Saturday, February 28, 2009

American Chinese Collector's Association Calls for Christie's Boycott

Chinese media reports that a group called the "American Chinese Collector's Association" supports the Chinese retaliation against Christie's for auctioning off Italian-designed garden sculptures from the Qing Summer Palace. See: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-02/25/content_10892395.htm and http://english.rednet.cn/c/2007/01/31/1116941.htm

It would be interesting to learn more more about this group. I could find virtually nothing about it other than an affiliation with the US China Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization. See:http://www.usa-china.org/html/index.php?func=ui&lan=en Does the group have some official or semi-official link with the Chinese government? Was the group formed to support repatriation by purchase of Chinese artifacts in the United States? Does it also promote Americans collecting less culturally significant Chinese artifacts for cultural exchange purposes? I do not recall this group commenting on the Chinese request for import restrictions when they were pending, but it would also be interesting to learn about its position on these new regulations. I would welcome some answers to these questions and/or some better idea of the aims of this particular group.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

China Chastises Christie's Over Garden Sculpture Sale

Bloomberg reports that China has limited Christie's ability to import and export undocumented artifacts as punishment for its controversial sale of Italian-designed garden sculptures from the Qing Summer Palace. See: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=axJiFdev0_WE

According to the report,

London-based Christie’s must give details of the ownership and provenance of any artifacts it wants to bring into or out of China, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said today in a statement on its Web site. Antiques that are without papers won’t be allowed to enter or leave.

I wonder if France, Britain and/or the United States (countries where Christie's maintains significant operations) will retaliate for this discriminatory act made in response to a sale that was entirely legal under French law.

I suppose the United States could in theory at least suspend the recently imposed import restrictions on Chinese cultural artifacts. After all, at a minimum, the Chinese action directed solely at Christie's just underscores the general lack of restrictions for Chinese collector's interested in antiquities. Contrast this to our own State Department's decision to impose strict documentation requirements on Americans wishing to import Chinese artifacts dating from the Tang period and before. Now might be a time to rethink those restrictions, though, as a realist, I doubt that will happen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Qing Bronzes Fetch Big Bucks After Court Turns Away Repatriation Challenge

Bloomberg reports that a bronze rabbit head and a bronze rat head from the Qing Dynasty's Yuanmingyuan (Summer Palace) fountain were sold at Christie’s sale of the YSL Collection today for 15,745,000 Euros (approx. US $20,100,000) each. See: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=al2D_RzgoGsc&refer=muse

The successful sale followed an unsuccessful legal challenge. The Association for the Protection of the Art of China in Europe had sought to block the auction because the bronzes had been allegedly taken following an Anglo-French punitive expedition at the end of the Opium wars c. 1860. A French Court found the group's claims to be without legal merit and ordered the group to pay Court costs.

Not everyone buys the Chinese story, but it is undisputed that the fountain and its animals were designed by an Italian Jesuit. See: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/richard_spencer/blog/2009/02/25/so_who_did_loot_those_frenchitalian_animal_heads Odd that "Italian" garden decorations of relatively recent vintage have provoked such a controversy and have merited such a high price at auction. But, then again, passions ignited by nationalism tend to skew things in strange ways.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Iraq Museum Reopens

The New York Times reports on the reopening of the Iraq Museum. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/world/middleeast/24museum.html?_r=1&hp

Unfortunately, politics as usual is at work. Under Saddam, the museum, its exhibits and its curatorial staff were used to butress the Saddam's claim to be the heir to Iraq's ancient kings. After the First Gulf War, the museum was closed to the public, but it became a backdrop for propaganda efforts which used Western archaeologists to try to weaken the UN sanctions. After the Second Gulf War, opponents of US Military action latched upon looting at the Museum to attack the Bush Administration's decision to go to war as well as the occupation of the country. Now, Prime Minister Maliki hopes opening the museum (over the objections of the Ministry of Culture) will help demonstrate to the World that his government has been successful in pacifying Baghdad. It remains unclear if the Museum will remain reopen for the enjoyment of the Iraqi public and when the museum will be brought up to international standards.

Monday, February 23, 2009

SAFE, "Looting Matters," and Unanswered Questions

For the most part, I have found that commenting on any of the blogs associated with Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") to be an exercise in frustration. Now, I usually don't bother, unless I feel a response is warranted to correct the record as to my own views or those of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, a group with which I am affiliated.

