Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Israel Requires On-Line Inventories

After losing a court challenge, Israeli antiquities dealers will be required to establish on-line inventories that will allow Israeli authorities to better track purchases, sales and exports.

In theory at least, this sounds reasonable, but CPO wonders whether the process will be a nightmare in practice, particularly for small, inexpensive items like oil lamps and coins.

And if this is such a great idea, why not require archaeologists and museums operating in Israel to establish on-line inventories as well?  Such on-line inventories would help deter insider theft and perhaps provide information that will be helpful to scholars.

Consider Helping Dick Stout

Dick Stout, a metal detectorist who runs a popular blog, lost his home to a tornado.  Friends have set up a way to donate money to help Dick and his family during this difficult time.  CPO hopes Dick, his wife and their community will bounce back from this tragedy.  Those who wish to help can do so here.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not as Clear as it May Seem

Actor Nicholas Cage has agreed to repatriate another Bataar skull back to Mongolia.  So, the goverment has won by default again, despite the fact that the government's case may not be as strong as it seems from press reports. Meanwhile, CPO has heard a rumor that Mongolia has quietly sold another repatriated Bataar to a wealthy individual in the Middle East.  If true, it would further undercut claims that have been made in the past to Courts and the public that Bataar Fossils have not been made available for sale.

Friday, December 18, 2015

But Who Will Hold US Government Officials into Account?

The US State Department and US Customs have held a ceremony to repatriate to the Chinese Government artifacts and a fossil forfeited from American citizens because of misrepresentations on customs documentation.  In each case, the small businessmen who made the misrepresentations also suffered criminal penalties.

But what about gross exaggerations concerning the value of ISIS antiquities made to the US Congress and the American public?

Is it just that small businessmen lose their property and suffer criminal convictions for misrepresentations on customs documentation while government officials can exaggerate values of stolen antiquities with impunity in order to justify new government regulations?

Witch Hunt to Follow?

The UN Security Council has voted to require member states to pursue ISIS funding sources. While this is well and good, it is unfortunate that once again a bogus $100 million figure for ISIS antiquities sales is apparently being used to justify the measure.  Now, we can only hope that there won't be a witch hunt in order to try to prove the claim that ISIS is dealing vast quantities of antiquities in Europe and the United States.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Debunking the ISIS Antiquities Funding Myth

Kate FitzGibbon writes on debunking the ISIS antiquities funding myth for the Committee for Cultural Policy website.  Hopefully, others as well will start calling the State Department and archaeological lobby into account for their ongoing efforts to exaggerate the value of ISIS looted antiquities.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Prominent Member of Archaeological Lobby Suggests US State Department Faking Link Between ISIS and the Antiquities Trade

Neil Brodie, a prominent member of the international archaeological lobby, has suggested that the US State Department has used forged documents to establish a link between ISIS and antiquity sales.  According to Brodie,

In September 2015, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Will such a reward be money well spent? What will be the benefit of disrupting the trade in Syria’s and Iraq’s archaeological heritage, and how financially damaging will it be for extremists? Answers to these questions are forthcoming from documents released into the public domain the same day by Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, at a meeting hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The documents had been seized in May 2015, during a US Special Forces raid on the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of ISIL’s antiquities division. They include a book of 11 receipts purporting to show profits made by ISIL though taxing the antiquities trade.

The authenticity of these receipts has been questioned. They seem to be too convenient, providing as they do for a US and indeed international audience clear, material confirmation of previously unfounded media reporting that ISIL is profiting significantly from taxing the antiquities trade in areas under its control. It is convenient, for example, that the sums of money received are expressed numerically using “European” Arabic numerals so that they are immediately comprehensible to an American or European reader rather than, as would be expected in a handwritten Arabic document, “Arabic” Arabic numerals. Why would ISIL do such a thing for internal accounting purposes? 

Brodie also concedes that given what we know, antiquities must be a minor source for ISIS and that it's more likely that the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army are profiting from antiquities sales:

IThe 11 receipts together show that between December 2014 and March 2015, ISIL collected $265,000 through a 20% tax, suggesting a total monetary value for the taxed antiquities trade of approximately $1.3 million for four months. Multiplying up, that would be $4 million per annum. $4 million in Syria would pay for a lot of antiquities, yet very few have been identified on the destination market. Perhaps, as is sometimes claimed, they are being warehoused in Syria or abroad, but if that is the case, some people are paying out millions of dollars (the money taxed by ISIL) for commodities that can only be stockpiled in warehouses in the hope of a profit in an uncertain commercial future. Regardless, it could be they really are arriving on the destination market, filtering through it and being sold with falsified paperwork and invented provenances. After all, who is really looking?

Would disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade save archaeological sites from further depredation? The receipts illustrated by Keller in his presentation all relate to Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, about 18% of the country’s total land area. Deir az-Zor province has been largely under ISIL control since July 2014. According to the US Department of State’s map of Syrian archaeological heritage sites at risk, Deir az-Zor is one of the archaeologically-poorer areas of Syria. The more archaeologically-rich western areas of the country remain under the control of forces loyal to Assad or of the non-jihadi opposition. Media reports, now backed up by Jesse Casana’s careful analysis of satellite imagery recently published in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology (vol. 78, no. 3, 2015), demonstrate that both of these groups have also engaged in and profited from archaeological looting. It appears to not be as damaging as that conducted by ISIL, but is damaging nevertheless. Geography alone would suggest that material flowing through Lebanon is derived from those sources. Thus both Assad and the non-jihadi opposition are also likely to be profiting from the antiquities trade. Eliminating ISIL from the trade would still leave the most archaeologically-rich areas of Syria vulnerable to looting, and when ISIL is rolled back from Deir az-Zor by its opponents, looting there will most likely be ameliorated but not eliminated.

How important for ISIL is the money derived from taxing the antiquities trade? On October 5th, 2015, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi published on the website Jihadology some ISIL documentation recording its financial ministry’s accounting of Deir az-Zor province for one month within the period covered by the tax receipts. (And notice that these ISIL records do utilize “Arabic” Arabic numerals). The total income for one month was recorded as $8,438,000. The receipts record a monthly tax revenue from antiquities sales of approximately $66,000. Thus the receipts suggest that the antiquities tax accounts for only a small proportion (0.8%) of ISIL’s total income. This figure accords well with the US Department of the Treasury’s seemingly low estimation of the antiquities trade’s financial importance, behind oil, kidnapping and general extortion. Eliminating this income stream would therefore do little to degrade ISIL’s operational capacity.

Nonetheless, Brodie, staying true to his anti-trade bias, remains all for "suppressing demand for antiquities" in order to save archaeological context.  Like many hard-liners, he's loath to consider possibility that the real problem may be that the "State Owns Everything Old" model only associates antiquities with hated Middle Eastern dictators and devalues them so thoroughly that they are smuggled or even destroyed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hocus Pocus: Is all the Hype About Looted Antiquities Meant to take the Focus Off Hot Oil?

A cynic might think so after reading this from a well-known and controversial political operative.   In any event, it is indisputable that activists with an ax to grind against the antiquities trade continue to exaggerate the value of looted antiquities even though what hard information that is actually available suggests that  ISIS' take from antiquities sales and related taxation must in fact be a very minor part of the terror group's portfolio of about $1 bn.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

UNESCO Eggs Panama On to Break Deal with Treasure Hunter

UNESCO has evidently egged on Panama to renege on an agreement with an American treasure salvor to share the proceeds of a Spanish wreck in Panamanian territorial waters.  Recovering treasure from  wrecks is an expensive and time consuming process that will only happen if nation states are willing to share the proceeds.  There is a middle ground where wrecks are surveyed by archaeologists employed by treasure hunters and a representative sample of what is found is put on display on a museum.  To leave wrecks in situ is to allow valuable knowledge and objects to be lost to the vagaries of the sea.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dubious Numbers Still Being Cited

It has come to CPO's attention that elements within the archaeological lobby are still claiming that ISIS has made "$100s of millions" or "tens of millions" from looting.   However, the former number traces back to Iraq's UN Ambassador. It is unclear what, if any basis, he had for the number.  And the "tens of millions" claim is yet another version of discredited tale that ISIS has stolen $36 million from one area within Syria alone.

