Yet another one…

This morning, while browsing the web for current Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade news to blog about, I came across the webpage of a company/auction house that, to me, seems as brazen in their sale of unprovenanced and/or recently surfaced artifacts as the world’s largest wholesale auction houses. Indeed, they occasionally have their own auctions! This time I’m talking about Arte Mission (or artemission.com), based out of South Kensington, London, and specializing in “ancient art from Egypt, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, in Islamic Art and Ancient Coins.” With apparently 40+ years in the business, and with “major galleries and museums” as both recipients and guest appraisers of artifacts, their website provides prospective buyers with everything from a Membership list, a searchable database, website translation into a number of different languages, a recommended reading list of books and articles at a “Reader’s corner,” two-day item reservation, and email contact.

If you’ll allow me a brief segue, there’s even a link to an online store called “Ancienne Ambiance,” with the express purpose of fostering one’s inner “antiquity sensibility.” In the words of company founder Adriana Carlucci, after “having helped customers step back in time through the use of fragrance, extensive customer feedback to the site indicated a strong interest in even more luxury consumer products reflecting an ancient theme.” She then teamed up with artemission.com and jewellery designer Claire van Holthe to offer jewellery “made using authentic beads, stones, amulets and pendants from different ancient civilizations and modern gold.” Ironically, some of the proceeds of these sales are given to the charity PACT (diligently fighting against child abduction), but the “abduction” and reuse of the world’s archaeological heritage is perfectly ok? As an archaeologist myself, I can assure readers that “antiquity” as I’ve experienced it (i.e. in graves, historic period privies, wells, ancient houses, research laboratories) certainly DOES NOT smell like lavender! In the end, the commercialization of products based on the smell of antiquitiy (whatever that is) is irrelevant, and there is honest disclosure that the use of the antiquities is to enhance the appeal of the jewellry, the end result is still the reuse of archaeological artifacts ripped from context so as to appease/enhance the status of the wealthy.

Returning to my original discussion of artemission.com itself, one can see that their catalog contains quite the diversity of artifacts within their stated geographic area of expertise. These range from cuneiform tablets, to Egyptian faience, shabtis, and scarabs, cylinder seals, numerous artifacts from various European cultures, plenty of jewellery, glass artifacts (primarily Roman), coins (Roman and Greek), weapons, manuscripts, and a separate category of “Under $400” miscellanea; “excellent to start or complement a collection, ideal as an interesting and unique gift.” Besides the usual promise to include a “certificate of authenticity” with each purchase, two other aspects of artemission.com’s “code of ethics;” namely, “we undertake to the best of our ability to make our purchases in good faith,” and “we undertake not to knowingly deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).”

“Good Faith” implies trust that the middlemen providing the dealers with antiquities (or the dealers providing the customers) have done their part to double check the veracity of what they purport to sell. However, it seems that in this case “good faith” applies merely to questions of authenticity, as very few examples of past-provenance information was observed attached to online catalog entries for any item, and those that did once again derived “from an old collection,” “private collection,” or a different auction house, frequently post 1980s. However, to be completely honest, I must point out that a few items, such as a few cuneiform tablets, provide the name of the individual person who assembled the collection the item came from, and suggested pre-1970s surfacing. The catalog overall, however, suggests that secure provenance is more or less irrelevant to the modern trade, especially online. In strange contrast to that, they swear to uphold the recent U.N. sanction on the trade in looted antiquities from Iraq, probably due to fear of bad press over perceived “war profiteering.” As this cylinder seal shows, for example, artemission.com readily acquired Iraqi (Mesopotamian) artifacts from the 1990s-present as long as they were said to have surfaced before then. To quote Dr. Chippindale from an earlier post of mine, “said by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, and with what intentions?” The separate coins webpage demonstrates that this dealer, like others, exhibits the cognitive dissonance required to not view ancient coins as “antiquities,” let alone artifacts that once had their own unique contexts.

Discussion of a short article by Peter A. Clayton, FSA (Founding Chairman of the Antiquities Dealer’s Association, 1982) is also relevant here; made available to all artemission.com potential customers in the “Reader’s corner,” for purposes of “education” and encouragement. It is important that this rhetoric be further exposed, as it is geared primarily towards those who might stumble onto their website (and into collecting) by accident, or with previous reticence to buy. The article primarily centers around the opinion that “it is often not realized that just because an object may be centuries, or even several thousand years old it does not have to be financially inaccessible;” stressing that recent very expensive auction sales only represent the “extreme end” of the market. If an amateur collector is willing to take on the “high degree of specialist approach” and “get to know dealers who stock items that interest them” (so that the dealer “can get to know his clients requirements and keep an eye on the market for available pieces”), then both parties can “enjoy and learn from the contact.” Clayton distills the entire purpose of the trade thusly: “The point about collecting antiquities is that they provide the opportunity to reach back across the centuries and actually handle the past to, if you like, feel a rapport with the original ancient owner.” Textbook summation of the “Connoisseur’s View,” is it not? To archaeologists and heritage professionals who monitor the trade, this is familiar rhetoric…but documents such as these in the hands of potential new buyers AND with a major catalog provided, is fuel for the fire.

