Wednesday, December 30, 2009

China Loses Thousands of Historic Sites

Archaeologists often claim that collecting is the driving force behind looting. I would instead suggest that looting is far more likely to be a byproduct of development. When roads or dams are built, unofficial "salvage archaeology' often takes place, which in fact may save some of the artifacts (if not their context) from destruction.

In China, this is certainly the case. According to a recent article, some 30,000 items on a 1982 list have vanished, in large part due to China's aggressive development. See

Some experts think the problem is even greater than official surveys suggest. The article quotes He Shuzhong, of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, as stating,

The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with the rapid development," he said. "It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution – then, most damage was to movable items, but not to ancient tombs or buildings or old towns. For example, many ancient tombs have been robbed and in the [redevelopment] of old towns many old buildings have been demolished. Beijing used to have 25 protection areas and I believe only half of them are still well protected now.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critters as Cultural Property: Panda Cub to be Repatriated to China in Early 2010

Washington D.C.'s beloved panda cub, Tai Shan, may have been born in the USA, but under a contract, he belongs to China, and he will be going home to a land he has never seen sometime early in 2010. See

In the old days, Communist China gave pandas to zoos around the world as diplomatic gifts. Now, in capitalist-Communist China, cash is king and they are rented for substantial amounts of money. After the Smithsonian zoo's original gifted panda pair died of old age, the beloved pandas could only be replaced with rentals at the cost of some $25 million. See

One of the other downsides of this arrangement is that when Tai Shan was born, the Smithsonian had to pay the Chinese $600,000, but the Smithsonian did not receive any rights to keep him. Hence, Tai Shan is being repatriated. And if a new deal is not worked out, his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be following him home as the Smithsonian's 10 year lease expires soon.

All the rental money the Chinese receive in excess of expenses is supposed to go to preserving panda habitat, but these fees have become so high that complaints of "panda profiteering" have become increasingly common.

So while their persona remains cute and cuddly in the eyes of the public, zoos have started to question if a panda rental is a good investment, particularly when their high cost has required cuts elsewhere.

In any event, it seems to me that China's approach to pandas has something in common to its approach to redundant antiquities, i.e., they belong to the State as a matter of right, but they may be made available to others for a steep price.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Face of the Real Saint Nick Revealed in Time for Christmas

An Italian forensic pathologist has teamed up with a British anthropologist and new technology to reconstruct the face of the real Saint Nicholas, whose relics can be found in Bari, Italy. See

As the article explains,

Nicholas of Myra (270-346 AD) was born into a patrician family of some wealth, but as a devoted Christian he used what he had to help others (and to intervene on behalf of the falsely accused). The most famous story to come down to us is how Nicholas, hearing of the plight of a father who could not afford dowries for his three daughters, secretly left bags of gold coins at their home to provide a dowry and preserve the ladies from a likely fate as prostitutes. In one version of the story, the father lay in wait the third time the donor was to visit and thus discovered the identity of history's first secret Santa.

But Nicholas was much more than a kindly, anonymous gift-giver. As a bishop in the fourth century, he was also deeply involved in the raging disputes of the day over core issues of church doctrine that we now take for granted, or ought to.

For the story of how Saint Nick's bones arrived in Bari, Italy, from what is now present day Turkey, see:

Presumably, despite Italy's own aggressive repatriation efforts, there are no plans to send Saint Nick's relics back to Turkey anytime soon.

In any event, Cultural Property Observer wishes all its readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

AAMD Testimony on Interim Review of MOU with Italy

The AAMD has posted the testimony of its members who appeared during CPAC's interim review of the Italian MOU. See

Here are some interesting quotes.

From Maxwell Anderson, Indianapolis Museum of Art:

AAMD has long supported responsible collecting, and endorsed the early MOUs which followed the intent of the Cultural Property Implementation Act. Yet more recent MOUs have, in AAMD’s view, gone beyond the intent of the CPIA. Italy’s request covers about 13 centuries and almost all objects from that period.

It is difficult to maintain that all objects from all centuries are indispensable to a country’s protection of its cultural heritage.

