Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Kurdish Museum buys looted artifacts

One of the lingering questions about the massive looting that occurred in Iraq in the years following the 2003 US invasion is where all the artifacts have gone and why it continued even after a worldwide ban on international trade in Iraqi materials was put in place, abating somewhat over time. Very little appeared on the open market and it is thought that much was simply stockpiled in warehouses, or bought privately by wealthy collectors around the world. 

But the looters and smugglers inside Iraq were being sustained as well by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan, directors of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, which
started an initiative to make deals with smugglers after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent looting of museums in the country, according to Ancient History Etc., a U.K. nonprofit online publication.
The museum bought a tablet -- one of a group of 80-90 being proffered -- containing 20 previously lost lines of "The Epic of Gilgamesh, for $800 off a smuggler in Iraq in 2011.
"They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries," according to the publication. "No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from." 
Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaymaniyah Museum Project -- an effort to assist the Kurdish government in running the museum -- praised the museum's decision as "courageous" because it ran counter to official policy against paying smugglers and looters for looted artifacts. That policy exists, of course, because paying these folks gives them an incentive to keep on looting and smuggling. Asking no questions makes this incentive even more attractive. 

The Huffington Post headline suggests that the question raised by the museum's practice of buying looted antiquities is : Should museums make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history? But that way of putting the question, while it is undoubtedly the way that museums interested in bringing material in think of what they are doing, begs the question. The deal described was not made in order to protect and preserve history. It was made in order to keep the artifact from leaving the country. Had the tablet gotten out of Kurdistan it would surely have been sold to someone anyway, someone who would have in turn protected and preserved it. The only effect here was to shorten the supply chain, reduce the cost of doing business for smugglers and looters, and thereby promoted more digging and more smuggling.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Boston MFA pulls bust out of storage to honor slain Palmyra director

Though it would be too painful to contemplate putting this particular piece in circulation at this time, here's an example of the level of quality of objects in museum storerooms that might be used in an antiquities-leasing program to steer collectors towards "renting" and away from buying looted artifacts on the illicit market:

This is not the only Palmyran sculpture on display in this part of the world. Other first-rate examples can be seen both at the MFA and in museums such as the recently renovated Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. But with its fine carving articulating the woman’s “wet drapery” garment and exquisitely pleated headwear, her perfectly parted wavy hair, and her Hellenistic features, it’s both beautiful and characteristic, and it hasn’t been on display in a generation.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why I am worried about AAMD's new "safe haven" protocols

Brian Daniels, whom I greatly respect for the important work he and his colleagues are doing to try to monitor and help Syrians safeguard archaeological sites and artifacts, is happy about the AAMD's announcement of safe haven protocols for antiquities from conflict zones. Here's Brian's facebook post, which many other fellow heritage protection advocates are retweeting approvingly:
"Quite possibly one of the most important developments in the field of cultural heritage policy in recent years. Not only does the AAMD declare its support for the 1954 Hague Convention, but it will treat objects in AAMD member museum safe havens as loans--not permanent acquisitions. (As such, a U.S. museum would need to follow U.S. law for an international museum loan to participate). The guidance outlined here is what framers of the 1954 Hague Convention had in mind for museums following World War II."
I cannot share this enthusiasm. Framers of the 1954 Hague Convention did not have in mind, objects dug up from archaeological sites by private parties, smuggled out of Syria to Turkey or Dubai and then bought up by dealers or collectors. There was nothing like the global market for illicitly excavated antiquities in 1954 that there is now. And the AAMD protocols, I worry, include provisions that will encourage more looting and smuggling of artifacts.

