Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lord Renfrew as Collector

The Financial Times has a blurb about Lord Renfrew as a collector of modern art:

In it Lord Renfrew also states the following about collecting archaeological artifacts:

I’m much in favour of collecting, so long as it doesn’t involve objects recently taken from the ground. In my opinion all too many collections are scandalous for this very reason. I don’t mind so much people buying antiquities looted a century ago, but not if the items in question entered the market post-1970 when the convention on the illegal trade in antiquities was signed.

While the article focuses on Renfrew's collection of modern art, I also understand from several sources that he maintains a collection of ancient Etruscan coins. Given Lord Renfrew's public stance on collecting, it would be interesting to learn more about the "provenance" of the coins in the collection. It would also be interesting to learn if the collection has been published anywhere.

Terror Torches Historic Taj Majal Hotel

The terror attack on Mumbai is a tragedy on many levels. The first, of course, is the loss of life. It is also sad that the historic Taj Mahal Hotel suffered heavy damage. The hotel has an interesting history that can be found here: One wonders if this history, including its association with the powerful Tata Group, helped mark it as a target.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Russians and Georgians Trade Charges Over War Damage

The Art Newspaper reports that Russia and Gerogia are trading charges over war damage to cultural sites within Georgia and the break away region of South Ossetia. See:

It seems churches and monasteries were hit especially hard. Presumably, this is due to the sheer number of such structures and the lack of many other targets of cultural significance. Apparently, there simply are more historic religious structures in the area than anything else given Christianity's long history in Georgia and the general lack of development in the border region.

Certainly, the damage that has been reported to cultural sites seems to be more of the collateral sort. There does not appear to be the sort of destruction directed at religious structures that occurred in the Balkans during the breakup of Yugoslavia. This probably should not be too surprising. Both the Russians and the Georgians are adherents to the Orthodox Christian faith.

In another move, the Georgian government has decided to convert an old museum in Gori dedicated to Stalin (who was born there) into a "museum of Russian aggression." Presumably, this move is yet another slap at Putin and the current Russian government. As noted elsewhere in today's New York Times, Russia has started to rehabilitate Stalin into a nationalist hero. See: ("Last year, the Kremlin promoted a study guide for high school teachers that deems Stalin “one of the most successful leaders of the U.S.S.R.,” while describing his “cruel exploitation” of the population. Mr. Putin himself has acknowledged the losses under Stalin, but has said Russians should not be made to feel ashamed of them.")

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ten Blogging Commandments

NPR had a story about Christian bloggers coming up with "10 Blogging Commandments." Apparently, strong views expressed online about religious issues prompted a discussion that led to the commandments. Certainly, the cultural property world is also filled with strong opinions (including some expressed on this blog). With that in mind, and in the spirit of the season, I thought it might be useful to post the 10 Blogging Commandments. They are probably worth thinking about, particularly before making a post on a subject one feels particularly strongly about:

1. You shall not put your blog before your integrity.

2. You shall not make an idol of your blog.

3. You shall not misuse your screen name by using your anonymity to sin.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by taking one day off a week from your blog.

5. Honour your fellow-bloggers above yourselves and do not give undue significance to their mistakes.

6. You shall not murder someone else’s honour, reputation or feelings.

7. You shall not use the web to commit or permit adultery in your mind.

8. You shall not steal another person’s content.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your fellow-blogger.

10. You shall not covet your neighbour's blog ranking. Be content with your own content.

For more, see:

According to the "Evangelical Alliance" which is responsible for the list,

Ten cyberspace commandments are to be posted online to give bloggers a moral edge in a virtual age.

Based loosely on the real Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, the revamped version for guidance in online communication emerged from an event reflecting on the ethics of today’s most popular form of public comment.

The commandments are intended to cause bloggers to consider the social impact of their blogging.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Hawass Histrionics in the News

Zahi Hawass has again made headlines with renewed demands for the return of the Ka Nefer Nefer burial mask to Egypt:

It seems that little has changed to merit another story other than the fact that Brent Benjamin, the Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, has been appointed to represent the interests of museums on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. See: Presumably, Hawass hopes his claims may prompt the incoming Obama administration to reevaluate this appointment, which is for a three year term. Even if this does not happen, Hawass still wins under the theory that any publicity is good publicity as far as Hawass is concerned.