The only art museums that have benefited from long-term loans are those that have recently transferred works to Italy in recognition of their dubious or falsified title. Desirable though these loans are, they do not satisfy the requirement of the MOU for long-term loans; they satisfy only the one-on-one agreements made with individual museums.

In order to increase U.S. access to Italian cultural heritage, the CPAC review must in our view specify how many long-term loans have been made, to which museums and for how long. Under the CPIA (section 306(g)(2)(B)), CPAC has the right to recommend changes to an agreement to make it more effective. We suggest that CPAC require Italy to make available, for loan, not less than a precise number of objects to not less than a precise number of accredited museums between this review and the end of the MOU.

From Michael Conforti, The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute:

The intent of Article II of the current Memorandum with Italy is to move beyond mere study of the issue of legal markets and towards creating a legal market abroad for Italian objects sold legitimately in Italy. There are several viable models for functioning legal markets: Japan as well as England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have legal markets, as does the U.S. and other countries.

I urge that these examples and others of successful legal markets be considered by the Italian government as new ways to approach cultural policy as outlined in Article II. Further I recommend that the Memorandum be made more specific. In particular, I recommend that the Committee consider amending the current Memorandum by specifying a “more than” number of export certificates be issued under Article II and at the same time urge the Italian government to adopt a true system to create a legal market, overseen by the Italian government that allows for the legal sale and purchase of archeological and other works of art. We feel this supports the underlying principles of cultural exchange and will ultimately benefit the public in the U.S. and in Italy.

From Kaywin Feldman, Minneapolis Institute of Arts:

The spirit of support and cooperation emphasized in the MOU would be much better served if American museums could acquire redundant antiquities and borrow objects for long-term loan from Italian museums. AAMD believes that the United States government should encourage developed countries, such as Italy, to make redundant antiquities available to the legitimate market as a way to curtail looting. Article II calls for the Italian government to reduce bureaucracy and facilitate the export of legitimate archaeological items sold within Italy. AAMD institutions have not experienced any expedited process or increased availability of export permits. We would encourage CPAC, therefore, to confirm that the Italian government is indeed facilitating the export of legitimate archaeological items by verifying the actual number of export permits granted for antiquities. It is certainly not in the spirit of cooperation to sell antiquities legally within Italy, but then to claim that if these works are sold in another country, they necessarily cause looting.

To further enhance cultural exchange and to conform to the MOU, Italy should make true longterm loans available to US museums. A lively program of exchange would lead to the exchange of information among researchers and increased collaboration on scholarly projects. We have found almost no evidence of long-term loans to large AAMD museums, except for the institutions that have individual agreements resulting from the transfer of works. The Italian loans made as a result of American Museums transferring objects to Italy are not truly long-term loans since these loans are not made to satisfy Article II of the MOU, but instead to satisfy an agreement with an individual museum. We would urge CPAC to ask the Italian government to provide precise information on how many long-term loans have been made outside of those made to museums transferring material and for how long such loans were made. Longterm loans to museums often run as long as 20-40 years in order to give several generations of scholars and audience the opportunity to study and truly learn from the works on view. Needless to say, American art museums are willing to work with the Italian government to facilitate such loans.

From Gary Vikan, Walters Art Museum:

I served on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, from 2001 to 2003. My first meeting addressed a request from Bolivia. As we got deeply into the ethnographic material of relatively recent date and low monetary value whose movement into the United States would be (and in fact was) interdicted by this expansive agreement, I recalled my days in Romania in 1974-75 as an IREX Fellow, during the time of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. Foreigners, like me, could visit the antiquariat shops of Bucharest, but objects 100 years old or older, no matter how culturally insignificant, were displayed in a restricted area, to which we could not gain access. As I sat there considering Bolivia’s request, it occurred to me that the movement of cultural material across borders was like the movement of people, and of ideas – since artifacts are the bearers of ideas. For Ceauşescu and his kind, both were forbidden. And I thought: what if all Russian music were confined to Russia, all French painting to France, all English literature to England, and all American movies to the United States?

