Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NY Post Says No to Koh

The New York Post has run an editorial highly critical of President Obama's pick to be State Department Legal Adviser, Dean Koh of Yale Law School. See: http://www.nypost.com/seven/03302009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/obamas_most_perilous_legal_pick_161961.htm?&page=1

The New York Post is one of the nation's oldest papers. It was founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801 as the New York Evening Post. Since Rupert Murdoch took control of the paper some years ago, it has been known for its sensationalist headlines and conservative editorial views.

The thrust of the Post's criticism of Koh is that he wants international legal norms to govern application of US law. This has at least some relevance to cultural property issues. Critics have long argued that the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has effectively gutted the provisions of the Cultural Property Implementation Act that were meant to ensure that US restrictions will not be coextensive with the broadest declarations of foreign ownership over cultural artifacts.

If the Post editorial is to be believed, Dean Koh will not be a likely "change agent" for the way the State Department does business. On the other hand, if Koh is committed to President Obama's promise that government should be more transparent and accountable, perhaps things might still change for the better.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

US Ratifies the Hague Convention: More Successful Lobbying By Archaeological Community

The Safe Corner Blog reports that the US has deposited its instrument of ratification of the Hague Convention. See:http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/2009/03/us-ratifies-hague-convention.html

This marks the end of a successful campaign by the archaeological community to press the US Government to formally accept the document. For a past entry on this issue, see: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/09/us-senate-finally-ratifies-1954-hague.html

The AIA and related groups should be commended for their efforts on this issue. What is odd, though, is that some in the archaeological community continue to deny that archaeologists "lobby" even where it should be self-evident that they do so, and are quite effective at it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

AIA View of China MOU

The AIA has posted its views of the China MOU on its website:


Despite the generalities about why coins are important to archaeologists, I suspect Tang and Pre-Tang coins were probably restricted because they were sometimes used as grave goods. As those present at the CPAC hearing will recall, much of the focus of the discussion during the public session was on the looting of tombs. Of course, restricting even early coins glosses over the sheer number of ancient Chinese coins traded quite openly inside and outside China (there must be millions of cash coins extant) as well as the difficulty in separating restricted cash coins from those made up until circa 1911.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Greek "Justice" Under Scrutiny

Here is a troubling story about how Greek authorities misused an EU extradition procedure designed for terrorism cases to attempt to extradite a British antiquities dealer on dubious charges. See: http://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/7085.aspx

The effort fell apart for lack of evidence in the U.K., but that did not stop the Greek justice system from convicting the dealer in absentia on what are likely trumped up charges.

The dealer has suffered false imprisonment, loss of reputation and financial ruin, but apparently has little recourse.

Stories like these should cast further doubt on Greek show trials related to antiquities repatriation efforts.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Egypt Demands Repatriation of Coffin Allegedly Illicitly Exported 125 Years Ago

Zahi Hawass has requested that US Customs return a Pharonic era coffin that allegedly was illicitly removed from Egypt in 1884 or some 125 years ago. See:

Hawass has made clear in the past that the 1970 date of the UNESCO Convention will not constrain his repatriation demands. What is more troubling is that US Customs apparently has done its part to convince the purchaser of the coffin to abandon it to the Egyptians.

US law should only require repatriation of artifacts in response to import restrictions or proof that they have been "stolen." Here, however, Egypt has never requested import restrictions on cultural artifacts. Moreover, the coffin left Egypt almost a century before Egypt's 1983 patrimony statute described in United States v. Schultz.

This appears to be yet another case where a dubious patrimony claim succeeds not on the merits, but rather because the importer has been intimidated into giving in without a fight.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Greek Hypocrisy?

Bulgaria has claimed that Greek museums hold illegally excavated and exported cultural treasures that they have refused to return. Bulgarian publications have recognized the hypocrisy of the Greek nation demanding the repatriation of artifacts from museums like the Getty, but stonewalling when it comes to repatriation claims made against Greek institutions. See: http://www.balkantravellers.com/en/read/article/1082

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More Concern Expressed About Chinese Import Restrictions

The New York Times has written another article about the recent Chinese import restrictions on cultural artifacts. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/arts/artsspecial/19IMPORT.html

Now that it has sunk in, more voices are starting to question the wisdom of the agreement and the ability of US Customs to enforce it fairly.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Italian Archaeologists Chafe at Possible Oversight

