke in support of the MoU, a ninth speaker found it redundant, two opposed the inclusion of coins.

The CPAC Chair Patty Gerstenblith began by asking speakers not to read their comments already submitted in writing and to focus their five-minute presentations on the four determinations in question.

Presenters supporting the US-Egypt MoU Presenters supporting the US-Egypt MoU, from left to right: Douglas Boin, Elizabeth Varner, Monica Hanna, Brian Daniels, Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Sarah Parcak. Not in photo: David O’Connor, Laurel Bestock
Cindy Ho

A common sentiment expressed by the supporters of the MoU request throughout the hearing is that the implementation of US import restrictions would create a ripple effect that would lower market demand and thereby reduce the incentive to loot. An MoU with the United States will stimulate engagement among local communities and public educational programs in Egypt and support important long-term foreign policy goals over a broad range of issues between the US and Egypt. While Egypt is doing its best with limited resources to protect its cultural patrimony, assistance via an MoU with the US is urgently needed. By providing such assistance to Egypt, the US would join a growing number of States Parties to the Convention who have given similar assistance, a necessary prerequisite to approving an MoU.

The speakers who opposed import restrictions argued that since Egypt’s problems are internal, and the will of the Egyptian people to solve this problem without foreign assistance is uncertain, it is unfair for US collectors and to dealers to be asked to curb their activities. While the MoU requires documentation and export permits in order for material to be imported into the US, opponents argued that it is unrealistic to expect small businesses to do this work. Since documentation is not required in EU countries, collecting and trading will simply bypass the US to avoid the restrictions, thereby hurting business.

Since the two representatives on the opposing side were only interested in excluding coins and not import restrictions per se, it suggests that if there are any others outside of the coin trade who are against the proposed MoU, they chose not to have their voices heard. This is further confirmed by the 352 comments submitted online.

The following summary is a recap of the points that were made by the speakers (in order of appearance), not quotes. We thank Damien Huffer and Elizabeth Kiggs for their contribution of notes:

Dr. David O’Connor, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, American Research Centre in Egypt:

  • supports MoU—an important step in furthering US-Egypt cultural and scientific exchange and collaboration
  • is aware of the severity of unprecedented looting in Egypt since 2011
  • ARCE dedicated to supporting research Egyptian history and culture, fostering broader public knowledge about Egypt, strengthening American-Egyptian cultural ties
  • ARCE supports 15-20 excavations per year, about 500 American scholars and 6-12 fellows in Egypt
  • Most ARCE-trained Egyptians continue work in the public sector in site management and site security
  • Egypt has reasonably successful record in protecting sites
  • when one of the sites at Abydos was hit hard by looters, Egyptian government provided additional guards and looting stopped

Dr. Laurel Bestock, Vartan Gregorian Assistant Professor of Archaeology and the Ancient World and Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies, American Research Centre in Egypt:

  • supports MoU, including coins
  • has been working in Egypt for many years, hiring and training local workers, working with local specialists and conservators
  • reported finding a cache of 300 Ptolemaic III-IV era coins in January, 2011. Buried and taken out of circulation, find allows team to date site and shed light on the use of money in ritual donations, providing leap in understanding religious practices. Egyptian government instrumental in protecting the cache and site from looters, whose attempts were successfully deterred.
  • archaeological information from coin cache could not be gained from a single coin found in the same context. These coins are common issues, of multiple denominations, some with mint information, all from Egypt.
  • Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry is doing what it can under difficult circumstances
  • MoU would strengthen respect and emotional bond between US and Egypt

Dr. Douglas Boin, Assistant Professor, St. Louis University History Department:

  • supports MoU
  • protection for papyri and ancient manuscripts needed
  • some scholars, blinded by the hope of discovering the next great ancient or biblical text, will destroy Egyptian mummy masks to extract the papyri (all of which is legal today)
  • trade in ancient texts big business
  • MoU must include ancient texts, papyri, and mummy masks
  • MoU would compel researchers to be more diligent and to only publish finds with full provenance
  • MoU would lead to proper presentation of papyrus finds by professional associations

Elizabeth Varner, President-Elect, Board of Directors, Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Executive Director, National Art Museum of Sport:

  • supports MoU
  • if we don’t help Egypt now, when do we?
  • ICOM Red List confirms Egypt’s looting problem
  • increased number of market countries are states parties to 1970 UNESCO, showing increased international effort
  • Egypt has met all four of the criteria required for an MOU set forth by CPIA
  • Egypt has had legislation protecting its cultural patrimony for two centuries
  • Egypt party to international treaties and conventions
  • Egypt is doing its best given the vastness of sites

Peter Tompa, Lobbyist, International Association of Professional Numismatists (“IAPN”) and the Professional Numismatists Guild:

  • objects to the MOU a “done deal” as suggested by New York Times editorial, goes against American democracy
  • OK with the MoU as long as it is limited to large, obvious, Pharaonic period objects, not coins
  • Is request of MoU timed to glorify the new Egyptian government? (Note: Egypt presidential election took place between 26 and 28 May 2014)
  • corruption and oversight along with rebellion against symbols of the former ruling regime are reasons Egyptians loot
  • CPAC should take into account the 91% of public comments requesting that coins be exempted from designated list
  • Egypt is a mess
  • coins should be exempt
  • MoU unfairly burdens private citizens who wish to collect
  • coins are too small and widespread during the reign of any given empire to matter
  • cites Portable Antiquities Scheme (UK) as great model to follow instead
  • no documentation for coins, no database
  • did not answer question why coin collections cannot be inventoried
  • money should go towards security not legal efforts to draft MoUs
  • no similar international effort; EU does not require documentation for antiquities trade between EU borders
  • EU traders will just keep Egyptian material to themselves to avoid strict US customs if MoU is passed
  • what about orphans? (Note: An “orphan” is an unexcavated, ie. likely plundered, object that left its country of origin without an export permit)

Mr. Wayne Sayles, Founder, Ancient Coin Collectors Guild:

  • does not oppose MoU as long as coins are excluded
  • coin collector for 50 years
  • does not deal in fresh dug-ups
  • MoU hurts business
  • MoU will push out avocation of 50,000 collectors and many clubs
  • we all need to follow the law
  • we are not evil people
  • Italians are openly selling coins without export permits despite the MoU because they are not considered culturally important
  • Egypt does not have the will to do anything about looting (qualifies comment as merely subjective perception)
  • collectors and small business owners have no time to inventory coins
  • coins don’t have provenance
  • Egyptian coins found in 16 countries
  • keeping inventory and documentation should be matter of law; if legislated, will follow
  • property rights issue
  • has not fully inventoried his own collection (Note: CPAC has made it clear for years that coins outside the country of origin that are documented,or inventoried, prior to the signing of the MOU are exempt to the provisions of the proposed MoU)

Dr. Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Ancient Coins Curator, Harvard Art Museums:

  • supports MoU, coins included
  • coins should not be treated separately from other archaeological material because they are an essential part of almost any excavation
  • coinage only exists in Egypt since the Ptolemaic period, through the Ottoman period
  • the multiple-object argument against inclusion of coins does not hold water, it also applies to ceramics, glass, etc.
  • coins of all types were minted by specific ancient governments; thus valuable to the study of ancient government structure
  • coins are not just made for export as some have claimed…but exchangeable for goods and services and other currencies
  • even small, ugly coins can give us much information
  • to document a coin not a question of law, reputable dealers do document, but duty to document and record provenance
  • not only Custom’s responsibility to catch illegal exports at the border, experts called upon to identify coins. Task difficult, but not insurmountable
  • foreign coins are known to have been present in Egypt in multiple periods
  • without inventory and documentation, museums would not accept donations of disassembled coin collections

Alan Safani, Art Dealer, International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA):

