Saturday, December 27, 2008

Does Growing Islamism Bode Ill for Pre-Islamic Antquities in Islamic Lands?

The New York Times recently ran an interesting article about the Islamic youth movement in Jordan. For more, see:

In her book, "Loot," Sharon Waxman has already commented on the lack of connection that people even in moderate Islamic countries, like Turkey, feel towards pre-Islamic monuments. In particular, she pointed out that Turkey's magnificent cultural sites relating to its Greek and Roman history are mostly visited by foreign tourists. In contrast, Turks are far more likely to visit sites associated with Turkey's Ottoman past. Of course, foreign tourists can only support relatively few easily accessible monuments. In contrast, sites "off the beaten path" are likely to by ignored by tourists. In turn, this makes it much less likely that the authorities will take any active efforts to preserve them. Thus, it becomes more likely that such sites will not only suffer from neglect, but also looting or even outright destruction in the name of "progress."

To the extent secular Middle Eastern Governments are replaced by "Islamic" ones, one wonders about impact of such changes in government on the long term health of pre-Islamic monuments. Already, cultural heritage bureaucracies in many Middle Eastern countries are grossly underfunded. And, as Waxman also has pointed out, once an Islamic- leaning party took control in Turkey, the already abysmal level of funding for cultural sites was cut even further in favor of other priorities.

One thing should be increasingly clear. The old nationalist model of associating the state with the glories of a pre-Islamic past, complete with absolute governmental control over anything "old," does little to encourage the local populace to respect ancient artifacts. Indeed, as the wanton destruction of the Iraq Museum by a populace that associated it with the hated nationalistic Baathist regime has shown, this bankrupt, old model may actually encourage the active destruction or looting of ancient artifacts.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays: President Bush Pardons Man Convicted of ARPA violation

The Justice Department has announced that President Bush has pardoned 19 individuals this holiday season. For more see:

The posthumous pardon of Charlie Winters, who violated the Neutrality Act in the late 1940's by shipping surplus B-17 Bombers to Israel, is getting the most press. However, this is a blog about cultural property issues. Thus, it is worth noting that another individual, David Lane Woolsey of St. George, Utah, was pardoned for a violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. For more, see:,5143,705272608,00.html

I suppose some in the archaeological and/or Native American communities may be horrified by this turn of events, but, if so, hopefully they will let it go-- it's the Holiday Season after all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Egyptian Sculpture at Center of Schultz Case Repatriated Back to Egypt

A sculptural head of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III that was at the center of the notorious case of United States v. Schultz has been repatriated back to Egypt more than 10 years after authorities initially jailed its British smuggler. For more, see: The investigation also netted Fred Schultz, a past President of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art. For more, see: (article about conviction, which was ultimately upheld in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit).

In my opinion, this case is a prime example of the maxim "bad facts make bad law." In any event, one wonders why it took so long to repatriate the artifact, often described as "priceless" in both the media and before the Court. The British smuggler was convicted in 1997 and Fred Schultz, who was convicted in 2002, long ago lost his appeal and served his "debt to society." "Priceless" or not, perhaps the head lost much of its worth to the publicity seeking modern Pharaoh of Egypt's antiquities, Zahi Hawass, once the story receded from the news.

Addendum: David Gill ("Looting Matters" Blog) has posted a link to this press release from Egypt's attorneys about the case: I'm not sure I am buying the claim that the repatriation took over 10 years to accomplish because the matter was "complicated." "Complicated" or not, wasn't the vast majority of the groundwork done courtesy of the British and US taxpayer years ago? It's hard for me to believe the repatriation would have taken this long if Egypt made it a priority. I also do wonder what Egypt was charged for the effort. I suspect we will never know.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Milken Institute Speaks on Cultural Property Issues

The Milken Institute (founded by the former "Junk Bond King" who is now hoping for a Presidential pardon in the waning days of the Bush administration) held a symposium about the "illicit antiquities trade:" This is from an email publicizing the conclusions of the gathering:

The illegal antiquities trade has grown into a $4 billion market - but financial innovations and market-based incentives can change that, while supporting economic development in countries of origin and preserving the world's cultural heritage. A new report from the Milken Institute has the details from a gathering of minds on the topic that was designed with help from the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago. Press release is here:

Full report is available for free download after brief registration here:

I have not had an opportunity to review the full report. However, I was sorry to see that there was no reference to England's and Wales's "portable antiquities scheme" and "treasure trove" law in the summary of the Institute's suggestions found in the press release. Derek Fincham (Illicit Cultural Property Blog) was invited to speak about the subject, but his recommendations do not appear to have won the day.

This does not surprise me at all. Despite claims that the symposium included divergent views from various stakeholders, from what I recall of the guest list, it seemed to me that the whole effort was orchestrated from the beginning to ensure a result that would be acceptable to the members of the archaeological community. Certainly, the involvement of Larry Rothfield (a frequent contributor to the "SafeCorner" blog) in setting up the effort suggests as much. The gathering was by "invitation only" with no general "advance publicity" that might have attracted those with contrary views to the session. Thus, while it was nice that Mr. Milken's Institute tackled the issue, limiting participation to the "right people" only undercuts any pretensions that anything useful might come from the effort.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Italian Cultural Bureaucrats Stave Off Reform Once Again

Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's paper about the latest apparent "victory" of the Italian cultural bureaucracy against efforts to reform the creaky system. See: Certainly, this "victory" is as about hollow as one can be.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Archaeologists Uncover Saddam's Crimes

Archaeology Magazine has an interesting and sobering story about archaeologists and anthropologists under contract to the US Government who are digging up victims of Saddam's atrocities against the Kurds to support war crimes prosecutions. For more, see:

This blog has criticised other archaeologists for their all too cozy relationship with Saddam's regime. Hopefully, stories like the above will give pause to those in the archaeological community who sometimes still appear to be supportive of Saddam's fallen Baathist regime because of its promotion of archaeology in the country. Lest we forget, that support for archaeology was part and parcel of the Baathist ideology of control over "subject peoples" like the Kurds. And that ideology ultimately resulted in the atrocities that are being uncovered even today.

