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.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cornell returning 10,000 tablets to Iraq -- with no penalty for the donor, of course

According to this report in the Art Newspaper, Rosen, who bought looted Iraqi antiquities and then donated them to Cornell, was a co-owner of a gallery with Robert Hecht, who was the key middleman buying looted Italian antiquities and then sold them to the Met. Those were the days.

Also notable that Rosen got an $800K tax benefit for donating. Will the IRS demand that money (plus penalties)? That would send a signal to collectors that if they want to buy dodgy antiquities they should not expect to be rewarded for doing so, at least.

Zahi Hawass says everything is hunky dory now, looting over!

Good news from Zahi Hawass, if true (but that's an "if" that is bigger than the Pyramids): 

"For a period there was looting everywhere and illegal excavations. So from Sunday I have agreed to travel all over the world on behalf of the Ministry of Tourism to tell people that the sites are now completely secured. Egypt is safe for everyone and we need tourists to come back."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Illicit Antiquities Markets, Chinese Style

Commission a fake antiquity that if authentic would be illegal to trade or sell, get it appraised by experts who work for a national museum, and use it as collateral for a $100 million loan to buy real estate. Of course, if it did sell at auction, the buyer would never actually pay. Sounds a bit like our own financial markets here!

In one case that was recently exposed, businessman Xie Genrong commissioned a fake ancient jade burial suit made out of pieces of jade stitched together with gold thread. He got five top expert appraisers to vouch for the authenticity of the suit and value it at $375 million. Using that as collateral, a bank gave Xie a $100 million loan for a real estate project.
This saga casts doubt on the role of the appraisers, who work for such august institutions as Beijing's Palace Museum. Of the five, one has since died, and the other four have blamed him, saying they had to carry out the appraisal of the suit without touching it, while it was in a glass case.
But Zhang Ning, a porcelain appraiser who does not specialize in archaeological objects, says such a valuation should never have been given for a jade burial suit: "For a start, it was violating the law. If it had been unearthed in a dig, there's a law that says archaeological objects can't be traded or sold. So the experts should have never given it that estimate. It's likely the experts knew it was fake."
The businessman, Xie Genrong, is now serving a jail term.
Many are now arguing for reform of China's auction law. One major issue is that Chinese auction houses are not responsible for the authenticity of the goods they sell, as long as they issue a disclaimer. But the problem is that the fakery is endemic. In all too many cases, the art is fake, the bids are rigged, the experts are crooked, and the bills are never settled. It's difficult to know what is real, aside from the corruption.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

a quick thought on responses to the Art Loss Register article

On her widely read PhDiva blog, Dorothy King has posted an anecdote that explains the annoyance she and many others feel about the Art Loss Register. There are a number of problems with the ALR, but the complaint she makes, and that I have heard others voice as well, is that "The police don't charge people to help with crimes," while the Art Loss Register does.

I can understand that frustration. But it might be worth thinking a bit more about the notion that the police don't charge people to help with crimes. Technically that is true, but only technically: the police don't charge individuals to look into their crimes. But instead, we all are charged -- in the form of taxes to pay for the salaries etc. that are required to enable the police to exist and be able to fight crime, art crime included. Unfortunately, our politicians have not seen fit to adequately fund the police to pay for the kind of information-gathering that they could otherwise do instead of the ALR, much less to adequately fund the police to pay for the officers' time to investigate.

The solution has to be some better funding mechanism than the privatized one the ALR represents. One answer, which I have been beating drums for for several years now, would be to impose a "user-fee" tax on sales of antiquities above a certain threshold price, with the proceeds dedicated to improved policing of the market. That would include a registry -- not just of stolen antiquities, presumably, but of all antiquities (above a certain threshold) bought and sold -- which would dramatically improve the ability of police to investigate chains of provenance. But it would also one hopes include things like hiring more police and more guards, or doing something as clearly cost-effective as paying for bullets for site guards in Egypt, where as noted in an earlier blog posting the guards at a major site ran out of bullets and were driven off by a gang that is now looting the site.

"Custodians have run out of bullets"

This post is from Sept. 3 on the "Egypt's Heritage Task Force" facebook page:
Saqqara Looting Update: tonight gangs of armed thugs attacked the pyramid of Merenre, Djedkare Isesi and the southern shawaf area. Custodians have run out of bullets and gangs are currently left to dig on the site.

But of course, we all know that arming site guards doesn't stop looting. Don't we?

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Window on Antiquities Smuggling from Syria

A very interesting piece profiling a low-level smuggler. A few remarks about what it shows:

1. cellphone technology is integrated into the illicit trade, making it easy for anyone to share photos
2. countries bordering on nations like Syria or Egypt should be pressured to seize any antiquities crossing their borders, and to restrict their own antiquities dealers from traveling within 50 miles of the border (or take other measures to try to disrupt the network in those countries). Turkey in particular needs to be chastised for turning a blind eye.
3. Antiquities smuggling is often not done independently of the smuggling of other illicit goods, including, importantly, weapons. Matthew Bogdanos, here's another piece of evidence for you.
4.  Many smalltime smugglers have no idea of the value of the items they are smuggling.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Coming Soon to the Mantelpiece of a Millionaire Near You (or in Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Tokyo, etc. etc.)