Here's the relevant section of the AAMD protocols, with the problematic language italicized:

II. The Source of Works In Need of Safe HavensIn the event of a terrorism occurrence or during an armed conflict or natural disaster, works may be brought for safe haven in the United States, Canada or Mexico from any depositor, assuming of course compliance with applicable law (see below).  Predetermining who may request such assistance in the abstract is not always possible, but may include the legal owner of a work, the agent for the owner, the bailee of a work, the custodian of a work, and a person or entity who comes into possession of the work and the owner is unknown, unavailable or legally constrained [sic] (collectively, a “depositor”).  Examples of a depositor are:
  • Museums in the affected area that hold works;
  • Governmental entities of or within the affected areas;
  • U.S. government authorities who have seized works on entry to or in the United States; or
  • Private individuals, companies or organizations who own or come into possession of works, whether in the affected area or after removal from the area.
Member museums should exercise caution to assure that accepting the request for safe haven will not violate the rights of lawful owners, subject the museum to a claim for return, reflect negatively on the reputation of the museum or cause the museum to be involved in any illegal or unethical activity.  Requests for safe haven and agreements to accept such requests should be documented where possible prior to movement of works to be transferred.
The garbled syntax in the first italicized phrase is a tell, indicating that this is an issue the AAMD must have been wrangling. With good reason. The last quoted paragraph above notwithstanding, the protocols give a green light to museums to accept as loans artifacts purchased from the networks that are paying looters to continue to dig, networks that in some cases are run by or beholden to ISIS. Those who purchase such blood antiquities will now be able to loan them to a museum, which will provide the buyers with a patina of legitimacy and museum approval that will increase the value of the artifact when it is returned to them. 

Taking as loans artifacts from museums, government entities, or seizures is an excellent idea. Taking as loans artifacts bought from the illicit market is a terrible idea.

, seeing it as marking a welcome albeit belated move that 

No specialist prosecutors for antiquities/terrorism cases: a major stumbling block

Those who have been applauding ICE's ceremonies returning seized artifacts should instead be booing. They don't understand that every such public relations event that doesn't also include announcements of arrests and indictments is a lost opportunity and a symptom that the Obama administration has failed to devote the resources needed to really tackle the black market in antiquities.

This is made clear in a very informative blogpost from cultural heritage lawyer Rick St.-Hilaire laying out in very damning detail the failure of the Obama administration's Justice Department to follow through on an antiquities smuggling case in 2011 that involved suspected money laundering tied to terrorism.  Instead, the artifacts were returned in a DC photo-op ceremony.

As St.-Hilaire notes,
A specially assigned heritage trafficking prosecutor based at the Department of Justice in Washington probably could have facilitated this search warrant request by coordinating with the appropriate right U.S. Attorney's office. But no such specialist prosecutor exists.
Maybe I just missed it -- and if so, will one of the readers of this blog please ease my mind -- but I don't recall hearing from ICE or the Department of Justice during last week's various policy events. The announcement of a reward for information leading to the disruption of terrorist-related antiquities-smuggling networks might indicate some movement in the direction of a heritage trafficking prosecution. But a dedicated prosecutor is long overdue. The Department of Homeland Security's budget is only $55 billion though, so perhaps they cannot afford one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Christie's due diligence: this does not compute

What Christie's says about its due diligence checking provenances of antiquities:
“We are always on the alert for material of this type in case an attempt is made to introduce looted items into the commercial art market, and we work closely with UNESCO, Interpol and other entities to ensure any such attempts will be caught,” said Sung-Hee Kim, communications liaison at Christie’s, who said to date, the auction and art house has not encountered any such items.... 
According to Kim, Christie’s has a policy of not accepting items for sale without a legitimate signed title confirmation. In addition, they require provenance pre-dating the year 2000 as well as pre-dating any periods of significant conflict.
In the three first cases, Christie’s ‘due diligence’ seems to have stopped short of tracing the collecting history back one step further, which would have opened the window on the Becchina transactions.  In the fourth case (lot 93), Christie’s record lists the 1986 and 1997 transaction dates in the lekythos’ collecting history, but completely avoids mentioning the authorities’ raid of Horiuchi’s warehouse in Switzerland or the subsequent passage or ownership of the vase by the convicted Aboutaam brothers, through their ‘Phoenix Ancient Art’ gallery in New York and Geneva.