At this late date, it can only be stated with some degree of certainty that ISIS has made at most "several million dollars" from antiquities sales.  Given ISIS' take of approximately $1 billion dollars, antiquities must be just one of many minor ISIS funding sources.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

France to Offer Safe Harbor to Syrian Antiquities

France has proposed an aggressive program to gather up Syrian antiquities and offer them "safe harbor" in France.   The AAMD previously offered a far more modest "safe harbor" proposal that elicited opposition in the archaeological lobby.  Hopefully, these ideological objections to "safe harbor" will be dropped and these groups will put protecting Syrian archaeological objects from destruction at the hands of fanatics first.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Terrorist Financing

A House Foreign Relations subcommittee held a hearing on terrorist financing.  ISIS gets most of its $1 bn from confiscations, taxes and "hot oil," but the terror group  also gains funding from ransoms, donations and sales of looted antiquities.  ASOR/State Department Point Man Michael Danti rightly declined to to put a number  on the value of these looted antiquities, and noted that far more needs to be done by Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria, which are the main transit points to the EU.   Frankly, the last four have a special obligation to act given their own self-righteous stance when it comes to their own cultural patrimony.  But will the archaeological lobby hold their feet to the fire?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tons of Cash

Ten tons or some 2 million "cash coins" were recently excavated in China.   For import restrictions under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act to apply, the item of "archaeological interest" must also be of  "cultural significance." With numbers like that, one wonders why there are any import restrictions on Chinese cash coins at all.  China allows its own citizens to collect such cash coins freely.  So why can't Americans freely import them from abroad as well?

Thursday, November 5, 2015


While Egyptian officials blame  locals for the abysmal state of  important archaeological sites  in the country, cultural heritage lobbyists with ties to the Egyptian government are once again scapegoating collectors for the rise of ISIS.  Perhaps the real problem, however, is that Arab dictators have appropriated early civilizations for their own nationalistic purposes, making antiquities a target for disaffected individuals and groups.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Muted Response to Russian Bombing Attack Near Palmyra's Ancient Citadel

The archaeological blogosphere has had a muted response to a Russian attack on ISIS positions near the ancient citadel of Palmyra.  Last month, Assad's director of antiquities reacted favorably to other such reports.  CPO wonders if the response would be as muted if US warplanes conducted similar attacks on archaeologically significant areas.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Let Him Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

Much has been made regarding alleged misrepresentations in import documentation for cuneiform tablets meant for a new Bible Museum in Washington, DC.  Yet, at least some of those feasting on the story may want to consider the biblical injunction against casting stones in light of some of the whoppers that have been promoted to the media, including ISIS is making $100's of millions from looted antiquities with $36 million taken from one area in Syria alone; ISIS has looted Apamea; the Green's purchase in 2011 in Israel supported an Iraqi-Syrian terror group that only became known years later, etc.  Yes, let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Green Collection Needs More Transparency

Gary Vikan suggests that the Green collection respond to concerns raised about the collection's origins by being more transparent.  Vikan championed a similar way to deal with cultural property issues during his long and successful tenure as Director at the Walters.  In the end, the Greens and their dream for a Museum of the Bible will likely be best served by adopting the approach Vikan suggests.

Syrian Civil War for Dummies

Here is an exceptionally good overview of who is who and who controls what in Syria.  Note Apamea is nowhere near territory held by ISIS.

Bad Paperwork to Save S.1887/HR 1493?

That would seem to be the hope, at least, of some of the bill's proponents, given the involvement of archaeologists associated with the State Department/ASOR Syrian cultural heritage initiative in hyping a story about alleged misrepresentations on paperwork of antiquities destined for the Green collection.  Misleadingly, the article associates the seizure of the antiquities with ISIS, even though the alleged transgression dates from 2011, well before ISIS was much of a force in either Iraq or Syria.  

In any event, suspicions aroused about cynical efforts to use ISIS scare tactics probably account for the bill's troubles as much as anything else.  As it is, the Senate is rightly taking its time to consider the the bill's proposed creation of a new State Department bureaucracy as well as its proposed bypass of the CPIA's procedures for CPAC review.  The concerns of all stakeholders should be taken into account despite efforts to distract the Senate with more false claims about ISIS.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Is a good way to describe the cultural property laws a Greek numismatist must deal with for the private foundation where he works to add Byzantine and other coins to its collection.   At least the politically connected KIKPE Numismatic Collection is designated a "collector" under Greek law. That allows them to do more than merely "possess" the coins they own.

One would hope that efforts to cut down on choking regulation-- which have been discussed in Greece as a much needed remedy to open up its moribund economy to growth-- would carry over to "cultural property issues."  However, the archaeological lobby and the cultural bureaucracy are probably too entrenched to make that possible.

Indeed, it would appear, if anything, based on red tape creating legislative proposals in Germany and the United States that the trend is in the opposite direction.  CPO strongly believes that such added layers of bureaucracy and over regulation do little, or nothing, to protect archaeology as claimed, but much to undercut legitimate cultural exchange and the study and appreciation of coins and other artifacts that comes with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oil Continues to be ISIS' major funding source

The Financial Times has again provided more evidence, if any were needed, that "hot oil" remains ISIS' main funding source.   Claims that looted antiquities have become the most important source of funding as the US-led coalition have degraded ISIS' ability to sell antiquties seem to have as much credibility as other claims that ISIS makes "$100's of millions" from antiquties sales.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


The reality of how archaeological sites are treated in places like Iraq again should raise questions concerning whether nation states are the best stewards "cultural property."  Iraq, of course, remains mired in war, but Uruk is such an important site one have hoped it would receive better care.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mainstream Media Wakes Up

The Washington Post and mainstream media have finally recognized that Syrian archaeological sites have also been looted by regime and rebel forces other than ISIS.  Yet, no one has yet raised the question of what looting by regime forces means for both UNESCO's repatriationist agenda as well as the presumption that nation states are the best stewards of cultural patrimony.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two Ways of Protecting Syrian Cultural Property

Two ways of protecting Syrian cultural patrimony emerged during the past week.

First, the AAMD announced protocols for safe haven of cultural property endangered by war, something that CPO heartily supports, but which is a concept that has provoked opposition from ASOR (which is running the State Department's Syrian Cultural Heritage Initiative) and the Archaeological Institute of America.

Second, Russian warplanes reportedly bombed Palmyra, a move welcomed by the Assad regime's director of antiquities who hopes the Russians will drive out ISIS before the site is destroyed.   So far, the same groups that have criticised the AAMD have been silent as to the reported Russian actions.

CPO wonders how long before Putin is being heralded as the savior of Syria's antiquities, at least in some quarters.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Email to CBS News

Margaret Brennan's report on documents seized from a terrorist financier in Syria contains some serious errors. (see http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/isis-records-show-millions-raised-by-antiquities-smuggling/) 

First, the report states that documents seized from Abu Sayyaf prove that ISIS has made $100's of millions of dollars from stolen antiquities. However, the documents themselves only support a far lower number, $1.25 million. (See https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/new-documents-prove-isis-heavily-involved-in-antiquities-trafficking/) 

Second, the story again suggests that Apamea  has been looted by ISIS.  In fact, the city has been in the hands of the Assad government since the beginning of the conflict. (See http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-perils-of-limited-sourcing.html) 

These errors would be more forgivable if it were not that a CBS producer was on a panel at the MET event where these issues were discussed.

Michael Danti of the State Department/ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiative spoke about Apamea being in Assad's hands at the conference.  In addition, several speakers put far lower values on stolen antiquities. (See http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2015/09/forging-publicprivate-response-to-save.html)

All this begs the question whether facts are being distorted in order to help justify proposed legislation in Germany and the US that would create intrusive new bureaucracies to regulate the longstanding trade in cultural goods.

Peter Tompa

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Endangered Patrimony of Iraq and Syria

CPO appreciates being invited to this event.  A few observations.

