Wednesday, August 31, 2011

After the Iraq Museum Was Looted, Senior Bush Administration Officials Told It Still Needed to Be Secured. Three Days Later It Was.

As cables from the Iraq war continue to ooze out onto the internet, more details are gradually emerging to fill in the small gaps that still exist in the picture of the Bush administration's ineptitude and indifference. From the particular angle of interest to readers of this blog -- the failure to secure the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites -- this cable reconfirms what we already knew: that even after the news of the looting at the museum reached authorities, the museum remained unsecured for days. What we still do not completely understand, all these years later, is who dropped the ball during that interim period, when Donny George and a few other museum employees armed with nothing more than metal pipes were fending off further attacks on the museum.

In the cable, Amb. John Limbert, a former Iran hostage who had been tapped to deal with Iraq's cultural ministry after the expected cakewalk, writes on April 13. The museum had been looted between April 10 and April 12, when Donny George and other Iraqis returned and drove out the looters. Limbert writes from Kuwait, weeks after the invasion began, having been denied, along with most other post-war reconstruction officials, the chance to go into Iraq along with the military.

In addition to the important call to issue offers of amnesty for return of stolen items and to define looted antiquities as stolen property, Limbert urged that

Coalition authorities should provide security for
remaining objects and for other high-value cultural

Limbert might have been more forceful had he written instead that "coalition authorities should provide security for remaining objects AT THE MUSEUM" but his point is clear: the museum itself needs to be secured.

Who received this message?


That would be, then:
a) from the State Department: James Larocco, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, 2001-2004; Lincoln Bloomfield, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2001-2005; and (probably) Paul E. Simons, then acting assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. Simons was one of three State Department officials to write a memo in February 2003 warning that there were major gaps in the military's postwar planning. Suzanne McCormick's status at that point is unclear, but she later became Director of the Office of Intelligence Operations at the NSC.
b) from the Justice Department: Bruce Swartz, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division in charge of international issues, with duties that include interacting with foreign governments on counterterrorism and criminal justice issues. Like McAtarmney, another lawyer, they are probably on the list to push the legal angles.

Policy players all, but not as far up the policy food chain as Paul Wolfowitz, who needs no introduction. He could, one assumes, have picked up the phone and ordered the museum to be secured immediately. But he probably had his hands full with other matters at this point, and it was to be another three days before a tank crew finally arrived at the museum on April 16, 2003.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Libyan Rebels Mobilize Special Brigade to Protect Museum and Sites

I somehow missed this nugget in a Guardian article on Tuesday: "The opposition National Transitional Council (NTC) said on Tuesday that guards from a specially trained Tripoli brigade, made up of fighters from the capital, were being stationed at the national museum as well as other key cultural sites." That is really interesting news, and very heartening, especially since it is the Libyans themselves taking responsibility for the dangerous but important task of securing their own cultural patrimony.

Thanks to Cori Wegener and the excellent U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield for the find.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Did NATO Plans to Help Libyans Topple Ghaddafi Include Inducements to Protect Libyan Archaeological Sites?

This UNESCO statement warning authorities in and neighboring countries to guard against looting of their archaeological sites raises some important questions. With Libya now more or less liberated from Ghaddafi's tyranny, what will happen to the extraordinarily rich archaeological sites there now, with the country in what may be a protracted period of instability? I am ashamed to say that I do not know enough about Libyan politics to be able to say whether archaeological police were part of a hated governmental ministry (as was the case in Egypt and Iraq), but in any case the sites are almost certain to be left less well-protected than they should be. Are there any short- and middle-range steps that could be taken at this point, beyond issuing statements, to help the Libyan people protect their own (and the world's) archaeological heritage from the market-driven looting of antiquities that spikes during such periods?

NATO has certainly thought about this problem (as in this excellent conference held a few years ago in Tallinn), but it is pretty unlikely this thinking has been translated into the very politically constrained operational planning structure under which NATO must be operating in Libya. Let's be clear: No U.S. or British or Italian tanks are going to be rolling to the gates of Leptis Magna. This is not Iraq. But one could imagine a number of other stopgap measures that might be taken, if the planning had been done over the past month or so. These possibilities include:
a) helping the ministry of culture to organize and enlist Libyans, preferably locals for each major site, into site-protection groups who could camp out in large numbers on the sites and act as a deterrent.
b) helping the ministry of culture work with the antiquities police units directly
c) providing real-time aerial and/or satellite monitoring information
d) placing import bans on antiquities from Libya
e) with the permission of Libyan authorities, bring the carabinieri over to help the antiquities police cope with the heightened threat
f) providing Libyan archaeological police and site guards with material support in the form of walkie-talkies, remote monitoring devices, helicopters, etc.

