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Showing posts from March, 2008

Homecomings: "Glories" with Lost Contexts

The antiquities returned to Italy by Shelby White have now gone on display in the Palazzo Poli (Fontana di Trevi), Rome and a short statement has been issued by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (MiBAC) (see also Elisabetta Povoledo, "Repatriated Art in Rome", New York Times, March 29, 2008).

There is a short quotation from Shelby White:
la nostra collezione è stata acquistata in aste pubbliche e da commercianti che ritenevamo affidabili. Nel caso degli oggetti che ho volontariamente offerto di restituire, ho ritenuto che le prove fossero sufficienti a dimostrare che la loro fuoriuscita dall’Italia fosse discutibile.She stresses several things. First, that the sources for her antiquities were public auctions or antiquities dealers who were considered "trustworthy". We now know that the dealers included Robin Symes and the auction houses, Sotheby's in London. Second, that this return was a voluntary arrangement. Third, that the evidence was such th…

Following the Trail of Robin Symes

Lee Rosenbaum has drawn attention to a long review by Francesco Rutelli ("20 mesi di cultura in Italia"). In a section on "Cultural diplomacy" he states:
Un altro argomento centrale nelle recenti politiche del nostro Ministero è quello del recupero degli oggetti d’arte e soprattutto archeologici trafugati. Su questo delicatissimo fronte abbiamo intrapreso un’importante battaglia e la stiamo vincendo, come dimostra l’accordo per la restituzione dei 40 capolavori che erano conservati nel Getty Museum di Malibu. La forza etica degli argomenti e soprattutto l’impegno intransigente del Governo sono riusciti a ribaltare in poco tempo quel che non si muoveva da decenni: prevedo che nell’arco dei prossimi anni altre centinaia di opere rubate al nostro patrimonio nazionale e portate all’estero torneranno in Italia: l’accordo che ho stipulato con il Ministro della Cultura inglese per fare luce sulla collezione Symes ospitata a Londra ha aperto nuove, considerevoli opportunità…

Antiquities from the Shelby White Collection to go on Display in Rome

Lee Rosenbaum has reported that nine antiquities formerly in the possession of Shelby White will go on display in the Palazzo Poli in Rome tomorrow (March 29). It appears that a list of the ten antiquities (one will follow the other nine) has yet to be issued. Why the delay? What is there to hide?

Shelby White no doubt hopes that this will mean closure. But will it? Is this just the end for the antiquities that featured in the Glories of the Past catalogue?

Remember Elisabetta Povoledo's comments last year ("An Impasse in Italian Talks Over Return of Artifacts", New York Times, May 26, 2007):
Last November [2006] the Italian Culture Ministry presented Ms. White with a list of more than 20 pieces in her collection that its investigators had tracked to dealers who Italy says have been linked to looted antiquities. (The list was narrowed to nine during the negotiations.) Those dealers include Giacomo Medici, an Italian antiquities dealer who is appealing a 2004 conviction in …

The Sevso Treasure and "Unprovenanced Antiquities": A Response to John H. Merryman

Ruth Leader-Newby made a wise observation about the Sevso Treasure:
The tragedy of the Sevso Treasure is that it is futile to attempt a guess at its provenance. ... it is interesting to note that the countries which rumour has associated with the Sevso Treasure, and which tried to claim possession of the hoard in the New York court case held to establish its ownership (Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon) have no record of similar material being found in their soil previously. In fact, any one of the Roman Empire's many provinces could have been the home of the treasure.There are clear intellectual consequences that are linked to the hoard's loss of archaeological context. Where was it displayed?

John H. Merryman has now issued a working paper on the Treasure that addresses the issue of "unprovenanced antiquities". I prefer the term "recently surfaced", though "hoard without documented history" could be used. I suspect that there is somebody who does kno…

"Orphans" and Recently-Surfaced Antiquities

As far as I recall, the use of the term "orphans" for antiquities without recorded histories or find-spots was first used for Cycladic figures (Pat Getz-Preziosi, "Prehistoric Stone Images of the Greater Mediterranean Area", in Ariadne Galleries, Inc., New York, Idols: The Beginning of Abstract Form, 30 November 1989-31 January 1990; and cited in Gill and Chippindale 1993: 657):
With orphaned Cycladic images, as with orphaned images from other regions, one can never be certain in what context they were used, although the chances are good that it was a sepulchral one.Getz-Preziosi (Getz-Gentle) expanded on her view of "orphaned" Cycladic figures in a letter to us (quoted in Gill and Chippindale 1993: 612).