Stunning photos of some of the pieces looted recently from the Malawi Museum in Egypt:

Friday, August 30, 2013

UNESCO's actions in response to the looting in Egypt

Edouard Planche, program specialist in the Cultural Heritage Protection Treaties Section of UNESCO's Culture Sector,  has kindly agreed to allow me to repost the comment he made on Derek Fincham's Illicit Cultural Property blog, regarding actions that UNESCO is taking in Egypt:
Following the information given by the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, UNESCO published immediately the data of the stolen objects on its website:
At national level, the UNESCO field office in Cairo continues to provide support to the museum staff and the Ministry of State for Antiquities to refine the list of looted objects and translate it into English. As of today, through the efforts of the Egyptian authorities, the police has already succeeded in recuperating 121 objects but 911 objects are still missing.
UNESCO is taking the initiative to circulate the most updated information concerning this looting and to inform its partners in order to ensure maximum vigilance on anticipated attempts to illegally export and sell the objects on the market.
UNESCO works closely with IGOs sucha as INTERPOL, the World Customs Organisation, ICCROM, UNIDROIT as well as with selected NGOs such as, for example, ICOMOS, ICOM, the International Committee of the Blue shield and private partners of the art market.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Against Despair Over the Looting in Egypt

I am hearing a lot of despair being expressed, on facebook and elsewhere, about our inability to do anything to stop the destruction of cultural heritage in Egypt as elsewhere -- even from people as otherwise optimistic as the great folks engaged with the Sustainable Preservation Initiative. After all, if one cannot protect human lives, how could one protect sites and museums? And if all that international organizations like UNESCO can do is to issue one more statement deploring what is happening, what else can we do?

We can do a lot more actually, and SPI helps point the way, though of course SPI-like initiatives in these countries in chaos are impossible. The key point of SPI, though, is the taking-responsibility by non-governmental groups, and that has to happen here as well -- in spades, since the government has abandoned or lost the ability to fulfill its responsibilities.

So with that as the principle here are a few things that could be done:

  • Non-Egyptians could help by finding ways to donate to Egyptians like Monica Hanna, Save El Hibbeh and other facebook groups, etc. who are mobiizing Egyptian citizens to take direct action where possible; 
  • We could raise money to pay for remote site monitoring to at least make sure the world is aware of what is going on; 
  • We could push much harder for a worlwide emergency ban like the one UN Resolution 1483 imposed on Iraqi materials; 
  • We could help foster longterm growth of both SPI-like and citizen-led emergency site protection groups in countries where breakdown, revolution, or invasion seems possible (UNESCO is doing something like this but working with governments not with NGOs incountry);
  • We could explore ways to tap into the military-to-military friendships that one supposes must exist given the decades of joint exercises, to see if there might be some way to appeal individually to officers there who are in the right position to move some forces onto sites. 

These are action items, and I am sure there are others beyond this (please chime in anyone). But they take energy, as well as financial resources, neither of which exist in anything like the amounts needed for the overall task of investing in sustainable site protection. What we need, above all, is a stable and substantial revenue stream that can feed and incentivize such efforts. SPI generates sustainable revenue streams but only at the local level and only so long as the government takes care of law and order more generally. Is there another market in things archaeological that is not the tourist market, a market that is not affected negatively by unrest or revolution as the tourist market is, a market that is legally protected and therefore could generate sustainable revenue streams, say via a tax or user-fee on purchases with proceeds funneled to support efforts like those above? Why yes! Guess what market that is.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Drones For Site Protection: Necessary but not sufficient

Another story about archaeologists using drones, this time in Peru, to map archaeological sites. As the story notes,

Archaeologists say these small drones can help set boundaries to protect sites from squatters or miners.
A valuable, highly cost-effective tool for site protection as well as for discovery, then -- and, one should add, a tool that could and should also be deployed to protect sites not just from squatters and mining companies but from looters. In either case, however, the caveat is that the drones provide actionable intelligence but the police still need to exist and have the will and capacity to act on this intelligence. When Peruvian property developers bulldoze a pyramid, there is clearly also a need to strengthen deterrence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Rejoinder to Neil Brodie

As Neil Brodie's response to my original post below makes clear, we agree on much more than we disagree on, including the importance of engaging local communities in site protection efforts, and on the fundamental importance of linkage (on which more below. And as I suspected, at least some of our disagreements are not substantive but semantic. As a policy researcher I tend to think of "effort and resources" as terms that refer to what the government or military actually provides to the archaeologists, museum curators, police, and military personnel -- not to the efforts that archaeologists, museum curators, police, and military personnel expend in order to try to persuade the government or military leadership to empower them. In his response, Neil comes some way towards making this distinction as well. 

But even with this distinction in place, we continue to disagree. This is a question of evidence. Neil seems to believe that the focus in Iraq by archaeologists, curators and military personnel, advocacy-wise, was exclusively on site protection; and because the sites were not protected, this proves that advocating for site protection is a waste of time in all circumstances. 

