Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Too Much Information?

Archaeo-bloggers David Gill and Paul Barford have taken the Portable Antiquities Scheme to task for allowing archaeologists to post finds on the database that was designed to record non-Treasure finds by the public.  Of course, PAS is a voluntary scheme and while it is not mandatory for archaeologists to post finds, really what's wrong with them doing so?   In the end, shouldn't it be about creating the most complete record of significant finds possible?  As it is, without archaeologists reporting, there is a hole in the PAS record.  Sure, archaeologists should report details of their finds to the local Historic Environment office, but is such information as accessible as the PAS database for scholars and anyone else interested in learning more details about what is found?

Monday, December 29, 2014

The View from Assad's Damascus

The archaeological blogosphere has picked up on Franklin Lamb's all too familiar efforts to shift blame for the ongoing tragedy in Syria from the Assad Regime and onto others, including Western collectors.   No mention, of course, of the regime's part in the destruction of Syrian cultural sites or the apparent part the Syrian military has played in looting in places like Palmyra and Apamea.  And while Lamb singles out the terrorists of ISIS for blame, no mention is made of Lamb's own links with the terrorists of Hezbollah, who, after all, have allied themselves with the Assad regime.  Caveat emptor.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movie Critics

Egypt's Culture Minister has cited "historical inaccuracies" as the reason for banning Ridley Scott's "Exodus" from movie theaters.  Cynics might think Egypt's generals were more concerned with depictions of  Jews winning freedom from their Egyptian military oppressors.  After all, the Egyptians themselves apparently believe that Joseph the Prophet struck coins.

Our State Department and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs supposedly stand up for both religious and artistic freedom.  So, will this move be protested in any fashion?  Or, will they just shrug and pretend Egypt is still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one, when Egypt's Culture Minister is feted as part of celebrations for a new MOU only cultural bureaucrats,  Egypt's dictators and the archaeological lobby will love.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy has an interesting post about the Cypriot Department of Antiquities looking the other way while connected Cypriot collectors added looted material from both occupied and unoccupied Cyprus into their collections which were then "legalized."

While the Cypriot Antiquities Service would plead "extenuating circumstances," the information Hardy provides should cast the archaeological lobby's moralistic attacks on coin collectors for contesting import restrictions on "coins of Cypriot type" in a new light.

And what of Cyprus itself?  Wouldn't it be better to institute a program open to all  akin to the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Act than one based on insider access to looted material?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

CPO wishes all its readers a Merry Christmas  and hopes we will all think about Christians and other religious minorities who are being persecuted in Syria and Iraq.  Cultural heritage is more than buildings and artifacts, its about the people who made them.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Egyptian Religious Bigotry Behind Pulling of Excavation Permit?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford has made the case that Egyptian cultural bureaucrats have pulled the excavation permit of American archaeologists from Brigham Young University because they disagree with the tenants of their Mormon faith and not because of some "misunderstanding" about the number of "mummies" they have found in a cemetery unearthed at the site of Fag El Gamous in Fayoum. 

While Barford approves of such intolerance, CPO does not. One's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) should never come into play in deciding whether to award excavation permits or not.

So, how will the US State Department, which supposedly promotes religious freedom as a core objective of American foreign policy, respond?

And will the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities put even 1/10th the effort lobbying the Egyptian Government on behalf of the Brigham Young archaeologists and their religious freedom as it has lobbying the U.S. Government for "emergency import restrictions" on Egyptian cultural goods?

Or, will both just shrug, and celebrate the expected announcement of the pre-judged MOU with Egypt in early  2015 as if the country was still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one?

If there is any time to rethink a MOU with Egypt, its's now.  Any need for "emergency restrictions" has long since passed.  And, anyway, its no time to reward the generals for possible spying (presumably on behalf of the Chinese) or their continuing crackdown on dissent, which most recently included refusing entry to a prominent US scholar and democracy supporter.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blurred Lines

Legendary TV journalist Richard C. Hottelet has passed away.

In his last lecture to journalism students, he emphasized the need to be objective:  "Play it straight, do not tell them what you think.  Do not tell them what you feel.  Just tell them what you know."

Unfortunately, all this seems to be lost on a peculiar brand of archaeo-blogger/activist/researcher/journalist who has sought fame (if not fortune) based on a hyped claim that the terrorists of ISIS made $36 million from looted antiquities in one area of Syria alone.

And when that claim fell apart?  Was it time issue a retraction and an apology to those who were attacked for questioning the claim?  Of course not.

Blogging is one thing, but we should all expect more from anyone who also purports to be a "researcher" and a "journalist' and the "news outlets" that publicized this false claim.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Is the only way to describe a proposal Monika Grütters, Germany's Commissioner for Culture, has made at the behest of archaeologists with an axe to grind against collectors and cultural bureaucrats of failed states and/or dictatorships like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. 

According to the report,

Ms. Grütters outlined plans for a new law that would require documented provenance for any object entering or leaving Germany, long among the laxest of regulators of the art market. Among other measures, dealers would be required to show a valid export permit from the source of the piece’s origins when entering Germany.

It's unclear how Grütters believes German dealers and collectors are going to come up with documentation that simply does not exist for artifacts that have been traded legally for generations without such paperwork.

Meanwhile, there was apparently no discussion about simple steps archaeologists can take that will discourage looting like hiring site guards and paying local diggers a living wage.    

Ethical archaeologists are already taking similar steps.  So why not make them a legal requirement for every archaeologist excavating abroad?  It's always better to tackle any problem at the source. 

And, if the point of Grütters' proposals is to ensure Germans appear ethical to the world, shouldn't that start with archaeologists, who after all, have direct contact with the people of source countries?

Thursday, December 18, 2014


In far off Poland, one archaeo-blogger fantasizes about vast treasure houses of looted material in the deserts of Iraq or Syria:

One possibility remains that the 2003+ looting in Iraq (documented on the ground and in satellite photos) resulted in stockpiles of antiquities, bought cheap at source and mothballed in a secure store as an investment, say a retirement nest-egg for some local wiseguy - intended to be sold piecemeal when the fuss dies down in a decade or so. We know holes were dug, stuff hoiked, US and European dealers tell us it never arrived on any market they know -  postulating such warehouses is therefore one (pretty good) way of explaining that evidence.  What's more nobody can say that there are not such warehouses.
Somewhere in Iraq, what's in this building?
If they exist, they could be veritable treasure houses, the buyer had the pick of a vast amount of numbers of objects from the tens of thousands of holes dug in 'productive' areas of productive sites. They could afford to buy the best of the best, sawn-up Assyrian friezes, glyptic  material, cunies, Sumerian statues, Akkadian jewellery, Seleucid bronzes, and coins, loads of coins. You can just imagine it. Rather like a Swiss freeport, just somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the Middle Eastern desert.