In the Cycladic context, we suggested that the Museum of Cycladic Art ("the Goulandris Museum") in Athens collected "orphaned" Early Cycladic marble figures (Gill and Chippindale 1993: 606). This idea of "orphans" was develope…

Michael Brand on the "Orphans"

Lee Rosenbaum has interviewed Michael Brand, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum ("My Antiquities Q&A with the Getty's Michael Brand: Life after the Givebacks", Culturegrrl, March 10, 2008). One of the issues they discuss is the orphaned objects, i.e. an object that has no recorded history or archaeology. (I prefer to avoid the term "provenance" which is ambiguous).

Brand commented:
There IS a problem with the orphaned object. But there are all sorts of orphans. What we're trying to do in our discussion at AAMD [the Association of Art Museum Directors] is either deal with the orphan problem or get to the point where we can have a more productive discussion about the orphaned object. Our acquisition policy doesn't deal with this.

You can look at it in two ways. For a particular orphaned object, you could argue that one acquisition is not by itself going to encourage illegal excavation. But if you were to acquire every single so-called orphaned object, …

The Art Loss Register: Why a Poll?

Last week I decided to launch a poll asking the question:
What does it mean when a certificate from The Art Loss Register (ALR) accompanies an antiquity that is for sale?Antiquities are sold with these certificates. I have on my desk a sale catalogue of antiquities from Christie's (London) and each item has this statement:
This lot is accompanied by a certificate from The Art Loss Register.But how does the public perceive these certificates? Are the certificates helping to restrict newly surfaced antiquities from entering the market? What reassurances do the certificates provide?

What do you think? Take the poll.

Iraq: Treading Lightly

The BBC has been broadcasting a series of short programmes "Ten Days to War" (with iPlayer facility) to mark the anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Episode 8 presents Colonel Tim Collins (played by Kenneth Branagh) of the Royal Irish Regiment giving his famous ("Our business now is north") eve of battle of speech. (Perhaps there are shades of Branagh's "Henry V" [1989].)

And as the men prepare to cross the froniter they are reminded:
Iraq is steeped in history ... You tread lightly there.
SAFE Candelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum

Antiquities from Iraq: Funding for Insurgents?

One of the key things to emerge from the UNESCO Athens Conference is the link between looted archaeological sites and the purchase of arms for the insurgency (Elena Becatoros, "Artifact Smuggling Aids Iraq Insurgents", AP, March 18, 2008).

In an interview given in Athens Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos claimed:
The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan ... Well, they don't have opium in Iraq ... What they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they're using antiquities.Part of the evidence comes from the recovery in 2006 of antiquities, stolen from the National Museum, in bunkers alongside "weapons, ammunition and uniforms".

The Art Loss Register (ALR) has responded in a way that shows its staff do not understand the issues surrounding the looting of antiquities:
Antonia Kimbell, an art trade manager at The Art Loss Register — which maintains a database on stolen, missing and looted art — said she had yet …

Collecting Antiquities from Crete: Exhibiting Antiquities from Crete

In the build-up to the Athens conference it would have been possible to overlook the fact that the Greek Minister of Culture, Mihalis Liapis, was in Manhattan for the opening of a new exhibition, "From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000 – 1100 B.C." at the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in Manhattan (Brenda Smily, "Minoan Artifacts Land in Manhattan", New York Sun, February 28, 2008). The exhibition opened last Thursday ("Liapis officially inaugurates Minoan exhibition in New York", Athens News Agency, March 13, 2008).

As far as I know there is nothing controversial about this loan exhibition which is drawn from at least seven archaeological museums on Crete. Indeed such exhibitions are the way to present cultural objects to a wider public.

But there was something intriguing about the opening. Among the guests was "former prime minister and honorary president of the ruling New Democracy (ND) party Constantine Mitsotakis"…

The Pazardzhik Byzantine Silver Hoard: Will Greece Make A Response?

The authorities in Bulgaria should take encouragement from Michael Liapis' speech on cultural property ("Greece says momentum growing for Marbles' return", Reuters, March 17, 2008).
More and more museums are adopting tighter ethics codes and governments promote bilateral and international cooperation [for the return of antiquities] ... So an ideal momentum is being created ... for clear solutions on this issue.Liapis feels strongly about this issue (see "Greece and Looted Antiquities"):
I have contacted all of my opposite numbers across Europe with the purpose of creating a common front to combat the illegal trafficking of antiquities.This is good news and I welcome his actions.

So why should the fellow European government of Bulgaria take encouragement?

Less than a year ago the Greek courts refused to take seriously a Bulgarian claim on some Byzantine silver ("Greece has no plans to hand over contested Byzantine plates", AFP, July 17, 2007).

The Parthenon Marbles and the Medici Conspiracy: There is a Difference

Michael Liapis, the Greek Minister of Culture, has linked the recent return of archaeological objects from North American collections to the debate about the Parthenon marbles ("Greece says momentum growing for Marbles' return", Reuters, March 17, 2008).

