Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dino Cowboy Does a War Whoop; Palentologists not Amused

The New York Times writes about "Dino Cowboy" and his important paleontological find on private land that is going to auction.  The fossils apparently show two dinosaurs locked together in mortal combat, a rare example of fighting that could help illuminate dinosaur behavior.

But not everyone is pleased. Many academic paleontologists dislike private collecting of fossils as much as many academic archaeologists dislike private collecting of antiquities.  Yet, as the article states,

[M]any paleontologists acknowledge that there are commercial collectors who excavate sites with care. And private fossil hunters maintain that without their industry, many specimens would never be found and would over the years simply deteriorate in the open.

Congratulations then to Dino Cowboy on his important find. It is doubtful that it would ever been uncovered by an academic paleontologist.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Private Public Partnership Between Odyssey Marine and United Kingdom Strikes Gold with Silver Haul

Odyssey Marine's partnership with the United Kingdom has struck it big with a huge haul of silver from a World War II shipwreck.  Perhaps, bankrupt governments of places like Spain, Cyprus and Greece should take note.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Beyond Ownership" is Dead; Time to Rethink the Italian MOU?

The LA Times is reporting new information that sheds light on why Cleveland's long planned show of Sicilian antiquities is being cancelled.   Apparently, Sicily demanded that Cleveland pay an additional $700,000 in fees in order for the show to go on as planned. This figure is presumably in addition to the monies Cleveland had already pledged to the Getty, where the show originated.  The Cleveland Museum of Art wisely refused this demand, meaning the show will be cancelled.

Now, the Getty will be saddled with the entire $990,000 cost, some $300,000 more than anticipated.  All this should provide the Getty Trust's chief, Jim Cuno, with plenty of material for a new book.  Cuno has expressed serious qualms about Italy's approach to cultural property matters in the past.  Nevertheless, under his leadership, the Getty has made great efforts on Italy's behalf in recent years, both in terms of voluntarily repatriating objects and in assisting Italy's and Sicily's cultural establishments with funding and conservation help.  Yet, for all that effort, this is the kind of thanks the Getty has received from Italy and Sicily.

All this should also cause proponents of the MOU with Italy to rethink matters.  Now that U.S. Museums can no longer count on Italy to provide low cost short term loans, let alone the long term ones promised in the agreement, why should the U.S. continue to impose import restrictions on artifacts like ancient coins the Italians themselves actively and openly collect?

The Cultural Property Implementation Act allows the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend that MOUs be suspended.  Perhaps time has now come to suspend the Italian MOU.  Clearly, Italy no longer honors the concept of loans, the key quid pro quo upon which the entire agreement is premised.  Why then should the interests of American museums, collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade continue to be sacrificed?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Extortion Effort Fails; Everyone the Poorer

The Cleveland Museum of Art has announced that is it formally canceling its planned show of Sicilian antiquities.  The show was supposed to travel to Cleveland from the Getty, but at the last minute Sicilian cultural officials said that the show's star attractions must return home.  Then, they said they would relent-- for a hefty fee.  Cleveland wisely concluded this was an offer it could refuse.  So, Sicily's treasures will go home, but Sicily will loose the positive exposure such an exhibit would provide and thousands and thousands of Americans (including Sicilian-Americans) will be disappointed.  It seems all the "beyond ownership" rhetoric is indeed quite hollow.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reality Check

Kudos to Larry Rothfield for exposing the fallacy of the outdated claim that demand from American and European collectors drives looting.  These days wealthy Gulf Arabs, Chinese and Russians are far more likely to buy recently looted material.

The prohibitionist message the AIA and elements within the archaeological blogosphere preach against American and European collectors has had little positive impact on  looting.  On the other hand, it has driven a wedge between collectors and archaeologists and has diminished the public's knowledge and appreciation of ancient cultures.

