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

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

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

My process

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

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

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for looting

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

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

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

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

Giza Holes

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why China’s MoU request should be renewed: its undiscovered ancient past

On our Facebook group yesterday, attention was brought to a mysterious stone animal uncovered this past January at an excavation site in Sichuan, China. Weighing 8.5 tons, and at 10ft 10in long, 3ft 11in wide and 5ft 7in tall, what else do we know about it besides its vastness?

What animal is it?
Media reports have called it a horse, a lion, or a panda, a cow, a pig. The latest “conclusion” is that the animal is a mythical rhinoceros, or a hippopotamus.

How old is it?
While most Chinese reports have the statue dating to the Qin Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, other reports speculate that it could have come from the Tang dynasty 618–907, or even Ming Qing 368—1840.

Perhaps most important, what was its purpose?
Archaeologists are reportedly baffled. At this writing, we have not found the discovery in Kaogu, or Archaeology journal, published by Institute of Archaeology, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  On China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage web site, there is one report from Sichuan Daily  mentioning a possible connection to calming floodwaters. What we do know is that the statue has ow become a symbol of good luck during the Lunar New Year, and lovingly nicknamed “史上最萌石兽” or “the most adorable stone animal in history.”

It will take some time for archaeologists to decipher the markings found on the statue’s surfaces, study the skeletal remains of other animals in its vicinity and make sense of the many other artifacts also discovered, including pots and reportedly ceremonial objects. For now, we have to contend with speculations, and hope that the site had not been looted, and will remain intact.

Stone horse and tiger Stone horse and tiger narrowly escaped looters

In 2008, four other stone animals in Guangxi province narrowly escaped being dug up and carted away by looters, thanks to reports from the villagers. Although not as big as the Sichuan animal, these statues appear equally difficult to steal, and equally mysterious. As mentioned in our earlier post about a looted 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high,  when it comes to looting for profit, size no longer matters.

The public hearing to review a five-year renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that restricts certain categories of antiquities from importation into the US takes place today at the Department of State. For SAFE, the most important reason for the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend the renewal to the President is this Most of China’s vast ancient history remains undiscovered. There is much more mystery than there is knowledge about a civilization that spans more than 7,000 years. And the decision must be based on this: Do we want to know more?

We do, because China’s ancient cultural heritage is our shared cultural heritage. As Donny George said, cultural heritage is a human right. We all deserve to know more about our own humanity, knowledge is our right. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the plunder of cultural heritage. The UNESCO 1970 has its flaws, import restrictions alone will not end looting and the illicit antiquities trade that feeds it. But until a better alternative is recommended and implemented, the US must do what it can to safeguard our cultural heritage—not only for China—but for all of us. Anything else is just an excuse.

China’s “other” looting problem

One might rejoice at today’s news about the Christie’s owner François Pinault’s offer to return two bronze animal heads to China, a “cause célèbre for Chinese nationalists” has garnered start-studded attention from Ai Weiwei to Jackie Chan, Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Dalia Lama and now the head of the PPR, maker of luxury fashion goods, husband of movie start Salma Hayek. Or, one might ask if this is really a cause for celebration.

Since our 2009 post on the subject stating that since the objects were taken before current laws were in place, China’s “only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market,” Pinault has found another way. Purchasing the bronzes then “donating” them back to China, “their rightful home”, Pinault has found another solution, and a  way to improve business and diplomatic relations with a nation that boasts an impressive purchasing power by showing respect for its cultural heritage. The sculptures are of two animals in the Chinese zodiac, and were part of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 (Imperial Summer Palace), sacked by French and British troops in the 19th century. China’s mission to track down the many other artifacts looted at that time has been widely published and sometimes criticized.

We will never know if Pinault’s act of generosity would take place if China had not emerged as PPR’s “fastest-growing market for its luxury goods” and if the celebrities had not shown their keen interest. What we do know, is that the return of these sculptures is the right thing to do, even if—and perhaps particularly—when the case of the animal heads is not a legal but a moral issue. For this, we applaud Pinault.

ChinastopplunderYet, on the eve of the decision whether to renew restrictions on the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US, SAFE believes it is time to focus on China’s “other” looting problem, and we think, the most important problem: the plunder of its numerous ancient sites yet to be excavated. In her testimony in support of China’s request for a bilateral agreement that calls for import restrictions, SAFE Founder Cindy Ho said in 2005:

One of the biggest archaeological mysteries in China is the joint tomb of China’s only Empress Wu Zetian, and her husband Emperor Li Zhi. Called Qianling, it is the only tomb in China that holds two emperors and the only Tang tomb that has not been looted. It has yet to be excavated because for half a century, the proper time to excavate Qianling has been heavily debated. While the Chinese government is concerned about security and looting, archaeologists are eager to study the buried artifacts, which are tantamount to completing our knowledge of the Tang Dynasty. Attempted robberies—although presumably thwarted—have made everyone uneasy.