But the issues are very different.

The objects acquired by and returned from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Princeton University Art Museum (and not forgetting Shelby White) do not appear to have been known prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Indeed many were acquired after the 1973 declaration by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). In other words, after1970 (and certainly after 1973) museum curators, archaeologists and even private collectors were aware of the problems of looting and recently surfaced objects.

And some chose to continue buying and accumulating.

And the Medici Conspiracy has shown how the system worked: f…

Greece and Looted Antiquities

Greece is planning to take a tough stance on looted antiquities (Helena Smith, "The Parthenon marbles, and the rest please", Guardian Unlimited, January 24, 2008). Certainly there have been some recent successful claims: the Aidonia Treasure and several items from the J. Paul Getty Museum. But these are small scale when rated next to the successes of the Italian Government against North American museums, a dealer and a private collector.

The Guardian reported:
Within weeks of assuming the portfolio last September, Greece's culture minister, Michalis Liapis, reinvigorated the war against antiquities smuggling saying it had become "the highest of all our priorities."

"I have contacted all of my opposite numbers across Europe with the purpose of creating a common front to combat the illegal trafficking of antiquities. In recent years art looting has assumed gigantic proportions with the result that, worldwide, it has become the third most profitable form of orga…

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World: Unclear on "Exhibiting Unprovenanced Artifacts"?

Staff members from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World have been discussing its first exhibition, "Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani", that opens today (Kate Taylor, "From the Land Of the Golden Fleece", New York Sun, March 7, 2008). The exhibition will include excavated objects from Vani.

The Institute has been set up with the help of Shelby White and her late husband Leon Levy: Shelby White is the chairwoman of the Institute.

Perhaps what is so surprising is that the Institute's Director, Roger Bagnall, has chosen not to clarify his position on recently surfaced antiquities. Taylor writes:
Asked if the institute has a policy about publishing on or exhibiting unprovenanced artifacts, as some museums today do, Mr. Bagnall said he was "trying not to make any long-term policy decision now that doesn't have to be made," but he added that the issue would be addressed when the faculty was in place.He perhaps need…

Looted Mummies in Egypt

AFP have reported today: "Egypt thwarts smugglers seeking mummy millions".

Three people have been arrested for "trying to sell intricately painted Pharaonic-era mummies for more than five million dollars". The four mummies and other items ("10 small statues and a Pharaonic sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphs") were apparently looted from a site near Minya.

The pieces were due to be sold for "20 million Egyptian pounds (5.3 million dollars)". To put this into perspective, this is more than the average annual sale of Egyptian antiquities at Sotheby's, New York.

So who were the buyers? I would guess a dealer.

And who would be the end purchaser? A (very) wealthy private collector? An institution?

It looks like the market in Egyptian antiquities is far from dead - and the destruction of archaeological contexts continues.

The Koreschnica Krater: More on the Tomb

Looting in the Republic of Macedonia has been a serious problem. One of the tombs ransacked during the 1990s was at Koreschnica, north-west of Demir Kapija on the north side of the Vardar. I have now been sent details of the tomb said to contain 'the Koreschnica krater' (and I reproduce the plan of the tomb with the creator's permission).

Among the finds were three bronze warriors (no. 10) placed around the krater (no. 11) which contained cremated remains. The tomb also contained two shields and a number of Illyrian helmets.

Pasko Kuzman, head of the National Directorate for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Republic of Macedonia, would like the archaic krater (and the other contents) to be returned. Can any of the finds be identified in private or public collections?

Museums and Professional Responsibilities

The discussion about returning antiquities raises the role of museums in our cosmopolitan world. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in North America has as its mission:
The purpose of the Association of Art Museum Directors is to support its members in increasing the contribution of art museums to society. The AAMD accomplishes this mission by establishing and maintaining the highest standards of professional practice; serving as forum for the exchange of information and ideas; acting as an advocate for its member art museums; and being a leader in shaping public discourse about the arts community and the role of art in society.Antiquities are covered by part of the Code of Ethics:
A museum director should not knowingly acquire or allow to be recommended for acquisition any object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties or international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported in the United States.

AAMD members who vio…

Cleveland: the Italian List?