Monday, December 15, 2008

News from Northern Iraq

This report caught my eye. It again pokes holes in the received wisdom that archaeological sites in Iraq were extensively looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. In particular, this report suggests (in the North of the country at least) that most damage occurred beforehand during the period of Baathist control over the country. It also suggests that neglect is now a greater problem than looting:

Department of State Niunewa Povincial Reconstruction Team Mosul, Iraq


NOV 29, 2008

First UNESCO Mission Since 2003 Examines Cultural Sites in Northern Iraq MOSUL, Iraq – A UNESCO fact-finding mission examined the overall condition of four key cultural heritage sites in Northern Iraq during November. The assessment team visited the Roman-Parthian city of Hatra, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985. In addition, the team visited three sites significant under the Assyrian Empire: Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), the first capital of the Assyrian Empire located in Salah ad Din Province, inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites andthe list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2003; Nimrud, considered the second capital of the Assyrian Empire; and the Ancient City of Nineveh, both listed on the Tentative List for World Heritage Sites. The team also visited the Mosul Cultural Museum, currently closed and in the process of renovation.

UNESCO representatives have not visited sites in Ninewa Province since 2003 and this mission found that many of the exposed antiquities are deteriorating due to a lack of conservation maintenance and site stewardship. The team documented only minor willful destruction, looting, or criminal activity at the sites. However, destruction and theft from the 80s and 90s were clearly evident at Ninevah where the Sennacherib Palace reliefs have been almost entirely removed by previous looters. Hatra and Nimrud showed less extensive evidence of theft and destruction but more severe signs of damage caused by water infiltration, erosion, and neglect. (emphasis added.)

Ms. Tamar Teneishvili, UNESCO Culture Program Specialist for Iraq was overwhelmed by the poor stateof conservation at Ninevah, but said the overall mission was incredible and provided a great opportunity to appraise the sites. Ms. Teneishvili and her colleague, Mr. Sami Al-Khoja, met with local Iraqis working on the sites, engaged with members of the Facilities Protection Service, and documented current conditions. They will compare results of their visit with those from previous UNESCO missions before publishing their findings.

UNESCO has pledged funds to repair two halls at the ruins of Nimrud and to assist the Mosul Cultural Museum with renovations, starting with the library and archives. UNESCO also committed resources tocomplete studies of the sites to identify the hydrologic conditions and plan future stone conservation projects and training. The Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewa will be requestingfunds to complement the UNESCO projects and will be working with the provincial government to commit funds to the conservation projects.

As of 2008, 878 sites are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and three are located in Iraq. Each World Heritage Site is the property of the state within whose territory the site is located,but it is considered in the interest of the international community to preserve the sites.
Suzanne E. Bott, PhD Provincial Reconstruction Team Ninewa Cultural Heritage Advisor DSN: 318-821-6148SVOIP: 318-243-0294/ 243-0366NIPR: SIPR:

Meanwhile over on the SafeCorner blog Larry Rothfield gives his perspective that the State Department is not doing enough to protect Iraqi archaeological sites. SafecCorner also kindly posted my comments:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nicholas Burns on Troubles in Greece

Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State and Ambassador to Greece, was recently interviewed about the riots in Greece. For more, see:

Like other commentators, Burns has attributed the rioting to mounting frustration about a lot of things, including corruption:

And I think what it means is that there's a tremendous deal of frustration, obviously, with the unemployment situation, with the world financial crisis. Also, there have been allegations against the government of corruption. All of this has tended to roil the young students and some of the anarchist movement that have been very prominent in Greek politics over many decades.

Let's face it. Corruption in Greece extends to pretty much everything, including the country's policy on cultural artifacts. For instance, Greece has laws that criminalize collecting ancient artifacts, unless, of course, you happen to be connected enough to be recognized as a "registered collector."

Such "two tiered" systems are a recipe for abuse. Such a system also exists in the Republic of Cyprus, a nation closely aligned with Greece proper. And, indeed, perhaps not coincidentally, members of the numismatic community strongly suspect that the same type of cronyism that infects Greece and Cyprus may have also infected our own State Department's decision to extend import restrictions to coins of Cypriot type. Certainly as described previously on this blog , Undersecretary Burns' decision to accept the "Livanos" Award from Greek Cypriot lobbing groups shortly before the decision was made to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type suggests as much. See:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cornelius C. Vermeule III, a Curator of Classical Antiquities, Is Dead at 83

On December 9, 2008, the New York Times ran an obituary for Cornelius C. Vermeule III, formerly the curator of classical antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It can be found here:

The obituary covers Vermeule's illustrious career that started at a time when the archaeological and museum communities were collaborators and not adversaries over "who owns the past." Indeed, Vermeule himself exemplified the level of collaboration; he even met his future wife, an archaeologist, at an AIA meeting! Sadly, Vermeule also witnessed first hand how mutual suspicion and hostility gradually replaced that cooperation, as members of the archaeological community began to champion the nationalistic stance of source countries under the theory that harsh laws and restitution claims help preserve archaeological context.