What is buried in Qianling will remain forever unknown if the pillage in China continues. We will never know what the ancient bamboo tablets with ancient inscriptions had to tell us just as the stories of daily life are lost when cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia are looted.  Nor will we ever understand the history of the ancient Northern People, the Chu Culture, much like the Vicús people of Peru, whose culture we know little about because of the illicit antiquities trade.

Nearly 10 years later, the official word is: no excavation of Qianling is considered for at least another 50 years, citing “preservation of the integrity of the tomb site and maintaining the environment of surrounding areas” as the top concern.

Authentic pieces of Yuanmingyuan may not resurface on the auction block any time soon, given the recent notoriety of the case of the animal heads and China’s continued rise as a formidable negotiator in the global arena. But the kind of plunder in the case of Yuanmingyuan is quite different from the kind of looting SAFE is most concerned about: the destruction of intact evidence of our undiscovered past, humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource.

Since January 2009, the US has decided to join with the international response to curbing looting and the illicit antiquities trade by granting China’s request for help in preserving its cultural heritage, our cultural heritage by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). As long as knowledge about our past cannot be revealed because of the threat of looting to feed the antiquities trade, SAFE supports import restrictions as an effective deterrent to looting. As long as another alternative to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (UNESCO) and the Cultural Property Implementation Act has yet to emerge, we urge the Department of State and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend to the President to continue to abide by the US obligations as a member state of UNESCO and reaffirm its commitment to shared global cultural heritage by renewal the MoU for another five years.

This is why until media pressure focuses on the “other” looting problem: the plunder of sites to feed the black market trade of antiquities, we could celebrate the repatriation of the the rabbit and the rat only with cautious optimism and hope that the US would also do the right thing, as Pinault has.

MOU between the US and Belize Closes Loophole

In joining forces with the US to prevent looting, Belize stands in solidarity with its neighboring countries in the Maya region. The Honorable Jose Manuel Heredia, Belize Minister of Tourism and Culture, signed into effect a bilateral agreement between the governments of the United States and Belize under the 1970 UNESCO convention. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) places import restrictions on Pre-Columbian archaeological and Colonial-period ethnological objects from Belize entering the US. Similar bilateral agreements have already been in place between the US and Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. With this MOU, Belize is no longer an unwilling loophole for illegal antiquities smuggling in the Maya region.

Since the passing of the Ancient Monument Protection Ordinance in 1894, Belize has protected its rich cultural heritage with some of the most comprehensive antiquities policies in Central America. Scientifically excavated artifacts from Belize are on display in educational exhibits at on-site museums throughout Belize, as well as on loan to museums throughout the world. Please join us in celebrating this historic milestone.

Captain Gunter’s "loot": Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction

The sale of a 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694.00) at London auction house Woolley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 “Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin, October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King’s Dragoon Guards.”This engraving not only increased the box’s value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.

All is Fair in Loot and War?

Whether we regard items such as the Captain Gunter box as “stolen,” “plundered,” “contraband,” “spoils of war,” “ransacked,” “pillaged,” or as Gunter appropriately chose “looted,” the taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself. Art Law: Cases and Materials perhaps says it best:

This historical sketch [referring to Roman activities] emphasizes the problem that can arise when the army of one nation occupies another. Historically, the world community did very little to protect national patrimony from plunder and destruction. Conquering armies believed they possessed the right to despoil a apparently defeated enemy. What about the interest of future generations in their nation’s cultural property? Should they be deprived of their national artistic heritage merely because their country was defeated in battle? The protection of national patrimony from plunder has ramifications beyond the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. (Leonard D. DuBoff, Sherri Burr, Michael D. Murray, Art Law: Cases and Materials, 2004, 32).

The looting of the Summer Palace on October 18th and 19th, 1860 is considered by many as one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history. The Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, occurred in two stages between 1839 and 1860 after trade relations broke down between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. During the war, British forces razed historic Chinese sites and looted Chinese “souvenirs.”

