Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pre-1970 Provenance No Safe Harbor for Egyptian Antiquities?

The Archaeological Institute of American ("AIA") has sought to reassure us it is not anti-collecting. Rather, according to various pronouncements, the AIA purports to only want collectors to purchase artifacts with provenances dating back to 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention. See

If so, the 1970 date may very well not be much of a "safe harbor"now that the US Government has repatriated an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus at a ceremony conducted at the National Geographic Society. See According to some reports, it left the country over a century ago. See

It's understandable, but nonetheless too bad the owner of the sarcophagus merely abandoned it rather than spend the money on lawyers to fight the forfeiture in Court. It would have been interesting to see if the basis for the seizure would have stood up to judicial review.

In any event, while the AIA's "Archaeology Magazine" has reported on the repatriation, see, as far as I know, no one associated with the archaeological community has questioned whether the repatriation will undercut any faith collectors might have in the "1970 Rule" as a some sort of safe harbor.


John Muccigrosso said...

Wow. That's a remarkably misleading version of the article linked to in the AIA page. Here are a few sentences from the original article that contradict a few things you wrote, Peter:

"We learned that the alleged provenance on this particular sarcophagus was not real. The alleged collection from which it came did not exist. The Egyptians had never authorized the export of this particular sarcophagus whenever in fact it was exported, and who knows when that truly was," he said.

Morton said the records of acquisition in Europe either did not exist, or were questionable, so the U.S. government seized the coffin. U.S. officials then demonstrated in federal court that neither the shipper nor the U.S. buyer had legal claim to the ancient artifact, and the coffin was forfeited to the United States.

Cultural Property Observer said...

John- Please do not misrepresnt what I say on my blog. There may be a disparity between the NY Times article that says the coffin was apparently exported over 100 years ago [supposedly from Egyptian sources] and the article cited on the AIA website, but, as I say, "according to some reports, it left the country [Egypt] over a century ago."

As for the government's claim, "that U.S. officials then demonstrated in federal court that neither the shipper nor the U.S. buyer had legal claim to the ancient artifact, and the coffin was forfeited to the United States" keep in mind apparently the coffin was abandoned and thus no one contested the allegations in the Government's complaint. We will never thus never know the strength of the government's factual claims.

But, in any event, you appear to be missing the point of this blog. I merely ask, "Should collectors now have reason to doubt 1970 is the "safe harbor" that the AIA has at least implied?

Do you agree or disagree?


Peter Tompa

John Muccigrosso said...


You link to the AIA story, so I commented on that, not the NYT piece.

And, no, why should honest collectors with a record of ownership be worried? No one here could prove anything. Indeed, no one tried! And what evidence was presented was apparently falsified. So simply mentioning that the item was abandoned glosses over a few important facts.

Are you suggesting that some poor collector was denied access to their legally obtained property in this case? There seems to be no evidence at all for that.

No one went after anybody. Instead it looks very much like somebody tried to smuggle an illegally obtained artifact into this country and got caught.

Surely we're all for catching criminals, counselor!

It's arguments like these, quite frankly, that make it hard to take your stances in other cases seriously. It very much seems that you are opposed to any attempt to catch criminals who deal in illegal trade of artifacts.

Cultural Property Observer said...

John, please read what I actually stated and comment accordingly.

I do not know what the evidence was in this case. The Government has alleged something, but as the artifact was abandoned, the accuracy of the contentions have not been tested nor will they ever be.

I'm not sure there is a legal obligation to document anything, which is different of course than it being a wise course of action. I'm just not as ready to condemn collectors or dealers based on PR put out by a government agency. As you should know, PR is not necessarily 100% accurate and in this particular case the statement you quoted about all this "being demonstrated in federal court" is a bit misleading itself if no one contested the government's allegations.

Again, this is way off point from the point of this post. Is the 1970 rule a false safe harbor?

Best regards,

Peter Tompa

Private434 said...

The item was acquired in good faith from an IADAA member.

Let's not be ignorant John. Would you spend $100k on lawyers fees if the object is worth 150k? Do you have another choice over abandoning the piece?

John Muccigrosso said...


The Seller is no longer a member of IADAA. Does that mean he is now not a reputable dealer?

I agree that buyers should beware of buying illegal goods.

I'm also curious about the source of the rest of your information. Can you share?

Private434, I have no idea what the piece is worth or what the lawyer's fees would be. I do find it interesting that you and Peter both seem to be making very great assumptions, which mainly are contradicted by the statements of government officials as reported in the articles.