Sunday, November 30, 2014

Archaeology and Dictatorship: Egypt

An Egyptian court has acquitted Egypt's former dictator of charges that he instigated the killing of protesters against his rule.  Most commentators see the "verdict" as another sign that Egypt's new military dictator, General Sisi, is literally trying to rewrite history.  Meanwhile, Egypt-- which had been a place of such hope during the early days of the Arab Spring-- has again become a police state-- where  any dissent is punished as a crime against the State.

This is no time to reward General Sisi.  Yet, according to Egyptian sources, our State Department is poised to announce a new MOU with Egypt, one which was prejudged even before CPAC met to consider an Egyptian request.   Of course, the archaeological lobby cheered on that MOU from the beginning, all too willing to pretend (as it has with respect to the Assad Regime in Syria) that import restrictions benefit archaeology, not the regime that controls it in those unhappy countries.

CPO submits that any MOU with Egypt will not help Egyptian archaeology in the end.  Rather, it will only further associate ancient Egyptian artifacts with State control and once again make them a target in the next explosion of popular discontent.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Archaeo-Blogger Celebrates Small Business Saturday

Archaeo-Blogger Paul Barford has unexpectedly celebrated Small Business Saturday with a tribute to the small businesses of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art.  What better way to mark the day by purchasing an antiquity or ancient coin from one of these fine IADAA dealers or some equally fine small businesses of the numismatic trade?

Archaeo-Blogger Blames US for Damage to ar Raqqha Museum?

Anti-American Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford, apparently oblivious to reports from Human Rights organizations, has suggested that US warplanes were  behind the bombing of the museum in ar Raqqha, Syria.  US warplanes have indeed been active in the vicinity,  but no credible sources have suggested that these strikes against ISIS targets were in the area of the museum.  Rather, it seems far more plausible that the Assad regime was behind the carnage and damage to the Museum, specifically targeting a nearby market in revenge for recent losses to ISIS and ISIS' executions of Syrian troops.

Barford goes onto rant that CPO is using the Syrian tragedy to attack "conservationists" like himself.  But, of course, it is the archaeological lobby that has been using the on-going tragedy in Syria, to not only justify major changes in the law in both Germany and the United States, but additional funding for archaeologists as well.

Meanwhile, "conservationists" seem reluctant to point the finger at the Assad regime for any damage to Syria's cultural heritage at all.  But why?  The reasons given-- fear for the safety of observers on the ground-- seem contrived when evidence of Assad's war crimes are available from open sources.  Perhaps, if it's not a hope to get "back to business as usual" if Assad wins the civil war, it's an unwillingness to do so for fear of undercutting the fundamental UNESCO assumption that UNESCO State Parties are the best stewards of "cultural property."  After all, to whom does the archaeological lobby think any "cultural property" seized by German or US Customs should be returned?

Friday, November 28, 2014

$36 Million Figure-- Archaeo-blogger was against it before he was for it

It's getting harder to take Dr. Sam Hardy, an archaeo-blogger with a book in the works about "conflict antiquities" seriously.   He started off with some healthy skepticism of the claim ISIS made $36 million from the sale of illicit antiquities in one province alone.  There was no change in the underlying evidence, but Dr. Hardy then went onto hype that figure when "fame" came calling in the form of a Reuters blog.   As CPO explained at the time, major problems remained with the $36 million figure despite Hardy's effort to latch onto it.   And now he's at it again, claiming that German media has verified the figure in response to a critical report in a German numismatic publication.  But is that true?  It would seem not based on the information he provides.  Rather, the most that can be said is that ISIS probably derives some income from looting-- which is what Hardy originally concluded before he jumped on the $36 million bandwagon.

Addendum (12/14/14):  This $36 million looting claim has been further debunked in a report in Artnet.  Further addendum (12/18/14):  In response to this news, Hyperallergic's only accommodation  to the truth was to change the title of the article from "German Media Corroborate $36M Islamic State Antiquities Trafficking" to "German Media May Corroborate $36M Islamic State Antiquities Trafficking" without acknowledging the change.   Of course, as set forth above, Arnet reported German Media in the end did no such thing.

Large Grant Needed to Determine Number of Coin Collectors?

Far off in Warsaw, a numismatic capital of the world,  one archaeo-blogger is upset about the lack of "hard numbers" out there for coin collectors.  CPO notes that the State Department recently gave ASOR $600,000 to track looting in Syria and all we've gotten out of it is flawed intelligence about ISIS and antiquities looting.  Why not then an even bigger grant to be given to a coin collectors' group to help determine the actual number of coin collectors out there?  After all, whatever their number, they are a far bigger special interest than archaeologists and, hence deserve, if anything, a much larger piece of the pie.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving Assad a Pass?

