Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Christie's Thinks It Can Find Buyers for Antiquities Lacking Pre-1970s Provenance

Nord on Art points out that the e-catalogue for Christie's upcoming London antiquities sale includes a number of items lacking in the pre-1970s provenance that museums belong to the AAMD should require for any objects they acquire, and that makes buyers more vulnerable to potential repatriation claims. 

For Wennerstrom, that Christie's thinks these items can be sold is puzzling:
as the repatriation of antiquities continues to make international news, one wonders why any potential buyer would consider acquiring works without clear datable pre-1970 provenance.
But there is really not much to wonder about here for two reasons. 

First, not all buyers care whether museums are some day going to be willing to accept donations of their artifacts. They are happy enough to acquire for themselves such beautiful objects, and perhaps eventually even display them in private museums; or they anticipate that eventually some solution to the problem of so-called "orphan" antiquities will be found and the very caring foster-parents who purchased these "orphans" will then be permitted to donate them. 

Second, the risk of having a repatriation claim brought is a calculated one for any buyer, and depends on several factors that may reduce it substantially: where the object's country of origin is difficult to establish that risk drops substantially, for instance, and the resources available to the country of origin are likely to be scarce, requiring them to focus on the highest-end objects and on repatriating items owned by countries, museums, or universities where leverage can be exerted in the form of threats to ban archaeological digs or exchanges. 

The continued saleability at auction of the kinds of items noted in the Nord post is only the tip of the iceberg. One can only imagine what goes on in the back rooms of antiquities dealers' shops where presumably the very highest-end provenance-challenged pieces are sold directly to collectors. But the key point here is that heritage protection advocates are deluding themselves if they think that the 1970 rule in itself is making much of a dent in the trade in non-archaeologically-excavated artifacts.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

US Military in Iraq Used Remote Sensors Near Archaeological Sites -- Unfortunately, Not to Monitor the Sites

Levi Keach, a graduate student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Iraq war veteran, has an ineresting post on the ASOR blog linking to a presentation he gave at the ASOR meeting. Keach reports on the results of his Freedom of Information Act requests for information about anything the military might have been doing on or around some major archaeological sites. The response he got was expectedly frustrating -- at least they got back to him (I'm still waiting for a response to my 2008 request), and the findings, also not unexpectedly, show no evidence that the military did nothing much to protect sites.

There was, however, one puzzling set of slides included in the materials that the military eventually did provide Keach. Several slides show remote ground vibration sensors. These were available at least as early as 2006. That they are included in the materials Keach requested might lead one to conclude that the military used remote sensing to monitor possible looting activity. Unfortunately, as Keach notes, the equipment appears to have been associated with the site (and therefore sent to him) only because there also was apparently insurgent activity in the area, including the burial of IEDs that seems to have been detected by the equipment.

What can we conclude, albeit tentatively given the possibility that more information might eventually surface?

1. the military did have remote sensing equipment at its disposal
2. this equipment nonetheless was not deployed to protect archaeological sites, despite massive looting.

One further question then needs to be asked:

Were the civil-military affairs officers advising these commanders aware that these technologies were available? If so, did they ever advise commanders it would be a good idea to use them?

I am assuming the answer will be: "No, we were not aware -- but even if we had been aware that this equipment was available, it was not within our remit to hector commanders." Would that have been the attitude of the Monuments Men?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Two Cheers for Interdiction and Restitution!

A good post from Tess Davis following up on the Huffington Post piece she did with Mark Vlasic. I'd only add that while it is indeed laudable that the FBI et. al. are having some success nabbing individuals who are smuggling already looted artifacts, this doesn't really address the fundamental problem of how to prevent looting going forward, since the demand is global and effective interdiction difficult. Interdiction and restitution on a country-by-country basis, assisted by the always-understaffed INTERPOL, are necessary but not sufficient. And while it would be thrilling if the world could be persuaded to stand together and institute -- not to mention enforce -- a global ban on trade in antiquities, that is not going to happen. The real answer has to lie in providing more and better resources to those who are trying to guard and protect their own archaeological sites.

There is, in fact, some reason to worry about the otherwise happy-making emphasis on high-profile seizures and restitution.  Catching a few dealers here and giving stuff back might well be a policy substitute rather than a complement to developing policies that would actually protect the sites themselves.  And there's good reason to believe that our government might prefer seizure and restitution to site protection support. That's because, as Davis and Vlasic note, restitution, with its high-profile newsworthiness, is a handy tool for mending diplomatic fences, much sexier than, say, giving some remote sensing devices to the Cambodian antiquities police. Just as in Iraq, where Babylon was restored while thousands of sites were left unprotected, so more generally, splashy seizures may just mystify and obscure negligence about the real and more intractable issue, which is how to keep the looters from reducing sites to rubble in the first place.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Potentially Very Important News from Iraq about Archaeological Site Protection

I had begun reading this story, titled "Iraq Unveils Restoration Plan for Heritage Sites", prepared to be disappointed at another instance in which the focus was being placed on maintenance maintenance and tourist infrastructure rather than on protecting sites against looting. As usual, I thought, the World Heritage Site prize is skewing priorities.

But I was happy to find I was wrong: 

Another project aimed at protecting archaeological sites involves installing ground sensors around each site to detect and monitor movement and transmit it to specialised offices and security services via satellite, Saleh said.
"This project, which we hope to launch this year, is among the most important to help curtail random excavation by antiquities thieves at archaeological sites that do not have sufficient protection," he said.
"This in turn protects the human and cultural heritage of Iraq against theft and smuggling," he added.