The Berlusconi government wants better oversight to help address much needed conservation efforts. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/arts/design/12foru.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Italy%20archaeological&st=cse Unfortunately, Italian archaeologists are digging in their heels at the prospect of anyone other than the entrenched cultural bureaucrats of the old guard deciding what is best for Italy's cultural treasures. This is a shame. Italy has far less money than cultural sites in desperate need. As a result, the available funds must be spent as efficiently as possible and additional monies need to be generated. The government is at least trying to tackle the problem. It is indeed sad that archaeologists would rather see Italy's monuments crumble than cede some of their power to help modernize Italy's failing system of cultural preservation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cuno and Kersel Offer Thoughtful Analysis; Egypt Offers Only More Draconian Laws

Science News has published two thoughtful articles. The first provides a more nuanced analysis of the problem of looting than one normally hears from the archaelogical community. See: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/41640/title/Networks_of_plunder

The second is an interview with Jim Cuno about the UNSESCO Convention and its impact on museums. See: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/41671/title/Treaty_on_antiquities_hinders_access_for_museums_by_James_Cuno

In contrast, Al-Ahram reports that the corrupt and authoritarian Egyptian government will likely make its own harsh antiquities laws even more draconian. See: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/938/eg7.htm One really wonders about the point of confiscating antiquities from registered collectors just so they can be installed in "archaeological storehouses" as well as the sheer folly of "copyrighting" the pyramids and other Egyptian antiquities.

If anything, Egypt will only succeed in further disconnecting its people from its ancient culture. That should be a cause for concern for everyone. One need look no further than what occurred to the Iraq Museum in the aftermath of the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime to understand what happens when a nation's past becomes appropriated by a corrupt and despotic government.

As stated previously on this blog, rather than relying exclusively on harsh laws, archaeologists and governments should investigate alternatives like the treasure act and portable antiquities scheme to encourage locals to respect their past.

Friday, March 13, 2009

ACCP to Restart in Response to Plea by Noted Academic for Inclusive, Neutral Forum?

"Cultural Property Observer" has learned that former members and supporters of the American Council for Cultural Policy indicate a growing interest in creating a neutral forum for the discussion of preserving cultural sites and antiquities in Afghanistan that appears to be otherwise unavailable elsewhere. They have noted calls by academic Larry Rothfield, among others, for a group (in Prof. Rothfield's words, "task force") that would include members of relevant US departments, as well as representatives of cultural heritage NGOs, "collectors, dealers and the museum community" to develop means to protect and preserve Afghanistan's most important cultural sites. See: http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/

The ACCP, it is recalled, with a broad base of support from the communities that Prof. Rothfield mentions, is the only cultural organization to have had effective discussions with the Departments of Defense and State in the period immediately prior to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.

Former members of the ACCP indicate that given the apparent inability of any other NGO to provide an inclusive, neutral forum of the nature that is needed, they have begun to discuss the reactivation of the ACCP for this purpose.

Celebrity Lawyer and Archaeologist Passes Away

George Hedges, a noted celebrity lawyer and archaeologist,has passed away. See: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-me-george-hedges13-2009mar13,0,5044120.story

He certainly had an interesting life that almost sounded like a movie script.

In some ways, his work as an archaeologist seems like a throwback to the past when archaeology was dominated by passionate individuals wealthy enough to mount their own expeditions. In many ways, it is too bad that there are few individuals like George Hedges in archaeology of today.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More on Chinese Art Dealer Who Refused to Pay for Qing Fountain Ornaments: More a Case of Cold Feet than a Patriotic Act?

Bloomberg has an interesting update about the Chinese art dealer who made headlines when he refused to pay for the YSL Qing era bronze fountain ornaments, purportedly as a patriotic protest against the sale of items looted by French and British imperialists. See: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=a3rxqd8YbQMY&refer=europ

Not surprisingly, the story is more complicated than initially reported in the press.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

WildWinds Coin Identification Website Hacked After Founder's Death

Nathan Elkins' blog has a story about the WildWinds coin identification web database being hacked soon after the untimely death of its owner. See: http://coinarchaeology.blogspot.com/2009/03/wildwinds-hacked.html and http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/

I agree with him. This is very sad. This was obviously a labor of love that benefited not only dealers and collectors, but scholars too. It also provided some provenance information for the coins that were listed.

