Friday, October 31, 2014

Speaking with Authority on Syria

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of  Syria's Archaeological Excavations Department, has spoken with authority about severe threats to Syria's cultural heritage.

Al-Maqdissi places most blame on the Syrian government and military which have "destroyed a lot with its incessant bombing."  And even if Assad ultimately prevails, Syria's cultural heritage will remain at risk from a government more interested in grandiose building projects (that will no doubt enrich the dictator's cronies) than in caring for its cultural heritage.  As an example, al-Maqdissi mentions longstanding plans for a hotel and tourist center to be built right over the ruins of an important Phoenician site.

In response to a question, Al-Maqdissi states that looting is a serious problem, particularly at Apamea. However, al-Maqdissi rightly notes that rebels and the "real terrorists" of ISIS are far more likely to make quick cash from easy to sell commodities, like "hot oil."  Simply, antiquities are not very "liquid"-- it's hard to sell them fast and for top dollar. And then there is the real question whether the iconoclasts of ISIS would rather smash than sell what they find anyway.

Revealingly, al-Maqdissi has little good to say about UNESCO and its tired group of experts who use the same cookie-cutter approach to every "cultural heritage crisis."

Instead, what's needed is outside funding for site guards (which would be difficult given international sanctions) and more realistically, effective policing of Turkey's border, something CPO suggested awhile ago.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Warsaw-- A New Numismatic Capital for the World

While a certain blogger might not approve of all the unprovenanced material for sale, CPO is gratified to learn that a Polish firm is conducting an auction of better quality ancient coins which is accessible through the German "Sixbid" auction platform

Warsaw and Krackow were traditionally centers of the cosmopolitan spirit that fosters ancient coin collecting.  Then, the Nazis and Communists came, "liquidating" intellectuals and replacing that cosmopolitanism with first a racist and then a statist ideology.   And in Communist Poland, collectors were considered "speculators" or far worse.

Happily, all that is now getting to be ancient history.

So, let's all celebrate the fact that Warsaw now joins Beijing, London, Munich, New York, Rome and Zurich as a place where ancient coins are bought and sold openly and in abundance, fostering a renewal of cosmopolitanism for which Poland was rightly known.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Making of an Urban Legend

One of the main justifications for the purported need for "emergency import restrictions" on Syrian artifacts is that ISIS has netted $36 million from the sale of artifacts from just one area in Syria alone.  This $36 million figure has been repeated so often that it is now taken as fact.

But is it accurate?  First, let's consider the source-- an unnamed Iraqi intelligence official.  Right there, alarm bells should go off given the Iraqi Sectarian Government's questionable  reputation and desperate need for international support.

Next, let's consider the actual report.  Let's assume the source is credible.  Even if so, it's not clear at all whether the $36 million figure relates to looted antiquities or the value of everything ISIS has taken from that one specific area. 

The archaeological community purports to take a "scientific approach" to all issues.  So its disheartening that even those who previously questioned the report as "contradictory" have now latched onto it because they think it will help give their demands to suppress all trade in undocumented artifacts some additional traction. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cultural Heritage Protection- Egyptian Military Dictatorship Style

The pyramids may be falling down, but it would seem the Egyptian military dictatorship is on the ball when it comes to confiscating anything old.  Indeed, according to the article,

Eldamaty asserted that all these objects are under the protection of Egypt’s antiquities law 11 and explained that negotiations are underway with embassies of Spain, Canada and Yemen among others to return the coins to the countries where they belong. 

Ahmed El-Rawi, head of the Recuperation Antiquities Section explained on Wednesday that the stamps are dated from 1898 to 1972 and that they are the ministry’s property according to the UNESCO convention for safeguarding antiquities and presidential decree number 114 which prohibits exchange of cultural heritage items between countries.

CPAC take note.  More proof, if any was needed, that as far as a MOU with Egypt is concerned, its not at all about conservation but control.

Hopefully, at least Canada's diplomats will be puzzled by the effort to repatriate the old Canadian coin in the trove.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Feds Pay SLAM $425,000 in Legal Fees for Defense of Forfeiture Action

The US Government has paid the Saint Louis Art Museum's lawyers $425,000 in legal fees after the government lost its effort to seek the forfeiture of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask.

