Saturday, December 27, 2008

Does Growing Islamism Bode Ill for Pre-Islamic Antquities in Islamic Lands?

The New York Times recently ran an interesting article about the Islamic youth movement in Jordan. For more, see:

In her book, "Loot," Sharon Waxman has already commented on the lack of connection that people even in moderate Islamic countries, like Turkey, feel towards pre-Islamic monuments. In particular, she pointed out that Turkey's magnificent cultural sites relating to its Greek and Roman history are mostly visited by foreign tourists. In contrast, Turks are far more likely to visit sites associated with Turkey's Ottoman past. Of course, foreign tourists can only support relatively few easily accessible monuments. In contrast, sites "off the beaten path" are likely to by ignored by tourists. In turn, this makes it much less likely that the authorities will take any active efforts to preserve them. Thus, it becomes more likely that such sites will not only suffer from neglect, but also looting or even outright destruction in the name of "progress."

To the extent secular Middle Eastern Governments are replaced by "Islamic" ones, one wonders about impact of such changes in government on the long term health of pre-Islamic monuments. Already, cultural heritage bureaucracies in many Middle Eastern countries are grossly underfunded. And, as Waxman also has pointed out, once an Islamic- leaning party took control in Turkey, the already abysmal level of funding for cultural sites was cut even further in favor of other priorities.

One thing should be increasingly clear. The old nationalist model of associating the state with the glories of a pre-Islamic past, complete with absolute governmental control over anything "old," does little to encourage the local populace to respect ancient artifacts. Indeed, as the wanton destruction of the Iraq Museum by a populace that associated it with the hated nationalistic Baathist regime has shown, this bankrupt, old model may actually encourage the active destruction or looting of ancient artifacts.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays: President Bush Pardons Man Convicted of ARPA violation

The Justice Department has announced that President Bush has pardoned 19 individuals this holiday season. For more see:

The posthumous pardon of Charlie Winters, who violated the Neutrality Act in the late 1940's by shipping surplus B-17 Bombers to Israel, is getting the most press. However, this is a blog about cultural property issues. Thus, it is worth noting that another individual, David Lane Woolsey of St. George, Utah, was pardoned for a violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. For more, see:,5143,705272608,00.html

I suppose some in the archaeological and/or Native American communities may be horrified by this turn of events, but, if so, hopefully they will let it go-- it's the Holiday Season after all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Egyptian Sculpture at Center of Schultz Case Repatriated Back to Egypt

A sculptural head of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III that was at the center of the notorious case of United States v. Schultz has been repatriated back to Egypt more than 10 years after authorities initially jailed its British smuggler. For more, see: The investigation also netted Fred Schultz, a past President of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art. For more, see: (article about conviction, which was ultimately upheld in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit).

In my opinion, this case is a prime example of the maxim "bad facts make bad law." In any event, one wonders why it took so long to repatriate the artifact, often described as "priceless" in both the media and before the Court. The British smuggler was convicted in 1997 and Fred Schultz, who was convicted in 2002, long ago lost his appeal and served his "debt to society." "Priceless" or not, perhaps the head lost much of its worth to the publicity seeking modern Pharaoh of Egypt's antiquities, Zahi Hawass, once the story receded from the news.

Addendum: David Gill ("Looting Matters" Blog) has posted a link to this press release from Egypt's attorneys about the case: I'm not sure I am buying the claim that the repatriation took over 10 years to accomplish because the matter was "complicated." "Complicated" or not, wasn't the vast majority of the groundwork done courtesy of the British and US taxpayer years ago? It's hard for me to believe the repatriation would have taken this long if Egypt made it a priority. I also do wonder what Egypt was charged for the effort. I suspect we will never know.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Milken Institute Speaks on Cultural Property Issues

The Milken Institute (founded by the former "Junk Bond King" who is now hoping for a Presidential pardon in the waning days of the Bush administration) held a symposium about the "illicit antiquities trade:" This is from an email publicizing the conclusions of the gathering:

The illegal antiquities trade has grown into a $4 billion market - but financial innovations and market-based incentives can change that, while supporting economic development in countries of origin and preserving the world's cultural heritage. A new report from the Milken Institute has the details from a gathering of minds on the topic that was designed with help from the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago. Press release is here:

Full report is available for free download after brief registration here:

I have not had an opportunity to review the full report. However, I was sorry to see that there was no reference to England's and Wales's "portable antiquities scheme" and "treasure trove" law in the summary of the Institute's suggestions found in the press release. Derek Fincham (Illicit Cultural Property Blog) was invited to speak about the subject, but his recommendations do not appear to have won the day.

