Sunday, July 17, 2011

Collector as Looter (and not just by analogy!)

This story is over a year old but I just ran across it and thought it worth sharing, since it is rare that a wealthy collector even admits to buying looted artifacts, much less to having looted them himself, and from a World Heritage site to boot:

In an interview with German magazine Welt-online prominent Austrian-German media manager Helmut Thoma admitted the looting of a grave in Syrian UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra 30 years ago.
Thoma tells how a dealer in Damaskus took him to a grave chamber in Palmyra and invited him to crawl inside. "It was dark and there were snakes..." Thoma says. But his inner Indiana Jones was stronger than his worries. After a small entrance there were several graves, decorated with frescoes. "I've chosen these ones here in my living room." Afterwards these antiques were smuggled through the customs at Frankfurt. Today this piece – probably the closing stone of a hypogaeum – is presented in Thoma’s living room among other objects. “Most more recently acquired pieces”, Thoma said, he had bought from art dealers.
German and Austrian archaeologists protest against this crime against international law and demand that the objects have to be brought back to Syria.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Felch on KQED: The Conceptual Limits of Focusing on Museum Restitution

Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite, was interviewed last week on KQED, one more sign of the remarkable publishing success of that book. I admire the reporting Felch and his colleague did for the book. What I wanted to flag from the interview, though, is something that also lurks in the background of the book, and indeed lurks in the background of all the sturm und drang over the question of whether museums should participate in a market in which 95% of the items are likely to have been dug up by looters who in the process destroy our ability to ever find out crucial details about our past. At one point, after Felch notes that the Getty's acquisition budget was upwards of $100 million, several times that of the Met's, a listener emails to ask what is being done to stop private collectors. Felch notes that the art market is unregulated but points out that several collectors have in recent years had to return objects. This begs the bigger question, which is what the size of the high-end market as a whole is. The assumption on the part of those who have worked assiduously to force museums to clean up their act has been that this will put an end to the looting, presumably because museums are market makers. Certainly the Getty was a market leader, but that was only because Getty himself was so wealthy and fixated on Greco-Roman antiquities. The Met was unable to compete with Japanese buyers for van Gogh's sunflower back in the early 1980s (de Montebello said the price for that one painting alone was several times the Met's acquisition budget, and he could only watch in amazement), and we know that other pieces on the licit market have been purchased by private collectors (the "Artemis and the Stag" donated anonymously to the Met after purchase, and the Guennol Lioness last seen publicly after being sold to a private collector for $57 million, the highest price ever paid for a sculpture).

My point is that there are many, many millionaires in this world interested in purchasing antiquities, and their combined wealth almost surely dwarfs the resources of the major museums. If that is the case, then museums having clean hands will make some, but not much, difference to the looters and their middlemen. Felch claims, without much evidence, that the illicit trade in Greek and Italian antiquities has more or less dried up, supposedly as a result of the Marion True case. The statistics from the carabinieri do show some drop in the number of arrests for illicit digging and trafficking in the past few years, but that corresponds to an increase in funding for their efforts, and in any case the digging has by no means stopped altogether. In fact, as Ferri and others have noted, looters who have found Italy too hot these days have moved to Bulgaria where lax site protection means Greco-Roman antiquities can still be dug to feed the continued demand from collectors. The recent arrest in Greece of men who had a recently-found kouros in the back of their truck is another indicator of the obvious: so long as there are people willing to pay large sums of money, artifacts will continue to be dug.

In this regard, the case of Iraq is particularly interesting. Felch surprisingly goes out of his way to downplay the losses from the museum ("we now know not nearly as much was take as we had feared"), which misses the point that much more was taken than anyone expected before the war began, some 15,000 items, of which nearly half remain unaccounted for. As Felch notes, these objects have not surfaced in museums -- and only a very small number at auction houses or dealerships. The reason for that is obvious: these museum pieces are on a Red List, and there is a worldwide ban on Iraqi antiquities trading as well. But what Felch does not mention is that in spite of this ban, Iraqi archaeological sites were looted on a massive scale for several years following the invasion. No museum would touch such pieces. So either something like 100-200,000 artifacts were dug up by looters for middlemen who saw them as an investment to be warehoused and sold at some later date (hard to believe), or there are collectors, almost certainly in the Persian Gulf states, who were keeping those diggers busy.

The economic basics are clear: looting will continue until the antiquities market itself is regulated and taxed to pay to prevent the harm that even the purchase of a legal antiquity does. (As I have noted a number of times, the Guennol Lioness sale was perfectly legal, but it signaled how much a similar piece, illicitly excavated, might be worth.)

Another way to say all this is that fascinating as it is, the Getty story, and the restitution issue more generally, is a sideshow.

A Few Thoughts on the Egypt-Abu Dhabi-New York-Michigan-Virginia Smuggling Network

There is sure to be a lot more to come, but there are already plenty of interesting facts surfacing about the international antiquities smuggling network based on stories like this one from CNN. Among other things:

  • the ring was truly international, not just in terms of the players involved, but more important, in terms of the objects they handled, which came not just out of Egypt but from Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well. That is alarming, as it shows that social networks amongst this sort of criminal are not naturally restrained by national or linguistic borders. That degree of cosmopolitan flexibility also jibes with reports that a smuggling network that had been operating out of Iraq turned to smuggling Tunisian antiquities under recently-deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali. Whether that network turns out to be the same as this one remains to be seen, but in any case the implication for law enforcement is clear: there is a clear need to develop stronger means of cooperation between police in different countries. To that end, former Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri had already begun (most recently at the annual ARCA meeting in Amelia, Italy) to call for antiquities trafficking to be recognized as falling under the category of international criminal conspiracy, a change that would enable intergovernmental police coordination like that which is possible for drug, human trafficking, and other such mafia-run smuggling operations.
  • The advent of metal detector usage by looters in Middle Eastern countries is alarming, but it is not clear to me what the impact of this new technology will be on archaeological sites. By making it easier for looters to find what they really want, it might even lead to less widespread destruction of context. (Much would depend on how precious metal objects are distributed around a site, which would differ of course by civilization, etc.) On the other hand, it might lead to many more sites completely unknown to archaeologists being pillaged. One might even envisage a Portable Antiquities Scheme down the road -- not that this would necessarily be an optimal outcome.
  • It is not clear what the customs agent means when he says there has been an escalation in Iraq, but the context implies he is talking about more digging in the last six months. That is news to me if true, and I'd be interested to hear what the Mesopotamian archaeologists or heritage professionals who may be reading this blog have to say.
  • Abu Dhabi is certain to take some steps to clean up its act, though what these might be I do not know, as I do not know what steps Switzerland took after the Medici case. Anyone out there know much about free ports?

Friday, July 15, 2011

International Smuggling Ring Operating within US Cracked

Lots of intriguing information in this story, though the outlines mesh with what we know is the modus operandi by which antiquities make their way from countries of origin (here, Egypt) to collectors in faraway exotic places (here, Virginia): move the pieces to a free port like Dubai, from there to Manhattan dealer, either directly from a Dubai dealer -- or a foreign (Jordanian) dealer operating out of the free port -- or run through some other dealership (in this case in Bloomfield, Michigan). The Manhattan dealer -- who thanks to Paul Barford we know operated in midtown, on Second Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets -- then fabricates a false provenance (part of an old family collection, in this case the dealer's own family!) which the collector accepts. What is quite interesting in this particular case is that the collector has also been indicted for allegedly knowing that the provenance story was fiction. How the authorities could prove this is a puzzler but even if it cannot be proven it really does put collectors on notice to be very very careful from hereon in if they want to avoid major legal bills at the very least.