In any event, in the context of commenting on the SAFE and "Looting Matters" blogs, I posed two questions, which have yet to be answered.

The first relates to what SAFE believes should be the standard for "due diligence" for collectors of minor, portable antiquities, like ancient coins. Does this mean tracing the provenance of something back to 1970, the date that the AAMD finally adopted after harsh criticism by the archaeological community of an earlier "10 year rolling provenance" requirement or some less onerous showing to make? If SAFE (and the AIA) are adament about a 1970 date, I see no room for compromise. If, on the other hand, SAFE is only concerned about keeping "fresh" material off the market, perhaps there is room for further discussion.

The second question was for David Gill, who has tirelessly blogged in favor of repatriation of artifacts from museums like the Met. I asked, "Should Greece return an Athenian Decadrachm [a rare ancient coin] to Turkey based on allegations it was illicitly excavated there? By way of background, there have been allegations that the Greek National Coin Collection accessioned one of these coins that allegedly was found in Turkey.

Thus, the first question seeks information about the goals of archaeological advocacy groups like SAFE. The second question tests whether calls for repatriation are being made in a consistent fashion. To me at least these seem like reasonable questions that deserve answers from those who hold themselves up as morally superior to collectors, museum professionals and antiquities and coin dealers when it comes to issues of "cultural property."

For the posts where these questions were initially asked, see: http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/2009/02/when-will-us-ebay-follow-suit.html and http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2009/02/some-activist-archaeologists-are-too.html

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nighthawking Survey Out

A long awaited survey of "nighthawking" in England and Wales is out. Archaeological groups say that the survey proves that enforcement of Britain's laws is lax and that there should be more regulation, including making sellers "prove" they have good title to artifacts they sell on such Internet sales platforms as "eBay." See: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article5741078.ece and http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/feb/16/looting-antiquities-uk-heritage and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/4630587/Metal-detector-thieves-are-plundering-our-history-English-Heritage-warns.html

Here is what English Heritage specifically states should be done:

Key recommendations of The Nighthawking Survey:

Provide clear guidance to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates on the impact of nighthawking on archaeological records and understanding, how to identify that it has taken place, how to collect evidence for prosecution and appropriate penalties;

Provide guidance to landowners on identifying nighthawking and what to do when they encounter;

Implement changes recently introduced in Europe which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title; urge eBay to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale on their website, as they have done in Germany, Switzerland and Austria;

Establish a central database of reported nighthawking incidents and promote its use;

Raise awareness of the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of nighthawking;


Reaffirm the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and support its continued operation; and

Encourage the integration of metal detecting into archaeological work.

See: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.15724

In my opinion, before decisions on any such action is taken, the results of this survey need to be placed in context. For example, if anything, it appears that nighthawking has declined as compared to the last survey in 1995. See: http://www.finds.org.uk/wordpress/?p=680 ("The Report shows that Nighthawking seems to have declined on two counts compared with an earlier survey in 1995, although there is still a significant problem with Nighthawking down the eastern side of England from Yorkshire through Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.").

In any event, even assuming nighthawking is underreported, based on the large numbers of artifacts properly reported and recorded under the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme, most metal detectorists in England and Wales appear to follow the law. See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/11/more-success-for-treasure-act-and-pas.html

Contrast this to the situation in places like Cyprus, Italy and Bulgaria with no laws akin to the Treasure Act or Portable Antiquities Scheme. It would be interesting to learn how many artifacts are voluntarily reported to the authorities in those countries. Before the UK's Government proposes changes to English and Welsh law based on this survey, it should keep in mind that overregulation may actually discourage rather than encourage compliance.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Turkish Museum Director and 9 Others Convicted in Theft of Repatriated Treasures

The Associated Press has this short blurb about convictions related to the theft of the "Lydian Hoard" that had been repatriated from the Met to a small, provincial Turkish museum:

10 jailed in Turkey for stealing Croesus' treasure

The Associated Press Friday, February 13, 2009 ANKARA, Turkey:

The director of a state museum and nine others have been convicted in Turkey for stealing some of the fabled ancient treasures of King Croesus. A coin and a gold brooch in the shape of a winged sea horse were taken from a museum displaying possessions of the wealthy king of Lydia who ruled in the 6th century B.C. The ancient kingdom was in modern day western Turkey. A court in the western city of Usak says museum director Kazim Akbiyiklioglu was imprisoned on Friday for nearly 13 years for theft and embezzlement. Nine others received lesser prison terms. The treasures were replaced by fakes in 2006 and the original pieces have not been recovered. The pieces were among items smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s and returned to the country only in 1993.