That strikes me as logically fallacious. But it also seems mistaken as a matter of evidence. I think the record shows that archaeologists, curators, and military personnel concerned about Iraq's archaeological heritage did not in fact make site protection the exclusive focus of their advocacy efforts. In fact, because archaeologists and conservation groups themselves are neither trained nor interested in how to secure sites, it wasn't even the central focus of their advocacy efforts. Of course they castigated and chastised the military, and rightfully so. But look at what they asked for or willingly accepted from government and from foundations, and where the money went: into training conservators and archaeologists, into GIS mapping systems, into rebuilding the museum, into turning Babylon into a tourist attraction, into decks of playing cards to sensitize GIs about the need to do no harm to sites (but not to guard them), into cultural sensitivity awareness-raising talks by the head of the AIA to officers headed overseas. All fine things, but not related directly to stopping looting. In contrast, it took years for Elizabeth Stone to find the money to buy satellite photos simply to be able to document the massive looting that had occurred. And in the absence of that documentation, the Bush administration was permitted to not have to take responsibility for protecting the sites -- while it could, on the other hand, speak proudly about funding these conservation and cultural-sensitivity-training efforts. Oh, and also speak proudly of backing UNSCR 1483 and imposing its own emergency ban on imports of Iraqi materials into the US. Meanwhile thousands of sites were looted.

That does not mean that UNSCR 1483 was ineffective, necessarily. Indeed, Stone believes it accounts for the decline in looting that eventually did occur, though of course the caveat here is that looting continues at a higher level than in earlier times when the antiquities police were stronger (and as Stone herself admits, another possible cause for the decline in looting may be that after three years of massive digging the market was saturated). The point is that it is that we need both more and better supply-end policing and more and better demand-side policing.

Neil, by contrast, suggests that the solution is trade regulation at the international level. Exactly what that would mean I am not sure. But if he has in mind a worldwide ban like that imposed by 1483, now applied to all antiquities whatsoever, I am puzzled. Such a ban would be lovely, of course. But what chance is there of passing such a ban? And if passed, how would the sustainable resources for enforcing the ban be found?

My opinion is that a worlwide ban enforced by robust international policing is pie in the sky. It is almost impossible to imagine it being put in place to begin with, and if it were, it is equally difficult to imagine the international community coming up with the money to make it effective. 

Which brings me to "linkage". Neil and I agree wholeheartedly that it is the buyers of antiquities who fuel the looting, and that therefore any sustainable solution to the problem of looting must recognize the linkage between collecting and looting. But where I think we may differ is that I want a policy that makes this linkage work for our purposes, a policy that would link collecting not to looting but to looting prevention (as well as to policing of the illicit international trade, which would require sustained funding of criminological research of the kind that Neil does so brilliantly). 

As I have argued for quite some time now, one feasible way to begin doing this would be to tax domestic purchases of antiquities and direct the proceeds into policing efforts -- including funding international taskforces, domestic undercover operations and other activities in destination countries, but also including funding for site protection efforts of various sorts in "countries of origin". This proposal is far from what the collectors have in mind when they call for site protection. I agree with Neil that in their case the call is a way of trying to shirk responsibility and shift guilt. My proposal forces collectors to take economic responsibility and is modeled on the "sin tax" model of public policy, so I'm not sure why Neil thinks what I am suggesting sounds like what the collectors say.

Luxor and Karnak monitoring by the press in Egypt shows military not protecting important sites it claims to be protecting

Official statements notwithstanding, it appears from this stunning footage that neither Luxor nor Karnak are receiving protection. Which raises the question: if the Egyptian armed forces are not doing this even after the museum in Malawi was looted, and even after they claim to be doing so in response to threats, what else can be done?

Here are a few action items:

a) more monitoring like this by the press and by citizens to expose failures to protect
b) support from non-governmental organizations and individuals outside of Egypt for efforts by Egyptians to take direct action to guard sites, protect their museums, etc.
c) pressure on the Saudi and American governments by international organizations and citizens to tie any future aid to increased site and museum security
d) a global ban on all trafficking in Egyptian antiquities, with the funding needed to enforce it

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Connect the dots between drones, archaeology, and site monitoring

NBC reports on the increasing use of drones for very cool uses by archaeologists. The lede:

Robotic aerial vehicles are on the front lines for combat and security monitoring, but they're also increasingly on the front lines for archaeology and other research.
Oddly, the reporter does not indicate any awareness that archaeological sites are in dire need of security monitoring against looters, monitoring that drones could accomplish at radically reduced costs compared to traditional means (on-the-ground site inspection, satellite imagery). The reporter instead expresses trepidation that the drones themselves might do harm to archaeological sites:
Such vehicles have to be operated safely, so that they don't injure the people nearby — or, for that matter, the ancient sites being mapped.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Neil Brodie Stirs the Pot

My friend Neil Brodie has responded to my previous post in a comment that, with his permission, I am pulling up here to give it equal visibility:

Knew you wouldn’t like it!!