It was nice to see a recognition that it is important to work with collectors and dealers on these issues. CPO supports efforts to encourage more due diligence, but the level of it must depend on the value  of the object and what information about it is likely available.  The presumption should never be that an artifact is "illicit" merely because of where it was made thousands of years ago.

After hearing Michael Danti speak twice now, CPO has come to the conclusion that Danti is reporting the facts as accurately as he can, but then they are "spun" by others to achieve another purpose.  For example, Danti said point blank that all sides are involved in looting and that Apamea has always been in Assad's hands.  The problem is what Danti says is selectively reported so it makes it sound like ISIS is the only problem in the region.  So, over and over again we have that same picture of all those holes at Apamea which are then by implication attributed to ISIS rather than the Assad regime.

CPO is now even more dubious that looted antiquities are a major ISIS funding source.  Assistant Secretary Keller of the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs said that ISIS has probably netted several million dollars from antiquities sales, but he also put all ISIS income at over $1 billion.

This again begs the question whether the value of "conflict antiquities" from Syria really justifies major changes in the law both here and in Germany or whether it's all being purposefully overblown in the effort to justify the creation of intrusive new government bureaucracies in both countries.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Public-Private Partnerships to Save Syrian Antiquities Are In-- But What Kind?

There is a lot of talk coming out of a high-level gathering in New York about the need to encourage public-private partnerships to save Syrian antiquities.

But what kind?

One that reaches out to collectors and dealers to encourage reasonable due diligence based on the type of artifacts involved and which embraces collecting as a way to promote cultural understanding and the protection of artifacts?


One that promotes Government imposed moratoriums on the sales of artifacts combined with funding for "cultural heritage protection" from large multinational corporations anxious to do business with corrupt and undemocratic Middle Eastern governments?

Can you guess?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Michael Danti Speaks

Michael Danti, who runs the State Department-ASOR Syrian Cultural Heritage initiative, spoke about his activities on an ABA Cultural Heritage Law Committee "telecoffee"  discussion.  Michael McCullough, the Committee Chair, acted as moderator. A link to the talk, which was recorded, will appear on the Committee's website.  See here.  The below is based on my hurried notes so CPO readers are encouraged to listen to the program themselves if they want more than CPO's impressions of the event. 

Danti dug in Syria from 1991-2010.  He has also worked in Iraqi Kurdistan.  He has been associated with Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania.  He oversees the initiative that not only monitors the ongoing situation in Syria, but has also been involved in disaster planning and training initiatives for Syrian cultural heritage officials.

The conflict response includes 40-50 people and there are 5-10 reporters about what is going on within Syria itself.  (The initiative also relies on Arab media sources.)

Danti indicates that press reports focus too much on ISIL's destruction of classical sites and too little on its destruction of houses of worship of other Islamic sects as well as the destruction of Yazidi shrines and places of worship.   (Danti did not mention destruction of Christian houses of worship.)

There also has been a tendency to imply that all looting has been done on behalf of ISIS when in fact it has been done on behalf of all belligerents as well as desperate individuals.  This includes the Assad regime and Kurdish forces.

Digital media has been used to try to sell looted materials to individuals abroad.  Other Syrians who immigrated abroad and who are now fairly prosperous are particular targets of such sale pitches.  Part of the pitch is to save Syrian cultural heritage from destruction.

ISIS has an "antiquities office" that is in charge of looting.  It sells licenses that allow individuals to loot in ISIS territory.  The Abu Sayef raid shows that looted material is being stockpiled.

The initiative has documented approximately 1,000 cases of individuals trying to sell looted material with cell phone images.  Most of the material that is being sold is either classical or early Islamic.  Lebanon and Turkey are transshipment points.  Material goes on from there to Cyprus, Bulgaria, Austria or Greece and then into other EU countries. Coins, sculpture and mosaics are among the material that is for sale.  Refugees also bring material with them.  Once out of Syria, material looted from ISIS territory is mixed up with material looted from elsewhere.

The material does not appear to be going to established auction houses but coins are appearing in on-line auctions. 

Material is being offered to dealers in Turkey and Lebanon and in on-line chat rooms.  Lebanese Customs is doing a good job stopping material while Turkish Customs could do more. 

ASOR's contract with the State Department has been extended for another year.  In the second year of the contract, they plan to focus more on documenting the illicit trade in objects.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

ASOR Role as Contractor also Lobbying on Issue Should Raise Questions

The New York Times has questioned whether it is appropriate for a lobbyist to also act as a federal contractor on unrelated issues.

Yet, no one in the press has yet questioned whether it is appropriate for ASOR to simultaneously lobby Congress directly on issues related to its $600,000 contract with the State Department.

At a minimum, a potential conflict of interest should raise some questions.

Poor Security in Scotland's Museums

Poor security in Scotland's Museums has evidently encouraged thieves or corrupt insiders to steal some valuable coins.  It's unclear of the coins had been previously photographed.  If so, it will make them much easier to recover.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Apt Question

I posted this question about this week's CBS report in the comments section on an archaeological blog, but it's worth asking here too:

If it was that easy for the CBS producer and her ASOR/DOS Contractor archaeological companion to connect with a smuggler, why can't the Turkish police do the same thing, but then arrest them [the smuggler] rather than run a story about them?

Any thoughts would be welcome. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Perils of Limited Sourcing

CBS News' "investigative report" on looting by ISIS -- like others on the topic-- also suffers from over-reliance upon State Department funded archaeologists and lawmen with their own agendas.

How so?  Once again, there is the misleading suggestion that any artifacts looted from Apamea-- here a valuable mosaic-- benefit ISIS when the site is 35 KM North West of the Regime controlled Muharadah and nearby territory appears to be in the hands of other (non ISIS) rebel groups.

There is also the question of the value of the antiquities that have been looted-- if anything, the steep drop in the asking price for the mosaic from $200,000 to $60,000 suggests that looted material may be more difficult to sell than is suggested.  In any case, it would be interesting to learn whether the mosaics have been published anywhere previously.  Do they come from a known location or were they previously unknown?

And despite dark claims by New York Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos that "artifacts from countries under ISIS control" are available in the US, it's unclear whether he's referring to artifacts that are the product of recent looting or the exact same sort of "Middle Eastern material" that has been on the market for decades.

In any event, CBS News "has also learned" that there are multiple criminal investigations underway, so presumably we may know more soon.

Monday, September 7, 2015

NumiStorica.com, a resource for coin clubs and others interested in historical coinage and paper money

Former CPAC member Bob Korver has created a resource for coin clubs and others interested in presentations on numismatic topics called NumiStorica.com.   Ancient coin collectors will particularly enjoy the presentation about Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest.

Efforts like Bob's can help create the spark that leads to a lifetime of collecting and numismatic research and should be welcome by collectors and academics alike.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pearlstein on Due Dilligence and the Wisdom of Repatriation to Failed States and War Zones

Art lawyer William Pearlstein speaks common sense that is all too often lacking from most media discussions about the subject of how best to address the looting problem in the Middle East.   Due diligence is necessary, but let's be realistic about it.  And, of course, there is the larger policy question -- if cultural heritage preservation truly is the goal -- whether repatriation to failed states in war zones is really the right thing to do.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Let Us Not Forget

The Egyptian Military Dictatorship's sentence of three jouralists to jail once again underscores what too often is overlooked in the press.  Cultural heritage bureaucracies of dictatorships like Egypt, Syria and sectarian Iraq are part and parcel of abusive governments that also institute confiscatory laws relating to cultural artifacts.  No wonder even without disruption due to civil conflict (largely of their own making) things are such a mess.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Question of Degree

The Art Newspaper has reported on warnings from the FBI's Bonnie Magness Gardiner, an alumnus of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center, and Michael Danti, a beneficiary of a $600,000 contract from the US State Department, about ISIS looted material -- particularly coins-- entering the U.S. market.