What to do? I like to think of the multi-pronged response that S.A.F.E. and others are taking as the “Triple E” model: “Education, Exposure, Enforcement.” This corresponds to education at the local supply level, education and exposure BEFORE new “customers” make that first purchase, and enforcement intervening at the local in-country level whenever possible, but at the very least BEFORE the artifact enters the (online) market place, where dispersal becomes very easy. I know, I know…easier said than done…but the more that major dealers/smuggling rings are either shut down, or brought into compliance with ALL global heritage laws, the greater the repercussions down the entire supply line. Constant vigilance!

Lawrence Rothfield and "The Rape of Mesopotamia"

In April 2003, like many of us, Lawrence Rothfield watched with great concern as news accounts detailed the pillage of Iraq’s National Museum. Since then, the looting of sites around Iraq has not ceased, and Rothfield, as co-founder and former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, has been working on an extensive inquiry into how such wholesale thievery and destruction was allowed to occur.

In his resulting work, The Rape of Mesopotamia (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Rothfield reconstructs the planning failures – originating at the highest levels of the U.S. government – that led to the invading forces’ utter indifference to the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage from looters. Widespread incompetence and miscommunication enabled a tragedy that continues even today, despite widespread public outrage. Bringing his story into the present, Rothfield argues that the international community has yet to learn the lessons of Iraq – and that what happened there is liable to be repeated in future conflicts. The Rape of Mesopotamia is a powerful, infuriating chronicle of the disastrous conjunction of military adventure and cultural destruction.

Rothfield was recently featured in the article “Iraq War’s cultural costs as seen through a Chicago prism” by Julia Keller in The Chicago Tribune, where Rothfield reveals that one of the reasons that spurred him to write this authoritative account was its many connections to the city of Chicago.

The Rape of Mesopotamia is essential reading for all concerned with the future of our past, and is now available from the SAFE Store.

Iraq, the "looting of sites is over"?

Martin Bailey in an article in last month’s issue of the Art Newspaper proclaimed loudly “Archaeological sites in south Iraq have not been looted, say experts”. This month the Art Newspaper carried a further article on the subject by Martin Bailey who dryly notes “Our article generated considerable controversy, provoking strong reactions from both ends of the political spectrum”.

In order to substantiate his earlier interpretation of the information, Bailey has now phoned Dr Abbas al-Husseini, former chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities now based in Al Qadisiyah University in Diwaniya who is characterised as the leading archaeologist in the country. Dr al-Husseini talked with the Art Newspaper reporter about the looting that had taken place in Iraq since the 1990s and which had become severe in 2003. He said that the scale of this activity had considerably declined in 2004 and he believes it has continued to diminished since then, saying that now “professional looting has ended, although just like anywhere in the world there may be some occasional digging by children”. According to Dr al-Husseini, one reason for this was that the looting had been driven by the existence of a black market in the antiquities it produced, and this market seems to have dried up, “so looters get nothing for their work”. Other reasons he gave were the presence in some areas of properly equipped guards and the fatwas against damaging the Iraqi heritage issued in some regions by religious leaders. In addition, the renewal of the excavations of some sites by Iraqi archaeologists have meant that these sites at least are better monitored.

Perhaps it should be pointed out that there is a significant difference in the two Art Newspaper articles by Martin Bailey. The earlier article proclaimed on the basis of an examination of just eight sites that there had been “no looting” in southern Iraq as a whole. This later text says there was looting in Iraq (we may note that the journalist fails to establish which regions are being discussed), but was declining in frequency from 2004 onwards.

Mr Bailey could however have saved his newspaper the cost of a phone call to Diwaniya by reading Elizabeth Stone’s “Antiquity” article where pp. 135-7 tell the same story in more detail.

Stone, E.C. 2008, Patterns of Looting in Southern Iraq, Antiquity 82 (315) 125-138. See also SAFE’s online version here.