I suppose I should clarify what I am and am not saying.

First, site protection in Iraq. I said “effort and resources”, and I believe that the effort of some very hard-working archaeologists, museum curators, police, military personnel and politicians, both Iraqi and Coalition, was not fully reflected in the realized material provision of site protection. Similarly, now, I see effort and resources being devoted – I might say diverted – to the question of site protection in Syria. I have long suspected, though nothing more, that UNSCR 1483 did more to protect sites in Iraq than anything on the ground. In other words, a demand-focused measure did more than site protection. The failure there is that UNSCR 1483 was targeted only at Iraq. I hear talk now about the desirability of a similar resolution aimed at Syria. I’m not sure how that would help the situation in Egypt, for example, and I’m not sure what learning I’ve missed in that regard. We need “trade regulation at the international level”. At a guess, there are millions of sites in the world, thousands of collectors and hundreds of dealers. At that very simple level, it seems to me to be a matter of practical common sense where regulatory effort should be expended.

Second, Saddam and Mubarek. I wouldn’t characterize site protection under Mubarek as a success, I would call it a failure. What protection is it offering to archaeological sites in Egypt now? None. Mubarek’s policy did nothing to protect sites in the next country along, nor did it do anything to protect sites in the next regime along. A demand-focused strategy might have achieved a more sustainable solution.

Third, I agree that the localized integration of sites into cultural and economic practices is something to be supported. No argument there.

Fourth, I agree that we need “linkage”, though to me it implies forefronting the trade, not the actual looting. It also highlights the need for more good quality research, a point on which I am pleased to see we both agree.

I believe the problems of looting caused by the antiquities trade are ultimately caused by those who do the buying in the so-called demand or destination countries, and it is there that the solution lies. Calls for site protection sound to me very much like the trade and its beneficiaries trying to shirk responsibility for the damage caused while at the same time relocating guilt and inhibiting the development of more effective demand-focused policies. They add insult to injury.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Lessons of Iraq: A Small Quibble With Neil Brodie

Neil Brodie, one of the researchers on illicit antiquities whose work I most admire in the field, has added his own post to others on the Saving Antiquities for Everyone site marking the tenth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum. I always learn from Brodie's writings, and there is much to learn from this piece as well. But I do find myself disagreeing with one of the claims he makes in this piece, and wanted to lay out the reasons why it strikes me as problematic, as well as why I think it is important enough a point to warrant my airing my disagreement with someone I consider an intellectual ally and leader in the field of cultural policy research that has to do with the protection of archaeological sites.

The claim that bothers me comes at the end of this paragraph:
Looking back [at the last ten years since the invasion of Iraq in 2003], one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.
The reasoning here seems wrong to me, both as a matter of logic and as a matter of evidence. To begin with the evidence: Brodie seems to believe that there was "effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s", when the focus should have been on "trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand". That strikes me as backwards: the focus was on getting the UN to put in place a worldwide ban (Resolution 1483), and on embarrassing the museums into tightening their acquisitions policies. As for putting resources into protecting Iraqi sites, we know that the opposite is the case: the US disbanded Iraq's antiquities police and did next to nothing to protect the vast majority of Iraqi sites itself during the occupation period; after the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi government, the US failed to either assist Iraq in reconstituting its antiquities police or to jawbone the Iraqi government into doing so. As late as 2010 (if memory serves), a New York Times article reported that only 50-100 of the 5,000 or so antiquities police that Iraq's own antiquities policing chief said were needed had been budgeted for.  Little wonder then that massive looting occurred in Iraq during that period. 

One of the many lessons of Iraq, in fact, is precisely the opposite of Brodie's dictum that "looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection": looting will never be controlled in the absence of on-the-ground site protection. And the corollary -- that when-on-the-ground site protection is strong, looting is controlled -- also holds. Case in point? Iraq, where looting was controlled pretty well by on-the-ground site protection when the antiquities police under Saddam were powerful.  One could say the same of Egypt under Mubarak.

This is not to say, I hasten to add, that those of us who wish to curtail looting should not also be focusing on policies of trade regulation at the international level focused on stopping the illegal export and import of artifacts (which I would call the distribution side) as  regulation of the demand side (where the sale takes place to collectors and museums). This is not an either/or. To be maximally effective, we need both. 

I would argue, in fact, that more than both, we need linkage between the supply and the demand sides: the only way we will get "adequate" international anti-smuggling regulation that actually is enforced, and site protection that is robust, is if we regulate the demand side by, among other things, imposing a tax on sales of licit antiquities that can generate the revenue needed to pay for robust enforcement of both site protection and anti-smuggling policing. We can't begin to have the argument about how/whether such a linked policy could work in practice, however, or about what Neil has in mind when he calls for  "adequate policies  of trade regulation at the international level", until we stop denying that on-the-ground site protection curtails looting.

