Saturday, October 8, 2016

Great Reads

Fiction and Biographies well worth reading for those interested in cultural heritage issues:

Arthur Houghton's "Dark Athena" is a thriller based on the author's own experiences as a curator, diplomat and collector.

Gary Vikan's "Sacred and Stolen" is a biography of a museum director who has served on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and has been involved in repatriation efforts.

But both share a world view only those who have "been there" can have-- cultural heritage issues are at best gray.  They are certainly not black and white.  Read them both and see.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Goldman Sachs Power and Influence Benefit Archaeology Lobby?

A front page article in Sunday's New York Times raises some important questions about how cultural heritage policy is made in the United States that deserve further investigation.   The article explores close ties between Hillary Clinton and Goldman Sachs including during the period Mrs. Clinton was Secretary of State.  That discussion highlights the Clinton State Department's partnership with Goldman Sachs' 10,000 women initiative.

While it is no doubt a good program, what is relevant for our purposes here is that this initiative is run by former Bush Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Dina Powell.  Powell and her State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs are not popular with coin collectors for good reason.

In May 2007, Powell rejected the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee's  recommendations against import restrictions on Cypriot coins.  Then, according to a declaration signed by Former CPAC Chair Jay Kislak, State Department officials went on to mislead Congress and the public about CPAC's true recommendations in official reports. That decision changed long-standing U.S. Government policy against import restrictions on coins, and provided the "precedent" for further restrictions on certain coin types from Iraq (2008), China (2009), Italy (2011), Greece (2011), Bulgaria (2014), and Syria (2016).

In CPO's view, Powell's 2007 decision at a minimum raises an appearance of conflict of interest. Critically, Powell made the decision after accepting her high level job with Goldman Sachs but before leaving the State Department.  At the time, Goldman was apparently heavily involved in arranging controversial credit swaps with Greece and likely had at least some business dealings with Cyprus too.  Of even more concern, it has since come to light that Powell was recruited by John F.W. Rogers, Goldman's powerful chief of staff, where she serves as part of his "lobbying team."   This is relevant to cultural heritage issues because Mr. Rogers is married to Deborah Lehr, an AIA Trustee and international business consultant, who also serves as President of the Antiquities Coalition, a well-funded archaeological lobbying group.

So, perhaps it's no surprise that the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has actively participated in Antiquities Coalition events, such as its recent "Culture Under Threat" conference in New York City.

Of course, the point of these conferences is to drum up support in Congress for measures sought by the archaeological lobby.  So, it also should be no surprise that the Antiquities Coalition has successfully lobbied Congress to clamp down on illicit antiquities (efforts which the trade and collectors see as grossly over-broad and hence damaging to the legitimate trade and collecting).

What's also interesting is that the Antiquities Coalition lobbying efforts are part of a partnership with the Middle East Institute and this work has been done to support repatriation efforts sought by authoritarian Middle Eastern governments like that of Egypt.

What's less clear is whether all this effort also directly or indirectly benefits the financial interests of those involved, i.e., is lobbying on cultural heritage issues of interest to countries like Greece, Cyprus and Egypt being "leveraged" to promote other business interests?

CPO commends all interested in expressing their views on cultural heritage issues, but given the amounts of money that the Antiquities Coalition must be spending on its efforts and all the contacts that are being worked,there should be far more transparency about the Antiquities Coalition's funding, its aims and details about its public-private partnerships with countries like Egypt.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Cyprus Turns its Back on the Common Law Tradition

By advocating for an international convention that would reverse the burden of proof and place it on auction houses selling antiquities, Cyprus has turned further away from its past Common Law traditions as part of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Auction Houses can and should be more transparent about what is known about an object's provenance, but proposals that call for a reversal of the burden of proof are more appropriate for Middle Eastern dictatorships than for democracies like Cyprus.

