Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Obama Administration: MIA on the Destruction of Syrian and Iraqi Heritage

On WBEZ's Worldview, Mac Gibson and Patty Gerstenblith try to remain diplomatic, but make clear that the Obama administration is seriously delinquent in failing to have responded to the surge of antiquities looting in Syria and Iraq over the past years, in particular failing to issue an executive order banning imports of Syrian materials. 

One possible reason for turning a blind eye to looting before the rise of ISIS may be because the money made selling looted antiquities would have gone predominantly -- though we know not exclusively -- to anti-Assad rebel groups and suffering civilian populations. The administration may well have thought of the illicit antiquities trade as all in all a good thing in this situation, the loss of archaeological context and destruction of heritage a small price worth paying. In other words, the failure to ban imports might well indicate a covert policy of benign (sic) neglect.

But it's been months and months since the first video of ISIL destroying artifacts made it impossible to ignore the connection between antiquities looting and support for an organization we are purportedly trying to destroy. Lawmakers are introducing legislation; the general in charge of the US's new air war over Iraq and Syria is questioned about what the US plans to do about ISIL's archaeological depredations. This week we learn that an ISIL leader killed by us turned out to have had a cache of looted antiquities in his house. Yet there is still not a peep out of the White House, notwithstanding John Kerry's big talk at the Metropolitan Museum last fall.

So why the continued delay in imposing sanctions -- or in targeting bulldozers heading out to remote archaeological sites, or in putting pressure on transit countries to beef up border controls, or in supporting a bill to establish a coordinator capable of banging heads and getting the intelligence agencies to work together with the FBI to take down the smuggling networks supporting the trade that supports ISIL?

Attention must be paid.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sotheby's contributed $75K to support Syrian heritage protection efforts

An interesting development on the heritage protection funding side mentioned in passing in an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:
The Center is a partner in the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq project, or SHOSI, which brings together the Smithsonian Institution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Day After Association, a Syrian-led civil society group, to support the professional community on the ground in Iraq and Syria. (Sotheby’s recently gave $75,000 to the Smithsonian in support of the project.)
I am not aware -- maybe others are -- of any similar contributions having been made by auction houses or dealers towards projects aimed at assisting the protection and securing of antiquities. It would be great to see this kind of giving replicated by the other auction houses and by antiquities dealers. Better still would be a concerted commitment by the players in the trade to make annual contributions to some non-profit entity -- perhaps the Smithsonian, perhaps an NGO -- that would distribute the funding in a timely way (for instance, for the kinds of emergency needs identified by Brian Daniels in the same article). Imagine the goodwill the trade might garner if the major dealers and auction houses -- and heck, why not also major collectors -- signed on to contribute 10% of their annual revenue from antiquities sales to such a fund. (Of course, 10% would be a lot more than $75,000 -- in 2014, two statues alone sold for a total of £25 million.)

Taking such a step would not only give Sotheby's, Christie's, and responsible dealers such as James Ede a p.r. boost that might well lead to a thaw in relations with hostile "source" countries and heritage protection advocates, it might also forestall what is surely coming down the pipes eventually: the imposition of regulations -- including transparency requirements and a tax -- on the market. I myself would much prefer to see the trade regulated de jure, but voluntary self-regulation of the kind I am suggesting is a not-unhelpful second-best solution.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Killed ISIS leader had a trove of antiquities in his compound

 USA Today reports:
One of the few bright spots for the coalition was the successful raid last Saturday on the compound in eastern Syria where a top ISIL operative, Abu Sayyaf, was located. U.S. special operations troops killed Sayyaf, captured his wife and freed a slave the couple had been holding.
Also seized at Sayyaf's compound, USA TODAY has learned, was a trove of antiquities, including ancient coins and a bible. ISIL fighters apparently had plundered the priceless relics during their sweep through Iraq and Syria that began last summer. It appears ISIL planned to sell them on the black market to fund its operations rather than destroy them, the first official said.
It would be extremely helpful to know more about what specific antiquities were found, but this information alone should do much to allay the anxieties of those among us who have worried that exaggerated figures for how much ISIS is making from selling antiquities may destroy our credibility on Capitol Hill or with the Pentagon, making it difficult to get policymakers to take seriously calls to focus resources on protecting sites and on taking down the international antiquities smuggling networks. We don't need to get into the impossible-to-prove numbers game at all. It should be enough to simply point out that leaders of ISIS are themselves involved personally in the gathering and smuggling of illicit antiquities. That should be dispositive. If it isn't it at least will make clear that resistance to addressing the problem has nothing to do with the inability to provide reliable figures of the black market trade in antiquities.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Is it time to rethink our ideas about preserving world heritage?"

The Financial Times asks the right question, and offers several useful answers.

A couple of caveats:

High-resolution recordings of soon-to-be-pulverized monuments may well be the best one can do in the absence of military action to secure sites or to deter movement of looters and iconoclasts onto sites. It should be clear, however, that what we lose when we are left with mere records rather than the things themselves is not just the materiality of the things but the knowledge that materiality may hold. A hi-res photograph captures only the visible and only certain aspects of the visible. It is much better than nothing but not a perfect substitute, regardless of whether one values authenticity. Craftspeople already know well how to make fakes that can fool even some experts -- one archaeologist has suggested that something like a quarter of the Meso-American artifacts in museums are probably fakes. But that's not a cheering thought.