CPO remains dubious that looted material is reaching our shores in any quantity, and further wonders whether the ultimate source of any such "fresh" material is just as likely, if not more likely, to be the cash-strapped Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army rather than ISIS.  After all, the iconoclasts of ISIS seem more intent on destruction than anything else,  and all those coins with graven images on them could be melted to provide metal for their new Caliphate coinage. 

Still, given the crisis, due diligence is warranted, particularly if one is offered groups of similar coins that may have come from the region.   Reasonable due diligence based on the type of artifact is one thing.  However, it's quite another thing to condition legal import of all collector's coins made in Syria millennia ago on difficult, if not impossible to obtain, documentary proof that an item was out of Syria before the start of Syria's civil war in 2011.   Nor should concerns about looting provide the State Department and US Customs license to ignore the provisions of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act and the Anglo-American notions of putting the government to its proofs  under that statute.  Otherwise, for every 1 looted coin recovered, it is quite likely hundreds if not thousands of quite legitimate but not adequately documented coins could be sucked up by Customs for repatriation to war torn Syria.   Is that what US Customs and the State Department really want?

And, finally, the question remains whether all the publicity at the end of Congress' summer break is also meant to help push along the still flawed HR 1493/S.1887, and its proposed creation of a new, pumped up State Department Cultural Heritage Center bureaucracy, as much as anything else.  So, as CPO has previously cautioned, consider the source.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Consider the Source

This blog is up front.  It reflects the views of collectors.  But that's not the case for major sources for claims about looting in Syria.  Each source has interests and agendas not always apparent from news coverage or archaeological blogs that rely on such information (often without clear attribution).    That's not to say what these sources say is necessarily 100% false.  Rather,  just that its always a good idea to consider the source in assessing the information.

The Assad Regime-- The Assad Regime is a major source of information for others, particularly archaeological blogs.  The problem is pure propaganda.   As Syrian government officials would have it, ISIS is always to blame for all damage to Syrian cultural patrimony.  In contrast, brave Syrian cultural officials are always doing their best to protect Syrian cultural patrimony from destruction and looting.  The latter may or may not be based on fact, but the former is pure nonsense.  ISIS is an awful plague on the people of Syria and its cultural patrimony, but Assad's military has done its fair share of bombing cultural sites into dust.  Moreover, the Syrian military has certainly been involved in looting and otherwise damaging the major sites of Palmyra and Apamea before they fell to rebels.  And, of course, let's not forget Assad is wholly responsible for crushing a largely peaceful movement and thereby starting a full fledged civil war.

UNESCO-  UNESCO is run by a former Bulgarian Communist (now Socialist) and its pronouncements reflect a state ownership approach that ignores the rights of individuals, ethnic and religious groups.  Not surprisingly, UNESCO supports repatriation of artifacts to Assad in the midst of a civil war despite the Assad regime's poor stewardship and even purposeful destruction of cultural artfiacts.

American Schools for Oriental Research (ASOR) and the State Department's Syrian Heritage Initiative--   Potential conflict of interest is the problem here.   The State Department awarded a $600,000 contract to ASOR, an organization that takes a dim view of private collecting.  Furthermore, the contract seeks to help raise public awareness about looting in war torn Iraq and Syria at the very same time both the State Department and ASOR are lobbying Congress to impose what amounts to permanent import restrictions on all Syrian cultural goods and create a new bureaucracy within the State Department.  Enough said.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Exploiting a Tragedy?

The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has rightly condemned the murder of Khaled al-As'ad, the retired antiquities director for the city of Palmyra, by ISIS.

In so doing, however, the Oriental Institute also claims that:

The 81 year old Mr. al-As'ad was arrested, tortured, and beheaded for refusing to reveal the location of antiquities from Palmyra that he had hidden away to prevent them from being looted and sold on the illicit antiquities market.

But how does the OI know that?

A well-researched piece in the New York Times instead suggests that the scholar was killed because of his membership in the Baath party and association with the Assad regime.

And, indeed, it appears the claim that the scholar was murdered for refusing to disclose the location of hidden antiquities is based not on eyewitness testimony but upon the claims of antiquities officials of the Assad regime in Damascus.

The murder of this scholar should be mourned as yet another tragedy coming out of Syria's civil war. As'ad devoted his life to studying Palmyra.  At least for the moment, it still stands.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Gary Vikan, the past Director of the Walters Art Gallery, has made a common sense proposal to save artifacts that would otherwise be destroyed in Syria's civil war.

So, if we really want to "Save Antiquities for Everyone" why not adopt such a proposal rather than condemn irreplaceable cultural artifacts to the sledgehammer?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

John Henry Merryman RIP

Noted law professor, John Henry Merryman, has passed away at the ripe old age of 95.  He was a powerful voice against cultural nationalism and its negative effects on collecting and the people to people contacts and appreciation of other cultures it brings.  He will be much missed.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Palmyra Exhibit Poses Important Questions

The Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery is putting a magnificent portrait bust removed from a tomb in Palmyra on display to help raise awareness about danger to the site posed by ISIS.  While the Smithsonian (a major proponent of HR 1493 and its creation of a new bureaucracy in the State Department), may hope the exhibit will jump start the bill which appears to have lost some momentum in the Senate, CPO wonders if it will all backfire.  After all, won't it all just help underscore the fact that cultural diffusion helps preserve artifacts while concentration through repatriation only puts them further at risk, at least where a  civil war is going on?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Italian" Coin Seizure: More to Come?

US Customs is bragging to the press about its seizure of Roman coins the importer "misrepresented" came from the Middle East when "everyone" knows "Roman" means "Italian."  But from the pictures, the coins appear to be from the 4th C. at which time Rome had mints in the "Middle East." Moreover, it's  quite likely the importer was being truthful about what he knew about their find spot.  So, this could very well be yet another case of Customs overreach that is not contested in court because the low value of items that are seized and the high cost of legal services.

US Customs promises to "repatriate" the coins (estimated value $1,000) to the Italian Government at a future date.  What the Italians will do with them remains to be seen, but CPO suspects they would be better off in collector's trays than dumped unwanted on Italy's grossly underfunded and corrupt cultural bureaucracy.

CPO is even more concerned that such questionable seizures will multiply if HR 1493, a bill meant to ramp up customs enforcement, becomes law.  There is already enough abuses visited on small businesses and collectors by overzealous Customs officers.  We need to encourage fairness and strict adherence to law,  not "getting a seizure" to "get more press."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's Support Our Fellow Collectors in Germany!

As you may have already heard, draconian legislation is to be introduced in Germany that may greatly limit the legal trade in even common ancient and modern coins.  CPO hopes its readers will sign this petition not only to show our solidarity with German collectors, but to demonstrate our own commitment to coin collecting and the people to people contacts and cultural understanding it helps foster:   https://www.openpetition.de/petition/online/fuer-den-erhalt-des-privaten-sammelns

For more background, see here.

 Let's support our fellow collectors in Germany!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Syrian Treasure Houses: Hype vs. Reality

Not surprisingly given efforts to get the Senate to take up HR 1493, a bill that takes advantage of the ongoing tragedy in Syria to create a new State Department bureaucracy to coordinate enforcement efforts and impose what amounts to permanent restrictions on Syrian cultural goods, both the State Department and the archaeological lobby are heavily promoting news about the repatriation of  items seized from Abu Sayaff , a terrorist financier, as proof such legislation is needed.

As a State Department press release indicates,

On May 15, 2015, U.S. Special Operations Forces recovered a cache of hundreds of archaeological and historical objects and fragments during a raid in al-Amr (eastern Syria) to capture ISIL leader Abu Sayyaf. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Abu Sayyaf was involved in ISIL's military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization's illicit oil, gas, and financial operations. The cache represents significant primary evidence of looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market. It also corroborates evidence of looting previously documented by the Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research. All objects and fragments were turned over to officials at the Iraq National Museum on July 15 by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. 

(Emphasis added.)  Well, that may be true in the narrow sense, but even so, the actual quantity, quality and value of what was found falls so far short of what we were led to expect that responsible parties in Congress and in the press should start asking some serious questions.

