The vote is in: We want international cooperation for cultural heritage protection

On May 29, SAFE opened up an informal poll to gauge public opinion on the issue of international cooperation on cultural heritage protection. This was inspired by Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to restrict imports of Egyptian archaeological and ethnological material into the United States. The goal was to raise public awareness, a core mission of SAFE.

In fact, the poll did an excellent job—it got people talking. A total of 142 people voted on the poll, and more than twenty-five experts and concerned public took the trouble to put thoughtful comments on the SAFE webpage, the poll website, and LinkedIn group pages.

An overwhelming majority of the voters (89.44%) voted for the first choice—a simple “Yes,” that all nations should help protect each other’s cultural heritage.

It seemed that many people who responded YES saw the international cooperation on protecting cultural heritage as an obvious, basic moral duty. But what intrigued me the most was that some people have voted for the runner-up choice (albeit only with 5.63% support): “No, a nation only deserves assistance if it has a stable government, incorruptible officials and adequate museum facilities in which to preserve the protected materials.”

This was a kind of argument that the stubborn retentionists of the 80s and 90s often used to undermine source countries’ ability to take care of their cultural heritage.

One of the commenters on the SAFE website, Nigel Sadler, perhaps provides an insight into why some people might prefer partial or limited repatriation. First, Sadler reasoned that his understanding of this answer choice was not that objects should never be returned to politically unstable countries, but that they should ultimately be at some point. Then he said,

“there has to be a degree of stability in the government and there must be museums or organisations that can house, safeguard, and even display the items in a secure environment.”

This view suggests that some people might think temporary retentionism is permissible. However, Ian MacLeod, Executive Director at Western Australian Maritime Museum, seems to disagree, for he wrote,

“All nations deserve support regardless of the stability of the country—it is a shared cultural resource we protect.”

<caption>Results of the poll</caption> Results of the poll

Another idea that was echoed in several comments was that cultural heritage belongs to all humans regardless of nationality and cultural affinity. Christ Durham wrote:

“It is the heritage of all humans no matter which country it resides in.”

As a college student who has studied both the retentionism and restitutionism arguments, I personally thought that this idea could go either way. That is, if cultural heritage belongs to all mankind, you can argue that the museums with the highest number of visitors and the best conservation resources should keep the objects—a classic retentionism argument. But you can also make an opposite argument for repatriation: because cultural objects belong to all people, the objects should be placed within their source countries’ cultural context, where they can be best understood for the benefit of the entire world.

This is why I thought that Shruti Das raised an interesting point—she broke away from the dichotomy of retentionism and restitutionism. She wrote that there is the

“need to create a common platform for all the nations, where they can stand for the preservation of cultural heritage irrespective of national bias or discrimination.”

Therefore, she is talking not from the point of view of ownership, but from the point of view of shared efforts and shared knowledge. Sachin Bansal chimed in, writing,

“we should have a knowledge transfer exercises [sic] on the heritage preservations as ‘one world’ concept. People should share insights . . .”

Despite some disagreements, it was apparent that everyone wanted to advocate for more action to establish a worldwide culture of respect for every culture’s heritage. Jack Rollins’s eloquent comment might be a nice point to wrap up this summary. He commented on June 21:

“However tragic these losses are, the fact is that if someone has the power to do something, he also has the power not to do it. If the world sits by watching one minimally civilized group destroy—forever—any part of the world’s culture, how unendurably self-absorbed are we; a shiftless, spoilt, selfish, coarse citizens of the world we must see ourselves as ‘rudely stamp’d.’”

That is, apathy, laziness, and neglect are the worst enemies of safeguarding the heritage of all cultures.

Let SAFE know about your thoughts on another important issue on cultural heritage protection: Should the St. Louis Art Museum voluntarily return the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer to Egypt? Vote here.

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?

Auctioning Sacred Objects in Paris, Indigenous Cultural Patrimony, and Burdens of Proof

The April 2013 auction of sacred Native American ceremonial items by the auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou* in Paris proceeded only after legal action and vocal international protests from indigenous peoples, anthropologists, museologists, and even the USA government. Ultimately, the French courts upheld the property right of artifact collectors and the auction house over the rights of the Hopi and other indigenous peoples to protect their collective cultural patrimony.

Photograph of auction underway at Tessier & Sarrou. The auction floor of Tessier & Sarrou.
Photo by Tessier & Sarrou.

According to the 12 April 2013, New York Times, the auctioneer told assembled bidders that ‘in France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his,’ meaning, of course, the rights of wealthy collectors trump those of indigenous cultures.

Not surprisingly, the auction event and outcome were topics that surfaced in several discussions during the recent American Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago. A series of commentaries in response to the auction are also featured in the Fall 2013 issue [36(2)] of Museum Anthropology, journal of the Council on Museum Anthropology.

Leading those commentaries is the press release from the Hopi Tribe, which states the issues succinctly and should be read in its entirety:

Kykotsmovi, Ariz.-The Hopi Tribe is vehemently opposed to the auction of Hopi sacred objects at the upcoming Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction scheduled for April 12 in France. The tribe is requesting that the sacred objects be returned to the Hopi Tribe immediately.

“The Hopi Tribe must protect the cultural beliefs that we have used for centuries and still continue to use today,” said Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa. “We think these sacred objects were stolen from the Hopi Tribe and should be returned to the proper custodians and caretakers, the Kachina chiefs, within their respective Hopi villages.”

The sacred objects in question have high religious value to the Hopi Tribe dating back centuries. Part of the Hopi Tribe’s cultural history and upbringing states that showing the images of these sacred objects is highly offensive to the Hopi Tribe. In addition, these items should be referred to only as sacred objects; incorrectly labeling them and showing the images is very disrespectful to the entire American Indian community and the Hopi Tribe.

“The majority of the sacred objects that are being sold date back to the 1930s,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office. “They were likely illegally obtained by a French citizen visiting our reservation. The mere fact that a price tag has been placed upon such culturally significant and religious items is beyond offensive. They do not have a market value. Period.”

