Friday, November 27, 2009

Gill Press Release Betrays a Fundamental Misunderstanding of Impact of FOIA Decision

Archaeologist David Gill's latest PRNewswire press release betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the impact of Judge Leon's recent FOIA decision. See Looting Matters: Coin Dealers and Collectors Lose Case Against the US State.

That decision solely relates to whether the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs properly withheld the limited number of remaining documents at issue before the Judge under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. See As Judge Leon himself notes, the State Department already released numerous documents, though it took a lawsuit to force the State Department to process Plaintiffs' requests.

In fact, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild hopes to ascertain the actual merits of the decision to impose import restrictions on ancient coins of Cypriot type in a "test case" brewing before the US District Court in the District of Maryland. See

The issue in that case will be whether the import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type were promulgated properly under the provisions of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. See

If anything, documents produced in the FOIA case have helped supply a good faith basis for the ACCG to assert that the decision to impose import restrictions on ancient coins of Cypriot type was made in an "arbitrary and capricious" fashion. See

Mother of All Conspiracy Theories: "Cultural Cleansing in Iraq"

The Iraq Crisis List has publicized a new book entitled, "Cultural Cleansing in Iraq Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered."

According to Iraq Crisis,

Convention sees accidents of war and poor planning in a campaign to liberate Iraqis. The authors argue instead that the invasion aimed to dismantle the Iraqi state to remake it as a client regime.


As further set forth in Iraq Crisis description, this nefarious plan was supposedly accomplished in a manner that would have made Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin proud-- with US government complicity in the extermination of Iraqi intellectuals and in the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage.

The archaeological commmunity has certainly used gross exaggeration about the looting of the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites as a "wedge issue" to further both an anti-collecting ideology and to shame Western governments into spending millions to fund their work "to save Iraqi archaeology." See and Yet, the allegations in this new book take matters to a whole new level.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has blamed the recent bombings of government buildings in downtown Baghdad on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party allied with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. See Perhaps, the authors of this new work might also want to consider the part these groups played in creating the post-Invasion chaos that Iraq only seems to be leaving behind ever so slowly.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

So Much for Transparency and Accountability

During a press conference on Nov. 19th in Kabul, Secretary of State Clinton preached to President Karzai and the Afghan Government about the need for progress on "transparency and accountability." See

Yet, the Cultural Heritage Center of the Secretary Clinton's own Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has fought tooth and nail to keep secret details of the controversial decisions to impose import restrictions on Cypriot and Chinese coins, and now US District Court Judge Richard Leon has decided against holding the State Department accountable to the public for the release of this information. See

The ACCG and the other Plaintiffs are currently considering whether to appeal. At least, as the press release on the ACCG website notes, the mere fact that litigation was brought forced the State Department to process the Plaintiffs' FOIA requests, some of which had been languishing in bureaucratic Neverland for some three years. And, as further noted, some of that material that was produced points to potential misconduct that will be further explored in the "test case" brewing in US District Court in Baltimore, Maryland.

China Goes Treasure Hunting

Peter Neville-Hadley for the Wall Street Journal writes about China's efforts to catalogue and repatriate artifacts from the Summer Palace as the 150th anniversary of its destruction approaches. See

Not surprisingly, Neville-Hadley recounts the nationalistic impulses that are driving the project.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Italian Archaeologist Fails to Respond to Questions From the Floor

During the Nov. 13th CPAC meeting, Chairwoman Reid allowed the audience to ask Italian Culture Ministry archaeologist Stefano de Caro questions.

De Caro was asked from the floor how Italy would propose that the United States determine what objects or coins of Roman make were from Italy illegally, against the very large numbers of similar (some exactly similar) coins or objects that are imported legally to the US from source countries that allow their export, such as the UK? De Caro gave no substantive answer to the question.

Noting that CPAC had twice (in 2000 and 2005) recommended against extending import restrictions to "coins of Italian type," I also asked De Caro what had changed that suggested there should be a change in this precedent. Again, De Caro was unable to provide a substantive response.