Interesting enough, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace occurred under the orders of the British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin responsible for the “preservation” of the metopes, friezes, and pedimental sculptures of the Acropolis, now in the British Museum. The destruction of the Summer Palace, a brash act of pyromania, led to the death of hundreds of eunuchs trapped inside the compound and the “pillaging” of some 1.5 million relics. This signaled the end of the Opium War. In October 2010, China lamented the 150 year anniversary of the Opium War and the burning of the Summer Palace.

Captain Gunter’s inscribed box is only one of the many items that he “looted” from the Summer Palace. On May 19th, 2011, Duke’s Auctioneers of Dorchester Captain Gunter’s descendants sold eleven pieces from the Summer Palace, including a 18th Century Qianlong period yellow jade pendant with a carved dragon for £478,000. In the auction catalogue, Duke’s identified the pieces as “acquired” from the Summer Palace, rather than the more controversial term “looted.” The Gunter family still holds possession of an extensive collection of artifacts– ivory chopsticks, jade boxes, jade chimes, bowls, and a jadeite belt hook estimated to be worth over £2 million. Guy Schwinge, an expert from Duke’s, recounts his visit to the Gunter estate in May 2011. He stated in The Daily Mail:

When I arrived at the house and was shown into the sitting room, I was not sure what I was going to see. We discussed the market for Chinese works of art over a cup of coffee and the results we had achieve at our recent Melplash Court sale, which included many Chinese works. The family then began to pull the most stunning pieces of jade from the back of a display cabinet in the corner of the room. I was stunned by the quality and number of pieces of jade that emerged from the cabinet. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. (The Daily Mail, May 4, 2011).

The future of these items is still not known.

The “looting” that took place at the Summer Palace is not an isolated incident. In fact, the Chinese Cultural Relics Foundation predicts that over ten million cultural objects were “plundered” from China between 1840 and 1949. The 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace looting, coupled with China’s growing wealth and status has ignited a strong and unified movement to return Chinese antiquities to their homeland.

The Chinese Art Market

However, instead of going to public museums, most Chinese antiquities enter private collections, displayed as a sign of wealth and power, not patriotism. Andrew Jabobs, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in 2009:  

At its core, such mixed signals [of the Chinese search for relics] are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization of imperial powers? Or, is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade dependent economy? (The New York Times, “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums,” December 17, 2009).  

The China Daily, agreed that the motives of China’s wealthy class to purchase of antiquities is questionable. They wrote, Although patriotism is playing a part in this hunting to recapture looted treasures, experts say that majority of buyers are in fact more interested in the investment potential of ancient works–and the glamour (Cheng Yingqi, The China Daily, December 15, 2010).

The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings (Scott Rayburn, “China Antique Sales Raise Record Sums”, The China Daily, May 23, 2011). The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually. After the October 2011 sale of “looted objects” from the Summer Palace, Tom Flynn, author of the blog ArtKnows, stated:

Recent auctions in the UK–even those held in the British Provinces–have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel– and indeed how high they are prepared to bid–to secure Imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete (Art Knows, October 27, 2011).

In recent years, major auctions houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have opened locations in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong– each enjoying enormous success. For example, a 2010 auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong specializing in Asian art totaled a record $447 million (Giles Turner, “Buying Frenzy for Chinese Art,” Financial News, May 12, 2011).

Government Regulation

The sale of artifacts “looted” from the Summer Palace is complicated by China’s export laws and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States. China’s Ministry of Culture issued “Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Import and Export of Art” on July 17, 2009. Article 5 of the provision states: “Art works are prohibited from being imported or exported if they contain content which:  

(1) violates the basic principles of the Constitution of China;

(2) endangers the unification of the country, national sovereignty or territorial integrity;

(3) divulges state secrets, endangers state security, honor or interests;

(4) incites ethnic hatred, discrimination, or harms ethnic unity or habits and customs;

(5) propagates or publicizes cults or superstitions;

(6) disrupts social order or stability;

(7) advocates or publicizes obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, horror, or instigates crime;

(8) libels, slanders or harms the legal interests of others;

(9) deliberately tampers with history or severely distorts history;

(10) harms public morals or ethnic cultural traditions; or

(11) other content prohibited by laws, regulations and rules.” (Nancy M. Murphy, “Provisions on the Managements of the Import and Export of Art,” July 17, 2009).

These provisions, in summary, give the government complete control over any and all works of art which enter or exit the country. These rules can be broadly interpreted and make it almost impossible to export Chinese antiquities from the country. The provisions also have created an underground trade, or black market, for Chinese antiquities.

