Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Almost 50 House Members Urge State Department to Turn Over Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraqi Jews

Haaretz is reporting that almost 50 Members of the US House of Representatives have asked the State Department to turn over the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraqi Jews.   And no wonder.  As Haaretz explains,  

Members of Iraq's Jewish community, many of whom fled the country in previous decades, say the materials were forcibly taken from them and should not be returned.
Edwin Shuker, 58, who escaped to Britain with his family from Baghdad in 1971, said he had discovered his long-abandoned school certificate on display as part of the National Archives exhibition.
"This is more than a school certificate - it is the identity we were forced to leave behind," he told Reuters, likening the document's journey and survival to his own.
"I would like to be reassured that my children and future generations will have unrestricted access to this collection."
Yet, the State Department ignored another bipartisan letter from 12 members of Congress raising concerns with the then prospective inclusion of coins in the Italian MOU.  So, one has to wonder whether the State Department will actually address these concerns though we are told they have been heard "loud and clear." 

More Evidence MOU with Italy is a Fraud

I heard it for myself at CPAC hearings concerning the MOU with Italy.  Here was the deal as spun by the allies of the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy and the State Department Cultural Heritage Center in the Archaeological Institute of America and related groups:  American collectors and museums would no longer be able to import unprovenanced artifacts.  In return, the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy would allow long term loans of artifacts to American museums.

But what is the reality?  Loans in fact only go to US Government institutions like the National Gallery of Art and museums that have repatriated artifacts.  The good stuff only gets displayed here in the US for a short time and with substantial fees attached.  And now, even this "cultural exchange" is in jeopardy as Sicily has decided to ban loans of important pieces from its own museums.

While I sympathize with Sicily and think it should get top dollar for loans, this turn of events again shows the MOU with Italy is a fraud.  It is surely time for it to be scrapped.  Really, what's wrong with Americans being able to import the same types of Italian artifacts collectors in Europe and indeed Italy itself have always been able to enjoy?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Archaeo-Blogger Questions Basis for Seizure

Archaeo-Blogger Rick St. Hilaire has questioned the legal basis of the US Government's seizure of some valuable Korean seals from the family of a deceased Marine who put his life on the line to save the Republic of Korea from the Communists.  Good for him.   There needs to be far more scrutiny of the Government's actions -- not only in the blogosphere, but far more importantly by the Department of Justice and the Courts.  As it is, rule of law seems to be going by the wayside whenever import restrictions and requests for repatriation by foreign countries are concerned. And much worse, of course, all this appears to be just symptomatic of a much larger problem facing our country.

Monday, November 25, 2013

UN conference highlights plight of Jewish refugees, fate of Iraqi Jewish Archive

Despite the hopes of the US State Department and its Cultural Heritage Center, the question of the fate of the Iraqi-Jewish Archive just won't go away.  Meanwhile, over in the archaeological blogosphere, even erstwhile allies beg to differ with the most extreme of repatriationist views.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Running Amok

Overregulation based on politically correct thinking is damaging ancient coin collecting in the United States.  Even worse, cultural bureaucrats within our State Department and Customs Service don't seem much to care that the exact same sorts of coins are freely available for import without restriction into the exact same countries for which MOUs have been granted.

But perhaps this is part of a much larger problem facing our country.  Leaving politics aside, it's easy to see how a mentality that considers a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as racist would think nothing wrong with this state of affairs.   Instead of narrowly targeting any restrictions to help protect archaeological sites,  political correctness dictates that the government must restrict all artifacts made millennia ago on the territory of a modern nation state as a moral imperative to expiate our "guilt" for being a wealthy market country for antiquities and coins.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Don't Let the Iraqi-Jewish Archive Go Back to Iraq!

Jewish groups have sponsored this petition asking the US Government not to send the Iraqi-Jewish archive back to an uncertain future in Iraq.  This is part of a larger effort in Congress to pressure the State Department and the Obama Administration to do the right thing and make sure the archive is turned over to Iraqi-Jewish representatives.  These groups have even developed this platform to help deported Jews make a claim to their own heritage.  A late start but an effort anyone who really cares about preserving the history of the Iraqi-Jewish community should support.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Perils of a Registration System

It's an article of faith in elements within the archaeological community that registration systems deter looting of archaeological sites.  But do they work in practice?  This story from Israel suggests otherwise.  Instead, they may in fact only overwhelm everyone with red tape and encourage cheating by the unscrupulous. Isn't it much better to get at the problem with a system akin to the UK's Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme?  Important sites should be protected by law, but it should also be okay to prospect on private property with permission as long as items that are found are properly recorded.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Destroying Artifacts to Save Endangered Species-- Are There Any Parallels for Antiquities Collectors?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has destroyed its large stockpiles of seized ivory claiming that the move will help save endangered elephants.   Does this move have any relevance for antiquities collectors?

Some in the archaeological community see direct parallels between endangered elephants and "endangered" artifacts, but the differences should be obvious.  Elephants are live beings; artifacts are not. Harvesting ivory kills elephants; removing artifacts from the ground may deprive them of "context," but it may also save them from deterioration and development. And is anyone seriously maintaining seized artifacts should be destroyed?  Let's hope not, though one wonders if repatriating them to underfunded cultural bureaucracies abroad pretty much guarantees they will be lost through neglect or worse as time goes on.

And what of the economics of the government's actions?  Some have suggested selling off ivory stocks would be far more effective in depressing prices and ultimately lessening demand.  Government spokesmen instead claim that such sales would instead stimulate demand and help others disguise poached ivory.