Hopefully, the DOJ will now think twice before pressing another dubious, stale claim on behalf of a military dictatorship.   And let's also hope that this award stiffens the resolve of museum directors everywhere to fight questionable, stale claims to important pieces in their collections.

Archaeo-blogger Confirms that It's Not About Conservation, It's About Control

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford, who purports to speak for the archaeological community on portable antiquities issues, has responded to noted cultural property lawyer Bill Pearlstein's views about Cuno's latest article condemning repatriation.

However, in attempting in his own way to "be clever," Barford has only unwittingly confirmed what CPO has "observed" for quite some time:  All the talk at CPAC meetings about supposedly "preserving context" by honoring the UNESCO Convention in applying the broadest restrictions possible really is far more about ensuring "control" than "conservation."

Thank you, Paul Barford.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cuno's Case Against Repatriation

James Cuno has made a well-reasoned case against repatriation.  What a welcome contrast to the blatant propaganda that has become associated with the archaeological lobby.

If Cuno fails at all, it's in his ignoring the interests of collectors, who have traditionally supported healthy museums.

And then there is his failure to reach as a conclusion the all too obvious end result of the cultural nationalism he decries:  if anything, the reality on the ground in Egypt, Syria and Iraq proves that sites are looted and museums are destroyed precisely because angry, disenfranchised locals associate state owned antiquities with hated dictatorial regimes who have appropriated the past to serve their own purposes.


It appears that German collectors and auction houses are now getting "the treatment" from access journalists who make the inflammatory claim that Western collectors are supporting terrorism in Syria and Iraq.

 Even with rudimentary knowledge of German, sophisticated collectors who have seen it all before will recognize the usual cheap tricks—shots of a well-known auction house juxtaposed with scenes of war and looting.  And then there are the interviews with some of the usual suspects—Van Rijn, Muller-Karpe, Bogdanos, etc. who apparently readily agree about a link between terrorism and collecting.   The underlying premise is that that collectors and dealers are funding ISIS and the only way to stop it is to suppress collecting.   

Amusingly, the filmmakers' camera keeps focusing on two solitary lots of early Middle Eastern objects in a German auction—as if all the air time they receive makes up for the lack of hard evidence supporting the filmmaker's thesis.  And, of course, no good propagandist will fail to mention the decade old looting of the Iraq Museum whatever its current relevance.

So what we have is more of a morality play than a true documentary. The heroes, of course, are archaeologists, the Caribinieri (who selflessly help countries like Iraq) and local cops while the villains are terrorists, looters, auction houses, and the shadowy collectors and dealers who support them. 

But this tale is at best incomplete.  Nowhere does anyone pause to consider whether looting is an expression of hatred for the repressive governments that have appropriated the past for their own nationalistic purposes.  And what of the roles of cops and archaeologists in these repressive regimes?Doesn't their unqualified support for nationalistic laws that declare anything "old" to be state property make them partly responsible for the unfolding tragedy?   

Oddly, the filmmakers appear to be operating on much firmer ground in Lebanon than in Germany. Some of the best footage depicts what Lebanese authorities have seized.   Still, CPO can't help wondering if any of the icons that are shown were confiscated from Christian refugees who have escaped with their lives and a few treasured possessions from ISIS.  If so, the filmmakers would be callously adding insult to real injury-- but do they really care given the point they intend to make? 

For what appears to be an English-language short of the same film, see here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Who Burned the Museum?

The Conflict Antiquities blog is reporting on various theories on who burned a museum in a Kurdish area within Turkey.   It makes for interesting reading, but all the speculation glosses over an important point.  Museums and archaeological sites in places like Egypt, Iraq, Syria and now Turkey have become targets precisely because hated dictatorial or authoritarian governments have appropriated the past to help further their own agendas.   So, is the greatest threat to the preservation of the past in such countries Western collectors or the nationalistic regimes that use the past to lord it over the locals?

Where is the Petition Asking Turkey to Control its Borders?

The archaeological lobby's petitions asking the UN to call for a ban in the sale of Syrian antiquities have already received their share of attention in the archaeological blogosphere, but as far as CPO can tell, no scholar has yet proposed any similar petition addressed to the President of the Turkish Republic asking that Turkish authorities crack down on any effort to use the country as a transit point for looted artifacts.  After all, the Turkish Republic is uniquely situated to stem the flow of illicit Syrian antiquities given its long border with the country.  And with a large and well trained army, it can and should be able to control its own borders. 