Even with strong evidence of bad provenance, antiquities get auctioned, so good luck keeping Syrian stuff off market

Excellent blogpost from ARCA's Lynda Albertson, posing the question:

If the art market cannot hold itself to task on objects where there is a known and extensive photographic record of illicit activity how will the art market perform its due diligence on antiquities coming from conflict countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen where no confiscated smuggler dossiers exist?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Asia Society/Antiquities Coalition Meeting: A Few Afterthoughts

Video of the fascinating Asia Society/Antiquities Coalition meeting here. I came away from it hopeful that we are beginning to get somewhere, in several senses. First, Kevin Rudd's involvement as the director of the Asia Society's new policy shop gives us a former Prime Minister of Australia with the political leadership chops to help persuade both governments and powerful private parties to focus on the problem in a strategic way. Second, the stated willingness of a media campaign specialist to raise awareness in the corporate sector holds out the hope that, together with Rudd and of course the Antiquities Coalition, something like the Clinton Global Initiative's ivory project but for antiquities might actually be possible. Third, the meeting showed that there are a number of policy ideas cooking, some of them (like the antiquities-leasing scheme I push, or Cuno's retro notion of a return to partake, or the boots-on-the-ground called for by several speakers) more dramatic and unrealizable in the short term than others, but the key thing is to have this kind of discussion happening.

Viewers can draw their own conclusions about the exchanges between Jim Cuno and Matthew Bogdanov, Katharyn Hanson, and me over Cuno's worry that the problem is overblown and his suggestion near the end of the program -- in response to my earlier modest proposal that the Getty and other museums could dramatically shrink the market for looted antiquities by renting out some of the artifacts sitting in their store-rooms -- that doing so would be a step backward.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Want to Ruin the Market for Looted Syrian Antiquities? Here's One Way

This new CBS report joins other undercover reporting that includes cellphone photos sent by traffickers to the reporter showing artifacts for sale.  Which suggests an interesting idea I haven't heard mentioned yet for how to fight the illicit trade in such artifacts: gather such images, just as the CBS team did, and then post them on the internet, identifying them as illicit and effectively rendering the artifacts unsaleable -- at least unsaleable to what Matthew Bogdanos in the report names as "the four destination points of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo" (Bogdanos for reasons I don't understand leaves out the Gulf States, certainly a more likely destination for ISIS-looted artifacts than Tokyo).

There are some downsides to consider. Undercover work costs money -- though for this nowhere near the amount it costs to mount international investigations of smuggling networks (to say nothing of what we are spending to remotely monitor the ongoing looting of sites), since only one node is being accessed.  This would not be risk-free work -- no undercover work is ever risk free. Buyers would have to rotate and be replaced to avoid detection and harm. And if it were to be undertaken, those posing as foreign buyers would almost certainly need to work with the Turkish or Lebanese  police, which might prove difficult. But unlike seizures of artifacts coming into the US or UK or France, which constitute a loss of profit for the dealers that they can and do simply pass on to buyers as a cost of doing business, the immediate losers in the case of looted artifacts posted to the internet would be the smugglers, who have no way to pass on the cost. The passing on of images via cellphone photos would become a thing of the past pretty quickly. (Many smugglers have already turned to video-streaming or snapchat-like image sharing to try to leave no record on the phones or computers of complicit buyers, but undercover buyers could easily capture those images.)

This would be a great program for UNESCO in coordination with INTERPOL, the FBI, the Blue Shield, and the carabinieri to undertake. [For reasons I hope are evident, it would not be something to be done by academics as part of a research project.] It might be sponsored by the Getty and dealers who ought to prefer this kind of exposure to the gotcha they've experienced from the use of the Medici archive to embarrass them. Maybe, instead of yet another meeting bewailing the loss of heritage, it would make sense to spend that money on some undercover work.