Readers of this blog may have other ideas to add.

These suggestions are about what NATO and the community of nations could and should be thinking of doing. But -- and it is a big but -- there is no reason why many of these suggestions could be pursued by cultural heritage NGOs, if they were a little less focused solely on sustainable tourism and more attentive to the threats that looting poses, even to World Heritage sites. I would add that it would be wonderful if a wealthy collector or major foundation recognized this as a problem they could help solve, but I am not holding my breath on that one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

ICE on a roll

This story is interesting on several counts, including the news that the smuggler was apparently moving artifacts not just from the Dominican Republic but also from Mexico. Equally interesting and heartening is the news that ICE is working well with INTERPOL and other countries to interdict illicit imports. (On the other hand, checking a shipment marked as containing artifacts is not exactly rocket science, and leads one to wonder why the importer did not try to hide the artifacts somehow.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Antiquities Dealers, Asked for Help from FBI in Identifying Law-Breaking Dealers, Respond with Laughs

A sobering account here of a meeting between FBI agents and the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association. The attitude of dealers in Native American antiquities, at least, appears to be to laugh at the law as it stands. When asked to help law enforcement identify major players in the illicit trade, the response of dealers is jeers. That is hardly likely to endear the FBI to these folks. If I were in the FBI I would leave that meeting steamed and ready to do some more investigating. If I were a responsible dealer I would be looking for some way to deal with the problem of looting that prompts law enforcement to go after dealers in the first place. Legalizing looting of Native American sites is not going to happen. The licit trade needs to develop structures to make it as difficult as possible for illicit pieces to enter the market. As I have suggested on many occasions, the best policy here would be one whereby the licit trade agreed to a tax and reporting system on sales over a threshold price, with proceeds directed at beefing up the number of Park Service police to prevent the looting in the first place.

Too Many Antiquities Seizures in Turkey For the Museum to Handle

According to this article, Turkey's antiquities police have been very busy, confiscating more than 68,000 artifacts from nearly 5,000 smugglers in the last year alone. That shows that: a) Turkey is devoting substantial resources to fighting the looting of antiquities from its territory; b) demand for unprovenanced classical-Greek-era antiquities remains virulent, despite the changes in policy by museums. This is not to downplay the value of museums adopting a clean-hands approach, but one thing should be clear: the private market, not the museum sector is the driver of antiquities looting, and that the private market is in dire need of regulation to control, reduce, and exploit the demand in ways that would serve to prevent further looting in the future.

Beyond that, the article notes that all this policing has created a problem in turn: the Archaeological Museum is facing increasing difficulty in dealing with the influx of looted materials, 25,000 and counting piling up. (Imagine how many would be piling up if there were a Portable Antiquities Scheme!)

Turkey's policy requires the museum’s management to care for seized artifacts, the article notes, "until the investigation is completed, at which time either the piece will be released, permanently added to the museum’s official collection, or sold to a collector via an auction." Presumably only in-country collectors would be allowed to buy, though I am not sure of this, nor of whether funds raised from the sales are devoted to help defray the museum's costs to some extent. Any readers have better knowledge of this to share?

One other issue the article leaves unaddressed is whether the seizures are being made on sites, at the border, or in-country. The extraordinarily high number of artifacts being seized may indicate that the Turkish approach is focusing scarce policing resources on confiscation rather than on site protection. Both are needed, but it is far more important, from an archaeological viewpoint, to keep sites from being looted than to keep looted artifacts from leaving the country -- especially if the policy is to eventually sell those looted artifacts to collectors.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Can the London Riots Help Us Understand How to Deter Antiquities Looting?