Wonder why?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Viking Hoard

A significant Viking era treasure was recently found in Scotland and reported under its Treasure Trove law.  More evidence-- if any is needed-- that systems that encourage the public to report their finds with the prospect of compensation are much preferable to those which don't.

PAS-Syrian Style?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford sees ISIS inspired looting in Syria, apparently organized with the help of local archaeologists (who may very well be acting under extreme duress) as the Syrian equivalent of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.  He then goes out of his way to disparage a real American archaeologist with impeccable credentials-- who has actually done something constructive about the sad situation by helping to train Syrian museum professionals -- in his screed.

Presumably, some of the more responsible individuals at the AIA and in the archaeological lobby may be may be wondering whether having such an unguided missile "on their side" is more of a curse than a blessing.  If not, they should.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Turkey Needs to Act

CPO's takeaway from the New Yorker's piece on ISIS is that Turkey needs to do far more to control its own borders if there is any hope in slowing the pace of looting in Syria. 

The organized looting US archaeologists say is taking place in Syria stems from the unrest there.  According to the piece, even trained archaeologists are joining in-- though whether for personal gain or to literally save their heads-- cannot be determined.

We can't change the facts on the ground.  But, for looting to be lucrative (if it really is as claimed), any looted material needs to get out of the war zone.  This is where Turkey --which shares a long border with Syria-- comes in.  The article states artifacts looted from sites supposedly under the Assad regime's control are openly available for sale in Turkish border towns.  And one would suppose Turkey would also be the major transit point for such material-- though where it is going -- if it is leaving Turkey in quantity-- appears to be a mystery. 

So, why is the archaeological lobby far more interested in promoting "emergency import restrictions" here on anything that looks remotely "Syrian" than on pressuring the Turkish government to address the problem at the source?  After all, the archaeological lobby has offered unqualified support for even the most questionable Turkish repatriation demands-- so shouldn't we also expect that they can and should call out Turkey to do the right thing?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why Send Them Back to Iraq or Syria for that Matter?

Kenneth Bandler, writing in the Jerusalem Post, wonders why anyone would still want to send the Jewish Archive back to Iraq given the sectarian violence in the country.

He might be surprised to learn there are probably more than a few in the archaeological community who still advocate doing so.

And let's not forget Syria.  Archaeological groups are in full court press mode advocating that the US impose "emergency import restrictions."

But these would also help guarantee that any such Jewish artifacts that arrive here to escape destruction are repatriated by US Customs back to a country that is largely controlled either by the murderous Assad regime that is evidently responsible for shelling an important historic synagogue into dust or the even more murderous and destructive iconoclasts of ISIS.

Go figure.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Forfeiture Funnies

Comedian John Oliver has given civil forfeiture laws quite a send-up.  One may rightly ask: Are forfeitures of cultural goods on behalf of foreign governments-- some of which are outright dictatorial or authoritarian regimes-- any less prone to abuse?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Academics vs. Practitioners

The New York Times has done a public service by publishing a series of essays offering prescriptions for what ails Syria's cultural patrimony.   Not surprisingly, experts with real word experience favor addressing the problem at the source.  On the other hand, academics with an axe to grind against collecting propose more "emergency import restrictions" despite real questions about their efficacy.  In so doing, they no doubt fully understand  the collateral damage such restrictions cause on collecting common artifacts of the sort which don't typically carry detailed collecting histories.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Polish Collectors' Rights Advocate?

It was not too long ago that Poland broke free from Communism and its apparatchicks.   So its disheartening that Polish officials have apparently seized a legitimately purchased Egyptian artifact on no more than the say-so of representatives of Egypt's military dictatorship.  Oddly enough, archaeo-blogger Paul Barford is the one who has brought all this to our attention.  So, why is such arbitrary action wrong in Poland, but to be applauded on his blog when it takes place in the United States?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Archaeological Assault Brigade?