I do of course agree that on-the-ground site protection is very very difficult in times of revolution, civil war, or when the state itself is destroyed by an invading force that does not itself impose law and order.  But while difficult, protecting at least some sites in these conditions is not impossible. In fact, one of the other lessons of Iraq is that when the police disappear, the people need to be ready to mobilize to step into the breach. Donny George did that in 2003 himself along with other brave staffers who stood guard in front of the museum holding iron pipes to deter carloads of men carrying AK-47s who drove by having heard that the museum had been looted and hoping to make a foray of their own. And this lesson was learned by Egyptian citizens in Cairo who linked arms to form a human chain around their museum, and who cited Iraq's example as pointing to the need to do this. Monica Hanna and other activist archaeologists in Egypt are now mobilizing Egyptians to take direct action to protect sites and to pressure their government to do more to protect them. Similarly, antiquities officials in Libya learned from arrangements made by archaeologists in Iraq to pay local sheikhs to provide site security, and made deals with local Libyan shepherds to permit grazing on archaeological sites to create a continuous presence there that deterred looting effectively.

These are small successes, but they are real, as are the recent development of new programs by UNESCO and other international agencies focusing on disaster planning for contingencies that might include the breakdown of civil order. To say categorically then, as Brodie does, that "the effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s," and that "whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along", is to miss the learning that has gone on at this level of civil society.

Having gone on this long griping about what I think Neil has got wrong, I want to end by emphasizing that he has gotten absolutely right the need for archaeologists to stop simply pointing the finger at museums and push within their own universities for the hiring of heritage policy researchers -- in, I would add, tenure-track lines jointly funded between public policy or law or international relations departments and the archaeologists' department. I'm not as sanguine as Neil is in thinking that policy makers take seriously hard empirical evidence and cogent reasoned arguments. (My favorite story in this regard: a state arts agency head listened to one of our U of C profs showing that economic impact studies in the arts are completely unreliable, and responded, "I don't care, so long as I have a number, any number, that my legislator can cite.") I myself think we need not just more facts and figures, but more sophisticated models drawn from other policy sectors (i.e., archaeological sites are like environmental goods that get destroyed in the course of producing something else -- antiquities, electric power -- that is marketed, so environmental policy suggests a "pollution tax" might make sense for the antiquities trade). I also think we need more information about the costs of various strategies (is on-the-ground site protection really "too expensive"? compared to enforcing border controls? undercover operations to catch dealers and collectors? and who pays?) But I do share his feeling that we're unlikely to make any progress unless we have more thinking of this kind.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Peter Schjeldahl Should Be Fired

I usually do not post much about my other cultural policy interest apart from heritage policy, which is in the area of urban cultural policy and particularly the question of what cultural scenes consist in and what role -- if any -- various kinds of cultural scenes play in the life of cities, including their economic life. But the travails in Detroit are raising the specter of their museum being forced to sell off its collection, and at this moment when we most need thoughtful and helpful responses, I was appalled to read this from the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.

You should read it for yourself, but I would characterize the gist as: "I don't know much about economics, being an art critic and all, but it is a 'no-brainer' to sell the DIA art collection because the choice is sell or cut pensioners' pensions." "No-brainer", indeed, but not in the way Schjeldahl means it.    The art critic appears to believe that selling would simply generate funds that would far outstrip the loss of tax revenues that the museum would otherwise generate.

It is true that if the museum were closed the city's tax revenues would probably be reduced immediately by only $10-15 million, not anywhere close enough to offset the gain from whatever the museum could sell off in that year.

But the economic impact of the museum is in no way captured fully by counting only tax revenues generated by tourists. Museums, and other arts, along with the various amenities that altogether constitute a city's cultural scene, are magnets for human capital. They attract not just tourists but residents (usually college-educated, but certainly likely to be creatively inclined do-it-yourselfers, to which the word "entrepreneurs" might be applied were it not in such bad repute) who might decide to move to or stay in Detroit because, yes, they have an amazing art collection (among other cool things). The future of Detroit depends on its ability of its city core to successfully compete for those people moving forward, because of the tax revenues they would generate. Those revenues that would continue indefinitely and that I imagine (though I have not done the analysis myself, I admit) would dwarf the $10-15 million in direct and indirect economic impact from tourists. Detroit's ability to do that will take a big hit if the museum is liquidated -- not just because the art itself will be gone but because the sale will signal that the city has given up on its core's future altogether.

All this should be obvious to anyone who takes a few minutes to scratch the surface of the issue, but our art critic relies instead on his privileged gut. "No-brainer" might be Schjeldahl's epithet going forward. The New Yorker should be ashamed of accepting this kind of idiocy, and should fire him.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

If You Believe That Antiquities Looting is Driven by Rich Americans or Europeans, Think Again

Amongst many of my comrades who like me are trying to find ways to more effectively address the problem of looting of antiquities from archaeological sites, it is an article of faith that if we can reduce the demand for antiquities by collectors and museums in the US and Europe then looting will be reduced concomitantly. Hence the self-congratulations when museums in the US finally adjusted their acquisitions policies, for instance. 
But as I have argued, this is a naive view based on the mistaken assumption that the global market is dominated by Western collectors. The reality is that there are plenty of collectors from other parts of the globe whose demand is more than adequate to fuel looting.
But don't take my word for that. Here's what a Greek detective has to say:
Mr Tsoukalis believes the most popular buyers are Russians, Chinese and Latin Americans.
"In the last few years with the crisis, people who have reached their limits have become more easily tempted," he says.