This episode was discussed in depth in Sharon Waxman's recent work, "Loot." See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/11/sharon-waxman-talks-about-loot.html

The story speaks for itself as does the relatively little publicity the convictions are receiving. Contrast this to the extensive front page coverage for repatriation claims against museums like the Met. The archaeological community and source countries have little incentive to publicize stories about poor stewardship of repatriated artifacts to the press. Thus, although they sometimes get reported, the coverage of them pales in comparison to that afforded to the latest claim that dealers, museums or collectors are trading in "stolen cultural patrimony." Are double standards at work here?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

eBay Germany Cancels Ancient Coin Auctions

eBay Germany has cancelled ancient coin auctions under new rules requiring provenance information for even common items deemed to be archaeological in nature. See: http://groups.google.com/group/museum-security-network/browse_thread/thread/c11ad318b0a62d40?hl=en

The allusions to the Third Reich in the above thread may be needlessly inflammatory, but they reflect real frustration with eBay Germany and the authorities' construction of Germany's recent law implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Adding fuel to the fire, one has to also assume that eBay's action is related to the recent seizures of entire coin collections based on the unknowing purchase of just several "suspect coins" on eBay. See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2009/02/more-on-german-coin-collection-seizures.html

I am no expert on German law, but based on my experience here in the United States, I do wonder whether the eBay Germany regulations and seizures are based on a fair reading of the governing law or some distorted version of the same being promoted by "hardliners" in the German archaeological community.

Presumably, eBay and the authorities will be called to justify their actions by members of the German numismatic community. We can only wait and see what comes of it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Neat U Penn Website about Excavations at Gordion

The University of Pennsylvania has put up a nifty website devoted to excavations at Gordion in Turkey. See: http://sites.museum.upenn.edu/gordion/

Gordion is famous for its associations with Midas, that tricky knot that Alexander made short work of and the Galatians, wayward Celtic warriors whose descendants received letters from Saint Paul.

This kind of effort can help make distant archaeological sites come alive for both students and those who love history.

Hopefully, in the future, the website will feature something about the approximately 1500 coins found at the site during some 30 excavation campaigns.

Monday, February 9, 2009

AIA Statement on Attachment of Cultural Artifacts: As High-Minded as It Seems?

The Archaeological Institute of America ("AIA") thinks that victims of state-sponsored terrorism should not be able to attach cultural artifacts to satisfy court judgments. Indeed, the AIA apparently feels so strongly about this that it plans to lobby Congress to change current law. See: http://www.archaeological.org/webinfo.php?page=10495

Why would the AIA side with regimes like those in Iran and Syria? Of course, if you believe the spin, the AIA has taken this position for only the most enlightened of reasons. As the AIA press release explains:

The ability of nations and institutions throughout the world to loan objects is crucial to achieving international cultural exchange and increasing understanding of different places, different times, and different people. Such archaeological artifacts should not be sold to satisfy claims that are unrelated to the objects themselves. While the earlier litigation related to Iran had already indicated some threat to cultural interchanges, the Metropolitan’s inability to borrow objects from Syria for an exhibition indicates the danger this legislation and litigation pose to cultural exchange. American citizens have been deprived of the opportunity of appreciating and learning from archaeological artifacts and works of art from one of the world’s oldest civilizations. The actions in question therefore pose a serious threat to cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy, which are extremely important in building understanding among peoples.

But, is cultural exchange really more important than compensating victims of terror? Certainly, at least one member of the AIA's "sister organization" Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") has argued in the past that such interests do not trump compensating heirs of victims when it comes to "Holocaust art." Why should antiquities be any different?

The AIA website does not mention it, but is it possible that American archaeologists just want to please their Iranian and Syrian hosts? See https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/ Presumably fighting for such an exemption can only ingratiate American archaeologists with the Iranian and Syrian regimes and thus help ensure their continued access to archaeological sites in these countries. If Congress takes up this issue, the archaeological community's motives for supporting a change in the law need to be explored in depth before any amendment of existing law is adopted.

