Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Turkey's Ministry of Culture has decided that "artifacts which have been brought to museums and have not been claimed by valid owners... can be valued by a specially formed commission and sold." That should make private collectors happy, at least Turkish ones (I do not know off the top of my head what the export rules are in Turkey), but it is, like deaccessioning in general, a loss to the public whose interest in access to antiquities museums ought to be protecting. The public interest could be protected and indeed enhanced if museums adhered to a policy of selling deaccessioned pieces only to other museums where they can be curated and displayed.

The Ministry's response to criticism seems to track this consideration:

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism defended the new measures in a press release which expressed the ministry’s hope that the changes would allow for a better management of artifacts and avoid situations where items are forgotten or lost track of. The aim of the change in law is not to ship off items for cash, but to open new avenues for the exhibition of artifacts which are not being put to use or valued in other institutes, the statement said.

The translation is a little ragged, but if sales are only to other "institutes" rather than to private collectors, it might not be such a bad thing, even if it does do some harm by sending a price signal to looters as well. On the other hand, there is a real possibility that museums might get hooked on the income generated by deaccessioning looted-but-recovered antiquities, and one can imagine a nightmarish situation of corruption developing in which secondary sites are looted to provide a stream of disposable pieces, with the looters being paid off by kickbacks from curators after the pieces sell.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director's views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, "there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed." I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it's only through these programs that we're really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that's still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

What would it mean to "support better policing of the sites"? One thing it might mean is that the Getty would urge new policies here in the US that would generate funding to help poor countries pay for better policing. For example, the Getty might join forces with some of the most wealthy collectors, dealers, and other major museums with deep-pocketed boards, to establish an endowment for site protection; or the Getty might spearhead an effort along with collectors to expand the Getty Conservation Institute's important new Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, by subsidizing the creation of local volunteer site monitoring groups to feed realtime information about looting into it; or the Getty might push for the licit antiquities trade in the US to be regulated and purchases by Americans whether here or abroad taxed to provide funding that would support better policing of the sites.

Unfortunately, the concluding sentence of Potts' answer makes clear that what he has in mind is none of these things. Instead, the burden is placed on the citizens and governments of countries being looted. It is ultimately, for Potts, a matter of educating the benighted: "The educational process has to happen not only with the local community but also with the government and ministers." That is an extraordinarily impolitic attitude, one likely to enrage governments and ministers struggling to stem the tide of looting in the midst of massive cuts in their budgets. The Italians and Greeks, certainly, are hardly ignorant about their country's archaeological heritage. What they need is not education but material support for more and better monitoring, site police, and the like.

If Potts' position on what the Getty could do to "support better policing of the sites" is disappointingly weak-kneed, his position on the clean-hands policy that the Getty and other museums now follow is downright retrograde. As Rosenbaum reminds him (and us), Potts had supported a rolling 10-year statute of limitations on the ban on buying unprovenanced antiquities. That position was rejected for the quite obvious reason that it would give thieves an easy way to loot with impunity: simply warehouse your finds for a decade. But Potts has not taken the point:

ROSENBAUM: Do you still think the "rolling 10-year rule," which you supported, was a good idea or have you revised your thinking on that?

POTTS: Has my thinking evolved? No. I think the same issues are still there. The difference between the policies is the extent to which they prioritize the question of what happens to the material that, through no fault of its own, is discovered through development, through road-building, through accidental discoveries of all different kinds. And that is the majority of the category we're talking about. [There is no data to support that claim, of course, and in any case, whether discovered accidentally or not, antiquities ought not to be removed from their contexts without previous site documentation by archaeologists.]
The 10-year rule was an attempt to find a way of putting enough distance between the excavation of the object---by someone who shouldn't have been doing it, in some cases---and the acquisition, but to still provide a mechanism where it could be properly documented, recorded, published and therefore could make its contribution to the understanding of the culture.

The later policy clearly took the view that this was less of a priority than the clarity of a single line and date of 1970. There's no inconsistency between those policies. They're just weighing those two different considerations slightly differently.

ROSENBAUM: I think the first policy was seen as essentially giving an opportunity for object-laundering: You hold it for long enough time, and then it becomes clean. That's what the critique of that policy was.

POTTS: Both policies say that if they've been held long enough, it is okay to buy them. They're just drawing that line at different points: One's a fixed line and one's a moving line.

