2014 SAFE Beacon Award raises public awareness

Monica Hanna and Leonard Lopate Monica Hanna after interview with radio talk show host Leonard Lopate at WNYC.
Cindy Ho

True to its mission, SAFE accomplished its goal to help maximize the impact of Dr. Monica Hanna’s message in the United States — a major market country for Egyptian antiquities — by honoring her with the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award on April 10, 2014. The SAFE team’s months of preparation paid off handsomely with featured coverage in the New York Times, the PBS “NewsHour” and on live radio with WNYC, the New York City affiliate of National Public Radio, CBC Radio in Toronto, and BBC, to name a few.

The success of this year’s Beacon Award marks an achievement for not only Dr. Monica Hanna, but also host organization, SAFE. The long and careful planning of this year’s event offered a special opportunity to lend support to one of the field’s most vocal and inspiring figures, and introduce her to a new audience in the United States. Dr. Hanna’s unique affinity for the media combined with her depth of knowledge proved SAFE’s decision to focus on reaching out to members of the press with this year’s Award events. Most important, it was Dr. Hanna’s compelling story that members of the public are clearly interested in.

Thanks to the diligent work of SAFE members and volunteers, as well as the Beacon Award Hosting Committee and donors, both Dr. Hanna and SAFE were able to achieve the common goal of raising public awareness surrounding the destruction of our shared cultural heritage. Read a recap of the evening’s events here.

Monica Hanna, New York Times Click to read Tom Mashberg’s New York Times article “Taking on Egypt’s looters of antiquities using Twitter
Karsten Moran/The new York Times

We thank members of our Hosting Committee

and the following for sponsoring the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award:

  • Lucille Roussin
  • Rebecca Rushfield
  • Elizabeth Simpson
  • Marina Papa-Sokal

SAFE is grateful to the following for their skills, care, hard work and kind support that made the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award a reality:

Betsy Hiel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review whose articles introduced SAFE to Dr. Monica Hanna

Shawn Baldwin for his portrait of Dr. Hanna, which no one can ignore

Quicksilver Media and Unreported World for their documentary “Egypt’s Tomb Raiders”

SAFE’s volunteers and interns without whom the SAFE Beacon Award would not have been possible: Elizabeth Gilgan, Alyssa Gregory, Damien Huffer, Mary Montgomery, Sandra Roorda, Rebecca Rushfield, Michael Shamah, Tessa Varner, Marni Blake Walter

And to Monica, for inspiring us all.

Modern Day Monuments Men and Women?

With today’s national release of the George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it is only appropriate to discuss the heroic men and women portrayed by the film’s all-star cast and to ask: Where are today’s Monuments Men and Women?

I attended a conference this fall hosted by The Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage PreservationFordham Law School, and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) entitled “The Monuments Men, Social Media, the Law and Cultural Heritage.” I had seen a trailer for the movie and was excited to see it in theaters, but I had managed to fail to make the connection between the conference’s title and the film’s. Not only was Robert Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men and the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, in attendance, but numerous experts in all fields relating to looting were present as well. I was enlightened on both the World War II initiatives against looting and on modern day efforts to continue the same line of work as those heroes. So before you see the film, or don’t, here are a few reflections on its tale and others that are similar.

While the film focuses on a handful of key figures of the operation, the Monuments Men were actually a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 different nations. They were experts in the arts and volunteered their services to protect cultural heritage from the destruction of World War II, but they did not act alone. Behind these heroes was The Roberts Commission that reported the invaluable lists and maps on the location of heritage sites and artwork across Europe that were prepared by the American Council of Learned Societies and The Harvard Group to military units. As a collective unit they were able to return more than five million cultural pieces that had been seized by the Nazi regime.

The members of this task force, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA), performed an unprecedented and overwhelming task, but the memory of their acts drifted from people’s memories. Until, that is, Robert M. Edsel took interest in the subject and created the Monuments Men Foundation For the Preservation of Art to unearth the stories of the individuals who saved masterpieces whose existence we now take for granted. Despite the title of his foundation and book, and Clooney’s adaptation, the “Monuments Men” were, as mentioned, also women. While they were far fewer in number, they were vital to MFAA’s efforts. As Tom Mashberg states in his article “Not all Monuments Men Were Men,” these women “were dedicated scholars and at times notable heroes.”