Furthermore, the United States entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with China on January 14th, 2009, “acting pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, to which both countries are party; and desiring to reduce the incentives for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the rich cultural heritage of China.” (United States, Department of State). For this reason, the trade in Chinese antiquities, particularly items that are newly discovered or have no established provenance, has shifted from the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. For more information on the China MOU visit  SAFE’s web site here and SAFECORNER’s coverage at “Bilateral Agreements at Work,” “Trying to put ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again,” and “Cultural Heritage in Danger: Reacting to the New York Times.”

Yuanmingyuan Park, which houses the remaining Summer Palace relics, recently called upon foreign museums to return the “looted” relics. According to the United Kingdom’s The Daily Telegraph, the main target of this action was the British Museum (Peter Foster, “China to Study British Museum for Looted Artefacts,” The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2009). Experts, however, are doubtful that items will ever be returned from international museums. Instead, some argue that the government’s public campaign is an attempt to encourage private collectors in China to return or donate the antiquities to the Yuanmingyuan Park. In November 2011, the Yuanmingyuan Park called for a boycott of auctions selling “looted” relics. This, along with the founding of several non-governmental organizations such as the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, has led to aggressive action to retrieve the 1.5 million relics “stolen” from the Summer Palace (“China Experts to Search Abroad for Looted Relics,” France 24, October 19, 2009).


Questionable Auction House Sales

The art world was stunned on March 7, 2009 by what is now being called the “Yves Saint Laurent Fiasco.” The Times’ Richard Morris reported: “The fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the art world” (The Times, March 7, 2009). At an Asian sale at Christie’s Paris a pair of bronze animal heads, once of a set of twelve that made up a water clock at the Summer Palace, achieved a hammer price of £28 million. The bidder, Cai Mingchao, a once trusted Christie’s client, promptly refused to pay. In a statement he said his intentions were to “draw attention to this sale of looted treasure…. There is an indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artifacts that were looted from the country” (The Times, March 7, 2009).

Christie’s options included: (1) sue for the payment, drawing attention to the fact that they are selling known “looted” goods; or (2) attempt to re-auction the heads to buyers now aware of the questionable provenance and potential for a title claim. Both options would damage Christie’s image, respectability, reliability, and result in extreme legal fees. The bronze animal heads were returned to the consignor. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Christie’s may receive some form of payment. Cai Mingchao was, therefore, successful in his statement about “looted” goods. This episode served as a wake-up call. As a result, auction houses in the United Kingdom now require pre-registration applications, financial references, guarantees, and deposits at least three days before Asian art sales. Such measures limit the possible economic losses for auction houses. Yet, these pre-registration requirements they do not prevent the loss of reliability and reputation that are key to the auction business.

This brings us back to Captain Gunter’s gold box.  Was the risk of auctioning an obviously “looted” item worth Woolley and Willis’ premium return on $764,694? Granted, the Gunter family currently has possession, but who truly owns such “looted” items? Where should they go, what should happen to them? These are questions not only relevant to the Captain Gunter case, but to the all the artifacts “stolen” or “looted” from the Summer Palace.

Photos Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis, The Daily Mail, and The Times.

Do Bulgarians want import restrictions on antiquities into the US?

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the signing of the US-Greece MOU

SAFE received the following letter written by the Chairman of Buditel Circle, a non-governmental organization, to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in support of Bulgaria’s request for a bilateral agreement with the US to protect its cultural heritage.

SAFE, a US based non-governmental and nonprofit organization which advocates for these bilateral agreements as a deterrent to looting (under article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property to which both Bulgaria and the US are state party) is pleased to share the letter with our readers:

София 1303,
ул.  “Опълченска” № 66
тел.:, 0886339909
buditel@mail.bg

Hon. Hilary R. Clinton, Secretary
United States Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

2 November 2011

Dear Madam Secretary:

We would like to take this opportunity and strongly support the request submitted by the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Government of the United States of America to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between our two countries that aims at conserving the Bulgarian cultural heritage from theft. The United States is the most prominent champion of upholding international law, conventions, and norms, principles about which you have spoken with much elegance, eloquence and passion. Having this in mind we hopeful that your Government will grant this request.

Our organization, Buditel Circle, is a Bulgarian NGO dedicated to the preservation, development, promotion and research of the culture, history and intellectual achievements of the Bulgarian lands. Initially created around the Buditel magazine, Buditel Circle today includes prominent scholars, celebrities in the field of arts and culture, intellectuals and businessmen from around the world.