Potts' geometry is incoherent, reflecting the incoherence of his claim that there is no real difference between the moving ten-year limit and the line drawn at 1970.

This is not to say that the 1970 rule cannot be criticized. It does create "orphan" antiquities, and it does not do a great deal to disincentivize looting, since even with the Getty out of the game (and there can be no doubt that the Getty's buying spree back in the day did incentivize looting) there are still many millionaires around the world willing to pay enough to keep the illicit antiquities industry going. The world does need to go further to support better policing of sites, though, not backward, and it needs the Getty to provide policy leadership to get that done. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Tim Potts is ready yet to do that. As Rosenbaum notes, he did not think it necessary to familiarize himself with the details of the Getty's acquisitions policy before taking the job, despite the sensitivity of the Getty's position and Cuno's signaling that the Getty will continue to buy aggressively. Let's hope that Potts and Cuno will recognize that they have an opportunity to move the policy ball forward, and push for new and better solutions, rather than merely paying lip service to the need to do something to stop the looting-driven destruction of archaeological sites.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

US-Iraq Joint Coordinating Committee for Cultural Cooperation -- Preserve, But Don't Bother to Protect

The US-Iraq Joint Coordinating Committee for Cultural Cooperation has released a fact sheet. Here's what they are up to in the area of cultural heritage:

The United States, Iraq, and premier American academic institutions, museums, and NGOs are collaborating to ensure sustainable preservation of Iraqi national sites, monuments, and collections of world importance. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has committed $550,000 to continue support for the educational programs of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil through 2013. The Institute has also recently secured $650,000 in funding from private American foundations to continue its education and training programs. U.S.-supported infrastructure upgrades to the National Museum of Iraq are complete, and the U.S. is now assisting site management and preservation of the ancient site of Babylon through a $3.7 million grant to the World Monuments Fund. The United States supported a month-long residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Iraqi museum professionals in fall 2011 and will host Iraqi graduate students in the summer of 2012 as part of the Iraqi Museum Residencies Program.

All these are wonderful projects, and are, one might suggest, the least the US could do to help after having wrecked Iraq. But it is important to note that aside from the infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq Museum, which one presumes includes paying for the barbed wire and other security improvements, nothing on this list addresses the concern for protecting Iraq's cultural heritage from the threat of antiquities looting. The notion that tourism is going to ensure "sustainable preservation" for the entirety of a country's heritage -- not just for a Babylon or Pompeii -- is a dubious one even for countries in which tourists need not fear for their safety and in which there is not a plethora of difficult-to-reach, seemingly innocuous or even downright ugly (=untouristworthy) sites, including of course the totally untouristable undug sites, which are precisely those about which we should be most concerned. Those sites are going to remain tempting targets for looters, and to preserve them will require police, not educators or museum professionals. Yet not a cent appears to have been allocated toward antiquities policing assistance: no money for guards, no money for developing locally based citizens' groups to help Iraqi antiquities police monitor remote sites, no logistical support in the form of equipment, vehicles, walkie talkies, etc. It is understandable that the US and Iraqi governments both should wish to behave as if antiquities looting did not pose a problem going forward -- for the US this see-no-evil attitude is nothing new, since even when massive looting was occurring almost no attention was paid by coalition forces. Let us hope that security in general does not devolve and that the Iraqi government has the will to itself eventually more fully invest again in the kind of robust antiquities policing and site guard system it once had but which it has failed to rebuild completely since regaining its sovereignty.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New Getty Head Says, "Do more to protect sites" -- but not who should do it or how

James Cuno's hiring of Timothy Potts as the new director of the Getty Museum has been taken by some anti-looting advocates as a worrisome development, in part because of Potts' having aligned himself, as did Cuno, with Philippe de Montebello as the leaders of those resisting the ultimately successful effort to establish a "clean hands" policy for American museums collecting antiquities. That battle is over, however, and both Cuno and Potts have made it clear that there will be no backsliding on the Getty's acceptance of that policy.

More interesting is the possibility that Potts and Cuno might take the opportunity to push the museum and collecting community to go beyond merely having clean hands and get them to lend helping hands to the many countries now facing major financial challenges covering the costs of protecting their heritage from looters. Here is Potts quoted in Jason Felch's latest article:

"I have persistently emphasized the need to do more to protect sites and contexts on the ground before the looting takes place," he said, adding, "Perhaps the nearest thing to a certainty is that whatever policy we have in place today will be seen to have been flawed in the future."