Qatar and Other Newly Rich Countries Change Market Dynamics

One of the presumptions behind the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act is that import restrictions on cultural goods will slacken demand and thereby disincentiveize looting.  But isn't this presumption open to question now that collectors in other countries like Qatar have gone on buying sprees? This article focuses on modern art, but it's also well known the Gulf Arabs also have a taste for high quality antiquities.

Spain is Bankrupt; So Why Prop Up a Bankrupt System?

The New York Times reports on the bust of a 60 year old amateur archaeologist from a small village in Spain who found the ruins of a Celtic-Iberian city, but instead of reporting it, exploited the site, selling some of the objects and keeping the others.  People knew there were ruins in the area, but archaeologists never bothered to excavate the site, and no one apparently cared what the man was doing until a German archaeological activist noticed some valuable Celtic helmets for sale in Germany, and pressured authorities to undertake an investigation.  Spanish police eventually got  involved, arresting the man and seizing 4,000 or so artifacts.   The local mayor hopes that the artifacts could be featured in a local museum that will bring tourists to his small village.  But Spain is bankrupt.  The prospects for any such museum sound far-fetched, and even if it were built, would such a museum really bring tourists? And are most of the artifacts really museum quality anyway?  Frankly, it would be better for Spain to have a system like the Portable Antiquities Scheme that encourages people to report what they find.  Most artifacts should be returned to the finder after they are recorded so they can be sold to help bring some much needed currency to Spain's bankrupt economy.  As it is, given Spain's economic meltdown, nothing good will likely ever come of this episode for the small village where these artifacts were found.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Top Macedonian Archaeologist Held for Smuggling

Macedonia's top archaeologist is being held for suspected smuggling of ancient artifacts.  In CPO's view, draconian rules against collecting and trading in artifacts are only an invitation to corruption at high levels.  It's much better to have an open but regulated (not over-regulated) trade that encourages transparency, public appreciation of the past and people to people contacts collecting brings.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Source Country Supporter Advises Cleveland to Stay Firm

Culture Grrl, who has been supportive of repatriation claims, has suggested that Cleveland stand firm against Sicily's last minute demands for more money to allow its exhibit to go forward.  Perhaps other ardent repatriationists should take notice.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Time to Monetize Sicily's Cultural Heritage

While I disagree with Sicily's last minute demands for more money to save Cleveland's exhibition,  Sicilian cultural officials should be commended for their candor-- it really is about the money. And that finally opens the door for Sicilian officials to think creatively about how to monetize Sicily's cultural heritage for the benefit of its own people.  Loan fees, of course.  But what about user fees for archaeologists?  And why not adopt the old AAMD idea of selective deacquisition of duplicates in museum collections?  Finally, I'd also suggest that Sicily consider adopting it's own version of the U.K. Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme with a twist.  Coins that were returned to the finder for sale would be required to be put up for public auction in Sicily along with museum duplicates.  Just think, if Sicilian authorities moved on this proposal quickly, an auction could even be scheduled to coincide with the upcoming International Numismatic Congress in  beautiful Taormina.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


After seeming to pull the plug on a show at the Cleveland Museum of Art meant to highlight Sicily's magnificent ancient past, Sicilian cultural officials have now suggested that the show in Cleveland might actually go on if an adequate price might be worked out between the parties.  While this might have been somewhat more palatable had the issue been brought up well in advance, all this sounds a bit too much like an effort at extortion at this late date.

Perhaps in an era where cultural authorities are facing lean budgets, Sicilian cultural officials can and  should ask top dollar to send treasures like the so-called Charioteer of Motya abroad.  But if so, the US should also scrap its MOU with Italy.  At bottom, that MOU is predicated on the idea of sacrificing the financial interests of American collectors, dealers and museums ---all in the name of cultural exchange unsullied by monetary considerations of the sort Sicily now evidently demands.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Italy Does Not Speak for Us

Sicily has pulled the plug on the Cleveland Museum of Art's planned exhibition of ancient Sicilian artifacts.  The move leaves Cleveland scrambling to fill exhibition space and effectively sticks the Getty (where the exhibit was last) with all the costs.   More evidence, if any was needed, that all the claims of collaboration made in exchange for the museum community's support for the State Department's MOU with Italy are really quite hollow.