  • publicly supports the MoU but only for newly surfaced loot
  • alarmed at current Egyptian situation
  • real distinction between licit and illicit markets; he and IADAA members deal with the former strictly
  • blanket ban on the importation of artifacts of Egyptian origin would not follow intent of the law which was only to restrict those of “cultural significance and importance”
  • MoU import restrictions are redundant because reputable dealers already follow the 1983 Egyptian law restricting the exportation of artifacts out of Egypt
  • what date should we follow? 1970 Convention? 1983 Egyptian exportation law? Hypothetical date of the signing of an MoU?
  • uninformed collectors may abuse the pre-MoU timeframe and disregard the 1983 law, causing more harm than good in regulating the antiquities market
  • issue is internal
  • Egypt disregards its own heritage
  • Egypt’s preference for developing tourism over site protection further encourages looting
  • Egypt has more than 100 years’ history of antiquities dealing, plus looting in antiquity
  • Cairo Museum used to have a shop selling antiquities
  • questions if looting frequency is actually getting worse, or we’re just more aware now
  • MoU would not impede practice of IADA, would have insignificant effect

Dr. Monica Hanna, Archaeologist, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force:

  • looters armed with guns and geo-sonar equipment
  • exponential increase of looting since 2011 affecting all artifacts
  • unregistered and unexcavated sites looted
  • foreign excavations need to do much more to build capacity and leave behind skills and economic incentive to not loot between seasons, Valley of the Kings a good example of success
  • antiquities smuggled out of Egypt use same channels as drugs and arms, eg. through the Sinai into Israel
  • drug bust three weeks ago also recovered smuggled statuary
  • human traffickers also move antiquities, smuggled in building supply shipments to Gaza, via ports with migrants to Europe
  • huge online market for prehistoric, Pharoanic, Coptic, Islamic and more recent antiquities
  • use of bulldozers obvious sign of organized activity. Eg. in Antinopolis, looters destroy conservation work to go after coins and mummies
  • guards, archaeologists, and individual citizens are being shot at, and risking their lives to protect their cultural heritage
  • children used to dive into tunnels get sanded over and killed
  • villagers targeting Luxor
  • the market should stop entirely until we get it under control
  • to a poor Egyptian farmer with 2-3000 objects, selling antiquities for $15 on eBay is worth the effort
  • usually what sells on eBay not saleable on the black market
  • every archaeologist should think about community development and promoting local people’s connection to the past
  • American archaeological teams should publish in Arabic
  • MoU a start to fostering economic connection between the local populations and archaeological sites
  • not enough policing before, getting better
  • objects coming to the US
  • US scholars buying looted material
  • new Parliament will have strict laws, wrote to both presidential candidates
  • MoU would help train 12,000 guards
  • will meet with EU and UAE representatives to discuss bilateral agreements similar to MoU with US

Dr. Sarah Parcak, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Society for American Archaeology:

  • supports MoU
  • expert in GPS remote sensing use for archaeological survey and looting patrol
  • satellite imagery only way to show evidence, location, extent, time of looting, also provides helpful information into what objects to look for on the market – i.e. 26th dynasty shabtis that were looted from a specific location
  • looting increased significantly since 2011
  • government acknowledges looting problem
  • job and research changed dramatically since 2011 Arab Spring from general study and research to establishing a methodology to document looting of known and unknown sites
  • satellite imagery cannot provide evidence or data for looting under houses and in tombs

Dr. Brian Daniels, Director of Research and Programs, Penn Cultural Heritage Center:

  • maintains a database of 900+ records regarding Egyptian and Syrian cultural property “events”
  • since 2011, increased effectiveness in Egyptian law enforcemens with help from Customs and Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, Carabinieri
  • Egyptians interested in protecting cultural sites
  • 12,000 site guards is not insignificant number
  • site guards only get paid $500 a year, foreign excavation teams should help pay for them
  • increase in volunteer groups and citizens efforts
  • some low-end items seen on eBay, but most artifacts likely sitting in warehouses at present
  • foreign archaeological teams should publish in Arabic
  • appears to support the hypothesis that some looting is performed on commission
  • 3-5 year lag between looting of objects and appearance on the market. Examples: 10 year lapse in the Robert Hecht/Giacomo Medici items;10 years after looting of the Iraq Museum, objects still not surfacing

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?

 

Intern with SAFE and become part of the family

When I started my internship at SAFE I only had a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. I had seen the post written by SAFE’s previous intern Beatrice Kelly about her time at the organization and I knew that there were numerous ways to be involved. It was a daunting but exciting prospect. It did not take long to be put to work in a meaningful and educating way.

One of my first projects at SAFE was to write a blog about Modern Day Monuments Men and Women in the wake of the release of the star-studded film The Monuments Men. Not only was it an opportunity to learn more about the history behind the Monuments Men but it was also an introduction to the work of Dr. Monica Hanna, the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Winner. (Later on in my internship I had the chance to meet Dr. Hanna and live tweet her lecture). In the following weeks I was taught how to effectively promote an event via several platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn. With my second blog post,  I provoked thoughtful reflection on the effectiveness of using Twitter and other social media platforms as a means of raising awareness on the issues of looting. The LinkedIn groups of Cultural Heritage Connections, UNESCO’s Friends, and the Society for American Archaeology provided great forums for discussion among professionals in the field. I was also given the opportunity to work on SAFE’s monthly curated list of news articles, which ensured that I and our subscribers were up-to-date on the current events related to antiquities looting.

These are only some of the projects I had the chance to work on while interning with SAFE. Perhaps the best part of working with SAFE was that I was immediately treated as an equal whose opinions and ideas were valued and heard. The breadth of assignments that one can do at SAFE is reflective of their mission to spread awareness of the destruction caused by looting that is happening around the world. I am extremely grateful for my time at SAFE as it allowed me to grow as a writer and it broadened my understanding of and appreciation for the effort and dedication it takes to raise public awareness of these issues. It is truly a mission that will not stop until looting comes to an end, but being a part of an organization like SAFE instills hope that change can happen.

If you are interested in interning at SAFE, contact us now for the next cycle of internships. You need to be deeply passionate about heritage and a self-starter when it comes to tackling new projects, but with those two qualities, your internship will not only be a fantastic experience for you, but an incredible contribution to saving antiquities – for everyone!

Cultural goods’ damage and related offences

The crime of damage is generally acknowledged as an important offence from the criminal point of view, and often is seriously punished.1 Consequently, this crime can be instrumental in gaining access to many legal systems to ask for “effective” international assistance.2

When an act of damage is committed against a cultural item, such an act has a degree of gravity that is limited not only to the economic value of the item concerned3. This damage also acquires a spiritual dimension whenever an irretrievable destruction of scientific, cultural, and historical knowledge occurs. In this respect, one should bear in mind that in order to find one important object in clandestine circumstances, it is often necessary for the looter to excavate ten or more tombs or as many archaeological sites. In the process, these sites are altered or destroyed. The sites and artefacts they contain are taken out of their archaeological context and definitively lost to scientific research. This results in irreparable cultural damage, because, as we know, every ancient site is unique. No two sites are the same. The knowledge of human history that can be gained from these sites is beyond calculation. And the number of intact archaeological sites in the world that can be scientifically researched is declining rapidly. For this reason, archaeological sites and artefacts constitute the ultimate non-renewable resource.

Often the symbolic significance of a cultural property transcends its economic value. This makes the damage that results from looting particularly serious and odious. It is nothing less than an attack on the identity and spiritual values that people entrust in their cultural property.

Often the symbolic significance of a cultural property transcends its economic value. This makes the damage that results from looting particularly serious and odious. It is nothing less than an attack on the identity and spiritual values that people entrust in their cultural property4. For this reason, the Recommendation for the Protection of Movable Cultural Property, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO at its twentieth session held in Paris, 28 November 1978, should be recalled. In particular, this Recommendation states that “protection and the prevention of risks are much more important than compensation in the event of damage or loss, since the essential purpose is to preserve the cultural heritage, not to replace by sums of money objects which are irreplaceable”.