Let's not forget not so long ago, an ASOR State Department contractor was telling the press that "looted antiquities" were ISIS' second most important source of funding after "hot oil" and others were claiming that $36 million in stolen antiquities were taken from one area in Syria alone.  And,  of course, if such dubious claims were true, the Abu Sayaff cache would presumably look far more like how what one one foreign archaeo-blogger has imagined those fabled storehouses for stolen Syrian antiquities:

If they exist, they could be veritable treasure houses, the buyer had the pick of a vast amount of numbers of objects from the tens of thousands of holes dug in 'productive' areas of productive sites. They could afford to buy the best of the best, sawn-up Assyrian friezes, glyptic  material, cunies, Sumerian statues, Akkadian jewellery, Seleucid bronzes, and coins, loads of coins. You can just imagine it. Rather like a Swiss freeport, just somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the Middle Eastern desert. 

The reality, of course, now appears to be quite different and instead of the contents of a "Swiss freeport" we appear to have the equivalent of the small stock of a none too prosperous Middle Eastern antiquities dealer. So, perhaps, a reassessment is needed, not only about to what extent ISIS may be funded by antiquities sales, but in determining the real need for substantial departures from current law proposed both here and in Germany, which have almost entirely been justified by the ISIS threat.

Monday, July 20, 2015

ISIS Stash-- Some Additional Thoughts

Archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy has analyzed  what was found in Abu Sayyaf's stash, but in his rush to promote the group of coins and small antiquities as proof that "highly portable antiquities" are funding ISIS, he misses at least three important points.

First, Hardy makes much of the number of coins (236 by his count) in the group, but is that number really that surprising?  Other than pottery shards, coins are the most common artifacts to come down to us from antiquity.  So, the fact there are more coins than anything else in the group should not be deemed significant.

Second, the items in the hoard may be portable, but that does not necessarily make them valuable.  Indeed, assuming the coins are real-- not fake-- they still would still likely not be worth that much.  A quick Internet search suggests that common Islamic gold coins typically retail here in the US for $300-$600 depending on condition.  Common Islamic silver sells in the $30-$75 range and bronze even less. Of course, wholesale values, particularly in Syria, Turkey or  Lebanon, would likely be far less.   As for the antiquities, even if they are real, they certainly don't appear that valuable either.  So, what is the hoard worth?  CPO would make an educated guess somewhere around $40,000 (retail in the US), but even if it were double or triple that, these numbers still fall far short of what has been speculated and what is needed to fund an insurgency of ISIS' size and scope.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly what may be most interesting about the group is what's missing--there may be Islamic coins with their decorative legends praising Allah, but no Greek, Roman or Byzantine ones with their images of gods, goddesses and rulers.   So, where are they?  Of course this is just speculation, but perhaps ISIS' iconoclasm and the crucible found with the group provide a clue to an unfortunate fate.

Addendum (Tuesday, July 21):  Though little detail is provided, archaeo-blogger Paul Barford notes that the State Department is saying that the group did include some Byzantine and Roman Povincial bronze coins.  For whatever reason, no Greek, Roman or Byzantine precious metal coins appear to be in the group.  http://eca.state.gov/cultural-heritage-center/iraq-cultural-heritage-initiative/isil-leaders-loot  While the State Department also suggests that the material was found with metal detectors, it is more likely in CPO's opinion that it came from local collectors or museums.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Pay-dirt" or Reality Falls Far Short of Hype Once More?

After a series of outlandish claims including that "looted antiquities" are ISIS' second most important funding source after "hot oil" with "$36 million" taken from one area in Syria alone and some dubious assumptions derived from the fact that a coin struck in Apamea was for sale on eBay and a book with ancient coins in it was seized from ISIS, the archaeological lobby has finally appeared to hit "pay-dirt" courtesy of the US State Department and its repatriation of antiquities seized from Abu Sayyaf, who is said to have been a terrorist financier.

But has it really?  A few hundred minor antiquities and Islamic coins (including fakes and a few objects said to be stolen from the Iraq Museum) were found, but if this haul represents the quantity, quality and monetary value of what is stored in those fabled "warehouses" postulated to hold fabulous treasures intended to fund ISIS and its insurgency, hype again has indeed far outstripped reality.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

More artifacts repatriated to a war zone

The Assad regime is reporting that neighboring countries have repatriated some 65,000 artifacts to the Syrian government.  It's unclear if the items were looted by ISIS, Assad, the Free Syrian Army or confiscated from hapless refugees.  What is clear is that by repatriating them to war-torn Syria they are again being put in danger.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Destroying Undocumented Artifacts: What Were They Thinking?

Kate FitzGibbon asks in reaction to a series of  revealing "tweets" from some well-known archaeologists and academics associated with the archaeological lobby which appear to either support the idea of destroying undocumented artifacts in order to keep them off the market, support the idea with some qualifications, think its for the source country to decide, or think it should not be discussed, not because it's wrong, but because it undercuts their anti-looting argument.

Of course, collectors like Kyri don't think that way.   For them, "all antiquities 'merit saving' with or without context."  CPO heartily agrees.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

US Government Repatriates Artifacts to War Zone

The United States Government has completed repatriating artifacts to war ravaged Iraq.   Some of these artifacts had been in US Government custody for years so it's fair to ask, "why now?"

Is  "repatriation" more important as a diplomatic measure than "protecting" an artifact for future generations?   And, is there a concerted effort to conflate one concept with the other even where the facts suggest that repatriation will instead most likely endanger the object?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Days After ISIS Publicly Destroys Artifacts, the Archaeological Lobby Debates Destroying Undocumented Artifacts to Remove Them from the Market

Only days after ISIS publicly sledgehammered Palmyrene busts of the sort it is allegedly selling to fund terrorism into dust, some well-connected archaeological bloggers -- citing the public destruction of (modern) ivory at Times Square in NYC as a precedent-- are using twitter to debate the question, "Would we consider destroying undocumented artifacts to remove them from the market?"

Are they serious?

Given the AIA's and ASOR's view that "undocumented archaeological objects" --like the Palmyrene busts ISIS just destroyed--should not be granted any waiver to give them "safe harbor" from Syria's civil war, perhaps so.

Of course, all this just again raises fundamental questions:  Is it about conservation or control?  And  preservation or repatriation?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

The Greek public has voted down an EU bailout offer.  With Greek banks running low on cash, it's looking more likely that the Greek government will raid the bank accounts of depositors to save Alpha and other banks just as the Cypriots did during the height of their own financial crisis. 

Before doing so, CPO hopes the Greek Government will encourage the Alpha Bank to sell its numismatic collection on the international market for the benefit of Alpha's depositors.  Conceptions of "national patrimony" must sometimes give way to unfortunate realities.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Tabloid Journalism Alert: An Archaeologist Patrols the Market

The Guardian Newspaper reports on what an UCL archaeologist saw when he walked around antiquities stores in London.  And what did he find?  Well, the same kinds of small antiquities from the Middle East that have been sold there for generations.

Yet, now in some academic circles they are called "blood antiquities."  This, of course, provides the perfect excuse for the usual suspects to declaim on the supposed evils of the antiquities trade and try to justify a major change in our great Anglo-American legal traditions that presumes innocence rather than guilt-- something to think about on this Independence Day.

There is even an image of that that infamous coin struck in Apamea millenia ago.   Though the Guardian quoted archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy, it evidently did not bother to check Hardy's blog that raised serious questions about whether the coin is as advertised out of a war zone.