Preservation, new or otherwise, of already-excavated monuments and artifacts from iconoclasm or other war-related destruction is a different problem from that of preserving (the context of) not-yet-excavated artifacts from looters. The article notes that what we need to do is to "stall the economic benefits of looting", and suggests that looting can be reduced by better policing of the international antiquities market. That is absolutely correct. The question, however, is how policing can be improved. ICOM's online guide to the types of artifacts that emerge points to one answer: more information. Police need more information, and not just to be able to seize or refuse import of banned items (which ICOM's guide can in some cases assist in), but to go after the smuggling networks by tracking the chain of ownership of seized antiquities. As things stand, dealers and auction houses buy and sell antiquities without disclosure requirements. That has to change. There should be transparency regulations requiring any sale of antiquities over a certain threshold price to be reported with the name and address of the buyer and seller along with photos and other identifying information. (The newly released app from ARCH shows how such reporting might be done in a very streamlined way.)

But even with such information, policing is going to be ineffective absent the funding resources needed to pay for site guards, customs officials, antiquities policing units, and local investigations to do the job of monitoring and going after the criminals. And despite professed new interest in cracking down noted in the article, it is very unlikely that governments in general are going to devote scarce resources to this problem. As the article also notes, the opposite is the case: heritage protection is being outsourced. And foundations and NGOs are unlikely to pick up the slack, especially given that policing, unlike restoration, is a permanent task. Some suggest that looters could be deterred by moral suasion from local religious or traditional authorities, and that undoubtedly must play a role; we know for instance that Muqtada al Sadr was able to turn looting on and off by issuing fatwas. But there are too many sites and not enough moral suasion for this to be the only solution. Another suggestion, being pursued with some success by the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, is that locals will guard their own stuff if they have an economic incentive for protecting it as a revenue-generating tourist attraction -- but while that may protect already-excavated individual sites it won't preclude those locals from going off to dig the unexcavated ones. What's needed is a sustainable revenue stream to pay for more and better policing of unexcavated sites.

The funding solution, as I have suggested in the past, is to tax the higher-end licit antiquities market, with proceeds going into a fund for international heritage protection.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Post-disaster response: Is priests spontaneously deciding to sleep in the ruins to stop temple looters the best we can do?



To deter looters, Buddhist priests are now sleeping amidst the ruins of their temples. Something akin to this was done, if memory serves, to try protect Angkor Wat as well. This kind of mobilization of believers in heritage is deeply moving.

It is also of importance that international agencies mobilize, as UNESCO is doing. But one big question that will have to be thought about after the fact is whether the UNESCO fact-finding mission structure is really the best way to deal with these kinds of disasters, or whether it makes more sense to invest the very scarce resources of UNESCO instead in disaster response plans so that even after a catastrophic event like this one there an in-country response team tied in to local volunteer groups is ready to get started assessing and mitigating, with call-back capacity to UNESCO and via UNESCO to the Smithsonian and other cultural heritage protection organizations. No such disaster plan appears to have been in place for Nepal. This despite 2 inscribed sites and 15 more on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

If a reporter can go undercover and reveal a smuggling network, why aren't the police and UNESCO doing so?

Much of interest in this story. If the Lagash relief is in fact genuine, and was dug around 2006 in southern Iraq, its appearance for sale on the Turkish border in 2015 reminds us that massive looting occurred between 2003 and 2008 during the US occupation. It also reminds us that dealers are willing to stockpile looted artifacts, especially valuable but "hot" ones, for very long periods until a buyer can be found. And it shows that the networks connecting smugglers with buyers are not independent chains but involve trading between middlemen -- a reasonable structure given the nature of the demand (one doesn't want to miss the chance to take advantage of the intermittent appearance of a possible high-end buyer).

But the key take-home point is not made so much as illustrated by the reporter's having to go undercover in order to get the story, but being able to do so without much difficulty or worry. That shows that it is not hard to get to those dealing, but that the way to get to them is via locally-originated but sometimes multi-nationally pursued sting operations -- not, in other words, via high-profile but rare seizures by customs agents, nor the kind of arms-length work INTERPOL and UNESCO normally do. Antiquities smuggling networks are fluid, evolving, and adjustable, and this requires fluid and adjustable counter-operations.


UNESCO does appear to be taking steps in the right direction, including establishing the "crack team" mentioned but not detailed in the article. Presumably it comes out of these meetings held last November and includes the carabinieri, who actually do the kind of work needed. But there have been no major take-downs of international networks since then, despite the ease with which the reporter was able to discover so much. Is the crack team involved in operations, or merely trainings?

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Art Loss Register at work

Several fascinating bits of information in this article.
First, the itinerary of the object: from Nepal to the US and then to an end-buyer in China. 
Second, the role played by the Art Loss Register amongst dealers:
an expert hired to investigate the ownership of the piece informed Homsi that it was “almost assuredly” the same Samvara statue stolen in 1983 from the Itum Bahal Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, court papers say.
Homsi then emailed another dealer about the statue on June 20, acknowledging that the piece had “the black spot of theft,” the court papers say. He added that he was “too nervous” to conduct a search through the Art Loss Register — a comprehensive database on stolen works — for fear he would be proven right, according to the court papers.
Presumably the Chinese buyer didn't bother to consult the ALR either.
Too bad it is not mandatory to consult the Art Loss Register and to post to it the object one plans to try to sell so that others might get a chance to look it over in case the ALR doesn't have it posted. But the dealers would have to decide that such requirements were in their best interest, or else the chances of them being put into law are zero.