Buditel Circle is also very pleased to inform you that starting November 2011, we will have a representative in the United States. Mr. Dimitar Georgiev will serve as a liaison between the organization’s board and Washington. He may be reached at dg343@georgetown.edu or (646) 275-4685. We look forward to a friendly and constructive partnership.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Most Respectfully,

Plamen Georgiev – Kraisky
Honorary Chairman

This letter is supported by a myriad of individuals and organizations. The most prominent of those include:

Individuals:

Prof. Andrey Pantev
Ms. Albena Taneva, Ph.D.
Mr. Alexander Vulchev
Prof. Bojirad Dimitrov, Director of the National Museum of History
Mr. Atanas Orachev, Ph.D.
Prof. Valeria Fol, Cultural Anthropologist, specialist in the Thracian Civilization
Ms. Valeria Sarieva
Mr. Vassil Gyuselev, Member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Ms. Galya Pindikova
Prof. Georgui Bakalov
Prof. Georgy Markov, Member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Ms. Gergana Yordanova
Ms. Daniela Agre, Archaeologist
Prof. Evgueny Sachev, Head of Department in the University for Library and Information Sciences
Mr. Ivan Hristov, Ph.D.
Mr. Ilya Prokopov, Ph.D.
Ms. Irena Aleksandrova
Ms. Malvina Ruseva, Ph.D.
Mr. Yordan Vassilev, Ph.D.
Ms. Katya Tzekova, Ph.D, Director of National Polytechnic Museum
Prof. Kalin Porojanov, Scientific Secretary, the Institute for Thracology: “Alexander Fol,” Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Mr. Krassimir Nikolov
Mr. Kamen Velkov
Prof. Kiril Yordanov, Director of the Institute for Thracology: “Alexander Fol,” Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Mr. Krum Kasabov, Ph.D.
Mr. Ludmil Stanchev
Prof. Mila Santova
Prof. Margarita Vaklinova
Mr. Nikolay Markov, Ph.D.
Mr. Pavel Petkov
Mr. Petar Garena, Ph.D.
Mr. Petur Kunev
Mr. Plamen Kraisky, Founder of Buditel
Ms. Rossitza Ohridska-Olson, Cultural Heritage and Tourism Consultant
Ms. Roumiana Pashalyiska, Ph.D
Mr. Stoyan Prodanov, Ph.D.
Ms. Svetlana Leneva
Prof. Serguey Ignatov
Prof. Simeon Nedkov
Prof. Stoyan Denchev, Dean of the University for Library and Information Sciences
Ms. Sonya Purvanova, Literary Eidtor of Buditel Magazine
Ms. Teophana Matakieva, Ph.D.
Prof. Christo Haralampiev
Mr. Hristo Temelski, Ph.D.
Mr. Hristo Drumev
Mr. Dimitar Georgiev, Representative of Buditel Circle to the United States

Organizations:

The Institute for Thracology “Alexander Fol”
The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
The Bulgarian National Museum of History
The National Polytechnic Museum
The Bulgarian National Museum of Literature
The Regional Museum of History in the city of Kurdjaly
ELCO Inc.
STS Print Inc.
3M Bulgaria.

CPAC to review requests by Bulgaria and Belize for Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S.

The U.S. Department of State has issued a Notice of the Meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to take place November 15-17, 2011. The Committee will begin its review of new cultural property requests from the Governments of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Belize seeking import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material. On November 16, an open session to receive oral public comment on these requests will be held from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. If you wish to attend the open session, you must call and notify the Cultural Heritage Center of the Department of State no later than November 2, 2011, 5 p.m. (E.D.T.) to arrange for admission. If you wish to speak at the public session you must request to be scheduled and must submit a written text of your oral comments no later than November 2.

If you cannot attend the open session, you can still support the requests of both Belize and Bulgaria by visiting SAFE’s Say YES to Bulgaria page and Say YES to Belize page for guidelines on how to write and send an informed and effective letter expressing your hope that the U.S. will sign bilateral agreements with both Bulgaria and Belize. Also, add your name to the list of people supporting the preservation of the cultural heritage of Bulgaria.

Click here for more information on bilateral agreements and why SAFE supports them.

Bilateral agreements at work

On March 11, 2011, the U.S. returned 14 ancient artifacts to China that had been seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from illicit traffickers in 2010.

“Following the signing of an agreement between the United States and China in 2009, the two countries have been working closely to prevent illicit trafficking of archaeological objects.” Xinhua reported. The agreement refers to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which restricts the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US.

These bilateral agreements have been the source of much debate among those who are interested in reducing the incentive for looting and others who wish to collect archaeological material from other nations without restriction.