Incidentally, Sharon Waxman's new book, "Loot," contains an interesting portrait of Egypt's Antiquities Pharaoh. I have yet to finish the book, but the picture she draws certainly suggests some method to his madness. One gets the feeling all the histrionics are in part designed to encourage Egyptians themselves to take an interest in preserving their past. This certainly is an ongoing concern against a backdrop of poverty, government corruption, the authoritarianism of the Mubarak regime and budding Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, observers still should ask if playing the nationalist card really helps or hurts in the long run.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Balanced Article on Cleveland Returns

I found this article to be balanced on the subject of returns of artifacts to Italy from the Cleveland Museum of Art:

Steven Litt, the author, also does a good job getting to he heart of the matter:

It's a field fraught with uncertainty. Before acquiring an object, museums typically contact international police agencies to check whether the work may have been stolen.

The catch is that if an object was looted, there will be no record of its existence. Many museums, including Cleveland's, have collected and shown ancient works whose exact origins remain unknown.

To experts such as Ricardo Elia, a Boston University archaeology professor and a close observer of the antiquities trade, such lack of documentation is proof that an object was looted. He estimated that as much as 90 percent of the antiquities purchased in recent decades by American museums are the product of looting.

But Timothy Rub, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said that lack of exculpatory evidence about an artwork's origins doesn't prove a wrongdoing was committed -- or that the work should be relinquished on demand.

"If I've inherited as director custody of an object that doesn't have a provenance before a certain date and somebody says, 'It's ours, give it back,' that's a pretty tough thing," he said. "I've got to ask you to make a case."

The difficulty of arguing such cases makes it unlikely that the recent wave of repatriations to Italy will lead to a vast purge of artworks from American museums.

Instead, if the negotiations show anything, it's that museums, including Cleveland's, are willing to part with antiquities only when foreign governments provide persuasive evidence connecting the works to recent criminal wrongdoing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

There are a few blogs that focus on nothing but cultural property issues (like this one). There are also blogs of a more general nature that sometimes touch on the same issues. It is nice to read something from someone other than the "usual suspects." Here is an interesting posting from Chris Crawford's blog, entitled "Civil Discussion Between Liberals and Conservatives:" Incidentally, from a perusal of some the other recent posts, it would seem that the blogger comes down on the "liberal" side of things.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Italian Government Wants Museums to Generate Income to Fight Neglect

The New York Times has a story about the controversial appointment of a businessman to help manage Italy's decrepit museums and cultural sites:

Not suprisingly, Italy's entrenched cultural bureaucrats and their allies in academia apparently are horrified that the government wants to try to generate income from cultural sites. As the article notes,

"[T]he deepest concern in art circles centers on the government’s apparent shift from a constitutional mandate to protect Italy’s cultural heritage toward an entrepreneurial model that exploits it."

I think this misses the key point. An entrepreneurial model of some sort is necessary to generate income in order that Italy's cultural heritage can be protected from gross underfunding and neglect.

Entrepreneurial models are used successfully in the United States and our museums are better for it. Other museums in Europe like the British Museum and the Vatican Museum use similar models. It is time for the Italian cultural bureaucracy to wake up and accept some commerce at their cultural sites. If done tastefully, the results can be a positive good and not a necessary evil. Long term, allowing museums to develop visitor friendly shops and catering operations can lead to better museums in Italy, more visitors and better care for the nation's unparallelled cultural heritage.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Latest Opportunity to Beat Up on the US Military

An upcoming UNESCO Report will offer yet another opportunity to rehash damage done to the site of Babylon by US and Polish troops in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. For more, see:

The ancient Mesopotamian City, conquered in turn by the Assyrians, the Persians and then by the Greeks under Alexander the Great (who died there), was last the subject of serious archaeological exploration over a century ago. More recently, Saddam Hussein sought to aggrandize his regime through an association with the site. The results weren't pretty. Saddam sought to rebuild the city as a tourist attraction, complete with a modern palace in the shape of a ziggurat. Many of the bricks he used were even inscribed with his name in imitation of the ancient Babylonian kings. For more, see At the time, however, there was not much of an outcry from the archaeological establishment. After all, Saddam had funded Iraqi archaeology lavishly for the very same reasons that he took interest in Babylon, and Iraq was a friendly place for foreign archaeologists (as long as they did not "rock the boat" at least).