Luckily, there are still other dedicated individuals out there who have compiled very fine web databases of coins. For example, here is an excellent database about the coins of Magna Graecia and Sicily that has been around for over a decade. See: http://www.magnagraecia.nl/coins/homeFrameless.html

Coins make particularly good subjects for web databases. Today, most databases list coins from commercial sources such as auctions as the images are already available. Still, as the technology becomes more accessible, I hope there will be more databases of coins found at specific archaeological sites as well as ones housed in museums. The ANS has such a database, but images are only slowly being added. See: http://numismatics.org/collection/accnum/list More can and should be done academically, but, of course, that takes time and money. Perhaps, this could be one area where collectors, dealers, museum professionals and archaeologists could cooperate for purposes of preserving and spreading knowledge of ancient coinage.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Iraqi Government Officials Turn Over Artifacts

This curious report has turned up about Iraqi government officials turning over antiquities and coins in their possession to Iraqi cultural authorities:

Government officials surrender 531 artifacts to Iraq Museum, among them gold and silver coins

By Zainab Khudair Azzaman, March 9, 2009

The Iraq Museum has received 531 archeological pieces which were in the possession of senior government officials. The pieces were handed over to the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Qahtan al-Jibouri who in turn gave them to the Iraq Museum, according to the ministry's spokesman Abdulzahara al-Talaqani.

Talaqani said the first batch comprising a magnificent collection of numismatic coins was returned to the museum by Minister of National Security Shirwan al-Waili.

This batch included 366 gold and silver coins of various colors, Talaqani said.

He said the second batch of 165 artifacts was kept by two members of parliament and included mainly statues and cylinder seals. Talaqani said Iraqi scientists who have examined both collections have said they were of astounding beauty and great value.

One magnificent piece, he said, was a pottery statue of a standing woman holding a beaker made of glass. It is the first time senior government officials are reported to have been in possession of so many artifacts.

The officials say the pieces were passed to them by ordinary people. Under a new law in Iraq holders of ancient relics whether stolen or dug up illegally cannot be prosecuted if they choose to hand them over to the authorities willingly.

In fact, the law makes it incumbent on the authorities to compensate and reward anyone returning antiquities by their free will. It is not clear whether the officials will get any compensation and Talaqani declined to say whether the pieces were among the thousands of missing artifacts or part of relics which are being dug up illegally by smugglers across the country."

See: http://www.azzaman.com/english/index.asp?fname=news/2009-03-09/kurd.htm

This fragmentary report raises some questions. First, it is unclear why the report indicates that the coins are "of various colors." In any event, I'm not exactly sure what the Iraq Museum intends to do with more coins. Bogdanos has reported that the Iraq Museum already holds about 100,000 or so in storage. See: http://web.mit.edu/ssp/seminars/wed_archives_04spring/bogdanos.htm

It would also be interesting to learn if these artifacts were in some one's collection or whether they were looted after the fall of Saddam's regime. Finally, it is interesting that Iraq has evidently enshrined into law an amnesty for those who turn over such artifacts along with the promise of some compensation.

Addendum: Larry Rothfield has more details about the Iraqi program courtesy of Dr. Donny George: http://larryrothfield.blogspot.com/2009/03/more-on-iraqs-amnestyrewards-program.html

Friday, March 6, 2009

Italian Tomb Robbing Down

This story has been circulating around archaeological blogs: http://www.sundayherald.com/mostpopular.var.1528401.mostviewed.art_hit_squad_takes_on_tomb_raiders_after_relics_looted.php

It is actually somewhat dated (note the reference to the deposed Culture Minister Rutelli). Anyway, it has been cited for the proposition that Italy's aggressive enforcement policies have been working. That may be true, but presumably there are other factors at work, like increased wealth in places like Sicily and S. Italy. Looting is less likely to happen where people are not so poor.

I also disagree with commentators that suggest this proves that systems akin to treasure trove and the PAS are unneeded. As long as people have metal detectors, they will find things like ancient coins. It is important to record them, and systems like treasure trove and the PAS make that far more likely.

In any event, this good news from Italy begs the question whether US import restrictions currently on a wide variety of Italian cultural artifacts are still necessary. Certainly, one would hope there would be no push to extend restrictions to ancient coins, particularly now that the situation on the ground in Italy has improved so markedly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Former CPAC Member Interviewed About YSL Qing Italian Garden Ornaments Dispute

Antiques Magazine has interviewed Asian art expert and former CPAC member Kate Fitz Gibbon about the ongoing controversy related to the Qing Italian Garden sculptures sold at the recent YSL auction. See: http://www.themagazineantiques.com/news-opinion/the-market/2009-03-02/the-rabbit-and-the-rat-who-owns-chinese-antiquities-an-interview-with-kate-fitz-gibbon/

Kate is certainly uniquely qualified to comment on this controversy. Her observations about the history of the sculptures and popular culture's part in this dispute are fascinating.