These are two basic questions that need to be answered before CPAC even considers whether to change existing precedent on coins of Italian type.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Babylon Revisited

Melik Kaylan has elaborated further on his recent Wall Street Journal Opinion (see ) in a Forbes article entitled, "Babylon Revisited." See

As I commented,

There needs to be a full accounting of the archaeological community's collaboration with Saddam Hussein's regime before the war, the extent to which archaeologists' self-interested relationships with their Baathist colleagues shaped their noisy campaign against US foreign policy of the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II Administrations, the degree to which looting of archaeological sites and the Iraq Museum was exaggerated to further both an anti-collecting ideology and to shame Western governments into spending millions to fund their work "to save Iraqi archaeology," and whether all this money has been wasted or wisely spent. There has been virtually no serious study of any of these issues other than Alex Joffe's 2004 "Museum Madness in Baghdad" and the Sandler article Kaylan mentions in his own piece. See

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gill PR Newswire Release Confuses Italy's Successes with MOU's Impact on American Citizens and Institutions

Archaeological Blogger David Gill has issued another PRNewswire Release, this time linking Italy's successful repatriation efforts to its current MOU with the US. See Looting Matters: Are Import Restrictions on Italian Antiquities Working? The nub of Gill's post is that because objects have been returned to Italy, the MOU must be "working." The problem with this claim is that such repatriations have nothing at all to do with the impact of the current MOU on American citizens and institutions.

Instead, US Museums have repatriated artifacts accessioned well before the 2001 MOU voluntarily after negative publicity, and an auction house recently returned other artifacts, because Italy produced photographic evidence they were from the Medici trove of stolen artifacts. See

What does the MOU do then as far as US citizens and institutions are concerned? Art. I in fact sets up import restrictions on a wide range of Classical Greek and Roman cultural artifacts. The restrictions require importers to certify artifacts on the designated list were outside of Italy as of January 23, 2001, the date restrictions were promulgated. See
(Alternatively, an Italian export certificate must be produced.) Such restrictions are inherently controversial because they effectively shift the burden of proof onto the importer to show that artifacts are "legitimate," even where provenance information necessary to make that showing may not be readily available.

As such, they place an unnecessary burden on the legitimate exchange of cultural artifacts. The current restrictions have been in place since 2001. Their provenance requirements have certainly impacted the ability of Americans to import unprovenanced ancient Roman and Greek artifacts of Italian origin. At the same time, Italians continue to be able to purchase such unprovenanced artifacts in Italy itself without any similar legal impediments. See

Gill has cited the Carabinieri's successful police work that has effectively staunched the looting of archaeological sites. Though such efforts fulfill certain of Italy's obligations under Art. II of the current MOU, those successes have come about without any reference at all to the import restrictions under Art. I the MOU. As such, isn't it time to reexamine whether such import restrictions-- and their negative impact on American citizens and institutions interested in the study, preservation and display of Italian cultural artifacts-- are truly necessary when CPAC considers Art. I of the current MOU next fall?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Does Italy Only Send Long-Term Loans to Museums that Have Repatriated Objects?

During his testimony during the Nov. 13th CPAC hearing, Maxwell Anderson of the Indianapolis Museum of Art suggested that the only AAMD member museums that have benefited from long-term loans with Italy are those that have repatriated artifacts.

Patty Gerstenblith contested this allegation, mentioning the National Gallery of Art's Pompeii Exhibit. See She also noted that SMU has an exhibit of archaeological finds. Of course, one should note that while the NGA is an AAMD Member, it is also an instrumentality of the federal government, and the limited-time exhibit in question hardly qualifies as a "long-term" loan. . As for SMU, it excavates in Italy, and the exhibit apparently displayed finds of its own faculty and students. See Again, it is unclear how long that exhibit will run.

In any event, the current MOU with Italy does not link long-term loans to repatriation efforts. See:
Instead, Italy is supposed to promote agreements for long-term loans to all American Museums.