You can also imagine it when one day some armed thugs bust their way into the hoarder's house, thrust an AK in the face of his daughter and bawls out that he'll pull the trigger if he does not hand over the keys - and when he gets the keys anyway blows a hole in her head. And then his. They'd come with some guy who knows the trade - ISIL has access to specialists in many fields - who picks out the pieces that give more bucks per transport costs, load them up on some trucks and off they go with them to some market. They can come back for more with impunity until they empty the store of the best bits. Them they might use informants to tell them where the next one is. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

You can imagine too, can't you, the smiling Lebanese dealer shaking hands with the well-dressed man offering him some prime antiquities. The seller is an ISIL political officer, suave and well-groomed in a suit. The dealer is anticipating a good profit, he has some clients on his list (15000 people, you know) who he knows will be very interested in those Assyrian reliefs, no need to put them on open sale, he can sell directly. The coins he can shift too, to America - nobody there asks any difficult questions. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

And he goes further.  Not content to fantasize himself, he also fantasizes that a serious, knowledgeable commentator on the subject shares that same fantasy.  Yet, the fact that this archaeo-blogger does not link to what the commentator actually said, though it is available on the Internet, should raise yet another red flag.  Once again, caveat emptor.

Tackle the Problem at the Source

Jim McAndrew, a former senior special agent with Homeland Security, warns against assumptions that looted Syrian material is coming here in any quantity.  In so doing, he rightly concludes the best place to focus resources is on Syria's borders.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cold Storage?

Now that claims that looting is "the most important funding source for ISIS after 'hot oil'" and "$36 million in looted antiquities were taken by ISIS from one area in Syria alone" have been thoroughly debunked, the archaeological blogosphere is desperately seeking an easy explanation for where all those stolen antiquities must have gone. 

That easy "answer?"  "Cold storage." 

But, once again, caveat emptor.  This red herring first appeared after the initial phase of the Second Gulf War in 2003-2004 to explain why a promised avalanche of  looted Iraqi antiquities never surfaced in the United States and other Western markets.  As of 2013, before the rise of ISIS, these stolen artifacts still had not appeared in quantity.

In any event, while it is true at least one such infamous storage space did exist for looted Italian artifacts back in 1980's Switzerland, is it reasonable to assume similar secret facilities exist in today's Iraq and Syria?  Or, is it more reasonable to believe that no rational middle man would create such "cold storage" in a "hot war zone" where one bomb or mortar shell could easily turn a treasure house into dust. 

But what of all those holes at Apamea (a site the archaeological lobby is also loath to admit is controlled by the Assad regime)?   CPO agrees satellite imagery appears to show looter's holes, but notes again reports out of Iraq after the Second Gulf War suggest all may not be what it seems.

Under the circumstances, isn't it at least possible most of holes at Apamea (and other sites like Dura Europos) were "dry," i.e., they produced little of value or that the excavations were actually for military purposes, i.e., "fox holes" for the troops of the warring factions?

Or, is this again yet another case where such obvious possibilities cannot be seriously considered because they would  further undermine the archaeological lobby's efforts to encourage government decision makers to impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of ancient artifacts?

Monday, December 15, 2014

They Shoot Looters, Don't They?

While the general public probably views looting as no worse than a traffic violation, incredibly they are actually debating in the archaeological blogosphere whether execution is an appropriate sanction for disturbing archaeological context for personal gain.   To be fair, the author is opposed to it and even has sympathy for subsistence diggers, but the fact that some in the archaeological lobby have supported the ultimate sanction in the past should give everyone pause.  The death penalty was imposed selectively in Saddam's Iraq; while those associated with the regime apparently looted with the Dictator's blessing, others without connections forfeited their lives if caught.  The same kind of selective  prosecution also  apparently lives on in today's Iraq, but at least no one is getting executed for looting in areas under government control.  And isn't that a good thing?

Caveat Emptor

The dramatic unraveling of the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted under the authority of the terrorists of ISIS from one area in Syria alone should raise serious questions for mainstream media and government officials.  We know that archaeologists are smart, careful people, engaged in important scholarship and deeply caring about the exposure and investigation of history and culture.  We also know that most haven't the faintest idea of what goes on in the antiquities market -- indeed many choose a path of willful blindness, turning their eyes away from the trade in and collection of cultural material, whether licit or not.  Some of this may be motivated by the ideological view that all culture belongs to the states where it is found, and that collecting, even legitimate collecting, is nothing short of theft.  Many, we know, willfully and blindly accept the views of countries (many of which are dictatorships) that declare anything old state property, or, worse, forget their own commitment to science by seizing on and promoting truly ridiculous claims about looting and vastly inflated values of the traffic in stolen material, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. Caveat emptor. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

More Debunking of the $36 million figure

Artnet news, citing German sources, has also debunked the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted from one area in Syria.   Why is this so important?  - because the figure has been used to justify proposed changes in the law in both Germany and the United States that will impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of common artifacts which have been legally held for generations.

Friday, December 12, 2014

$36 million looting figure loses further credibility

Hopefully, anyone in the archaeological blogosphere still holding out hope that that $36 million figure for looted artifacts in one area alone has or will be "verified" or "corroborated"  will read this:

"So how much money is ISIL making from looted antiquities? Several media reports over the past two months put it at millions of dollars. One said ISIL had made $36m (Dh132m) alone from looting at one site in Syria. A spokesperson for Unesco’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project also called the high figures being quoted grossly inaccurate. Desmarais [of ICOM] agrees: 'If someone gives you a number today, they are lying to you.'

Brodie also questions the financial figures put on looting and has called for proper verification. “I don’t believe these figures,” he says. “In 2013, Sotheby’s New York turned over $20m in antiquities sales from the entire Mediterranean and Middle East area, so ISIL would need to be making more than Sotheby’s from one site. For another perspective, assuming found antiquities in Syria are worth $50 each (which is an optimistic estimate), ISIL would need to have found and sold 720,000 antiquities.”

The article in question is far better than the usual propaganda the archaeological lobby has promoted in order to take advantage of the ongoing tragedy in Syria to clamp down further on collectors and even get a government payday.  Yet, it suffers from a problem common to most articles (and decision making) in the area-- while "experts" (mostly with an axe to grind) are consulted, collectors and small businesses who are expected to bare the brunt of any proposed "corrective regulation" are not.  No wonder government, academia and the press are held in such low regard these days.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

CCP Raises Concerns about HR 5703

The Committee for Cultural Policy has written responsible members of Congress expressing concerns about HR 5703, a bill that purports to protect and preserve international cultural property.