No Recent Looting on 8 Sites in Southern Iraq: What does it show us? Not what the Art Newspaper thinks it does

The Art Newspaper makes too much hay out of a new report by highly reputable archaeologists who visited 8 major sites in southern Iraq. (The article is at
http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=8066.) The lede is in-your-face (or at least in mine):

“An international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites.”

Who has been making these now-contradicted claims? Well, among others, me, supposedly:

“We reported last month, in a review of a new scholarly book on Iraq’s cultural heritage, that Professor Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago claims that sites are being “destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year”.

One problem: there is no contradiction here. Archaeologists have been claiming that sustained digging has taken place at sites both major and minor, but that is not the same thing as claiming that every site in the country has been looted, or even that every major site has been looted. Indeed, it has been known for several years now, from analyses of satellite imagery by Elizabeth Stone, that in general the sites in the south had not seen as much looting as of those she studied from the middle of the country, where the devastation has been enormous. Stone’s analysis showed that the major sites in the south — the only area this assessment team visited –had for the most part remained unlooted, at least through 2005, the latest date for which satellite photos were available to her.

The archaeological assessment team, which included Stone, visited just eight major sites, of the 10,000 registered sites in the country. Is it possible that sustained looting is occurring or has already occurred at many of the 9,992 other sites? The answer is certainly yes for the years 2003-2006; Stone’s data shows that indisputably. For what has been happening since, the US military could easily clear up the question of how much looting has taken place where and when, if it would provide time-series photos of known sites. Don’t hold your breath on that happening, though.

It was already clear from Stone’s analysis that the 8 sites visited were unusual in not having experienced the kind of severe looting that Stone found elsewhere in the country. The real question is: why were these sites spared?

Donny George was kind enough to help me with this question. His response: The team “visited some specific and less troubled sites from the security point of view, and these sites happen to be protected for one reason or another:

1. Ur: this site was protected before 2003 being surrounded by the Iraqi air base, then after 2003 protected by the American air base, together with the good protection of the Iraqi guards and FPS patrols.

2. Larsa: this site is in a remote area, almost covered by sand dunes, which made it very difficult for the looters to approach, most of the times.

3. Uruk: This site had always been very good protected by its guards and their tribes, there have been some attempts of looting, but they were strongly stopped by the guards and the local authorities.

4. Lagash, There had been some attempts of looting to this site, but not that much all the time, yes it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but it never had extensive looting like the others.

5. Eridu, This site had been surrounded by water for some time before 2003, and later dried, so it was not so vulnerable by the looters, although it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but also known of having extensive archaeological excavations by the Iraqi antiquities service, which maybe left nothing for the looters, in their opinion, and the excavations there are completely covered, except for some bricks on the surface of one mound only.

5. Tell Lahm: This site has been looted to some extent, and has been disturbed by the diggings of the Iraqi army in 1991, first Gulf war, but since this site is in the closest point between the high way between Basra and Baghdad, and the local road between Basra and Nasiriyah, and there’s always been been a check point there, because of that situation, and the American forces use both ways extensively, I think the looters abandoned the site from early times.

6. Ubaid: This site had had some looting just after the 1991 war, and maybe some more just after 2003, but since being very close to the city of Ur, made it on the way of the Iraqi FPS patrols and the American forces from the beginning, so I believe it was very hard for the looters to continue in these circumstances.

7. Oueili: very well known in the world of archaeology by the French excavations and publications, but it is a prehistoric site, it produces nothing of the materials that the looters want, maybe they have checked it and abandon it, because of that.

George concludes: “Again with all my respect to the courageous action these leading archaeologists had done, but this is my personal point of view, but I want to believe that there will be some more trips for other sites in the near future.”

Why does it matter whether the story is badly slanted or not?

Two reasons: First, because its slantedness has political implications. The story has been pounced upon by the rightwing blogosphere — newrepublic.com posted it instantaneously — since it leaves readers with the impression that, as one rightwing commenter on the story has already put it, the claim of massive looting of sites “was just another story fabricated by the Boston Globe and New York Times.”

Second, and far more important, because in addition to enabling deniers to claim that nothing has happened or is happening that needs our attention, the reporter misses the real story, which is about what we can learn from the happy fate of these 8 sites. Nearby bases, checkpoints on major roads, increased FPS patrols, help from locals, as well as training equipment and guard towers bequeathed by the carabinieri: all these make a real difference.

That’s the real surprise, one the story misses, but one that policymakers — especially those working on the new Status of Forces agreement with the Iraq government — could learn from if they wanted to protect more of what remains on sites in other less fortunate areas of the country.

Sotheby’s Auctions Rare Antiquities

Last month, two major sales of antiquities took place at Sotheby’s, New York. The sales were remarkable not only in the prices fetched at auction, but also in the fact that both went to private collectors.