More tabloid journalism at its worst.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Archaeo-Blogger Acknowledges Assad Regime Involvement

In a long post, archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy has examined the involvement of the Assad regime in looting at Palmyra before the site fell into ISIS' hands.  He deserves kudos for doing so now given the unexplained relucatance of the archaeological lobby to criticize the Assad regime in the past.   Still, as always, caution is warranted given the untrustworthy nature of most media sources in the region upon which Hardy has relied for this and other blog posts he has made in the past.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

ISIS Sledgehammers Palmyrene Busts

It is being reported that ISIS has confiscated Palmyrene statuary from locals who were then forced to smash the statues before being flogged.  This report suggests the locals were activists trying to save them.  Other reports suggest those arrested may have instead been looters acting without ISIS authorization.  Whatever the truth, the destruction of portable statuary of the sort that ISIS is supposedly selling undercuts the claim that ISIS' professed iconoclasm is just a cover for looting.  Perhaps, instead they actually believe what they say, which, of course, does not bode well for this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Greece on the Brink

It increasingly looks like the already grossly underfunded Greek cultural establishment will suffer yet more from the effects of any default to Greece's creditors.  Any financial meltdown will also once again undercut the assumption of UNESCO and its supporters in the archaeological lobby that nation states are always the best stewards of antiquities.  Going forward, a new paradigm needs serious consideration.  Greece will not only need to reform its economy, but limit its ownership and control only to artifacts of real cultural significance. The rest are frankly probably better off in private hands, and indeed, state encouragement for a legal trade in such artifacts will not only help grow the Greek economy, but foster cultural exchange that can benefit Greece as well.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Archaeo-Blogger Finds FOIA

It's good to see that one archaeo-blogger, who previously criticized the ACCG's efforts to seek information about import restrictions from the State Department, has now embraced the process himself as important to the public's right to know.  Will wonders never cease.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

UNESCO Chief Condemns Mosaic Museum Attack; Archaeological Blogosphere Slow to Follow

UNESCO's Chief has rightly condemned the Assad regime's barrel bombing of the Maarrat al Numman Mosaic Museum.  Yet, in the Anti-American reaches of the archaeological blogosphere, it's just a case of "stuff happens" in war and yet another opportunity to take swipes at the antiquities trade. 

"Stuff" indeed "happens" in war, but in this particular case it's hard to stomach the claim that the bombing was done by "mistake" given the publicity efforts to protect the museum's mosaics from war damage have received in the international press.   Indeed, if anything, it's more likely Assad's forces attacked the museum BECAUSE a consortium of U.S. Institutions were involved in supporting the effort to shore up the museum's mosaics.  One can only hope those efforts succeeded, at least to some extent.

 It remains to be seen how more responsible archaeological blogs respond to this latest tragedy.

Update (6/23)-  It seems none of the other well known archaeological blogs thinks this story is worth comment on.  It's unclear why, but it does again suggest that there is a conscious effort to deemphasize any destruction and looting done on behalf of the Assad regime and instead focus entirely on ISIS.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Barrel Bombs Burst Repatriationist Bubble

The Assad Regime has attacked  the Ma'arra Mosaic Museum in Syria with barrel bombs.   It is unclear whether sandbags put in place to protect its valuable mosaics helped save them from destruction.  What should be clear, however, is that the repatriationist assumptions behind HR 1493 need a major rethink.  Dictators who purposefully target museums are most certainly not the best stewards of cultural hertiage, and so repatriation cannot be equated with preservation, which should always be the primary goal.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

PAS Under Threat?

This news should be of concern to everyone.   Due to budget pressures in the UK, the Portable Antiquities Scheme will be folded into another department at the British Museum and likely suffer budget cuts despite its popularity with both the public and many British archaeologists.   As a result, Roger Bland, who has run the PAS since its inception, will be leaving his post.   

The PAS has been instrumental in bringing archaeologists, metal detectorists and collectors together in a shared effort to help record the past.  So, perhaps it's not surprising that the BM states that the PAS is being placed in the Department of Learning, Volunteers and Audiences as part of an effort to help the BM with public outreach to help make it the "museum of the country" by working with partners outside of London. If so, CPO hopes that the BM will ensure this important asset remains adequately funded despite obvious budget pressures.  

For more, see here.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

State Department Funding Backdoor Lobbying Campaign in Favor of HR 1493?

This week's front page Washington Post article that again features the discredited claim that looted antiquities are the "second most important commercial activity [for ISIS] after oil sales" [along with a misstatement of the impact of the "1970 Rule"] raises important questions:

(1) Is the article meant to prompt action on the improved, but still flawed HR 1493 in the Senate?

and, if so,

(2) Is ASOR's $600,000 State Department funded  "monitoring and global awareness campaign"  really a backdoor means to lobby on that bill, which uses the ongoing tragedy in Iraq and Syria as a justification for a new State Department bureaucracy aimed at fostering further "coordination" with the same insiders associated with the archaeological lobby who already dominate things?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Open the Medici Archives

The Art Newspaper reports on pressure to open up the Medici archives to the public to assist collectors and dealers in their due diligence efforts.  The archives have already been disclosed selectively, so its unclear why the archaeological blogoshere is so opposed to their release.  In any event, shouldn't those who claim to act in the public interest and often demand transparency of others, promote rather than oppose transparency here?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Tariq Aziz Dies

Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's point man in efforts to end international sanctions put in place in response to Iraq's unsuccessful invasion of Kuwait, has died in prison.   As Larry Rothfield notes, archaeological groups actively worked with Aziz in an effort to undermine those sanctions by travelling to Iraq in hopes of getting back to the business of digging.  Yet, unfortunately the relationship between archaeology and dictatorship has yet to be studied in any great depth.  This is a pity.  In CPO's view, the "state owns everything old " approach promoted by Middle Eastern dictatorships inexorably leads to a "trash the past" mentality by those who then associate antiquities with hated dictatorial regimes.

Friday, June 5, 2015


Yesterday, the archaeological blogosphere and twitterdom whipped itself up into a minor frenzy over of an image of a page from a book that Kurdish fighters evidently seized from ISIS that included a picture of some ancient coins.

The implication of course is that this image is somehow hard "proof" that ISIS is funding itself with conflict antiquities, specifically ancient coins.  Indeed, we are informed, "[The book]  might help us to identify which ancient coins the Islamic State is handling (or expecting to handle). Thereby, it might help us to trace how the Islamic State is funding itself through the trafficking of conflict antiquities."

Of course, it does not seem much to matter that the coins depicted appear to be either Phoenician ones struck in Lebanon and coastal areas in Syria (outside of ISIS' control) or perhaps Egyptian copies of Athenian Tetradrachms.  As it is further explained, "obviously they were used and may have been deposited elsewhere". (Prof. Elkins take note.)

In any event, with all the millions ISIS is supposedly making from "conflict antiquities" one would think they could at least buy a decent price guide.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Legal Trade to Continue under HR 1493?

The House of Representatives has passed HR 1493 with some modifications that don't go anywhere near far enough to address the concerns raised about the legislation by the Committee for Cultural Policy and other groups.

The new bureaucracy created in the State Department will lack transparency.   Any "coordination" efforts will again ignore the concerns of collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade.  Instead, the same insiders associated with the archaeological lobby who already dominate things will again be given free reign to help call the shots.

As for the "emergency" Syrian restrictions that are authorized in the legislation, the new "sunset" provision appears to be little more than an invitation for emergency restrictions to be a bridge to permanent ones.  The much needed provision for temporary imports of at risk Syrian cultural artifacts requires so many bureaucratic findings that it will likely never be used to save much from destruction at the hands of ISIS or Assad for that matter.  Indeed, nothing in this legislation precludes the State Department and US Customs from ultimately repatriating artifacts to the same odious Assad regime that has already engaged in looting in places like Apamea and Palmyra and which has bombed important cultural sites into dust.  That. of course, may be just fine with at least some in the archaeological lobby which generally has been unwilling to criticize the Assad regime despite its looting and destruction of Syrian cultural property. 

On the bright side, before the bill was voted on in the House, Representatives Chabot and Engel both emphasized that the legislation was not meant to target the lawful trade in Syrian artifacts and only authorizes import restrictions on artifacts illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war.