According to the letter,

Unfortunately HR 5703 as written is likely to make a bad situation even worse.  The bill assumes cultural property may be “saved” by repatriating it back to unstable, war torn nations without conditions. Blind application of these remedies may well lead to such miscarriages of justice as the seizure of Jewish and Christian religious artifacts from refugees and return of that property to the very instigators of their persecution.   The bill calls for a White House coordinator, but that coordinator will only consult with academics and foreign governments thereby ensuring even greater damage to the legitimate trade and, as a result, the American Public. The bill also provides the State Department permanent grant making authority without requiring any transparency or analysis of potential conflicts.  This is particularly troubling because many of the bill’s supporters stand to gain financially or professionally from such grants. The bill also bypasses the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and its recommendations based on the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act which thoughtfully balances the needs for cultural property protection in situations precisely like those we face currently in Syria.  Finally the Bill does nothing to resolve the inherent conflict between DOJ’s selective application of untested foreign ownership laws against US parties and DOS’s sloppy administration of the CCPIA.  In fact, the bill makes this worse by setting an arbitrary date for determination of illegality and giving DOJ broad powers to question any and all objects already in the US without establishing any safe harbor for legitimately acquired objects.

The CCP has also analyzed the bill further here.    

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Spot On

Metal Detectorist and Commentator John Howland has posted this deconstruction of the anti-collector rants of archaeo-blogger Paul Barford on the Stout Standards blog.  It's spot on.

It's only too bad that others in the archaeological blogosphere who should know better link to Barford's ad hominem attacks giving them more credibility than they deserve.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playing Gotcha

The Greek Reporter has a short  profile of  Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a Glasgow researcher, who uses police files procured "under the table" from the Greek authorities to play "gotcha" with auction houses and collectors.  CPO believes such behavior should not be celebrated but condemned.  The fair thing for Greek authorities to do would have been to share the materials with major auction houses so it can be reviewed as part of their due diligence process.  Instead, the Greeks (and presumably their Italian counterparts) use Tsirogiannis and his go-to blogger, David Gill, to publicly humiliate auction houses and prominent collectors with privileged information.  This gives the Greek and Italian cultural bureaucracies an easy "win" when the embarrassed collector and auction house surrender the artifact, and Tsirogiannis and Gill, two otherwise obscure academics, get some notoriety.   Perhaps all this helps divert attention away from the gross underfunding, bureaucratic incompetence and corruption that bedevils Greece's and Italy's poor stewardship of their own cultural patrimony, but it doesn't make it right.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Archaeology and Dictatorship: A Need to Examine the Archaeological Lobby's Links with Dictators and Terrorist Regimes?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford and his fellow-traveler, David Gill, have demanded that the EU Funded Glasgow Trafficking Culture group examine any links between paramilitary groups and the illicit antiquities trade. 

But what of the close and even more easily demonstrable links between the archaeological lobby and military dictatorships such as that in Egypt, Sectarian Governments like that in today's Iraq, or terrorist regimes like that of Assad's Syria or earlier, Saddam's Iraq?

Serious academic study could help illuminate how these links have buttressed State claims of ownership to anything and everything old, how this has only encouraged corruption, poor stewardship and even destruction and looting of artifacts in times of civil conflict or war.  It could also help illustrate how source countries can manipulate foreign archaeologists and other scholars by threatening denial of excavation or study permits, withholding sponsorship of excavations, and by other means well known to unscrupulous foreign government officials.

Now that would be an interesting study to read.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Archaeology and Dictatorship: Egypt

An Egyptian court has acquitted Egypt's former dictator of charges that he instigated the killing of protesters against his rule.  Most commentators see the "verdict" as another sign that Egypt's new military dictator, General Sisi, is literally trying to rewrite history.  Meanwhile, Egypt-- which had been a place of such hope during the early days of the Arab Spring-- has again become a police state-- where  any dissent is punished as a crime against the State.

This is no time to reward General Sisi.  Yet, according to Egyptian sources, our State Department is poised to announce a new MOU with Egypt, one which was prejudged even before CPAC met to consider an Egyptian request.   Of course, the archaeological lobby cheered on that MOU from the beginning, all too willing to pretend (as it has with respect to the Assad Regime in Syria) that import restrictions benefit archaeology, not the regime that controls it in those unhappy countries.

CPO submits that any MOU with Egypt will not help Egyptian archaeology in the end.  Rather, it will only further associate ancient Egyptian artifacts with State control and once again make them a target in the next explosion of popular discontent.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Archaeo-Blogger Celebrates Small Business Saturday

Archaeo-Blogger Paul Barford has unexpectedly celebrated Small Business Saturday with a tribute to the small businesses of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art.  What better way to mark the day by purchasing an antiquity or ancient coin from one of these fine IADAA dealers or some equally fine small businesses of the numismatic trade?

Archaeo-Blogger Blames US for Damage to ar Raqqha Museum?

Anti-American Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford, apparently oblivious to reports from Human Rights organizations, has suggested that US warplanes were  behind the bombing of the museum in ar Raqqha, Syria.  US warplanes have indeed been active in the vicinity,  but no credible sources have suggested that these strikes against ISIS targets were in the area of the museum.  Rather, it seems far more plausible that the Assad regime was behind the carnage and damage to the Museum, specifically targeting a nearby market in revenge for recent losses to ISIS and ISIS' executions of Syrian troops.

Barford goes onto rant that CPO is using the Syrian tragedy to attack "conservationists" like himself.  But, of course, it is the archaeological lobby that has been using the on-going tragedy in Syria, to not only justify major changes in the law in both Germany and the United States, but additional funding for archaeologists as well.

Meanwhile, "conservationists" seem reluctant to point the finger at the Assad regime for any damage to Syria's cultural heritage at all.  But why?  The reasons given-- fear for the safety of observers on the ground-- seem contrived when evidence of Assad's war crimes are available from open sources.  Perhaps, if it's not a hope to get "back to business as usual" if Assad wins the civil war, it's an unwillingness to do so for fear of undercutting the fundamental UNESCO assumption that UNESCO State Parties are the best stewards of "cultural property."  After all, to whom does the archaeological lobby think any "cultural property" seized by German or US Customs should be returned?