The removal of cultural goods from their original places leads to the loss of identity of roots, resulting in the loss of friendship amongst peoples, who today have the same dignity. Removal also causes loss of value for the objects themselves. We should stress that the value of cultural goods increases not merely because of their aesthetic qualities; their intrinsic value (in beauty and truth) increases even when they remain in their own natural (the so-called “soil archives”) and social environment((In other words, the return of a cultural good in its place of origin enhances the tangible and intangible heritage as well. In this respect, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted on 17 October, 2003, is relevant to the prevention of illicit traffic in cultural goods insofar this Convention aims to protecting the context and consequent damage that may result to it.)). Indeed when cultural goods are out of context, they lose their “soul”, both objectively and in the eyes of viewers. Even more so, they lose significance in the eyes of experts, who can very well satisfy their legitimate cultural and research interests by being able to have them on loan.

It should be noted that international jurisprudence has become more and more sensitive to these problems. Indeed some legal systems often give importance to damage of this nature: In particular, that resulting from the removal of the artifacts from their original place, thus destroying their intangible value. In this regard, the decision of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal of Utah, in the trial against Earl Shumway5 seems to attach importance to any sort of damage caused by de-contextualization6. In fact, the Court — stressing how U.S. “Congress enacted the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to ensure for the present and future benefit of the American people, irreplaceable aspects of Native American history and culture” — states: “We agree with the district court that the paltry sum of $9,122, the asserted cost of the artifact’s fair market value and cost of restoration and repair fail to reflect adequately the extent of damage Mr. Shumway inflicted. The fair market value and cost of repair calculation were grossly insufficient to quantify the devastating and irremediable cultural, scientific and spiritual damage Mr. Shumway caused to the American people in general and to the Native American community in particular”.

The intangible value of an archaeological item also has significant economic ramifications, because an object without context is, obviously, less valuable than other items having a precise provenance and origin; verified provenance confirms the authenticity of a cultural item. which which increases the artifact’s monetary value.

The intangible value of an archaeological item also has significant economic ramifications, because an object without context is, obviously, less valuable than other items having a precise provenance and origin7; verified provenance confirms the authenticity of a cultural item (especially when published in an exhibition catalogue or magazine), which increases the artifact’s monetary value. Therefore, a cultural item without context because of looting activities8 is damaged for good, and the conduct that causes such damage should be everywhere considered and seriously punished. These aspects are fully considered by the Guidelines for crime prevention and criminal justice responses with respect to trafficking in cultural property and related offences, approved by the open-ended intergovernmental expert group meeting held in Vienna on 15-17th of January 2014, under the auspices of U.N. (UNODC). These Guidelines have been developed in recognition of the criminal character of the damage as offence and of its devastating consequences for the cultural heritage of humankind. In particular, according to Guideline 17, “States should consider introducing in their criminal legislation other offences….such as: damaging or vandalizing of cultural property”.

The crime of damage can be an indictable offence along with the offence of unauthorized excavation, very often being the cause of damage; and the context’s damage may trigger those legal measures otherwise not available to the requested9 country for the offence of illegal excavation, which is currently not punished in all legal systems.

Another crime in this sector is the illegal removal of archaeological items (known as looting) being this conduct very similar to theft. Both illegal excavation and looting activities are banned by the above mentioned Guidelines for crime prevention and criminal justice responses, and according to Guideline 16: “States should consider criminalizing, as serious offences, acts, such as, inter alia: …. looting of archaeological and cultural sites, and/or a criminal offence of illicit excavation”.

As stated, The removal of archaeological items not only has negative effects on the archaeological context and integrity of the site, which is often damaged for good, archaeological looting damages the object as well. For example, when a funerary object is stolen from a tomb in pristine condition, the object is damaged scientifically by being uprooted and separated from its setting; thus, it loses its identity and often its real significance. Also the other objects found in the same setting, left behind the looters, lose their value and importance. It is no longer possible to rebuild the whole that has been forever altered by the illegal excavation. So the damaging of a tomb involves not only the archaeological site, but also the object itself, as well as the remained objects that have not been uprooted from their environment.

No relevance should be given to the fact that in many legal systems a person cannot be prosecuted for damaging one’s own property. In fact, whether the country of origin vests true ownership of the site and of the items included in it, the juridical appraisal and entitlement must be effected and attributed according to the lex loci of the origin country where the acquisition relationship started. There is more. Even if the looting of archaeological sites is not a crime that is common to all legal systems, many legal systems do have an expansive meaning of the term “stolen”10, and in such cases, it does not seem fair to refuse “effective” international assistance, the requirement of reciprocity being fulfilled.

Indeed if the requested legal system evaluates the patrimony law of other countries, vesting true ownership of archaeological goods with the country of origin, the legal status of archaeological artefacts established as private property in the requested system, must be deemed without any relevance if the legislation of the goods’ country of origin asserts public ownership. This is especially true as the juridical appraisal and entitlement must be effected and attributed according to the lex loci of origin, that is the country of origin where the acquisition relationship started. Thus, any taking of the goods is made against the owner’s will (the State of origin) and constitutes theft or an act equivalent to this.

All the transactions related to illegally excavated archaeological objects are void as they have directly or indirectly infringed the international rules on this matter, as set by various international Conventions, recommendations and codes of behavior, which comprise the international public order or policy that has indisputably been drawn up in this field.

In addition, in a civil context, the transactions related to the objects appear vitiated as the goods in question come from an illicit act, at least from conducts causing damage to archaeological sites of the origin country, sites often belonging ex lege to the State. Therefore, all the transactions related to illegally excavated archaeological objects are void as they have directly or indirectly infringed the international rules on this matter, as set by various international Conventions, recommendations and codes of behavior, which comprise the international public order or policy that has indisputably been drawn up in this field.

In line with this opinion, the U.S. jurisprudence of the Schultz case11 and the U.K. jurisprudence of the case Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd12 should be recalled, as for many aspects these decisions constitute a breakthrough in common law legal systems and might have relevance in a civil and in a penal context as well.

Returning to the issue of international assistance, it should be stressed that, according to 16 U.S.C. Section 470ee (“prohibited acts and criminal penalties”) of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979,13 the U.S. legal system shall punish (with a fine up to $100,000 or with imprisonment not more than five years, or both) any: “(a) Unauthorized excavation, removal, damage, alteration, or defacement of archaeological resources; (b) Trafficking in archeological resources the excavation or removal of which was wrongful under Federal law; (c) Trafficking in interstate or foreign commerce in archaeological resources the excavation, removal, sale, purchase, exchange, transportation or receipt of which was wrongful under State or local law”. In this respect, it seems fruitful to fully report the paragraph (c) of this Section 470ee, and “no person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive, or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange, in interstate or foreign commerce, any archaeological resource excavated, removed, sold, purchased, exchanged, transported, or received in violation of any provision14, rule, regulation, ordinance, or permit in effect under State or local law”. And according to 16 U.S.C. Section 470bb “the term archaeological resource means any material remains of past human life or activities which are of archaeological interest, as determined under uniform regulations promulgated pursuant to this chapter. Such regulations containing such determination shall include, but not be limited to: Pottery, basketry, bottles, weapons, weapon projectiles, tools, structures or portions of structures, pit houses, rock paintings, rock carvings, intaglios, graves, human skeletal materials, or any portion or piece of any of the foregoing items. Non-fossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, or any portion or piece thereof, shall not be considered archaeological resources, under the regulations under this paragraph, unless found in archaeological context. No item shall be treated as an archaeological resource under regulations under this paragraph unless such item is at least 100 years of age”15.