Deng Hongbo, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Chinese Embassy was quoted as describing the repatriation as a “telling example of how close our law enforcement cooperation has become, and how firmly we both are committed to this dimension of our bilateral relations.” On this day, there appeared to be no doubt that cooperation between the two nations via the MOU was working to combat the illicit antiquities trade.

Photo: Northern Qi Dynasty limestone Buddha returns to China (Xinhua)

Import restrictions on Italian antiquities extended

Today’s Federal Register announced that import restrictions imposed on certain archaeological material originating in Italy have been extended for another five years. The material represents the pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman periods of its cultural heritage, ranging in date from approximately the 9th century B.C. through approximately the 4th century A.D. The determination was made under the terms of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act that implemented the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In addition, coins have been added to the list of items covered by the restrictions.

SAFE supports the decision and applauds the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for continuing to recognize import restrictions as an effective deterrent against the destruction of cultural heritage, and the fact that coins “are an equally important historical source and are no less important ‘antiquities’.

What does the law say about cultural heritage?

We are pleased to call attention to a helpful document by Christina Luke, entitled “Understanding the U.S. Border: Archaeologists, Law Enforcement, and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage”, aimed “to provide the archaeological community and others with an overview of how law enforcement works to protect cultural heritage; to outline the safeguards offered by cultural heritage law; and to suggest ways that archaeologists may contribute their expertise to this process.”

This well-organized and clearly written document contains very helpful information, from an overview to deep content accessible through links provided throughout. It also includes Q and A section, as well as organizational flow charts. For example, it warns that under bilateral agreements (see SAFE’s page about this here) that impose import restrictions upon certain classes of archaeological and/or ethnologic material between the U.S. and more than a dozen foreign countries, restricted material may be forfeited and returned to their countries of origin.

SAFE believes that combating cultural property crime (as with other crimes) begins with greater public awareness. Does a typical tourist who purchases an ancient artifact while visiting Peru know that their new-found treasure could be confiscated by the authorities? Does that same tourist know that importing such material into the United States without full disclosure on a customs declaration form may be a violation of law? SAFE applauds Christina Luke’s effort to educate the general public about these issues by describing the laws and enforcement measures that help to preserve cultural property around the world.

CPAC review of MOU between U.S. and Italy

Last week, the U.S. Department of State issued a Notice of the Meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to take place May 6-7, 2010. The committee will review a proposal to extend the MOU between the U.S. and Italy concerning the current import restrictions on archaeological material. You can register to speak or simply sit in during the public session (May 6th 9:30-11AM) by calling the Cultural Heritage Center. Note that if you do wish to speak at this meeting, comments are limited to 5 minutes and must be submitted for the committee’s review by April 22, 2010. Even if you cannot be attendance at the CPAC meeting, you can still make a difference by faxing a letter to the Cultural Heritage Center (also by April 22). Please refer to SAFE’s “Say YES to Italy” page and to the AIA’s guidelines to write an informed and effective letter expressing your hope that the U.S. will extend their bilateral agreement with Italy.

“Cultural vandalism”: The destruction of ancient Kashgar

The Chinese government has begun its plan to raze the old oasis city of Kashgar to the ground. According to news reports, two-thirds of this old city has already been bulldozed. Over the next few years, 85% of Kashgar will be demolished.

Kashgar, “virtually untouched by modern society,” is an important oasis city strategically located on the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Architect and historian George Michell described Kashgar as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, predating the advent of Islam, are one of China’s largest ethnic minorities.

Because Kashgar is a city that lies in the heart of Central Asia, it was one of the most important cities along the northern route of ancient Silk Road. As much influenced by European, Islamic, and Persian cultures as Chinese, the city has been known to exist in this area since the Han Dynasty (ca. 202 B.C. – 221 A.D.). Since that time, it has seen heavy traffic from people coming from Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia as they made their way from the city of Xian in the East, all the way to the western part of the Roman Empire. Today, it is a city that covers roughly 15 square kilometers, and is still an important connection point on routes between China and northern Pakistan over and around the Taklamakan Desert.

It is a city that has been occupied by dozens of cultural groups, and influenced by countless more. The rich archaeological heritage that has been left behind by hundreds of years of traders goes without saying. It is a heritage that should not be lightly dismissed, and yet it is in imminent danger of destruction.