The use of remote monitoring technology to enable antiquities police to detect looting is something that we've been calling for since at least 2007 (see the suggestions collated in Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War). To my knowledge it has not been done elsewhere. There are of course GIS mapping projects and tracking via satellite imagery, but neither of these involves ground sensors and imagery collection and analysis is much too slow to be of great help, whereas one assumes that the ground sensors will stream real-time information. We need to know to be sure, but this Iraqi initiative could be a gamechanger.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Markdowns, gluts, and technological innovation: features of illicit antiquities trading in Egypt today

Four important tidbits of information in this brief article:

First, "only stupid people get caught." Clearly this statement must be taken with a grain of salt, reflecting some bluster here on the part of the dealer (and in talking to the press at all the dealer is already showing some lack of discretion). On the other hand, that he feels he can get away with talking to the press -- and even allowing Al Arabiya to film his stock! -- shows how unafraid of getting caught dealers can be.

Second, the risk of getting caught and the consequent costs of selling clandestinely are carried by the seller: "The trader, who allowed Al Arabiya to film his stock of illegal artifacts on sale, said every smuggled artifact loses about 70 percent of its value" -- presumably compared to what it would be worth to the dealer if the artifact were licit. And yet even with this markdown the dealer still finds it worth selling.

Third, the illicit market continues to function, despite lower profitability, not just in normal times but in the special conditions of a glut caused by the breakdown of site security and consequent looting of Egyptian sites:  'An artifact like this one, which I sell now for $718 used to be worth $7186, and it wasn’t easy to find such a piece.'” Prices for illicit antiquities have dropped by 90% - and yet the dealer continues to deal. Presumably the illicit $7000 piece would have been worth $23000 if licit, so the collector now can buy for $700 a piece that might someday or even today if he/she can get away with selling it as licit be worth thirty times its purchase price. 

Fourth, the extraction of antiquities is becoming more efficient thanks (sic) to the adoption of advanced technology in the form of higher-quality metal detectors. Just to give some sense of how clear the industrial tie-in between antiquities looting in Egypt and this equipment, here's a screenshot of the site of the company selling the jeodetector:

Metal detecting is supposedly illegal in Egypt without a permit, by the way.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Archaeologist recognizes artifact stolen from museum, even though it is missing from the museum's list of stolen artifacts -- lessons to be learned

This story offers three key facts that hold important lessons for archaeologists, antiquities dealers and auction houses, and museum professionals concerned about stemming the looting of antiquities:

1. Buyers of looted antiquities often rely on archaeologists to ascertain authenticity and estimate the value of artifacts.
2. Archaeologists who recognize that a piece is looted can go to authorities and authorities may succeed in working collaboratively and internationally in recovering the looted piece.
3. The procedures for listing missing items stolen from a museum are either flawed or susceptible to manipulation. In this particular case it is not yet clear which. The torso might have been left off the list as a glitch, since the artifact apparently was broken into two pieces and one was left behind, it not being clear from this report if the artifact was broken by looters or had always been in the museum in two pieces. Or, as the referring of this case to the prosecutor implies, it is possible that the item was left off the list deliberately in the hope that no one would notice at least for long enough for the piece to be sold.

Point 3) obviously calls for some tightening up of the protocols and record-keeping to keep this kind of thing from happening.

Points 1) and 2) suggest that archaeologists, the trade, and museums could have a much more potent impact on the illicit trade if they took more seriously their connection to it and developed stronger policies to make the most of that connection. Here are a few changes that might have some bite:
a) archaeological associations and perhaps academic departments should establish clear guidelines as to what archaeologists ought to do when approached with pieces recognized as stolen -- or even suspected of possibly being stolen:
      1. agree to do the authenticating and valuation only if they first are able to find out who has approached them (name and contact info at least);
      2. while authenticating, photograph the artifact and documentation; and
      3. immediately go to authorities with that information, without alerting the artifact's possessor and scaring him/her off. The objective should be to make it possible for authorities to both recover the artifact and to apprehend the suspect.

b) Archaeologists who authenticated and estimated value on repeated occasions without taking these steps should be subject to professional sanctions (i.e., blackballed from hiring and publishing).

c) Auction houses and legitimate antiquities dealers do not have the same capacity to impose professional sanctions on those who do not do the right thing, but they should adopt the same rules about what to do about questionable pieces.

Now They Are Looting INSIDE the Pyramids Too!

If this news report is to be believed, Egypt cannot even protect the inside of its most famous pyramids from being looted. This is the most alarming news possible about the deplorable state of site protection since the start of the Revolution and the attack on the Cairo Museum. Those who profess to care about the world's culture -- directors of major museums whose boards include some of the world's wealthiest collectors -- should be asking themselves at this point, "What could we do to help Egypt protect its -- and our -- heritage from our less responsible fellow collectors?"

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How Can Antiquities Police Function If the Police in General Are Deligitimated?

Hopes that the military takeover of Egypt's government, whatever its other implications, would at least mean the return of police to Egypt's beleaguered archaeological sites, have not panned out. This sobering report in the New York Times explains why: the military, rather than doing the  dirty work of suppressing protest, has delegated that task to the police.  The result?
Another officer, Maj. Haitham Abbas, complained that the entire force had been tarnished by the response to the unrest, giving the example of a colleague who works in a unit that guards tourists:
“They told his son at school: ‘Your father is a murderer. He kills people in the streets,’ ” the officer said. “He probably never even pulled his gun out.”