In 2003, the Walters Art Museum, in cooperation with the State Department, hosted a “convening” of regional academics and museum professionals with a group of their Italian counterparts. The intent was to explore practical ways to realize the laudable outcomes articulated in the Italian MOU; and specifically, institutional collaborations and long-term loans. There was a warm and enthusiastic mood in the room, and an eagerness shared by all to move forward. But at every turn, the dreaded word: BUREACRACY. Along the way, though, the conversation took an interesting turn, as we together began to explore the distinction between owning and experiencing an artifact – the idea that you don’t have to own something to experience it and learn from it. The two Italians to my left described the recent enthusiasm in Rome for “car sharing.” Like-minded people would together lease a car, but each would use it only when he or she needed it. The parallel was obvious to us all.

But sadly, in the six years since that convening our high hopes for collaborations and long-term loans have not been realized. Indeed, in a recent AAMD survey, few museums reported any long-terms loans from Italy; moreover, no museum reported any effort on the part of the Italians to engage in joint projects, excavations or studies. There were, however, a few prominent exceptions in the survey; namely, those American museums that have recently transferred works to Italy and are now enjoying the benefit of long-term Italian loans in return. Clearly, there is a mechanism in place – outside the boundaries of the current MOU – to make that happen, provided that there is the will to make it happen. So now, isn’t the time for that mechanism and that will to be expanded from those few museums to the vast majority of American museums who have not, and almost certainly never will, transfer works to Italy? This is especially important for museums in regions of the United States, mostly west of the Mississippi, where population migration and growth have taken place on a vast scale since the era of the licit antiquities trade and partage.

What do we recommend? We urge that what has happened recently for a few in the future become commonplace for many; that long-term loans of archaeological material from Italy to American museums become routine. How will this dream become reality? We believe that this will happen only if we agree on real goals and commit ourselves, on both sides of the Atlantic, to rigorous oversight. Toward that end, we urge members of this Committee to explore with the CPAC staff the Memorandum of Understanding drafted in 2000 between the United States and El Salvador. Article II of that document has a much higher degree of specificity than does Article II of the current MOU with Italy, including real, measurable outcomes. It can and should provide a model going forward, holding us collectively accountable for the realization of our shared goals. And finally, we strongly urge that this Interim Review be made part of the public record, available to all, to endorse or criticize.

Monday, December 21, 2009

PRC Mints Silver Coin Celebrating Ancient Coin Collecting

The PRC has issued a silver 10 Yuan coin to commemorate the 14th Beijing International Coin Exhibition. See The new issue depicts ancient coin designs from the Han Dynasty and the Sassanian Empire. (The Sassanian Empire was centered in today's Iran, but its coins also circulated in Central Asia, including what is today part of China. The modern Chinese coin appears to depict the portrait of Ardashir I, the dynasty's founder, from a silver dinar.)

The decision to issue such a coin should not be all that surprising. In the last decade or so, collecting ancient coins has become very popular within China. Just like in the United States and Europe, the vast majority the coins available to Chinese collectors are completely unprovenanced. The difference, of course, is what types of coins are collected. Chinese mainly purchase ancient Chinese coins because they want to collect, preserve, and display artifacts from their own culture. In contrast, for now at least, there are only a relatively few Chinese who collect ancient Western coins (see Meadows, Andrew R., and Richard W.C. Kan. 2004. History Re-stored: Ancient Greek Coins from the Zhuyuetang Collection. Hong Kong: Zhuyuetang Limited.).

In the United States, the converse is true. Relatively few Americans collect ancient Chinese coins. In contrast, many Americans (mostly of European decent) collect ancient Greek and Roman coins, particularly those struck in what is now Italy. Again, it is often because they identify these coins with their own cultural backgrounds.

What is another difference? Well, through the efforts of our own U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the AIA (see and and ) unprovenanced ancient Chinese or Cypriot coins cannot be legally imported into the United States without the fear they will be seized, and the AIA is actively working to extend this ban to the heart of the ancient coin market in the United States, Greek and Roman coins from Italy. See

So, while Chinese and Cypriot collectors continue to be able to enjoy adding unprovenanced ancient coins imported for their collections, our State Department has bowed to the narrow interests of foreign cultural bureaucracies and the AIA to preclude Americans from enjoying what these foreigners can do.