To solve this perceived problem, Anderson suggested that Italy should create a database of objects it is willing to lend on a long-term basis. It remains to be seen whether CPAC adopts this recommendation and whether it finds its way into the next MOU (assuming, of course, current restrictions are extended for another five years).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ancient Greek and Roman Coins from Italy Appear on AAMD Objects Registry

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has listed several Greek and Roman coins with varying amounts of provenance information on the AAMD Object Registry. See

The Greek and Roman coins struck in Italy carry the following note,

Per the MFA’s 2006 agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Museum contacted Ministry representatives prior to acquiring the coin; the Ministry raised no objection to the acquisition.

During his testimony at CPAC, Stefano De Caro referenced the Ministry of Culture's consent to the MFA's accession of these coins, presumably to show how "reasonable" the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy can be.

But if the Italian Ministry of Culture wishes to be "reasonable," why require U.S. collectors to certify the provenance of ancient Roman and Greek coins struck in Italy before import, particularly when there is NO REQUIREMENT that Italian collectors do the same for coins they collect?

CPRI "Orphans Study" Stimulates Debate in Blogosphere

One of the points of the CPRI "Orphans Study" was to stimulate debate. And so it has. For an interesting discussion of some the issues related to the study, see Larry Rothfield's "The Punching Bag" blog:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy the Best Steward for Coins?

In my planned oral statement for last Friday's CPAC meeting (which was abbreviated somewhat in the telling at the Chairwoman's request), I observed,

Italy has one of the world’s richest economies. Yet, ..efforts to reform the system have run up against an entrenched cultural bureaucracy and given serious under funding, “passive preservation” has become the rule. In such an environment, it is no wonder that Italy has done a poor job taking care of the coins at state institutions and archaeological sites. In particular,

  • Coins in museums have historically suffered from major thefts and poor internal documentation.
  • Institutional collections are poorly documented in published form.
  • The publication record for coins found in Italian excavations is poor.
  • Without publication it is almost impossible to know what has been found and what has become of the material.

This of course suggests that the Italian state may not be the best steward of common artifacts like coins—and collectors should continue to be able to study, preserve and display them through their own efforts.

Interestingly, neither Stefano De Caro nor anyone else from the archaeological community contested these facts, and, indeed I recall De Caro admitting that publishing coins was "difficult."

Yet, Mr. De Caro defended Italy's claims to all coins struck there in ancient times, stating they were being made on behalf of "Pax Britannia," etc. Is De Caro's claims to all ancient coins struck in Italy aimed at furthering scholarship and the preservation of these common artifacts or is it in reality about nationalism and bureaucratic control? Do the facts deceive us or is the Italian cultural bureaucracy really the best steward for ancient coins struck in Italy? And what are the AIA's views about the state of coins under the care of the Italian cultural bureaucracy and Mr. De Caro's claims to all ancient coins struck in Italy?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Against PAS Because the ACCG is for It?

I have been struck by SAFE associate Blogger David Gill's increasingly negative comments about the U.K.'s Portable Antiquities Scheme. Compare Gill from 2008 when continued funding for the scheme was in doubt
( and with Gill of today (

If the scheme is worth funding isn't it worth asking the Italians (who are every bit as wealthy as the English) to investigate?

Does Gill even disagree with Lord Refrew on this point? See ("The talk was followed by Q&A, so, knowing that Renfrew had supported PAS when its funding was threatened, I took the opportunity to ask: "Do you think that if other source countries were to adopt similar schemes, that it would help to reduce looting ?". His answer was an unqualified yes ("brilliant scheme"), with none of the usual caveats about it not being our place to dictate antiquity policy to other nations.").

A Case in Antiquities for Finders Keepers

John Tierney, writing in the New York Times Science section, applies Jim Cuno's critiques of the nationalistic cast of the repatriation game to the latest offensives of Zahi Hawass against Western Museums. See

In so doing, he observes,

Restricting the export of artifacts hasn’t ended their theft and looting any more than the war on drugs has ended narcotics smuggling. Instead, the restrictions promote the black market and discourage the kind of open research that would benefit everyone except criminals.


Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn’t have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of “looted” Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.

I can't agree more, but would again suggest systems like the U.K.'s Treasure Act and PAS can help make the public allies of archaeologists and the State when it comes to reporting antiquities.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gotcha Italian Style

During his testimony during the interim review of the Italian MOU, antiquities dealer representative Bill Pearlstein made a good point about the US Customs' recent seizure of two ancient vases. See The vases that were consigned to an auction were apparently identified as coming from the Medici stash of illicit artifacts, but Italy has apparently never listed the artifacts -- known from pictures- on the Art Loss Register. Italy has thus not allowed U.S. auction houses the opportunity to research these pieces before they are listed for auction. Instead of providing U.S. auction houses the means to identify such artifacts. Italian and U.S. authorities would rather lay in wait for such pieces to be listed for auction-- and then sweep in with maximum publicity to seize the artifacts.

Are the Italians and US Customs more interested in playing "gotcha" than anything else? Some might conclude, "you betcha!"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looted Coin Detector?

During his presentation at last Friday's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, Italian Cultural Ministry archaeologist Stefano De Caro revealed that the Carabinieri have developed a machine that can tell if a coin has been recently looted from its patina.

I have to admit I am a bit dubious, but if such a machine does actually work, perhaps we can dispense with import restrictions (and their shifting the burden of proof onto all importers) in favor of outfitting US Customs with such technology. Suspect coins could be run through the machine and if an "alarm" is sounded, that would supply the "reasonable suspicion" required to perform a further investigation as to how the coins were obtained.

This would be preferable to requiring every importer of every "coin of Italian type" to supply certifications as to that particular coin's whereabouts as of the date any import restrictions were imposed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Myths of Babylon

Melik Kaylan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, has opined again about the dangers of accepting provocative allegations from members of the archaeological community at face value. See

Friday, November 13, 2009

Interim Review of Italian MOU

I attended the Cultural Property Advisory Committee's interim review of the Italian MOU. The hearing was called to allow the public to comment on Italy's obligations under Art. II, but at times the hearing strayed well beyond the subject of whether Italy has held up its end of the bargain. What is abundently clear is that now that the AIA has forced the museums and the antiquities dealers to adopt clear provenance standards, its attention has now focused entirely on coin dealers and collectors. The particular issue of whether CPAC should reconsider its prior two decisons against extending import restrictions to Greek and Roman coins from Italy should be discussed in more detail at a promised forthcoming CPAC hearing related to Art. I.

Three speakers (Pearlstein, Tompa and Wetterstrom) spoke on behalf of dealers and collectors. Four speakers (Anderson, Vikan, Conforti and Feldman) spoke on behalf of the AAMD. Four speakers (Gerstenblith, Heath, Elkins and Leventhal) spoke on behalf of the archaeological community. One speaker (De Caro) spoke on behalf of the Italian cultural ministry.

Bill Pearlstein spoke on behalf of certain antiquities dealers. He argued that the Carabinieri's successes against looters made the extension of the MOU unnecessary. He also noted that the MOU is discriminatory to Americans because Italy has no internal provenance requirements for sales of ancient artifacts.

Peter Tompa spoke on behalf of IAPN and PNG, two trade associations for the small businesses of the numismatic trade. First, he highlighted the failure of Italy to care for its own cultural patrimony, including coins. Second, he discussed Italy’s relative success in staunching looting, and its implications against the extension of import restrictions. Third, he advocated that CPAC again suggest that Italian authorities adopt a Treasure Trove law and Portable Antiquities Scheme. Lastly, he noted that Italy has not as promised made its own export controls more efficient.

Kerry Wetterstom (Celator Magazine) spoke on behalf of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. He also noted that Italy has not as promised made its own export controls more efficient.

Maxwell Anderson (Indianapolis Museum of Art) suggested the MOU should be modified to require Italy to advertise artifacts for long term loans on the Internet.