Monica Hanna save the dateThat description is most apt for Dr. Monica Hanna, who is a truly a modern day Monuments Woman and winner of the SAFE Beacon Award. Like most of the men and women who served in the MFAA section, Dr. Hanna does not have military training, but that hasn’t stop her from putting her life on the line for her work. It is not likely that Dr. Hanna’s efforts will be forgotten due to her strong social media presence on FacebookTwitter, and in the news, but it is important to help share as many stories as possible. Cultural heritage cannot afford to wait another fifty years before someone else is inspired to take interest.

Along with Dr. Hanna, other modern day Monuments Men and Women include anthropologists and cultural resource managers employed by the U.S. Army to enter into war zones and protect or recover pieces from institutions like the National Museum of Iraq. The Smithsonian Institution experts who train the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on identifying looted cultural heritage items should also be included. The stories of these men and women, unfortunately, go largely unreported. It is important for other advocates of the protection of cultural heritage to call attention to their efforts and give them the recognition they deserve.

Who do you nominate as your global Monuments Men and Women?

Buyers Beware

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.

NYTimes Home & Garden FAIL

I realize that Home & Garden isn’t the section of The New York Times racking up the most Pulitzers, but that’s no excuse for what was published there. In a piece entitled “Trophy Hunters With Their Eyes on Interiors,” the reader is acquainted with a handful of daring “ultra-high-end contractors” who are tasked by their demanding clients to find all manner of old, ancient, antique, distressed and generally “very aged”-looking building materials all over the globe, preferably in third-world, war-torn countries. These include architectural elements, wood and stone reliefs, sculpture in the round and raw materials, such as stone and wood. Why? These (in at least one case) self described “modern-day Indiana Jones” contractors report it is mostly because you can “‘get the merchandise for less money.'”

Heritage and natural resource protection issues are engaged in a staggeringly vague and naive way. When one of the profiled contractors is asked, “isn’t he concerned that, in buying up old doors and walls from 100-year-old homes, he’s taking a country’s irreplaceable heritage?” his response is:

Tastes change, and people want what they see as new and better….Why should I dictate where and how people live, just because to me it seems charming or quaint? I’m not the one living there. I know what’s beautiful to me and I want to make good use of it.


To be fair, the author, Joyce Wadler, shares enough anecdotal information to lead the reader to believe that natural resources, namely wood, can be tricky to get out of sources countries without the right papers. And, she offers, at the rock-bottom of the piece, a link to the Forest Stewardship Council. She is utterly silent about cultural resources. Would it have killed Ms. Wadler to spend a very little bit of time researching the law on this? She clearly has some sense that what is happening here isn’t quite kosher.

By not doing this, by not setting the practice of looting the cultural resources of vulnerable swaths of the third world into some sort of legal and moral context she has delivered a story with a destructive message: The rich desire these things and because of that lots of other people should too. These “ultra-high-end contractors” and their extractive work is heroic and glamorous. This swells the trade which leads to the increasing destruction of cultural resources. And, no messy moral problems because the locals are happy to sell it to us – cheap!

The New York Times, the “paper of record,” should know better and this is shameful.

Image: The New York Times

Shelby White’s Foundation Expansion

In February 2010 the billionaire Shelby White created a selected group of individuals to function within the Leon Levy Foundation, its purpose to “make available information” from excavated sites that have not been published. But information only from nations having a partage system at the time of excavation, i.e. a division of finds between the host nation and the excavators, are eligible. But archaeologists—the Foundation’s new group excepted—knowledgeable of Plunder Culture actions are aware that they consider plundered antiquities to be a “partage,” exploiting its neo-logistic coinage by J. Cuno. An example is White’s refusal to return to Turkey half of a statue of Herakles plundered from Perge, purchased from an antiquity dealer, thus normal partage to this group. The Foundation’s statement suggests that the publication of unexcavated plundered antiquities will not be excluded from funding.