“The sacred objects that are being put up for auction belong to the entire Hopi Tribe, they have cultural patrimony meaning there is a tribal and cultural right, they have never belonged to a single person,” said Kuwanwisiwma. “Because these objects do not belong to a single person, they have no monetary value and cannot be sold.”

For more information on the Hopi Tribe, visit

The Hopi Tribe argues that the ceremonial objects put on auction are ipso facto illegally in France and should be returned to their respective villages.

Writing in comment on the auction, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh [Denver Museum of Nature & Science] compares three different international claims to cultural property made in 2013 that raise striking questions about repatriation and the burden of proof.

He notes that the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, an art dealer, argued that in 1941 the German NAZI government stole a Matisse painting that is now displayed in the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Baerum, Norway. Rosenberg’s heirs claim ownership and demand return of the painting. A second example is the effort by the Cambodian government to reclaim two statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one from Sotheby’s that were looted sometime between 1970 and 1975. His third example is the effort by the Hopi Tribe to reclaim its lost cerimonial items.

Photograph of Hopi posing with US congressmen Living proof? ‘Senator Cameron of Arizona (with big hat), VP Dawes, and Speaker Longworth with the Hopi Indians who genuine Hopi Snake Dance for members of Congress on plaza, May 15, 1926′ #LC-H2-B-168.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Colwell-Chanthaphonh observes trenchantly that “Modern Western law and Western thought are predicated on the idea of concrete proof. While obviously useful in most cases, it sometimes prejudices courts against Native Americans. Many sacred objects are meant to be esoteric and private, not for public consumption or regular documentation. To provide the kinds of proof needed by a court is a violation in itself. … Really, what kind of proof would the court have accepted about the existence of ancestral spirits?” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2013, 109).

He concludes that the Rosenberg family will likely get their stolen paintings, and the citizens of Cambodia will get their stolen statues, but the Hopi and Zuni people – because their history and culture do not meet Western standards of proof – will not see the return of their stolen katsina and kokko friends.

In her commentary, Miranda Belarde-Lewis [University of Washington] describes her additional outrage of seeing photographs of kokko (the Zuni term for katsina) friends made by the gallery and reproduced for the auction and then again in the coverage of the auction in the press.

Belarde-Lewis expresses shock at seeing the objects displayed as art, and the violation of Pueblo law prohibiting the photography of kokko friends and all associated ceremonial activity. She asks “does a ceremonial item cease being sacred once it is removed from its home community? Of course not” (Belarde-Lewis 2013, 104). She writes that it is damaging to Pueblo “ways of living, being, and knowing, not only when kokko friends are for sale but also when they are depicted as art and when they are represented in images that strip the kokko friends from their context” (ibid).

Other commentaries are provided by Robert G. Breunig [Museum of Northern Arizona], Tony R. Chavarria [Museum of Indian Arts & Culture], Jim Enote [A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center], Cécile R. Ganteaume [National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution], Steven C. Moore [Native American Rights Fund], Lydia Knowles [Denver Museum of Nature & Science], Bruce Bernstein [Continuous Pathways Foundation, Pueblo of Pojoaque].


Belarde-Lewis, M. 2013. No Photography Allowed: Problematic Photographs of Sacred Objects. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 104.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. 2013. Repatriation and Burdens of Proof. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 108-109.

Mashberg, T. 2013. Auction of Hopi Masks Proceeds After Judge’s Ruling. New York Times. 12 April. Accessed at

Additional readiing:

Indian Country entires about auction.

* According to their website, Tessier & Sarrou auction house was “founded in 1691 under the reign of King Louis XIV. It is specialized in sales of furniture and objets d’art, ancient and modern paintings, jewelry, Chinese archeology and arts of Asia, comics, perfumery, silverware, antique textiles, archives and manuscripts, and objects of marine , folk art, toys and dolls.”

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.


Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will new research lead to repatriation of mosaics to Turkey?

Turkey’s latest repatriation request called for the return of a dozen Roman mosaics currently owned and displayed at the Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio. The university acquired the mosaics—which depict birds, human faces and other subjects in intricate detail—in 1965 from a New York dealer for $35,000. BGSU believed the mosaics had been discovered in a Princeton led excavation in Antioch during the 1930s. At the time of the excavation, Antioch was a Syrian province (the province was later annexed to Turkey in 1939), where the university was granted concessions by the Syrian government to excavate in the region. The archeological findings were then legally distributed according to the original agreement with the Syrian government.

New research, however, from Dr. Rebecca Molholt, assistant professor at Brown University, and Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper, assistant professor at BGSU, reveals the mosaics were most likely illegally looted from the ancient Roman garrison town of Zeugma in modern day Turkey in the 1960s and were not acquired from the Princeton campaigns in Antioch as originally believed. This change in provenance could dramatically affect the fate of the mosaics’ final resting place. If the mosaics were excavated from Zeugma as suspected, then they would belong to Turkey under the current Law on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Property of 1983. Turkey has one of the oldest patrimony laws in place (since the Ottoman Empire), vesting ownership of all moveable and immovable artifacts to the state.

Turkey’s General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Abdullah Kocapinar praised BGSU for its responsiveness and candor, stating:

“The attitude of Bowling Green State University will set an example for other universities and art institutions in America which possess cultural properties illegally exported from our country.”

Kocapinar is no doubt alluding to Turkey’s recent requests for at least a dozen objects in U.S. and British collections, wherein the museums have been less than forthcoming about provenance details and acquisition records.

In an additional show of cooperation, a local reporter’s inquiry into the BGSU controversy helped promote dialogue between the two parties and will hopefully allow for a smooth transition between owners should research confirm the mosaics were indeed illegally looted and exported to the United States.

University President Mary Ellen Mazey affirms: “We will do the right thing.”

Click here to view the mosaic tiles.

