Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Wayne Sayles and the Thrill of Discovery

Wayne Sayles speaks about coin collecting and the thrill of discovery it has brought him and other collectors.  But Wayne is no ordinary collector.  In addition to writing extensively on numismatics, Wayne started a magazine for ancient coin collectors, and founded the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, an advocacy group for the interests of collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic trade.  The preservation, study and conservation of ancient coins has become Wayne's life's work after many years serving our country in the military. Wayne has always been about sharing such knowledge with anyone and everyone with an interest in history.   And that's what is should be all about.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cambodia's Moral Case for Returns Falters

Just as pressure is mounting for the repatriation of Khmer artifacts long gone from the modern nation state of Cambodia, serious questions are being raised about the present-day Cambodian Government's own ability to protect artifacts in its care as well as the depth of its own committment to justice for sins of the past. First, it has been revealed that relics of the Buddha have been stolen under the nose of and perhaps with the connivance of government guards.  Second, even though the U.S. State Department sheepishly certified in the Federal Register released on Christmas Day that Cambodia is belatedly doing something to clean up the corruption that has hampered the tribunal that is supposed to be bringing Khmer Rouge war criminals to justice, little has been accomplished to date.

If Cambodia has such unclean hands, why is the U.S. Government spending considerable tax payer dollars on its behalf to force American institutions and collectors to repatriate artifacts long in this country?  Shouldn't we at least demand better site security and the prompt prosecution of war criminals before our State and Justice Departments sacrifice American interests at the behest of Cambodian nationalists and American archaeologists?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Consignors to Remain Anonymous

The New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has ruled that auction houses can maintain the anonymity of consignors to auctions in the state.

As the New York Times has observed:

Anonymity is often prized in such transactions as a matter of personal privacy. It also and allows institutions quietly to sell items from their collections that they no longer need. In some cases it can also cloak the embarrassment of debt or help sellers avoid setting off family conflicts over the disposition of inherited assets.

In contrast, commentators in the archaeological blogosphere had hoped the lower court's ruling, requiring the identities of consignors to be disclosed, would stand.    But why would they want this information other than to harass the sellers of "cultural property" they believe should be repatriated.  So, its probably  a good thing the Court of Appeals has ruled as it did. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Archaeology Magazine Publicizes Unprovenanced Jewish Tombstone

Archaeology Magazine, the official organ of the Archaeological Institute of America, has publicized a wonderful story of how students from Yeshiva University helped decipher an unprovenanced Jewish Tombstone from what was a Christian city in Jordan.  Yes, we can learn a lot from unprovenanced artifacts, despite what hard-liners in the AIA and archaeological blogosphere might say.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saved for Destruction?

While the vast majority of comments to Tom Mashberg's article about the Annenberg Foundation's purchase of Hopi artifacts from a French auction so they could be returned to the tribe were complimentary of the effort, as far as I could tell all ignored the fact that such artifacts will likely be buried or otherwise allowed to disintegrate:

"The Hopi have not identified their plans for these artifacts on their return, but they are not viewed as art objects or housed in museums. Typically, Katsinam are still used in spiritual ceremonies or are retired and left to disintegrate naturally." 

Under the circumstances, perhaps one should question the wisdom of the effort, particularly given information in one of the comments that such items were openly sold by some Hopi at least as recently as the 1970's.  Tribes seldom speak with one voice and one wonders whether at least some tribal members would have rather have had such money put to other use on the Reservation.  And there is a larger question:  Is repatriation ever warranted when it leads to destruction?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Poly Rules

The New York Times comments on Poly Group's rise to Number Three Auction House in the World. While American auction houses, museums and collectors can no longer easily import Chinese artifacts from abroad due to import restrictions on cultural goods, Poly has no such worries.  Indeed, the politically connected generals of the People's Liberation Army that run Poly don't have much to fear from Chinese regulators either.  As Chinese art experts have observed,

"[I]t is Poly’s relationship with the state and the reach of its affiliated businesses that have fostered its ascension in the art world, experts say. They claim that, because of Poly’s ties to elites in the Chinese government, it enjoys greater freedom in moving cultural relics in and out of the country and more leeway from the tax bureau. Poly also can be more dismissive of recent efforts, led by the trade association, with the of commerce and culture ministries, to reform the Chinese art market, the experts say.

'It’s a privileged institution that is more powerful than what we would consider some of the lesser state agencies,” said Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on Chinese state companies.'"

The current Chinese MOU must be renewed in January or it will lapse.  At a public session awhile back, CPAC received plenty of evidence that the current MOU does nothing but promote the interests of politically connected Chinese business interests at the expense of American collectors, museums and auction houses.   But will CPAC and the State Department decision-maker listen?  Or will the U.S. Cultural bureaucracy's knee-jerk repatriationist stance carry the day once more?

For those Bold Enough to Stand Up Against the US Government....

Sotheby's agreement to drop its efforts to contest the forfeiture of a Khmer Statue to Cambodia leaves several questions that will still need to be addressed in any subsequent forfeiture action relating to Khmer antiquities.

1.  To prevail, the government still must be able to link the artifact in question to a specific site within the confines of modern Cambodia.  That was done here, but it's unclear to CPO whether that could be done with respect to all the other Khmer artifacts the Cambodians and their supporters in the US Cultural bureaucracy and archaeological communities may have their sights on.

2.  If that is done, the government must then either be able to point to an illegal import or prove that the artifact was stolen under a foreign cultural patrimony law that vested clear title to Cambodia.  This issue was raised, but again not conclusively decided in the Sotheby's case.