Perhaps, if the AIA gets its wish and the U.S. ultimately extends import restrictions to ancient Greek and Roman coins struck in Italy, Chinese collectors and dealers will take advantage of the situation just as they have with newly restricted (for American collectors) Chinese artifacts. See and

Will the PRC coin commemorating the 20th Beijing International Coin Exhibition depict an ancient Chinese coin along with a Roman Denarius or a Syracusian Tetradrachm? If current trends continue, perhaps so.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

US Army Shores Up Ancient Monestary

The U.S. Military is working to shore up the ruins of an ancient monastery in Iraq. See

Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime treated this archaeological treasure poorly, placing the site within the boundaries of a military compound. This is not surprising. Saddam did not identify with early Christian monks. Rather, he sought to associate his regime with the glories of early Mesopotamia and the later military successes of Saladin, Islam's warrior against the Crusaders.

When the Americans took over the facility, they also used the Monastery ruins for military purposes, but before they pack up and depart, they hope to leave the Monastery in a better condition than they found it.

Archaeologists have been harshly critical of the U.S. Military, unfairly in my opinion and that of others. See, e.g., and

Yet, American archaeologists have not advocated for this site, and also seem far more interested in the fate of early Mesopotamian and Islamic sites, than in ones related to Iraq's early Christian or Jewish heritage.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

China Hunts for Treasures in US Museums

The New York Times reports that a "Chinese Treasure Hunting Team" has descended on American Museums looking for stolen art. See

China had previously announced this high profile effort to catalogue and repatriate artifacts from the Old Summer Palace as the 150th anniversary of its destruction approaches. See

The nationalistic impulses behind the project should be clear:

Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.

But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.


Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.

The United States scouting tour — visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year — quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most either were employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

American archaeologists have been broadly supportive of China's efforts to repatriate artifacts. However, this article again suggests the motivations for such efforts have very little to do with scholarship or the preservation of artifacts and their context:

Mr. Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said.

“Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

President Obama Nominates Judith Ann Stewart Stock to ECA Post

President Obama has nominated Judith Ann Stewart Stock to be Assistant Secretary of State (Educational and Cultural Affairs). See

Ms. Stock will presumably be the decision maker for the upcoming renewal of the Italian MOU. See

She will also hopefully address concerns about the transparency and accountability of ECA's process of imposing import restrictions on cultural goods. See

Ms. Stock currently serves as Vice President of Institutional Affairs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. See

Sunday, December 13, 2009

China Art Law Newsletter Debutes

The term "old China hand" dates from the early 20th c. According to A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, (Macmillan, 1989), this term refers to "One who has spent many years in China in the commercial or civil service, or as a missionary." When this term was coined, the Chinese Empire was in steep decline and China's people were about to face decades of war and revolutionary upheaval.

Now in the early 21st c., China has re-emerged as a world power politically, economically, militarily, and in the arts. We are lucky then that Nancy Murphy, who certainly is not that old herself, but who nonetheless qualifies as "an old China hand" when it comes to arts issues, has decided to share some of her extensive knowledge with us in the new "China Art Law Newsletter." It can be found at

"Cultural Property Observer" wishes "China Art Law Newsletter" much success in the coming [Western] New Year and beyond.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Differing Perceptions of Italy's Premier Coin Display

During my own CPAC presentation on behalf of two numismatic trade associations, I questioned the Italian State's commitment to the study, preservation and display of the ancient coins in its care. See

Now, as reported by archaeological blogger, David Gill, AIA Vice-President Sebastian Heath has taken issue with this view. See

Specifically, Dr. Heath, states,

Another voice heard at the CPAC meeting was that of ancient coin collectors and dealers. Like many AIA members, one of the areas in which I’ve published scholarly articles is ancient numismatics so the protection of coins is of great interest to me. Archaeologists are members of the numismatic community, and it is important that our voice is heard. Speaking for coin dealers, Peter Tompa, who represented both the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild and who has also released a summary of his written submission, suggested that Italian museums are not good stewards of their numismatic collections and that Italian archaeologists do a poor job publishing excavated coins. My experience suggests that neither is the case. The Palazzo Massimo in Rome has a superb numismatic display that features excavated material, including hoard finds, to trace the rise and use of coinage from the Republican period onwards. The website reports the discovery of coins and often places them in context by discussing the sites on which they were found. Unfortunately, the current MoU does not include coins as a protected category. If Italy does request that coins be included in a future agreement, it is likely that the AIA would support such a move.

