Iraq- National Museum of Iraq preparing for re-opening

Iraq- National Museum of Iraq preparing for re-opening

Heartening news from Iraq: the Iraq National Museum is reopening, for real this time it seems (after pseudo-openings for Paul Bremer in July 2003, and for Ahmed Chalabi in 2008 or 2009, among others).

Alleged Smuggling Ring Investigated


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents claim to have dismantled an organization responsible for conspiring to smuggle Egyptian Middle Eastern and Asian antiquities into the United States and conspiring to launder money in furtherance of smuggling. Three people were arrested, two antiquities dealers and a collector, while a fourth person, a Jordanian antiquities dealer is considered a “fugitive”.

Most of the antiquities concerned apparently originated in Egypt, but they were reportedly smuggled into the United States from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The objects were allegedly provided with false provenances, which stated that the Egyptian antiquities were part of an old collection dating back to the 1960s.

“This is a ground breaking case for Homeland Security Investigations. It is the first time a cultural property network is dismantled within the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge [James T.] Hayes. “In addition to smuggling cultural property this case also focuses on money laundering. This is notable because the illicit sale of cultural property is the third most profitable black market industry following narcotics, and weapons.”
“This office will continue to vigorously enforce cultural property laws that restrict the unauthorized movement of antiquities,” said U.S. Attorney [Loretta E.] Lynch. “Antiquities dealers and collectors are on notice that the smuggling of cultural patrimony will not be tolerated.”

Articles seized include a sarcophagus, a mummy case, several tomb models of boats, but also many ‘minor artefacts’ such as glass vessels and thousands of ancient coins.

More information:
ICE News Release: ‘ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt‘, July 14, 2011;
Paul Barford blog: Egyptian Antiquities Allegedly Smuggled From Dubai to US, 14 July 2011;
Looting Matters: Dealers Charged Following Egyptian Seizures, 14 July 2011.

Vignette: watching the dealers (Holyland Numismatics)

Tunisia protects ancient treasures (

More information on how the kleptocratic ruling family of Tunisia before the revolution looted the country’s museum for artifacts to use as kitchen tables and columns around the swimming pool: , Tunisia protects ancient treasures (

Returning archeological artifacts to local communities: the example of the Morgantina Aphrodite

Aidone is a tranquil, rural town in central Sicily (Italy) that recently has become subject of the attention of international news, having checkmated – so to say – two of the most famous and powerful cultural institution in the world, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the unscrupulous collecting practice for which the obsession with “owning” an unique artifact overshadows due legal end ethical questions about provenance before the acquisition.

Aidone and its Archaeological Museum are now home of the so much disputed Morgantina Silver Trove, 16 Hellenistic silver-gilt items returned by the MET in 2010, and the Morgantina Aphrodite, the statue repatriated by the Getty in March 2011, both illegally excavated and exported from the ancient Greek site of Morgantina, the nearby archaeological centre, in the 1980’s. The Museum exhibits re-contextualize the artifacts according to the site’s history, as retraced by the various field excavations (Princeton University, University of Illinois, University of Virginia, along with the Italian Ministry of Culture) involved in researching and studying this ancient Greek colony.

The restitution of two important and significant artifacts such as the silver trove and the Aphrodite statue is crucially far-reaching, both as reaffirmation of the right to one own cultural patrimony, and as opportunity to use the cultural heritage for helping and improving the economy of local disadvantaged communities through sustainable cultural tourism. The network formed by the Aidone’s Archaeological Museum, with its growing collections, the Morgantina’s Archeological site, and the Villa del Casale - a Roman villa in the near town of Piazza Armerina, which contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, and it’s one of 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy – can be an example of how to preserve and convey historical and cultural values of a specific heritage site in accurate and engaging ways, at the same time integrating its economic opportunities to the area where it is located, and in doing so sustaining and improving the local quality of life.

The advocates of the “universal” museum approach, a museum that contains the “whole world under one roof and preserves beautiful object, otherwise condemned to dispersion and destruction in their place of origin – a rather partial, Western idea than a “universal” one – dispute the ability of communities to protect and present their cultural patrimony in their own territory: the return of the Morgantina’s artifacts proves them wrong.