The Foundation’s new group has ten members. White is an antiquity collector, who is the Chair, determined by her financial gift. The other members include four museum Directors (T. Potts, R. Hodges OBE, J-F. Jarrige, and S. Herbert), and one ex-Director (de Montebello); one museum curator (D. Arnold); a number of “distinguished archaeologists” (Rose, Hodges, Potts, S. Heath and S. Minyaev). They will determine who gets/is denied publication funds. Four of the members are museum Directors, one an ex-Director, and one an antiquity collector: the majority of the members.

Brian Pennsylvania Rose, Deputy-Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is the President of the said-to-be Archaeological Institute of America. He is infamous for crippling the AIA, smilingly reaching out to the plunderers, proclaiming that plunderers and archaeologists have a “Common Ground.” He first linked the AIA to plundering activities by declaring Indiana Jones, an archetype plunderer, as a model “in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeology….as a benefit to archaeology….archaeologists…dig Indy.” Rose celebrated the actor who played Indiana Jones at an AIA Gala “Honoring” party, and had him appointed a Trustee of the AIA (Personal disclosure: I resigned from the AIA last year after more than 50 years’ membership). And now he has carried his goals further by becoming a supporter of White. In published photos he is posed next to White, both collegially smiling. Rose has now added Shelby to his list of those plunderers he digs Query: will he soon get her an appointment as Trustee of the AIA? Hodges has written for and advised the antiquities dealer Jerry Eisenbergs’s plunder-defender journal Minerva, which for years contained advertisements from antiquity dealers. He was quoted in the New York Times 12/6/07: 10) condemning Fordham University’s Museum for accepting a gift of plundered antiquities: “The message it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects,” the very same message he now blithely proclaims: because he digs Shelby (and her potential gifts to his Museum).

Potts abandoned archaeology to become a plunder supporter as Director of the Kimball Art Museum to “build up” its antiquity collection; he is now Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. Heath has served as Vice President of the Un-Professional Committee of The AIA. He is also a Visiting Scholar at White’s Institute. De Montebello is the group’s Special Advisor” At The Metropolitan Museum de Montebello has purchased hundreds of antiquities from all over the world, as “partage” from “source nations”. He has also named an MMA gallery in White’s name. Minayev may be an innocent bystander. No Foundation member will serve archaeology; they will defer to de Montebello and White.

Rose and Hodges have now brought the AIA and the University Museum further into the depths of the plunder culture. Query: are there any honest archaeologist members among the AIA’s Officers and Trustees who will react to this, impeach its President? Surely no member of the University Museum’s Governing Board will react to Hodges; he has an OBE. Furthermore, excavations conducted by Rose/ Hodges’ museum not under partage (its correct meaning) are not eligible for publication funding by the Foundation of which they are prominent members. Thus, sites like Gordion in Turkey that remain to be fully published will be denied Foundation funds!

My position on raising funds for publication has been stated by me for some time in lectures and publications. I have no objection, archaeological or moral, to archaeologists seeking funds from White (I even once asked her Foundation to fund an archaeological publication; she refused): provided they do not cater to her, or support her plunder activities as return payment, viz. Lawrence Stager of Harvard University. K. D. Vitelli received money from White, but never ceased to oppose her and other plunders, for which she was criticized for not supporting her in her partage activities. Further, I do not oppose the publication of antiquities, no matter where their modern provenance exists, provided that scholars disclose this information and note their unexcavated nature: one cannot ignore unexcavated objects, they exist, we cannot throw away the baby with the dirty bath water. The new Levy Foundation group will reject such disclosure. The archaeological discipline is fragmenting while too many scholars look the other way.

Oscar White Muscarella

Rebuilding Haiti: Look to the past

One of the most far-reaching and long-lasting consequences from Haiti’s recent devastation is the immeasurable loss to its culture.