Jacques Littlefield, Tank Collector, Dies

Artifact collectors of modest means collect small things like coins and stamps. If you have money, however, you can think big. For most collectors, this means high end artifacts (like the Athenian Decadrachm described below). For some, however, thinking big is taken more literally. Jacques Littlefield, who just passed away, was just such a collector- he collected tanks! For his obitiary, see: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/13/BAHA157UND.DTL

I once saw a documentary about the restoration of the WWII Panther tank described in the article. It was a hugely complex and expensive job restoring the vehicle that had been sabotaged by its own crew before fleeing the advancing Russians and then had lain underwater for decades. Only collectors with the financial means and patience of a Jaques Littlefield would have attempted such a task. Hopefully, his collection will be cared for for years to come.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

New ANS Work on the Athenian Decadrachm

The Athenian Decadrachm is a scarce, high value coin. It was worth a small fortune in antiquity. Though hardly as beautiful as its counterparts from Ancient Syracuse, the type remains one of the most valuable ancient coins today.

Fischer-Bossert has authored a new work about this important coin. The ANS has published "The Athenian Decadrachm" as part of its Numismatic Notes and Monographs series. Numismatists with an interest in ancient Greek coinage will consider it an important work. But, this is a blog about cultural property issues. So, here are a few brief thoughts from that perspective.

1. The ANS, an organization largely, if not wholly, funded by coin collectors and coin dealers published this work. In addition, the author thanks several well known collectors and coin dealers who specifically helped make this work possible. Those who wish to suppress the trade in ancient coins might want to consider the impact of their efforts on the kind of numismatic scholarship the ANS (and few others) supports.

2. Though struck in Greece, the find spots (where known) of most of the coins are in the Levant or the Near East. Again, this supports the proposition that ancient coins were meant to travel in antiquity, making it difficult to associate them with any one specific modern nation state.

3. A number of the coins can be traced back at least to 19th C. collections. Other coins come from more recent hoards.

4. At least one specimen with only a recent provenance is on display in a Greek museum. Yet, as far as I know, no one has sought to hold that museum to the same provenance standards as demanded of the MET and other US museums.

Friday, February 6, 2009

New State Department Legal Adviser?

Harold Hongju Koh, a popular dean of Yale Law School, is being considered for the top State Department legal post: http://abovethelaw.com/2009/02/dean_koh_to_state_department.php

Hopefully, if appointed, Dean Koh will make the same demands for transparency and accountability on the State Department's Bureau of Educational Affairs ("ECA") and its Cultural Heritage Center that President Obama has made on the Federal Government as a whole.

In the meantime, the IAPN-PNG-ACCG FOIA litigation against the State Department grinds on. Important questions about ECA's processes for imposing import restrictions on cultural goods, including those as common as coins, remain to be answered. Will we only learn what we can after a Court orders production of documents? Or, will the new bosses of the State Department voluntarily shed some light on the decision making of the past?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Better Late Than Never

Rick Witschonke has written an interesting article for the Winter 2008 edition of the ANS Magazine. It is entitled, "Better Late than Never, Newell Manuscript Finally Published." The article is currently available only in paper format, but should eventually be posted on the ANS website. See: http://www.numismatics.org/

The article discusses the 75 year delay in publication of coins found in archaeological excavations at Beisan in Israel. The University of Pennsylvania sponsored the dig and in 1931 published an initial group of coins found in the 1921-1923 seasons. From this point on, coins accumulated and between 1931 and 1936, some 261 coins were sent in three distinct groups to Edward T. Newell, the President of the ANS, for attribution and cataloguing. Newell, an amazingly productive researcher, quickly produced typescript catalogues of these coins. These were in the hands of the University of Pennsylvania Museum when Newell passed away in 1941. Copies of the manuscripts were found in the ANS archives in 2007. Their rediscovery prompted the belated publication of Newell's research in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the ANS.

This story highlights the reality that many coins found at archaeological digs never actually get published. Others only get published after long delays. True, some countries now require publication of archaeological finds within a reasonable time frame, but there is no universal rule and one wonders how strictly such rules that exist are enforced when it comes to artifacts as common as coins. Yet, some members of the archaeological community insist that restrictions on coin collectors are necessary to promote numismatic research.

