The ethics of "tomb raiding?"

This rather shocking article needs to be further exposed. Cultural internationalism and a demand for antiquities justified for aesthic and “preservation” related reasons appears to be alive and well, at least where open-air purchasing of potentially authentic pieces of Angkor Wat in Thailand are conserned! Closing the article by stating how much they purport to have learned regarding the “rights, wrongs and grey areas” of tomb raiding is especially galling. My personal response to the article can be found here.

"A Primer on the Restitution of Looted Antiquities"

The Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Cultural Heritage & Arts Review, a publication of the American Society of International Law’s Interest Group on Cultural Heritage & the Arts, is now available by subscription.

One of the articles “The Ancient World Meets the Modern World: A Primer on the Restitution of Looted Antiquities” can be found on Herrick, Feinstein LLP‘s web site. Authored by Herrick attorneys Howard Spiegler and Yael Weitz, it discusses the unauthorized excavation and smuggling of cultural artifacts and the legal issues involved in efforts made to reclaim stolen cultural property in the U.S., as well as the trend toward the resolution of claims without litigation. It is adapted from the lead article of Volume 6 of Art and Advocacy, the quarterly newsletter of Herrick’s Art Law Group.

What does the law say about cultural heritage?

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

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

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

Geneva… Singapore… now Red Hook?


Known for its “industrial charm”, New York’s Red Hook section in Brooklyn will soon be home to Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services–a subsidiary of the auction house. In Wall Street Journal’s article “The Ultimate Walk-In Closet”, Kelly Crow questions if Christie’s “is walking a delicate line”: balancing clients’ desire for confidentiality and customs’ desire to “deter potential smugglers and money launderers from hiding assets or stashing stolen or looted works.”

According to Crow, “Christie’s said it will run credit checks on customers and check stored items against registries of stolen art, but added that it can’t police everything it brings into its new warehouse.”

In light of recent events in New York and London where stolen objects were nearly auctioned off undetected, one can only hope that auction houses will check more thoroughly where items come from while providing safe storage for them.

Old collections: to what extent is it a convenient myth?

Dealers in unprovenanced archaeological material frequently evoke the argument that a lot of the material on the market today comes from the dismantling of old collections; collecting of archaeological artefacts has been going on, they say, since the Renaissance. In debate they can even show examples of such long-curated finds. Dealers assure buyers that this means that there are a good many legitimate artefacts on the market (see for example the websites of UK dealer Guy Rothewell, and that of Hicham Aboutaam). The pro-collecting lobby then argue that the concerns of the preservation lobby over the number of unprovenanced artefacts on the market today are exaggerated, holding that many items being collected today are from dismembered old collections. They insist that “unprovenanced does not necessarily mean looted”. While that is of course true, it is clear that the buying and selling of unprovenanced archaeological artefacts with neither dealer or buyer asking where those items ultimately came from is one of the factors which shields the trade in illicitly obtained artefacts from scrutiny.

Preservationists point out that the market in antiquities has been undergoing massive expansion in recent decades. In addition, people are collecting the types of minor antiquities that were not collected in any quantity in the past and so are not available from old collections or abandoned dealers’ stock. It is clear that increased demand for artefacts has forced traders to make up shortfall by the addition of new freshly dug up material (often illegally exported) to their stocks. The degree to which this is taking place is the subject of controversy. With facts and figures short on the ground, neither side can demonstrate grounds for either caution or optimism.

Recently however figures have been published which seem to resolve this issue quite decisively in the case of one commonly collected class of ancient dug-up artefacts, coins. In November last year, the Santa Fe-based Cultural Policy Research Institute published the results of its research, “Project on Unprovenanced Ancient Objects in Private US Hands“. The figures presented there have “been developed with help from some of the most knowledgeable sources in the area”. Apart from the main topic of its deliberations, the report contains an estimate of the number of “unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins in private hands’, which however, since they are “not routinely of interest to AAMD Member institutions” are not discussed. Nevertheless an estimate is given of the likely number of such items currently in private hands to show what a resource for historical research they could comprise. The CPRI gives the total as “not less than 700,000 (200,000-300,000 Greek, 500,000-600,000 Roman)”. So nearly three quarters of a million coins which have all come from somewhere, obviously quite a lucrative market with some of those coins going for four or five figure sums.