I never met Cornelius Veremeule, but I am aware he was also a serious ancient coin collector who gave generously to his institution. Back in 1997, CNG auctioned off some his ancient Roman bronze coins to benefit the museum. At the time, I was lucky enough to win a Sestertius of Marcus Aurelius with a "Fides Exercitvvm" reverse. It remains an important part of my own collection.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Peru Files Suit Against Yale

Recently, Derek Fincham blogged about the renewed possibility that Peru would file suit against Yale over artifacts long held in Yale's collection from archaeological digs conducted by Hiram Bingham almost a century ago: Bingham's digs at Machu Picchu made him world famous and he later became a US Senator. See:

That possibility has come to pass. On December 5, 2008, DLA Piper LLP filed suit on behalf of Peru against Yale. The Complaint can be accessed here, but only through subscription to the Court's Pacer system:

The lengthy Complaint recounts how the artifacts came to and were retained by Yale from Peru's perspective. Of course, Yale will be given an opportunity to respond when it answers the Complaint or files a motion to dismiss.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Scary Counterfeit Coins From China

The December 1st and 8th issues of Coin World describe the work of a counterfeiter of US and foreign coins operating in China. China is well known for its production of counterfeits of early Chinese coins. These are rather easy to counterfeit because the original production techniques (casting) are easy to replicate with crude equipment. This is an entirely different sort of operation.

Here is how Coin World describes it:

Asked how he manages to produce such convincing counterfeits, Jinghuashei explains that he uses genuine examples for his models.

He downloads digital information about the genuine coin into a computerized coins sculpturing system via laser beam input. The laser system scans the coin using a method of triangulation, taking constant readings from thousands of different data points, producing a three-dimensional model of the coin that is extremely accurate.

If needed he has the ability to "clean up" the digital model to remove blemishes or distinguishing diagnostics that were on the original coin such as contact marks, die chips, die polishing marks or even flow lines on a struck coin.

He notes that everything is done with a view to making the die that is produced as spotless as possible so that nothing will give away the coin struck from it as a counterfeit.

The next step in the process is to render the three-dimensional computer file into an actual coin die. A laser die-cutting process carves the image into a steel surface, which is added to a base (die shank) and then the coin is ready to be placed into the coin presses to strike actual pieces.

Coin World, Dec. 8, 2008, at 92. The article then goes on to note that the counterfeiter even has old coin presses that do a good job of replicating strikings of earlier coins. The one problem the counterfeiter has is that he is dependent on outside suppliers for metal and thus has not been able to exactly replicate the composition of the coins (and hence their weight). Although he says he stamps the word "replica" them, the Coin World reporter was unable to spot the term on all his coins.

The counterfeiter indicates that his work is quite legal in China and he doubts the US Government will ever prosecute him. He regularly sells on eBay. He states he produces about 100,000 fake Chinese coins per month (both ancient and modern) and about 1000 fake US coins per month. Even better, he offers such fake US coins in fake US albums or even fake PSGS slabs!

Of course, this is only one such operation in China. It is indeed ironic that China has purportedly asked the US to impose import restrictions on genuine Chinese coins, but has apparently done little, if anything, at all to stop the export of deceptive fakes to the United States.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pearlstein on Cultural Property

Cultural property expert Bill Pearlstein wrote a letter to the editor of Commentary Magazine about a review of Jim Cuno's new book. The letter was published in the December issue. Pearlstein rightly suggests that judgments about "who owns the past" should be made on a principled, analytical basis, rather than on one based on the ideology of nationalism or an "archaeology over all" perspective. Here is an excerpt:

[T]he ownership of the objects is what is currently at stake as American museums and collectors defend their collections against legal claims to return "looted" objects and fuzzier claims that ancient objects are best appreciated in their country of origin. The former are understandable and sometimes meritorious; the latter are not. Cuno has rightly disputed the received wisdom that source-nation "patrimony laws" discourage looting and help disseminate archaeological data. Such laws are merely nationalist in intent and effect, and any overlap between cultural nationalism and archeological preservation is coincidental.

Which is not to say that looting is acceptable or that ownership of looted objects should be encouraged in the name of building "universal museums" or spreading culture. Instead, an international legal framework should be created that gives due weight to persuasive national-heritage claims, protecting archeological sites, and promoting the international exchange of cultural objects by way of museum loans and private trade. (The role of private collectors here is as important as that of museum curators and the museum-going public.)

As a lawyer for private clients, I argued at a 2005 hearing of the President's Cultural Property Advisory committee against China's request for U.S. import restrictions on all Chinese cultural objects dating from pre-historic times to 1911. Cuno was one of three museum curators who also spoke against the restrictions, which a journalist rightly characterized as a "gross overreach" motivated by Beijing's desire to corner the booming market for Chinese artifacts.

One of the major auction houses suggested to the committee that the question of restriction should be evaluated in light of the following factors related to a given object: the quality and state of the existing archeological and art-historical record; site specificity, portability, and documentary importance; mass production and lack of rarity; frequent and long-term market incidence. This is a more thoughtful approach than simply banning everything old, and seems to be the best analytical model for deciding who should own the past.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lord Renfrew as Collector

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

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

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

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

Terror Torches Historic Taj Majal Hotel

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Russians and Georgians Trade Charges Over War Damage

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ten Blogging Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more, see:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Hawass Histrionics in the News

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Balanced Article on Cleveland Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Italian Government Wants Museums to Generate Income to Fight Neglect

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Latest Opportunity to Beat Up on the US Military

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

AIA Lectures About Coins

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

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

ANS to Auction Off Greek Die Duplicates

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sharon Waxman Talks About "Loot"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cambodian MOU Posted

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cultural Property Issues and the Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 31, 2008

Context Lost-- So What?

My last post has evidently struck a nerve. Three blogger/archaeologists associated with Saving Antiquities for Everyone responded, two with multiple posts addressing the same issue. You can find them all through this post from Nathan Elkins:
I may not always agree with Nathan, but at least he generally makes a real effort to be polite!

Anyway, all seem concerned by the alleged loss of context of this find, which apparently sat upon an ancient midden or garbage dump. But what would have that context really told us other than someone deposited bronze nummi out with trash?