And as one of the comments to the linked Cyprus Mail article mentions, in any event perhaps it's not the best time for Cyprus to make such demands given that ongoing matter in Paphos

Monday, September 19, 2016

More Junk Science From Live Science

Owen Jarus and Live Science are at it again.  Last time it was Egypt.  Now it is Turkey.  This time the trade data allegedly shows an increase in the exports of gold coins from Turkey that supposedly supports the proposition that they are being looted in Syria and shipped to the US from Turkey.

As I previously tried to explain to Mr. Jarus with regard to his last article, there is a major problem with his methodology.  Such trade data relates to a "country of origin" of Turkey, which typically means place of manufacture NOT PLACE OF EXPORT.  The data also captures antique gold coins, which means any gold coins over 100 years old-- not just ancient gold coins that might be "looted."

It's telling that Jarus relies on archaeologists associated with ASOR (a group that has received over $1 million in State Department largess to document looting by ISIS) rather than trade experts.  (At least Dr. Al-Azm allows for the fact that the data is probably capturing values for Ottoman era coins that have been used to store wealth in the area over generations.)

In any event, if the big numbers cited are meant to impress, they need to be qualified to show what the trade data actually captures.  If there is no such effort, the whole enterprise must be viewed as no more than an effort to mislead, which, of course, is the last thing that either Live Science or ASOR for that matter should want.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Eakin Criticizes Establishment Approach

Hugh Eakin, writing for the New York Review of Books, criticizes the approach of the US and other governments to cultural destruction in Syria.  That approach has focused almost entirely on import restrictions, criminal sanctions and giving millions to archaeological groups to "study" the issue.  In contrast, efforts to protect objects on a local level (like an initiative of the University of Pennsylvania and Smithsonian) lack much needed funding.

Meanwhile, the Antiquities Coalition, a well-funded archaeological advocacy group that promotes "public-private partnerships" with authoritarian Middle Eastern governments, has held much ballyhooed  conferences in New York and Amman, Jordan, that have advocated just more repression. Should we be surprised?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where's the Beef?

Last week's Diane Rehm Radio Show segment entitled, "The Big Business in Looted Art," is getting lots of play in the archaeological blogosphere.  And why not?  The statement of the token "collector representative" (Gary Vikan, past Director of the Walters Art Gallery) questioning the show's premise-- that large amounts of material looted by ISIS is leaving Syria-- was ignored by the host and the other guests who are all associated with the Antiquities Coalition.  And the only difficult question from the audience about the repatriation of artifacts to unstable regimes was turned into a discussion about how wonderful it was that Khmer artifacts were being repatriated to Cambodia.  More evidence, if any were needed, that establishment media is not really interested in hearing from all sides in the cultural heritage debate or questioning the archaeological lobby's narrative that "collectors are the problem."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Syrian Import Restrictions Imposed

US Customs has published a very extensive list of "Syrian" artifacts now restricted pursuant to the "Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act."  Coin collectors should special take note that that the "designated list" includes all coins minted and circulated in Syria through the Ottoman period.

Now that restrictions are in place, two important enforcement issues remain.  First, will Customs only detain, seize and seek the forfeiture of artifacts on the new designated list "unlawfully removed from Syria on or after March 15, 2011?"  Or, will Customs revert back to its current extralegal practice of detaining, seizing,  and seeking the forfeiture of anything that looks remotely like it appears on the designated list and then require the importer to "prove the negative?"  One can only hope that the explicit directions  of the measure's sponsor, Congressman Elliot Engel, emphasizing the limits on Customs' discretion will control.

Second, what will happen to any artifacts that are seized and forfeited under the regulations?   When the  "Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Implementation Act" was first introduced, there was a real hope the Assad regime would be replaced by a far more Democratic alternative.  No more.  So, will Customs and the State Department still follow current practice and repatriate the artifacts to the Syrian Government which means the Assad regime?  And, if so, what does that really say about the wisdom of the statute and the US Government's current emphasis on repatriation over preservation?