Sotheby’s "Off-Base" on Cambodian Antiquities Again

It appears that Sotheby’s is in hot water yet again in relation to their unscrupulous selling of Khmer antiquities. A news article has come to my attention concerning the recovery and repatriation of a c. 950 AD warrior statue, likely looted from the site of Koh Ker during the Vietnam/American War. The Cambodian government recently asked the US for help with recovering this priceless artifact when it was discovered that not only was Sotheby’s slated to sell it at auction in March last year, but a pedestal base/feet are, rather poignantly, awaiting reattachment at Koh Ker itself. Importantly, the other statue of the pair was found residing at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, since 1980 (the height of historic artifact looting in Cambodia), awaiting future legal action to get it repatriated–something antiquities lawyers claim will be more difficult to do given how long Cambodian authorities have known about its presence there.

Despite continued claims by both Sotheby’s spokespeople, in-house research suggests that the ‘noble European lady’ who allegedly purchased it in 1975 (from Spink & Sons auction house, London) had “clear legal title.” Given that the documents can allegedly no longer be found, this seems fake to me. To further attempt to hold on to their prize. Sotheby’s lawyers alleged that “Cambodia’s willingness to negotiate indicates that under American and Cambodian law it has no legal claim.” Nevertheless, Marine Corps Reserve corporal Matthew F. Bogdanos (the man who spearheaded the effort to recover loot from the Baghdad museum in 2003) summed up this “conflict” perfectly by saying: “Whatever the letter of the law may state, you have to ask yourself, ‘Does this item pass the smell test?'” In other words, what does the on the ground evidence say?

The NY Times article I link to above makes no indication if the legal challenges have been resolved yet. As suggested in the article, it is implied that one Mr. Istvan Zelnik will purchase the statue for $1mill and return it to Cambodia as a donation. Mr. Zelnik appeared in the news very recently in relation to another Angkor period antiquity (see here). If this goes ahead, this act of good will should be commended, but it remains sad that forging deals with wealthy foreign collectors can sometimes be the only way to get such large items repatriated if matching the price at auction requires several million dollars. Cambodia is certainly not the only country faced with this dilemma or come up with this solution.

The acquisition practices of Sotheby’s in regards to Cambodian antiquities has been quantitatively challenged before (see Davis, T. 2011), but controversy immediately arose around these claims and how much studies like these actually affect large auction house practices are debatable. However, a good outcome from this Koh Ker case might be a shift in the cut-off point (to 1925 from 1993) after which an antiquity for sale from Cambodia can be considered looted or illegally exported, although the burden of proof would remain on archaeologists, detectives and the Cambodian government. If these cases do affect changes to international law, the next step for Cambodia will be to make sure that every artifact class on the ICOM Red Book (especially small, prehistoric items) are included. Although many will undoubtedly continue to slip through customs, at least legal repatriations could more readily be affected if such crutches as “from an old Swiss collection” are removed. In the meantime, here’s hoping this latest international collaborative effort to keep cultural heritage in the hands of those it belongs to succeeds. Look forward to further updates as this story develops.

Photos: The New York Times

Looted memorial statues returned to Kenyan family

Ancestral memorial statues (vigango) erected by the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya are frequently stolen and sold to international art dealers. During the summer of 2007, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) returned two vigango, which had been in the collections of two American museums, to a Mijikenda family in a rural Kenyan village. We give the history of these two stolen statues, including their theft and rediscovery, the efforts leading to their repatriation, and the joyful return ceremony. We also describe how this case inspired the return of nine more vigango from an American family to the NMK, and examine the current status of efforts to protect vigango.

On June 20, 2007, much celebration accompanied the National Museums of Kenya’s (NMK) return of two stolen ancestral memorial statues (vigango, singular kigango, Kigiriama) to a Giriama family near Kaloleni, in the Kenyan coastal hinterland. Returned by two American museums, the two vigango were, according to the NMK Director General Dr. Idle Omar Farah, the first stolen artifacts ever returned to Kenya from the United States. The ceremony drew hundreds of local celebrants and included speeches, performances by local dance troupes, and feasting. The Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, the Honorable Morris Dzoro, delivered the keynote speech. Other dignitaries attending included the NMK Board Chairman, Mr. Issa Timamy, and Ambassador Husein Dado, Senior Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of State for National Heritage. The NMK’s Mombasa branch, under the direction of Mr. Philip Jimbi Katana, made elaborate preparations for the ceremony, including building a steel enclosure in the homestead to protect the returned vigango from further theft.

The ceremony concluded a long and concerted effort by ourselves and our Kenyan colleague, John Baya Mitsanze (a Giriama and senior curator with the NMK) to have the two statues repatriated and to heighten global awareness of the theft of vigango and other non-Western cultural property.

Vigango are carved and erected to incarnate the spirits of deceased members of Gohu, a male semi-secret society, and are considered sacred by the Giriama and other northern Mijikenda peoples.

The two returned vigango were stolen more than twenty years ago, in 1985. By sheer coincidence, Monica Udvardy had photographed them at the Giriama homestead of Kalume Mwakiru shortly before their theft while she was conducting research on Mijikenda gendered secret societies. We (Udvardy and Linda Giles) discovered the vigango fifteen years later in the African collections of the Illinois State University Museum (later transferred to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield) and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

In 2006, we located the Mwakiru family, and later delivered to the NMK’s Mombasa branch the family’s written appeal to have their stolen vigango returned. NMK Principal Curator of Coastal Sites and Monuments, Mr. Philip Jimbi Katana, then wrote the official request to the two American museums. The Illinois State Museum readily agreed to the request, and on September 13, 2006, an eight-person delegation, headed by Kenya’s Minister of State for National Heritage, Suleiman Shakombo, and the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States, Peter Ogego, traveled to Springfield to collect the kigango. At that time, Hampton University refused to return their kigango or even to meet the delegation. However, shortly after the Kenyan delegation left the United States, Hampton bowed to public pressure and shipped the kigango to Kenya.

The NMK’s actions concerning the Mwakiru vigango demonstrate a new focus on recovering Kenya’s cultural heritage not only for the NMK itself, but also on behalf of individuals, families, and ethnic groups. In another recent case, the NMK assisted in the return of regalia of Nandi resistance hero Koitalel arap Samoei from a British family to Nandi elders in 2006.

