Thursday, August 28, 2014

Archaeology and Dictatorship

As wild claims continue to be made about alleged connections between Western collectors and Middle Eastern terrorists, there has been far too little academic interest  about the far more direct and verifiable links between dictatorships and archaeologists.  Certainly, prominent American archaeologists acted as apologists for Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and more recently they also have supported a proposed import ban on cultural goods on behalf of Egypt's generals.  Hopefully, there will be some much needed interest in this important topic.  After all, this connection between retentavist dictatorial regimes and the archaeological lobby has led not only to restrictions on the ability of ordinary Americans to gain access to common historical artifacts, but has also skewed our view of history as these regimes select what parts of the archaeological record to highlight or even erase to suit their nationalistic purposes. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Taking Advantage of a Bad Situation?

The hard-line archaeological advocacy group Saving Antiquities for Everyone is applauding the UK's new regulations aimed at banning the import of artifacts illicitly removed from Syria during its civil war.

While CPO understands the need for vigilance, CPO questions whether SAFE and related groups intend to take advantage of the bad situation in Syria to further their anti-collecting agenda.  In particular, when they call for the US to act, will they once again lobby for any import restrictions to be imposed based on place of production in ancient times rather than find spot in modern times as required under the US governing statute, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act?  Of course, any such restrictions will once again put many minor artifacts without solid provenances at risk for forfeiture though there is no evidence they are the products of recent looting.

And what of the CPIA's process for imposing import restrictions?  Any emergency request must come from the Assad government, not SAFE or the Archaeological Institute of America.  But if there is a valid request that is granted, should any artifacts that are forfeited go back to that murderous regime or should they instead be held in trust by US Institutions for the benefit of the Syrian people until such time the country is again at peace?  Presumably, if recent history is any guide, the repatriationist instincts of SAFE and related groups will demand the return of such artifacts to Assad now, no matter the facts on the ground or the equities of the situation.

But, if so, won't that only confirm that their ideology is more important than fairness or common sense?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Video Raises More Serious Questions About NY District Attorney's Office's Priorities

video has surfaced raising further serious questions about the New York DA's decision to give valuable Greek coins to the Greek government rather than to a New York institution or selling them for the benefit of the New York state taxpayer.

In it, Cyrus Vance, the DA, first thanks Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, the office's "resident expert on all things Greek," who is leaving for vacation in the country.  (Video at around 1:08)

He then notes that the coins were forfeited as part of a plea deal in which Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent hand-surgeon, collector and coin dealer, also had to write an essay about the dangers of collecting unprovenanced coins.  (Video at around 2:51)  For more about this coerced essay, see here.

Vance then indicates the commercial value of the Greek coins exceeds $200,000.  (Video at around 1:27). He then notes that Peter Weiss forfeited the Greek coins as part of a plea deal relating to other coins Weiss admitted were illicitly removed from Italy. (Video at around 3:04).   These coins later turned out to be clever forgeries.

As for the reason to send the coins abroad, Vance states that it's "a small price to pay" because Greece has given us democracy, astronomy and the Olympics. (Video at around 4:30)

The Greek Ambassador then thanks Vance for the windfall, asserts his country's "ethical rights" to returns, and invites Vance and all involved in the repatriation to visit the coins at their new home in his country.  (Video at around 8:17)

He then especially thanks Assistant DA Bogdanos for the efforts and his work with Greek officials.  (Video at around 8:30).

The problem with all this, of course, is that the interests of the New York taxpayer seem to have been entirely forgotten in favor of the interests of Bogdanos' beloved Greece, a foreign power, the Archaeological Institute of America, an organization Bogdanos favors, and their repatriationist agenda.

But why?  Perhaps the Vance and Bogdanos should write their own essay where they explain themselves.

Or, better yet, put them in a room full of chalk boards, and require them to write, "I work for the New York taxpayer and their interests come first" over and over again-- maybe 200,000 times for each dollar lost to the New York Treasury.


CPO has now located the court approved forfeiture stipulation in the Weiss case.  It sets forth the provenance of the coins, including the provenance of a Dicea stater which dates back to the Weber collection, circa 1890's.   The stipulation authorizes the coins to be donated to "a museum or other cultural institution" if no other claimant comes forward, but does not mention whether the interests of New York's tax payers have been considered or explicitly raise the possibility that the coins could be sent abroad.  CPO wonders, therefore, whether the court was adequately informed before approving such a stipulation.  Moreover, questions remain whether New York taxpayer's interests were considered and why it was decided to send the coins abroad to Greece rather than some institution in New York, like the ANS. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Some Welcome Honesty

Along with the usual references to shadowy international "cultural racketeers" and the difficult to comprehend refrain that "looting" is worse than "destruction," Dr. Amr Al-Azam, an archaeologist associated with Shawnee State University who involved in efforts to save Syria's cultural patrimony from civil war and ISIS, made this forthright statement to the Chasing Aphrodite blog.  In it, Al-Azam explains why ordinary Syrians loot in areas no longer under government control:

Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it? 

Perhaps then, a long term solution is for archaeologists to promote changes in the laws of such countries. As it is, unqualified support for stringent antiquities laws that don't recognize land owners as stakeholders does little for conservation and lots to support a corrupt status quo.

There are obviously atrocities taking place in Syria today, but hopefully at some point, peace will return and such honest assessments can be used to help guide future policy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Standard Operating Procedure?

By his silence on allegations contained in the Economist Magazine article linked below, Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford, the self appointed voice of the archaeological community on issues relating to portable antiquities, only seems to confirm that it's standard operating procedure to excavate without publishing or fully studying artifacts, sometimes for decades or even centuries.  CPO has covered this subject before, noting, for example, that  coins excavated in Rome over a century ago still await study and publication.

