Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Theft of Rare Books Comes to Light

Here is more evidence, if any was needed, that Italy should be focusing on protecting its cultural treasures today rather than seeking out every last pottery shard that may have left Italy years ago when sensibilities were different. 

Update:  More on the story, with these observations:

The director of the Vatican Museums has warned that Italy's cultural heritage is "vanishing" after prosecutors in Naples said two more people had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in a "premeditated, organised and brutal" sacking of the city's 16th century Girolamini library.

Antonio Paolucci said he was "saddened but not surprised" by the devastating losses of the historic institution in Naples, where thousands of rare and antique books were last year found to have disappeared. The alleged plundering, which prosecutors have been investigating for the past nine months, was symptomatic of a country whose rich cultural heritage was at risk from various factors including theft and neglect, he said.

"In the Italy of a thousand museums and libraries, our immense national heritage is vanishing … and the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart," Paolucci, a former culture minister, told the Italian daily La Stampa.

He said a lack of protection for the country's treasures was having "disastrous effects" and was particularly harmful for small institutions that did not have the same level of security or prestige as, for instance, the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Urging the state to take better care of its heritage, he added: "Every looted painting or plundered library is a wound to civilisation which cannot be healed – a disaster for Italy and humanity as a whole."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just Say No

Hugh Eakin has written a thoughtful piece about the American museum community's capitulation to ever escalating repatriation demands.  Museum trustees have a fiduciary duty to protect their collections from legally deficient claims, but that seems to not be much of a consideration in the face of bad press ginned up by the archaeological lobby and sympathetic journalists aligned with the cultural bureaucracies in places like Greece and Italy.

Eakin rightly notes that repatriation of artifacts that left their supposed countries of origin decades ago does nothing to protect archaeological sites from any current looting.   I would add all the hype about repatriation is in fact a diversion from addressing the problems at the source by tackling over-regulation, choking bureaucracy, under-funding and endemic corruption in places like Greece and Italy.

Perhaps if museums just said no to repatriation claims they might actually encourage some rational discussion of the real issues facing preservation of  artifacts from the past.  Any such discussion should start with some recognition that foreign countries can't possibly preserve, study and display all the artifacts they lay claim to, and protecting artifacts rather than bureaucrats should be the first priority.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More Bad Press for Turkey

Turkey has received more bad press for revoking the excavation permits of German and French archaeologists due to the failure of German and French museums to repatriate artifacts removed from the country well before a 1970 benchmark.  The article also suggests that the Turkish Government is hypocritical for demanding repatriation on one hand, but happily destroying important archaeological sites on the other in the name of "progress."

As the article reports,

A Turkish archaeologist, who did not want to be named, said he was heartbroken that the government appeared to be destroying sites at the same time as battling for the return of artefacts. "I don't understand the attitude of the government," he said. "This contradiction is truly mind-boggling

So far, the agreement of the University of Pennsylvania to provide "long term loans" of ancient jewelry the Turks have demanded from its museum has saved the University's digs in Turkey.  But one wonders if such appeasement will  just lead to escalating demands over time. 

Frankly, I'd be happy if Turkey just sold rights to dig to the highest bidder and used the money to help preserve its unparalleled historical sites and spruce up its collections.   Putting digs on such a basis might also have the benefit of freeing American archaeologists from taking anything but the Turkish cultural bureaucracy's line on cultural heritage issues.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bones of Contention

Paige Williams has written a fair and balanced article for the New Yorker about Eric Prokopi and the seizure and repatriation of his dinosaur reconstruction to Mongolia.  My only quibbles are that the article glosses over open sales of  dinosaur bones within Mongolia itself  as well as the fact that current Mongolian law on the subject does not appear to be quite as clear as the Government has claimed. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Now, Where Does One Go to Get Their Reputation Back?

After years of rumor and innuendo largely fed through archaeo-bloggers and friendly "access journalists," Italian cultural authorities have notified Princeton's antiquities curator, Michael Padgett, that he is no longer the subject of a criminal investigation.  Now, where does Padgett go to get his reputation back?  Certainly, not to the archaeo-bloggers and access journalists who are so quick to condemn but are so slow to exonerate.  Indeed, despite their connections to Italian authorities, they have yet to so much as acknowlege this news. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Jay Kislak at 90

It's nice to see former CPAC Chairman Kislak remains active and engaged at age 90.   The article discusses his incredible generosity to the Library of Congress.  It also touches on his  frustrations dealing with the State Department while chairman of CPAC.  In particular, the article references Mr. Kislak's statements at the CPRI's seminar on Capitol Hill.  As the article notes,

With Kislak's knowledge of collecting, President George W. Bush appointed him to the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee. But while chairing the committee from 2003 to 2008, Kislak grew frustrated and didn't seek to stay on with the group, which deals with controversial issues of regulating the importation of cultural and historical artifacts.

Later, at a Washington, D.C., seminar in March 2011, Kislak called the advisory committee "useless." According to a transcript, he criticized the group for holding closed meetings and fumed that its recommendations were ignored by State Department staff.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Archaeologists Perceive Site Looting; But What Protective Measures Have They Implemented?

The AIA has published a study that purports to measure archaeologists' perceptions of looting worldwide.  Not surprisingly, the study suggests looting is pervasive; however, there seems to be differences in its nature and extent depending on locality. 

I assume this study will be trotted out time and again to justify further restrictions on collectors, dealers and museums.  But what about asking archaeologists to police their own sites in the 10 months or so out of the year they are not worked?  Is it too much to ask them to hire site guards or at least use cameras to monitor their sites?  Regretably, the study does not ask. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Forfeiture is Big Business-- For Federal Prosecutors

The forfeiture of Eric Prokopi's Bataar display piece has helped prompt the the New York Times to examine how forfeiture has become big business for federal prosecutors in New York.  I've found the federal attorneys who handled the Bataar forfeiture case to be quite professional and obviously good lawyers.  On the other hand,  I have to agree with critics that the system can be quite arbitrary, even going so far as to allow the government to hobble any defense by seizing as possible proceeds of the crime all of the defendant's assets. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Palentologist May Loose Freedom for Following His Dream

Here is a humane and balanced portrait of Eric Prokopi from his local paper.  In contrast, most coverage, which has relied on Government, paleontological and Mongolian sources, has vilified him.

Mr. Prokopi's guilty plea will also end his civil effort to recover the Bataar display piece he spent a year preparing.  Left unresolved are serious questions concerning whether American law should subject American citizens to criminal and civil liability based on obscure and unclear foreign laws that are not even consistently applied at home.