Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Do Dated Police Investigations Involving Coins Actually Tell Us?

Cultural Property crusaders David Gill and Paul Barford have dredged up two somewhat dated investigations by Greek authorities relating to coins on their respective blogs. One investigation led to the repatriation of a Roman denarius to Greece. The other investigation-- the result of which has not been publicised-- related to a Thracian silver coin. See

Gill and Barford suggest these incidents somehow lend support to Greece's request for an MOU with the United States. But do they? In each case, the dealers in question fully cooperated with the authorities. In each case, the investigations took place in Europe and not in the United States. So, what exactly is the relevance?

And then let's consider the coins themselves. One investigation related to a Roman denarius. Those who support import restrictions claim such coins should be treated as presumptively Italian and not presumptively Greek. And ancient Thrace encompassed the borders of present day Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. It would be interesting to learn whether Gill, Barford and friends believe Thacian coins should therefore be considered presumptively Greek, presumptively Bulgarian or presumptively Turkish.

Or, perhaps it is indeed better that import restrictions only be used to return artifacts traced back to illicit excavations in modern nation states like Greece through good police work.

Scandalous Treatment of Antiquities Dealer

A prominent UK newspaper has published a story about the scandalous treatment of a UK antiquities dealer at the hands Greek and British law enforcement. See
Thankfully, UK judicial authorities ultimately intervened to squelch a dubious arrest warrant.

In any event, Greece's heavy handed approach to these issues suggest that our own government should resist excessive Greek demands as to the scope of any MOU.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Calling All Coin Collectors [Again]

It was just last Spring when coin collectors faxed the State Department in great numbers to express their concern about the possibility that coins would be added to the Italian MOU. We are still waiting to see the results of that effort.

Now, however, the State Department is inviting public comment about the Greek MOU on the following website:

The website is user friendly. To comment on the Greek MOU, go to the site and type DOS-2010-0339 into the box under "enter key number or ID." Then, on the "search results" page, click on submit a comment, and fill out the form as directed.

More detailed instructions can be found on the Cultural Heritage Center web page at

All comments [which can be read by others] must be posted by 9/22. Comments should generally relate to CPAC's determinations as set forth further on the above website.

Coin collectors may want to consider discussing the following points:

  • The governing statute requires that restrictions only be applied on artifacts "first discovered in Greece." But hoard evidence demonstrates that Greek coins circulated extensively outside the confines of the modern Greek nation state.
  • The governing statute requires restrictions only be placed on artifacts of "cultural significance." But coins -- which exist in many multiples-- do not meet that particular criteria.
  • The governing statute requires that less drastic remedies be tried before import restrictions. But Greece has not tried systems akin the the UK Treasure Act before seeking restrictions.
  • The governing statute requires that restrictions be consistent with the interests of the international community in cultural exchanges. But restrictions will diminish the ability of American collectors to appreciate Greek culture and could greatly limit people to people contacts with other collectors in Europe.
  • Restrictions are unfair and discriminatory to Americans. Collectors in the EU--including Greece-- have no similar limitations on their ability to import ancient coins.

Some Additional Thoughts on the Greek MOU

Greece is suffering from a sovereign debt crisis largely of its own making. By necessity, the Greek Government is cutting funding for museums and archaeological projects. So, why choose now to ask the U.S. Government to impose import restrictions on cultural artifacts stretching from the Neolithic period to the hated Turkish occupation? A cynic might wonder if this is an attempt to divert attention away from these harsh realities, particularly for those in the hard hit cultural sector.

Be that as it may, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of our own State Department-- which has probably known about the Greek request for months-- seems now intent on ramming through yet another controversial request for import restrictions before the end of the year. Despite complaints about the short comment period for the Italian MOU, another short comment period (to 9/22) has been mandated here.

State has sought to justify the Greek request by publishing what purports to be a summary on its website. (See below.) Most of the document is a Greek history lesson. There is some discussion about looting, Greek cultural activities and police efforts.

The request, however, does not answer some fundamental questions.

First, what specific artifacts does Greece seek import restrictions on? (We are told looters seek out pottery, jewelry, coins and statuary, but that is not the same as notice to the public about what Greece seeks to restrict.) In particular, is Greece only asking for restrictions on artifacts for which there is undisputed scholarly evidence that they are only found in Greece, or are the Greeks seeking restrictions on anything and everything that conceivably might be Greek?

Second, why does Greece seek restrictions on artifacts from thousands of years of its history? Are they serious, or is this some bureaucratic gambit that will allow the State Department to later claim they scaled back the request in an effort to compromise with opponents? (This is precisely what happened with the even broader Chinese request.)

Third, how does Greece square asking American collectors to show the provenance of the artifacts they import (particularly coins) when there is no similar requirement placed on Greek collectors (of which there are many)? I understand that Greek collectors must register their collections and technically only have "possession" not "ownership" of them, but this is not the same thing.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

ECA Sets CPAC Hearing on Greek Request

Despite the serious questions that have been raised about the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' process for imposing import restrictions on cultural artifacts (most recently by Urice and Adler), the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center is forging ahead with what is sure to be another controversial request for import restrictions-- this time from Greece.

Again, the time for comment is short, only until 9/22. In addition, the State Department now evidently wants to avoid being deluged with faxes from concerned coin collectors. As a result, most public comment now must be made through the following website:
The website actually appears user friendly. Just type the docket number, DOS-2010-0339, into the search box and follow the directions from there.

At this point, we know little about what artifacts Greeks seeks to restrict. The State Department has declared the country request to be "secret." State promises a summary of that request will be put on the Cultural Heritage Center website, but none has appeared as yet.