Barford long ago alienated himself from his former colleagues in the United Kingdom, criticizing them for their acceptance of the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme.  So its no great surprise that Barford blames  British archaeologists rather than the Egyptian Military Dictatorship for this latest scandal.  But Egypt holds King Tut's grave goods, and has happily exploited the long-dead boy king for years, securing millions upon millions in the process.

If Egypt wants our help in "protecting" antiquities to supposedly ensure they are studied and published, the least we can expect is for Egypt to make that happen, either by funding the study itself or by requiring that objects be published within a reasonable amount of time in return for the privilege of excavating in the country.

We'll Get to It Eventually

The Egyptian Military Dictatorship and the archaeological community have argued that import restrictions on cultural goods are necessary to ensure Egyptian cultural artifacts are protected and studied by trained archaeologists.

But, if that is so, why after almost a century has elapsed have only 30% of the 5,398 objects that trained archaeologists removed from King Tut's tomb back in the 1920's been studied?

The Boy King has made the Egyptian government millions upon millions.  So, there should have been plenty of money available to allocate to such an important project. 

More evidence, if any were needed, that import restrictions do not actually promote archaeological research. Rather, it takes real commitment from source countries and archaeologists themselves for that to happen.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Greece Gets a Windfall While the Long Suffering New York Taxpayer Gets the Shaft?

It's looking ever more clear that there is no reason to believe that the Greek coins that were taken from Dr. Peter Weiss' possession when he was arrested on unrelated charges were "stolen" or illegally imported.  Indeed, it appears that at least some may have long collecting histories dating back to the 1920's, if not earlier.

If so, the only rational basis for them to be forfeited to NY State authorities would be as some sort of restitution for the costs of the prosecution.  New York residents are among the most heavily taxed in our nation.  So why apparently did DA Matthew Bagdanos' office arrange for such valuable coins to be given to the Greek Government rather than instead being sold for the benefit of the New York Taxpayer?

Is it possible this proud Greek American and ardent supporter of the AIA's repatriationist agenda's judgment was clouded by his personal interests?

Let's hope not.

The NY District Attorney office should certainly provide more information about this issue than found in its self-serving press release.

It's also important to learn about the disposition of the other coins taken from Dr. Weiss' possession. The DA's Press release only states, "Two of the other coins have been returned to a previous owner, and the remainder are expected to be given to cultural and academic institutions for display, research, and study."

Hopefully, these will at least be New York institutions and not ones chosen based on their fealty to the AIA's repatriationist agenda.  If so, they may be "repatriated" too in short order to where they were made millenia ago.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Archaeo-Blogger Logic

It's interesting to note that an archaeo-blog from Poland tries to turn a story of an airport seizure into a supposed justification for US import restrictions on Egyptian coins.  Never mind the seizure took place in Egypt or that the passenger was travelling to Italy, not to the United States. 

The problem with this logic is that the import restrictions that are advocated are grossly overbroad, focusing on the place of production of ancient coins and not their find spots.  Their aim is to ban all trade in undocumented coins, not just the trade in items where there is a reasonable belief (like that here) that they are the products of recent, illicit digs.

Leaving aside the question of whether Egypt's absolutely Pharaonic antiquities laws should be liberalized, it does appear that the Egyptian Military Dictatorship again has control over its borders.  So, there is no longer any reason (if there ever was) for import restrictions that only apply to American collectors and not to collectors elsewhere, including within this archaeo-blogger's native Poland.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ivory Ban Hits Home for Archaeo-Blogger

It's interesting to see that Rick St. Hilaire's  "Cultural Heritage Lawyer" blog is taking a stance against the Obama Administration's ivory ban because U.S. Customs may be targeting  police bands with the confiscation of their instruments, such as bagpipes, that contain ivory.

Perhaps St. Hilaire, a former New Hampshire prosecutor who has been thoroughly hostile to the numismatic community's efforts against government overreach in the courts and in Congress, will rethink his views.  Or, is government overreach only a problem when it hits home?

200,000 Plus Served

Thanks to CPO's readers for 200,000 plus page views.  CPO is there to provide a collector's perspective on issues where all too often the "archaeology over all" perspective is pitched as the only "legitimate" one.     Hopefully, more collector friendly voices like the excellent Committee for Cultural Policy blog and Michael McCullough LLC blog (due for an update given Michael's new law firm association) will gain notice.  All too often media outlets rely on pre-packaged information from government publicity machines and their echo chambers in the archaeological blogosphere for information.

Collector-Dealer Relieved of his Coins

The US Government has repatriated several valuable coins produced in Greece millenia ago to that country as part of a plea deal agreed to by prominent collector Peter Weiss.

There is no suggestion that the coins that have been repatriated were "stolen" from Greece.  Rather, it appears that the only basis for their repatriation was that they were produced in ancient cities now located in that modern nation state and that they were on Dr. Weiss' person at the time of his arrest on an unrelated charge.

So, is this an example of good police work or rather of how culture cops can and do use the threat of criminal conviction to force the repatriation of objects with little regard to concepts of private property that are supposed to be enshrined in our Constitution?

And what of the coins themselves?  Will the bankrupt, modern nation state of Greece be a better steward for their care than American collectors?  One really wonders.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Ancient "Performance Art?"

What does the use of the spectacular Riace Bronzes as performance art say about Italy's stewardship of some of its most important cultural treasures?  And how can we be sure they were not damaged in the process? 

CPO is all for making ancient culture "relevant," but this stunt seems to have gone much, much too far given the cultural importance and fragility of the statues.