Gary Vikan (Walters Art Gallery-Baltimore) said Italy should not sequester artifacts, but should make better provision for long term loans as well as licit markets.

Michael Conforti (The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute) spoke about legal markets and their role in facilitating international cultural exchange.

Kaywin Feldman (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts) also spoke about the need for licit markets and better long term loans. She indicated her institution is the poorer because it had to return a long term loan of "orphan artifacts" under the AAMD's new provenance rules and due to current restrictions, that void remains at her institution.

Patty Gerstenblith (Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation) stated that import restrictions under Art. I cannot be tied to Italy's undertakings under Art. II. She also indicated licit markets do not help staunch looting, but in fact may help hide it.

Sebastian Heath (AIA) said Italy does not need a PAS scheme because it uploads finds on the web. He also indicated that the AIA supports the expansion of current import restrictions to include coins.

Nathan Elkins (archaeologist) indicated that there is an illicit trade in common artifacts like coins and that properly excavated ones can tell us much about ancient history.

Richard Leventhal (University of Pennsylvania) indicated that coins should be restricted because they are important parts of the archaeological record. He also indicated it would be wrong to sell redundant artifacts because such artifacts must be retained for study.

Stefano De Caro (Italian Ministry of Culture) indicated that people have come to understand that artifacts should are more than collectibles, but are important for science. He acknowledged that Italy has not always done all it could do to preserve its cultural patrimony, but suggested foreigners could help by funding projects in Italy. He indicated that a book quoting wiretaps indicated that looters treat coins no differently than other artifacts. Italy wants what Cyprus got as far as import restrictions on coins. De Caro acknowledged numismatics needs to be integrated more fully with other disciplines. Italy is launching a website of the important coin collection of the King of Italy as a token of its interest in coins. De Caro belittled the U.K. Treasure program and suggested Italy's efforts to seek import restrictions on coins was done not only on Italy's behalf, but also to defend "Pax Britannia," "Pax Africa," etc.

CPRI Issues Study on Orphan Artifacts

The CPRI has released the results of its study about the numbers of "orphan" Greek and Roman artifacts in private hands. See In addition, the CPRI's American Antiquities Review has also provided some helpful background information. See

The study has already attracted comment from archaeological bloggers David Gill and Larry Rothfield. See and

Though Gill has been particularly critical, he has not offered his own estimates of the number of "orphan" Greek and Roman artifacts in private hands or his own proposed methodology for estimating the number of such artifacts.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Is Zahi Hawass Bad for Egyptology?

The New Yorker Magazine has asked the impertinent question, "Is Zahi Hawass Bad for Egyptology?" See

The article, written by Ian Parker, details the Hawass personality cult and its part in the effective nationalization of ancient Egypt's culture by the Mubarak regime.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Incantation Bowls Story Recycled Yet Again

Lord Renfrew's efforts to shift the burden of proof to collectors in the U.K. may have failed for now, but his reference during a House of Lords debate to Jewish incantation bowls allegedly stolen from Iraq has led to yet another story about them years after the initial controversy had subsided. See

The story fails to detail the basis for the conclusion that the bowls originated in Iraq as opposed to Jordan, but the article does go onto gratuitously claim that such stolen antiquities help fund insurgents in Iraq.

This incendiary claim has also been disputed. Indeed, a New York Times reporter that has specifically looked into the issue has characterized such claims as a "red herring." See: ("Garen: I think this is an important point about the link between looting and terrorism, and I know that that was made in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, but we were actually the ones that discovered that potential link. We never published it. We were freelancing for the New York Times. We never wrote a story about it because there's no proof. And I think it was a bit of a red herring.")

The article also fails to explore the distinct irony that repatriating Jewish artifacts to a country that has systematically destroyed its Jewish culture poses. See

Is there anything else going on here? One certainly wonders if this incantation bowl story comes up over and over again at least in part because archaeologists are miffed that epigraphists continue to see value in the study of unprovenanced artifacts. See Even worse, could anti-Semitism also be part of the mix? See

Interesting Post from Iraqi Archaeologist

The Iraq Crisis List has posted this interesting piece from an Iraqi archaeologist:


Is Iraq right to reclaim the Ishtar Gate from Germany?