Friday, November 28, 2014

$36 Million Figure-- Archaeo-blogger was against it before he was for it

It's getting harder to take Dr. Sam Hardy, an archaeo-blogger with a book in the works about "conflict antiquities" seriously.   He started off with some healthy skepticism of the claim ISIS made $36 million from the sale of illicit antiquities in one province alone.  There was no change in the underlying evidence, but Dr. Hardy then went onto hype that figure when "fame" came calling in the form of a Reuters blog.   As CPO explained at the time, major problems remained with the $36 million figure despite Hardy's effort to latch onto it.   And now he's at it again, claiming that German media has verified the figure in response to a critical report in a German numismatic publication.  But is that true?  It would seem not based on the information he provides.  Rather, the most that can be said is that ISIS probably derives some income from looting-- which is what Hardy originally concluded before he jumped on the $36 million bandwagon.

Addendum (12/14/14):  This $36 million looting claim has been further debunked in a report in Artnet.  Further addendum (12/18/14):  In response to this news, Hyperallergic's only accommodation  to the truth was to change the title of the article from "German Media Corroborate $36M Islamic State Antiquities Trafficking" to "German Media May Corroborate $36M Islamic State Antiquities Trafficking" without acknowledging the change.   Of course, as set forth above, Arnet reported German Media in the end did no such thing.

Large Grant Needed to Determine Number of Coin Collectors?

Far off in Warsaw, a numismatic capital of the world,  one archaeo-blogger is upset about the lack of "hard numbers" out there for coin collectors.  CPO notes that the State Department recently gave ASOR $600,000 to track looting in Syria and all we've gotten out of it is flawed intelligence about ISIS and antiquities looting.  Why not then an even bigger grant to be given to a coin collectors' group to help determine the actual number of coin collectors out there?  After all, whatever their number, they are a far bigger special interest than archaeologists and, hence deserve, if anything, a much larger piece of the pie.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving Assad a Pass?

CPO is struck by the fact that the archaeological lobby appears to be seeking to de-emphasize the part the Assad regime has played in the ongoing destruction of Syria's cultural heritage.

Just this week, we've learned that a museum in Ar-Raqqha has been badly damaged by bombing and that more sculptures have been hacked out of and stolen from Palmyra, a site great historical importance.

Yet, one would be hard pressed to find any mention whatsoever of the fact that the only party to the conflict with aircraft capable of bombing is the Assad regime and that Palmyra is under the control of the Assad regime and its military.

What gives?  Is it possible the archaeological lobby is giving the Assad regime a pass in hopes of ensuring a return to "business as usual" (i.e. excavation permits and other "collaboration") in the event the government ultimately prevails in the ongoing civil war?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Prejudgment and Fraud?

Egyptian sources are reporting that  a MOU will be signed in early 2015 authorizing import restrictions on Egyptian cultural artifacts.   Troublingly, once again Egyptian authorities have suggested the whole matter was a "done deal"even before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee met on June 2, 2014.

According to the report,

"This step comes eight months (March to November) after a memorandum of understanding between Egypt and the United States, in order to protect Egyptian antiquities and combat smuggling of artefacts."

Yet more evidence, if any is needed, that MOUs are prejudged and that proceedings before CPAC are little more than a farce?

Egypt is now ruled by a military dictatorship which just ran a sham election that anointed General Sissi as Egyptian president.  So, it should be no surprise that these kinds of shenanigans are standard operating procedure in that unhappy country.

However, we can and should expect far more from our own State Department and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Cultural Heritage Center.  Instead of sinking to the level of the Egyptian military dictatorship and its nationalistic cultural bureaucracy, our State Department-- which is so fond of lecturing others about the merits of  "Democracy" --should be providing our Egyptian friends with an example of what the rule of law actually means.

There is a well-founded perception in the collecting community and among the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade that the Cultural Heritage Center is little more than a bureaucratic dictatorship in the service of the archaeological lobby and its crusade against collecting.   This latest revelation as well as news that a State Department Cultural Heritage Center contractor faked the claim that stolen antiquities are ISIS' most important funding source after "hot oil" will only add to this perception as will news that the archaeological lobby is asking Congress to give the State Department unlimited authority to enrich itself through a permanent grant program.  No wonder trust in government is at an all time low.

There is no doubt some in the archaeological community who are uncomfortable with the view that the ends justifies the means.  Hopefully, they too will raise concerns about how the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center operates.  Public confidence and the long-term viability of the State Department program may well depend upon it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

HR 5703: Does the Archaeological Lobby Hope to Profit from Tragedy?

Does the archaeological lobby hope to profit from the ongoing tragedy in Syria?

The Secretary of State is authorized to make grants to private individuals or organizations for the purposes of international cultural property protection activities in areas at risk of destruction due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters.

The bill thus gives the State Department permanent grant making authority to fund interested individuals and groups without requiring any transparency or analysis of potential conflicts of interest.  This is troubling because many of the bill's supporters potentially stand to gain financially or professionally from such grants. Such grants, of course, could very well be an absolute boon to their anti-collecting efforts, funded as they would be by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Of course, this is already happening with or without this bill.  After all, the State Department has given the American Schools for Oriental Research (ASOR) a $600,000 grant to create a "Syrian Initiative" meant to to track destruction and looting in that troubled country.  Tracking destruction and looting may indeed be worthwhile, but one can and should still question both the high cost of the grant and whether all the initiative's conclusions may in any case be pre-judged given ASOR's anti-collecting stance and the recent, highly dubious claim made by the Syrian Initiative's co-director that looting is the second largest funding source for ISIS, after "hot oil."   Worse still, the archaeological lobby has made sure that such reports don't just "sit on the shelf."  Instead, they have mounted a concerted press campaign to hype such claims in an effort to stampede the UN and national governments into establishing a world-wide ban on the international sale of Syrian antiquities. Of course, another part of HR 5703 (Section 8) would do just that-- it would impose permanent "emergency import restrictions" on anything and everything "Syrian." 

Finally, it may or may not be a coincidence, but Rick St. Hilaire and other likely supporters of the bill have just  formed a non-profit called "Red Arch" which would seem to be perfectly placed to become a potential beneficiary of any State Department largess.  Curiously, St. Hilaire appears to have omitted any mention of HR 5703's provisions for State Department grant making authority in his otherwise thorough reporting on the bill.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reaction to Felch Expose-- The Good, the Bad and the Out of Touch

The archaeological blogosphere has started to react to Jason Felch's expose of the gross exaggeration behind the claim that looted antiquities represent ISIS' most significant funding source, behind "hot oil."