However, assuming HR 1493 becomes law, it remains to be seen whether the State Department and Customs and Border Protection will follow this bipartisan Congressional direction or revert back to their standard operating procedure: Create as broad a designated list of items with a "country of origin" (manufacture) of Syria as is possible and then assume that anything of a similar "type" is illicit unless proven otherwise.   Of course, this kind of "guilty" until "proven innocent" mentality may be contrary to the plain meaning of the Cultural Property Implementation Act, 19 USC Sections 2601, 2604 and 2610 as well as our great Anglo-American legal traditions, but it is quite in keeping with the "ends justifies the means" attitude of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center, CBP and the "archaeological lobby," all of which already "coordinate" quite well with or without this legislation.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Mystery to Unravel

A follower of this blog has sent this photo.  He/she have asked me to help identify the cat.  The head, of course, which is said to have appeared in the US, is rubbish, probably a modern copy of an Egyptian pharaoh.  Any thoughts?

Friday, May 29, 2015

What's There to Hide?

Archaeo-blogger and anti-coin trade advocate Nathan Elkins has accused CPO of misrepresenting his views about the circulation of ancient coins.   Yet, Elkins has been cagey about not making his work easily accessible to anyone but like-minded academics.  Indeed, Elkins has even gone so far as to avoid making his comments to CPAC public by refusing to post  them on the regulations.gov website. (CPO is puzzled by his statement that CPO refused to post his comments on this blog.  Only one fellow archaeo-blogger is banned based on the tenor of his comments.)  If Elkins is really concerned about his views about coin circulation being misrepresented, he can easily remedy that concern by making his papers and CPAC comments public.  Really, what's there to hide?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trade Professionals Speak Common Sense

The Ivory Tower academics of the archaeological lobby often speak about requiring "provenance information" and "export certificates" as proof that items are not the products of recent looting. However, those with actual practical experience in the international trade of cultural goods have once again demonstrated that coming up with such documentation is easier said than done.

Numismatic professional Alfredo de la Fe has written about the lack of provenance information for most coins and antiquities dealer James Ede has explained the impossible task of supplying export certificates that simply don't exist.

Hopefully, decision makers will give much needed consideration to these practical concerns raised by those in the know.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fall of Palmyra Calls for Safe Harbor for Syrian Antiquities

As fear grows that ISIS may target Palmyra's ancient ruins for destruction, it's time to rethink the wisdom of repatriating artifacts to failed states like Syria and Iraq.  If anything, artifacts of cultural significance from such war zones should be removed and given temporary safe harbor, something suggested by the AAMD.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Poor Timing in Cairo

On May 14, 2015, the Antiquities Coalition and Middle Eastern Institute joined with the Egyptian Military Dictatorship and some other authoritarian Arab governments to announce a "Cairo Declaration" aimed at clamping down on sales of Middle Eastern antiquities just two days before Egypt's military controlled court system imposed a death sentence on Egypt's first Democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, for his part in a prison break that took place before he achieved high office.

While CPO supports tackling looting at the source, it's a fair question whether private property rights and rule of law will be respected in the process.

Or, is it far more likely that the effort will have all the same hallmarks of the Morsi persecution where “Due process, regard for evidence, and minimum standard of justice have been tossed aside in favor of draconian injustice.”

And it's also a fair question, does the archaeological lobby much care?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

ISIS Iconclasm a Mere Cover Story for Looting?

So says an Iraqi official based on unnamed sources.  But Iraqi sources were also the basis for the now widely discredited claim that ISIS has netted $36 million from one site in Syria alone. 

So, is this new claim as well as other unsupported claims that there must be warehouses full of material looted by ISIS to be believed?  Or, is it possible that ISIS came up with far more "dry holes" than artifacts to be put into "cold storage?"

If the 2003 Iraq war proved anything, it was that "experts" could be dead wrong not only on the existence of weapons of mass destruction, but on the nature and extent of looting.  So caution should be warranted-- particularly where such information is being used to justify the creation of a new State Department bureaucracy and new import restrictions on all things "Syrian."

Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, Palmyra, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is under threat of capture by ISIS.  What is needed is not more talk or even legislation, but concrete action to save the city from ISIS or at least a cost to pay for anyone who seeks to destroy its ruins.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

More Transparency and Inclusion Needed

The well-funded and well-connected Antiquities Coalition has helped promote and organize  conferences at the Smithsonian and in Cairo to address the problem of looting in times of civil unrest and war.

Unfortunately, the conferences-- like HR 1493, legislation the archaeological lobby is promoting to address these same issues-- rely on flawed assumptions:

1.  That state ownership and control over everything "old" is justified because nation states are always the best stewards of cultural artifacts;

2.  That the only groups that "count" are governments, law enforcement, archaeologists and state sponsored museums; and

3.  That panels of experts representing these same interests, blog posts, press releases and articles meant to shape public opinion can substitute for transparent decision making.

Here, if anything, the Egyptian Generals' sponsorship of the Cairo conference and the unclear nature of the Antiquities Coalition's relationship with the Egyptian Government should give some pause.  Let's stipulate that members of the Antiquities Coalition and the other participants of these conferences are all deeply committed to preserving cultural heritage, but that does not mean that legitimate questions should not be raised about this endeavor.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Anti-Collector Advocacy Poses as Academics Once More

Dr. Nathan Elkins has continued his anti-collector crusade by posting an abstract of an article from the Journal of Field Archaeology that is critical of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild and its test case on Academia.edu. Elkins' latest article itself is not posted on Academia.edu, though Academia.edu invites readers to ask Elkins to make it available on the website.

This rather obscure journal (in the world beyond field archaeology at least)  is apparently Elkins' publisher of choice.  Indeed, its like-minded academics also published his 2010 diatribe directed against Ancient Coins for Education,  a not-for-profit that uses ancient coins as a teaching tool on Ancient Rome for kids.  That article is already posted in its entirety on Academia.edu. 

Elkins evidently has already made advance copies of this latest article about ACCG and its test case available to Messrs. Gill and Barford, whom he regards as colleagues.  CPO and Wayne Sayles, ACCG's Executive Director, have already asked Elkins for an advance copy of the article too as a matter of fairness, but he has denied that request point blank.

The article has now also been posted on-line on the publisher's website, but the cost is high--$39 for the rights to review the article on-line for a 24 hour period.  So, its no surprise that CPO has also asked and hopes Elkins will get whatever permissions he needs to make his article available free on-line on Academia.edu so that interested members of the public can judge the quality of his work for themselves short of subsidizing anti-collector academics by purchasing his article from JFA on-line or searching high and low for some library which might actually carry it. Despite Elkins' protests, it's unclear why he can't ask JFA to be allowed to post his article on Academia.edu.  Certainly, Elkins has already posted his last JFA article attacking Ancient Coins for Education in its entirety on that platform.

Leaving this lack of "open access" aside, it's questionable that Elkins' claims that the State Department acted properly are justified.  His apparent thesis-- that coins on the designated lists "primarily circulated" where they were made may or may not be true, but there is also a real question whether more is required under the plain meaning of the governing statute's "first discovery" requirement embedded in 19 USC Sections 2601, 2604 and 2610.

And even assuming Elkins is onto something, a cursory review of the designated lists for Cyprus and China should raise serious questions as to whether the Government did anything other than pick an arbitrary date and simply restrict all artifacts made in those countries beforehand.

Elkins may be entitled to his own opinions, but in the end the issue is one of law, an area in which he most certainly lacks expertise.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Government has been ordered to respond to the ACCG's written discovery requests on these points on or before June 20, 2015.  We will hopefully know more then whether the Government made a good faith effort to comply with the CPIA's "first discovery" requirement or not.

(Text updated 5/12/15)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Selling Artifacts to Save the Past?

Chris Maupin asks why not?   And it's not just Maupin.  Others have also suggested that there be deaccession of duplicates from stores.  This does not only makes sense.  It will increasingly become a necessity for cash strapped cultural establishments in places like Greece and Italy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Committee for Cultural Policy on HR 1493

The Committee for Cultural Policy has again written the House Foreign Relations Committee to express serious concerns about HR 1493, a bill that purports to protect international cultural property in times of war, civil conflict or natural disaster.

While the bill's aims are laudable, it-- like its predecessor HR 5703-- is deeply flawed and should be improved as it passes through the legislative process.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

US Government Loses Gold Coin Forfeiture Case

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ordered the the federal government to return valuable 1933 $20 gold coins to their owners, the family of a Philadelphia jeweler who held the coins.