I'm sure Messrs. Gill, Barford and Elkins will come up with something, but certainly all context is not created equal. Here, for example, the follow up investigations by a professional archaeologist apparently did not come up with anything more of real signifcance or we would likely have heard it by now.

All this actually points to the genius of the British and Welsh system. Treasure Trove and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in effect put amateurs into a partnership with professional archaeologists. The amateurs may be in it just for the money(as at least Messr. Barford insinuates) or they may be in it because they truly love history-- but the effect is much the same. Trained archaeologists are few in number and no one can expect them to spend much time roving the countryside in search of promising sites. This is where amateurs come in. Most of the time they find little of archaeological significance, but sometimes they lead archaeologists to important discoveries. There may be some loss of context along the way, but isn't this a price worth paying when an otherwise unknown archaeological site of significance comes to light?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reported Treasure Find Prompts Catcalls Rather Than Congratulations

The British Press is reporting another large find of Roman coins declared under that country's treasure trove law. For more details, see:

I think the finders should be commended for following the law and declaring their hoard to the authorities. Two bloggers associated with the advocacy group "Saving Antiquities for Everyone" evidently disagree. See:

They appear to be griping because they claim archaeological context was disturbed. However, both seem to miss the point that the find-- like most in Britain and Wales-- was made on ploughed land where the archaeological context was already disturbed. For more, see: Presumably, their concern is based on the fact that the coins were recovered at a depth of 1 meter (approximately 3 feet), but the fact that the coins were found with broken pottery (presumably the remains of the container that initially protected the coins) still argues that earlier ploughing operations already damaged the context of the find.

In any event, I find all their focus on context in this circumstance to be a bit laughable. Does anyone seriously believe that archaeologists would have been visiting this field any time soon to do a full scale investigation that would have come upon this hoard? If anything, this find should prompt local archaeologists to investigate the site further to see if there is anything really worth excavating nearby. If so, the price of disturbing the context of this hoard (if it was in fact disturbed) will likely be greatly outweighed by the value of any larger find.

One final note. I have spoken to several classical archaeologists (with no axe to grind against collectors) that have told me that large hoards like that found here are not typically found at archaeological sites (in contrast to much smaller purse hoards). As there appears to be a difference of opinion on this point, I think it is best to focus on the fact that most hoards found by detectorists are found on ploughed land where context has already been disturbed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Good Read: Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet"

I don't get to read "for fun" as much as I would like to. One good thing about train trips is that as long as there is no work that needs to be done, it is a good time to read a good book. Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama" is such a good book.

Through Laird's interviews, the Dalai Lama himself recounts Tibetan history. That history unfolds as an expression of the Buddhist version of "Divine Provenance." Along the way, one learns about the long alliance between the Mongols and Tibetans. One can easily imagine that long memories about Mongol subjugation of the Chinese perhaps helps explain China's uncompromising efforts to subjugate Tibet. China may have lost out on controlling much of the Mongolian homeland based on Russian support for the Mongols in the 1920's, but Tibet lacked strong foreign support against the Chinese invasion in 1951. At the time, world powers most likely to help were busy fighting off China's efforts to dominate the far more strategic Korean Peninsula.

For those interested in cultural property issues, the book provides a stark record of China's efforts to destroy Tibetan culture by destroying most of its monasteries and temples along with thousands and thousands of ancient religious artifacts. The Dalai Lama himself recounts a particularly poignant story:

The Dalai Lama said, " A large clay statue of Chenrizi [a Buddhist savior for Tibet] was made in Jokhang [the site of the first and most important Buddhist Temple in Tibet], and that wood statue of Buddha from Nepal [associated with an early Tibetan king, Songzen Gampo] was put inside the bigger one." These two statues, a tiny wooden one nested in the larger clay one, sat in the Jokhang undisturbed for thirteen hundred years... "The large statue, like nearly all of those in the Jokhang, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. When they destroyed the larger clay statue, they found the small wooden statue at the center. Some Tibetan kept it after the larger one was destroyed and then sent it to me, which is very good."

Laird, supra, at 40. No wonder the Dalai Lama himself has praised Western collectors for their efforts to help preserve Tibet's past. Why, then, have members of the archaeological community supported China's efforts to seek import restrictions on virtually all Chinese archaeological and ethnological items, including those from Tibet? Could it be that the prospect of cooperation with Chinese archaeologists silences any inclination to speak out? If so, such archaeologists are little different than many of the "foreign policy experts" that appear in the media. Id. at 365-66. Laird reports 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. Id. at 366. I suspect the same can be said for the efforts of some members of the archaeological community to plead China's case for control over Tibetan cultural artifacts reaching this country.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grand Opening of New ANS Site: Good News, Bad News, Good News

The American Numismatic Society has opened its new headquarters and has updated its website. For more, see:

The Executive Director, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, and the staff should be commended for all their hard work in making the new headquarters a reality.

Of particular interest should be a small but wonderful exhibit of coins from members of the New York Numismatic Club. These range from ancient coinage to early U.S. coinage and medals.

Overall, the annual meeting of the ANS I attended in conjunction with the opening offered a bit of good news, bad news and good news. The good news is that the move is completed and the ANS finally has excellent facilities which have a finished look about them. The bad news is that like many not for profits, the ANS has seen its endowment get hit in a big way with the recent downturn in the stock market. On the bright side, however, all the money received for the sale of the old building has been held in cash so it has not evaporated like other funds in the endowment.

Over the near term, ambitious plans for expansion of programs will need to be put on hold and more than ever the ANS will need to rely on the generosity of its members to not just survive but grow. Unlike the Smithsonian and many institutions in Europe, the ANS is highly dependent on its members (chiefly academics, collectors and members of the numismatic trade) for funding. Anyone who supports repressing private collecting of artifacts as common as coins should realize this can't but also impact the continued vitality of one of the few places in the United States where coinage of all eras is not only preserved, but studied on an academic basis.