Moreover, according to 16 U.S.C. Section 470gg, rewards are to be allotted to any person who furnishes information that leads to the finding of a civil or criminal violation. In addition, “all archaeological resources with respect to which a violation of subsection (a), (b), or (c) of section 470ee of this title (16 U.S.C.A.) and which are in the possession of any person, and all vehicles and equipment of any person which were used in connection with such violation, may be subject to forfeiture”16 (anyway, honoring the 1970 UNESCO Convention, U.S. Authorities have always repatriated cultural items they have forfeited).

The United Kingdom system has recently introduced similar crimes thanks to the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 200317, and according to Section 1, “a person is guilty of an offence if he dishonestly deals in a cultural object that is tainted, knowing or believing that the object is tainted. It is immaterial whether he knows or believes that the object is a cultural object. A person guilty of the offence is liable on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years or a fine (or both), on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum (or both)”.

This offence is designed to combat traffic in unlawfully removed cultural objects and, according to Section 2, a “Cultural object means an object of historical, architectural or archaeological interest. A cultural object is tainted if, after the commencement of this Act a person removes the object or he excavates the object, and the removal or excavation constitutes an offence. It is immaterial whether: (a) the removal or excavation was done in the United Kingdom or elsewhere; (b) the offence is committed under the law of a part of the United Kingdom or under the law of any other country or territory. Monument means: (a) any work, cave or excavation; (b) any site comprising the remains of any building or structure or of any work, cave or excavation; or (c) any site comprising, or comprising the remains of, any vehicle, vessel, aircraft or other movable structure, or part of any such thing. Remains include any trace or sign of the previous existence of the thing in question. It is immaterial whether: (a) a building, structure or work is above or below the surface of the land; or (b) a site is above or below water”. Therefore, this crime will be prosecuted and punished even if the cultural item has been plundered outside the U.K., and it will not be an obstacle that the law of other country or territory is contravened, provided an offence has been committed, even abroad. These provisions are also relevant to wrecks in international waters and criminal conducts made over the internet may also be caught by them. Moreover, there is no age threshold for cultural objects: But, in order to establish English jurisdiction, it is necessary that the act be agreed to or committed in the U.K., taking into consideration that inciting the commission of, or attempting or conspiring to commit will be sufficient to trigger prosecution for the offence in question.

According to Sections 3 and 4 to the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, a “person deals in an object if (and only if) he or she: (a) acquires, disposes of, imports or exports it; (b) agrees with another to do an act mentioned in paragraph (a); or (c) makes arrangements under which another person does such an act or under which another person agrees with a third person to do such an act. Acquires means buys, hires, borrows or accepts. Disposes of means sells, lets on hire, lends or gives. In relation to agreeing or arranging to do an act, it is immaterial whether the act is agreed or arranged to take place in the United Kingdom or elsewhere”. Proceedings for an offence relating to the dealing in a tainted cultural object “may be instituted by order of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, if it appears to them that the offence has involved the importation or exportation of such an object”.

The provisions of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 may also be applied to the offences committed by bodies corporate, and according to Section 5, “if an offence under section 1 committed by a body corporate is proved: (a) to have been committed with the consent or connivance of an officer; or (b) to be attributable to any neglect on his part, he (as well as the body corporate) is guilty of the offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly. Officer, in relation to a body corporate, means: (a) a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body: (b) a person purporting to act in any such capacity”. Obviously, this Section is very important to fight auction houses’ insalubrious practices, encouraging transparency in the art trade.

In conclusion, it follows that all the aforementioned provisions allow a requesting authority to assert the reciprocity (that is the dual criminality requirement) that U.S.18 and U.K legal systems require in order to give “effective” international assistance, thus profitably investigating recurrent looting of archaeological objects and consequent damage that may result. Therefore, two of the major art market nations (U.S. and UK legal systems) should currently allow “effective” assistance, and their authorities, when requested, are obliged to answer positively to the investigations elicited by the requesting State, even if prosecution and/or assistance were not allowed before. In fact, the reciprocity requirement is to be valued at the time when the requesting authority asks for assistance, and not in relation to the time when the offences were committed.

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

  1. For instance, in the English legal system causing criminal damage was originally a common law offence. Today criminal damage is contained in the Criminal Damage Act 1971, and punishment varies from a fixed penalty to life imprisonment. []
  2. The fulfillment of the dual criminality or reciprocity requirement is often prescribed if the granting of assistance entails coercive or invasive measures, such as search and/or seizure orders. In fact, the point is to evaluate if the legal systems in question (the requesting and the requested ones) are compatible, and if, in particular, the rights of the fellow-citizens are not repressed in a way contrary to the public order of the requested system. []
  3. At times the economic value of a cultural good can be increased by criminal conducts even when these acts result in its damaging. For instance, criminality earns greater profits in economic terms when illicitly excavated archeological objects, even when found intact, are deliberately fragmented. 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 the fragments with each sale. 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 it also produces greater profits. []
  4. The International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has followed this rationale in its decisions. []
  5. See United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit – 112 F.3d 1413, May 6, 1997. However, in a more general approach, UK jurisprudence upholds that “the damage need not be tangible or visible if it affects the value or performance of the property” (see, Cox v. Riley, 1986, 83 Cr App R 54); and when a “machine is damaged by removal of essential part, although if the constituent parts are not themselves damaged, it is important to charge damage to the machine” (see, Tacey -1821- Russ & Ry 452). []
  6. But damage can be also caused in the restoration process whenever the alterations are so great that they bring about changes into the essence of an original work by tampering with it trough, for instance, sectioning or adding or removing. []
  7. At times very famous archaeologists have made their appraisals even when the illicit provenance of the inspected items was evident. Moreover, traffickers were often requested to give information on sites’ provenance of the items they were about to sell, and at the disposal of criminals a huge photographic archive of archaeological objects was available, in order to prove context, site of origin and authenticity of the object. Further, archaeological items were frequently documented in Polaroid pictures depicting them just after excavation, and the Polaroid-type photos were taken to show the dig in process, thus presenting evidence of plunder and assuring the authenticity of the merchandise. []
  8. A cultural item is highly suspicious if dealers and/or professionals know very little about its provenance, place of origin, context and dating, that is the so called “clean bill of health” for cultural items. []
  9. The requested country is the State addressed usually by a rogatory letter, and it is tasked to perform investigatory activities proposed by the requesting country. []
  10. For instance, the U.S. jurisprudence held that even embezzled property is stolen within the NSPA (see, United States v. Handler, 142 F. 2d 351, 353, 2d Cir. 1944); and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the Schultz decision (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) stated that there is “an expansive meaning to the term stolen in the NSPA because the term stolen includes all felonious takings regardless of whether or not the theft constitutes common-law larceny”. Moreover, the fact that the antiquities were never possessed by the original owner should be deemed immaterial. []
  11. See, the previous note. []
  12. See, EWCA Civ. 1374, Case No: A2/2007/0902/QBENF, A2/2007/0902(A)/FC3; decision that harmonizes the UK to the U.S. judicial approaches, both system being oriented towards the status of national ownership of looted antiquities and towards the judicial recognition that illegal exportation clouds the title of the purchaser. []
  13. http://www.cr.nps.gov/local-law/fhpl_archrsrcsprot.pdf []
  14. That is, literally, even contrary to the UNESCO Conventions and/or the normative acts implementing these treaties. []
  15. This time limit of 100 years is the same as established by European Council Regulation (EEC) N° 3911/92 of 9 December 1992 on the export of cultural goods, and by European Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State. []
  16. Other statutes may be cited. For instance: The 18 U.S.C.A., Section 668 (Theft of Major Artwork); the 18 U.S.C.A., Sections 641 e 1361 (Theft and Injuring Government Property); the 16 U.S.C.A., Section 433 (Criminal punishment for persons who appropriate, excavate, injure or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission); the 18 U.S.C.A., Section 1924 (Unauthorized Removal or Retention of Classified Documents). []
  17. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/27/contents. Other English provisions which make excavation, removal or other conducts unlawful are: 1) Removing part of a vessel or objects from a vessel in a restricted area, Section 1(3), Protection of Wrecks Act 1973; 2) Works affecting a scheduled monument, Section 2, Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979; 3) Destroying or damaging a protected monument, Section 28, Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979; 4) Operations in an area of archaeological importance, Section 35, Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979; 5) Removal of an object discovered with a metal detector in a protected place, Section 42, Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979; 6) Removal of remains of military vessels or aircraft, Section 2, Protection of Military Remains Act 1986; 7) Demolition or alteration of a listed building, Section 9, Planning Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act 1990; 8) Removal of part of a Wreck, Section 246 (3), Merchant Shipping Act 1995; 9) Removal of treasure finds, Section 8, Treasure Act 1996. However, these provisions (as indicated from point 1 to point 9) do not consider those illegal conducts serious arrestable offences, often the only crimes that could trigger a search warrant on the basis of an international request for assistance. Differently, a search warrant may be requested if the assistance is asked for criminal conducts similar to those punished by the Dealing in Cultural Objects -Offences- Act 2003. []
  18. As well as other legal systems, U.S. authorities require additional condition as for searches, that is: (a) a “probable cause to believe” the offence has been perpetrated; (b) That the goods constituting the evidence for which the requesting authority is proceeding may be found in the premises to be searched (other artworks having similar illicit provenance can be seized, resorting to the “plain view doctrine” of the U.S. jurisprudence,); (c) That the requested seizure is well-timed and is not likely that the cultural objects were taken away from the premises to be searched (that is, the “timeliness requirement” or “need of fresh evidence”). []