3.  There is also the issue whether Cambodia consistently applies such law at home. For example, during discussions about a renewal of a MOU with Cambodia, it was disclosed that at least one high Cambodian government official has a collection of similar antiquities.  If so, how can the U.S. Government claim all such antiquities are Cambodian state property?

4.  It now appears that the Khmer Rouge may have sold the Koh Ker statue.  If so, doesn't that also undercut any Cambodian Government claim to the statue?  As abominable a regime as the Khmer Rouge was, it was also considered the lawful Government of Cambodia for a time. So, if an artifact was sold by the Khmer Rouge, the "lawful rulers" of Cambodia, how could it be considered "stolen" now?

5.  What part did the US State Department and its Cultural Heritage Center play in convincing the Department of Justice to take the Sotheby's case and in funding groups like Heritage Watch which have pressed for repatriation of Khmer artifacts?   To the extent such claims are "ginned up" by the State Department rather than the Cambodians themselves, that would presumably have some impact on a jury's views of the matter.

There will, of course, be a concerted effort to pressure other museums and perhaps collectors to give up similar art works without a fight.  That may very well happen given the cost and difficulties private parties face when going up against the U.S. Government.  There is also the issue of whether the current owner of the artifact is willing to take heat in the press, let alone the archaeological blogosphere.  So to put up a fight, one needs not only to be well funded, but to have considerable intestinal fortitude as well. Still, for those bold enough to fight, the relevant issues have not been conclusively decided.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sotheby's Throws in the Towel

The New York Times reports that Sotheby's and the consignor of a Khmer statute have decided to drop their effort to retain title to the object in the face of a forfeiture action brought by federal prosecutors. Experienced cultural heritage lawyer  Michael McCullough predicted this result months ago after a federal district court denied Sotheby's motion to dismiss the action.  The costs and difficulties of pursuing such a matter against the federal government are beyond the wherewithal of most litigants, even it seems one as wealthy as Sotheby's.   Sotheby's had a decent legal case, if not the great moral one.  In CPO's view, it's thus too bad the federal government wasn't put to its proofs.  As it is, by folding Sotheby's will only embolden the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center and its "Cultural Antiquities Task-force" to press its repatriationist agenda even further.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is the Latest Bulgarian Bust for Real?

Despite the uncritical coverage in the archaeological blogosphere, one has to wonder about the accuracy of recent press reports that claim Bulgarian police have smashed a ring of  Thracian tomb raiders.  Though admittedly the photo that accompanies the story is not very clear, from what I can tell it only shows bright, regularly shaped modern coins and artifacts.  One would expect instead to see darkly colored patinas associated with long burials if this is really a major bust of "tomb raiders."

During CPAC's consideration of the proposed Bulgarian MOU, it was revealed that Bulgaria's corrupt police all too often hype such seizures in order to make it appear that their efforts are far more effective than they truly are in reality.   The picture accompanying this story raises the question if the Bulgarian police are still more interested in looking good rather than doing good in their jobs.  Hopefully, there will be some clarification of whether the image is that of the actual seizure and, if so, whether the coins are of ancient or modern origin.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rescue Archaeology?

This article appears to suggest what has been characterized by American archaeologists  and their allies in the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center as looting in China may actually be rescue archaeology of a sort.  Presumably, this is as the article suggests illegal under China's draconian laws that declare even artifacts found on private property to be property of the State.  However, if the "looters" do not save the objects from being ground into dust by construction equipment, who will?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Perhaps Not Everything is Looted

David Gill has written this post that suggests that not everything in the inventories of dealers associated with the Medici archive was looted.  I've heard the same from others associated with the antiquities trade.  That makes sense.  These individuals dealt with many antiquities over their long careers.  It's good that Gill has belatedly recognized as much.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Like Sending Back Art Nazis Looted

Anyone who still thinks the Iraqi Jewish Archive should be repatriated to Iraq should read this story about a Canadian doctor born an Iraqi Jew who just wants her own property back.  No, despite some disinformation in the archaeological blogosphere, the issue is not Iraqi Government documents "about Jews."  Rather, the issue is about documents taken from Iraqi Jews who were the subject of ethnic cleansing by an anti-Semitic Iraqi state.

The documents should go to their true owners or their representatives, not the country that hounded them to leave.  It's as simple as that.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Maritime Archaeology or Imperialism?

The Wall Street Journal reports on China's use of maritime archaeology to help project its power over disputed waters.  More evidence, if any was needed, that the PRC-- like other authoritarian states through history-- mainly values archaeology as a means of justifying its own nationalistic claims.  Perhaps, the US State Department Cultural Heritage Center and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs should take into account this reality before renewing the MOU with China.  But will they? Or, will the farce that the MOU  with China just furthers archaeology and cultural exchange be allowed to continue?

Prominent Israeli Antiquities Dealer Sues IAA

A prominent Israeli antiquities dealer has filed suit against the Israeli Antiquities Authority.   He alleges that the IAA damaged his reputation in prosecuting a lawsuit charging him with forgery of ancient artifacts.  The IAA's lawsuit subsequently fell apart in spectacular fashion before an Israeli court.  The antiquities dealer, Robert Deutsch, says he is entitled to some $3 million in damages.   American collectors, Museums and dealers may find some of the allegations on how he was treated sound familiar.  It will be interesting to see how this matter progresses in court.