Friday 27 February 2009

"Affording immense spoil"

The discussion about the two bronze heads from the Summer Palace has made me turn to The Times for contemporary reports. Among them is the telegraphic message (December 10, 1860):
The Emperor's summer palace taken and sacked, affording immense spoil.

Thursday 26 February 2009

YSL and Chinese Antiquities: Update

Today has been a busy day with interviews for the BBC World Service (World Update with Dan Damon) and BBC Radio 4 (World Tonight with Robin Lustig). Both have meant separate trips to the BBC Swansea studios in Alexandra Road (where Dylan Thomas once made his broadcasts). The topic has been the bronze hare and rabbit heads sold at the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale at Christie's Paris yesterday (for over US $40 million). Both pieces had been removed somewhat violently from the Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. China had requested their return and Bergé had offered a negotiated deal if China reformed its attitude towards human rights.

As we went live at 10.20 am GMT it became clear that China was going to place restrictions on Christie's operations. This has now been clarified by a further report on Bloomberg: "China Slaps Controls on Christie’s After Bronzes Sale (Update3)" (February 26, 2009; 7.35 EST).
China said it will tighten control on the activities of Christie’s International, hours after the auction house sold a pair of Qing Dynasty bronzes in Paris for 31.4 million euros ($40 million), ignoring calls to return them.

London-based Christie’s must give details of the ownership and provenance of any artifacts it wants to bring into or out of China, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said today in a statement on its Web site. Antiques that are without papers won’t be allowed to enter or leave.

Would it best for these bronze heads to be displayed together in China as their Italian creator originally intended? The French courts may feel that there is no legal case to answer, but the moral cause is compelling. We wait to see what the new owner(s) of the heads will do with them.

Tomorrow's (February 27, 2009) Times (London) has a leader on the story, and notes the link between the sack and the death of one of its reporters. It is unsympathetic: "A rich and proud China should have seized its chance to raise its arm and bid for the sculptures like anyone else."

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Evidence and legal patience: seeking clarification

Peter Tompa (Washington lobbyist and coin collector) has been pressing me --- "anxiously" --- to comment on the acquisition of a dekadrachm by a national numismatic museum. The prompt was certainly an interesting one and it brought me directly to a letter signed by Tompa (and posted on the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) website). The communication, sent from Dillingham & Murphy LLP, was addressed to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (February 1, 2007) and related to the 'Request for Import Restrictions on Coins at the Behest of the Republic of Cyprus'.

In the letter Tompa comments on the movement of ancient coins and specifically those minted on Cyprus. In note 10 he observes that Athenian dekadrachms are not found in Greece. He then slips in an allegation about a recently acquired dekadrachm "which is thought to have been found in Turkey". Unlike the rest of the material in his letter such a comment is unsupported.

Who "thought" that this coin was found in Turkey? What are Tompa's documented sources for his information? What is his due diligence process? Does he know which (coin) dealers handled the dekadrachm? Will he confirm that that the dealer(s) is / are not linked in any way with the FOIA request relating to coins from Cyprus?

Such questions need to be asked because Tompa's "postings" sometimes need to be seen in context.

Tompa urges me to make an instant comment.

But it made me stop and think: Tompa and I have something in common. We both value empirical evidence.

So what is the basis of his allegation?

Monday 23 February 2009

Shelby White and Greece: Coverage

The return of two pieces from the Shelby White collection to Greece in the autumn of 2008. The video has been posted by the Liapis web-team.

Iraq Museum Reopens

The BBC has a set of images covering today's reopening of the Iraq's National Museum (Monday February 23, 2009).

Friday 20 February 2009

"Some activist archaeologists ... [are] too left wing in their approach"

I have commented before on the naive assumption that those who wish to preserve the archaeological heritage can be described as "socialists" ("Always a background of quasi-socialist sentiment"). Now Wayne Sayles has commented on the issue (quoted in Richard Giedroyc, "Cultural Patrimony Policy Still a Concern", World Coin News February 18, 2009).
Wayne Sayles, spokesman for the ACCG, told those attending the Jan. 10 meeting [of the New York International Numismatic Convention] that he is against the looting of archaeological sites, but feels the views of some activist archaeologists on how to protect the sites are too severe and too left wing in their approach.

What is his solution?

The article shows how far some coin collectors misunderstand the issues.
what do you do when a country demands the return of coins found buried within their borders but struck elsewhere (as in the case of the Decadrachm Hoard)
Are they saying that it is acceptable to loot an archaeological site in Turkey because the coins found in the hoard were not minted within the territory of the modern state of Turkey?

