Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Antiquities Under Siege recommendation made 8 years ago now being taken up

This is one of the few ideas now in play that really could do some good in terms of protecting archaeological sites:

the task force proposed by Italy, which “is gaining traction at UNESCO”, should include archeologists, military forces specialized in the safeguard of cultural heritage, ONGs personnel and cataloguers. “They should be deployed in “grey” areas where there are tensions, but not wars”. It is something similar to the “culture peacekeepers”, as it was discussed recently, but “definitely, we are not talking about sending paratroopers to Palmyra”, clarified the minister. 
Italy thinks that peacekeeping missions should also include a cultural dimension, and Gentiloni made the longstanding experience acquired by Carabinieri available to the project.
In the appendix to Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (Altamira, 2008), we put forth this recommendation, among others. The key difference from other "Monuments Men"-style task forces being advocated for by Blue Shield and other preservation/conservation-focused groups is that here there will also be some people who can protect the sites from gun-toting looters, a crucial need if the work of preserving and conserving is to be feasible.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Mushrooms and antiquities

Jedediah Purdy's review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World doesn't directly refer to the analogy between mushrooms and antiquities, but makes plenty of oblique references, i.e.:

An ethics of precarity is too close to taking art photographs of decay in a city we cannot save. Adam Smith, who was also interested in the naturalness of capitalism, once wrote that there is a lot of ruin in a country. The same goes for the world. It is too soon, and, more important, it surrenders too much, to make ruin our master-metaphor. The world still has a good deal of ruin in it, and, we can hope, plenty of fight as well. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Kurdish Museum buys looted artifacts

One of the lingering questions about the massive looting that occurred in Iraq in the years following the 2003 US invasion is where all the artifacts have gone and why it continued even after a worldwide ban on international trade in Iraqi materials was put in place, abating somewhat over time. Very little appeared on the open market and it is thought that much was simply stockpiled in warehouses, or bought privately by wealthy collectors around the world. 

But the looters and smugglers inside Iraq were being sustained as well by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan, directors of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, which
started an initiative to make deals with smugglers after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent looting of museums in the country, according to Ancient History Etc., a U.K. nonprofit online publication.
The museum bought a tablet -- one of a group of 80-90 being proffered -- containing 20 previously lost lines of "The Epic of Gilgamesh, for $800 off a smuggler in Iraq in 2011.
"They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries," according to the publication. "No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from." 
Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaymaniyah Museum Project -- an effort to assist the Kurdish government in running the museum -- praised the museum's decision as "courageous" because it ran counter to official policy against paying smugglers and looters for looted artifacts. That policy exists, of course, because paying these folks gives them an incentive to keep on looting and smuggling. Asking no questions makes this incentive even more attractive. 

The Huffington Post headline suggests that the question raised by the museum's practice of buying looted antiquities is : Should museums make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history? But that way of putting the question, while it is undoubtedly the way that museums interested in bringing material in think of what they are doing, begs the question. The deal described was not made in order to protect and preserve history. It was made in order to keep the artifact from leaving the country. Had the tablet gotten out of Kurdistan it would surely have been sold to someone anyway, someone who would have in turn protected and preserved it. The only effect here was to shorten the supply chain, reduce the cost of doing business for smugglers and looters, and thereby promoted more digging and more smuggling.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Boston MFA pulls bust out of storage to honor slain Palmyra director

Though it would be too painful to contemplate putting this particular piece in circulation at this time, here's an example of the level of quality of objects in museum storerooms that might be used in an antiquities-leasing program to steer collectors towards "renting" and away from buying looted artifacts on the illicit market:

This is not the only Palmyran sculpture on display in this part of the world. Other first-rate examples can be seen both at the MFA and in museums such as the recently renovated Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. But with its fine carving articulating the woman’s “wet drapery” garment and exquisitely pleated headwear, her perfectly parted wavy hair, and her Hellenistic features, it’s both beautiful and characteristic, and it hasn’t been on display in a generation.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why I am worried about AAMD's new "safe haven" protocols