Tracing the path of the Mwakiru vigango

Most vigango are stolen by unemployed Mijikenda male youths and sold to shops and markets in the coastal cities and in the capital, Nairobi, which then sell them to Western dealers and collectors. Most of the vigango in the United States have been imported by a dealer based in southern California. This dealer has sold many of the vigango to private individuals, including several associated with the Hollywood film industry; these individuals often then donate them to museums. Records from the Illinois State University Museum show that the actor Powers Boothe donated one of the Mwakiru vigango and seven other vigango to the Museum in 1986. The other Mwakiru kigango was donated to Hampton University Museum by an undisclosed individual in the same year; Museum records indicate that it was one of ninety-four vigango collected by the American dealer among the ninety-nine total vigango acquired by the Museum between 1979 and 1987.

Media attention and more vigango repatriation

Our efforts to return these vigango have received widespread attention from the news media. In 2006, Mike Pflanz, the East African correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (London) and the Christian Science Monitor, visited the Mwakirus and published astory in both papers about their stolen vigango and our research on vigango in U.S. museum collections. NMK curator John Baya Mitsanze also took Pflanz and a photographer to the Giriama homestead of Karisa Disii Ngowa to photograph several recently erected vigango. After Pflanz’s articles appeared, we were deluged with requests for interviews by the news media.

Probably the most important coverage was by the New York Times. Marc Lacey, the New York Times East African Bureau chief at the time, researched the story and visited the Mwakiru and Ngowa families with Mitsanze and a photographer. At the Ngowa homestead, however, they discovered that the vigango had been stolen soon after Pflanz’s visit. Lacey’s article about vigango theft, which described the vigango loss of both Giriama families, was published on page 4 of the 2006 Easter Sunday edition. At the same time, Lacey launched a multimedia, interactive version of the story on the New York Times web site which ran for three months.

Other news media reporting the story include Kenya’s national daily newspapers, radio interviews, and discussion on the BBC andNPR. At least fifty special interest blogs and web sites have discussed the issue from the perspectives of art history, archaeology, African Studies, and cultural anthropology.

The media attention has raised general public awareness about the devastating impact on local communities due to the widespread global marketing of African cultural heritage.

It has also led to the voluntary return of nine more vigango from the private African art collection of American producers/screenwriters Lewis and Jay Allen, after Connecticut art dealer Kelly Gingras discovered the Mwakiru case on the Internet while preparing an exhibit at her Insiders/Outsiders Art Gallery. Gingras notified the daughter of the late couple, Brooke Allen, who agreed that the statues should be returned to Kenya. Allen and Gingras handed the statues over to the Kenyan Ambassador during a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York City in June of 2007, an event that was also covered by the New York Times.

There are also indications that the media attention has affected other African art dealers. In October 2007, Linda Giles contacted several African art dealers in New York City about Kenyan artifacts for sale. None of the dealers mentioned having any vigango. An employee of the Pace Primitive Gallery volunteered the information that Kenyan “funerary statues” could no longer be sold. He noted that some of these statues had just recently been returned to Kenya and that it appeared that the statues should never have been collected in the first place.

Current challenges

In spite of these successes, there are still many vigango in museums and private collections in the United States, Europe, and Kenya. We have been able to verify the presence of more than 400 vigango in various American museums, but there is no information about the families from whom they were stolen. This demonstrates the need to photograph vigango still in situ.

Though Kenya’s passage and enactment of a national heritage bill protecting various aspects of natural and cultural heritage is an excellent step, its application is hindered by its lack of a list of specific artifacts covered. Hence, vigango do not currently receive special protection through inclusion in a red list. We are also unaware of any efforts to prevent the sale of vigango and other stolen or endangered cultural items in the many curio and art shops catering to tourists and collectors.


Pogrebin, Robin, 2007. 9 statues uprooted from Africa head home.New York Times, June 26, Arts section: B1.

Giles, Linda, Monica Udvardy, and John Mitsanze, 2004. Cultural property as global commodities: The case of Mijikenda memorial statues. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 27.4 (Winter): 78-82.

Pflanz, Mike, 2006. Kenyans welcome home sacred relics stolen by British. Telegraph, April 15, News section.

Lacey, Marc, 2006. The case of the stolen statues: Solving a Kenyan mystery. New York Times, April 16: 4.

Udvardy, Monica, Linda Giles, and John Mitsanze, 2003. The transatlantic trade in African ancestors: Mijikenda memorial statues (vigango) and the ethics of collecting and curating non-Western cultural property. American Anthropologist, 105.3: 566-80.

Pflanz, Mike, 2006. Theft of sacred vigango angers Kenyan villagers. Christian Science Monitor, March 2.


Bringing Them Home: The Repatriation of Priceless Human Remains and Artifacts to Cambodia

The atmosphere was one of cordiality, but also marked anticipation, as a small crowd of Australian and Cambodian government officials, Embassy representatives, dignitaries, scientists and concerned citizens gathered in the private residence of His Excellency, Cambodian Ambassador Chum Sounry, on the morning of March 10th, 2011. As refreshments were served and the crowd mingled and exchanged pleasantries, everyone’s attention was eventually drawn to a small table positioned along one wall of the spacious lounge room on which was arranged a black tablecloth and several objects that, from a distance, looked like they might belong on display in a museum. However, on closer inspection, one realized that these artifacts, brazenly looted from one or more prehistoric cemetery sites in Cambodia, likely sometime within the last two years, bear stark witness to the most reprehensible side of the world-wide, multi-million dollar antiquities trade. The green bronze bangles, bracelets, arm braces and earrings on display this morning were still partially covered in corrosion, or filled with concreted soil. Furthermore, the majority of the items still contained the partial or complete bones of the individuals on whose arms and legs they were placed in preparation for burial some 2,500 years ago. The most shocking examples present were a nearly complete left-right pair of tibiae/fibulae (i.e. the lower legs, without the feet), completely covered in bronze bangles (see photo above left)! The photo is courtesy of my friend and colleague Noel Hidalgo-Tan, who has also blogged about his participation at the ceremony here.