In this regard, international cultural organizations have issued statements expressing concern for the state of Haiti’s cultural heritage, including the International Committee of the Blue Shield. In a press release issued January 14, The Blue Shield says that it “places the expertise and network of its member organisations at the disposal of their Haitian colleagues to support their work in assessing the damage to the cultural heritage of their countries including libraries, archives, museums and monuments and sites, and subsequent recovery, restoration and repair measures.” The Facebook group Haiti 2010 Blue Shield Solidarity was created as numerous other online discussions have surfaced.

Similarly, the President of International Council on Monuments and Sites calls “on all ICOMOS to come together in solidarity ” and “identify individual ICOMOS members and groups of members who would be willing to form part of volunteer teams to be deployed to Haiti as needed when the time comes and the heritage needs are manifested by our Haitian colleagues.” At the moment, and probably for a while, priority will remain on human life. The time will come to make the decisions to rebuild Haiti.

Photographer Maggie Steber wrote in her Jan 19 New York Times “Essay: A Culture in Jeopardy, Too”:

“Devastated by the loss of its people and its places, Haiti stands on the precipice of losing something more precious — as audacious as that sounds amid all this death — because it is transcendent.

Haiti stands to lose its culture.

Culture describes a people more than anything. It stems from history. It is the glue that holds a nation together when all else fails. But now that, too, may be lost, in the well-intentioned rebuilding efforts by the international community.”

When cities, monuments, buildings and artifacts mark the way people live and provide information about ourselves and our ancestors, how will Haitian cultural heritage be altered when so much of the nation’s built environment has been reduced to rubble? When so many of its people have perished and can no longer tell their stories? Regardless of the condition of these structures before the recent earthquake, these were the people’s homes, where they learned, conducted business, worked and played.

“If the world is going to rebuild Haiti, Haitians must have a say.” Maggie Steber, who has covered Haiti for 30 years, writes. Loyola University’s Professor Angel Parham echoes this sentiment.

How will Haitians have a say? Indeed, discussions surrounding what’s best for a renewed Haiti sound hopeful, as policymakers see the opportunity to seize the moment to improve and “to change the country forever.” Washington Post reports.

We call for a look to the past. One way for Haitians to have a say is by observing how life was lived through images and videos before the earthquake. Much can be gathered as to what needs to change and what needs to be recreated and restored. And created anew.

Photo: James P. Blair/National Geographic, From the Archive: Haiti, Alive by David W. Dunlap, The New York Times


A Closer Look at China’s Intentions: Reacting to the New York Times

On December 17th, the New York Times published an article regarding China’s ongoing international mission to survey and examine Chinese antiquities taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace (or Yuanmingyuan 圓明園) that are currently housed in museums and private collections in Britain, the United States, and France.

Since the publication of this article, there has been a slew of reaction from all corners of the blogosphere, mostly expressing outrage against the inflammatory and one-sided arguments of the article’s author, Andrew Jacobs. For instance, cultural heritage blogger Lee Rosenbaum conveys shock at Jacobs’ dismissive tone against the Chinese and their legitimate endeavor, and that such a disparaging article could be “presented on Page One as a news report rather than a commentary.” Another piece by SAFE, delved into the suspect relationship between Jacobs and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, suggesting that biased reporting on the part of the New York Times was due to their intimacy with the museum.

In lieu of this current controversy, I feel that it is worthwhile to bring to the forefront of the discussion the facts of China’s recent efforts.

First of all, it should be acknowledged that the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is a point of considerable humiliation to many Chinese, and as such, a great deal of national pride is involved in reclaiming artifacts like the bronze zodiac heads. That being said however, expressing consternation about the artifacts that were taken during the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is completely within China’s right, as Italy and Greece have previously demonstrated. Thus, China’s interest in reclaiming these artifacts should not be disparaged as merely a publicity stunt. That the Chinese see these objects as a part of China’s rightful patrimony is not something the international community should vilify.