"They are more likely to either sell antiquities in their possession or search for them in abandoned excavation sites, in order to sell what they find to dealers who take them abroad.
"We've tracked down ancient Greek antiquities as far away as Colombia - in the hands of drug dealers".
Does this mean that we should ignore what the collectors in the US and Europe are doing? Absolutely not. But it does mean that prohibitionism or just-say-noism is not going to do much of anything to stop looting, and that we need to think harder about other strategies that might do more. 
Spoiler alert: that doesn't include talking the Russians, Chinese and Latin Americans into just saying no -- but it might involve figuring out ways -- maybe through tourism revenues, maybe through a US tax on sales of antiquities to American collectors -- to fund better site protection and more people like Mr Tsoukalis. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

UNESCO's response to the Syrian crisis: more handwringing where new ideas are needed

In response to the latest footage showing, again, shelling of World Heritage sites in Syria, the head of UNESCO has issued yet another in a series of futile calls for an end to such destruction. What is most depressing is not just that these appeals are almost certain to fall on deaf ears, but that Ms. Bokova is missing the opportunity to call for changes that need to be made in the international instruments she cites -- changes that are desperately needed if there is to be any hope of reducing site destruction going forward -- whether such destruction is due to military action, as in the case of Syria, or to the actions of antiquities looters who operate with impunity in these conditions.

Take the 1954 Hague Convention, which was designed to discourage States Parties from firing at sites or pillaging them. As the article notes, "In an earlier statement, Ms. Bokova had said that 'destroying the inheritance of the past, which is the legacy for future generations, serves no purpose except that of deepening hatred and despair and it further weakens the foundations for cohesion of Syrian society.'" It is true that one effect of of destroying World Heritage sites is to deepen social divides, and in the case of the Taliban that was certainly the purpose. But as a matter of fact, the Hague Convention itself recognizes that there might well be a good reason for shelling a World Heritage site -- if the enemy has moved onto the site, the Convention says, anything goes. Whoever moves onto a site first is culpable in that case.

For the Hague Convention to do any good in the Syrian context, then, Ms Bokova would need to go beyond vague appeals to warring parties to cool it, and instead urge that the international community to do what it would take to hold accountable whoever moves their forces first onto a site. Why does she not call strenuously for an international monitoring system capable of putting eyes in the skies over World Heritage sites in conflict zones, so that those who move first onto the sites can be identified and then indicted and prosecuted?

The other international instrument cited by Ms. Bokova, the World Heritage Convention, is similarly hamstrung when it comes to dealing with Syria-style threats. The Convention itself has always been overblown about the protection it provides to the sites listed -- looting may have been one of the threats mentioned but from the beginning the more important threat was defined as that caused by development or by neglect. And the aim of the list was to incentivize governmental investment in conservation and planned tourist development.

What happens, then, when war breaks out? Tourism is non-existent. That makes the threat of de-listing -- the only stick that the Convention provides -- relatively unimportant, in the short run, which is the only run that matters when a state is at war.

Is there any change that could be made to the Convention's listing procedures to give it some relevance in situations like Syria? Yes. For starters, to get or stay on the list, UNESCO could require countries to submit a disaster preparedness plan for approval. A more robust change would require countries to contribute a percentage of tourist-generated tax revenues to an international disaster-response fund, a kind of insurance policy.

These are, admittedly, not necessarily easy changes to effectuate. But that is all the more reason for the head of UNESCO to be forcefully advocating for them, or for some other innovations. The problem is too dire to settle for the usual "I am shocked" pronouncements.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

UNESCO on Syria: A Year Late and Millions of Dollars Short

UNESCO has placed six Syrian sites to the endangered World heritage list. Better a year late than never I guess, but what is really sad is how little this is likely to mean anyway. The decision is "meant to rally support for the safeguarding of the sites". How much rallying will ensue is highly questionable, especially absent any specification as to how such safeguarding might be achieved. A French proposal calling for a special fund to protect Syria's World Heritage property was approved, but there is no indication in this article at least that contributions would be anything other than voluntary, and similar funds set up after the Iraq Museum was pillaged received almost nothing.

What this shows is just how weak an instrument the World Heritage List is for doing what it claims it does: protect world heritage sites. Had it been better conceived, or if it were to be amended to recognize the need to safeguard sites from looting and shelling, not just from encroachment or degradation from too many tourists, it would have included at least two additional provisions:
a) a requirement that in order to be considered for accession to the list, countries would have to present disaster response plans that included the prospect of civil breakdown as one threat --plans that would involve mobilizing citizens from all walks of life and political persuasions to step in if/when the police disappear;
b) a requirement that all State Parties to the Convention contribute annually to the UNESCO fund a percentage of the tax revenues generated by tourist visits to their sites.

