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.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Army Field Manual passage protecting cultural property under revision -- Not to Worry

At the recent colloquium at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum one of the panelists asserted something very disturbing: that the sentence added in 2009 (if memory serves) to the military's invasion planning "bible" (the Army Field Manual), requiring the US military to include in any invasion plans orders to secure cultural monuments, buildings, and sites, was being stripped from the new edition. That would be terrible news, since getting that sentence added was -- along with the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention -- one of the key policy recommendations made by policy experts and stakeholders who studied what went wrong in Iraq, and one of the few concrete changes made by the military based on lessons learned.

I am happy to report that reliable sources tell me that there is nothing to worry about. While it is true that the draft left blank the portion dealing with cultural property protection, that is because the language is being strengthened and the revisers of the manual are deciding how to coordinate its placement in one chapter or the other.

But this episode demonstrates why it would be better to embed such a requirement in law rather than trust that the policy will remain in effect. On the other hand, as I pointed out in The Rape of Mesopotamia, the law in which heritage protection advocates invested their hopes, the 1954 Hague Convention, was already being observed by the US military as a matter of customary international law, even though it had not been ratified as it would be eventually -- but nothing in the Hague Convention requires militaries to secure archaeological sites from civilian looters. (The looting that the convention addresses is looting by militaries, not civilians -- of a piece with the convention's focus on restraining the destructive actions of militaries.) If we want to be more assured that American invasion plans will always include provisions for securing sites and museums from looters, we would need to be pushing for additional legislation. I myself do not think that is the best use of our energies right now. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Could Egypt use $350,000 per year for site protection?

The indispensable David Gill offers an updated chart of antiquities sales at Sotheby's with a breakdown for Egyptian artifacts. Gill's focus is on the downward trend suggesting Sotheby's is being more careful about provenance. But just as important is what this chart tells us about the revenue stream generated by antiquities sales -- a revenue stream that I would suggest could and should be tapped to provide a sustainable source of financing for anti-looting efforts.

Imagine a 5% tax on the roughly $7 million of revenues from Egyptian antiquities sold at Sotheby's annually, yielding $350K. Take out 20% or so for overhead, roughing out the net at $300K. Now imagine that $300K being injected back into Egypt to support vetted site protection improvement proposals, and/or used to tighten the policing of the international antiquities trade, or poured into research to develop new technologies designed to greatly improve the capacities of police, customs officers, and others trying to control the illicit trade.

Of course, one would not want to tax only the Egyptian sales but all antiquities sold, and not just at Sotheby's. Sotheby's $20 million per annum sales alone would raise $1 million. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Kaylan profiles IICAH

Nice profile of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage by Melik Kaylan. I'm especially happy to see him report without challenge that,  "according to Ms. Price, 400,000 to 600,000 objects were looted in Iraq from 12,000 sites." Given Kaylan's earlier denialist position ("So Much for Looted Sites"), this marks a step forward. Maybe the next step could be to focus on efforts not just to conserve shrines and monuments (good and noble work, to be sure), but to secure and protect archaeological sites, since according to other reports, looting continues on Iraq's archaeological sites albeit not at the catastrophic levels of the 2003-2006 period.