Photo: The Aphrodite at the Aidone Archaeological Museum (© la Repubblica-Palermo 2011)

Nat Geo Plans Weeklong Special on Egypt

The National Geographic Channel is capitalizing on the interest in things Egyptian with a weeklong special:

(Nat Geo Plans Weeklong Special on Egypt: “With events in Egypt making headlines, National Geographic Channel is plann…”
Given that Zahi Hawass has been starring in shows as an “explorer-in-residence” for National Geographic, they will certainly have major access. We’ll have to wait and see whether the questions they ask are going to be softballs or real journalistic attempts to clarify exactly what happened at the museum that led to its being breached, along with several other incidents of looting. The record is very murky, in no small part because of Hawass’ own public-relations efforts at damage control in the immediate aftermath of the break-in, and it would be good to know what security plans existed, whether they included contingency plans that took account of the possibility of a breakdown in civil order caused by a deliberate removal of police, how many antiquities police were actually at the museum on the day of the break-in, and other questions of policy.

Bush’s ghostwriters on the looting of the Iraq National Museum

George W. Bush’s utterly mendacious ghostwritten memoir contains only one mention of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. It comes in the context of a rare admission that “there was one important contingency for which we had not adequately prepared”….

For full post, go to The Punching Bag.

The US Antiquities Trade and National Values

Twelve US congressmen mainly from Wisconsin and Texas have signed a letter to the State Department with a number of demands concerning recent and upcoming cultural property bilateral agreements with China, Cyprus, Italy and Greece. A facsimile of this letter on US Congress letterhead dated Sept 27th 2010, is posted on the Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild website and it is difficult not to conclude that the ACCG’s lobbyists are behind this disgraceful initiative. I give a transcription of the full text with a longer discussion on my blog.

The authors question whether the State Department is properly respecting the “legislative intent” of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act This legislation which was drafted by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, furthers our national interest in promoting cultural access and trade which is central to our nation’s values”. The letter’s authors demand that “there should be no expansion of the MOU to include coins, commonplace items that stand outside the scope of the legislative intent behind CPIA”.

The twelve signatories are: Paul Ryan (R-WI), Thomas Petri (R-WI), John Culberson (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Sam Johnson (R-TX), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX), John Campbell (R-CA), Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) , Rob Wittman (R-VA), John Spratt (D-SC) and Joe Courtney (D-CT). What is notable is that Ryan, Petrie and Culberson are recipients of ACCG Friends of Numismatics Awards.

Surely the “legislative intent” of an act called the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act is that it is intended to implement the measures laid down in the Convention mentioned in its title, in other words the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. Certainly the intent of the Convention is the trade in illegally exported cultural property should not become “central” to the national values of any of the States party.

It seems to me that in their haste to prove themselves Friends of Numismatics by reducing the scope of the implementation of the 1970 Convention, these twelve seem to lost sight of some of those key national values. ‘Implementing the Convention’ surely means implementing the Convention and not implementing a law which in effect says the convention is all very fine but if we actually prohibit and prevent our citizens from being involved in the import of illicitly exported items and illicit transfer of cultural property, certain key national values are going to suffer. I wonder what those key values could be?

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property involves stealing. I hardly think theft from others is a key national value of the United States.

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property involves dishonourable trade practices, lies on the customs declaration forms, neither do I think dishonesty and dishonour can be considered a key American value.

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property taken from other countries is a deep disregard and disrespect for the rights of the citizens of the countries from which they are illegally removed, since when was disregard and disrespect for others a key US national value?

I wonder to what extent the twelve signatories of this letter are in fact aware that restrictions only apply to coins without documentation of legal export which can be supplied by two types of pieces of paper? There is no restriction on the movement through US borders of coins of the designated categories with the proper paperwork, nor of coins from those countries which do not fall in the designated categories. There is no sign in the letter that the Congressmen were appraised of this. On the contrary, from the wording of what they wrote it looks very much like that they had allowed themselves to be misinformed about the nature of the restrictions.