The act of razing the city is reportedly a part of a government plan to relocate Uyghur residents from unsafe, overcrowded homes susceptible to earthquake to more modern, safer quarters. At the same time, “China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations’ World Heritage sites – a powerful draw for tourists, and a major incentive for governments to preserve historic areas. But Kashgar is missing from the list of proposed sites.” Officials also spoke of plans to turn what remains of Kashgar into a tourist attraction.

“Here, Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated culture will be destroyed.” Said Wu Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University’s School of Geography, who did field research in Kashgar last year. Others have called this “cultural vandalism” “stupid” and “cruel”. According to Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, at a seminar in 2007 to assess the urban plan for the historical preservation of Kashgar experts made three recommendations: a. The urban plan should focus more on how to preserve the old town; b. The urban plan should further study the history of the old town, in relationship to its rich culture; c. The urban plan should further study how to protect both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

SAFE joins Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center in an appeal to the Chinese government to publicize its plan for protecting historic Kashgar and its cultural heritage. It would help the general public to know what is going to be done not only to protect citizens, but also to preserve Kashgar’s the rich cultural heritage and archaeological record that has yet to be fully explored.

The demolition of the Old City is a completion of a project that was started years ago. At this point, asking for the demolition to stop might be an action taken too late, but it is not too late to ask that more care be taken in preserving what is left of Kashgar’s cultural patrimony. It is not too late to question whether a more sensitive approach can be taken. It is not too late to demand that a plan for preservation and protection be made available to the international community. After all, success was achieved in China’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States earlier this year; it is not too much to ask that China honor this achievement by doing everything it can to ensure that Old Kashgar, a beacon of Central Asian immovable cultural property, does not disappear.

(Photo: Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)

Brent Benjamin to join CPAC: "An outrageous appointment…"

The Museum Security Network has started a discussion over the appointment of St. Louis Art Museum director Brent R. Benjamin as a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. “Doing so the USA will defame itself internationally.” Ton Cremers, one of the Museum Security Network’s moderators and creator of the original Museum Security Network mailing list protests. The St. Louis Art Museum has been criticized by Zahi Hawass, secretary general for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, for “not returning the mask and has threatened to turn the dispute over to authorities.”

Members of the coin collecting and lobbying community have called the appointment “positive news” and “as protecting the rights of collectors.” Are the political powers of lobbying winning out over issues concerning cultural property?

Read about the controversy here and on the LOOTING MATTERS blog, in which David Gill asks, “Does the Bush administration mean to send out a signal that it does not care about claims on cultural property in North American museums?”

SAFE hopes this appointment does not represent a change in direction for CPAC. To date, CPAC has not turned down a single MOU request from any country, a laudable record among those of us who are concerned about stopping looting worldwide.

Photo: St. Louis Commerce Magazine

May 12th Earthquake Threatens Chinese Cultural Heritage

A statue of Buddha is all that remains of the Xiayuan Temple, a cultural relic in Luoshui, Shifang, Sichuan province. Zhang Xiaoli (China Daily)

While our primary concern remains with the more than 62,000 who perished, the more than 250,000 who were injured and the five million people who have become homeless in the wake of the May 12th earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, we should not forget the hundreds of cultural heritage sites in the region that have been damaged or obliterated. One example, reported by The New York Times is the 1,500-year-old Taoist sanctuary known as the Two Kings Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, near Dujiangyan.

According to the China Daily newspaper, experts at a disaster relief conference held at Chengdu on May 20th reported that many ancient buildings in Sichuan have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse. A total of 841 museum relics, 148 of which were regarded as precious, have been ruined. On May 23rd, the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage stated that sixty-five cultural monuments under state protection and 119 under provincial protection in Sichuan province have been severely damaged as a result of May 12 earthquake.

In addition to the Two Kings Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage site in Dujiangyan, Mount Qingcheng, known as the birthplace of Taoism, the Museum of the Sanxingdui Ruins in Guanghan county, about 40 kilometers north of Chengdu, a 16th century in Langzhong county, and the 15th century Bao’en Temple in Pingwu county were among the worst hit. According to Wang Qiong, the deputy chief of the Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Heritage, many of the Bao’en Temple walls have collapsed and their frescos have been ruined. Before the earthquake, the temple measured some 280 meters long, making it one of the largest Buddhist temples in all of Sichuan Province. The Ming pagoda at Nanchong literally broke into pieces, according to Deng Changwen, a spokesman for the Sichuan Provincial Seismological Bureau.

Sichuan’s cultural bureau has begun an assessment of all registered cultural heritage sites and has asked museums across the province to temporarily store their exhibits to ensure their safety.

A New Way Forward for U.S. Museums

The following article is published at the request of its author, Thomas Noble Howe.

