Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Iraq's Amnesty/Rewards Program for Turning In Looted Antiquities

Donny George has kindly clarified that the amnesty program is not new, but is mentioned in Iraq's antiquities laws. Antiquities coming to the museum are brought before a special "Technical Committee" which decides on the amount to be awarded the person who brought them. The money comes from the annual budget of the SBAH, as a line item. Sometimes the funds are exhausted before year end, and more monies have been requested from the ministry of finance to support the program. In 2003-2004, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to get money for the program, but the SBAH kept records for every one that brought antiquities to the museum, and payments were eventually made.

Perhaps as useful as the artifacts themselves is the information that those returning items are supposed to provide the Committee regarding where and how they obtained the items to begin with. According to Donny George, such leads have in the past helped archaeologists locate hitherto unknown sites.

The problem with the turnover of materials by high-level officials, however, is that -- if these officials are to be believed -- they merely accepted antiquities from their constituents. If that is the case, and those constituents cannot be identified and brought before the Committee, then any chance of tracking antiquities back to their original sites is lost.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Iraq Appears to Have a Portable Antiquities Scheme of Its Own

According to a new report from Azzaman, Iraq has adopted a new law not only immunizing those who turn in looted antiquities but offering them compensation. It is not clear if there is any requirement to assist antiquities officials in locating the sites from which items may have been taken.

Government officials surrender 531 artifacts to Iraq Museum, among them gold and silver coins

By Zainab Khudair

Azzaman, March 9, 2009

The Iraq Museum has received 531 archeological pieces which were in the possession of senior government officials.

The pieces were handed over to the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Qahtan al-Jibouri who in turn gave them to the Iraq Museum, according to the ministry's spokesman Abdulzahara al-Talaqani.

Talaqani said the first batch comprising a magnificent collection of numismatic coins was returned to the museum by Minister of National Security Shirwan al-Waili.

This batch included 366 gold and silver coins of various colors, Talaqani said.

He said the second batch of 165 artifacts was kept by two members of parliament and included mainly statues and cylinder seals.

Talaqani said Iraqi scientists who have examined both collections have said they were of astounding beauty and great value.

One magnificent piece, he said, was a pottery statue of a standing woman holding a beaker made of glass.

It is the first time senior government officials are reported to have been in possession of so many artifacts. The officials say the pieces were passed to them by ordinary people.

Under a new law in Iraq holders of ancient relics whether stolen or dug up illegally cannot be prosecuted if they choose to hand them over to the authorities willingly.

In fact, the law makes it incumbent on the authorities to compensate and reward anyone returning antiquities by their free will.

It is not clear whether the officials will get any compensation and Talaqani declined to say whether the pieces were among the thousands of missing artifacts or part of relics which are being dug up illegally by smugglers across the country.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tons of Looted Afghan Antiquities Heading Back-- Why Now?

National Geographic has an interesting story about England's return of literally tons of Afghan antiquities seized at Heathrow over the past six years since the destruction of the Taliban regime. Although the story notes that

Poor villagers lacking other sources of income use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country, while criminal gangs smuggle the loot to Pakistan and onwards.

The Kabul government remains too cash-strapped, and too caught up fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, to do anything about it. (Afghanistan's own Ministry of Culture was the target of a suicide bomb attack last October.) And despite efforts to raise awareness among Pakistani customs and law enforcement officials, the situation is no better across the border.

What is missing from the article is any indication of what, if anything, is being done by overstretched coalition forces to assist the Afghan government to protect some small fraction at least of its sites. Nor is there any indication whether the criminal gangs smuggling the loot to Pakistan might be linked to the Taliban, as Matthew Bogdanos has argued the antiquities smugglers in Iraq were also supplying insurgents there with weapons and even taxes on their revenues from antiquities sales.

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq's sites -- the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community -- to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. Granted, the task in Afghanistan is more formidable than in Iraq, for a number of reasons: the sheer size of the country; its not having developed the kind of well established cultural heritage protection bureaucracy that Iraq had over many decades; the lack of pizzazz associated with fabled Biblical names like Babylon, to name just a few. But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Throwing a Monkey Wrench into the Antiquities Auction Market

Chinese collector pulls a fast one on Christie's in protest of auctioning of antiquities China deems looted.