Forever separated from the skeletons and burials to which they belonged, almost everything we could have learned about their lives is now lost, and for what? So a private collector can display these disembodied remains on their mantle piece or coffee table?! While I admit that most examples of antiquities sold or confiscated do not involve human remains, those that do are all the more repugnant for it! Knowing that willing dealer(s) in such macabre “pieces” exist is almost as shocking as knowing that there is anyone out there so desperate for the perceived ‘status’ that the private display of antiquities would allegedly bring them that they would willingly purchase fragments of a people’s ancestors (in this case, the Khmer people), even if their original ‘attraction’ to the ‘piece’ was the ‘aesthetics’ of the artifact itself. While the ‘supply’ side of the world-wide antiquities trade certainly requires continued outreach and educational efforts to stop looting before it starts, it is cases like these that demonstrate how rapacious the ‘demand’ side has become. Therefore, sharing some details of the case below is warranted. As a practicing Southeast Asian archaeologist and representative of both the Australian National University and Heritage Watch, I and several colleagues were cordially invited to witness this final, very positive, culmination of months of work.

This investigation started with a press release by the Australian Archaeological Association regarding the attempted sale on eBay of two of the above-mentioned arm braces, in clear violation of international law and eBay’s own policy. Although the items were quickly pulled off eBay, further investigations showed the advertisements to directly connect to a well-known Melbourne, Australia based antiquities gallery. This matter was first brought to my attention when I was sent a link to the online catalog entry for one of the braces, priced at several thousand dollars. As I had very recently begun contributing to and blogging for SAFE, I broke this story there on April 3rd, 2010, with two follow-up posts. As a result of this, I was contacted by staff from the Cultural Property division of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts who administer the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage 1986 (PMCH Act). I readily agreed to help where able, firstly by establishing contact between the government department and my colleague Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, the founder of Heritage Watch itself, with many years of on-the-ground excavation and anti-looting outreach experience in Cambodia.

After investigations, Cambodia lodged a request with Australia to seize and return the artifacts. The generally high profile nature of this rather gruesome defilement of a nation’s cultural heritage, therefore, reached a fitting end in this repatriation ceremony. Once the crowd had gathered, official speeches could commence. The ceremony opened with His Excellency, Ambassador Chum Sounry, welcoming one and all and expressing his great pleasure that these priceless artifacts and human remains were rescued in time, and with the full cooperation of Cambodian and Australian authorities. Other delegates spoke on behalf of the Australian government, stressing the fact that the fortunate chance confiscation of this material merely enforced the need for constant vigilance by all involved, and the need for continued cooperation between legal and archaeological professionals to combat the trade. Finally, Dr. O’Reilly spoke, reminding all present that what was being returned was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the more looting and illicit dealing is allowed to continue, the less we can know about humanity’s collective past. With the speeches over, free discussion and casual viewing of the artifacts was allowed until the ceremony concluded approximately two hours later.

Although these specific artifacts will now be promptly returned to Cambodia, most likely (in my opinion) to be stored or displayed at the National Museum, perhaps the most lasting effect of this case in regards to Australian law is that these artifacts and remains now serve as a ‘case study’ within a new Australian government promotional campaign targeting collectors, dealers and importers. With the slogan “Make Sure It’s Above Board,” its goal is to highlight all relevant laws separating licit from illicit antiquities trading in Australia, with relevant examples of confiscations and repatriations made when these laws were violated. Distributed in poster, brochure, and online PDF formats to all port authorities, art dealers/associations (such as AA&ADA), and Customs itself, this program shows real promise in proactively curtailing demand by hopefully getting people to think twice about what they try to import, sell, or buy. To my knowledge, this represents one of the few such programs anywhere in the world. Although undoubtedly looting across the Asia-Pacific region will continue, every such action is another strike against the trade. I, and all involved, remain exceedingly pleased to have assisted in this effort, especially given its rarity and its positive outcome.

The right to rest in peace: Native American human remains and NAGPRA final rule

After 20 years since its passage as federal law on November 16, 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is still capable of sparking off controversies and fiery debates among American Indians, cultural institutions, and academics.

December 12th 2010, with a very much trite titles when it comes to Native American repatriation issues, “Bones of Contention, the New York Times published in its Opinion Page a contribution by Robert L. Kelly, professor of anthropology with the University of Wyoming who alarmingly warned that the final rule enacted by the U.S. Department of Interior on March 15, 2010 regarding the disposition of Native American culturally unidentifiable human remains will “destroy a crucial source of knowledge about North American history and halt a dialogue between scientists and Indian tribes that has been harmonious and enlightening”.

NAGPRA defines two typologies of Native American human remains: culturally affiliated and culturally unidentifiable. Culturally affiliated human remains are those who can be linked, historically or prehistorically, to a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization through a relationship of shared group identity. These remains are repatriated to the lineal descendant or tribe, and then, usually, laid to rest finally in peace.

Culturally unidentifiable human remains are those for whom, although determined to be Native American, no lineal descendant or culturally affiliated present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization can, for different reasons, be determined.

In order to address the rights of Native Americans to – and out of respect for – those ancestral remains, and in agreement with the intent of NAGPRA, the DOI published on October 2007 a proposed rule for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains, inviting public comments that actually arrived from a number of Indian tribes and organizations, museums, cultural and scientific organizations, federal entities, even the general public.

Thus, after many years of consultation, and three years of discussions and revisions, the enacted final rule states the following: if there is no request from an Indian tribe regarding culturally unidentifiable human remains, a museum or federal agency must initiate consultation with officials and traditional religious leaders of all Indian tribes from whose tribal land or aboriginal land the human remains were removed. The consultation may include Indian groups that are not-federally recognized, but are known to have a shared group identity with the human remains at issue, at discretion of the museum or federal agency.