While some responsible parties question the wisdom of "cooking the books" others such as Larry Rothfield suggest lying is fine as long as it raises awareness of the issue and helps move the archaeological lobby's legislative agenda forward.

And then far off in Poland, one archaeological blogger misses the point altogether.  No, the issue is not the need for more scrutiny of the already much scrutinized antiquities trade, but rather the need for at least some scrutiny on the claims of the archaeological lobby, particularly where they are used to justify import restrictions and funding decisions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chasing Facts

Jason Felch has turned his investigative journalistic techniques on claims that illicit antiquity sales are a major funding source for ISIS.   He makes a convincing case that the State Department contractor whose work is being used to justify new legislation to impose emergency import restrictions on Syrian cultural artifacts made up the claim that illicit antiquities are a major funding source for ISIS, second only to "hot oil."  If nothing else, this suggests a "go slow" approach is warranted before Congress acts further on HR 5703.   Gross exaggeration does no one any good, particularly the advocates for import restrictions.

UN Panel Calls for Syrian Antiquities Ban

Despite some real questions (even raised within the archaeological blogosphere) about the true extent of antiquities smuggling from Syria, a UN Panel, which presumably only heard from anti-trade proponents of a ban, has advocated just that as an anti-terrorism measure.

The panel's recommendations will now be considered by the Security Council, but CPO doubts there will be any effort to conduct a real assessment of the situation or to assess the negative impact of such a ban on the lawful trade in undocumented Syrian antiquities long out of that country, on refugees fleeing with family heirlooms or on the fate of Christian and Jewish religious artifacts.

And let's get real.  Where do the proponents of such a ban think any antiquities that are seized should be returned to?  Of course, the only possible choices are Assad, ISIS or the Free Syrian Army, all of whom have been implicated to one extent or the other in the destruction and looting that have prompted the calls for a ban in the first place. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bill introduced that purports to protect cultural heritage in times of war

Congressmen Engel and Smith have introduced a bill aimed at  protecting cultural heritage in times of war.   The bill was evidently drafted with substantial input from the archaeological lobby, what with its promises of guaranteed funding for archaeological groups, and directions for additional bureaucratic focus in the area.  Troublingly, once again the underlying assumption is that the only stakeholders that matter are academics and governmental organizations.

The most controversial part authorizes restrictions on Syrian archaeological objects.  Although the bill purports to act consistently with other US law, it calls for key CPIA provisions relating to the scope and duration of restrictions to be ignored.  It also calls for CPAC to be bypassed (despite its current membership dominated by archaeological interests).

Given the bill's introduction just weeks before this Congress will adjourn, it's highly doubtful it will become law.  However, presumably the archaeological lobby will press for its reintroduction in the new Congress.

Friday, November 14, 2014

St. Louis Chapter of the AIA Leads the Way

All the hand-ringing in the archaeological blogosphere should not obscure the fact that the Saint Louis Chapter of the AIA did quite well in auctioning off its lovely, provenanced MesoAmerican pieces that were no longer thought to be essential to the Chapter's mission.

So, let's hope other AIA Chapters, and better yet source countries such as Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Peru, look through their storerooms for similarly redundant artifacts which can be sold. Funds can then be used to help archaeological programs which otherwise would be under or even un-funded.

While this is not a new idea (the AAMD has proposed it previously), given tight budgets everywhere, it's an idea that fits the reality of our times almost everywhere.

Do archaeological societies and source countries really need row upon row of virtually identical artifacts heaped up in storerooms?  Isn't it better to make some use out of them once they have been properly recorded?

Bravo St. Louis Chapter of the AIA.  Hopefully, you will be trend setters.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt RIP

Nelson Bunker Hunt passed away on Oct. 21, 2014, but because he lost his collection years ago to bankruptcy, his death has not attracted much notice in the collecting world. 

So it's fitting then that Mike Markowitz, writing for CoinWeek, has prepared this wonderful tribute to his connoisseurship in collecting ancient coins.

Hunt's collecting interests were not as broad as those of Shiekh Al-Thani of Qatar, but both were among the lucky few able to exchange petro-dollars for some of the world's most beautiful and historically significant ancient coins.  The images in Mike's article speak for themselves.

Addendum:  For some reason, British archaeo-bloggers Paul Barford and David Gill have been much harder on the late Mr. Hunt than on the late Shiekh Al-Thani.   It's hard to fathom why.  More anti-Americanism perhaps?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cultural Heritage Management-- Turkish Style

Turkey's unemployed archaeologists have criticized the government's lack of commitment to archaeology and have demanded more government jobs to help cope with managing the nation's extensive archaeological sites. 

And while some resent the government promises to help protect Syrian and Iraqi antiquities from smugglers, other more enterprising souls think the unemployed could be trained to help interdict looted antiquities crossing the country's borders from Syria and Iraq. A win-win for everyone.

Shooting at Easy Targets

Professor Stephanie Mulder, an archaeologist who evidently excavated in Syria as a guest of the Assads, points her finger at those she considers to be easy targets behind the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

But one should be skeptical of blame heaped on Western collectors by those with an ax to grind against private collecting.  And no one in the mainstream media has yet asked the the question if the archaeological community's unqualified support for dictatorship's absolute control of the past has made antiquities the target of the disaffected.

Addendum:  A CPO reader pointed out that the Jewish artifact mentioned in the article has a provenance dated back to 1913!  If anything, this shows that "Syrian artifacts" have been collected for a long time and it's wrong factually (and ethically CPO would argue) for them to be characterized as a class as "blood antiquities."   

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

This Veterans Day let's especially remember all who died in the Great War on all sides. 
Unfortunately, that war also unleashed forces of nationalism that even today colors our views of antiquities which have become for some the exclusive "cultural property" of the nation state.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Civil Forfeiture Under Fire

Government overreach in the forfeiture field has now attracted the attention of the New York Times.  If anything, forfeitures based on foreign cultural patrimony laws that effectively declare anything "old" "state property" are possibly subject to even more abuse, particularly where the needs of "public diplomacy" or "cooperation with foreign law enforcement" are allowed to take precedence over concepts of fairness and due process.

So, when will the New York Times and other mainstream media take notice?

Prominent Gulf Collector Dies Unexpectedly

Sheikh Al-Thani of Qatar, one of the world's most prominent collectors, has passed away.  The Sheikh collected not only Islamic Art, but many other things as well, including ancient coins and even, apparently historic Coca-cola bottles.

The Sheikh's purchases drove the market in high-end numismatic material for awhile, until unpaid bills mounted and disputes (which were ultimately resolved) followed.

It remains unclear what will become of his enormous collection, and even whether it will be treated as his own property or that of the Qatari State.