Until the economic power of heritage -- whether embodied by tourist dollars or by the astronomical sums paid by collectors for antiquities -- is harnessed and used to prevent looting and destruction, there will be no real help for Syria or anywhere else where barbarism reigns.

Egypt: Not Just a "Source Nation" for Antiquities!

We usually think of Egypt as the victim of Western collectors vacuuming out its antiquities. But as this story makes clear, the Middle East has its own cosmopolitan collectors willing to traffic looted antiquities from the Americas.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Juan Cole visits the Iraq Museum

Juan Cole, one of the most astute commentators on Middle East issues, has posted some photos from the Iraq Museum. These are indeed breathtaking artifacts, and it is good to see them well-displayed, in galleries that the State Department together with others helped restore. But while Cole notes that "The damage to the museum and its collection is yet another black mark against the Bush administration and, sorry, the United States of America, which by its illegal and brutal invasion and occupation diminished our store of knowledge about a crucial period of world history", he seems unaware that the museum he is visiting in its present form reflects in part the way in which the US chose to respond to the looting of Iraq's archaeological heritage. While the US plowed financial resources into training curators, fixing the museum (which, according to news reports, still is only half-open), and developing Babylon as a World Heritage tourist destination, it all but ignored the looting of thousands of archaeological sites over years during the occupation. Iraq's antiquities police were disbanded and very little done to fill that security gap, or even to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Estimates of the number of artifacts taken from those sites dwarf the number lost in the looting of the museum -- and of course, artifacts dug up by tomb robbers lose forever the context we need in order to fully understand what they can tell us about our past. Now we read that the Iraqi government is planning to build a brand new museum. 

The beauty of these galleries should not distract us from asking whether what we are seeing is a Potemkin Village.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Governing without a state: The stakes for archaeological heritage

The withering-away of the state in Egypt has meant the emergence of do-it-yourself civic action, as this NY Times story makes clear, with consequences both exhilarating and frightening. Reclaiming public space on behalf of a community can mean real progress when the state was hoarding resources that the public left to its own devices could have better employed. But the dark side of this is the cannibalizing of nonrenewable or potentially renewable resources by short-term community interests (or worse, by private interests as when gangs rule). Encroachment on empty land that had been hoarded by the government is one thing; encroachment and artifact-farming on land that the government had declared offlimits in order to protect the nation's and the world's heritage is another.

In this moment, the fate of Egypt's cultural heritage depends on whether, left to their own devices, Egyptians will be able to form civil society groups that can advocate for protecting archaeological sites, demanding action by the state, and where necessary taking direct action themselves to do so.  We saw that spirit on display in the spontaneous joining of hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum when looters attacked it, and we are now seeing the emergence of citizens' groups, with participation not just by archaeologists but by locals, focusing on this. That is a highly promising development. It would be wonderful if such efforts could be supported by NGOs and individuals overseas (not to mention governments). 

Welcome, America, to the world collectors have made, in which no cultural patrimony is safe from looting, not even that of white Southerners

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On the UN's New Campaign to Educate Tourists Not to Buy Dodgy Antiquities

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announces a new campaign to "encourage tourists to make informed decisions and help reduce demand for trafficking in persons, cultural artefacts, wildlife, fauna and flora such as ivory products, as well as counterfeit goods, and illicit drugs." “Well-informed tourists can make a real difference in turning the tide,” the Secretary-General said.

Two things about this. First, it is really important that cultural artifacts are now recognized as illicit goods that need attention at the level given to human trafficking and drugs, or at least the destruction of wildlife. Attention is now being paid, not just by UNESCO but by the UN's higher echelons. That is good.

Second, an information campaign to inform tourists that buying unprovenanced antiquities is not a terrible idea, especially since UN agencies haven't either the money or the authority to use other more potent governmental means. I am not convinced that in and of itself it will do very much to stop looting. Information as a tool of government action tends to work best when the harm being done is to oneself by an activity that giives pleasure only to oneself (i.e., anti-smoking campaigns) and when any reasonable being would agree that knowing what they know it would be irrational to continue to do that harm. But we know that wealthy collectors are well aware of the harm done by the looting that their purchases of unprovenanced antiquities incentivizes, and that has not stopped them from continuing to collect. The harm they are doing is not to themselves, and the pleasure derived is not solely their own but also that of the others with whom they will share the beauty of the artifact.  And so long as just a few wealthy collectors are willing to pay thousands or hundreds of thousands for the rare artifact, looters will be incentivized to dig, even if the tourists stop buying.

On the other hand, if -- a very big if -- tourists begin to tell antiquities dealers they will not buy any artifact that is not declared kosher by a UN-approved-and-overseen registry system, the dealers in-country may begin to suffer enough that they would pressure their governments to establish such a system. That might be a helpful step, if it made it easier to prosecute sellers and buyers of unregistered antiquities, or at least to pursue restitution claims abroad. Registries raise some difficult problems of their own: how would the costs for administering a registration system be covered? who would decide? would unprovenanced antiquities brought forward by a date certain be grandfathered in? how would the kind of corruption of the registry that Morag Kersel has documented occurring in Israel be prevented? And would the UN have the will to remove its seal of approval in the event that a registry system was corrupted (the record on World Heritage site listing -- only two ever de-listed, despite massive evidence that there are terrible problems on many other sites -- does not encourage optimism about this)?