Having read Michael Kimmelman’s article, “When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns” in the October 23, 2009 edition of the New York Times, I would like to discuss some important issues regarding ownership of Middle Eastern archaeological artifacts.

Although Iraq and Egypt have the moral right to reclaim the various Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities and masterpieces currently displayed in some of the world’s largest museums; unfortunately, most of the pieces left their native country legally.

I will talk about Iraq and the antiquities and cultural heritage laws in Iraq prior to 1936. Between 1533 and 1918, Iraq was under Ottoman Empire rule, which had left it open to travelers, excavators, and looters. Later, Iraq became a British colony and, once more, many museum pieces left Iraq following excavations, looting, and illicit trade. Evan after Iraq regained its independence in 1921, the British government retained a good degree of control (nominal independence was only achieved in 1932, when the British Mandate officially ended). The antiquities laws in Iraq between 1921 and 1936 were based on a system of division that awarded half of the finds recovered during excavations by foreign expeditions to the finders and half to the Iraqi government. This explains the massive number of Mesopotamian antiquities in archaeological collections and museums around the world. Since the law gave foreign expeditions the right to half of the pieces they excavated, foreign archaeologists had plenty of opportunities to take more than their share. Many additional artifacts were taken under these circumstances yet this is very hard to prove today.

Archaeological law No. 49 was established in Iraq in 1936. This law allowed foreign expeditions to excavate, document, and publish research on findings made in Iraq, but assigned legal ownership of all items recovered to the Iraqi government.

In his article, Kimmelman states that, "Just the other day, Iraq repeated its demand that Germany return the Gate of Ishtar from the ancient city of Babylon, excavated and shipped to Berlin before World War I.” If Iraq will reclaim the Ishtar Gate from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Iraq could then also reclaim the other parts of the gate; that is, the lions, bulls, and dragons now residing in various museums around the world. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has lions, dragons, and bulls; the Detroit Institute of Arts houses a dragon, and the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, has one dragon and one lion. In addition, the Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, each have lions (Wikipedia). Furthermore, Iraq should reclaim all the antiquities that left Iraq before the First World War, many of which are now among the most important pieces in the world’s largest museums; for example, the gigantic Assyrian reliefs and winged bulls of the four Assyrian capitals, and the treasure from the Ur royal cemetery, in addition to thousands upon thousands of other Mesopotamian antiquities. Many archaeological and art museums would be virtually empty if Iraq were to demand the return of its antiquities from them.

As an Iraqi archaeologist, I would love to see the art and artifacts of Mesopotamia returned to Iraq but the law states that the museums where they reside acquired them legally and, when this was not the case, the flawed nature of the laws that were in place allowed items to be acquired illegally under the cover of law. Today, we need to focus on reclaiming those pieces that left Iraq after 1936 when the country’s cultural heritage laws limited ownership of antiquities and archaeological sites within Iraqi borders to the Iraqi government only. The return of all pieces acquired illegally following the American invasion should be pursued. Iraq has the right to reclaim these items and sue the museums that have bought, displayed, and stored the pieces looted from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites since 2003. Although many of the museums holding these items have papers purporting to prove that the pieces were acquired prior to the 1936 change in Iraqi law, in fact, most were systematically looted from Iraqi archaeological sites after 2003.

Zainab Mohammed
Iraqi Archaeologist, NY
Former Employee- State Board of Antiquities and Heritage/Excavations and Archaeological Protection Department-Baghdad
M.A. Anthropology and Museum Studies

The text may also be found here:

A few comments are in order: First, although the author makes some important distinctions, the serious charge in the last sentence is entirely unsupported.