Friday, November 7, 2014


CPO can only hope that the latest dust-up between the AIA's St. Louis Chapter and the national organization will lead to a reassessment of the AIA's jihad against the sales of antiquities.

More likely, however, the ideologues that run the organization will punish the AIA's St. Louis Chapter for its "crime" of selling well-provenanced artifacts, apparently to help fund a community archaeology project. 

In doing so, however, the AIA will only alienate itself further from collectors and dealers, who, after all, share the AIA's passion for the past. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Repression Comes to Egypt--So, Why Reward the Military Dictatorship with Import Restrictions Now?

The AIA and the rest of the archaeological lobby have moved on from advocating for "emergency import restrictions" on behalf of the Egypt.   And not a moment too soon judged by the bad press Egypt's military dictatorship has been getting-- assuming you can find it all given all the headlines about ISIS and Syria.

The renewed repression begs the question-- why should the US reward the Egyptian military dictatorship with import restrictions now?

Certainly, as the generals have reasserted their authority, reports of looting have disappeared from the papers entirely.  So, is the only point to provide our own State Department's "seal of approval" not only on the dictatorship's control of its own people but over the ancient past as well?

And, if so, aren't we again just helping to create the exact same conditions that virtually guarantee more of Egypt's past will be destroyed in the next explosion of popular anger directed against the government?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Be Skeptical

It's a good time to be skeptical because governments plant propoganda using social media or friendly press outlets.   Certainly, a recent story on RT News, a press organ for Putin and the Russian Government, comes to mind.  That story featured suitably large, fake Greek coins that were purportedly being sold by a rebel from the Free Syrian Army to help purchase weapons.  Russia, of course, supports Assad, the enemy of the Free Syrian Army, so one should be skeptical about a report that portrays these rebels in a bad light.

And what of the vast sums of money ISIS supposedly makes from the illicit antiquities trade?  Even some in the archaeological lobby are rightly skeptical too.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Villa Associated with "Ben Hur" to be Concreted Over

Italian municipal authorities have announced plans to concrete over the villa of the real life arch-enemy of Ben Hur, Roman General Messalla.

Meanwhile, off in the increasingly out-of-touch reaches of archaeological blogosphere, a professor of some academic distinction has dredged up his version of an old exchange concerning the merits of the UK's Treasure Act and PAS as compared to the "state control" approach of countries like Italy.

Yes, much has happened since 1999.  PAS has recorded 1 million finds.  And, what of the supposedly superior "Italian approach?"   Click on the label for "poor stewardship" and make up your own mind.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Speaking with Authority on Syria

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of  Syria's Archaeological Excavations Department, has spoken with authority about severe threats to Syria's cultural heritage.

Al-Maqdissi places most blame on the Syrian government and military which have "destroyed a lot with its incessant bombing."  And even if Assad ultimately prevails, Syria's cultural heritage will remain at risk from a government more interested in grandiose building projects (that will no doubt enrich the dictator's cronies) than in caring for its cultural heritage.  As an example, al-Maqdissi mentions longstanding plans for a hotel and tourist center to be built right over the ruins of an important Phoenician site.

In response to a question, Al-Maqdissi states that looting is a serious problem, particularly at Apamea. However, al-Maqdissi rightly notes that rebels and the "real terrorists" of ISIS are far more likely to make quick cash from easy to sell commodities, like "hot oil."  Simply, antiquities are not very "liquid"-- it's hard to sell them fast and for top dollar. And then there is the real question whether the iconoclasts of ISIS would rather smash than sell what they find anyway.

Revealingly, al-Maqdissi has little good to say about UNESCO and its tired group of experts who use the same cookie-cutter approach to every "cultural heritage crisis."

Instead, what's needed is outside funding for site guards (which would be difficult given international sanctions) and more realistically, effective policing of Turkey's border, something CPO suggested awhile ago.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Warsaw-- A New Numismatic Capital for the World

While a certain blogger might not approve of all the unprovenanced material for sale, CPO is gratified to learn that a Polish firm is conducting an auction of better quality ancient coins which is accessible through the German "Sixbid" auction platform

Warsaw and Krackow were traditionally centers of the cosmopolitan spirit that fosters ancient coin collecting.  Then, the Nazis and Communists came, "liquidating" intellectuals and replacing that cosmopolitanism with first a racist and then a statist ideology.   And in Communist Poland, collectors were considered "speculators" or far worse.

Happily, all that is now getting to be ancient history.

So, let's all celebrate the fact that Warsaw now joins Beijing, London, Munich, New York, Rome and Zurich as a place where ancient coins are bought and sold openly and in abundance, fostering a renewal of cosmopolitanism for which Poland was rightly known.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Making of an Urban Legend

One of the main justifications for the purported need for "emergency import restrictions" on Syrian artifacts is that ISIS has netted $36 million from the sale of artifacts from just one area in Syria alone.  This $36 million figure has been repeated so often that it is now taken as fact.

But is it accurate?  First, let's consider the source-- an unnamed Iraqi intelligence official.  Right there, alarm bells should go off given the Iraqi Sectarian Government's questionable  reputation and desperate need for international support.

Next, let's consider the actual report.  Let's assume the source is credible.  Even if so, it's not clear at all whether the $36 million figure relates to looted antiquities or the value of everything ISIS has taken from that one specific area. 

The archaeological community purports to take a "scientific approach" to all issues.  So its disheartening that even those who previously questioned the report as "contradictory" have now latched onto it because they think it will help give their demands to suppress all trade in undocumented artifacts some additional traction. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cultural Heritage Protection- Egyptian Military Dictatorship Style

The pyramids may be falling down, but it would seem the Egyptian military dictatorship is on the ball when it comes to confiscating anything old.  Indeed, according to the article,

Eldamaty asserted that all these objects are under the protection of Egypt’s antiquities law 11 and explained that negotiations are underway with embassies of Spain, Canada and Yemen among others to return the coins to the countries where they belong. 

Ahmed El-Rawi, head of the Recuperation Antiquities Section explained on Wednesday that the stamps are dated from 1898 to 1972 and that they are the ministry’s property according to the UNESCO convention for safeguarding antiquities and presidential decree number 114 which prohibits exchange of cultural heritage items between countries.

CPAC take note.  More proof, if any was needed, that as far as a MOU with Egypt is concerned, its not at all about conservation but control.

Hopefully, at least Canada's diplomats will be puzzled by the effort to repatriate the old Canadian coin in the trove.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Feds Pay SLAM $425,000 in Legal Fees for Defense of Forfeiture Action

The US Government has paid the Saint Louis Art Museum's lawyers $425,000 in legal fees after the government lost its effort to seek the forfeiture of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask.