Addendum: ECA has placed the applicable Federal Register Notice, directions for public comment and a summary of the Greek request here:
I hope to be able to comment on this material soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

ICE Returns Khmer Artifacts, But Questions Remain

ICE has issued a press release about the repatriation of Khmer artifacts to Cambodia. See

The artifacts were seized as part of a larger investigation into the smuggling of South Asian Art.

Although the seizures were made with great fanfare, the actual legal proceedings seem limited and instead the investigation has been marred by the death of one of the its targets in police custody. As a result, her family received a large sum to settle a federal tort claims action.

I also find the government's allegations related to the theft of Ban Chiang pottery from Thailand to be questionable given the continuing availability of such pottery openly for sale within Thailand itself. See

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unveiling the Executive Branch's Extralegal Cultural Property Policy

Stephen Urice and Andrew Adler of the University of Miami have posted a draft paper on the "Social Science Research Network" that discusses the executive branch's extralegal approach to cultural property issues.

The State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' twisting of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act to ensure the broadest application of import restrictions figures prominently in the study.

Hopefully, the Department's political appointees, Judith McHale and Ann Stewart Stock, will take the time to read the work and take much needed steps to ensure that both the letter and intent of the law is being followed. To date, as the article discusses, that simply is not the case. Rather, an archaeology over all/cultural property protection ends justifies the means mentality prevails.

Addendum: This article has attracted predictable unfavorable comment from certain self-appointed representatives of the archaeological community. The major criticism that the article has been cited in unfinished form misses the point that SSRN encourages the posting of draft articles to prompt informed comment. Unfinished or not, the draft raises important issues that deserve serious consideration.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Donnie George Involved in Looting of Kuwait Museum?

Dr. Donnie George has become an icon to many in the archaeological community. Organizations like SAFE (and the AIA I believe) have honored him with awards.

That is why this recent comment from Dr. Dorothy King (PhDiva) on a blog I did some time back about the looting of the Kuwait Museum deserves greater exposure. See:

Apparently, Dr. George indicated to Dr. King that he was involved in rounding up artifacts from the Kuwait Museum and private collections after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait for transfer back to Bagdhad for "safekeeping."

I suppose Dr. George was "just following orders" from Saddam's henchmen, but ironies abound when one reads this from a SAFE story about the award he received from that organization:

Dr. George...has devoted a large part of his scholarly career to raising awareness of the problems of looted antiquities. He had a long, notable career as an archaeologist in Iraq before being appointed Director-General of Research and Studies at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2000. In 2003 he witnessed firsthand the catastrophic looting of the Museum, and has since become a voice for the effort to recapture the Museum’s stolen artifacts, and the restitution of cultural property in general.


Perhaps people in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones.

Addendum: Dr. George's side of the story has been placed on David Gill's like-minded, "Looting Matters" blog: See Despite Dr. George's protestations that all was done in accordance with international law, does anyone really believe that Saddam's Baathist regime intended to give everything back voluntarily after the end of hostilities had Iraq prevailed in the First Gulf War? Or is it more likely Saddam's government [which Dr. George willingly served at the time] intended to take the same path as past conquerors like Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, etc?

Addendum II: Dorothy King has offered additional comments on this story on her own "PhDiva" blog: [One should take particular note of the difference between Dr. King's understandings about George's involvement with official looting of private collections in Kuwait and George's current statement that he was not involved in such activities.]

Here is the text of her comments:

Some sort of a tempest in a tea cup is going on about Donny George's role in the Iraqi looting of Kuwait, and David Gill has even felt the need to issue a press release. I'm a little surprised that this has become an issue again.

I interviewed Donny George way back in 2006, and asked him about it; he told me, in front of a British Museum employee and on tape, his own account of his role in the Iraqi looting of Kuwaiti Museums.

It was old news at the time, and many of us were aware of the fact that Dr George had helped pack up the collections (museum and private) in Kuwait in 1990. It wasn't news to me. It wasn't news to the British Museum employee. And when I wrote up the related conference going on in London for Minerva Magazine, it wasn't news to the editor, who didn't think it was worth including in the summary (available online here).

Yes, Donny George was very much involved in the Iraqi looting of Kuwaiti cultural property. No, Dr George's life is not whiter than white, but then again whose is? He's been working in the real world rather than an Ivory Tower, and so he has had to get his hands dirty over the years. Oh, and let's not forget that Saddam Hussein was in charge of Iraq at the time - so Dr George wouldn't really have been able to say 'no' ... Obviously I wish that the contents of the private collections had been as scrupulously returned as those of the Museum, but it was not to be. The man is not perfect, but he was just obeying orders, and sometimes that's the only option people feel they have.

Friday, August 6, 2010

German Cultural Property Crusader Gets Rebuked

After extensive legal proceedings, a German court has rebuked German cultural property crusader Michael Müller-Karpe for wrongfully claiming that a German dealer was selling stolen artifacts. See

Given the low value of the artifacts in question, most dealers would have just abandoned the property rather than take the abuse from Müller-Karpe and pay for legal representation.

One wonders whether there will be any further ramifications for Müller-Karpe. Hopefully, the ruling will act at least some disincentive for his brand of cultural property vigilantism.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Italian Budget Woes Downgrade Study of Pre-Roman Cultures of Italy

I have been struck that the Italian budget axe appears to be falling most heavily on institutions studying Magna Graecia, Sicily and the Etruscan civilizations. See

This has relevance to the AIA's proposal that import restrictions be extended to ancient coins from Italy. During May's hearing on the MOU with Italy, the AIA's President focused much of his attention on the coins of the Greek and Etruscan civilizations of Italy. See

Yet, now we hear that Italy's state funding for study of these areas will be greatly diminished. Again, all this further undercuts the already flawed premise that import restrictions will somehow help promote archaeological research.