Dr. Heath's view, in turn, has prompted some comment. In particular, a collector [who would prefer to remain anonymous], had this to say in response about Italy's premier coin display:

I disagree with the word "superb". Italians are awful stewards.... I too have seen the collection of coins in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. It is dusty, fingerstained, with magnifying glasses on most Roman coins that are alinged poorly, and with at least one Domitian aureus that had fallen to the bottom of the display. It is an afterthought, at best. I asked a curator (at least someone in a suit with a badge) about the collection, and he, in perfect English told me that he didn't know anything about coins. When I asked who the numismatist was at the Massimo, he didn't have a clue. One of the Nero pieces was clearly Lugdunum (with the globe at the neck of the bust), and was listed as being "from Rome"...of course, possible, but not minted there. [My Wife] and I chatted with a curator about the excellent mosaics. She was very pleasant and knowledgeable. Two days later we chanced to meet her and her boyfriend at the Nero Domus Aureus; I told her I was surprised that the coins at the Massimo were not well presented...her response: "what coins?"

I also have viewed the display myself some years back. I thought it was excellent in concept (particularly in contrast to the few, scattered displays of worn and corroded coins one often sees in regional museums). At the same time, however, I was very disappointed to also observe the effects of neglect-- particularly the broken lighting and magnifying devices. I would also note the "Fasti online" Dr. Heath describes does include coins, but fails to describe them in much detail.

Overall, while I appreciate Dr. Heath's points, I simply don't think they take into account the "situation on the ground" in Italy as a whole. The Palazzo Massimo is Italy's premier coin display. Yet, even it shows the signs of neglect. "Fastionline" may mention coins, but it is no substitute for thorough publication.

Few coins are displayed at Italian museums. Many museum collections are not published at all or are published only in part. The same deplorable situation exists at archaeological sites. Italian sites have been under professional excavation for a century, but publications of site finds are few and for many sites, years of excavation work has failed to produce any publications at all.

One also wonders about the storage conditions for coins. Mario Resca, Italy's new "Museum Czar," has spoken forthrightly about the serious underfunding facing the Italian cultural institutions. Italy is a very wealthy "G8" country. Yet, it does not even fund its major cultural sites adequately. What then of its funding for the coins in State Collections?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hawass Tut Price Tag too Dear for Aussies

Egypt's Tut Exhibit won't make it to Australia because the population of potential museum-goers "Downunder" can't support the $10 million price tag Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Government are demanding. See

Archaeologists have long claimed that market nations should restrict imports of cultural goods in favor of promoting long term loans of artifacts to museums, but Egypt has extacted top dollar for such displays.

Luckily, the Austrians have come to the Australian's rescue with their own exhibit of Egyptian art from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. By contrast, this exhibit cost the Australian Museum about $1.5 million.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

State Department "Town Hall Meeting" on Holocaust Era Art Issues

The Department of State's Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues is calling a Town Hall Meeting January 7, 2010 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Department to get the views of interested individuals and organizations on the establishment of a U.S. commission on cultural materials displaced during World War II. The meeting will also discuss the June 30, 2009 Terezin Declaration, the text of which is at http://

For more, see

Monday, December 7, 2009

Knox Verdict Raises Further Questions About Italian Justice

The Amanda Knox verdict has raised serious questions about the quality of Italian justice. See

Yet, Marion True has been in the dock for far longer than Amanda Knox and True's alleged crimes are nowhere near as serious as those for which Ms. Knox has been found guilty.

With every passing month, suspicions that True's trial is all for "show" can only increase. Already, a prominent Italian-American publication has called for her to be freed. See

Hopefully, soon the Italians themselves will realize their prosecution of Ms. True has turned into a persecution in the eyes of many.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Parallels Between Climatologists and Archaeologists?

The release of hacked e-mails between climatologists has raised some serious questions about how the powers that be in that discipline have approached the debate about climate change. See

Having spent over 10 years interacting with members of the archaeological community over cultural property issues, I personally feel strong parallels exist between how leaders in both groups have approached the issues. In my opinion, archaeologists need to become far more cognizant of the "peril of trying to spin science" and, with it, supporting the suppression of information adverse to a preconceived position. Climatologists certainly have had to confront these issues because of this scandal-- even if at least some of their number appear to be more interested in tracking down the hackers than in reconsidering their methods.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

South American Sisto Case?