Hopefully, the DOJ will now think twice before pressing another dubious, stale claim on behalf of a military dictatorship.   And let's also hope that this award stiffens the resolve of museum directors everywhere to fight questionable, stale claims to important pieces in their collections.

Archaeo-blogger Confirms that It's Not About Conservation, It's About Control

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford, who purports to speak for the archaeological community on portable antiquities issues, has responded to noted cultural property lawyer Bill Pearlstein's views about Cuno's latest article condemning repatriation.

However, in attempting in his own way to "be clever," Barford has only unwittingly confirmed what CPO has "observed" for quite some time:  All the talk at CPAC meetings about supposedly "preserving context" by honoring the UNESCO Convention in applying the broadest restrictions possible really is far more about ensuring "control" than "conservation."

Thank you, Paul Barford.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cuno's Case Against Repatriation

James Cuno has made a well-reasoned case against repatriation.  What a welcome contrast to the blatant propaganda that has become associated with the archaeological lobby.

If Cuno fails at all, it's in his ignoring the interests of collectors, who have traditionally supported healthy museums.

And then there is his failure to reach as a conclusion the all too obvious end result of the cultural nationalism he decries:  if anything, the reality on the ground in Egypt, Syria and Iraq proves that sites are looted and museums are destroyed precisely because angry, disenfranchised locals associate state owned antiquities with hated dictatorial regimes who have appropriated the past to serve their own purposes.


It appears that German collectors and auction houses are now getting "the treatment" from access journalists who make the inflammatory claim that Western collectors are supporting terrorism in Syria and Iraq.

 Even with rudimentary knowledge of German, sophisticated collectors who have seen it all before will recognize the usual cheap tricks—shots of a well-known auction house juxtaposed with scenes of war and looting.  And then there are the interviews with some of the usual suspects—Van Rijn, Muller-Karpe, Bogdanos, etc. who apparently readily agree about a link between terrorism and collecting.   The underlying premise is that that collectors and dealers are funding ISIS and the only way to stop it is to suppress collecting.   

Amusingly, the filmmakers' camera keeps focusing on two solitary lots of early Middle Eastern objects in a German auction—as if all the air time they receive makes up for the lack of hard evidence supporting the filmmaker's thesis.  And, of course, no good propagandist will fail to mention the decade old looting of the Iraq Museum whatever its current relevance.

So what we have is more of a morality play than a true documentary. The heroes, of course, are archaeologists, the Caribinieri (who selflessly help countries like Iraq) and local cops while the villains are terrorists, looters, auction houses, and the shadowy collectors and dealers who support them. 

But this tale is at best incomplete.  Nowhere does anyone pause to consider whether looting is an expression of hatred for the repressive governments that have appropriated the past for their own nationalistic purposes.  And what of the roles of cops and archaeologists in these repressive regimes?Doesn't their unqualified support for nationalistic laws that declare anything "old" to be state property make them partly responsible for the unfolding tragedy?   

Oddly, the filmmakers appear to be operating on much firmer ground in Lebanon than in Germany. Some of the best footage depicts what Lebanese authorities have seized.   Still, CPO can't help wondering if any of the icons that are shown were confiscated from Christian refugees who have escaped with their lives and a few treasured possessions from ISIS.  If so, the filmmakers would be callously adding insult to real injury-- but do they really care given the point they intend to make? 

For what appears to be an English-language short of the same film, see here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Who Burned the Museum?

The Conflict Antiquities blog is reporting on various theories on who burned a museum in a Kurdish area within Turkey.   It makes for interesting reading, but all the speculation glosses over an important point.  Museums and archaeological sites in places like Egypt, Iraq, Syria and now Turkey have become targets precisely because hated dictatorial or authoritarian governments have appropriated the past to help further their own agendas.   So, is the greatest threat to the preservation of the past in such countries Western collectors or the nationalistic regimes that use the past to lord it over the locals?

Where is the Petition Asking Turkey to Control its Borders?

The archaeological lobby's petitions asking the UN to call for a ban in the sale of Syrian antiquities have already received their share of attention in the archaeological blogosphere, but as far as CPO can tell, no scholar has yet proposed any similar petition addressed to the President of the Turkish Republic asking that Turkish authorities crack down on any effort to use the country as a transit point for looted artifacts.  After all, the Turkish Republic is uniquely situated to stem the flow of illicit Syrian antiquities given its long border with the country.  And with a large and well trained army, it can and should be able to control its own borders. 

Wonder why?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Viking Hoard

A significant Viking era treasure was recently found in Scotland and reported under its Treasure Trove law.  More evidence-- if any is needed-- that systems that encourage the public to report their finds with the prospect of compensation are much preferable to those which don't.

PAS-Syrian Style?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford sees ISIS inspired looting in Syria, apparently organized with the help of local archaeologists (who may very well be acting under extreme duress) as the Syrian equivalent of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.  He then goes out of his way to disparage a real American archaeologist with impeccable credentials-- who has actually done something constructive about the sad situation by helping to train Syrian museum professionals -- in his screed.

Presumably, some of the more responsible individuals at the AIA and in the archaeological lobby may be may be wondering whether having such an unguided missile "on their side" is more of a curse than a blessing.  If not, they should.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Turkey Needs to Act

CPO's takeaway from the New Yorker's piece on ISIS is that Turkey needs to do far more to control its own borders if there is any hope in slowing the pace of looting in Syria. 

The organized looting US archaeologists say is taking place in Syria stems from the unrest there.  According to the piece, even trained archaeologists are joining in-- though whether for personal gain or to literally save their heads-- cannot be determined.

We can't change the facts on the ground.  But, for looting to be lucrative (if it really is as claimed), any looted material needs to get out of the war zone.  This is where Turkey --which shares a long border with Syria-- comes in.  The article states artifacts looted from sites supposedly under the Assad regime's control are openly available for sale in Turkish border towns.  And one would suppose Turkey would also be the major transit point for such material-- though where it is going -- if it is leaving Turkey in quantity-- appears to be a mystery. 

So, why is the archaeological lobby far more interested in promoting "emergency import restrictions" here on anything that looks remotely "Syrian" than on pressuring the Turkish government to address the problem at the source?  After all, the archaeological lobby has offered unqualified support for even the most questionable Turkish repatriation demands-- so shouldn't we also expect that they can and should call out Turkey to do the right thing?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why Send Them Back to Iraq or Syria for that Matter?