There is currently exhibit of some 70 repatriated art objects in the Italian presidential palace, mostly from the Getty, Metropolitan and Boston Museums (“Nostoi, Capolavori ritrovati”, at the Quirinal Palace, Rome, 21 December-2 March, 2008, ).

It has a distinctly triumphal quality to it (not without some justification) but as in any Roman triumph, there are losers. Although I am primarily an archaeologist, the first impression was the loss of the great amount of work that it took those museums to gather funds, seek and assemble objects into parts of a coherent collection. But the second impression—the archaeologist speaking—was to see that around every object on display there is a penumbra of destruction: looted tombs, lost association with other objects, dating material, findspot and hence cultural context.

The many-year campaign of the Italian government to prevent looting of antiquities has produced many victories for archaeology, but the news still appears to be grim for U.S. museums. Toward the end of his book The Medici Conspiracy, on the recent history of the market in illicit antiquities and the attempts of the Italian government to stem it (2006), Peter Watson declares: “It is no longer possible to form a collection of classical antiquities by legitimate means.”

It is in fact possible, but it requires art museums and archaeology radically to rethink the nature of antiquities collection. Italian archaeology—and its partners—have already done a lot of that thinking.

Several of the museums which have surrendered antiquities to Italy (the Metropolitan, Boston) have received or been promised equivalent quality long term loans. But there is another path open to museums, including those who have no antiquities to surrender in exchange, and that path is to work with organizations which in some way study and protect Italian archaeological sites.

Our foundation, the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, is the first non-profit cultural foundation of its kind in Italy, and is well on its way to undertaking a huge task—excavating a major Italian archaeological site (the enormous ancient Rome seaside villas of Stabiae near Pompeii)—but in a way that has never been tried before in archaeology: as a permanent semi-public, semi-private foundation which will share in the actual long term management and conservation of the site. We are an Italian non-profit foundation with international board representation (including the University of Maryland). Large excavations are under way, buildings are being constructed, a 100-room international study institute is under our management, and a marine archaeology vessel is about to start research operations this summer.

And we have just concluded a touring exhibit of Roman frescoes, In Stabiano, Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, which opened at the Smithsonian in 2004. This was the first long-term loan of objects from Italy to the U.S. and its success was apparently instrumental in persuading the U.S. State Department in January 2006 to renew the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Italy which permits long term loans and forbids importing of unprovenanced antiquities. Other exhibits and tours are being planned.

Supportive collaboration in any way with a foundation like ours justifies a long term loan to a U.S. institution, and the amount of material in Italian museums and storerooms is enormous. U.S. museums curators’ attitudes are changing; I have heard some say that they feel that they don’t necessarily have to own the antiquities which they display.

If a foundation like ours can be the conduit for supporting Italian archaeological sites and a new way of building fine public antiquities collections in the U.S., Italians on the other hand need to support their own highly creative policies, and the people who developed them. Our initiatives were in fact created in large part by the now long serving Superintendent of Pompei, Prof. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, who has quietly initiated a new generation of international work in Pompei, and who may or may not continue as superintendent of the new joint Superintendancy of Pompei and the Naples museum (where most of the early finds from Pompeii and Stabiae are housed). This foundation, a creation of Italians, Americans and other nationalities, was in fact created at the invitation of Prof. Guzzo, and his vision of the possibilities inherent in the general policies of the Cultural Ministry and the 2001/2006 MOU between the U.S. and Italy.

Italy is one of the richest countries in the world in cultural treasuries, but it is also one of most generous—and ingenious—in sharing them. If one wishes to share in enjoying Italian provenanced antiquities, it is still possible, as long as want also wants to share in the responsibility of maintaining them.

Thomas Noble Howe,
Coordinator General, Fondazione Restoring Ancient Stabiae
www.stabiae.org
Herman Brown Professor, Southwestern University

“United States Extends Agreement Protecting Italy’s Archaeological Materials Representing the Pre-classical, Classical and Imperial Roman Periods”

“The MOU has been especially helpful in enriching American cultural life through research, educational programs and loans between Italian and American institutions. Within the framework of the MOU, a number of loan initiatives promise to bring more Italian artifacts to America for longer terms. The United States is pleased that, pursuant to the MOU, Italy now permits international loans of objects of antiquity for up to four years. Since 2004, the highly successful In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite has been on a tour to nine American museums, which will end in 2008.” (Media Note, Cultural Properties Advisory Board, United States Department of State)(CREDIT: Plinio Lepri/Associated Press