And is this of any relevance to antiquity collecting?  Probably not.  First, "post-1970" antiquities remain legal to own so I'm not sure how sales of seized antiquities would help disguise "poached" ones.  Second, underfunded cultural bureaucracies abroad could really use the money generated from such sales.  Finally, stimulating demand for antiquities may not be such a bad thing, particularly where it leads to further study and appreciation of the ancient cultures that made them.  So, despite any effort to link ivory to antiquities, any parallels in the  end seem quite limited.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Power of Artifacts

The National Archives has a selection of artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish Archive on view through January 5, 2014.  

After visiting the heart rendering display, CPO can attest that even in their damaged state, these artifacts retain a power to help us imagine a now vanished community.  Indeed, given all the indignities they've suffered, perhaps they are a bit too pristine.  Given their aged but clean condition, it's hard to imagine them as they were found-- waterlogged in the basement of Saddam's secret police headquarters.

And what of their ultimate fate?  What assurances do we have that Iraqi authorities will ensure they are preserved for future generations and made available to scholars and members of the exiled Jewish community?

Digitizing them may preserve what information they contain, but electronic copies are no substitute for the real thing that is of tangible cultural value to the Iraqi-Jewish Community in exile.  And looking at religious texts printed centuries ago in places like Vienna and Venice as well as all the items of a personal nature taken from deported Jews, any thinking person must really question the rights of the modern nation state of Iraq to these artifacts in the first place.

One Can't Assume...

that ancient coins without a provenance dating back to 1970 must ipso facto be a recent find.   While such an erroneous assumption has become an article of faith within the archaeological community, this story about a very important coin that was on display at the British Museum proves otherwise.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can the Poignant Documents in the Iraqi Jewish Archive Warm Hearts of Stone?

Can the poignant documents in the Iraqi Jewish archive cause a rethink about the justice of the repatriationist position of those in the US State Department and its Cultural Heritage Center, the Iraqi Government and  hardliners within the archaeological community?  It seems not.  Instead, there is only silence, even in those reaches of the archaeological blogosphere which usually cannot pass up a chance to comment on any issue, large or small.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

New Take on Cultural Property Issues

John Hooker brings his own philosophical approach to cultural property issues in a new blog, Past Times and Present Tensions.  It's well worth a read.

Cleveland Rocks

Cleveland, Ohio, is best known for that American cultural icon, "the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."  But the Cleveland Museum of Art should also be considered a museum-world stand-out.  The current exhibits, Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome and Praxiteles: the Cleveland Apollo, are both well worth a visit. Numismatists should be particularly thrilled with the unique Aitna Tetradrachm from the Belgian National Collection.  It is truly a magnificent ancient coin with a fascinating history.

But this is a blog on cultural property.  From that perspective, Sicilian cultural officials should be happy that they ultimately allowed the Cleveland Museum exhibit to go forward.  One can easily imagine the number of attendees on the Saturday afternoon CPO visited vastly exceeding the number of visitors its star attraction, the so-called Charioteer of Motya, receives in an entire year in its out-of-the-way Sicilian home.

Then there is the issue of the MOU with the Republic of Italy.  Archaeologists and other proponents may point to the exhibit as a testament to the MOU's success.  But tickets cost $15.  Moreover, the exhibit only went to two museums, the Getty and Cleveland, which have made voluntary repatriations.  One really wonders then if this is truly the case or if the exhibit would have traveled to the US anyway. Certainly, in the future, Sicily will likely demand even more money before it lets its treasures travel abroad.

As for the Cleveland Apollo, some in the archaeological community have questioned its provenance, presumably hoping that it too will be repatriated (but to where)?   However, Cleveland has been forthright with its purchase.  And the statue's current display "in context" alongside other, Roman era copies demonstrates that archaeological context should not be deemed supreme.

Kudos to the Cleveland Museum to Art for all it has done to further the appreciation of ancient Italian and Greek culture through these exhibits.  Cleveland-- and in particular its Museum of Art-- does indeed "rock."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falling on Deaf Ears?

The New York Times has published this heartfelt plea for the Obama Administration to ensure the Jewish archive rescued by US troops from the flooded basement of Iraqi Secret Police headquarters does not return to Iraq.  The claim is that the Obama Administration is bound by a decision of the Bush Administration, but President Obama has sought to  distance himself from the Bush Administration on Iraq, so why not here as well?  And what of the silence from all those Holocaust art lawyers?  Don't some of the same principles apply here?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Metal Detectorists 10, Archaeologists 0?

That's how some are pitching the latest statistics of treasure reported by the public and archaeologists in England and Wales.  But this sets up a false competition between the two groups when their efforts should instead be viewed as complementary.

Even worse, one voice in the archaeological blogosphere has taken all this to an extreme.  Indeed, he goes so far as to demand that what should be considered good news instead requires the resignation of the responsible Government Minister.

Rather than celebrating the knowledge that has come from these finds, he instead claims these artifacts are better better left in the ground for future archaeologists to discover.  But that is pure fantasy.  Archaeologists will always be few in number.  Their digs will always concentrate on significant sites, not the farmer's fields where most treasure is found.  And while we are waiting, it's much more likely that the artifacts themselves will be lost through deterioration and development.

Luckily, most real archaeologists in the United Kingdom have made peace with metal detectorists.  They recognize that the Treasure Act, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the knowledge of and preservation of artifacts they bring benefits everyone.   So let's all celebrate the latest finds in England and Wales and salute the "heritage heroes" of the archaeological and metal detecting communities that have made it all possible.