Second, one wonders whether institutions, like the Oriental Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, that have scholars that generally have been outspoken in favor of others repatriating artifacts, will themselves offer to return their parts of the Ishtar Gate voluntarily. I tend to doubt it.

Third, it is hard for me to agree that other countries should necessarily recognize the Iraqi government's rights over any and all Iraqi artifacts that may have left the country after 1936. For some additional thoughts on a related point, see:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

1970 Provenance Date for Auction Houses?

SAFE associated Blogger David Gill has proposed that auction houses should adopt a 1970 date when dealing in archaeological material. See and Looting Matters: Should Auction-Houses Be More Careful Over Antiquities?

Gill's proposal begs an obvious question: What to do about the thousands upon thousands of unprovenanced "orphan" artifacts currently in collections?

Last April Fools' day, I jokingly suggested that repatriated artifacts could be "recontextualized." See

But what would Gill really suggest happen to these "orphan" artifacts?

Though AAMD associated museums are no longer accessioning such material, such "orphan" artifacts remain important parts of their collections.

Don't collectors also have an obligation to ensure that "orphan" artifacts continue to be preserved, studied and displayed? If they cannot be transmitted to another collector who will care for them, what will then become of these "orphans?"

Wealthy Source Country Collectors Change the Dynamics on the Ground

Bloomberg reports on wealthy Mainland Chinese collectors purchasing high quality Chinese artifacts at sales in London. See

Another related phenomenon is a growing class of wealthy collectors purchasing artifacts at home before they go into the international marketplace. The recent controversies surrounding Bulgaria's new cultural property law stem from the fact that increasingly wealthy Bulgarians can now afford to collect artifacts from Bulgaria's rich past.

This is a good thing. It will likely promote more balanced approaches to cultural heritage preservation. That is so because home grown collectors now have an interest in making their own voices heard when it comes to cultural property legislation. This has already happened in Bulgaria, and will likely also happen in other source countries where collecting is done quite openly, like in the People's Republic of China.

Whatever the impact of wealthy source country collectors on source country legislation, increasingly, the claim that "artifacts are looted so they can be smuggled abroad" strays even further away from the dynamics on the ground.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Italian American Magazine Calls for End to Case Against Marion True

Primo Magazine-A magazine for and about Italian Americans (see, has asked Italy to end its case against Marion True. See


One cannot talk about repatriation of artifacts without mentioning Italy’s case against Marion True.

Not all lovers of Italian culture are Italian. True is one such person. A native of Oklahoma, True is the former antiquities curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. An expert in classicism and ancient Mediterranean culture, she was in charge of the Getty’s acquisition of artifacts and relics. She helped to establish the renowned Getty Villa, located in the hills outside LA, filled with items of antiquity from ancient Rome and Greece. Thanks in part to True’s efforts, the Getty rose to become one of the top art museums in the world within a 20 year period.

Now True’s world is turned upside down. She is the first American museum antiquities curator ever to faces criminal charges in Italy for trafficking in illicit artifacts.

Italy’s case against her is more eventful than justifiable. Trial proceedings in Rome are tarrying. Four years and six months into the case and the prosecution has yet to rest. The defense phase may take another four years. The presiding judge will retire in three. Meanwhile a host of issues between the Italian government and America’s museums have been settled.

One wonders what good can still come of the case.

Damage done to Italy from True’s alleged crimes is resolved. The Getty returned to Italy many of the suspected artifacts mentioned in the trial. Civil charges against True were dropped last year. A similar criminal case in Greece was dismissed earlier because the statute of limitations had run out. Most American museums have changed their acquisition policies to reflect greater compliance with Italian patrimony laws. Italy’s message has been received.

The prosecution’s case adds to the burden of justifiability. The convoluted nature of the antiquities trade makes it so. Too long is the line of buyers and sellers, brokers, middlemen and women, conservators, auctioneers, and private collectors to reasonably conclude True knew she was buying hot merchandise. Weak circumstantial evidence has led prosecutors to offer guilt by association. Touted are the curator’s sporadic dealings with suspicious collectors, i.e., a thank you note from her to a convicted smuggler on an unrelated matter is entered into evidence. Another tack is criminal negligence. A patronizing tone by Italian archeologists accompanies the theory that True should have known artifacts were stolen based on her extensive experience and education.