CPO is struck by the fact that the archaeological lobby appears to be seeking to de-emphasize the part the Assad regime has played in the ongoing destruction of Syria's cultural heritage.

Just this week, we've learned that a museum in Ar-Raqqha has been badly damaged by bombing and that more sculptures have been hacked out of and stolen from Palmyra, a site great historical importance.

Yet, one would be hard pressed to find any mention whatsoever of the fact that the only party to the conflict with aircraft capable of bombing is the Assad regime and that Palmyra is under the control of the Assad regime and its military.

What gives?  Is it possible the archaeological lobby is giving the Assad regime a pass in hopes of ensuring a return to "business as usual" (i.e. excavation permits and other "collaboration") in the event the government ultimately prevails in the ongoing civil war?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Prejudgment and Fraud?

Egyptian sources are reporting that  a MOU will be signed in early 2015 authorizing import restrictions on Egyptian cultural artifacts.   Troublingly, once again Egyptian authorities have suggested the whole matter was a "done deal"even before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee met on June 2, 2014.

According to the report,

"This step comes eight months (March to November) after a memorandum of understanding between Egypt and the United States, in order to protect Egyptian antiquities and combat smuggling of artefacts."

Yet more evidence, if any is needed, that MOUs are prejudged and that proceedings before CPAC are little more than a farce?

Egypt is now ruled by a military dictatorship which just ran a sham election that anointed General Sissi as Egyptian president.  So, it should be no surprise that these kinds of shenanigans are standard operating procedure in that unhappy country.

However, we can and should expect far more from our own State Department and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Cultural Heritage Center.  Instead of sinking to the level of the Egyptian military dictatorship and its nationalistic cultural bureaucracy, our State Department-- which is so fond of lecturing others about the merits of  "Democracy" --should be providing our Egyptian friends with an example of what the rule of law actually means.

There is a well-founded perception in the collecting community and among the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade that the Cultural Heritage Center is little more than a bureaucratic dictatorship in the service of the archaeological lobby and its crusade against collecting.   This latest revelation as well as news that a State Department Cultural Heritage Center contractor faked the claim that stolen antiquities are ISIS' most important funding source after "hot oil" will only add to this perception as will news that the archaeological lobby is asking Congress to give the State Department unlimited authority to enrich itself through a permanent grant program.  No wonder trust in government is at an all time low.

There is no doubt some in the archaeological community who are uncomfortable with the view that the ends justifies the means.  Hopefully, they too will raise concerns about how the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center operates.  Public confidence and the long-term viability of the State Department program may well depend upon it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

HR 5703: Does the Archaeological Lobby Hope to Profit from Tragedy?

Does the archaeological lobby hope to profit from the ongoing tragedy in Syria?

The Secretary of State is authorized to make grants to private individuals or organizations for the purposes of international cultural property protection activities in areas at risk of destruction due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters.

The bill thus gives the State Department permanent grant making authority to fund interested individuals and groups without requiring any transparency or analysis of potential conflicts of interest.  This is troubling because many of the bill's supporters potentially stand to gain financially or professionally from such grants. Such grants, of course, could very well be an absolute boon to their anti-collecting efforts, funded as they would be by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Of course, this is already happening with or without this bill.  After all, the State Department has given the American Schools for Oriental Research (ASOR) a $600,000 grant to create a "Syrian Initiative" meant to to track destruction and looting in that troubled country.  Tracking destruction and looting may indeed be worthwhile, but one can and should still question both the high cost of the grant and whether all the initiative's conclusions may in any case be pre-judged given ASOR's anti-collecting stance and the recent, highly dubious claim made by the Syrian Initiative's co-director that looting is the second largest funding source for ISIS, after "hot oil."   Worse still, the archaeological lobby has made sure that such reports don't just "sit on the shelf."  Instead, they have mounted a concerted press campaign to hype such claims in an effort to stampede the UN and national governments into establishing a world-wide ban on the international sale of Syrian antiquities. Of course, another part of HR 5703 (Section 8) would do just that-- it would impose permanent "emergency import restrictions" on anything and everything "Syrian." 

Finally, it may or may not be a coincidence, but Rick St. Hilaire and other likely supporters of the bill have just  formed a non-profit called "Red Arch" which would seem to be perfectly placed to become a potential beneficiary of any State Department largess.  Curiously, St. Hilaire appears to have omitted any mention of HR 5703's provisions for State Department grant making authority in his otherwise thorough reporting on the bill.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reaction to Felch Expose-- The Good, the Bad and the Out of Touch

The archaeological blogosphere has started to react to Jason Felch's expose of the gross exaggeration behind the claim that looted antiquities represent ISIS' most significant funding source, behind "hot oil."

