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:

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.  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.