Secondly, the problem with the Yuanmingyuan bronzes, however, is that they were removed before any of the current laws protecting archaeological patrimony were enacted, making its situation different from that of, say, the Euphronios krater, which was shown to have been taken out of Italy in the mid-1900s, and more like that of the Elgin Marbles. As such, China does not have a legal right to demand these items back. Thus, their only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market, which is exactly what they have been doing. Take for example, the purchase of the bronze horse head in 2007 from Sotheby’s by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho for a total of $8.9 million; and more recently, the Christie’s Paris auction of the rat and rabbit heads that were a previously in the possession of designer Yves Saint Laurent. Considering how sensitive a topic the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is to many Chinese, it seems only natural that being forced to purchase them back at exorbitant amounts of money chafes at Chinese national pride.

Chinese nationalism, however, is not the central issue. Instead what we should focus on is that these high-profile, “hot” items are being auctioned on the antiquities market despite the fact that it is well-known where they came from and under what circumstances. Furthermore, although they remain out of the reach of some of the major pieces of international cultural heritage legislation (for instance China’s current MOU, which stipulates that items must be older than 250 years of age to qualify for repatriation), it is still not taboo to sell them. Consider this, what would have happened if a piece of the Parthenon were to suddenly surface on the market? How often does that happen anymore? The infamy surrounding the Yuanmingyuan bronze heads over the last several years should be enough to deter western markets from touching them, and yet, there is very little negative sentiment directed towards the selling of such obviously looted Chinese antiquities on the international art market. If a similar situation were to have occurred involving Roman, Greek, or Mayan antiquities, there is no doubt that the media would have reacted much differently; no one would be impugning Italian, Greek, or Central American national pride.

What these events have shown, when we cut away all of the political posturing, is that there is a serious imbalance between the protection of cultural heritage from different source countries. On one hand, Italy, Greece, and several nations in Central America have caused enough political and legal upheaval against market nations like the US that it is now extremely taboo to sell high-profile antiquities from those countries. No such taboo yet exists for antiquities from China, India, and many Southeast Asian nations. This is what needs to change, and this is what people should be aware of.

The New York Times and the Met: Too close for comfort (again)?

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

Colin Renfrew asks for clarity in New York City

Following his rousing lecture in Philadelphia at the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Lecture & Reception Professor Colin Renfrew will be speaking tomorrow at a lecture in New York City entitled “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: a Time for Clarity” at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, located conveniently at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Prof. Renfrew will argue that a point of crisis has been reached in the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage, and that this can be met only by a general agreement not to acquire unprovenanced antiquities.

We invite all those who have questions for Prof. Renfrew about his position on these matters to take advantage of this rare opportunity and attend this lecture, which is free and open to the public. (Photo: Collin O’Brien)

The Met sends off Museum Director with "pieces of history"

The Metropolitan Museum of Art paid tribute yesterday to its outgoing director Philippe de Montebello with the show “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.” which opened with the 16th century tapestry “The Triumph of Fame”.  The exhibition, which Holland Cotter of the New York Times called “A Banquet of World Art, 30 Years in the Making” was described as a “priceless send off” by National Public Radio.

During his tenure as director De Montebello is known to have acquired 84,000 pieces for the Met, which he calls an “encyclopedic museum.” In recent years, the museum attracted much controversy over the acquisition of artifacts that were shown to have been looted. The objects include:

• The “Lydian Hoard” (returned to Turkey in 1993)

• Two Angkor statues (returned to Cambodia in 1997)

• The “Euphronios Krater” (returned to Italy in 2008)

and 15 pieces of Hellenistic silver known as The Morgantina Silver, which will remain in the museum until 2010.

SAFE wishes Philippe de Montebello well as he becomes the first professor to teach the history and culture of museums at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and welcomes the museum’s new director, Thomas P. Campbell.

Photo from from AP Photo by Mary Altaffer: Philippe de Montebello, left, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is joined by James R. Houghton, chairman of the Metropolitan’s board of trustees, January 2008.

Holland Cotter: Chinese museums set a model the West can learn from

Photo: Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

In the July 4 New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter offers his impressions of museums in China, which recently adopted a nationwide free-admission policy. The article, first in a series entitled Civilization on Display, discusses the different approaches to museum displays, and contrasts them to those in the West.