The case is unnecessary and unfounded. Italy should drop the charges against her.

At a minimum, I really have to wonder why this case has dragged on for over four years without a resolution.

At this late juncture, a cynic might conclude that proceedings have been delayed so that a resolution can be timed to coincide with the U.S. State Department's reconsideration of the current MOU with Italy, which expires, unless renewed, in January 2011.

Such a resolution will certainly get more press than ICE's recent seizure of Italian pottery, which was announced shortly before CPAC takes public comments for its interim review of that agreement.

The Italian cultural bureaucracy and its allies in the archaeological community have certainly played the media card to advance their interests in the past. It would, therefore, not be all that surprising then if justice for Ms. True has been held hostage on account of some media strategy designed to further Italy's larger interests in renewal of the current MOU.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

International Archaeological Lobby Presses Efforts to Shift the Burden of Proof

The "archaeology over all" lobbies in Bulgaria and the UK are seeking to shift the burden of proof onto collectors and antiquities dealers to demonstrate the valid "ownership" of the artifacts in their collections--just like their American colleagues.

Archaeologists have already succeeded to some extent with the passage of Bulgaria's new cultural heritage law, but parts of that law were then struck down by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court as violating Bulgarians' right to own private property. See and

Though written from an "archaeology over all" perspective, a recent Sofia Echo article does acknowledge that this "hot button" issue helps explain why collectors find the new law so controversial:

One of the bill’s provisions that most stirred controversy was that holders of any artwork or antiques should prove their ownership. This provision, central to the law’s intention to regulate the balance between the state’s goal of preserving Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and the private interests of art collectors, would become the defining battleground between the law’s supporters and its detractors.


The Bulgarian Constitutional Court's decision addressed this issue. In its ruling, the Court allowed invoices and the like to suffice to esbablish "ownership," effectively weakening this "provenance" requirement. In contrast, the law as written had required "official paperwork" like a customs declaration or a court decision to establish good title.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Lord Renfrew and other members of the "Archaeological All Party Group" have sought to attach a provision to proposed Amendments to the Treasure Act that would shift the burden of proof for those dealing in ancient artifacts from all cultures. As Renfrew explained,

Amendment 68 requires that a person dealing in an archaeological object should produce evidence to show that the object has not been unlawfully excavated. That places a duty on the vendor of knowing and stating the recent history of the antiquity. It will no longer be sufficient to say that it fell off the back of a lorry or was found in the vendor's attic.


This proposal will no doubt be quite controversial and, in any event, the Government does not seem interested in pursuing it at this point. As stated by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach),

I cannot be as helpful with Amendments 68 to 73, which would introduce a new criminal offence of dealing in undocumented archaeological objects. The new offence would add to the existing offence of dishonestly dealing in a cultural object that is tainted. That offence was introduced in the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. The introduction of the Act showed our commitment to address the problem by facilitating the prosecution of people who trade in objects looted or stolen from buildings and excavations both here and abroad, and its provisions have an important deterrent effect. There may well have been no cases at this stage, but we believe that it has had a deterrent effect and has raised awareness of the importance of the need to make appropriate checks when acquiring items of cultural importance.

I know that the noble Lords to whom I have referred support the provisions of the 2003 Act as the national heritage of many countries is at stake. Our reluctance to accept these amendments is that we are always wary of introducing yet another new criminal offence unless there is a proven need to do so. The proposed new offences would extend to objects which have been excavated in countries other than England and Wales, which is outside the scope of the treasure system.


Collectors and dealers need to be more vigilant. A fundamental right for both Britons and Americans is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Yet, archaeologists have used "provenance requirements" to chip away at this fundamental right when it comes to collecting antiquities. The debate needs to be refocused towards the impact of proposed remedies to "looting" on our fundamental rights.