And if we extend the logic,would it be fine to pillage Athenian red-figured sympotic pottery from Etruscan tombs because the pieces were made in Greece not within the confines of the modern Republic of Italy?

Thursday 19 February 2009

"Nighthawking" Survey: some corrections and clarification

The recently published "Nighthawking" survey has been attracting some comment and defence. (We should note that the client was English Heritage not the Portable Antiquities Scheme.)

It is interesting to read the section on Icklingham where the bronzes acquired by a New York collector - and defended by James Cuno - were apparently found. The "Nighthawking" report comments (6.3.2):
In 1989 the farmer began an 18 month long campaign to recover objects which did not receive official support from the UK authorities (Rescue News 53 1991). The outcome of the eventual court case will result in some artefacts eventually being given to the British Museum. Although suspects for the original theft were identified, the strength of the evidence was not felt sufficient for a prosecution to proceed.
As far as I know there was no "court case" or "course action" (9.9.4) but rather a legal out-of-court agreement.

The report also seems to have been weak when it comes to the international dimension of the illicit market. Take the section on Italy (9.9.4):
the Italian courts are currently prosecuting a number of dealers and museum officials following a complex investigation.
So who are all these dealers (plural) and museum officials (plural)? Or is this a reference to the Hecht-True case in Rome? A little more precision would have been helpful.

Some have been trying to play down ("getting the message across") the scale of the problem. Yet I read in the report comments from Norfolk County Council (in East Anglia) (9.10.3):
We are concerned that the nighthawking survey may not be able to assess fully and accurately the scale of the issue due to a lack of evidence. In Norfolk we suspect is that the problem is one of considerable dimensions with the (very few) prosecutions being merely the tip of an iceberg. We currently identify over 20,000 metal objects per annum in the county, which we estimate is only a proportion of the total recovered, leading to a concomitant unknown loss of knowledge. That said, we do not know how much of this additional knowledge is lost as a result of the deliberate non-reporting of finds, or how much of this information we might be able to capture if we had more resources to undertake outreach to metal-detectorists and farmers with whom we currently have no contact.

The lack of clarity is clear in the concluding sections, e.g. 10.1.2:
The results of the Nighthawking Survey show that in England on Scheduled Monuments, the level of Nighthawking is decreasing. ... It is likely that this figure is an underestimation of the problem, as was the original figure from the 1995 survey. ... Despite a national decrease in reported incidences, there is evidence to suggest that in some areas the incidence of Nighthawking is increasing on Scheduled sites, with some of these areas also showing a large number of non-designated sites also affected.
In other words: data would suggest that "Nighthawking" is decreasing ... and increasing.

And before anyone tries to play down the impact of "Nighthawking" think about this comment (10.1.4):
In the case of unscheduled sites it is not possible to assess whether the level of Nighthawking is increasing or decreasing as this survey is the first to collect information about such sites.

"To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue"

Keith Miller, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, has commented on the response by some to the "Nighthawking" survey: "To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue" (Mark Foster, "Detectors angry at 'Nighthawk' slur", The Northern Echo February 17, 2009). Such a comment seems at odds with the response from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) (Richard Moss, "Portable Antiquities Scheme moves to allay fears over nighthawking", Culture 24 February 18, 2008). Roger Bland of the PAS is quoted:
The number of scheduled monuments that have been attacked and the number of archaeological units that have been reported where excavations have been attacked by nighthawking has declined, and we’re keen to get that message across.
One of the issues to be emerging from the report is the under-reporting of looting from archaeological sites in the UK.

And if anyone is in any doubt about the issue they should consider the fields of John Browning at Icklingham, Suffolk.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

From Germany to Iraq

Rolf Kleine, reporting from Baghdad, has written about the arrival of a German delegation including the President of Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Professor Hermann Parzinger ("Was will der Außenminister im Irak?", February 17, 2009). He is returning an object seized by police in Germany in 2005: an axe inscribed, "The divine Schulgi, the strong man, the king of Ur, king of Sumer and the Akkadians".

The piece apparently surfaced at TEFAF in Maastricht (see background).

Monday 16 February 2009

Fresco from Boscoreale recovered in London

The Italian Carabinieri have issued a press statement relating to the recovery of a Roman fresco in London (see also "Stolen Roman fresco recovered in London", ANSA February 13, 2009). It appears to come from a villa at Boscoreale near Naples.