Thinking further about all of this I can understand how China can make a "moral claim" to the sculptures, but to make a moral claim doesn't one have to have "clean hands?" Here, the Chinese Government has blasted the French and English for looting the sculptures over 150 yeas ago, but the Chinese Government itself is guilty of actively destroying or looting for sale important Tibetan artifacts in far more recent times.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser: Now Winning Bidder for Qing Italian Garden Sculptures Will Not Pay Up

Various news outlets are reporting that the Chinese art dealer who claims to have won the YSL Qing Italian garden sculptures is now refusing to pay for his purchase. See: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090302.wchinabronzes0302/BNStory/International/home and

It is unclear whether the dealer intended to deceive Christie's from the start (actionable fraud?), whether he got "cold feet," or whether he was ordered by Chinese authorities not to consummate the transaction. The dealer was apparently representing the "China Fund for Recovering Lost Cultural Artifacts Overseas." According to press reports, the China Fund may receive backing from China's ministry of culture.

I hate to add to all the confusion, but any purchase of the garden sculptures by Chinese parties intent on repatriating them to a museum in China arguably violates this provision of the recent MOU with the US:

10. Recognizing that, pursuant to this Memorandum of Understanding, museums in the United States will be restricted from acquiring certain archaeological objects, the Government of the People’s Republic of China agrees that its museums will similarly refrain from acquiring such restricted archaeological objects that are looted and illegally exported from Mainland China to destinations abroad, unless the seller or donor provides evidence of legal export from Mainland China or verifiable documentation that the item left Mainland China prior to the imposition of U.S. import restrictions. This will apply to purchases made outside Mainland China by any museum in Mainland China and only to the categories of objects representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old, as covered by this Memorandum of Understanding. (emphasis added.)

See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2009/01/dos-press-release-china-mou-new-york.html

Presumably the bronzes, though relatively small, could be said to be part of a "monumental sculpture," the water clock, which was evidently made in the period 1756-1759, or right over the 250 year old threshold of the new restrictions. Moreover, though the buyer could prove that the artifacts were outside China before the restrictions were imposed, presumably China could not back away from its claim the sculptures were "stolen." In any event, I wonder if this has impacted the Chinese art dealer's actions in any way. All I can say is all this becomes curiouser and curiouser by the moment.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Archaeological Activism and Professional and Pecuniary Interests

There needs to be far more public disclosure of the professional and pecuniary interests of archaeologists in supporting the agendas of cultural bureaucracies in countries like China, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey.

One of the myths of the archaeological blogosphere is that archaeological activists are motivated by nothing more than the public good. This fits in well with their often highly moralistic denunciations of collectors, dealers and museum professionals, but it ignores any possible self-interest of those pursuing an anti-collecting agenda.

Here are some areas that deserve further inquiry:

1. Some of the most strident views come from archaeologists excavating in source countries seeking import restrictions and repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists must secure excavation permits from the source countries in which they dig. Archaeologists should disclose the terms of those excavation permits and certify that there has been no quid pro quo for supporting source country demands for import restrictions or repatriations.

2. The squeaky wheel often gets the grease, i.e. federal largess. For example, archaeologists who have hyped the looting of the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites have been the recipients of federal grants or government jobs. Other strident advocacy groups have received funding from the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the same State Department body charged with overseeing the imposition of import restrictions on cultural artifacts at the behest of foreign states. One wonders about any relationship between levels of funding and levels of strident advocacy.

3. Source countries like Cyprus have provided at least in kind support to archaeological groups that have pressed for import restrictions and repatriation of cultural artifacts. These groups or their members often work within the same source countries. A well known archaeological blogger who has tirelessly advocated for the repatriation of artifacts from Greece attended a repatriation conference put on by the Greek government. It is unclear whether he paid his own way or whether his attendance was funded in whole or part by the Greek government or a related entity. One wonders if these groups or individuals are in reality acting as agents of influence for foreign governments. Thomas Laird, speaking about China, has indicated that that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stressed that one of the main targets for its external propaganda were foreign experts as "propaganda created by foreigners is more powerful" than propaganda produced by Chinese. See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/10/good-read-thomas-lairds-story-of-tibet.html. I suspect the same can be said for the efforts of source countries to enlist members of the archaeological community to plead the nationalistic case for import restrictions and repatriation under the guise of protecting archaeological context.

Personally, I don't doubt that many, if not all, archaeological activists have sincere views on the subject of historical preservation, but so too do collectors, dealers and museum professionals. Under the circumstances, before archaeological activists are allowed to claim that the views of collectors, dealers and museum professionals are being motivated by "greed," those activists should be required to provide full disclosure of their own professional and pecuniary interests in supporting demands for import restrictions and repatriation made by source countries.