Brian Daniels, whom I greatly respect for the important work he and his colleagues are doing to try to monitor and help Syrians safeguard archaeological sites and artifacts, is happy about the AAMD's announcement of safe haven protocols for antiquities from conflict zones. Here's Brian's facebook post, which many other fellow heritage protection advocates are retweeting approvingly:
"Quite possibly one of the most important developments in the field of cultural heritage policy in recent years. Not only does the AAMD declare its support for the 1954 Hague Convention, but it will treat objects in AAMD member museum safe havens as loans--not permanent acquisitions. (As such, a U.S. museum would need to follow U.S. law for an international museum loan to participate). The guidance outlined here is what framers of the 1954 Hague Convention had in mind for museums following World War II."
I cannot share this enthusiasm. Framers of the 1954 Hague Convention did not have in mind, objects dug up from archaeological sites by private parties, smuggled out of Syria to Turkey or Dubai and then bought up by dealers or collectors. There was nothing like the global market for illicitly excavated antiquities in 1954 that there is now. And the AAMD protocols, I worry, include provisions that will encourage more looting and smuggling of artifacts.

Here's the relevant section of the AAMD protocols, with the problematic language italicized:

II. The Source of Works In Need of Safe HavensIn the event of a terrorism occurrence or during an armed conflict or natural disaster, works may be brought for safe haven in the United States, Canada or Mexico from any depositor, assuming of course compliance with applicable law (see below).  Predetermining who may request such assistance in the abstract is not always possible, but may include the legal owner of a work, the agent for the owner, the bailee of a work, the custodian of a work, and a person or entity who comes into possession of the work and the owner is unknown, unavailable or legally constrained [sic] (collectively, a “depositor”).  Examples of a depositor are:
  • Museums in the affected area that hold works;
  • Governmental entities of or within the affected areas;
  • U.S. government authorities who have seized works on entry to or in the United States; or
  • Private individuals, companies or organizations who own or come into possession of works, whether in the affected area or after removal from the area.
Member museums should exercise caution to assure that accepting the request for safe haven will not violate the rights of lawful owners, subject the museum to a claim for return, reflect negatively on the reputation of the museum or cause the museum to be involved in any illegal or unethical activity.  Requests for safe haven and agreements to accept such requests should be documented where possible prior to movement of works to be transferred.
The garbled syntax in the first italicized phrase is a tell, indicating that this is an issue the AAMD must have been wrangling. With good reason. The last quoted paragraph above notwithstanding, the protocols give a green light to museums to accept as loans artifacts purchased from the networks that are paying looters to continue to dig, networks that in some cases are run by or beholden to ISIS. Those who purchase such blood antiquities will now be able to loan them to a museum, which will provide the buyers with a patina of legitimacy and museum approval that will increase the value of the artifact when it is returned to them. 

Taking as loans artifacts from museums, government entities, or seizures is an excellent idea. Taking as loans artifacts bought from the illicit market is a terrible idea.

, seeing it as marking a welcome albeit belated move that 

No specialist prosecutors for antiquities/terrorism cases: a major stumbling block

Those who have been applauding ICE's ceremonies returning seized artifacts should instead be booing. They don't understand that every such public relations event that doesn't also include announcements of arrests and indictments is a lost opportunity and a symptom that the Obama administration has failed to devote the resources needed to really tackle the black market in antiquities.

This is made clear in a very informative blogpost from cultural heritage lawyer Rick St.-Hilaire laying out in very damning detail the failure of the Obama administration's Justice Department to follow through on an antiquities smuggling case in 2011 that involved suspected money laundering tied to terrorism.  Instead, the artifacts were returned in a DC photo-op ceremony.

As St.-Hilaire notes,
A specially assigned heritage trafficking prosecutor based at the Department of Justice in Washington probably could have facilitated this search warrant request by coordinating with the appropriate right U.S. Attorney's office. But no such specialist prosecutor exists.
Maybe I just missed it -- and if so, will one of the readers of this blog please ease my mind -- but I don't recall hearing from ICE or the Department of Justice during last week's various policy events. The announcement of a reward for information leading to the disruption of terrorist-related antiquities-smuggling networks might indicate some movement in the direction of a heritage trafficking prosecution. But a dedicated prosecutor is long overdue. The Department of Homeland Security's budget is only $55 billion though, so perhaps they cannot afford one.