Egypt’s heritage: a global concern

SAFE has added Egypt to the “A Global Concern” section of our web site. With recent updates on the dangers to cultural heritage resulting from political unrest, looting, and encroaching civilization, these pages aim to create an overview of what Egypt stands to lose, how cultural heritage is endangered, the market demand for Egyptian antiquities, what Egypt is doing to safeguard its own heritage, and what others are doing and how YOU can help protect Egypt’s heritage.

These pages were written and researched by Beatrice Kelly, with additional research by Tessa Varner. They exemplify the kind the work interns produce at SAFE.

Photo: Mallawi Museum

Khachkars and Icons: Looting in pre- and post-Soviet Armenia

Located on the piedmont of the Caucasus mountain range, the country of Armenia illustrates an interesting paradox. It is, on one hand, a nation-state born out of, and partly modeled by, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it is also a country that dogmatically identifies itself with civilizations more than 2000 years-old, and defends the idea of an evolving yet continuous Armenian identity.

Armenia is a country with changing borders as it underwent several episodes of invasions by Ottomans, Russians, Persians. Overall, its modern situation is structured around several antagonistic claims with neighboring countries that have their roots both in long-term historical processes and recent geopolitical development. A recent war and conflicting territorial claims with Azerbaijan, political unrest with Turkey over the recognition of the 1915 Genocide and its support of the Azerbaijan as well as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and, despite, an exit from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, a complex and ambiguous relationship with Russia, are all factors that impacted Armenia’s cultural identity and heritage management.

Landlocked Armenia Landlocked Armenia
Google Earth

Amidst those invasions and torn territories, the Armenian identity was created and preserved through the development of specific features, i.e., religion and script. In 301 AD, Grigor Lusarovich (the “Illuminator”) made Christianity Armenia’s official state religion. This historical event placed Armenia at the heart of Christendom’s history, and the Christian religion at the core of Armenian identity. Consequently, increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a known and widespread phenomenon with particular meaning in Armenia as its Christian heritage has been predominantly emphasized, and, as such, the target of specific attacks.

More generally, changes in regime and social structure impacted the safeguard of cultural and historical objects, either because of their association with a particular ethnic/religious group, or simply as the object of international antiquities trade (and the ensuing looting activities), both aspects that have been going on for almost a century.

Destructive Ideologies

A particularly telling example is the fate of Armenia’s cultural heritage during the 1915 Genocide in modern Turkish territories. If the cost of the cultural destruction that occurred is still unknown several sources report destruction of books, and religious artifacts, using the term “cultural genocide”. Beyond such an expression is a desire to express a large-scale and institutionalized effort to erase Armenia’s presence from a given geographical space. Today, some websites (and even a youtube channel ) specialize in finding “treasures” in Armenian houses on Turkish territory that Armenians supposedly left while fleeing the country .

During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, damages occurring to cultural heritage, and looting/destruction of cultural artifacts were reported by both sides of the conflict. When Armenian news media described the looting of Armenian museums during the pogrom of Sumgait, Azerbaidjan media were denouncing the destruction of Azerii-associated heritage, archaeological artefacts, historical monuments, libraries, and even suggesting the organization of large-scale non-professional excavation of graves and burial mounds throughout Karabakh, and particularly Shusha. However, both sides widely publicize efforts to preserve any type of cultural heritage, although sometimes while modifying slightly the identity of the creator. Thus, the destructions occurring are a bilateral process, and both individual actions and institutionalized programs have been involved in destruction and preservation of South Caucasus heritage.

A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin
armenica.org

The destruction of Khachkar in Nakhitchevan exemplifies a large-scale, institutionalized case of destruction. While not objects subject to the international antiquities market, the destruction and looting of those sculptures in Djulfa (or Jugha) calls for public awareness. Khachkars are situated at the border between artifact and monument. Part of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010, khachkars are carved stone steles representing crosses and closely associated with Armenian communities. In Armenia itself, there are more than 50,000 of those steles , bearing witness to more than 1500 years of transmitted traditions and know-how. The cemetery of Djulfa in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhitchevan was a medieval site with more than a thousand khachkars (up to 10,000 thousands). Despite denials by the Azerbaijani authorities, this destruction has been documented through testimonies, videos, and satellite imagery, as a recent study carried out by the AAAS showed the deliberate progressive destruction of the site since the early 2000s . The study was supported by amateur videos showing soldiers destroying the steles with a sledge-hammer. Despite support from the ICOMOS, the position adopted by UNESCO is unclear at best, and the Azerbaijan authorities have not only made any fact-finding mission in the area impossible, they’ve also denied the very existence of Armenian cultural heritage in this area which was, following their version, previously inhabited by Caucasian Albanians.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the looting and destruction of Armenian (and non-Armenian goods on Armenian territory) that took place during several episodes of unrest in the region. They resulted from the ideological struggle of conflicting nationalisms. However, other sources mention the existence of a different type of looting and destruction– one motivated by economic, financial imperatives, and aimed at providing Armenian cultural artifacts to the international antiquities market.

Icons for sale

The most prominent aspect is the traffic of religious icons that has been taking place for at least 40 years. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, several sources revealed the existence of an almost institutionalized traffic, connecting western art dealers with local mafia across the USSR.

Michel van Rijn makes mention of this system in his autobiography, that stands out for its absolute lack of remorse, and by its insights into the world of the international antiquities market. That market relied both on the structures developed by the USSR to acquire some currency, and on the fate of church property during the XXth century in this part of the world.

Novoexport (Новоэкспорт) was an enterprise set up by the government to sell goods from the Union to foreign visitors. This initiative was developed during the Perestroïka in order to keep the state reserves afloat by selling “overpriced rubbish” (Van Rijn 1991) to westerners. As with most other Soviet institutions, Novoexport shops were accompanied by a tedious bureaucratic system that provided each item with excessively stamped paperwork certifying its origin, authenticity, mode of acquisition, etc… Art dealers who bought the worthless items sold by Novoexport were provided with valid documentation to carry objects out of the Soviet Union.

Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat'an The Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat’an, 17th century
Melkianicollection.com

Van Rijn met Dergazarian, an icon dealer in Beirut, Lebanon, at some point in the 1980s. Dergarzarian, an Armenian, introduced to the art dealer the infinite business possibilities offered by the “treasure trove” Armenia was, both in terms of its cultural wealth and the ease with which they could be smuggled out of the country. Soon, the two collaborators flew to Yerevan in order to meet with the local intelligentsia, diplomats, and local KGB agents largely involved in the traffic. Business, it seems, was done with “rubles and French brandy”. At this point van Rijn not only realized the potential for business, but also the scale of the traffic. The scheme was fairly simple. First, van Rijn needed to acquire a valuable icon. This was done through his contact with the Armenian mafia whose members he met through Dergazarian. In order to gain their trust, van Rijn also starts dealing with human trafficking, smuggling people out of the Soviet Union. Let’s note here that it is not unexpected to see antiquities associated with other “items”like (as it is the case in Cyprus) heroin. In Armenia, this dual trade was managed by the local mafia. Through them by the time of the Perestroika, van Rijn had access to an extensive and efficient network and stock of different types of artefacts, mostly icons. He would find an icon with equivalent features (size, theme) in one of the Novoexport shops and simply use the official license to launder and export the illicit goods to Europe (another technique consisted in modifying custom declaration forms in Poland)

This was far from being an isolated case. During the economic reforms of the 80s, dealers bought private antiquities that they exported through diverse methods in western countries, as people seemed willing to sell their family treasures– mostly 18th- 19th century icons– on the black market. Officials at all levels of the hierarchy were involved in this trade including Russian administrators and foreign diplomats. Van Rijn mentions the case of a Finnish diplomat stopped at the border where Russian customs, neglecting the diplomatic status of the suspect, found undeclared antique goods in his luggage. In Russia, the smuggling of cultural contraband is a criminal offense under the Part 2 of Art. 188 of the Criminal Code.

Religious icons are still the object of an intense traffic– especially from the Caucasus region. Last year, an Israeli citizen was caught at the Armenian-Georgian border , trying to smuggle out eighteen undeclared, unlicensed icons. A few years earlier Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev gave to visiting President Medvedev five russian icons confiscated by the customs. In 2009, in the region of Krasnodar, the customs police arrested an Armenian citizen who was trying to smuggle two “ancient icons” into  Ukraine after covering them with a layer of mastic .

These are only a few examples of a long-lasting traffic. If national and international regulations have improved the situation, much is left to be done, both at the level of local protection and on the international antiquities market. Furthermore, this market creates a demand for Armenian antiquities, and a structure for its illicit exportation, thus encouraging destructive behaviors in museums and archaeological sites.

Treasure hunt

Indeed these institutional issues have an impact at another level. In parallel to the smuggling of religious art, other types of destruction take place resulting in damages to the archaeological sites themselves.

The development of archaeological projects in Armenia led to the emergence of treasure hunting. A UCLA news report noted that, after the discovery in Areni cave of the world’s “oldest shoe”, some reporters said that they were looking for shoes filled with gold, “which sparkled a wild looting spree throughout the country” . Indeed, whether related to this particular case or not, several cases of looting of archaeological sites have been witnessed in Areni by the project team and at least at two other locations by the author. At one of those sites, a group of people from the neighboring village explained that they were looking for burial, gold, and old objects in order to sell them. On two occasions, archaeological artifacts (bronze daggers, prehistoric pottery) were identified on the stands of the “Vernissage”, the flee market of Yerevan.

In any country this phenomenon would be an unfortunate yet possible outcome of the development of archaeology and broader access by the public to its results. However, the UCLA news highlights some of the outreach projects planned by the international team in Areni to sensitize the local communities to the value of their heritage.

Several types of destruction have been presented here. Some are the result of nationalism and ideological struggle, while others answer to an international demand for antiquities. In parallel with a more systematic enforcement of international laws and an adaptation of legislation regulating existing loopholes in local criminal codes, cultural heritage professionals, art historians, and archaeologists need to keep developing projects which integrate local communities in their research and encourage an ever-increasing commitment of the public to the protection of its history.

Protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage – repatriation efforts alone will not suffice

Given the well documented role of auction sales in the legitimization of unprovenanced artifacts, which translates as “no questions asked,” or possibly looted or looted, should anyone be surprised that a major source country such as Egypt would follow the examples set by Italy, Cambodia, Iran, and non-state actors such as Native American tribes in the United States, to stop the impending sale of artifacts that departed its country of origin without the benefit of a valid export certificate? The answer is: no.

The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry has made a concerted effort in recent months to pour over auction house catalogs in a global search for stolen antiquities and is pursuing in “all legal and diplomatic means to recover smuggled artifacts,” according to a story published in the online journal Al Monitor.

Egypt’s decision is understandable. Pressuring auctioneers to withdraw undocumented artifacts from sale sends an unambiguous message to would-be consignors that the risk of offering such material at public auction is rising. This, in turn, reduces the incentive to dig up and smuggle these items in the first place.

One would hope that the authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt would further reduce the incentive to loot artifacts by paying more attention to prevention and enforcement efforts before these treasures appear for sale at auction houses.

To date, the most effective mechanism is found in 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).

As a state party to the Convention, Egypt can request the United States to impose temporary restrictions of the importation of the most endangered categories of Egyptian archaeological and ethnographic material into the largest market for such material in the world, the United States, by requesting the U.S. to enter into a bilateral agreement (Memorandum of Understanding or MOU), under Title 19 U.S.C. 2600 et seq, known as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) enacted in 1983.

Given the deteriorating situation on the ground in Egypt, it is likely that Egypt will qualify for emergency import restrictions under CCPIA, which the Government of Mali received from the U.S. in September 1993.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Amin recently told Al-Monitor, “All international laws and conventions grant the competent authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt the right to preserve the artifacts and to track [the pieces] illegally smuggled outside the country.”

We urge the Egyptian authorities to follow through and use all legal mechanisms to discourage looting, prevent smuggling, preserve and protect the most precious part of Egypt’s vast cultural patrimony: the still-intact evidence of its undiscovered past that remains in the ground. Repatriation efforts alone will not suffice. Efforts to encourage Egyptian authorities to seek an MOU with the U.S. are underway. The decision that Egyptian officials must make is clear.

Photo: Pharaonic artifacts are seen on display at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Sept. 30, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Stop the plunder: archaeologist calls for more pressure on Egyptian government

The plunder of Egypt’s cultural heritage has again come to a boiling point in the last several days. Increased incidents of looting continue to exacerbate a situation already at great risk since the political turmoil. While little has been reported about the devastation in the press; thanks to Dr. Monica Hanna and her colleagues, the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار is keeping us updated on what’s going on. Still, much more needs to be done.

“We are losing a lot of the monastic graffiti (Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian and Demotic) and several other archaeological features. Egyptian history is being destroyed…The Egyptian government should take concrete steps to stop the looting and vandalism.” Dr. Hanna told SAFE.

We join Dr. Hanna to call on journalists and bloggers who write about these issues to keep their attention on Egypt. Spread the message that destruction of cultural heritage is a nonrenewable loss to us all that no one should tolerate, regardless of who one is or where one lives.

Looting at Ansina About the looting going on in Ansina, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force posted earlier today, “thugs today worked on destroying the main basilica of the site with the use of a bulldozer while the rest of the gang worked on dismantling the columns capitals to sell them. It is worth mentioning that The Italian mission has discovered a lot of manuscripts where looting happened today.

This alarming photo is only one of many from Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. Contact Dr. Hanna at monica_h@aucegypt.edu for more on-the-ground and up-to-date information.

Confrontations: “Looting????”