The Sun Sentinel reports that the FBI has repatriated Pre-Columbian artifacts found in the home of a deceased Florida businessman to Peru and Ecuador. See,0,3969102.story

A retirement home manager found the collection in the man's home when she was preparing the property for resale. She called in the FBI "after searching the Internet" and determining that the objects "were illegal to possess."

The businessman apparently had no heirs (or perhaps no one looked very hard to find them) so there was no one with an interest in asking if the retirement home manager was "jumping to a conclusion."

The FBI and Florida International University apparently were not interested in anything other than identifying which cultures produced the objects so they could be repatriated to the governments of the modern nation states that occupy the land that produced them.

This incident reminds me of the recent Sisto case and some of the the issues that raised. For more, see

I also am also highly dubious of the claim of the FBI agent in the video that suggests that these artifacts will be put on display in Peru and Ecuador. Both countries have large stashes of similar artifacts in storage. The public typically never sees such artifacts, and, indeed, they may be subject to deterioration or theft.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Treasures Reclaimed: The Economist Reports on Chinese Repatriaton Efforts

The Economist Magazine has reported on China's efforts to repatriate art from abroad. See

As the Magazine notes, far more Chinese artifacts are now being repatriated from abroad than are leaving China:

Collecting Chinese fine art and ceramics was all the rage in the West in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. Heavy buying by treasure-hunters, as well as looting of imperial works by the Germans, Dutch, French and British, brought huge quantities of Chinese fine art into Western collections. But in the past decade the number of European and American buyers has dwindled.


From 1949, when the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966, owning, inheriting or exchanging pre-communist works of art was banned in China. Thanks to shifts in policy that started under Deng Xiaoping and continued after him, the Chinese are now catching up in a big way, following on from the Japanese buyers who dominated the market in the 1970s and the Taiwanese and Hong Kong collectors who started buying seriously in the 1990s.

The mainland Chinese are beginning to dominate the salerooms. Prevented for so long from celebrating the achievements of their forebears, they have a thirst for their own history, and especially for anything that connects modern China with the glories of its imperial past. The newly wealthy-such as Xu Qiming, China's biggest exporter of eels from the port city of Ningbo; Lu Hanzhen, an industrialist from Zhejiang province who became rich by selling motorcycles and nylon fabric for car tyres; or indeed any businessman or civil servant who benefited from the recent flurry of privatisations-can afford to pay, and pay they will.

Nor are these buyers to be found only in the old political and commercial strongholds of Beijing and Shanghai. There are probably seven Chinese cities with populations of more than 5m, and demand for fine art is as strong in Guangdong, adjacent to Hong Kong, as it is in Sichuan in the west or in more far-flung areas. “It's what I call 'natural repatriation',” says Patti Wong, who as chairman of Sotheby's Asia has been watching the Chinese buying wave grow for a decade, "and it is happening everywhere."

Having made their money quickly, Chinese buyers are in a hurry to build their collections fast and are willing to pay a premium to achieve that. “Arriving at the buffet party a little too late,” says Mr Chow, "they are more aggressive than Europeans or Americans." Even though economic growth in China this year may be only 8%, after 9% last year, it is still far higher than in most of the rest of the world. China may be one of the few places where the number of dollar billionaires has actually increased in the past year, from 101 to 130, according to the recently published Hurun Rich List.


Dealers and auctioneers familiar with the Chinese market estimate that there are around 150 collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan who spend at least $1m a year each on Chinese works of art, and that their number is relatively stable. The mainland has another 150 or so buyers in that category, and the numbers there are growing rapidly. More Chinese treasures are now sold at auction in Hong Kong than in New York, London and Paris. Whereas back in 2004 Sotheby's did $10m-worth of business with 70 clients from the mainland in its spring and autumn sales in Hong Kong, the figure for the same sales this year is seven times higher and its list of mainland Chinese buyers has grown to 195. Many more bid through established dealers in Hong Kong. “Mainland China has clearly become our main land,” says Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby's Asia.