While some responsible parties question the wisdom of "cooking the books" others such as Larry Rothfield suggest lying is fine as long as it raises awareness of the issue and helps move the archaeological lobby's legislative agenda forward.

And then far off in Poland, one archaeological blogger misses the point altogether.  No, the issue is not the need for more scrutiny of the already much scrutinized antiquities trade, but rather the need for at least some scrutiny on the claims of the archaeological lobby, particularly where they are used to justify import restrictions and funding decisions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chasing Facts

Jason Felch has turned his investigative journalistic techniques on claims that illicit antiquity sales are a major funding source for ISIS.   He makes a convincing case that the State Department contractor whose work is being used to justify new legislation to impose emergency import restrictions on Syrian cultural artifacts made up the claim that illicit antiquities are a major funding source for ISIS, second only to "hot oil."  If nothing else, this suggests a "go slow" approach is warranted before Congress acts further on HR 5703.   Gross exaggeration does no one any good, particularly the advocates for import restrictions.

UN Panel Calls for Syrian Antiquities Ban

Despite some real questions (even raised within the archaeological blogosphere) about the true extent of antiquities smuggling from Syria, a UN Panel, which presumably only heard from anti-trade proponents of a ban, has advocated just that as an anti-terrorism measure.

The panel's recommendations will now be considered by the Security Council, but CPO doubts there will be any effort to conduct a real assessment of the situation or to assess the negative impact of such a ban on the lawful trade in undocumented Syrian antiquities long out of that country, on refugees fleeing with family heirlooms or on the fate of Christian and Jewish religious artifacts.

And let's get real.  Where do the proponents of such a ban think any antiquities that are seized should be returned to?  Of course, the only possible choices are Assad, ISIS or the Free Syrian Army, all of whom have been implicated to one extent or the other in the destruction and looting that have prompted the calls for a ban in the first place. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bill introduced that purports to protect cultural heritage in times of war

Congressmen Engel and Smith have introduced a bill aimed at  protecting cultural heritage in times of war.   The bill was evidently drafted with substantial input from the archaeological lobby, what with its promises of guaranteed funding for archaeological groups, and directions for additional bureaucratic focus in the area.  Troublingly, once again the underlying assumption is that the only stakeholders that matter are academics and governmental organizations.

The most controversial part authorizes restrictions on Syrian archaeological objects.  Although the bill purports to act consistently with other US law, it calls for key CPIA provisions relating to the scope and duration of restrictions to be ignored.  It also calls for CPAC to be bypassed (despite its current membership dominated by archaeological interests).

Given the bill's introduction just weeks before this Congress will adjourn, it's highly doubtful it will become law.  However, presumably the archaeological lobby will press for its reintroduction in the new Congress.

Friday, November 14, 2014

St. Louis Chapter of the AIA Leads the Way

All the hand-ringing in the archaeological blogosphere should not obscure the fact that the Saint Louis Chapter of the AIA did quite well in auctioning off its lovely, provenanced MesoAmerican pieces that were no longer thought to be essential to the Chapter's mission.

So, let's hope other AIA Chapters, and better yet source countries such as Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Peru, look through their storerooms for similarly redundant artifacts which can be sold. Funds can then be used to help archaeological programs which otherwise would be under or even un-funded.

While this is not a new idea (the AAMD has proposed it previously), given tight budgets everywhere, it's an idea that fits the reality of our times almost everywhere.

Do archaeological societies and source countries really need row upon row of virtually identical artifacts heaped up in storerooms?  Isn't it better to make some use out of them once they have been properly recorded?

Bravo St. Louis Chapter of the AIA.  Hopefully, you will be trend setters.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt RIP

Nelson Bunker Hunt passed away on Oct. 21, 2014, but because he lost his collection years ago to bankruptcy, his death has not attracted much notice in the collecting world. 

So it's fitting then that Mike Markowitz, writing for CoinWeek, has prepared this wonderful tribute to his connoisseurship in collecting ancient coins.

Hunt's collecting interests were not as broad as those of Shiekh Al-Thani of Qatar, but both were among the lucky few able to exchange petro-dollars for some of the world's most beautiful and historically significant ancient coins.  The images in Mike's article speak for themselves.

Addendum:  For some reason, British archaeo-bloggers Paul Barford and David Gill have been much harder on the late Mr. Hunt than on the late Shiekh Al-Thani.   It's hard to fathom why.  More anti-Americanism perhaps?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cultural Heritage Management-- Turkish Style

Turkey's unemployed archaeologists have criticized the government's lack of commitment to archaeology and have demanded more government jobs to help cope with managing the nation's extensive archaeological sites. 

