Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Recipe for tasty antiquities trade: Mix together false provenance, customs misdeclarations. Store for several years. Serve to antiquities collectors.

Discovered after sitting in a warehouse for two years.

Country of origin misdeclared as Turkish rather than Libyan.

Price misdeclared as $110,000 rather than $2 million.

False provenance claim made that sculpture belonged to family collection since 1977 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Meth-using pothead possible child molesting tomb robber knows enough to note findspot and stratum

The items included pieces of obsidian, a glass-like volcanic rock, shaped into points and clay pottery bowls. Some had index cards attached with detailed information on where they were found, when and even the depth of the soil from where they were retrieved, said public information officer Lt. Steve Brooks of Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO).
Dino Beltran, of the Koi Nation of Northern California, said thieves often take records of what they find to enhance the value of the artifacts. They do their research, looking through resource books and price guides to later sell the items online, at pawn shops or thrift stores.
“There’s a large black market for these items,” he said.
Originally, law enforcement officers had responded to a report of an inappropriate letter to a 14-year-old, allegedly written by Brian Gene Smith. The 41-year-old suspect was standing behind his white van with the double doors open behind a business in the 16000 block of Main Street in Lower Lake when the deputy contacted him just before noon.
According to police reports, the deputy noticed that Smith was exhibiting the signs and symptoms of being under the influence. As he neared the van, the deputy smelled the scent of marijuana emitting from it and saw a bag with pot when he looked inside.
Upon searching the van, he found drug paraphernalia in the form of a glass pipe stained with a white residue consistent with methamphetamine in the stem and a brown substance in the bowl, Brooks stated.
The deputy continued to search the van when he discovered the Native American artifacts, Brooks said. He also found a flash drive which allegedly contained images of Smith holding a rifle and another unidentified man holding obsidian points.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Bible Museum/Israel Antiquities Authorities Deal: Four Lessons

The US Bible Museum, about to open in Washington DC, has struck a deal with the Israel Antiquities Authority for a multi-year agreement to display artifacts, possibly even including artifacts that haven't yet been excavated by the Authority. Complete details haven't been released, but we do know that the deal includes both a permanent exhibition and rotating special exhibits. The IAA already has a long-term loan arrangement with the Met for about 30 objects, but the Bible Museum deal calls for hundreds or even thousands. In exchange, it would seem that the IAA gets, in addition to the opportunity to share some of its archaeological heritage with the world, Bible Museum sponsorship of a new archaeological dig.

Readers of this blog likely already are aware of the problematic nature of the Bible Museum's interpretative focus and, more troubling still, of the likelihood, given the speed with which it has been  built, that the museum's collection includes many artifacts of dubious provenance. But these ethical issues aside, this long-term loan agreement holds several important lessons for those interested in preventing the future looting of archaeological sites.

First, there is a huge and growing demand for antiquities on the part of private museums being established at a record pace by wealthy collectors. This demand constitutes a huge opportunity to tap resources desperately needed by archaeological authorities in economically-stressed countries.

Second, the way to tap those resources is via long-term loans that do not carry the stigma of selling off heritage.

Third, the quid pro quo should recognize that securing archaeological sites from destruction is the highest priority. In this instance, that was not the case. Instead, the quid pro quo was (at least in part) investment in an archaeological dig. This is a good in itself, and will no doubt protect the one site being dug. But digs are not the most efficient way to protect sites from looters. Any deal should involving digs should also require the partnering museum/collector to give or do something to help protect sites or fight the illicit market. There are many possible forms that assistance could take, as readers of this blog know. The important thing is to establish the principle that caring for the world's heritage requires not just displaying it and digging it up but also protecting it in the ground.

Fourth, any agreements should also include a codicil in which the museum partner agrees to follow strict rules going forward regarding acquisition of unprovenanced artifacts (including a pledge to require any artifacts proffered to the museum to be photographed, their owner identified, and the information shared with law enforcement).  Museums will surely balk at this, but an attractive enough loan arrangement should assuage their anxiety. And since many collectors establishing private museums are currently fueling looting by buying unprovenanced materials, getting them out of the illicit antiquities market should do much to ruin that market.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Technological innovation to detect illegal logging -- why not something similar for archaeological sites?

A physicist, engineer, and inventor, has come up with an ingenious new method of detecting illegal logging activity in the Amazon in real time using old cell phones. There are obviously some differences between archaeological sites and trees that make it impractical to simply do the exact same thing: for one thing, chain saws are a lot louder. And in war-torn areas it might be impossible (ISIS will kill you if they find you carrying a GPS-equipped phone, for instance).  But in general this is the sort of technological innovation that I have been argued for quite some time should be sought after in order to supplement/complement efforts to police archaeological sites. Establishing a prize for the development of some such monitoring technology would incentivize the search. There are plenty of possible funders of such a prize, ranging from wealthy collectors such as Shelby White, to dealers such as James Ede, to the owners of tourism agencies, to well-funded archaeological institutions such as the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

UNSCR 2199 (2015): How Useful is it?

Given the continued references to UNSCR 2199 as a strong international response to the cultural heritage bit of the disaster now unfolding in Syria and Iraq, it is worth noting that the resolution contains only three action items regarding heritage, and that the resolution's only concrete action is the following:
17. Reaffirms its decision in paragraph 7 of resolution 1483 (2003) and decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, including by prohibiting cross-border trade in such items, thereby allowing for their eventual safe return to the Iraqi and Syrian people and calls upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Interpol, and other international organizations, as appropriate, to assist in the implementation of this paragraph.
In other words, nothing specific beyond what has already been affirmed. What the "appropriate steps" are is left to the imagination. Contrast the very specific steps described in the fifteen action items dealing with the oil trade, and the weakness of this resolution with regard to the trade in archaeological material becomes even clearer. 

I wrote a book about the failures of policy that led to the looting of the Iraq Museum and of Iraq's archaeological sites following the invasion of Iraq. The advent of ISIL poses a much more difficult problem, to be sure, than the American invasion did. And UNESCO, Interpol and other international organizations are doing their best to respond to the call with the very limited means at their disposal. But the lack of more robust policy measures in UNSCR 2199 is a failure that needs to be studied and learned from.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

ISIL issuing official licenses authorizing organized looting of sites

More evidence, as if it were needed, that ISIL is governing the industrialized looting of archaeological sites in its territory.
It's the dealers' and collectors' dream come true: a government authorizing the excavation for export of antiquiities! Is this what John Merryman had in mind when he appealed for a licit international trade?
By last summer, various "antiquities ministries" had been established across their strongholds. They have since been drawn together to form part of a "Ministry for Precious Resources", according to Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who has helped to gather an archive of Isil's operational documents.
The Telegraph has obtained Isil-stamped licences, issued by the "antiquities ministries" in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, giving permission to excavate archaeological materials, apparently in return for money.

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.