SAFE received an email with the subject line “Looting????” and the following links to Facebook images along with the question “What we can do about this ?????” We are grateful to be alerted, but regardless of what we might all be thinking, there are many more questions raised here than there are answers. In keeping with our mission, SAFE will be sharing this type of alerts on this blog under Confrontations when we receive such communications. We invite our readers to share their thoughts here” What do you think? Next time you wonder about something you come across, send it to us.

A)https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1426286677601370&set=a.1402020070028031.1073741827.100006601542674&type=1&theater

B)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1426286677601370&set=a.1402020070028031.1073741827.100006601542674&type=1&theater

C)https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1426286677601370&set=a.1402020070028031.1073741827.100006601542674&type=1&theater#!/photo.php?fbid=1385801228335939&set=a.1385543501695045.1073741828.100007182253540&type=1&theater

D)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1383940251853433&set=pb.100007124141060.-2207520000.1387032244.&type=3&theater

D)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1383939758520149&set=pb.100007124141060.-2207520000.1387032244.&type=3&theater

E)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1383939478520177&set=pb.100007124141060.-2207520000.1387032244.&type=3&theater

F)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1383896745191117&set=pb.100007124141060.-2207520000.1387032244.&type=3&theater

G)https://www.facebook.com/arkeolok.vural?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=1383890535191738&set=pb.100007124141060.-2207520000.1387032244.&type=3&theater

 

Monica Hanna to receive 2014 SAFE Beacon Award

The archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna will be the next recipient of the SAFE Beacon Award for her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting situation in Egypt.

Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted – most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past – and our shared history – has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.

While mainstream media reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and those responsible for the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting, we can be thankful for the efforts of “ordinary” Egyptians who have joined together to use social media to keep the rest of the world informed about what is happening to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.

Using social media tools to their fullest potential, Dr. Hanna created and steadfastly maintains Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, while also contributing to other social media platforms. She continues to inform us in lectures and interviews, and she mobilizes others to do the same. In fact, it is impossible for anyone truly concerned about the critical situation in Egypt not to be informed by Dr. Hanna’s dedicated and diligent reporting. This past August, SAFE intern Beatrice Kelly included a small part of Dr. Hanna’s documentation in “How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?” and noted:

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.

And we are paying attention.

With more than than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Dr. Hanna is an inspiration. No wonder Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review writes, “Hanna is a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers describes her as, “amazing …a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”

SAFE is honored to present the 2014 Beacon Award to Monica Hanna. In the coming months, we will continue to highlight Dr. Hanna’s important work and roll out our plans for celebration. Please follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates.

March 21, 2014 UPDATE: Information about the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award can be found here. Dr Hanna’s Twitter followers number more than 28,000.


The SAFE Beacon Awards recognizes outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about our endangered cultural heritage and the devastating consequences of the illicit antiquities trade. Since 2004, awards have been presented to authors, journalists, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists:

2004 – Roger Atwood

2005 – Matthew Bogdanos 

2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George

2009 – Colin Renfrew

2010 – Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman

2011 - Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

2012 – David Gill

SAFE bulletin to feature selected news and opinion

Since 2006, SAFE’s e-newsletter news&updates has been alerting our subscribers to matters related to cultural heritage preservation, upcoming SAFE events, and new developments in the organization. Beginning this issue at the end of each month, news&updates will again feature our own selection of relevant news articles and reports highlighting some of today’s most pressing concerns in the fight against looting and the illicit trade of antiquities and cultural heritage.

We understand that the abundance of articles, news reports, and commentaries frequently and readily available on the Internet can become overwhelming. But not all content is created equal. To help you navigate through the information overload, we will cull from news reports and contributions from the SAFE community to deliver what we consider the most relevant and valuable in the monthly news&updates. With this bulletin, SAFE takes another step towards achieving our mission to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage worldwide.

So stay informed and subscribe to news&updates. And, as always, please feel free to share you own news and reports and let us know if we missed anything. For daily news and reports, visit SAFE on Facebook and Twitter. We thank intern Michael Shamah for this inaugural bulletin:

In the News

Penalties imposed on two amateur German archaeologists (Ahram Online) – Egypt’s antiquities ministry imposes penalties on two German amateur archaeologists who stole samples of King Khufu’s cartouche from the great pyramid.

Aussie leads Project to measure Iraq’s heritage destruction (SBS) – A 3-year project to “create the world’s first database of those damaged heritage sites and create a path to restore what can be restored.”

Peru thwarts antiquities smugglers (Latino Fox News) – Pre-Columbian textiles were discovered under a glass frame of family photos, while en route to Spain.

How did the US lose voting rights in UNESCO, and why? (IB Times) – What does this mean for Cultural Heritage?

Stolen religious artefacts have been repatriated (Cyprus Mail) – “The majority of artefacts were in relatively good condition although some bore clear signs of vandalism.”

Tutankhamun’s sister goes missing – Egypt issues international alert (Telegraph UK) – Egypt issues an international alert for return of a beautiful statuette of Tutankhamun’s sister, stolen with hundreds of other artefacts, when the Malawi Museum was looted amid clashes between police and Islamists this summer.

Antiquities Authority arrests looter attempting to steal buried Byzantine-era coins (J post) – Judean Mountains have now become recent targets for coin looters.

‘Make sure your collections traded legally’ (Korea Times) – Korean officials say that most of 150,000 cultural properties are outside Korea. They were looted and traded illegally during the Korean War or Japanese colonial rule.

Myanmar Buddha sculpture returns home after wild ride (CS Monitor) – An 11th-century Buddha was returned to Myanmar, after 20 years abroad. SE Asian countries, including Myanmar and Cambodia, have been trying reclaim cultural artefacts from the West through legal battles.

Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq (LA Times) – One of the largest returns of antiquities by an American Institution

 

The latest on SAFE blog

Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop - Damien Huffer’s summary of proceedings, explores the connections between the areas of criminological practice and the antiquities trade.

Introducing Confrontations - Confrontations invites friends and members of the SAFE community to share their firsthand experiences, whether through personal accounts, pictures, or photographic essays. Tell us what happened: What did you do?

Confrontations #1: A Young Boy’s Temptation - The first of the ‘Confrontations’ blog series, about Michael’s encounter with a pile of excavated coins in the marketplace of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Ton Cremers and the Museum Security Network: A SAFE tribute - Long before social media, there was the Museum Security Network; but most of all, the pioneer spirit of its founder Ton Cremers.

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation - A post at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik Ambassador: “As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.”

Syria’s cultural heritage in danger: What can we do?

SAFE Volunteer Sandra Roorda observes the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection on the situation in Syria.


Amidst the public and political clamor surrounding the current conflict in Syria, and as many argue over how to prevent further civilian casualties, a wide swathe of cultural institutions and organizations from both diplomatic and NGO communities has stepped forward to warn that, in addition, the country’s rich cultural heritage is being looted and destroyed. As Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund states, “The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension.” To be sure, the conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people, but it is also stripping them of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage, resulting in a loss felt not only by the Syrian people, but also by the world at large.

World Heritage Sites in Danger

The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has devastated the country’s cultural heritage, with UNESCO reporting that 93% of the country’s total cultural sites are currently within areas of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites, six have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites, with some structures already destroyed or seriously damaged by shelling or looting. Indeed, recent aerial footage also reveals several of these sites to be pockmarked with holesthe token remnants of looters excavating cultural objects and antiquities.

Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo.
UNESCO and Professor Abdulkarim

Currently listed as in danger by UNESCO are the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the site of Palmyra, Cracs des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Of course, countless other sites and structures that lend to Syria’s rich cultural heritage have also been damaged and are further threatened by continued fighting—the breadth of which is perhaps demonstrated by the World Monument Fund’s recent decision to list all of the cultural heritage sites within the entire country of Syria as part of its 2014 World Monuments Watch.