The repatriation of culturally unidentifiable human remains must follow these priorities: 1. Indian tribes from whose tribal land, at the time of excavation, the remains were removed; 2. Indian tribe or tribes aboriginal to the area from which the remains were removed; 3. Other Indian tribe who accept to take care of the disposition of the remains; 4. not-federally recognized tribe. Finally, if none of the above cases happens, the museum or federal agency may reinter the human remains according to State or other law. Whatever the final disposition, the museum or federal agency must prove that all Indian tribes involved in the consultation have agreed with the final disposition.

The notion of cultural affiliation, as intended and applied within NAGPRA boundaries and scopes, although still embedding the baggage of colonial history and population classification, acknowledges American Indian past and shared collective memory/memories as “history”, making them equal, for example, to archaeological evidence, considered just “one of several type of relevant information or expert opinion that must be considered in determining whether cultural affiliation can be established”. Once again, the battle revolves around ownership and interpretation of other people’s cultural heritage, and not so often museum curators, archaeologists, anthropologists are willing to acknowledge that members of the American Indian communities are also “experts”, not merely informants, and have the right to claim their own cultural patrimony, not to mention the remains of their ancestors who are, let be clear, not an archaeological resource, property of the United States, as someone has suggested. As Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has written in response to Robert Kelly’s affirmations: “The carefully wrought dialogue that has developed over the last two decades is not threatened by the new regulations. Rather, it is threatened by those who continue to see repatriation as the end of archaeology, instead of a new beginning of collaborative stewardship of Native American history.”

Photo: Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe members carrying the remains of tribal ancestors into the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery, November 2010 ©Central Michigan University

Colin Renfrew asks: What about ongoing looting?

Professor Colin Renfrew, 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Winner voiced his concerns that the problems of ongoing looting of archaeological sites around the world were not addressed in the lecture Looted art and its restitution: moral and cultural dilemmas for the twenty-first century, given by Professor Richard J Evans on Monday 7 June 2010 at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Professor Renfrew also spoke about the fact that although repatriation of looted antiquities from Iraq were mentioned, no reference was made about “the Metropolitan Museum’s being constrained to return antiquities to Italy, which had been illegally removed… in recent times.” (View video clip here. © Wolfson College, Cambridge)

Professor Evans focused on historical looting giving examples dating back to Jason and the Argonauts, and issues related to repatriation and restitution of Nazi art loot. Also brought up was contentious topic of the Parthenon sculptures, more commonly (but some believe, misguidedly) known as the “Elgin marbles” and whether they should be returned was the first question from the audience. Professor Evans will become Wolfson College’s fifth president in October, 2010.

December 2008 Edition of Kunstrechtspiegel Online, Back Issues Available

In December the fourth 2008 installment of the Kunstrechtspiegel (“Art Law Looking-Glass”), a publication of the Institut für Kunst und Recht (IFKUR – “Institute for Art and Law”), was placed online. Back issues are also freely available online.

The Table of Contents of the latest issue includes:

Editorial: Die Bekämpfung des illegalen Handels mit archäologischen Kulturgütern: Neue Wege auf der Internetplattform eBay
(“The Abatement of the Illicit Trade with Archaeological Cultural Goods: New Ways on the Internet Platform eBay”)

Kerstin Odendahl


Antiken, Recht und Markt
(“Antiquities, Law and Market”)

Reinhard Dietrich


U.S. Declaratory Judgment Actions Concerning Art Displaced During the Holocaust

Jennifer Anglim Kreder


Rückführung illegal verbrachter italienischer Kulturgüter nach dem Ende des 2. Weltkrieges (Emanuel C. Hofacker)
(“The Repatriation of Illegaly Traded Italian Cultural Goods after the End of the Second World War”) (Emanuel C. Hofacker)

Annette Froehlich

Der Einfluss des Urheberrechts auf die Restaurierung von Werken der bildenden Künste (Daniel-Philipp Häret)
(“The Influence of Copyright on the Restoration of Works of the Visual Arts”) (Daniel-Philipp Häret)

Erik Jayme

Die Nadel und der Heuhaufen – ein Einblick in den Bereich der Provenienzforschung
(“The Needle and the Haystack – a Look in the Area of Provenance Research”)

Jörg Wünschel

Kunstsammlungen im Zugriff von Fiskus und Erben: Vortrag von Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg
(“Art Collections in the Access of Finances and Inhertance: Lecture of Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg”)

Nicolai Kemle

Handbuch Kunst und Recht (Thomas Hoeren et al.)
(“Handbook of Art and Law”) (Thomas Hoeren et al.)

Nicolai Kemle

IFKUR – News 4. Quartal 2008
(“IFKUR – 4th Quarter 2008 News”)


Zahi Hawass: Digging for History

Zahi Hawass is one of the most famous and popularly known archaeologists in the world. Hawass’ stardom among the general public is almost comparable to that of the fictional Indiana Jones; he has recently raised over $500,000 for a children’s museum by selling replicas of his own signature style “explorer hat” in conjunction with the traveling King Tut tour. has posted a video outlining how his passion for archaeology developed, his duties as Egypt’s head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, his plans for a large new museum, and his efforts to repatriate stolen Egyptian antiquities.


ICOM Releases Red List of Looted Afghanistan Antiquities

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has released a “Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk.” ICOM distributes red lists to museums, professionals, law enforcement, and customs to raise awareness about trafficked and looted antiquities. It is well known that the cultural heritage of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered as results of instability following the respective invasions. Some people have taken advantage of the instability as means to loot historically significant sites and museums and spirit that material out of the country.

It is hoped that this new red list will promote the return of illicitly removed goods Afghanistan and raise awareness about the problems of looting there. The effectiveness of past red lists is chronicled in the current list of antiquities from Afghanistan. Already there are some optimistic signs coming from the international community following the release of red list on Afghan antiquities since a squad from the Metropolitan Police of London have volunteered to “clamp down” on looted Afghan art (“Police to clamp down on trade in looted Afghan art,” Telegraph, 21 October 2008).

