Thursday, November 20, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chasing Facts

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

UN Panel Calls for Syrian Antiquities Ban

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

St. Louis Chapter of the AIA Leads the Way

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt RIP

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

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

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

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