What do fakes have to do with the problem of looting? Fakes and unprovenanced, authentic antiquities often turn up together in collections because neither was found through the transparent process of archaeological excavation. They flock together. Collectors might think their connoisseurship protects them from fakes, but they get hoodwinked all the time. This is not a sign of denseness or gullibility, necessarily; it just comes with the territory if you’re in the business of acquiring undocumented antiquities….
Has the collector gained a tax benefit for the donation of what are quite possibly, if the Walters’ analysis is correct, worthless fakes? Why is it even showing them?
Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World questions the integrity of Walters Art Museum’s Bourne Collection in a Chasing Aphrodite post. Atwood is also critical of the exhibit’s lack of information, presumably, because the objects were:
all purchased from the cast of looters, dealers and assorted hoodlums that make up the supply end of the Latin American antiquities market. Whatever information those sellers claim to have on the origin of the artifacts they sell is usually conjecture or lies.
The Baltimore museum’s web site states:
The Walters Art Museum preserves and develops in the public trust a distinguished collection of world art from antiquity to the 20th century….Since its opening, the Walters has been a national leader in scholarship, conservation, and education.
The Walters Art Museum brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. We strive to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. We are committed to exhibitions and programs that will strengthen and sustain our community.
How well does the Maryland museum serve its stated mission with the Bourne collection?
Indeed, the Walters is not alone in what amounts to a breach of public trust, as Atwood reveals in his 2004 Stealing History which “contributes more than any other publication in more than 30 years to an understanding of the devastation to cultural heritage caused by site looting and to the search for solutions.” Patty Gerstenblith writes in an American Journal of Archaeology review. Atwood was awarded a SAFE Beacon Award for Stealing History.
2011: Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino - SAFE honors investigative journalists and co-authors of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (read Professor Senta German’s review here) for assembling “an extraordinary array of sources with which they tell a story the Getty wants no one to know” and for educating the public about how museum practices affect the preservation of cultural heritage.
2012: David Gill – Professor Gill has worked tirelessly for decades to shed light on the multiple threats to cultural heritage through teaching, research, publication and the trailblazing Looting Matters. An archaeologist and scholar of ancient history and the classics, Professor Gill is also a SAFECORNER Contributor.
Established in 2006, SAFE Beacon Awards recognize individuals who enlighten the public about the devastating effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade. Awards have been presented to authors, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists. We look forward to honoring others who lead the way in the fight to protect cultural heritage.
Previous winners include:
2004 – Roger Atwood
2005 – Matthew Bogdanos
2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini
2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George
2009 – Colin Renfrew
2010 – Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman
To learn more about the SAFE Beacon Awards and to stay up to date with the latest awards news, visit and “like” our SAFE Beacon Awards facebook page.
For those concerned about doing the right thing about cultural heritage, the case of the “Weary Herakles” has awaited resolution for the past three decades. Naturally, there is a sense of relief when Geoff Edgers reported that the statue will be “made whole” after all this time, referring to the apparent agreement to return the top part of the statue to Turkey and the rejoining of its two halves. Yet, many questions remain unanswered: When will it return to Turkey? Why now? What about other objects at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts? What about other museums?
This statue of Herakles (who leans wearily against his club after performing his Labors) is a textbook illustration of dubious provenance: ownership attributed to the dealer’s mother who got it from some other dealer before her, right from the start. But, “[t]he best evidence for pillage … is the fact that the upper half of the torso was unknown to the world before 1981,” wrote Roger Atwood in the book Stealing History.
What we do know about the statue is that it was discovered before 1980 at Perge, near the Turkish town of Atalya, by looters who took the upper half, which was then smuggled and sold to the US collectors Leon Levy (now deceased) and Shelby White in 1981, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it remained on display for many years. When Turkish authorities discovered the bottom half of the Herakles in the ground at Perge, they demanded the Boston MFA return the upper half. After the Museum denied their fragment came from Turkey, the Turkish authorities shipped an exact replica of the lower half of the statue to Boston. Even though the two halves fit together perfectly, the Boston MFA continued to deny Turkey’s claim, earning the museum a place on Colin Renfrew’s list of “quite disgraceful” museums for “supporting and financing the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage.”
While the Boston Globe’s reporting of the welcome news is otherwise fine, the notion that “Weary Herakles on its own is not that incredibly significant, not a piece by Michelangelo…” presumably referring to its artistic qualities, is only partially true. An object’s significance lies not only in how it looks. To the people of Turkey, as Jason Reslin pointed out, the “Weary Herakles” is “a very big deal”.
But wherever the statue is, it is certainly preferable that the two halves be reunited. The Museum’s agreement that the proper home is Turkey is the right decision. Finally.
Photos: Courtesy Radio Boston, Roger Atwood
Related to the New York Times story commented here, it’s disheartening to see that nothing has changed since Roger Atwood’s 2007 critique regarding U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues.
“Trophy Hunters With Their Eyes on Interiors” is a puff piece that glorifies adventurous exploits in search of the “ultimate” authentic-looking old objects. The story advertises and promotes architects, designers and contractors, and justifies their if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-them fees. Instead, the Times could have told its readers and trophy hunters alike a cautionary tale, which would be much more useful to everyone.
First, importing certain antiquities from countries which have signed bilateral agreements to restrict importation of antiquities is against the law. Not only that, buyers may have to return their coveted purchases to their countries of origin.