The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk

ICOM's Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
ICOM

UNESCO and the World Monument Fund are hardly the only organizations—cultural or otherwise—adding or connecting Syria to an endangered list. In an event last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

Held during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and attended by members of both diplomatic and NGO communities, the event served to raise awareness surrounding the issues of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage by specifically outlining the categories and typologies of cultural artifacts and goods most vulnerable to illicit trafficking during the conflict. Indeed, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has reported a dramatic increase of illegal excavations of archeological sites and increased looting of museums in Syria, with the threat of illicit trafficking and trade of cultural property on the rise. As Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO states, “In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by UNESCO, ICOM’s Emergency Red List aims to help counteract illicit trafficking by not only categorizing the types of objects most at risk, but by also providing a succinct guide for museums, auction houses, art dealers, and collectors on how to facilitate the identification of potentially stolen or looted items, and which subsequent authorities to inform. The publication covers a wide spectrum of artifacts and antiquities, categorizing writing, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, accessories and instruments, stamps and cylinder seals, and tessera and coins.

Joining in the announcement of the Emergency Red List, Assistant Secretary of States for Population, Refugees, and Migrations, Anne Richard, stated:

“The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people, but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were—in better times—a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life—a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future. Today, with the release of the Red list, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.”

Richard goes on to call on the international community to remain vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from purchasing or acquiring such objects.

Syrian volunteer networks mobilize and come together to help safeguard the country's heritage. UNESCO reports that, “Volunteer networks from local communities all over the country have mobilized themselves and come together with a common objective to protect their cultural heritage. These networks provide additional security in protecting archaeological sites from illegal excavations, and safeguarding museums from looters.
Photo via UNESCO and ICOM

Further attempts to counteract the illicit traffic and trade of Syria’s cultural heritage include the digitization of the remaining inventory and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums, in order to simplify the identification and the registration of any missing artifacts. Additional testimonies, images, and videos from the public, as well as from various national and international archaeological and heritage-based initiatives, are assisting in these digitized databases. As UNESCO states, “All this collated information will facilitate a more effective response against the illicit trafficking of cultural property out of Syria, and help potential restitution cases in the future.”

A Call to Action: Syria and the International Community

Attempts to combat the looting of Syrian antiquities and counteract their illicit trade are made difficult and further complicated for a variety of reasons, not least of which are due to the literal combat taking place on the ground.

That the continual fighting of the ongoing conflict in Syria renders site protection on the ground difficult and often thwarts attempts to protect the country’s cultural heritage brings to light what some may view as the apparent limitations of such international agreements as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in ICCROM's e-learning course Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in the e-learning course, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict.
ICCROM and Lina Kutifan, DGAM

That being said, there are a number of efforts—both coordinated and individual, and implemented by both diplomatic and NGO communities—that are taking place to address the looting and the subsequent potential for the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. While fighting and shelling proves an obstacle for on-the-ground site protection, effective monitoring of the situation and statuses of these sites, combined with the methodical documentation of antiquities and cultural property still accessible to archaeologists and members of the cultural heritage community, is of the utmost importance. As previously mentioned, the digitized documentation of the archival inventory of Syrian museums, for example, could be instrumental in potential restitution cases in the future.

Additionally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in association with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has partnered with the DGAM, in coordination with UNESCO, to hold several e-learning courses for Syrian cultural heritage professionals. The first of such courses, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict, took place at the beginning of this year at the Damascus National Museum and provided around 75 DGAM managers, directors, curators, architects, and staff—not to mention Syrian cultural heritage researchers and conservation experts—with some of the necessary knowledge and training materials to build their capacities in helping preserve the country’s cultural heritage.

The Syrian audience welcomed this show of professional solidarity from the international heritage community, the success of which prompted the next e-learning course and video conference, which took place last month. Says ICCROM of the initiative:

“In organizing the course, ICOMOS and ICCROM call on all parties associated with the situation in Syria to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect Syria’s precious cultural heritage sites and institutions. A call was repeated at the beginning of the course to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to respect museums, monuments, and historic cities.”

Further seminars and courses are envisaged as part of a long-term effort, in addition to further knowledge, experience, and advice, which may be offered during Syria’s recovery phase. Certainly, preserving Syria’s cultural heritage can serve as not only an anchor for promoting social cohesion and national unity during the recovery phase, but it may potentially aid in promoting economic stability based on tourism, which, before the conflict, accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.

Participants and trainers in ICCROM's e-learning course, via video conference Participants and trainers in ICCROM’s e-learning course, via video conference.
ICCROM and Rohit Jigyasu

As one of the trainers for the initiative, Rohit Jigyasu, President of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) states, such endeavors could effectively become a benchmark for a “paradigm shift in how we can build capacity and promote awareness for heritage conservation using new information technology.”

Our Public Responsibility

Given the situation and the myriad of associated issues, many of us may ask ourselves, “Well, what can we do to help?” As members of the public, we too can play our part, by not only making ourselves and others aware of such issues, but also by simply refraining from buying cultural goods and antiquities from conflict zones—Syrian or otherwise. After all, supply must meet demand, and a collective decision to stop buying these antiquities may go a long way to curb theft and looting. In the end, this combination of action—raising awareness surrounding the issues of looting and illicit trafficking—combined with inaction—refusing to engage in the purchase and trade of antiquities from conflict zones—may prove essential to preserving what remains of Syria’s rich cultural heritage.

Drawing Parallels: SAFE and the National Museum of Iraq

In light of such issues, it is hard not to draw the comparison between the current crisis in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, following the collapse of the Saddam regime. While the various circumstances and the context for each situation differs, many of the issues and the challenges facing Syria’s cultural heritage and archeological sites are, in many ways, similar to those in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion.

Indeed, many of our SAFE readers and contributors have similarly commented on this parallel during our 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE was borne out of the travesty surrounding the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and now, during the tenth anniversary of both the looting of the museum and the founding of this organization, it seems particularly poignant to warn of the similar dangers affecting not only Syria’s cultural heritage, but of heritage sites across the globe. The memory of what happened in Baghdad serves as a perpetual reminder, wherein circumstances of the past can hopefully manifest as lessons for the future.

Additional Information and Further Resources

 The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk can be found here.

The link for UNESCO’s website, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property in Syria, can be found here.

Updates on the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage on the ground can be found through DGAM’s website—in both Arabic and English—here.

For previous SAFE articles and information regarding the conflict in Syria and the destruction of its cultural heritage, please click here.

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.

Why we care about the cultural heritage of Egypt – now.

Originally posted on February 6, 2011, the following is reposted as a reminder of why we Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage! (Photo: Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار )


No one knows what the future holds for Egypt. Our hearts and hopes are with the Egyptian people as they struggle toward genuine democracy. The first priority now must be the country’s stability, its citizens, their safety, their dignity.

While politicians work out ways to address the demands of the people, attention must also be focused on efforts to protect Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage, out of respect for the Egyptian people and all citizens around the world. Some may think this premature, even insensitive. We don’t. Here’s why:

– As the current government in Cairo gives way to a new political regime, and Egypt begins the process of renewal, it is essential that cultural heritage of the people – the touchstone of their cultural memory and identity - remains intact. We must work together to ensure that the new Egypt is not built on the rubble of robbed museums and plundered tombs.

– Also, protecting and preserving cultural heritage is now recognized as a key development priority for all nations: If we are truly concerned about Egypt’s social, political and economic future, we should strongly support the protection of their museums and heritage sites.

– The ancient and sacred structures and artifacts that make up the cultural heritage of Egypt represent the ultimate non-renewable resource. The world community must do everything it can to protect these treasures for all humanity and prevent irreparable damage that may that result in the destruction of ancient sites and loss of materials.

Join SAFE in solidarity for the people of Egypt and their cultural heritage.

 

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.