ADDENDUM: An interesting new article by Sam Hardy studying direct-to-buyer reports notes that

 After the publication of photographs of the royal graves at Copan in Honduras (Stuart, 1997), the site was looted (Agurcia Fasquelle, 1998) in a way that indicated collectors had effectively used National Geographic as a sales catalogue. Likewise, a hieroglyphic text and carving of a bound captive were extracted from one 1,300-year-old stela, and a single sceptre was extracted from another such stela, at Dos Pilas (Luke, 2005). Without perpetrators’ use of publicly accessible documents to identify the targets, the fact that these thefts were commissioned would have remained unknown.
So at least in some cases, the existence of publicly accessible images did not deter buyers. But these were objects in situ not yet looted, and so not brought to the attention of law enforcement as pieces for which to be on the lookout.

Weak security plagues Egypt's archaeological sites -- but no one asks where the money to fix the problem could come from

An interesting article from Khalid Hassan in Egypt Pulse shows that the economic crisis in Egypt, especially acute in the tourism sector, combined with the government's prioritizing of anti-terror (and, one should add, suppression of dissent), is leaving Egypt's site security in tatters, underfunded and outgunned by looting gangs.
The security system within the Ministry of Antiquities is suffering major problems because of the security sector’s neglect in training the ministry’s security guards. The security forces in Egypt are generally unaware of the importance of Egypt’s cultural and civilizational heritage, because of the low level of education within the security institution. Meanwhile, only a limited budget is allocated to the guards in charge of the archaeological sites’ security, and there is not enough funding to train, educate and arm them. 
Even World Heritage-designated sites are being attacked:
The Dahshur site includes the Red Pyramid, Egypt’s first fully constructed pyramid, and the Bent Pyramid. The site was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2009. Yet looting there is organized and persistent.
Wahiba Saleh, a senior inspector at the Dahshur site, told Al-Monitor that security staff there are only equipped with 9 mm pistols and often confront thugs carrying automatic rifles or machine guns.
“The Dahshur site extends over 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] and there are only 10 guards to secure it, which means that each is required to guard 2 kilometers [1.2 miles]. How could it be possible?” she asked.
Saleh said guards at the site are paid a monthly salary of no more than 400 Egyptian pounds ($52), while they are required to protect priceless antiquities. She demanded that the ministry raise their salaries, increase their number to no less than 40 people to secure the site, train them and arm them to confront saboteurs and outlaws.

What is needed is clear: more money. How much more? For Dahshur, without a raise or upgrades to automatic weapons, the amount is $52 x 30 x12 =  $18720 per year. Tack on, say, an AK-47 at $400 each (with a 4 year amortization= $100 per year per rifle x 40 = $4000) and $200 per year for training and educating per guard (=$8000), and you get something like $32,000 additional to protect that site. Double the salaries and the price jumps to about $50K.

$50,000 is not that much money. But that's just one site. There are 12,000 or so site guards in Egypt. Let's assume we double their salaries and double the number, giving half of them automatic weapons. How much would the budget be? 24,000 x 52 x2 x 12 (= $29,952,000) + $400 x 12,000 (=$4,800,000) + $200 x 12,000(=$2.4 million). Total: about $37 million per year. If we quadruple the number of guards as suggested by the inspector quoted above, but for the whole country, the total would be $67 million per year, compared with $22 million now spent.

That's real money. A rounding error in the US budget, a small but real cost in Egypt's $60 billion deficit-plagued budget. On the other hand, given the presumably devastating impact of bad publicity from looting (not to mention attacks on tourists), investing more in site guards -- and perhaps shifting some jobs to site guard positions within the 30,000-strong antiquities ministry (at least, that was the number mentioned under Hawass) might be worth it to bring the tourists back.

But there really isn't any money for raising salaries or increasing numbers. As always, the key problem is FINANCING site protection (and other archaeological policing).

Here's one idea for raising that $67 million: Egypt could start loaning out antiquities in exchange for a fee or contribution. To take the most crude example of how this might work, the antiquities ministry could select 6,700 antiquities from the millions now sitting in museum storerooms, antiquities that 6,700 collectors -- both institutional (for instance, a school district or corporation or mosque) and individual -- would be willing to borrow for a year at $10,000 per artifact.