In any event, despite a long history of abuse and neglect of the site, the Iraqi government has apparently asked UNSECO to focus a report about Babylon on damage to the site caused by US and Polish troops which had a base there. This was already the subject of substantial coverage in the media following an outcry from members of the archaeological establishment, many of whom had vehmently opposed the war.

While bashing the US Military might fit in well with the agendas of UNESCO, members of the archaeological community and certain Iraqi politicians, I'm not sure what another report will do to help ensure that the site will be properly rehabilitated.

The US has already agreed to throw more money at the site. However, with increasing concerns about Iraqi government corruption, one wonders whether this money will be well spent. See generally, (noting that the Iraqi government has dismissed fraud monitors in government agencies, including the Ministry of Culture).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More Success for Treasure Act and PAS as UK Commits to Funding

The Museum, Libraries and Archives Council has released a review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). The Report by an independent consultant can be found on the PAS website, at , along with the latest Treasure Report covering 2005-2006 (

The report on the PAS is significant because it recognizes that the Scheme needs more funding. In so doing, the report notes,

PAS has overcome the scepticism of archaeologists and the mistrust of finders to create a partnership in the understanding of the past. Data from thousands of members of the public has helped create a new cultural map of England and Wales, with insights into rural life in Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon trade, the Vikings and the links between Britain and the Byzantine world. PAS has filled a gap in museum services, re-established skills in identifying objects and created a virtual collection used by a quarter of a million individuals each year. It also seems to have reduced the amount of illicit detecting on archaeological sites.

The accompanying Treasure Annual Report, which details finds made under the mandetory provisions of the Treasure Act, is similarly upbeat. As a press release indicates,

The Treasure Annual Report, announced today, records another dramatic increase on the amount of finds reported in the last year, with 749 objects reported in 2007 (up from 665 in 2006). The current report includes all finds which have passed through the Treasure Process in 2005 and 2006, 1,257 finds in total. Key finds include one of the best Iron Age torcs to be found in the last 50 years. The ‘Newark Torc’ provides an excellent example of the value of the Treasure Act, in that its discovery has forced historians and archaeologists to re-think the importance of the Trent Valley area 2,000 years ago. The proper recording of this find, and indeed all the finds listed in the report, have contributed inestimably to our understanding of our past.

Congratulations to Roger Bland, his colleagues at the British Museum and the PAS Finds Liaison Offices, and all the members of the public in Britain and Wales that have made the program such a success.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

AIA Lectures About Coins

Nathan Elkins has publicized lectures related to numismatics scheduled for the upcoming AIA meeting in Philadelphia. For more, see here:

It's good to see this emphasis on coins at the AIA meeting. I attended a symposium some years back where archaeologists who focused on coins complained about a general lack of interest in the subject in the wider world of archaeology. Still, one wonders how much of this emphasis on coins will be used as a justification for limiting the ability of collectors to study, display and preserve ancient coins themselves. If so, that would be pity.

ANS to Auction Off Greek Die Duplicates

Museums periodically deaccession artifacts. The American Numismatic Society ("ANS") has decided to deaccession duplicates of Greek coins in its collection. Gemini LLC will auction off the coins during the annual New York International Numismatic Convention. The lots may be found here: This should be a great opportunity for collectors of Greek coinage to bid on some spectacular coins with old provenances from some famous collections.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sharon Waxman Talks About "Loot"

Sharon Waxman, a former entertainment correspondent for the New York Times, promoted her new book, "Loot," in Washington, D.C. yesterday.

Waxman is not an archaeologist. She is not a museum person. She is no art historian. She is, however, a seasoned correspondent who is friends with Egypt's Antiquities Pharaoh, Zahi Hawass. She thus comes at these issues with considerable sympathy for source countries in their "tug of war" against Western Museums. Having said that, she also appears to take a practical, non-ideological approach to the complex issues surrounding restitution. Overall, she thinks that source countries should get beyond threats, lawsuits and the like.