This does not surprise me at all. Despite claims that the symposium included divergent views from various stakeholders, from what I recall of the guest list, it seemed to me that the whole effort was orchestrated from the beginning to ensure a result that would be acceptable to the members of the archaeological community. Certainly, the involvement of Larry Rothfield (a frequent contributor to the "SafeCorner" blog) in setting up the effort suggests as much. The gathering was by "invitation only" with no general "advance publicity" that might have attracted those with contrary views to the session. Thus, while it was nice that Mr. Milken's Institute tackled the issue, limiting participation to the "right people" only undercuts any pretensions that anything useful might come from the effort.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Italian Cultural Bureaucrats Stave Off Reform Once Again

Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's paper about the latest apparent "victory" of the Italian cultural bureaucracy against efforts to reform the creaky system. See: Certainly, this "victory" is as about hollow as one can be.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Archaeologists Uncover Saddam's Crimes

Archaeology Magazine has an interesting and sobering story about archaeologists and anthropologists under contract to the US Government who are digging up victims of Saddam's atrocities against the Kurds to support war crimes prosecutions. For more, see:

This blog has criticised other archaeologists for their all too cozy relationship with Saddam's regime. Hopefully, stories like the above will give pause to those in the archaeological community who sometimes still appear to be supportive of Saddam's fallen Baathist regime because of its promotion of archaeology in the country. Lest we forget, that support for archaeology was part and parcel of the Baathist ideology of control over "subject peoples" like the Kurds. And that ideology ultimately resulted in the atrocities that are being uncovered even today.

Monday, December 15, 2008

News from Northern Iraq

This report caught my eye. It again pokes holes in the received wisdom that archaeological sites in Iraq were extensively looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. In particular, this report suggests (in the North of the country at least) that most damage occurred beforehand during the period of Baathist control over the country. It also suggests that neglect is now a greater problem than looting:

Department of State Niunewa Povincial Reconstruction Team Mosul, Iraq


NOV 29, 2008

First UNESCO Mission Since 2003 Examines Cultural Sites in Northern Iraq MOSUL, Iraq – A UNESCO fact-finding mission examined the overall condition of four key cultural heritage sites in Northern Iraq during November. The assessment team visited the Roman-Parthian city of Hatra, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985. In addition, the team visited three sites significant under the Assyrian Empire: Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), the first capital of the Assyrian Empire located in Salah ad Din Province, inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites andthe list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2003; Nimrud, considered the second capital of the Assyrian Empire; and the Ancient City of Nineveh, both listed on the Tentative List for World Heritage Sites. The team also visited the Mosul Cultural Museum, currently closed and in the process of renovation.

UNESCO representatives have not visited sites in Ninewa Province since 2003 and this mission found that many of the exposed antiquities are deteriorating due to a lack of conservation maintenance and site stewardship. The team documented only minor willful destruction, looting, or criminal activity at the sites. However, destruction and theft from the 80s and 90s were clearly evident at Ninevah where the Sennacherib Palace reliefs have been almost entirely removed by previous looters. Hatra and Nimrud showed less extensive evidence of theft and destruction but more severe signs of damage caused by water infiltration, erosion, and neglect. (emphasis added.)

Ms. Tamar Teneishvili, UNESCO Culture Program Specialist for Iraq was overwhelmed by the poor stateof conservation at Ninevah, but said the overall mission was incredible and provided a great opportunity to appraise the sites. Ms. Teneishvili and her colleague, Mr. Sami Al-Khoja, met with local Iraqis working on the sites, engaged with members of the Facilities Protection Service, and documented current conditions. They will compare results of their visit with those from previous UNESCO missions before publishing their findings.