Kenneth Bandler, writing in the Jerusalem Post, wonders why anyone would still want to send the Jewish Archive back to Iraq given the sectarian violence in the country.

He might be surprised to learn there are probably more than a few in the archaeological community who still advocate doing so.

And let's not forget Syria.  Archaeological groups are in full court press mode advocating that the US impose "emergency import restrictions."

But these would also help guarantee that any such Jewish artifacts that arrive here to escape destruction are repatriated by US Customs back to a country that is largely controlled either by the murderous Assad regime that is evidently responsible for shelling an important historic synagogue into dust or the even more murderous and destructive iconoclasts of ISIS.

Go figure.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Forfeiture Funnies

Comedian John Oliver has given civil forfeiture laws quite a send-up.  One may rightly ask: Are forfeitures of cultural goods on behalf of foreign governments-- some of which are outright dictatorial or authoritarian regimes-- any less prone to abuse?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Academics vs. Practitioners

The New York Times has done a public service by publishing a series of essays offering prescriptions for what ails Syria's cultural patrimony.   Not surprisingly, experts with real word experience favor addressing the problem at the source.  On the other hand, academics with an axe to grind against collecting propose more "emergency import restrictions" despite real questions about their efficacy.  In so doing, they no doubt fully understand  the collateral damage such restrictions cause on collecting common artifacts of the sort which don't typically carry detailed collecting histories.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Polish Collectors' Rights Advocate?

It was not too long ago that Poland broke free from Communism and its apparatchicks.   So its disheartening that Polish officials have apparently seized a legitimately purchased Egyptian artifact on no more than the say-so of representatives of Egypt's military dictatorship.  Oddly enough, archaeo-blogger Paul Barford is the one who has brought all this to our attention.  So, why is such arbitrary action wrong in Poland, but to be applauded on his blog when it takes place in the United States?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Archaeological Assault Brigade?

There is some talk in twitterdom about the need for archaeologists to team up with the military to defeat ISIS/ISIL.  CPO is all for it.   Committed archaeologists should sign up, get some basic military training, and be inserted into Syria and Iraq to help reclaim archaeological sites from terrorists.  Better to solve any looting problem at the source.   The other idea floated about-- import restrictions on anything and everything "Syrian"-- will undoubtedly inflict too much collateral damage on legitimate collecting.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dinosaur 13

Dinosaur 13 chronicles how an ambitious prosecutor, federal cultural bureaucrats, the FBI, jealous academics, a lying rancher, a greedy Native American tribe, a hard-ass judge, McDonald's, Disney and a big auction house conspired to steal "Sue," a virtually complete T-Rex, from an intrepid band of  commercial paleontologists and a small South Dakota town, all to take her to the big city, Chicago.

Sound implausible?   See it and you will believe.  At a minimum, any thinking person should be troubled about how the federal government handled the matter-- using tactics that have been replicated over and over again against collectors, dealers and museums in order to "get" artifacts in their possession.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Time to Purge the AIA's Rolls of its Few Remaining Antiquities Collectors?

There was a time when the collector-archaeologist was celebrated and many achieved the highest distinctions within the Archaeological Institute of America and similar societies around the world.

But now that the AIA has stated that  antiquities should only be held for public educational purposes, is it finally time to purge the AIA's rolls of those few remaining collector-supporters who have deluded themselves into thinking "its okay" to collect well provenanced pieces documented back before 1970?

One wonders.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

1970 No Longer a Safe Harbor?

The Archaeological Institute of America's recent comments to the Art Newspaper along with its vociferous opposition to the decision of the AIA's St. Louis Society to deaccession some well provenanced Egyptian artifacts has again raised serious questions about the AIA's position on collecting antiquities. 

Just a few years ago, we were told the AIA wasn't against collecting, "only" the collecting of material that could not be traced back before the 1970 UNESCO Convention was promulgated.  Of course, this was not much solace to ancient coin collectors, as well as collectors of many other portable antiquities.  The vast majority of ancient coins and presumably equal percentages of minor antiquities simply cannot be traced back anywhere near that far.  But this claim did have some resonance with some wealthy antiquities collectors, who could afford to purchase only antiquities with documented pre-1970 provenances.   They could then sit back secure in the knowledge their well-provenanced material worth thousands upon thousands of dollars would likely not be subject to the same level of scrutiny in the archaeological blogosphere as the random $50 ancient coin.

No more:

“We are strongly opposed to the proposed sale [of well provenanced material]”, says Ann Benbow, the executive director of the AIA, in an email to The Art Newspaper. 'If [it] goes forward, it will tarnish the long-standing reputation of the AIA, which has a strong stance against the sale of antiquities… Archaeological artifacts should be cared for and made available for educational purposes, not put up for auction.'”  

CPO has commented previously that any supposed "safe harbor" was always an illusion-- good only until some foreign potentate wanted US government help to repatriate yet another ancient goodie as a trophy.

Now, it appears the AIA may be formally jettisoning it. 

If so, high-end antiquities collectors beware and be complacent no more.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Enough Already

The Association of Art Museum Directors has made a powerful case to CPAC that the State Department's standard operating procedure of simply renewing (and sometimes expanding) MOUs and associated import restrictions  over and over again is not working.  Here is part of what the AAMD has told CPAC in its public comments on the proposed renewal of a MOU with El Salvador:

El Salvador is one of the best examples of why the current system of simply renewing MOUs is ineffective and inconsistent with the CPIA.  The absence of a significant legitimate market in the United States for El Salvadorian Prehispanic objects has apparently had little or no effect on looting in El Salvador.  If the past, and presumably current, submissions to this Committee are to be believed, United States import restrictions alone have not been effective in significantly curtailing looting in El Salvador.  The time has come for the Committee to explore new ways, within the confines of the CPIA, to render real assistance to countries like El Salvador. 

The AAMD does not suggest that it has all of the answers to this issue, but one can begin to identify those answers by admitting that simply repeating what has been done in the past is not likely to have any different result than what has occurred over the last 27 years.  In 2010, the AAMD recommended to this Committee that El Salvador be encouraged to begin a legal system of exchange of cultural property. This can be suggested under 19 U.S.C. § 2602(a)(4). Any such exchange should be taxed and the proceeds of that tax should be used to protect cultural sites and to encourage related employment by the local populations and the scientific exploration, storage and conservation of objects from those sites.  There may well be other approaches that reasonable people on all sides of these issues can recommend, but the first step needs to be taken by this Committee in acknowledging that new and different approaches must be taken if the archaeological record of a country like El Salvador is to be preserved and protected.