None of these problems is insuperable, and it is worth a try to get to a registry system via tourist demand. Of course, the UN's campaign mentions nothing about a registry, so they may not even be imagining such a possibility. And it seems a long way round. I agree with the UN World Tourism Organization head that the infrastructure of tourism [from accommodation establishments to transportation networks] could be used in the fight against trafficking, but a much more simple way to do so would be to tack on an "archaeological site security" tax on tourists entering the country from abroad (or at the hotels or at the sites) to pay for site guards and antiquities police not just at the World Heritage sites but around the country wherever looting is a problem. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Economics of Looting: The Costs of Production

A fascinating story about antiquities looting in Sri Lanka, which appears to be on the upswing, provides some useful information about what a shift from "subsistence" to "industrialized" looting involves:

We didn’t catch the wrongdoers. But we did find the laser gun and a generator. Inside the cave there was a pit 55-feet deep. We were informed that 50 people had been digging for three months, for payment of Rs 1,000 a day.”
Police are investigating the activities of several gangs. Many more are yet to be identified, let alone investigated. One network of hunters, recently busted, was implicated in three illegal excavations in Wellawaya, Haputale and Buttala.
A telephone number scribbled on a wall calendar in the home of a member, led to the discovery that the gang had agents islandwide. One of its main organisers was a security forces deserter from Ruwanwella, who was pretending to be the bodyguard of an influential minister’s wife. Another was a timekeeper from Wellawaya, who was residing in Buttala, as an employee of the Uva Provincial Council. He masqueraded as an officer of the Archaeological Dept.The husband of an Avissawella-based lawyer was involved in all three incidents. The chief financier was found to be the husband of a bank manager in Colombo. 

1,000 rupees is about $8. So for this dig alone, the labor cost is $36,000 (50 people digging for three months at $8). Add in the costs of a laser gun or generator, and it is clear that someone must be willing to pay quite a lot for the artifacts being stolen in order for this kind of operation to yield profits. 
The story offers one additional detail worth pondering: 
Before each excavation, a “kattadiya” (exorcist) performed ceremonies.
This gives us a peek into the psychology of the locals who have been enlisted to do the work of digging up artifacts that they know have something sacred about them. Too bad such superstition could not be harnessed to keep sites safe. (As I note in Rape of Mesopotamia, the first archaeologist to excavate in Iraq, Layard, wrote that his diggers steered clear of the stone figures they were uncovering because they feared there were spirits trapped in them, and this made it unnecessary to hire site guards.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Are We Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

Anyone looking at blogs, front page news, and governmental announcements would come away with the strong impression that the best way to attack the illicit antiquities market is to clamp down on auction houses, licit dealers, donating collectors, and museums. But as this article about smuggling of Mexican artifacts into the US shows (and there are many analogous stories about antiquities smuggling from other countries), the supply chain need not run through auction houses, or illicit dealers, or museums:
Undercover agents intercepted some of the items by infiltrating the smuggling ring.
“We were able to set up some meetings and view these artifacts posing as buyers,” said Bill Fort, a Homeland Security Investigations agents who helped crack the case.
Fort, now retired, said the thieves offered to get more items for collectors.
“They would go out and dig something up, or go other co-conspirators and say, ‘Hey, we have an order for this type of artifact, do any of you all have it?’ or, 'Let’s go out to some of those sites that are protected areas in Mexico,’ and they would dig through those," Fort said.
You can not only get your illicit antiquity wholesale, cutting out the middleman, but you can get it to order. None of this will show up on the market or in the museum.

What does this tell us about where we ought to be focusing our efforts to prevent future digging of antiquities? The answer seems clear: we need to be figuring out how to increase the resources devoted to anti-looting and anti-smuggling policing operations, including but by no means limited to the sort of sting operation described in this article. 

To say this is not to suggest that auction houses, dealers, donating collectors, and museums should be simply left alone, or that restitution should not be demanded by countries when a looted artifact comes to light. But if what is really needed to stop looting going forward is more and better site monitoring, more and better guards for sites, more and better antiquities police going after smuggling networks, then what we demand from the licit antiquities market should be not just clean hands or givebacks, but help in generating funds for all these efforts. They should be asked what they are doing to help make sure their market really is licit, and why they aren't doing more. That more could be any number of things: using their authority and political heft to push our government to spend more on this problem both in Homeland Security and via State and Defense Department efforts to assist antiquities police in other countries; creating a foundation and endowing it (imagine what good the $200 million Shelby White gave to establish an institute for studying the ancient world would have done had she instead set up a foundation to support more and better antiquities policing); or lobbying the US government to tax the purchase of antiquities to generate funding that would go to pay for things like more undercover operations of the kind that this article shows can be successful.