UNESCO has pledged funds to repair two halls at the ruins of Nimrud and to assist the Mosul Cultural Museum with renovations, starting with the library and archives. UNESCO also committed resources tocomplete studies of the sites to identify the hydrologic conditions and plan future stone conservation projects and training. The Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewa will be requestingfunds to complement the UNESCO projects and will be working with the provincial government to commit funds to the conservation projects.

As of 2008, 878 sites are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and three are located in Iraq. Each World Heritage Site is the property of the state within whose territory the site is located,but it is considered in the interest of the international community to preserve the sites.
Suzanne E. Bott, PhD Provincial Reconstruction Team Ninewa Cultural Heritage Advisor DSN: 318-821-6148SVOIP: 318-243-0294/ 243-0366NIPR: SIPR:

Meanwhile over on the SafeCorner blog Larry Rothfield gives his perspective that the State Department is not doing enough to protect Iraqi archaeological sites. SafecCorner also kindly posted my comments:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nicholas Burns on Troubles in Greece

Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State and Ambassador to Greece, was recently interviewed about the riots in Greece. For more, see:

Like other commentators, Burns has attributed the rioting to mounting frustration about a lot of things, including corruption:

And I think what it means is that there's a tremendous deal of frustration, obviously, with the unemployment situation, with the world financial crisis. Also, there have been allegations against the government of corruption. All of this has tended to roil the young students and some of the anarchist movement that have been very prominent in Greek politics over many decades.

Let's face it. Corruption in Greece extends to pretty much everything, including the country's policy on cultural artifacts. For instance, Greece has laws that criminalize collecting ancient artifacts, unless, of course, you happen to be connected enough to be recognized as a "registered collector."

Such "two tiered" systems are a recipe for abuse. Such a system also exists in the Republic of Cyprus, a nation closely aligned with Greece proper. And, indeed, perhaps not coincidentally, members of the numismatic community strongly suspect that the same type of cronyism that infects Greece and Cyprus may have also infected our own State Department's decision to extend import restrictions to coins of Cypriot type. Certainly as described previously on this blog , Undersecretary Burns' decision to accept the "Livanos" Award from Greek Cypriot lobbing groups shortly before the decision was made to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type suggests as much. See:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cornelius C. Vermeule III, a Curator of Classical Antiquities, Is Dead at 83

On December 9, 2008, the New York Times ran an obituary for Cornelius C. Vermeule III, formerly the curator of classical antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It can be found here:

The obituary covers Vermeule's illustrious career that started at a time when the archaeological and museum communities were collaborators and not adversaries over "who owns the past." Indeed, Vermeule himself exemplified the level of collaboration; he even met his future wife, an archaeologist, at an AIA meeting! Sadly, Vermeule also witnessed first hand how mutual suspicion and hostility gradually replaced that cooperation, as members of the archaeological community began to champion the nationalistic stance of source countries under the theory that harsh laws and restitution claims help preserve archaeological context.

I never met Cornelius Veremeule, but I am aware he was also a serious ancient coin collector who gave generously to his institution. Back in 1997, CNG auctioned off some his ancient Roman bronze coins to benefit the museum. At the time, I was lucky enough to win a Sestertius of Marcus Aurelius with a "Fides Exercitvvm" reverse. It remains an important part of my own collection.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Peru Files Suit Against Yale

Recently, Derek Fincham blogged about the renewed possibility that Peru would file suit against Yale over artifacts long held in Yale's collection from archaeological digs conducted by Hiram Bingham almost a century ago: Bingham's digs at Machu Picchu made him world famous and he later became a US Senator. See:

That possibility has come to pass. On December 5, 2008, DLA Piper LLP filed suit on behalf of Peru against Yale. The Complaint can be accessed here, but only through subscription to the Court's Pacer system:

The lengthy Complaint recounts how the artifacts came to and were retained by Yale from Peru's perspective. Of course, Yale will be given an opportunity to respond when it answers the Complaint or files a motion to dismiss.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Scary Counterfeit Coins From China

The December 1st and 8th issues of Coin World describe the work of a counterfeiter of US and foreign coins operating in China. China is well known for its production of counterfeits of early Chinese coins. These are rather easy to counterfeit because the original production techniques (casting) are easy to replicate with crude equipment. This is an entirely different sort of operation.