Ed Glaeser has a post (at - I cannot figure out how to put in links using the iPad I am working on right now) summarizing some of what historical research and statistical studies tell us about how riots start and end. There is, as always with this kind of research, a lot to treat with skepticism (i.e., Glaeser's claim that because riots were less common in the South than in northern cities in the 1960s, and more common in ciies that had more government spending, we can say that there is not much of a link between unrest and either inequality and poverty), and Glaeser's failure to attend to political concomitants (i.e., the perception on the part of poor people that society is unjust in myriad ways, including of course the rewarding of massively anti-social criminality on the part of the financial class, for whose destructive behavior the rest of us, and particularly the poor, are to be punished by austerity). But one of Glaeser's points is of interest to readers of this blog, who worry about how best to deter looting not by rioters but by tomb or cave painting robbers:

The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

The same conditions hold for antiquities looting and trafficking: it is very difficult to prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the sites of looters. So a policing strategy of more arrests and fewer major prosecutions might make sense for antiquities looting, at least where the looters are doing so opportunistically. For the professionals, whether looters or fences/middlemen/dealers or receivers of stolen goods/collectors, on the other hand, it might be insufficient deterrent to arrest widely and temporarily. There are not that many of them, innocent dealers and collectors might get swept up (which could of course also happen in riots), and unlike poor rioters, the dealers and collectors are powerful enough to go after the police chief or prosecutor who opted for such a strategy. For the pros, then, serious penalties applied to a few -- i.e., Fred Schultz -- is probably the better course. The best course, though, would be to harden the sites to make looting more difficult and dangerous for the would-be looter.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A few thoughts on today's Guardian article on "Stamping Out the Illicit Trade"

No doubt the Arab Spring is generating some opportunities for looting, but the examples given in this article are all of looting that occurred before this year, including the most recent one. It also is simply not the case that the market for antiquities from the Middle East is dominated by American and British buyers. There are millionaires all over the world interested in this material, including of course many in the Gulf States and Lebanon, where it is certain that much of what was looted from Iraqi sites in the 2003-2006 period is gracing living room mantels. Shutting down the international trade in Iraqi material helped somewhat but did not put an end to the looting there. So the policy solution cannot just be more stringent provenance rules, though that would be helpful. The power of the demand side needs to be tapped to provide the resources that are needed to better police the supply side. A good step in this direction would be to put a "pollution tax" on the sale of licit antiquities, with the proceeds going into the equivalent of a SuperFund that would pay for more and better security at sites, museums, and borders. That could be done domestically without the nearly impossible herding needed to get international conventions passed.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Getty Trust CEO James Cuno wraps up debut week

Getty Trust CEO James Cuno wraps up debut week

As expected, and as he has already stated, Jim Cuno intends to continue to have the Getty follow the rigorous do-not-acquire-anything-at-all-fishy acquisitions policy, which is of course good news. But this is the least the Getty, and Cuno, could do in terms of anti-looting policy, and one would hope -- though his mind does appear from the interview to be on acquisitions -- that he is also thinking about how he could use his position at the Getty to help persuade the collectors, dealers, and the museum community to not just say no to dodgy antiquities but to say yes to additional policy measures aimed at getting more monetary help where it is needed to police sites, borders, and the licit market.

The Long Tail of Cultural Policy, Cultural Diplomacy Division

A Pakistani version of Brubeck's "Take Five" here. The album is shooting up the charts in the UK, having gone viral. What is interesting, and moving, about this story is not just the music itself (I would have hoped for more drumming and some improv from the sitarist, and maybe a south Indian violinist solo as well, though perhaps the full version of the song, which I have not yet heard, goes further than the clip), but the spirit of "freedom, and live-and-let-live" that the millionaire Pakistani underwriter decribes, returning musicians to work after the repression that crushed them back in the 1980s.

This story also tells us several important things about cultural policy. First, that the longterm impact of cultural diplomacy can be very longterm: Brubeck, Ellington, et. al. visited Pakistan back in the 1950s as part of a State Department-run Cold War cultural diplomacy initiative. It is not completely clear how, or to what degree, that tour left seeds in Pakistani culture that emerged here, but that would be a story well worth pursuing.

The other interesting cultural policy feature of this story is what it says about the recording industry today. Marketing did not create the hit: building an Abbey Road-style recording studio in Pakistan made the hit possible, a hit that in turn helped strengthen so-called Western values associated with the music. So a cultural diplomacy initiative today might well draw lessons about how to encourage politically-progressive spirit in other countries by running programs that empower musicians and artists more generally to explore hybridized idioms of expression.