The passive voice ("the need to do more") leaves open the question of who needs to do more, and of course in the past Cuno and others from the collecting community have put the burden on the countries of origin, who are urged to do politically impossible things like "mine" their antiquities for export sale to raise money to protect them. But the passive voice also enables one to hope that the "we" Potts has in mind is his own community of museum directors and the wealthy collectors who fund museums and donate antiquities to them. It would be wonderful to hear more about what new policies he and Cuno, as leaders of the collecting community, think that community could adopt voluntarily (or better, advocate that our government require of them) to help pay for the costs of the guards needed to protect sites -- and, as the looting of the Olympic Museum shows, museums as well -- before looting takes place.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Batten Down the Hatches!

A Greek museum containing major antiquities is looted: "Two armed robbers broke into an Olympia Museum and made off with between 60 to 70 bronze and clay pottery objects. They tied up and gagged the female security guard before using hammers to smash display cases and grab the loot."

What can we learn from this? The key lesson is that the mere fact that artifacts are in a museum and recorded is not going to deter criminals who believe they are worth a lot of money on the black market. The criminals may be too stupid to know that fencing these hot objects may be difficult because a recorded artifact on the Art Loss Register or the like is almost certain to eventually be spotted if they come onto the auction house market or get donated to a museum. Or the criminals may be smart enough to have already set up a deal with a middleman or with a collector. Either way,the point is clear: antiquities cannot be protected only by a registry, if an illicit market exists.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

EU Backs Major Research Study of Illicit Antiquities Market

The announcement that Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie have received a hefty grant to study the workings of the illicit antiquities market is wonderful news for all who care about improving policies to address the destruction of archaeological sites by market-driven antiquities looters. Studying any black market is a difficult matter, for obvious reasons, and in the case of the illicit antiquities market the paucity, spottiness, and unreliability of data has hobbled policy analysis, forcing more reliance on case studies, ethnography, and journalistic reporting. Mackenzie and Brodie have already both demonstrated they are the best in the business at looking systematically and objectively at what the empirical evidence can show us, and so the prospect of their being able to do so with ample resources over a four-year period is especially exciting. Congratulations to them both!

First George Clooney announces he is making a film on the Monuments Men, and now this: it is shaping up as a very good year.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Protecting Archaeological Sites from Looting: What Can Google Do to Help?

Jason Felch, lucky dog, will be speaking at Google today about "crowdsourcing a solution to the illicit antiquities trade." Sounds promising, though too vague to evaluate before the fact. If the idea is just to put the power of the crowd to work monitoring auction-house catalogs and eBay, however, that is not going to solve the problem of market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Not that catching Sotheby's or the occasional antiquities dealer holding stolen pieces is without value; the market needs this kind of policing. But the market is global, and most of it is not going to be visible to the crowd. Moreover, the antiquities most in need of protection, unexcavated ones, by definition lack the photographic information (or any other information) that Google is designed to share.

Google might, on the other hand, assist in a different mobilization of crowd-policing, by creating in-country means for locals to report looting in progress to their antiquities police. Something like that, on the model of the successful neighborhood watches for petty crimes in South Korea (discussed elsewhere in this blog), could and should be developed to supplement the capacity of under-resourced antiquities police in all countries.

That, though, does not strike me as a Google-ish project either.

The most important way Google could help stop the illicit digging of archaeological sites, as I have argued, would be to provide antiquities police with real-time, or at least very frequently refreshed, satellite imagery of archaeologically rich areas -- imagery analyzed automatically by Google-designed data analysis programs, one hopes -- that would help pinpoint areas where looting is surging. Such imagery would have come in very handy in Iraq during the 2003-2008 period, if only to shame the US for allowing massive looting during its occupation. It would also come in handy in Iraq today,according to the Iraqi government:

Ali al-Shallah, chairman of the committee on culture, tourism and antiquities in the Iraqi parliament, said the government has put regaining looted Iraqi antiquities and securing the country's museums and archaeological sites at the top of its priorities.

"The spread of those sites across vast unmarked areas of the country makes the provision of total security for them in the traditional way almost impossible because we would then need huge numbers of security men and vast physical and financial resources," he said.

"Therefore the government, and as part of its campaign, will approach advanced countries to help Iraq in this respect by providing technical expertise and supplying it with modern monitoring equipment that employ satellites for surveillance and follow up," he added.

That would be true of other countries as well, of course.