Here is how Coin World describes it:

Asked how he manages to produce such convincing counterfeits, Jinghuashei explains that he uses genuine examples for his models.

He downloads digital information about the genuine coin into a computerized coins sculpturing system via laser beam input. The laser system scans the coin using a method of triangulation, taking constant readings from thousands of different data points, producing a three-dimensional model of the coin that is extremely accurate.

If needed he has the ability to "clean up" the digital model to remove blemishes or distinguishing diagnostics that were on the original coin such as contact marks, die chips, die polishing marks or even flow lines on a struck coin.

He notes that everything is done with a view to making the die that is produced as spotless as possible so that nothing will give away the coin struck from it as a counterfeit.

The next step in the process is to render the three-dimensional computer file into an actual coin die. A laser die-cutting process carves the image into a steel surface, which is added to a base (die shank) and then the coin is ready to be placed into the coin presses to strike actual pieces.

Coin World, Dec. 8, 2008, at 92. The article then goes on to note that the counterfeiter even has old coin presses that do a good job of replicating strikings of earlier coins. The one problem the counterfeiter has is that he is dependent on outside suppliers for metal and thus has not been able to exactly replicate the composition of the coins (and hence their weight). Although he says he stamps the word "replica" them, the Coin World reporter was unable to spot the term on all his coins.

The counterfeiter indicates that his work is quite legal in China and he doubts the US Government will ever prosecute him. He regularly sells on eBay. He states he produces about 100,000 fake Chinese coins per month (both ancient and modern) and about 1000 fake US coins per month. Even better, he offers such fake US coins in fake US albums or even fake PSGS slabs!

Of course, this is only one such operation in China. It is indeed ironic that China has purportedly asked the US to impose import restrictions on genuine Chinese coins, but has apparently done little, if anything, at all to stop the export of deceptive fakes to the United States.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pearlstein on Cultural Property

Cultural property expert Bill Pearlstein wrote a letter to the editor of Commentary Magazine about a review of Jim Cuno's new book. The letter was published in the December issue. Pearlstein rightly suggests that judgments about "who owns the past" should be made on a principled, analytical basis, rather than on one based on the ideology of nationalism or an "archaeology over all" perspective. Here is an excerpt:

[T]he ownership of the objects is what is currently at stake as American museums and collectors defend their collections against legal claims to return "looted" objects and fuzzier claims that ancient objects are best appreciated in their country of origin. The former are understandable and sometimes meritorious; the latter are not. Cuno has rightly disputed the received wisdom that source-nation "patrimony laws" discourage looting and help disseminate archaeological data. Such laws are merely nationalist in intent and effect, and any overlap between cultural nationalism and archeological preservation is coincidental.

Which is not to say that looting is acceptable or that ownership of looted objects should be encouraged in the name of building "universal museums" or spreading culture. Instead, an international legal framework should be created that gives due weight to persuasive national-heritage claims, protecting archeological sites, and promoting the international exchange of cultural objects by way of museum loans and private trade. (The role of private collectors here is as important as that of museum curators and the museum-going public.)

As a lawyer for private clients, I argued at a 2005 hearing of the President's Cultural Property Advisory committee against China's request for U.S. import restrictions on all Chinese cultural objects dating from pre-historic times to 1911. Cuno was one of three museum curators who also spoke against the restrictions, which a journalist rightly characterized as a "gross overreach" motivated by Beijing's desire to corner the booming market for Chinese artifacts.

One of the major auction houses suggested to the committee that the question of restriction should be evaluated in light of the following factors related to a given object: the quality and state of the existing archeological and art-historical record; site specificity, portability, and documentary importance; mass production and lack of rarity; frequent and long-term market incidence. This is a more thoughtful approach than simply banning everything old, and seems to be the best analytical model for deciding who should own the past.