There is some talk in twitterdom about the need for archaeologists to team up with the military to defeat ISIS/ISIL.  CPO is all for it.   Committed archaeologists should sign up, get some basic military training, and be inserted into Syria and Iraq to help reclaim archaeological sites from terrorists.  Better to solve any looting problem at the source.   The other idea floated about-- import restrictions on anything and everything "Syrian"-- will undoubtedly inflict too much collateral damage on legitimate collecting.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dinosaur 13

Dinosaur 13 chronicles how an ambitious prosecutor, federal cultural bureaucrats, the FBI, jealous academics, a lying rancher, a greedy Native American tribe, a hard-ass judge, McDonald's, Disney and a big auction house conspired to steal "Sue," a virtually complete T-Rex, from an intrepid band of  commercial paleontologists and a small South Dakota town, all to take her to the big city, Chicago.

Sound implausible?   See it and you will believe.  At a minimum, any thinking person should be troubled about how the federal government handled the matter-- using tactics that have been replicated over and over again against collectors, dealers and museums in order to "get" artifacts in their possession.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Time to Purge the AIA's Rolls of its Few Remaining Antiquities Collectors?

There was a time when the collector-archaeologist was celebrated and many achieved the highest distinctions within the Archaeological Institute of America and similar societies around the world.

But now that the AIA has stated that  antiquities should only be held for public educational purposes, is it finally time to purge the AIA's rolls of those few remaining collector-supporters who have deluded themselves into thinking "its okay" to collect well provenanced pieces documented back before 1970?

One wonders.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

1970 No Longer a Safe Harbor?

The Archaeological Institute of America's recent comments to the Art Newspaper along with its vociferous opposition to the decision of the AIA's St. Louis Society to deaccession some well provenanced Egyptian artifacts has again raised serious questions about the AIA's position on collecting antiquities. 

Just a few years ago, we were told the AIA wasn't against collecting, "only" the collecting of material that could not be traced back before the 1970 UNESCO Convention was promulgated.  Of course, this was not much solace to ancient coin collectors, as well as collectors of many other portable antiquities.  The vast majority of ancient coins and presumably equal percentages of minor antiquities simply cannot be traced back anywhere near that far.  But this claim did have some resonance with some wealthy antiquities collectors, who could afford to purchase only antiquities with documented pre-1970 provenances.   They could then sit back secure in the knowledge their well-provenanced material worth thousands upon thousands of dollars would likely not be subject to the same level of scrutiny in the archaeological blogosphere as the random $50 ancient coin.

No more:

“We are strongly opposed to the proposed sale [of well provenanced material]”, says Ann Benbow, the executive director of the AIA, in an email to The Art Newspaper. 'If [it] goes forward, it will tarnish the long-standing reputation of the AIA, which has a strong stance against the sale of antiquities… Archaeological artifacts should be cared for and made available for educational purposes, not put up for auction.'”  

CPO has commented previously that any supposed "safe harbor" was always an illusion-- good only until some foreign potentate wanted US government help to repatriate yet another ancient goodie as a trophy.

Now, it appears the AIA may be formally jettisoning it. 

If so, high-end antiquities collectors beware and be complacent no more.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Enough Already

The Association of Art Museum Directors has made a powerful case to CPAC that the State Department's standard operating procedure of simply renewing (and sometimes expanding) MOUs and associated import restrictions  over and over again is not working.  Here is part of what the AAMD has told CPAC in its public comments on the proposed renewal of a MOU with El Salvador:

El Salvador is one of the best examples of why the current system of simply renewing MOUs is ineffective and inconsistent with the CPIA.  The absence of a significant legitimate market in the United States for El Salvadorian Prehispanic objects has apparently had little or no effect on looting in El Salvador.  If the past, and presumably current, submissions to this Committee are to be believed, United States import restrictions alone have not been effective in significantly curtailing looting in El Salvador.  The time has come for the Committee to explore new ways, within the confines of the CPIA, to render real assistance to countries like El Salvador. 

The AAMD does not suggest that it has all of the answers to this issue, but one can begin to identify those answers by admitting that simply repeating what has been done in the past is not likely to have any different result than what has occurred over the last 27 years.  In 2010, the AAMD recommended to this Committee that El Salvador be encouraged to begin a legal system of exchange of cultural property. This can be suggested under 19 U.S.C. § 2602(a)(4). Any such exchange should be taxed and the proceeds of that tax should be used to protect cultural sites and to encourage related employment by the local populations and the scientific exploration, storage and conservation of objects from those sites.  There may well be other approaches that reasonable people on all sides of these issues can recommend, but the first step needs to be taken by this Committee in acknowledging that new and different approaches must be taken if the archaeological record of a country like El Salvador is to be preserved and protected.