There has been talk this week of the allegedly confidential list of antiquities that Italy would like to see returned from Cleveland. Rebecca Meiser reported:
"It's supposed to be a confidential document," says spokesman James Kopniske. "I don't even know what's on it."Information on the Cleveland material started to appear with the list of South Italian pottery published by Suzan Mazur in October 2006:
A Lucanian calyx-krater, attributed to the Policoro painter (1991.1). Alleged to have been sold by Robert Hecht; formerly in the Hunt collection; sold 1990.A Paestan black-figured lekythos (1985.1). Allegedly acquired through Hecht. Appears to be listed in the Italian documentation (no. 82): "Lekythos attica a figure nere, oggi al Museo di Cleveland".A Campanian red-figured acorn lekythos (1986.204). Gift of Jonathan Rosen.An Apulian volute-krater, attributed to the Darius painter (1988.41).An Apulian bell-krater, attributed to the Choregos pain…

A Porphyry Tyche from the Borowski Collection

Christie's has announced one of the highlights for its June 2008 auction ("Rare Roman Statue is Extraordinary Highlight of Christie's Antiquities Spring Sale"). The "Ancient Art" department will be offering "an exquisite Roman statue of the goddess Tyche".

The piece first surfaced in 1967 and has been on loan to the Liebieghaus, Frankfurt, (1980-1986), and later at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (1986-1991).

G. Max Bernheimer, International Department Head for Antiquities, raves about it:
This is the most spectacular and beautiful sculpture that I have ever had the pleasure to work with ... The fact that it’s still in impeccable condition, makes it all the more exceptional.So why comment? After all, the piece surfaced before 1970.

The reason is that the "statue was formerly in the private collection of Dr. Elie Borowski, collector and connoisseur of ancient art".

What the text fails to mention is that Borowski was also a dealer. His name …

The Cleveland Apollo: Further Comments

Michael Bennett of the Cleveland Museum of Art has talked about the acquisition of the Cleveland Apollo (Rebecca Meiser, "An ancient Apollo statue landed in Cleveland and touched off an international outcry", Cleveland Scene, March 5, 2008).

Meiser repeats the "reported history" of the Apollo:
Hicham and Ali Aboutaam readily admitted to gaps in the Apollo's ownership record. From what they were able to determine, the statue was owned by a German family in the early 1900s. World War II forced them to flee, leaving their belongings behind.

In the 1990s, a surviving member returned to the family estate after the fall of East Germany. In the backyard lay a pile of debris. He could only make out the bronzed head of a young man, a sculpted hand, the outline of a lizard.

The man vaguely recalled seeing the statue in the garden as a child, but he knew nothing of its history. Believing the cost of repair would be greater than its value, he sold the statue to a Dutch dealer …

Collecting Antiquities and Enlightenment Principles

James Cuno has been raising some key issues about the acquisition of antiquities. I was struck by his reaction to the 1983 US Congress implementation of the 1970 UNESCO "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property".
These actions have been taken to enforce foreign nations' retentionist cultural policies at the expense of the Enlightenment principles on which public museums in the United States were established. [p. 144]Is it "enlightened" to reject the desire for countries to protect their cultural property and archaeological sites?

Is it "enlightened" to ignore the material consequences to the archaeological record?

Is it "enlightened" to fail to see the intellectual consequences of acquiring newly surfaced antiquities that have no recorded find-spots?

This is not just about acquisition but also the safeguarding of a finite archaeological resource.

Does it matte…

Portable Antiquities Scheme: "to Preserve and Invest"?

In January I noted the possible funding cuts for the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme. At the time Current Archaeology reported:
Funding comes from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport via the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The MLA’s funding is being reduced by more than 25%, and in consequence PAS funding has been frozen at the £1.3 million level, an effective cut allowing for inflation (it needs £1.49 million to maintain current activity).A petition to Number 10 that attracted just over 2000 "signatures" called for:
... the Prime Minister to Preserve and Invest in the Portable Antiquities Scheme.A response has been posted today:
The Portable Antiquities Scheme is widely regarded as a success in encouraging people to voluntarily report finds of archaeological interest. In the 10 years since its inception the Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded more than 317,000 archaeological finds on its online database (, the largest online dat…

Shelby White: Greek Bronze Vessels

Shelby White likes to present herself not just as a collector but as "a guardian" of antiquity. I have been using the beautifully produced catalogue of Greek bronze vessels from the collection of Shelby White & Leon Levy (2005). One of the pieces was first published in 1955; others surfaced more recently (but all after 1970); three appear here for the first time.

There are ten entries (and some of the pieces have appeared in the exhibition "Glories of the Past" (1990); the full bibliography for each piece is not provided here).
Four pyxides and an oinochoe. "Perhaps North-Eastern Greek, late 8th-7th centuries BC". Previous publication: Glories no. 80 (part).Griffin protome. "From Olympia, perhaps near the River Alpheios (according to Jantzen)". Previous collections: von Streit (Athens); J. Scharpf (Münchenstein); M. Schuster (Lausanne). Previous publication: Glories no. 81; first published in 1955.Seated lion. "Laconian, early sixth cen…