And while some resent the government promises to help protect Syrian and Iraqi antiquities from smugglers, other more enterprising souls think the unemployed could be trained to help interdict looted antiquities crossing the country's borders from Syria and Iraq. A win-win for everyone.

Shooting at Easy Targets

Professor Stephanie Mulder, an archaeologist who evidently excavated in Syria as a guest of the Assads, points her finger at those she considers to be easy targets behind the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

But one should be skeptical of blame heaped on Western collectors by those with an ax to grind against private collecting.  And no one in the mainstream media has yet asked the the question if the archaeological community's unqualified support for dictatorship's absolute control of the past has made antiquities the target of the disaffected.

Addendum:  A CPO reader pointed out that the Jewish artifact mentioned in the article has a provenance dated back to 1913!  If anything, this shows that "Syrian artifacts" have been collected for a long time and it's wrong factually (and ethically CPO would argue) for them to be characterized as a class as "blood antiquities."   

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

This Veterans Day let's especially remember all who died in the Great War on all sides. 
Unfortunately, that war also unleashed forces of nationalism that even today colors our views of antiquities which have become for some the exclusive "cultural property" of the nation state.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Civil Forfeiture Under Fire

Government overreach in the forfeiture field has now attracted the attention of the New York Times.  If anything, forfeitures based on foreign cultural patrimony laws that effectively declare anything "old" "state property" are possibly subject to even more abuse, particularly where the needs of "public diplomacy" or "cooperation with foreign law enforcement" are allowed to take precedence over concepts of fairness and due process.

So, when will the New York Times and other mainstream media take notice?

Prominent Gulf Collector Dies Unexpectedly

Sheikh Al-Thani of Qatar, one of the world's most prominent collectors, has passed away.  The Sheikh collected not only Islamic Art, but many other things as well, including ancient coins and even, apparently historic Coca-cola bottles.

The Sheikh's purchases drove the market in high-end numismatic material for awhile, until unpaid bills mounted and disputes (which were ultimately resolved) followed.

It remains unclear what will become of his enormous collection, and even whether it will be treated as his own property or that of the Qatari State.

Friday, November 7, 2014


CPO can only hope that the latest dust-up between the AIA's St. Louis Chapter and the national organization will lead to a reassessment of the AIA's jihad against the sales of antiquities.

More likely, however, the ideologues that run the organization will punish the AIA's St. Louis Chapter for its "crime" of selling well-provenanced artifacts, apparently to help fund a community archaeology project. 

In doing so, however, the AIA will only alienate itself further from collectors and dealers, who, after all, share the AIA's passion for the past. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Repression Comes to Egypt--So, Why Reward the Military Dictatorship with Import Restrictions Now?

The AIA and the rest of the archaeological lobby have moved on from advocating for "emergency import restrictions" on behalf of the Egypt.   And not a moment too soon judged by the bad press Egypt's military dictatorship has been getting-- assuming you can find it all given all the headlines about ISIS and Syria.

The renewed repression begs the question-- why should the US reward the Egyptian military dictatorship with import restrictions now?

Certainly, as the generals have reasserted their authority, reports of looting have disappeared from the papers entirely.  So, is the only point to provide our own State Department's "seal of approval" not only on the dictatorship's control of its own people but over the ancient past as well?

And, if so, aren't we again just helping to create the exact same conditions that virtually guarantee more of Egypt's past will be destroyed in the next explosion of popular anger directed against the government?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Be Skeptical

It's a good time to be skeptical because governments plant propoganda using social media or friendly press outlets.   Certainly, a recent story on RT News, a press organ for Putin and the Russian Government, comes to mind.  That story featured suitably large, fake Greek coins that were purportedly being sold by a rebel from the Free Syrian Army to help purchase weapons.  Russia, of course, supports Assad, the enemy of the Free Syrian Army, so one should be skeptical about a report that portrays these rebels in a bad light.

And what of the vast sums of money ISIS supposedly makes from the illicit antiquities trade?  Even some in the archaeological lobby are rightly skeptical too.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Villa Associated with "Ben Hur" to be Concreted Over

Italian municipal authorities have announced plans to concrete over the villa of the real life arch-enemy of Ben Hur, Roman General Messalla.

Meanwhile, off in the increasingly out-of-touch reaches of archaeological blogosphere, a professor of some academic distinction has dredged up his version of an old exchange concerning the merits of the UK's Treasure Act and PAS as compared to the "state control" approach of countries like Italy.

Yes, much has happened since 1999.  PAS has recorded 1 million finds.  And, what of the supposedly superior "Italian approach?"   Click on the label for "poor stewardship" and make up your own mind.