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 material looted by ISIS terrorists is reaching our shores in any quantity, and further questions 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.  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 proposed Caliphate coinage. 

Still, given the crisis, due diligence is warranted, particularly if offered groups of similar coins that may have come from the region.   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 embedded in the 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. 

And more to the point, the question remains whether all the publicity 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 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."