It seems to me that the 12 members of congress who signed this document are being wholly disingenuous when asserting that their letter is merely an attempt “to strengthen CPIA”. Their demands (they call them requests) are not only attempting to undermine the CCPIA, but also the intent of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Careful, the world is watching how US Congressmen value accession to an international Convention.

The ACCG urges “Ancient coin collectors who are represented in Washington by any of these Members of Congress are encouraged to contact the local or national offices and thank them for their support“. I believe that in the United States there are many who do not collect antiquities and care for the protection of the world’s archaeological record from commercial exploitation by looters to fuel the US no-questions-asked market in ancient artefacts. I hope that those who are represented in Washington by any of these twelve Members of Congress contact the local or national offices and ask them just what they think they are doing. Is that how they represent the decent folk of their nation?

Photos of the Friends of Numismatics receiving ACCG “Friends of Numismatics” wall plaques from the ACCG website.

Greece requests U.S. import restrictions on cultural material

Greece has made a formal request for the U.S. to impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material (Neolithic through mid-eighteenth century) that comes from the Hellenic Republic.

Despite their own efforts and enforcement of national law, Greek officials claim that “a considerable number of antiquities has been and continues to be smuggled out of Greek territory, causing serious jeopardy to the cultural heritage of the county.”

The U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) will hold meetings in Washington, D.C., next month to review the new request and will hold a public session on October 12 from 10:00am to 1:00pm.

If you would like to make comments at the meeting or attend as a spectator, you must call the Cultural Heritage Center and sign up by September 22.

As always, if you cannot make the meeting but still want to voice your support for the protection of Greece’s heritage, you can write a letter to CPAC. The AIA has great resources on their website that make this easy to do. See their letter template, which takes about five minutes to fill out.

The AIA also has a great summary of the process by which an MoU is agreed on and renewed under the Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983.

This past spring, Italy’s MoU was up for renewal, and at the meeting, coins dominated the debate. Disappointingly, they were not added to the list of materials protected under the bilateral agreement.

The DoS thus far has only made available a public summary of Greece’s request, which doesn’t get too specific about the kind of material the country wants protected. Greece did conclude, however, that looters prefer “ceramic such as pottery, metal such as jewelry and coins, and stone such as statues.”

Can we assume that coins will be on the table?

Nathan Elkins wrote a great feature, “Why coins matter,” for SAFE last year about how the systematic looting of archaeological sites for the purpose of finding coins to sell on the market creates an irreparable loss of cultural information. Read it, and peruse our resource page Coins Matter to learn more. Urge CPAC to seriously consider protecting coins in your letter if you feel compelled to do so.

Photo: Michael Setboun

New Ambassador to Iraq Confirmed — No Help for Iraq’s Endangered Archaeological Sites Likely

The Senate has just confirmed James Jeffrey as the new ambassador to Iraq. As part of the confirmation process, Jeffrey was posed a few questions in writing about the State Department’s policies regarding the protection of archaeological sites…

To read the full post, go to The Punching Bag.

Iraq’s Antiquities Police: The Bitter Fruit of US Indifference to the Looting of Iraq’s Archaeological Heritage

I have been putting off posting about this front-page New York Times story. In part I’ve delayed because I needed to check some of its facts with colleagues; in part because I and others have been pushing the story to contacts in the US government asking them to do something (and Iraqi colleagues have been mobilizing to do the same for their government); in part because I try to make it a principle to not write when too angry to think straight….

(post continues at The Punching Bag)

Looting Matters: Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Italy

Looting Matters: Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Italy — SWANSEA, Wales, April 16 /PRNewswire/ –

Swansea, April 16.

The MOU with Italy including a quote from Sebastian Heath, Vice President for Professional Responsibilities at the AIA: “The MOU between the US and Italy serves the interests of the international community by reducing looting and preserving information about the Ancient World”.