Obviously the design of such a program would have to be very carefully thought through, and there is a real question of whether there is enough demand from collectors who could meet the criteria for being eligible for such a loan. Estimating demand based on auction sales is next to useless, not only because so much of the market is private and illicit, but also because there are likely many many would-be collectors who avoid Egyptian antiquities for all the right reasons. Such a program would also entail some risk, even with responsible collectors, that the objects might be broken (though the loss this would entail might be mitigated if the objects were some of the untold thousands of near-identical duplicates held by museums. Archaeologists are likely to be adamantly opposed.

Still, it is worth considering as one of the possible ways out of the disastrous financial difficulties Egypt's heritage protectors are suffering from and likely to continue suffering from for quite a long time to come.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Protecting antiquities by distributing them: Why Cuno has the right idea but the wrong application

A very disappointing interview with Scott Simon in which James Cuno continues pushing the argument he made in the New York Times more recently to the effect that "portable works of art" from areas under threat by ISIS "should be distributed throughout the world" because "ISIS will destroy everything in its path." Simon obviously understood going into the interview that there was something very wrong with this argument, since in the middle of the interview he expresses puzzlement about how changing the law to keep artifacts brought to the States from going back to Syria and Iraq would do anything to stop something like the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel, at which point Cuno admits that "it's completely different" from portable antiquities. In other words, yes, I've been using a classic bait-and-switch tactic. Immoveable antiquities and portable antiquities are two different things.
Simon should have stopped Cuno there and asked him why he was then using the destruction of one as a reason for protecting the other. The answer, though Cuno would not admit this, is to avoid dealing with the very uncomfortable truth that ISIS' view of how portable antiquities should be treated is close to his own. No state has ever been more willing to distribute its portable antiquities throughout the world than ISIS, which licenses digging and runs its own export operation. Sure, those digs destroy thousands of archaeological sites, but on the bright side, I'm sure there are many museum-worthy artifacts brought to light and distributed to the world in the process.
I am of course not, repeat not, suggesting that Cuno supports ISIS. And in fact, Cuno in the interview immediately goes on to say "we can address [the trafficking of coins or small statues] by policing those borders to try to prevent or inhibit the illegal trade of objects across borders." So he clearly does recognize that distributing ISIS-dug artifacts is a bad thing. Dealing with the problem, on the other hand, is just not something he wants to think about. Let the Turks and the Lebanese tighten up their borders, no problem. (Who's going to pay for that to happen? Don't ask.) Meanwhile, whatever gets over those borders and makes its way to us we should be grabbing and keeping.
It is surely a good thing for museums to assist each other in safeguarding antiquities they already hold and to make arrangements in advance to take or transfer holdings in worst-case scenarios. All museums, not just those in countries in crisis, also ought to be thinking of dividing and spreading out their own massive holdings to hedge the risks of attack by terrorists on a single building.  An attack on the Getty or the Met is not unthinkable. But museums also should recognize that distribution of artifacts through the market, rather than from museum to museum, destroys many more artifacts than it safeguards. 
The irony here is that if Cuno turned his considerable intellect towards the problem of inhibiting the illegal trade in artifacts, he would find that distributing antiquities in the proper way could not just safeguard those antiquities by spreading them round, but could also inhibit the illegal trade. How? Museums should pull antiquities off their basement storeroom shelves and offer to allow collectors to borrow --not buy -- them in exchange for contributing to efforts to help police the borders and prevent the illicit trade. The thirst of collectors for beautiful artifacts could be slaked, ISIS would be robbed of the profits they are now making, and the presently-overmatched antiquities police would have resources to really go after the traffickers.  If Cuno cares about inhibiting the illegal trade, this is a distributional solution he ought to be pushing. I'm sure it's because he hasn't thought this through yet, not because he wants collectors to bring him fresh artifacts more than he wants to keep ISIS from destroying sites and human beings.