The benefits of the academic study of coins is evident to most numismatists, but it should also be noted that such study has real world benefits as well. Edmund C. Moy, the Director of the U.S. Mint, spoke at a dinner I attended in conjunction with the opening. He made clear that he hopes to reinvigorate our present day coinage, not by directly copying historical coinage, but using some of its design precepts to guide how we can make our own coins reflect the best of our own society of today has to offer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Police Posse to "Raise Awareness" About ICOM "Red List of Afghan Antiquities at Risk"

The Metropolitan Police in the London have announced a special initiative to warn off art and antiquities dealers from purchasing "looted" Afghan artifacts:

As the article states,

12 volunteer 'ArtBeat' special constables drawn from the art world, including one at the British Museum, will help the Met's Art and Antiques Unit police the industry. On Monday they started visiting art dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors across London to "raise awareness" about the stolen Afghan items.

Its not clear whether these "ArtBeat" special constables will mainly concern themselves with potential violations of the U.K.'s Cultural Objects (Offenses) Act of 2003 see:, or whether they will instead act as some sort of posse for ICOM and its "Red List of Afghan Antiquities at Risk."

More about the Red List can be found here:

If the latter, I fear any such operation could quickly degenerate into some sort of witch hunt that assumes a holder of an artifact of potential Afghan origin is "guilty" until he proves himself innocent to the satisfaction of those not necessarily friendly to the concept of collecting.

Certainly, the breadth of the definitions of the "Afghan Antiquities" supposedly at risk should should give one pause. Here, for example is a how the list describes Afghan coins:

Antique coins, of bronze, silver and gold, are hand stamped. Pre-Islamic coins usually include the portraits of the king on one side and the divinities on the reverse. Islamic examples are decorated only with Arabic script.

Finally, note that both the State Department’s ECA and such activists as SAFE are partners in the larger ICOM effort: One certainly gets the feeling that ECA and groups such as ICOM and SAFE work hand in hand to encourage cultural bureaucracies in source countries to take the hard line against collectors. In any event, it should also obviously concern anyone interested in fair play that our State Department is acting in concert with activists who in theory at least are supposed to appear before the ECA's Cultural Property Advisory Committee on equal footing with everyone else.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Iraqi Cultural Heritage Project Addresses one of Archaeology's "Dirty Little Secrets"

The Iraq Cultural Heritage Project will evidently include funding for publishing old site reports. See: Iraq Cultural Heritage Project Fact Sheet at ("Complementing this professional capacity building will be: a) The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq Archaeological Publication Project (TAARI). In consultation with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and Iraqi archaeologists, TAARI will publish heretofore unpublished archaeological excavation reports prepared by Iraqi archaeologists.").

I have heard the failure to publish site reports characterized as one of archaeology's "dirty little secrets." I suppose some might be tempted to blame the failure to publish the results of past excavations in Iraq on the effect of Saddam era international sanctions on the Iraqi archaeological establishment. But, of course, sanctions did not stop Saddam from spending money to build palaces in places like Babylon. In any event, I've also read about the failure to publish site reports or even properly record finds elsewhere, in places like Egypt and Cyprus. See: (quoting Zahi Hawaas as follows: "A full scientific report must be published within five years, or the project will be suspended. This is very important. There are many expeditions that have been working here for 20 years, and have never published their work. Scientific results that are not available to scholars are useless and contribute nothing to our knowledge of the past.") and ("Demetriou said the association was alerted to the fact that scientific means were not always used, when a retired archaeologist on a recent dig admitted to not keeping a daily diary, which under archaeological rules is sacrosanct and is a requirement of law.").

The fact that site reports are not published or that digs may not be properly documented is relevant to the debate over import restrictions. Archaeologists often justify import restrictions by claiming that such restrictions limit demand for artifacts and thereby ultimately discourage the destruction of archaeological context by clandestine diggers. But doesn't the failure of the archaeological community to police their own colleagues when it comes to properly recording and publishing site finds seriously undercut this claim? If archaeologists themselves don't always properly record and publish their finds, how can they then claim preservation of archaeological context as a major justification for the imposition of import restrictions on cultural artifacts?

In any event, I am glad that the State Department has included funding for publishing site reports, but even when site reports are published, they are not usually easily accessible to the public. Hopefully, the State Department will also insist that at least some of the information is put "online."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Bush Administration has announced a substantial $13 million grant to help Iraq's museum and archaeological infrastructure: Laura Bush helped roll out the program at the Iraqi Embassy: This money is in addition to millions already spent to date on the Iraq Museum and archaeological establishment courtesy of the US taxpayer.

With American museums and cultural institutions hurting due to collateral damage from the meltdown on Wall Street, I am a bit mystified why authorities like Larry Rothfield have anything to gripe about, particularly when his own University of Chicago's Oriental Institute will share in the government largess. See

I take it that Rothfield wants the State Department to pay for site security in Iraq, but hasn't the US already spent hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars building up Iraq's security forces? It is for the Iraqi government to decide how those forces are deployed. And, although Rothfield apparently continues to deny it, others believe that any looting of Iraqi archaeological sites has declined greatly along with the general decrease in lawlessness in the country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

SAFE "Campaign" Against the Appointment of Brent R. Benjamin to CPAC

Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") and a number of its members have started a campaign of sorts against the recent appointment of Brent R. Benjamin of the Saint Louis Art Museum ("SLAM") to one of the two museum seats on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee ("CPAC"). See: I initially covered Benjamin's appointment here:

I think SAFE and its members are missing an important point. They claim Benjamin's appointment "sends the wrong message" because he has refused to bow to Egyptian demands for a funerary mask of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka Nefer Nefer. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the publicity seeking Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has laid claim to the mask with his usual bravado, complete with threats of legal action and even a call on “all schools in St. Louis to ban visiting the SLAM as it contains an Egyptian stolen piece.” See:

While it might be "politically correct" to roll over to such demands, the fact is that Benjamin and SLAM's Trustees have a fiduciary duty to the museum not to give up the piece without satisfactory proof that Egypt has proper title. In this regard, SLAM has asked Hawaas to document the claim further, something he has apparently failed to do. See:

Under the circumstances, Benjamin and SLAM are to be commended and not criticized for saying "No" to Pharaoh Hawaas and his authoritarian Egyptian government. This experience should help Benjamin discharge his duties on CPAC. CPAC members should base their recommendations on whether and to what extent to impose import restrictions on the application of the governing law to the facts. Under no circumstances should CPAC members bow to requests for import restrictions just because foreign cultural bureaucracies and their allies in the archaeological community and the State Department demand them as a matter of right.

Brent R. Benjamin and SLAM have shown some backbone in their dealings with Egypt. I for one appreciate President Bush appointing someone who can stand up to such bullying to this important post.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another Diversion from Italy's Serious Problems

The New York Times has reported on an exhibit in Rome celebrating the upcoming 100th anniversary of Italy's 1909 Cultural Heritage law:

Funny, there is no mention of Mussolini's part in expanding and extending that law in 1939, but perhaps the Fascist overtones would put an unwanted gloss on the story.

In the meantime, the Chicago Tribune has reported on the real state of Italy's cultural heritage in an article about a decision to open Pompeii, one of the country's best known archaeological sites, to private ventures:,0,5021224.story As the article states,

The opening of Pompeii to private ventures comes as the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, pinched for cash, has slashed state funds for arts and archeological sites. Archeology restoration funds for Pompeii suffered a deep cut, reduced from $75 million last fiscal year to $15 million this fiscal year, the top archeologist there said.

Given these stark financial realities, Italy needs fewer exhibits designed to pump up nationalistic impulses, less government control over everything and anything "old," and more of an effort to focus limited resources and to engage the populace as has been successfully done in the UK with its Treasure Act and PAS. During its last time in power, the Berlusconi government pressed to modernize Italy's laws, but with little success against the country's entrenched archaeological bureaucracy. Hopefully, the government's initiative at Pompeii is just the beginning of other, more successful efforts.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lara Logan of CBS News: Cultural Property Criminal?

Those who do not like Lara Logan's reporting, her politics, her personal life or, perhaps her notoriety are making a big deal about the fact that she has displayed some portraits of Saddam Hussein from Iraq in her office. Now, apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") is gettting into the act. See: It is not helping Ms. Logan's cause that the Feds earlier came down hard on a Fox News engineer for smuggling similar paintings from Iraq. Apparently, questions are being raised about "double standards."

Hopefully, ICE will close the books on its investigation soon. It should be clear to anyone who has actually read the governing legislation authorizing import restrictions on Iraqi cultural artifacts that it was not really meant to apply to modern artifacts, despite the fact that the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (("ECA") has, in its infinite wisdom, applied import restrictions to modern Iraqi art. (The governing statute, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, only provides for restrictions on archaeological objects over 250 years old and ethnological objects, which are typically not the products of modern societies.)
I suppose that ICE could also be making the claim that the portraits taken from bombed out buildings were stolen "Iraqi Government Property," but before doing so, one would hope ICE agents would first search all the offices in the Pentagon and State Department to make sure no similar souvenirs are hanging on the walls.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Italy Seeks Chief Curator

Italy is looking for someone to oversee its multitude of museums:;_ylt=AmzNl9u.vrhSEsw3uS3hcRpFeQoB

This will be a big challenge. Italy is blessed with an unparallelled inventory of cultural artifacts and sites. Unfortunately, Italy is also cursed with a choking cultural bureaucracy and little apparent appetite for investing sufficient funds for upkeep let alone making these cultural institutions world class.

Only those with considerable intestinal fortitude and an innate ability to navigate the vagaries of the Italian bureaucracy and political system need apply for this post.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Market Meltdown Impacts Museums and Others

I am no economist, but it stands to reason that the recent stock market meltdown cannot but hurt museums and archaeological organizations alike. Guidelines for not-for-profits suggest that endowments be held in high quality investments. However, in troubled economic times like these, even "blue chip" investments have suffered substantial declines in value. Although such declines may be made up in the long term, the trend must certainly be worrying for trustees and staff of any cultural institution. Another worry is that donations come from discretionary income. When a supporter's net worth falls, the first place to cut will be donations. Finally, given the current political and economic climate, cultural organizations cannot count on government handouts, particularly if they are in the form of Congressional earmarks.

Recommended Reading: Derek Fincham's Take on the Treasure Act and PAS

Derek Fincham, a teaching fellow at Loyola New Orleans Law School and a blogger on cultural property issues (see:, has argued that the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has been quite successful in the UK and Wales and should be considered elsewhere. Fincham's article is entitled, "A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin." It can be found in Volume 15, No. 3 2008 of the International Journal of Cultural Property at page347.

Here is the flavor of Fincham's work from his abstract: "The domestic legal framework for portable antiquities in England and Wales is unique and differs from the typical approach. Coupled with the PAS this legal structure has resulted in better cultural policy, which leads to less looting of important archaeological sites, allows for a tailored cultural policy, and has produced more data and contextual information with which to conduct historical and archaeological research on an unprecedented scale. Compensating finders of antiquities may even preclude an illicit market in antiquities so long as this compensation is substantially similar to the market price of the object and effectively excludes looters from this reward system."