The qualification “not less” however is an important one. This figure can now be compared with the number of fresh coins from abroad known to be being exported into the US market. In a study of the US coin market, Elkins mentions one documented case from Frankfurt airport in 1999 where one dealer in a matter of a few weeks illegally exported from Bulgaria to the USA a ton of ancient metal detected coins. Coins are imported by numerous US wholesalers and dealers from many countries and through many airports, but Elkins estimated that the Frankfurt shipments alone had contained 350 000 coins. To put that into perspective, that is fifty percent of the number of coins which the CPRI report are in private hands a decade later.

If the CPRI figures are an accurate indicator of the size of the private artefact holdings in the US, it is clear that in this case at least, the current pool of artefacts which has been on the market is to a very high degree composed of material which has indeed been freshly dug out of the archaeological record in foreign countries and illegally exported. They are by any definition illicit artefacts.

Vignette: a meeting of the Society of Dilettantes, after Sir Joshua Reynolds

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.

Where we forgot our history

The following article is published at the request of its author, Mehiyar Kathem, who has recently completed a MSc in Development Management at the London School of Economics (LSE) and is currently fundraising for the Cultural Heritage Awareness Initiative (CHAI) – a project of the Baghdad based education focused NGO, the Culture For All (CFA) – www.cultureforall.org

One of the greatest tragedies of history has been the systematic looting of most of the 10,000 registered archaeological sites and monuments in Iraq. Our knowledge of Iraq is largely punctuated by events of the past twenty five years – that of the first Gulf War, the sanctions, and now nearly five years into the West’s disastrous escapade, the US led invasion of 2003. But what we do not get to see on the news is a tragedy much larger than the war. Armed and organised gangs, many of them contracted by wealthy Western clients, are systematically looting Iraq’s cultural and archaeological heritage. In the past five years, we forgot that the war has ransacked the house of the first civilisations known to exist – Sumaria, Assyria and Babylon.

Billions of dollars have poured into making Iraq secure and democratic but only a small portion of funds has gone to preserving and protecting its archaeological heritage. Democracy is necessarily about rights – and the rights of civilisations past and present have to be respected, including our human right to understand the past. It is ironic that while human rights promotion has been high on the agenda of so many international NGOs focusing on Iraq so little focus has been on asserting Iraqi’s right to their country’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately for history much is at loss. While the past 100 years has uncovered only a small fraction of the country’s archaeological riches, some of which looted at the Baghdad museum in the ensuing chaos of 2003, much remains to be discovered and understood of a history spanning 8,000 years. We may never know how many Gilgamesh like epics have been lost. As March 2008 marks the five-year anniversary of the war, we are forgetting that it also marks five years of one of the greatest catastrophes to befall humanity. In another five years, we will be marking the ten-year anniversary, and yet again our arrogance for understanding the meaning of life through past civilisations that gave us the wheel and the written word, will continue to blind us from the actions we need to take to protect the cultural heritage of what rightfully belongs to all civilisations and peoples of the world.

Protecting Iraq’s archaeological heritage is essentially about civic engagement and public education rather than only the capacity building workshops in four-star hotels. For protection is not only equipping Iraqi academics with best practices, but about implementing public education programmes and engaging communities within the country. Any action necessarily requires over the next few years support to the credible, legitimate and sufficiently grounded community based organisations to spur people into building local protection schemes. Local strategic communication is essential in this process but so is creating the incentives so that tribal and community leaders understand that safeguarding the sites is a tool by which to rebuild Iraq and preserve its rich history. While this may need the help of a government Ministry, relying on the Iraqi Ministry of Culture to help may actually end up delaying what is urgently needed – Iraq would be left with just broken fragments of looted artefacts before any assistance or national protection programme is tabled. Since it is quite obvious that the Ministry’s priorities lie elsewhere grass-root campaigning is the surest way to pressure the government into devising a national protection strategy, educating and raising awareness amongst the general public.

Iraq is said to be a dangerous country to work in. But one should not forget that it is still home to more than twenty six million Iraqis and to effective grass-root NGOs, academics and functioning universities. In a new initiative to be announced in May, the British Army in the South of the country in co-operation with the British Museum will focus on what Western experts can do to help reduce the systematic looting in the sector. All good, but again the same mistakes are being repeated. It is just another effort concentrated within academic circles between the West and Iraq. Unless efforts address the deficiency of civic engagement initiatives with the general public, we should not be surprised to see the continuation of the monumental looting taking place in the country.

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.