The Government convinced a jury that the Mint never realeased the coins into circulation so they must have been goverment property.

The successful appeal turned on the government's seizure of the coins in question without promptly giving the claimants an opportunity to contest the seizure in court.

Sound familar?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Make Source Countries Take Stewardship Seriously

Ann Marlowe, an accomplished critic, writer and journalist, has proposed that source countries be incentivized to take their responsibilities as stewards of cultural heritage seriously.

While some of her ideas-- like fining Iraq for its failure to keep Islamic terrorists from destroying ancient artifacts-- seem draconian, it's long past time for source countries to be held accountable for the cultural heritage in their care.

Hopefully, Marlowe's provocative opinions will prompt some much needed discussion on a more elevated plain than what we've come to expect from the extremes of the archaeological blogosphere.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

CPAC Meets to Discuss Renewal of MOU With Italy

On April 8, 2015, The US State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) met in open session to discuss renewal of the Italian MOU.  The following CPAC members were present:  (1) Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, Chair (PG) (Public Member); (2) Rosemary Joyce (RJ)(Archaeology);  (3) Jane Levine (JL) (Trade); (4) Marta de la Torre  (MT)(Public); (5) Nancy Wilkie (NW) (Archaeology); and (6) James Willis (JW) (Trade).  The following members were absent:  (1) Nina Archabal  (Museum); (2) Barbara Kaul  (Public); (3) Lothar von Falenhausen (Archaeology); (4) Thomas Murray (Trade) and (5) Katherine Reid (Museum).   These absences are regrettable, though perhaps understandable given scheduling so soon after the Easter-Passover holiday.

The following individuals spoke in this order:  (1) Wayne Sayles (WS) (Ancient Coin Collectors Guild); (2) Peter Tompa (PT) (International Association of Professional Numismatists/Professional Numismatists Guild); (3) Sue McGovern-Huffman (SMH)(Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art); (4) Doug Mudd (DM) (American Numismatic Association); (5) Karol Wight (Corning Glass Museum); (6) Judith Mann (JM) (St. Louis Art Museum); (7) Stephen Knerly (Association of Art Museum Directors); (8) Jane DeRose Evans (Temple University); (9) Alex Barker (University of Missouri); and (10) Carla Antonaccio (Duke University, Archaeological Institute of America and Society for American Archaeology).   The first seven speakers associated with the trade, collectors groups, educational associations and museums opposed the MOU, supported the MOU with major changes or opposed import restrictions on coins.  The last three speakers associated with the archaeological community gave the MOU unqualified support. 

There was also a six member Italian delegation present, but they did not speak in the public session.

WS-  The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act protects what we call orphaned artifacts that have circulated in international trade, often for centuries, without any requirement or need for recorded provenance.  The law only allows import restrictions on coins that were "first discovered within" and "subject to export control" of a State Party with whom an MOU might be negotiated.  There was no legislative intent to restrict common coins.

WS's full statement may be found here.

Questions:  PG points to a Numismatica Ars Classica Catalogue which states that the firm will provide documentation for coins subject to US import restrictions.  She asks if NAC can provide such documentation why can’t other firms?  WS explains that NAC only sells high value coins that are more likely to have provenance information than common issues.   In response to a question by NW, WS indicates that NW’s views about “what is ethical” must be distinguished from what is required under the law when it comes to retention of provenance information.

PT- The 2011 decision to impose import restrictions on “coins of Italian types” was not made with CPAC’s knowledge or consent, and, indeed, CPAC member Robert Korver resigned on account of it.  CPAC should rethink current import restrictions and under no circumstances should restrictions be expanded to include late Roman Republican and Roman Imperial coins due to their wide circulation. Given budgetary realities, private collectors, not the Italian State, are the best stewards for common artifacts like coins.  

In prior MOUs, Italy pledged to consider ways to make it easier to secure export certificates for archaeological objects legitimately sold within Italy itself.  Unfortunately, nothing has been done to keep this promise, and, if anything it has become more difficult to procure them.  An IAPN member was even told that “The Americans” would not think Italy was serious about protecting its own cultural patrimony if such permits were granted.  Given this failure, CPAC should recommend that the MOU be modified so that U.S. Customs accepts proof of lawful export from any E.U. member state to help facilitate the legal import of coins “of Italian types” also legitimately for sale within Italy itself. 

PT's full statement may be found here.

Questions: PG thinks Korver’s statement that CPAC did not approve of restrictions should not be repeated because CPAC’s recommendations should be considered confidential.  PT notes that such information was supposed to be reported to Congress.  PG wonders whether the relatively few finds of Greek coins from Sicily and Italy that are found outside of Italy discussed in an attachment to IAPN’s written statement supports the assumption they predominantly circulated within Italy.  PT refers back to the plain meaning of the statute that requires artifacts to only be found there for there to be restrictions.  JW wanted to know whether the MOU was working to limit looting. PT believes that is more a function of aggressive police work.   In response to a question from MT, PT indicates that restrictions only harm those who comply with law because coins are so easy to smuggle.   He also notes that some European dealers don’t want to trade with Americans any longer given the red tape.

SMH- Restrictions have been detrimental to collecting.  Over time, this will negatively impact museums that benefit from donations from collectors.  Import restrictions disadvantage American collectors versus those in the EU. 

Questions: PG asks about ADCAEA.  SMH indicates it is a new organization with approximately 100 members.  In response to a question, SMH gives an example how restrictions have discouraged imports.  One of SMH’s clients wanted to bid on an Italian artifact in a Christie’s sale in London, but decided against it due to the red tape.

DM- Import restrictions will result in a loss of interest in ancient coins by collectors as the supply of Italian coins (ancient and otherwise) dries up. This will destroy the historically close relationship between advanced collectors and museums and inevitably impact donations of coins to numismatic institutions.  In the end these restrictions are likely to result in a drastic reduction in numismatic scholarship – much of which has been the result of the fruitful interaction of advanced private collectors and museum curators.

KW- There are too many barriers to long term loans.  American museums would like to display what Italian museums have in storage.  The problem is that personal contacts are necessary to get anywhere in Italy.  There are also concerns about expensive insurance and courier fees.

JM-Echoes concerns about fees and difficulty in getting loans.  It is very time consuming navigating the system.

Questions- PG wonders why so many museums have not asked for loans from Italy.  JM indicates it’s a chicken and egg problem.  The Italians make it so difficult that no one asks.

SK- Italy has not lived up to its promises in the MOU to provide long term loans.  The only museums to get long term loans are those that receive them as a quid pro quo for repatriating artifacts.   SK also reiterates the fact that museums have to deal with expensive courier and insurance fees.  Italy will not accept US State Department guarantees of indemnity and requires American museums to purchase insurance from Italian companies.

Questions- PG asks why some small museums have gotten loans.  SK explains you have to distinguish exposition loans from long term loans.  Exposition loans are set up by Italian for profit companies and the cost is considerable.  They do not satisfy Italy’s promises under Article II of the MOU.  In response to another question, SK also reiterates that Italy has done nothing to make it easier to secure export permits for purchases of artifacts legitimately for sale within Italy itself.

JE- Fresh coins on the market damage archaeology.  Locals and collectors and dealers should be educated to discourage looting.   Even common coins have value.  At archaeological sites like Sardes common bronze coins are mostly found.  Bronze coins were traded locally.   There is an exhibition in Philadelphia that features ancient coins.

AB- Asserts that all the legal requirements for a renewal of the MOU have been met.  AB’s school is involved in an innovative program with the Capitoline Museum.  It is studying material excavated in Rome in the late 1800’s and stored since.   It is funded privately.

CA- Excavates at Morgantina.  Italy is doing its best it can despite a severe budgetary crisis.  Metal detectorists prospect just outside the archaeological site and sometimes have come on site too during the period archaeologists are not excavating. 

Questions:  In response to a question by NW, CA indicates she believes illegal metal detectorists are searching for coins.  They have had some success deterring them with metal washers and other false targets.