The article includes a multimedia presentation narrated by Cotter in which he said, “In the West we have an idea of the art object as a discreet thing that should be seen by itself, speaks for itself, and should be enjoyed for aesthetic reasons, whereas in China, frequently, the same kind of object is considered to be a cultural relic…and the stories are more important than the individual object itself.” Chinese museums, Cotter concludes, “set a different model for a museum, and it’s one that the west has a lot to learn from.”

Are Strings Attached?

Today’s New York Times article When Strings Are Attached, Quirky Gifts Can Limit Universities rekindles concerns over the ethical and moral issues of big donations to educational institutions.

Two years after the announcement of the $300 million gift from private collector Shelby White to New York University to finance a new Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), the furor seems to have faded, if not completely disappeared. Ms. White, who has been criticized for allegedly collecting objects that are looted from their countries of origin, recently returned a number of disputed objects to Italy.

Robert K. Durkee, vice president and secretary of Princeton was quoted in the article that “Institutions do get shaped by the interests of donors”. We can only hope that the fears of Randall White, a professor of anthropology at NYU for 25 years, who resigned his honorary position with the university’s existing Center for Ancient Studies in protest over NYU’s acceptance of the gift are unfounded.

According to its website, “ISAW is a center for advanced scholarly research and graduate education, intended to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world.” Perhaps the study and “analysis of artifacts”, also mentioned on ISAW’s website, will emphasize the importance of documentation and context, so that such investigations may be possible.

“All the news that’s fit to print”?

A few important omissions in Jeremy Kahn’s “Coin Dealers Sue State Dept. for Details on Import Bans” in the New York Times, on November 17, 2007 should be pointed out:

In the article, Mr. Kahn claimed, “It was the first time the government had barred trade in a broad category of ancient coins…” But this is not true. While the US/Cyprus bilateral agreement does represent the first time that ancient coins have been subject to temporary import restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act, coins have been subject to government-mandated import restrictions for many years in other contexts. For example, Executive Order 12722, which prohibits the importation of ancient coins from Iraq, went into effect on August 2, 1990. This order has been renewed several times, e.g., see section 4 of the renewal dated July 29, 2004. This prohibition remains in effect. In addition, antiquities, coins and other artifacts of Iranian origin have also been subject to trade restrictions for a number of years; importing such items to the U.S. is currently prohibited, and the US Customs and/or the Department of Justice does confiscate such items. In addition, according to the US Customs and Border Protection’s website, “gold coins … originating in or brought from Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, and Sudan are prohibited entry” under regulations administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Mr. Kahn wrongly characterizes import restrictions on Cypriot coins as a sweeping ban. For example, the photo caption in the article reads: “Importing Cypriot coins like this one is now banned.” But according to the U.S. Federal Register, the coins restricted from entering the US under the bilateral agreement are quite specific and listed as:

Coins of Cypriot types made of gold, silver, and bronze including but not limited to:

1. Issues of the ancient kingdoms of Amathus, Kition, Kourion, Idalion, Lapethos, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Salamis dating from the end of the 6th century B.C. to 332 B.C.

2. Issues of the Hellenistic period, such as those of Paphos, Salamis, and Kition from 332 B.C. to c. 30 B.C.

3. Provincial and local issues of the Roman period from c. 30 B.C. to 235 A.D. Often these have a bust or head on one side and the image of a temple (the Temple of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos) or statue (statue of Zeus Salaminios) on the other.

Coins minted in Cyprus outside of the categories specified are not affected. In addition, no import ban exists for these types of coins, or any coin of Cypriot type, if the coin is accompanied by a valid export permit from the Government of Cyprus. Any bona fide museum, university or organization with a need to access and study Cypriot coins, can apply to the Cyprus government for a long-term loan, as described in Section 27 (subsections 1 and 2) of the Cyprus Antiquities Law.