As reported in Time Magazine (12/12/07), a Mesopotamian miniature sculpture of the goddess Inanna as a lioness, the so-called Guennol Lioness, was sold to an anonymous English bidder on 12/5/07 for a staggering $57.2 million. According to one observer, “The transaction set a world record for any antiquity and sculpture sold by an auction house”). The sculpture, which dates to c. 3000-2800 BC, is considered to be an exceedingly rare representation of the goddess, known also as Ishtar, and at 3 ¼ inches high, is a marvel of miniature carving.

Sotheby’s also auctioned a rare copy of the Magna Carta to businessman David Rubinstein, for $21.3 million (BBC News, 12/19/07). The copy, one of only 17 extant, came from a private collection.

What neither of these news reports addresses, however, is the question of the ethics involved in auctioning pieces universally acknowledged as rarities to private owners. In fact, the Time article’s main thrust was towards prospective collectors of antiquities, or the “über-rich”, as the article dubs them. Antiquities, according to the article and to John Ambrose, an antiquities dealer and founder and director of Fragments of Time, Inc., are a good investment opportunity. The concluding line of the Time article should give us pause; “. . . no matter how ornate a stock certificate might be, an Egyptian amulet is always going to look better in your living room display case.”

Is this the message the public should be hearing with regard to antiquities – their price tag, and their potential investment value?

Although Mr. Ambrose did not mention the issue of provenance in his Time interview, in a 12/15/07 online article, he discusses provenance of antiquities – as one of the three essential “value components” a collector should look for when purchasing antiquities, the other two components being quality, and condition (See The Time Magazine Article: Thoughts That Didn’t Make it into the Article on Collecting Antiquities ). Provenance, according to Mr. Ambrose, may be assured to a potential collector by a statement in a catalogue published by a reputable dealer.

What is so troubling about these articles, let alone the sales of the items themselves, is that the issue of private ownership vs. public access is never addressed. How does the public gain access to the common cultural heritage of mankind, when it is privately owned? What obligation does a private owner have to providing public access to such valuable works? To give credit to the Magna Carta’s new owner, Mr. Rubinstein, he says that he considers himself just the “temporary custodian” of the document, and plans to keep it on public display at the National Archives, where it has been since 1988. Public access to this precious document appears safe, for now. But what will become of the Guennol Lioness? Will it, too, be put on display by its new owner, or will it disappear from public view?

This is exactly the problem addressed in Marina Papa Sokal’s excellent essay, “Antiquities Collecting and the Looting of Archaeological Sites (published in the Proceedings of the Second Annual Ename International Colloquium “Who Owns the Past? Heritage Rights and Responsibilities in a Multicultural World”, Ghent, Belgium, March 22-25, 2006). One of Sokal’s essential arguments is that “Private collecting, by definition, does not serve the interest of the general public” (Sokal, p. 3). Public access to private collections under the best of circumstances would be problematic; might require changes in legal codes addressing private property rights; and, in fact, would mostly be unworkable. In other words, private art and antiquities collections are just that – private. Museums, on the other hand, are specifically designed to educate the public, to permit scholarly study, and to guarantee a reliable degree of safety and preservation to artifacts. Knowledge is kept in the public domain in a museum; it is restricted in a private collection.

Contrary to the opinions expressed in the Time article, antiquities should not be lumped in with artworks as an investment option; antiquities are intrinsically valuable for the knowledge they may transmit about long-vanished cultures, for information about technology, for historical details, and so forth. In fact, Sokal draws a sharp line between art collections and antiquities collections. Antiquities, she notes, are a finite resource: “Of course, all art by non-living artists is a non-renewable resource; but for no other kind of artwork is context so important as for antiquities. The historic (as opposed to merely aesthetic) value of any ancient artifact resides principally in its relation to its original context” (Sokal, p. 4). Sokal observes, “. . . many objects in private collections have no provenance, thus vastly reducing their scholarly value . . .” (Sokal, pp. 5-6). Further, “fashions” in collecting have been proven to stimulate selective looting of archaeological sites in order to supply the private antiquities market; “. . . as long as there exists a private market in archaeological artifacts, there will be an incentive for looting and plunder” (Sokal, p. 6).

And as long as rare antiquities can command the kind of well-publicized prices that the Sotheby auctions have demonstrated, there will continue to be a keen interest in “trading up” private collections. The archaeological community, together with SAFE, should give serious consideration to addressing as a unified body the ethical ramifications of these transactions. (CREDIT: Jacob Silberberg / Reuters)