SAFE Corner listed in Top 50 Archaeology Blogs

The Health Tech’s blog at has listed SAFE Corner in their 50 Best Blogs for Archaeology Students. Here’s what the author has to say about us:

This admirable band of archaeologists hope to preserve humanity’s shared cultural heritage as best as possible without compromising ownership or social justice issues.

2010 CHAPS Conference

On April 10th, the program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS) at Rutgers University will be holding an all-day conference, Cultural Heritage Now: Prospects, Directions, Futures | A Public Conversation. The conference will focus on the current state of cultural heritage studies and practice, bringing together academics, museums, funding-agencies and non-profit organizations for discussions about the future of this topic. Their keynote speaker is The Honorable James A. Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and their list of preliminary speakers is as follows:

-Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
-Joan Breton Connelly, Professor, Department of Classics, New York University
-Jon Fein, Independent Filmmaker and Sculptor, educator
-Douglas Greenberg, Executive Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers University
-Richard Leventhal, Director, Penn Cultural Heritage Center
-Phillip E. Lewis, Vice President, Mellon Foundation
-Mary Sue Sweeny Price, Director, Newark Museum
-Suzan Shown Harjo, Director, Morningstar Institute
-Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator, Museum for African Art
-Mary Ellen Snyder, National Park Service
-John Stubbs, Vice President, World Monuments Fund
-Jack Tchen, Director,Asian/Pacific/American Institute Founder, Museum of Chinese in America

CHAPS offers both a Certificate in Historic Preservation and a Masters degree in Cultural Heritage Preservation. This summer, they are offering a 5-week, 6-credit program in Athens called, “Cultural Heritage Preservation in Greece.” It is open to undergraduate and graduate students, and they are accepting applications until April 1st.

Why should we care?

In response to the seemingly imminent destruction of burial mounds in Bahrain, Gillian Abbas wrote a letter to the Gulf Daily News addressing the essential question, “Why should we care?” She writes:

“Any artefacts or intact burial mounds, no matter how small or insignificant, in their original background, offer us insight into the way our ancestors lived, their societies and their environments.

They complete our view of ancient life and enrich our understanding on many levels and as such, these burial sites and antiquities embrace an essential part of the Gulf and our global cultural heritage.

And why should we care about culture and antiquities?

Simply because the physical fabric of the past is fundamental to the moral and spiritual foundation of our present and future.”

This editorial echoes SAFE’s own Why should we care? segment and offers additional insight about why we must safeguard information that only antiquities and ancient sites can tell us about our past.

Selling our past to the highest bidder

SAFE Board Member Elizabeth Gilgan will organize a colloquium at the AIA Meeting entitled “Selling our past to the highest bidder: a global snapshot of antiquities in the art market” on January 9, 1:30 to 4:30 pm. We hope you can attend.


In December 2007 Sotheby’s, the second oldest auction house in the world, sold an unprovenienced archaeological object for a record breaking price of 57.2 million US dollars. This price is even more astonishing given that the object is only 3.25 inches tall. When such record prices are to be found in the art market, it makes one question the strength of legislation that protects antiquities. While archaeologists know that sites are being looted and that unprovenienced cultural material is being sold all over the world, they still need to prove to the art collectors that the destruction of sites from objects being wrested out of the ground is directly correlated with the art market and such extraordinary prices.

In this session we discuss the need for archaeologists to understand the nature of the antiquities market, to familiarize themselves with the international and national legislation concerning the antiquities trade and the protection of sites, and most importantly to strengthen their argument against looting by conducting statistical analyses of object sales and the movement of antiquities through the art market. Market studies of the antiquities trade can convincingly demonstrate that looting and destruction of sites is exacerbated by the ongoing trade in ancient objects.

This colloquium will address six regions of the world and discuss how antiquities from these areas are represented in the art market. The six areas under consideration are the South America, China, Cambodia, Italy, Middle East, and Turkey. The South American study addresses almost two decades of trade in South American objects. The China study focuses on the historical development of western collection of Chinese artifacts. The Cambodian paper will address how the UNESCO convention impacts the trade in Cambodian antiquities. The fourth paper will address the market for antiquities from Central Italy and how an applied quantitative methodology can be used to decipher the art market. The fifth paper will examine the art market in the Middle East (Israel, Jordan and Palestine). The last stop on our global tour is Turkey. This final presentation will discuss an investigation of Lydian objects from public and private collections. Click on “Read more” for paper details.