It's nice to finally see an academic like Fincham getting beyond the largely punitive approach favored by "authorities" like the Archaeological Institute of America ("AIA"), Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute ("CAARI") and Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE").

For more about the Treasure Act and PAS see:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brent R. Benjamin of Saint Louis Art Museum Named to CPAC Museum Seat

The White House has announced that Brent R. Benjamin of the Saint Louis Art Museum has been named to a seat on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to represent the interests of the museum community. Mr. Benjamin will be replacing Sandy Boyd of the University of Iowa. The White House Personnel Announcement can be found here:

Mr. Benjamin should be well acquainted with cultural property issues due to an ongoing dispute with Dr. Zahi Hawass, the publicity seeking Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, over a funerary mask of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka Nefer Nefer. See generally: and

Sunday, September 28, 2008

NAGPRA Runs Amok in Hawaii

The Museum Security Network has republished an interesting article from "Indian Country Today" about how the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was used to justify the "reburial" of important artifacts from the Bishop Museum in some sacred caves in Hawaii : For more about the Bishop Museum see:

The article recounts quite a story of how a law meant to protect the rights of Native Americans to the bones and artifacts of their ancestors has entangled Senator Inouye, his staff, the Department of the Interior and the venerable Bishop Museum in quite a tale of conflict of interest, self-dealing, theft, breach of fiduciary duty and even contempt of court. Meanwhile, "Indian Country Today" also reports elsewhere that the National Park Service is under investigation for improperly spending some $3 million in NAGPRA funds and that the entire program is under review for responsiveness to Tribal interests.

What a mess. At least a member of the NAGPRA review panel indicates that his committee is “very open” to “increasing the accountability and transparency” of the law’s implementation. Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2008

US Senate Finally Ratifies 1954 Hague Convention

Patty Gerstenblith, the President of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, sent out the following announcement:

The Archaeological Institute of America, the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, and the U.S. Committee for the Blue Shield announce that the United States Senate voted on September 25 to give its advice and consent to ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
The United States now joins 121 other nations in becoming a party to this historic treaty which establishes the principles for protecting cultural sites, monuments and collections during both armed conflict and military occupation. By taking this significant step, the United States demonstrates its commitment to the preservation of the world’s cultural, artistic, religious and historic legacy.

The Library of Congress "Thomas" search engine ( indicates that the 1954 Hague Convention was acceded to with the following "understandings:"

Resolved (two-thirds of the Senators present concurring therein),-


The Senate advises and consents to the ratification of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, concluded on May 14, 1954 (Treaty Doc. 106-1(A)), subject to the understandings of section 2 and the declaration of section 3.-720


The advice and consent of the Senate under section 1 is subject to the following understandings, which shall be included in the instrument of ratification:

(1) It is the understanding of the United States of America that ``special protection,'' as defined in Chapter II of the Convention, codifies customary international law in that it, first, prohibits the use of any cultural property to shield any legitimate military targets from attack and, second, allows all property to be attacked using any lawful and proportionate means, if required by military necessity and notwithstanding possible collateral damage to such property.

(2) It is the understanding of the United States of America that any decision by any military commander, military personnel, or any other person responsible for planning, authorizing, or executing military action or other activities covered by this Convention shall only be judged on the basis of that person's assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized, or executed the action under review, and shall not be judged on the basis of information that comes to light after the action under review was taken.

(3) It is the understanding of the United States of America that the rules established by the Convention apply only to conventional weapons, and are without prejudice to the rules of international law governing other types of weapons, including nuclear weapons.

(4) It is the understanding of the United States of America that, as is true for all civilian objects, the primary responsibility for the protection of cultural objects rests with the Party controlling that property, to ensure that it is properly identified and that it is not used for an unlawful purpose.


The advice and consent of the Senate under section 1 is subject to the following declaration:With the exception of the provisions that obligate the United States to impose sanctions on persons who commit or order to be committed a breach of the Convention, this Convention is self-executing. This Convention does not confer private rights enforceable in United States courts.

It is my own understanding that the United States Military already largely followed the Convention anyway. Presumably, the Senate's "understandings" reflect current US military views on how the Convention should be applied in practice.

While the Senate's ratification is thus probably largely symbolic, the Lawyers' Committee, the AIA, the U.S. Committee for the Blue Shield and others still deserve credit for encouraging action on an instrument that has been languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1999. Still, one must recognize that the 1954 Hague Convention has been spectacularly unsuccessful in preventing damage to cultural property in places like the Balkans and most recently, Georgia. Only the real commitment of national authorities, military commanders, and the troops on the ground can ensure cultural property is indeed protected as much as possible given the exigencies of war.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

ECA "Ambassador's Fund" Awards $2.2 Million in Grants for Cultural Preservation Projects

The State Department has announced that the U.S. Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation has awarded $2.2 million in grants for cultural preservation projects in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Guatemala. The fund is administered by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), the same part of the State Department responsible for import restrictions on cultural artifacts. For more, see:

While I am all for funding restoration projects of important sites, one of the grants to the "Conservation Fund for Guatemala" potentially raises the same conflict of interest questions I have had with other grants to "the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute" and "Heritage Watch." For more, see:

Note that part of the grant is meant for the "documentation of plundering at Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park."

I suspect that when the Guatemala MOU comes up for renewal in 2012 someone from the "Conservation Fund for Guatemala" will show up at the CPAC hearing with documentation paid for by ECA that supports yet another extension of the MOU. As these groups tend to be advocates for the restrictions in question, issues of fairness are raised, particularly if there is no guarantee that the information is compiled or presented in a neutral way.