The State Department operates under the provisions of the Cultural Property Implementation Act, the enabling legislation passed on January 12, 1983 and amended December 22, 1987, which implements into US law the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970). As parties to the Convention, Cyprus and the US, as well as more than 100 countries, have agreed to abide by Article 1(e), which includes under the definition of Cultural Property subject to protection, “antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals”. Parties to the Convention have also agreed to abide by Article 9: “Any State Party to this Convention whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological or ethnological materials may call upon other States Parties … to participate in a concerted international effort to determine and to carry out the necessary concrete measures, including the control of exports and imports and international commerce in the specific materials concerned. Pending agreement each State concerned shall take provisional measures to the extent feasible to prevent irremediable injury to the cultural heritage of the requesting State.”

In other words, the US-Cyprus bilateral agreement is fully in keeping with an international legal mechanism that has been in place for decades.

To describe the import restrictions of ancient Cypriot coins without including the proper background information and circumstances does not serve the purpose of pursuing “greater disclosure”, reportedly the basis for bringing the lawsuit. Context does matter. We believe the public deserves better from The New York Times.

As for the lawsuit itself, the 15-page complaint speaks for itself. But consider this fact: it costs as little as $100/month to hire an archaeological site guard; an FOIA attorney in Washington, D.C. typically receives $400 per hour, or more, to sue the federal government.

Hot off the presses! Princeton reaches accord with Italy

Not long after Yale University agreed to return objects originally taken from Machu Picchu to Peru, another of the most prestigious American universities, Princeton, has agreed to return eight ancient pieces to Italy that were illegally excavated and exported. Like the Yale-Peru agreement, the accord between Princeton and Italy will promote scholarly exchange, with Princeton having access to scholarly archaeological digs in Italy and the ability to receive long-terms loans from Italian institutions. By doing the right thing and returning the looted pieces, they benefited ten-fold!

Read the New York Times article about the deal here.

A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues

“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.

Marble sculptures going home

Here is today’s New York Times article on two sculptural heads being returned to Sicily. Like the famous set of silver pieces that are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these heads are from the Morgantina site, the remains of an ancient Greek colony in Sicily:


It’s important to point out that these two pieces are not only going back to their place of origin, they are going into a museum there where they will be looked after. It’s not only American or British museums can properly care for and display archaeological treasures.

Cyprus, coins and the American interest

The recent renewal of the U.S.-Cyprus bilateral agreement to restrict importation of certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. could have taken place with little fanfare. In fact, similar agreements the U.S. had previously signed with Bolivia (extended in 2006), Colombia (initiated in 2006) and Nicaragua (extended in 2005) were hardly mentioned in the general media. The U.S. extension of the agreement with Peru, in June of this year, went practically unnoticed. One month later, however, the agreement with Cyprus was another story. Days after the announcement, the New York Times ran an article about it, and attacks on State Department personnel (responsible for administering bilateral agreements) appeared on the Internet. Among the heated polemics was the assertion that agreeing with Cyprus–a tiny country compared to the U.S.–does not serve the interests of the American public.

So what makes the Cyprus agreement so contentious? The inclusion of coins. For the first time, the U.S. will restrict the importation of specific ancient coins with Cyprus mint marks, concluding that “Coins constitute an inseparable part of the archaeological record of the island, and, like other archaeological objects, they are vulnerable to pillage and illicit export.” (See Federal Register)

Perhaps it is time we discuss the importance of ancient coins. Are they important beyond the money they fetch on the market? Since coin collecting is a popular hobby, is there a responsible way to collect without contributing to the destruction of the archaeological record? How do they compare to other ancient artifacts such as vases or statues? What can coins tell us aside from the date stamped on them? Should those of us who don’t collect coins care … and why?

The U.S. joined the international Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970) more than two decades ago and passed implementing legislation that provides the mechanism by which bilateral agreements with other countries also party to the Convention are considered.

As citizens, we are expected to follow the law, and we expect our governments to honor treaties and agreements with other sovereign nations. We understand that not every single one of these laws will serve the interests of every single individual.

Is it time to question whether bilateral agreements truly serve American interests? Clearly not. It is instead time to accept the reality that unbridled destruction will no longer be ignored to serve the interest of a few.