It's also interesting to note that Sicily-- which enjoys autonomy in cultural matters-- purportedly wants the statute that was to be the star of the show to return because it is "losing tourist dollars."    But the statue hails from the Island of Mozia, a magical, but out-of -the-way place where few tourists visit.

The so-called "Charioteer of Motya" was itself likely looted in antiquity.  Some scholars believe that Carthaginian forces forcibly removed it from the Sicilian Greek city of Selinunte as a trophy. Sicilian  Greeks under the banner of Syracuse subsequently destroyed Motya, which was a major Carthaginian stronghold.  The ruins then faded into obscurity, until an English heir to a Marsala wine fortune took an interest in the site.  Through his generosity and that of his family, archaeological digs were started and a museum established.

Motya, Selinunte, Syracuse and the rest of Sicily are well worth a visit, but now because of this short-sighted decision thousands of Americans won't have a chance to see for themselves why that is so.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Italy Needs Better Laws

Italian authorities have announced the seizure of Etruscan artifacts removed from a tomb found during the building of a garage.   The New York Times reporting does not suggest the tomb was found on public land or on a known archaeological site.   The finders presumably did not report their find because the State would have shut down their construction project and offered no realistic prospect of compensation.  Italy should look for better ways to handle such situations.  It should be about conservation not control.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Will Egypt's Military Coup Pave the Way for Zahi Hawass' Return to Power?

The Egyptian military has followed the old example of Turkey's Generals to take power from the inept, sectarian Egyptian President, Morsi.  Like their (now weakened) Turkish counterparts, it appears that Egypt's Generals hope to restore "order" before allowing for a new Presidential election.   There is plenty of room to debate the rights and wrongs here, but this is a blog about cultural property issues, not Egyptian politics per se.  However, politics certainly does often intrude into such issues, so let me be the first to ask whether this military coup will pave the way for Zahi Hawass to return as Egypt's antiquities pharaoh.  Zahi was a favorite of the Mubarak regime, but that affiliation did him no good in Revolutionary Egypt.   It now remains to be seen whether the military will view Hawass as a charismatic asset to restore order to Egypt's beleaguered antiquities establishment (and bring in those tourist dollars!) or a corrupt and confrontational relic from the still discredited past.  Personally,  I'm betting we'll be saying "He's back" before long.

Bulldozers at Work Again

Just weeks after an international outcry over the the destruction of a Mayan pyramid in Belize, it has been reported that developers have bulldozed another Pre-Columbian era pyramid in Peru, and have damaged up to eleven others at the site.  It makes little sense for the US State Department and US Customs to preclude Americans from importing things like Pre-Columbian pottery from Peru when Peruvian authorities can't be bothered to protect such sites from development until AFTER the bulldozers do their work.  Peru is another malefactor source country as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Not All Repatriation Claims Alike

Tom Mashberg, reporting for the NY Times, has written an article about the considerations that go into deciding whether to repatriate an object voluntarily.   Museum trustees have fiduciary duties to protect their collections from unmeritorious claims.  So, it's not surprising that repatriation decisions must be made based on the facts of each individual case, not some "politically correct" universal rule as some in the archaeological blogosphere have maintained.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Congress Has Other Issues to Deal With

Archaeo-blogger Rick St. Hilaire has demanded that Congress drop its other important work on items like the Federal Budget and instead pass a bill imposing "emergency import restrictions" on Egyptian cultural artifacts. But St. Hilaire, who purports to be an expert in cultural property issues, should know that the Cultural Property Implementation Act already allows for consideration of such proposals under certain circumstances.  If the Egyptian Government believes such assistance is necessary, it will no doubt ask for it.  Iraq was a special case; there was no government to "make the ask" at the time.