Here is a recent example. At the CPAC hearing on the Cambodian renewal, a representative of Heritage Watch, another recipient of ECA's financial largess, acted as the primary advocate for the continuation of and expansion of import restrictions. For more, see: My recollection is that the Heritage Watch representative spoke with some feeling about looting of archaeological sites by "armed gangs," but failed to highlight the involvement of Cambodian military in the problem. This only came out based on questioning from a CPAC member to the Cambodian Ambassador. Of course, the fact that an instrumentality of the Cambodian government is responsible for looting Cambodian archaeological sites is a fact that should not be suppressed for purposes of CPAC's recommendations on the subject.

Funding such advocates for import restrictions only feeds into the perception that the entire process is deeply flawed. Does ECA really want this perception to continue, particularly when other parts of ECA spend considerable time and effort lecturing other governments about the virtues of transparency and fair process? While I appreciate the sincere desire of members of the archaeological community and the employees of the State Department to help protect the cultural heritage of other countries, the end should never be allowed to justify the means of rigging the system in favor of ensuring the broadest import restrictions possible.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Italy Repatriates Parthenon Piece to Greece

The New York Times has reported that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has presented Greek authorities with a small piece of sculpture from the Parthenon that had been kept in a museum in Palermo, Sicily, for the past 200 years. For more, see:

The piece in question is a 14-by-13-inch foot from a sculpture of Artemis, ancient goddess of the hunt, that was originally a part of a 520-foot frieze that ran round the temple.

Despite the hopeful claims of the Greek President, I find it doubtful that the British will consider the return of this fragment and others like it as much of a "precedent" for the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.

What I find somewhat puzzling is that the the fragment is apparently not being given outright, but rather is said to be on a "permanent loan." Perhaps, this was done to avoid some Italian or Greek legal provision relating to deaccession or taxes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cambodian Import Restrictions Extended and Expanded

The Federal Register reports that current restrictions on Cambodian artifacts have been extended and expanded for another five years:

I attended the CPAC hearing earlier this year. Two issues stood out. First, the Cambodian Ambassador forthrightly admitted that the Cambodian military was responsible for looting many archaeological sites. One would think the US would ask the Cambodians to take basic self-help measures (like reigning in their own military) as a precondition for extending current import restrictions. However, once restrictions are imposed they obviously start taking on a life of their own.

Second, a representative from Heritage Watch, a group that evidently receives funding from the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), was the main spokesperson for those advocating the extension and expansion of the current restrictions. To me at least, this potentially raises serious conflict of interest issues as well as the question whether State Department money is being directly or indirectly used to lobby the State Department itself. For more, see:

The text of the new MOU with Cambodia has not yet been posted on the ECA web site. It will be interesting to see if the MOU at least makes the suggestion that the Cambodians crack down on their own military with respect to looting.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Repatriations Back to Iraq"

The VOA has publicized the handover of antiquities that were allegedly illicitly removed from Iraq. The story can be found here: A somewhat more detailed piece from "The Imperial Valley News" can also be found here:

Attendees at the ceremony included John Russell, a State Department employee and archaeologist. Russell previously lobbied Congress for passage of legislation to allow the State Department to impose "emergency" import restrictions on a host of Iraqi archaeological artifacts, including ones as common as coins. For more see,

As the "Imperial Valley News" states,

Julie L. Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), completed the repatriation of 1,046 cultural antiquities to the Government of Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating back to 2001.

The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying god figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center. [Note: They were evidently stored after being seized in a US Customs Building that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks]

Later on in the article there are more details about the seizure of coins:

[I]n 2003, five Federal Express packages containing glass bottles, coins, copper knives, spear heads, necklaces, cylinder seals, a bronze stick and set of decorative armor were imported by another Newark, N.J., gallery. ICE New York agents determined, with the help of experts, that the items, which were originally declared to be of British origin, were all, except for the armor, from Iraq. In total, 671 items were seized (406 glass bottles, 5 bronze spear heads, 6 bronze daggers, 87 cylinder seals, 2 metal sculptures, 1 metal axe head, 120 beaded necklaces, 1 large bronze spear/sword, 10 metal daggers, 30 antique coins, 2 bronze figurines, 1 small glass plate) and determined to be from various locations throughout Iraq.

This article raises two obvious questions outside those already raised in two recent posts about Immigration and Customs Enforcement's exploits.

Most obviously, "Is that all?" I'm sure some will think that 1,046 objects is a significant number. However, that number must be judged against all the hyperbole we have heard since 2003. You know, the incessant chatter in the press and archaeological blogs that Iraqi archaeological sites have been "strip-mined" of immense numbers of artifacts with a lion's share being destined for the illicit market in the United States and Europe. At a minimum, the actual number seized in the US belies any claim that whatever may have left Iraq illicitly was destined for our shores.

Second, as someone who has collected and studied ancient coins for over 30 years, I would be quite interested to learn how "experts" were able to opine that the coins found in a FED EX package were illicitly removed from Iraq. Coins that circulated in Iraq also circulated around the Middle East (and beyond). Presumably, the coins in question could have been found in Iraq. On the other hand, they could also have been found most anywhere. And for that matter, for all I know, they could have resided in some collection for years before being seized by US Customs.

I say this for this simple fact: It is likely that much of the material that was seized and repatriated to Iraq was simply abandoned by the importer. Let's face it. The costs of hiring a lawyer to contest the seizure of items of small value like "30 antique coins" is just not worth it.

Without Customs' claims being tested in a contested adjudicatory hearing, it is at least possible that a significant number of the 1,046 items mentioned in the articles are actually being "repatriated" to a country from whence they never came!

All and all, this should be a cause for deep embarrassment for both ICE and members of the archaeological community like John Russell. Perhaps, that is why we are only hearing about this handover ceremony from the VOA and "The Imperial Valley News."

In the meantime, sources like the Art Newspaper are starting to ask hard questions about the claims of archaeological community about the extent of looting in Iraq. Hopefully, that long delayed scrutiny of the archaeological community's claims about Iraq is only beginning.