It is also interesting to note that ICOM named SAFE as one of its partners in the current red list. For a complete list of partners, see page 4 of the red list.

What cultural nations do…

My eye was initially caught by the large photo in the article (Egypt to retrieve ancient statue from Netherlands) about a case that has already been in the news recently about the shabti bought by a private collector which has been identified as coming from Sakkara and having been stolen. The accompanying text contains, unintended by the author, a comment which raises a question. It says:

the export of archaeological artefacts is strictly forbidden from Egypt, as from other cultural nations.

So what do we call nations which do little to prevent and punish the import of precious archaeological evidence which has been looted from the archaeological record in other countries only to be sold as aesthetically pleasing collectable gee-gaws? Cultural? I think not. It’s nice to see from this case that some private collectors are trying to find out where “their” treasures come from and have scruples.

Yale’s Own Indiana Jones Story

Indiana Jones is back- bullwhip, fedora, and all… “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is at a theater near you and is bringing a nearly century-old Cultural Property dispute back into the spotlight.

In the fourth installment of the swashbuckling archaeologist’s (using the term loosely) adventures, Hollywood takes us to the Yale University campus… as even today the university continues its real life role in the efforts to resolve a dispute with the Peruvian government regarding thousands of artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu. Yale’s own adventurer-archaeologist Hiram Bingham III (who is thought to have inspired the Indiana Jones character) rediscovered a much-forgotten Machu Picchu in 1911, and brought thousands of artifacts home to Yale’s collection. Just last year, in a landmark decision, Yale and Peru agreed on a plan for repatriation, including co-sponsorship of a traveling exhibition and a new museum in Cuzco, Peru.

Recently, inspired by the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosted an “On Point” radio broadcast on the story. Featured interviewees are:

The broadcast is fascinating for Indy buffs and Cultural Property enthusiasts alike. The agreement reached last year between Yale and Peru was a landmark, and hopefully will be an example for future negotiations between source countries and institutions in the future. As you’re watching Harrison Ford bullwhip his way through ancient sites in the theater, take a moment to appreciate the strides taken in this story to ensure that Cultural Heritage is available to all.

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
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

It’s All the Same: the Looting of ‘High Art’ vs. the Looting of the Minor Arts

When ancient objects are studied from recorded contexts, usually through scientific excavation, they are invaluable historical sources. In archaeological excavations, all classes of objects are systematically recorded and studied by specialists. Archaeology has evolved from its origins in treasure-hunting and the indiscriminate antiquarian accumulation of objects into a scientific discipline, which treats each object as an historical source, the usefulness of which often revolves around the find’s context. Despite archaeology’s place as an academic discipline, which makes little aesthetic distinction between the ability of different archaeological objects to inform us about ancient society, media coverage of looting activities, detrimental to archaeology, frequently revolve around ‘high art’ objects – large statues, signed Greek vases, etc.(1) News stories devoted to cultural property issues frequently reference some unique statue or vase returning from X or Y museum to its home-country or the theft of ‘high art’ objects from museums or archaeological sites. It is clear, however, that the majority of trafficking in illicitly excavated and exported antiquities revolves not around these ‘monumental’ aesthetic objects, but the minor arts: coins, brooches, buckles, small ceramic and metal vessels, glass, oil lamps, Byzantine crosses, etc. Objects such as these are easily available on the Internet and sold in large numbers on eBay (all sites), VCoins, and through other websites and auction houses. Curiously, advocacy efforts to educate the public about looting regarding these classes of objects are increasingly opposed by lobbies and special interest groups that cater to a dealer interest. Is there a difference between the trade in unprovenanced examples of ‘high art’ and that in unprovenanced examples of the minor arts?

According to recent news articles, five or six smugglers in Cyprus were arrested and their cache of antiquities, which they had allegedly intended to export illegally, was seized (for two versions of the news article see the International Herald Tribune and the Cyprus Mail). David Gill has already commented on this report in “Coins and Cyprus: action on the ground.” The first article in IHT stated: “The antiquities, confiscated in the southern town of Limassol, include gold leaves and rings, two mediaeval gold coins and a bronze cross.” It continued: “Police said the suspects were trying to sell the finds for €280,000 ($395,000).” If the smugglers were trying to sell the artifacts for such a sum, we can be confident that a complete inventory of the cache was not supplied. The CM article provides a bit more detail:

“Around 100 items were found at the Kato Polemidia house, ranging from the Paleolithic to the Byzantine period. Confiscated items include hundreds of gold coins, bronze coins, statues, gold, bronze and metal antique jewelry, bronze seals, sheets of gold and albums with pictures of archaeological finds. Approximately 40 more items were confiscated from the Ypsonas garage. An officer of the Antiquities Department is currently assessing the value of the finds. ‘The confiscated items are of great archaeological value: they are a treasure. Only part of this collection would have been sold for 280,000 euro,’ said Latropoulos. The sale would have occurred yesterday morning, but was prevented by the police raids and arrests.”

Much of this material is ‘common’ on the market; nevertheless, it is clear that such materials come from archaeological sites. Some have argued that fresh supplies of ancient coins that reach the market in response to widespread collector and dealer demand only come from empty fields, devoid of any associated archaeological remains. However, this is a great misconception, which I rebutted, citing published records of the systematic looting of archaeological sites for coins and other metal objects, in the SAFE feature: “Why Coins Matter.” Clearly, in the Cyprus case, the other ‘minor art’ objects recovered are the sort that come only from historical sites or ancient tombs.

In 2006, Greek authorities raided a villa on the island of Schinoussa occupied by the sister of Christos Mihailidis, former partner of London-based antiquities dealer Robyn Symes, whom Italian and Greek authorities suspect of being a major antiquities smuggler. The report stated: “The hundreds of relics discovered so far in and around the Papadimitriou villa include temple parts, statues and busts, ceramic vessels, coins and Byzantine-era icons.” Another article from the New York Times states: “Evidence retrieved in the raid indicated that many of the items had been bought at Christie’s or Sotheby’s between 2001 and 2005, although none had been declared to the Greek authorities before entering the country, as required by law.” Clearly, these smugglers made no distinction between trading in parts of a temple and selling coins – both are profitable on the market.