“A Study of South American Antiquities in the Art Market” – Donna Yates, University of Cambridge

“The Limits of the Law: The Impact of the UNESCO Convention on the Trade in Illicit Cambodian Antiquities” – Terressa Davis, Heritage Watch and The University of Georgia School of Law

“A Preliminary Study of the Chinese Antiquities Market: Historical Development and Current Trends” – Glenda Ellen Chao, Columbia University

“Applying Vigilance: Monitoring the Antiquities Trade through Quantitative Methods” – Gordon Lobay

“Destroying the Holy Land: Archaeological Site Destruction and the Lure of the Relic” – Morag M. Kersel

“For Sale from ‘East Greece’ or ‘Persia': Lydia and the Antiquities Market” – Christina Luke and Christopher H. Roosevelt, Boston University


Job opportunities in Iraq

International Relief and Development, a non-profit NGO, has posted two cultural heritage employment opportunities in Iraq that may be of interest:

Project Director, Cultural Heritage Project (Tracking Code 2008149)

and Program Coordinator Cultural Heritage Project (Tracking Code 20088156)

The Museums Will Be Protected Next Time Round

The military has just released FM 3.07, its new field manual on Stability Operations.  Those concerned that the lessons of the looting of the Iraq National Museum might not have been learned will be pleased to find that among the “Essential Stability Tasks” is that of protecting key personnel and facilities. The eight tasks under this heading include the requirements to “protect and secure places of religious worship and cultural sites,” and to “protect and secure strategically important institutions (such as government buildings;medical and public health infrastructure; the central bank, national treasury, and integral commercial banks; museums; and religious sites).”

A bare mention, but nonetheless extremely important, and arguably far more consequential than the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention….
For more, hit The Punching Bag.

Hague Ratification: Fighting the Last War?

The Senate has at long last ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This ends decades of unflagging lobbying by cultural heritage protection advocates, led by the indefatigable Patty Gerstenblith and others. They are to be congratulated on achieving this legislative victory.

But lest anyone think that the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is now assured, it is important to recognize what ratification of Hague does and does not accomplish….

For more, go to The Punching Bag


"Cultural Heritage Sites Safe," at least those that have been guarded

The State Department’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewah Province has issued a report of an assessment of important archaeological sites in northern Iraq that was conducted jointly with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in May 2008. The headline trumpets the finding: “Cultural Sites Safe.” To be more specific, the team visited Hatra, Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), the Mosul Cultural Museum, the al Hadba Leaning Minaret in the old city of Mosul, and the St. Elijah Chaldean Monastery ruins. They report that, “even though the sites showed signs of deterioration due to the lack of onsite archaeologists and conservators, none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism.” The first thing to say about this report is that it is heartening to see that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage….
For more, go to The Punching Bag

Is the Looting Really Over?

Martin Bailey strikes again, with an interview with Dr Abbas al-Husseini, described as “the leading archaeologist in Iraq,” who tells readers of the Art Newspaper that “looting is over”. Bailey’s new piece is a followup on an article earlier this summer that as he notes “generated considerable controversy” because it suggested that no post-2003 looting had occurred. Though the article spins Abbas’ comments as corroborating this view, at least now the Art Newspaper has admitted that some looting went on after 2003. The position now is that, in Abbas’ words, looting did occur post-2003, though it “declined very considerably in 2004 and has diminished yet more since then.” Paul Barford, fellow SAFEcorner blogger, is right to see this as cognitive progress of sorts. Still, the overall message to readers is: relax, looting is no longer a problem, since “professional looting has ended.” But there is reason to treat Dr Abbas’ claims, as reported by Mr Bailey, with some skepticism….
To read more, go to The Punching Bag