More on German Coin Collection Seizures

Here are two different perspectives on the German coin seizures.

The first is from David Welsh: http://classicalcoins.blogspot.com/2009/02/die-wacht-am-rhein.html

The second is from Nathan Elkins: http://coinarchaeology.blogspot.com/2009/02/police-action-with-antiquities-and.html

In my opinion, German police are entitled to enforce German law, but at the same time, it is gross overkill to seize an entire coin collection based on a few coins purchased openly on a commercial website like eBay that allegedly came from an illicit source. The" little guy" simply does not have the financial resources to contest these seizures or the stomach to stand up to police intimidation that demands a collector surrender his entire collection to avoid possible prosecution.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Scottish Code of Practice for Treasure Trove

Scotland has a somewhat different system for Treasure Trove than the Britain and Wales. Britain and Wales have long had a very well thought out program for encouraging members of the public to report their finds to the authorities. Now, Scotland has published its first code of practice for Treasure Trove. A report about it can be found here: http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/other/display.var.2486807.0.Treasure_hunters_urged_to_read_the_rules_before_seeking_their_fortune.php

Sunday, February 1, 2009

German Police Run Amok Over Provenance Requirements

Various numismatic discussion lists have posted worrisome stories about the heavy handed activities of German police. In one case, German police seized a pensioner's entire coin collection after he bought four coins on an Internet auction site (eBay?). Apparently, unbeknown to pensioner, the seller was under some sort of police investigation related to cultural property issues. Hopefully, these stories are a bit overblown and this seizure and any others are just isolated incidents and the collections will be ultimately be returned to their owners. Still, such stories provide credence to the view that the recently imposed import restrictions (and their provenance requirements) on ancient coins of ancient Cypriot and Chinese type are just the beginning of a very slippery slope, here in the US as well.

In my opinion, just as troubling is news that "hardliners" within the archaeological community applaud such overzealous actions, presumably under the theory that it will "teach collectors a lesson" only to purchase coins with long established provenances (which, of course, do not exist for most coins). One thing is for sure. Those archaeologists who take pleasure in the pain of that German pensioner only feed into stereotypes of the archaeological community as a whole amongst collectors.

Here is a translation of one of the stories.

German Numismatists Ring the Alarm Bells

German cultural authorities have begun searching private homes and seizing entire collections of antique coins, if provenance of only a few coins in the collection is not documented. These invasions are being conducted under the new German laws on importation of cultural property. Coins being subjected to such scrutiny are not restricted to ancient coins presumed to have been excavated - medieval and antique modern coins are also subject to the same measures. In one case, a pensioner from the Thuringian Eisenberg recently acquired four old coins on an Internet auction site. Shortly afterwards his house was searched, ending with seizure of his entire collection. Collectors are understandably alarmed, because very few coins in their collections have provenances that will satisfy the new laws. When a collection becomes suspect only a short time is being allowed to prove licit origin before the collection is seized, and then even if the suspicion is unfounded, it is very difficult to recover the collection.

Not only coins, but all "cultural objects" more than 100 years old are subject to these new cultural laws, leading to fears that stamp collections, collections of graphic arts and antique jewelry may also be targeted. The list of "cultural objects" in the 1970 UNESCO Convention is very extensive, including such common things as coins, postage stamps, photographs and printed books.The new laws on importation of cultural property became effective in September 2008, after the German government finally gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced coins and other artifacts should be prevented, because archaeologists allege that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market. This allegation is unproven - no verifiable, factual evidence has yet been presented to support it.

There is however significant evidence that looting would continue unabated even if collecting could be prevented in Europe and other areas where cultural property laws are respected. Meanwhile German coin collectors now feel completely insecure, like criminals suspected of breaking the law. According to Ulf Draeger - head of the Moritzburg Landesm├╝nzkabinetts and chairman of the German Society of Medallic Arts - the entry into force of these new laws, despite their laudable intentions, has led to significant collateral damage in only a short time. His conclusion: "If this situation continues, then we can pack up."

For a summary in English see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Unidroit-L/message/3348For the original articles in German seehttp://www.numismatische-gesellschaft.de/http://tinyurl.com/dfc7sphttp://tinyurl.com/bc8pqz

Google's translator conveys the sense of these articles for those who cannot read German.