Her presentation focused on how French and British colonialists built up the Louvre and the British Museum as nationalistic statements of their imperial grandeur. She then touched on how the Germans hoodwinked the Egyptians out of the magnificent bust of Nefertiti, a move that spelled the end of partage and the beginning of stringent cultural patrimony laws. She also touched upon Italy's and Greece's efforts to repatriate objects from the Getty and the MET. Overall, she calls for more transparency in how museum exhibits "got there" in the descriptions of the pieces in the gallery.

Waxman does not let source countries off the hook either. She suggested that their efforts at conservation and display are substandard and that corruption is endemic. Perhaps even worse, she indicates that source country museums have failed to connect with the general public. Many remain sleepy backwaters, full of art, but not a lot of visitors. Obviously, this does not bode well for the preservation, study and display of any artifacts, let alone those repatriated as part of nationalistic campaigns to restore source countries' "national patrimony."

Waxman specifically cited the story of the Lydian Hoard, a treasure of precious metal artifacts, illicitly excavated and exported from Turkey. After some legal wrangling, the MET repatriated the hoard to Turkey. The hoard was then displayed in a small, provincial museum,. There, it has only received some 500 visitors a year (compared to the 10,000 a day that visit the MET). Even worse, one of the major pieces was subsequently stolen from its galleries. In fact, the very same provincial museum director that helped effectuate the return of the Lydian Hoard was ultimately arrested for switching out the piece (a gold hippocampus) for a copy and selling off the original to pay for gambling debts and loose women. At a minimum, this episode has caused the Turkish government considerable embarrassment. More to the point, stories like this seriously undermine any "moral high ground" source countries rely upon to buttress their repatriation claims.

One major nit. From Waxman's commentary, it appeared that she did not much understand the effect of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. She seemed to think that it "banned" the import and export of antiquities. In fact, the Convention is not self-executing and many antiquities still are imported legally into the United States and other market countries each year.

In any event, I look forward to reading Waxman's book and perhaps providing some further comment.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cambodian MOU Posted

The State Department's Cultural Heritage Center has posted the new MOU with Cambodia on its website:

The MOU furthers the archaeological community's preference for loans (Art. II. A.) over the creation of licit markets. It also potentially justifies the use of public monies to fund archaeological activists under the guise of providing "technical assistance." (See Art. II. C. and

The MOU also at least implicitly recognizes that poor conservation practices and corruption threaten Cambodia's cultural heritage. (See Art. II. E and F. See also:

While Cambodia undertakes to seek collaboration with Thailand over the illicit movement of Cambodian archaeological material (Art. II. G.), one suspects this may be easier said than done due to the strained relations between the two countries relating to control over the site of a sacred Temple Complex. See:,8599,1851339,00.html

Finally, it is interesting to note in this era of financial turmoil, all these undertakings are subject to the availability of funds. (Art. III.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cultural Property Issues and the Election

One archaeologist/blogger associated with Savings Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") has already heralded Barack Obama on his historic win and with it the prospect that Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, a well known activist for the archaeological community, is now in a position to impact US policy:

Not so fast. It is still probably much too early to draw too many conclusions on this point. The new administration will have much on its plate when it takes control of the government in January. One would think there might be higher priorities than the preservation of archaeological context in other countries through the use of import controls and/or criminal sanctions. In addition, wealthy collectors have also provided support for Obama. One would also suspect they would act as counterweights to the "archaeology over all" perspective of Professor Gerstenlith, SAFE and others.

In any event, hasn't Obama himself spoken eloquently about government accountability, transparency and ethics? See generally: and

Isn't application of these principles to the State Department and CPAC what groups like the AAMD and ACCG (but curiously not SAFE) have demanded?

In other news, there has been at least some speculation that former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns may be seeking a new position in the Obama Administration. (Burns authored an article critical of the McCain-Palin ticket shortly before the election: See: If so, hopefully the Obama Administration or the Senate will apply these very same principles and query former Undersecretary Burns about the exact circumstances behind the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. While some might spin this as an "insignificant matter," how the decision was actually made potentially could speak volumes about Burns' approach to decision making.

Finally, Republican Phil English (Pa-3rd) has lost his bid to seek reelection. See: Congressman English is best known in the cultural property field for his support for legislation to impose import restrictions on cultural artifacts of Iraqi and Afghan origin. When the Republicans controlled the House, Congressman English was the AIA's "go to" legislator for such efforts. Presumably, the AIA and other advocacy groups have been grooming other Democratic legislators for such a role.