In 2005 in Egypt, one smuggling ring is known to have illegally exported around 57,000 objects from the country. These individuals dealt in all classes of objects; the article states:

“Officials estimated the smuggling gang exported some 57,000 pieces worth about $55m, including human and animal mummies, coins, statues and wooden sarcophagi. The authorities intercepted some of the antiquities at Cairo airport, but others were smuggled all over the world, including some that were found in Australia for sale on the internet. They have been returned to Egypt.”

It is curious that some (whose professions are outside of archaeology and field archaeology) have tried to argue a special case that coins should not be considered archaeologically significant objects, despite the fact they come from the same places as other objects: historically significant sites with associated archaeological remains (see “Why Coins Matter”). Are not these caches further evidence that looters are not just detecting in empty fields for coins but are also systematically looting tombs and other archaeological and historical sites for material, taking everything that will fetch money on the market?

In the SAFE feature, I commented on the significant problem of looting in Balkan countries, which supplies much of the fresh material on the coin market. Yesterday, I read an article, on the MSN list, discussing the problem of looting in Romania and efforts to recover looted material. Apparently, ‘minor objects’ such as coins and jewelry are not exempt from being repatriated when their illicit export can be traced:

“Selon une statistique de l’IGP, en 2006, environ 17 000 biens archéologiques
étaient recherchés hors des frontières de Roumanie, la plupart étant des
pièces de monnaies : des pièces romaines en argent (12 000 pièces), des
pièces d’or de Chersonèse taurique (2 440 pièces) et des monnaies d’or de
Lysimarque (2 700 pièces).”

And for our readers who do not read French, here is my rough translation:

“According to statistics of the IGP [L’Inspection général de la Police roumaine], in 2006, around 17,000 archaeological goods were recovered from outside the borders of Romania, most were coins: Roman silver coins (12,000 pieces), gold coins from Tauric Chersonese [essentially the Crimea] (2,440 pieces) and gold coins of Lysimachos (2,700 pieces).”

The well-known case of the dekadrachm hoard, illicitly excavated and exported from Turkey, illustrates that foreign governments have a legal basis to sue for their return, when they can track the sale of illicitly excavated and exported material.

The Medici Conspiracy tells the story of Giacomo Medici’s distribution and exportation of illicitly excavated antiquities (primarily ‘high art’ objects) and how authorities used his own records to track down the loot. Although ‘high art’ gets more press and museums with indiscriminate acquisition policies frequently pay the price, the minor arts of antiquity are equally important to our knowledge of past societies – especially when they can be studied from recorded excavated contexts – and they are, and have been, liable to litigation should their illicit sale be traced.

As the market in ‘minor antiquities’ flourishes and continues to grow, there can be no doubt we will likely witness future court battles involving the plunder of the minor arts. Should the records of some smuggler or some unscrupulous dealer be seized by law enforcement in the future, the sale of some coins and other small objects could potentially be traced and be subject to possible litigation. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting collector may well pay the financial price. There is a multitude of evidence demonstrating that such objects are entering the market in very large quantities, supplied by organized rings of smugglers and looters. Is it enough that a dealer can say “I acquired this legally, in good faith, but I can’t tell you anything about the previous owner or where I got it – I have to protect my sources!” Should this be enough to assure the collector that the object was not recently looted? Is this due diligence? (for due diligence see: David Gill’s “Cultural Property Advice” and also keyword ‘due diligence).’

(1.) Ironically, many contemporary collectors and art galleries regard Greek painted vases as ‘high art’ objects, but there is a scholarly debate concerning how highly Greek painted vases were regarded by the Greeks themselves. In general, see: Vickers, M. and D. Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. (Oxford); and also: Vickers, M. 1985. “Artful Crafts: the Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 15; Vickers, M., O. Impey, and J. Allan. 1986. Silver to Ceramic. (Oxford); Vickers, M. 1986. “Silver, Copper and Ceramics in Ancient Athens,” in M. Vickers (ed.) Pots and Pans (Oxford). These works, and others, suggest that Greek painted vases imitated more valuable gold, silver, and other metal vessels, which would have been more routinely used by aristocratic classes and that painted vases were a more economical substitute.

Yale to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru

Here’s the BBC’s coverage of the major repatriation effort between Yale University and Peru: the return of thousands of artifacts taken from the site of Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham nearly a century ago. I believe this a truly momentous event in the world of cultural heritage repatriation, for it involves both one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, and one of the most-visited and most-loved archaeological (and now archaeological-tourist) sites in the world. Hopefully, Yale’s clout will inspire other major Western institutions holding objects of questionable provenience to follow suit.

The details of this agreement show that repatriation can be mutually beneficial for both the home nation and the outside institutions where these objects often end up; there will be a scholarly exchange between Yale-based American and Peruvian academics, as well as a traveling exhibit of the pieces to bring the pieces to an even wider audience than they have encountered by being at the school.

Some might say that keeping objects such as these in American and European museums is more beneficial than sending them home, because it inspires Westerners who see them on display to want to visit the places where they originally came from. In this case, given that Machu Picchu is one of the most famous ancient sites in the world, and has such a strong hold in popular imagination, I can’t imagine that many people need the prompting of a few artifacts in a museum to want to go to Peru and see it for themselves!

Repatriation and loss of context

Should we celebrate when archaeological objects are returned to their countries of origin?

No … and yes.

No, because the damage has already been done. The archaeological contexts cannot be reconstructed. The scientific information held in the ground for thousands of years has gone for good. Our cultural heritage has been destroyed.

Yes, because returning objects send out a clear signal to museums (and private collectors) that they should not be acquiring objects that have no recorded “history”. For lack of “history” can so often indicate recently surfaced objects that have been torn from their resting place.