At the very least, the article could have mentioned the numerous international and local governmental and non-governmental efforts underway in these ready-for-the-taking-third-world-countries to PRESERVE their remnants of the past.
Finally, genuine history cannot be bought. It is lived. Rich people who seek rich-looking items might do better to live rich lives. Their cobblestones WILL in time acquire “just the right” moss. Theirs too will have the smoothness, color and patina that come from aging. In time, they too could have rich history to leave behind.
In The New York Times December 16 article. Andrew Jacobs writes about a Chinese delegation’s recent visit to US museums to document objects that have been plundered from Yuanmingyuan (Beijing’s “Old Summer Palace”). In 1860, the imperial palace was looted and burnt to the ground by order of James Bruce Elgin, the son of Lord Elgin who took the famed Parthenon sculptures from Greece.
Describing the delegation as a “treasure hunting team” whose effort is little more than a public relations show, the reporter characterizes the group as a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats barging into American museums in a noisy campaign to further its nationalistic agenda, stirring up popular sentiment against the West.
Contrast it to a similar report by The Telegraph about the same delegation’s visit to the British Museum, which appeared on October 19. Entitled “China to study British Museum for looted artefacts”, The Telegraph’s story has a noticeably different tone. Even more significant is The Times article’s absence of the palace director Chen Mingjie’s statement about the delegation’s mission. “We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to seek a return of those relics even though we do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to our country during our tracing effort.” The Telegraph quoted Mr. Chen.
This is a curious omission, given the clear indication that the director was interviewed for both articles. Did The New York Times not ask the director why the team was visiting the Met but decided to draw its own conclusions? Or did it simply choose not to include it?
As one of the nearly 120 online comments from The Times article states: “This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.” We agree. What a pity that The New York Times has once again not given its readers what they deserve: a full story, with a balanced view.
In “A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues” author and journalist Roger Atwood criticizes The New York Times that its “coverage of the Met looks complacent and credulous”. Referring to the fact that its chairman emeritus, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, has long been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Met, Atwood questions “whether the Times is too close to the Met to cover it properly”. Indeed, this latest article begs the question: are the Chinese delegation’s questions regarding provenance of the Met’s collection too close for comfort?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Roger Atwood has been writing on art, archaeology and museums since the late 1990s in books and articles. His new Web site collects much of that writing along with photos, a bio, and excerpts of reviews of his SAFE Beacon Award winning book Stealing History. The book was the inspiration for SAFE Tours, which Roger has given since 2004.
SAFECORNR congratulates Roger on this user-friendly and well organized resource. Check it out at www.rogeratwood.com.
Photo: Werner Romero
In National Geographic’s April 10 story “King of Bling” Tomb Sheds Light on Ancient Peru” the remarkable excavation of Lord of Ucupe was described as “a first”. “This find is particularly important, because it is the first time we have found an individual outside of Sipán that is the same type as some of the leaders found in Sipán,” according to archaeologist Steve Bourget.
This would not have been possible if the site had not been protected from looters by local people. Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History, winner of 2004 SAFE Beacon Award, said in a message to SAFE. “The incredible thing is that this discovery happened right where the anti-looting patrols I describe in Chapter 13 of Stealing History work, in the village of Ucupe. So it’s a really clear example of how organizing local people can save knowledge. Doesn’t get any clearer than this.”
Indeed, on page 230, Atwood writes: “The mission of the ‘archaeological protection group’ is to stop people from occupying the land and plundering what lies beneath it. They scout the land, chase away bands of looters, or they surround them and tie their wrists with rope until the police arrive, and they seize their tools — shovels, poles, buckets. … Despite their success in the Moche heartland, the idea of citizens’ patrols to curb pillage is still in its infancy. Turning poachers into wardens takes time, a thorough knowledge of local customs and sensitivities, cooperation from the police, and roots in the community that not a lot of archaeological researchers have.” (Photograph courtesy Dr. Steve Bourget)
In the November 16 edition of the Washington Post, author of “Stealing History” and SAFE Beacon Award Winner Roger Atwood reviews two new books about stolen ancient artifacts and their journeys to museums around the world.
“Loot” has also been reviewed by journalist Hugh Eakin, Karl Meyer (“The Plundered Past”)
Other reviews of “Unholy Business” have been written by Johathan Lopez (AP), Tim McGirk (Time)
Have you read these books? Tell us what you think.
In Archaeology‘s Insider: Guardians of Antiquity? Roger Atwood, a SAFE Beacon Award Winner for his book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World shares his views on James Cuno’s “Who Owns Antiquity,” previously reviewed here by Lawrence Rothfield in James Cuno’s Illogic.
Roger Atwood led the first SAFE Tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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.
“Anyone who reads a newspaper knows that major American museums are facing unprecedented scrutiny in the press over their antiquities collections. Investigative-reporting teams more accustomed to covering government graft or corporate malfeasance have been probing museum acquisitions and finding dubious practices at some of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions.” Author and journalist Roger Atwood compares “coverage by three major newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The New York Times—of antiquities issues as they relate to museums in the newspapers’ respective cities. Other news organizations, including National Public Radio and Bloomberg News, have also covered antiquities issues but these three metropolitan dailies have dedicated the most resources and set the pace within journalism.” Read the full story.