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, 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   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.