In 1886 Paul Durand-Ruel, a Paris dealer, packed his bags with 300 Impressionist paintings-including piles of Renoirs, Pissarros and Sisleys-to take to America. He was closely followed by a Briton, Joseph (later Lord) Duveen, who could see, like Durand-Ruel, that “Europe had the art and America had the money.”

Just as European Old Master and Impressionist paintings then began to move inexorably westwards across the Atlantic, now Chinese fine art and ceramics from America, Britain, France and the Netherlands are moving eastwards back to China. Not since the heyday of Duveen's and Durand-Ruel's exports to America has there been such vigorous redirecting of cultural artefacts from one part of the world to another as European and American collections are broken up and sold off to the newly wealthy Chinese. The traffic is almost all one way.

And that is not all. In addition to "repatriation by purchase," China is also aggressively pressing for ever more extensive legal restrictions on the trade of ancient Chinese artifacts abroad:

In addition, China has become increasingly vocal about restricting the trade in its treasures. After nearly five years of negotiation the Bush administration in its final days at last agreed to prohibit the import of a wide range of antiquities into America. The agreement was not as strong as China would have liked, and in recent weeks its government has said that it will tighten up on the movement of cultural relics out of the country. Its plan is to ban the export of anything made before 1911, the end of the Qing dynasty. No matter that China is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, it still seems to be uncomfortable with free trade-except when it suits it.

After all reading this, one wonders if the archaeologists that spoke so eloquently on behalf of China's request for import restrictions before CPAC should feel duped. Were the restrictions really about "protecting the archaeological record" as they claimed, or are they in fact designed to help ensure that ancient Chinese art stays out of the hands of "foreigners," and, in particular, American citizens? And further in this regard, given the prospect for even more extensive Chinese export controls, what of China's promise under the MOU that

The Government of the People’s Republic of China shall continue to license the sale and export of certain antiquities as provided by law and will explore ways to make more of these objects available licitly.


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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Does U.S. Law Enforcement Apply Our Law or Foreign Law?

I've been told by government officials that U.S. law enforcement "does not apply foreign law," but only applies "our law," i.e. the National Stolen Property Act (as construed by a number of courts) or import restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

If so, I find the following information gleaned from Primo Magazine's recent interview with an FBI agent who worked on the Sisto case to be troubling. (For more about the Sisto case, see and

According to [FBI Special Agent] Mondini, Michael [Sisto] had hoped to sell part of the collection [of his father John] to fund his children's college education.

"He wanted to make sure all the items were legally obtained," said Mondini. "FBI Agents searched the house and took inventory. If Italian authorities could prove his father's items were stolen, then he would allow the Italians to take them back. He would not fight it."

The FBI dd not remove the material at the home at first. "It was a big task because of so many items," says Mondini. "We photographed 400 manuscripts and religous books. Many had stamps on them from specific libraries, private collections and archives. There were papal seals and decrees in Old Latin. Italian authorities reviewed them and agreed that the sample material would never had been allowed to leave Italy. These conclusions were made by three experts on religious history, two of whom were priests."

After more were photographed, Italian authorities claimed all were historically valuable and illegally obtained. The entire collection was seized by the FBI. Objects wrapped in wax paper were boxed for a new home inside two empty offices at regional headquarters in Chicago.

Mondini admits much of Sisto's collection was illegal because of the simple fact they left Italy without official authorization. Italian law sets a high bar and permission to trade and export artifacts, even inside Italy itself, is rarely if ever given.

Was the FBI following U.S. law or Italian law in seizing the items? Did the F.B.I. merely let the Italians "cherry pick" what they deemed "culturally significant" from the collection?

And on a more basic human level, did our government's premier law enforcement agency effectively take advantage of a grieving son who apparently never consulted a lawyer as to the legality of the FBI's actions just to please the cultural bureaucracy of a friendly foreign nation?

For more about Primo Magazine, see Primo interviewed Special Agent Mondini for an article entitled, "Father's Legacy, Brother's Dispute: The Case of John Sisto. That article can be found in the September-October 2009 issue of the Magazine at page 30. The Magazine also includes my own views about the Sisto case and Italy's approach to repatriation issues.