The fresco, showing the god Dionysos, was identified in an unspecified London gallery on October 29, 2008 and then handed over at the Italian Embassy in London on December 23, 2008.

From an illicit hobby to a semi-professional criminal industry

The "nighthawking" survey is out today. One news report has already covered the story with a depiction of how archaeological sites in England are being pillaged (Maev Kennedy and Sam Jones, "Treasure raiders scooping up UK heritage", The Guardian February 16, 2009). The issue shows "that what was once an illicit hobby has mushroomed into a semi-professional criminal industry. According to police, thieves have formed loosely connected networks to trade information, often in online forums, about new and vulnerable sites."

Other reports:

Saturday 14 February 2009

The corruption is long-lasting

Cambridge colleagues and I have been discussing the likely impact of the Robin Symes - Christos Michaelides archive of photographs found on the Greek island of Schinousa in 2006. In the last two to three years we have seen the fallout from the Medici "archive" seized in the Geneva Freeport. But which pieces will be identified from this Symes-Michaelides record?

My co-researcher Christopher Chippindale observed:
the corruption through looted objects is so deep and wide and long-lasting that even people of good character who bought things decades ago may inadvertently have acquired illicit stuff.

How can such material be avoided?

Museums and private individuals need to have a rigorous due diligence process. Was the object known, i.e. documented, prior to 1970? How reliable is the information?

The acquisition of antiquities requires more than "good faith" or a reliance on "good title".

Coins, a metal-detector and Halkidiki

A pet-shop owner from Halkidiki in northern Greece has been arrested ("Greek man arrested with stash of antiquities", AP, February 13, 2009). Giorgos Tassiopoulos, the anti-crime squad director in Halkidiki, said that 1500 silver and bronze coins had been recovered from the man's home in the village of Nea Moudania (close to the ancient city of Olynthos); another 680 antiquities, including pots, lamps, terracotta figures and jewellery, were also found.

The police search also recovered a .22 handgun, and (according to the Athens News Agency, February 13, 2009) a metal-detector.

Friday 13 February 2009

Zahi Hawass on the Web

Zahi Hawass has a new website. This includes material relating to objects such as the Ka-nefer-nefer mask in the St Louis Art Museum ("Dr. Hawass Calls for Return of Stolen Artifact") and comments on the head of Nefertiti in Berlin ("Cairo Demands Clarification on Nefertiti Bust - Spiegel").

Lydian Hoard Conviction

In July 2006 ten individuals, including the director of the Usak Museum Kazim Akbiyikoglu, were charged "with embezzlement and artifact smuggling in a case involving the theft of a piece of the famed Lydian Hoard at the Usak Museum" ("10 charged in missing brooch case", Turkish Daily News July 14, 2006). The tragedy of the case was that this formed part of the hoard that had been returned from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It has been reported today that the 10 have been jailed ("Turkey jails 10 for stealing ancient treasures", Hurriyet January 13, 2009).
A coin and a gold brooch in the shape of a winged sea horse were taken from a museum displaying possessions of the wealthy king of Lydia who ruled in the 6th century B.C. ...

A court in the western city of Usak says museum director Kazim Akbiyiklioglu was imprisoned on Friday for nearly 13 years for theft and embezzlement. Nine others received lesser prison terms.

The treasures were replaced by fakes in 2006 and the original pieces have not been recovered.

The pieces were among items smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s and returned to the country only in 1993.

Thursday 12 February 2009

YSL and China

I have commented about next week's sale of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection at Christie's (Paris) next week. Dave Itzkoff, writing for the New York Times, reports that China has called for the return of two pieces ("China Asks for Return of Relics in Laurent’s Collection", New York Times, February 12, 2009). This repeats a story carried initially on Bloomberg (Eugene Tang and Dune Lawrence, "China Urges Return of Saint Laurent Sale Bronzes", February 12, 2009).
The two animal-heads -- a rabbit and a rat -- were severed from a water fountain at Beijing’s imperial Summer Palace when British and French troops plundered and burned the palace in October 1860.
The pieces are lots 677 and 678.

Christie's have also issued a statement (covered by Bloomberg):
The auction house said last month that “each and every item” in the Berge Collection has a clear legal title. Today’s statement from Christie’s reiterates that, saying the objects, “including the fountainheads, have a clear and extensive history of ownership.” Proceeds from the sale will help set up a foundation for AIDS research.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

YSL and Antiquities

Christie's will be auctioning the Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé at the Grand Palais, Paris next week (23-25 February 2009). There are 14 lots of 'Ancient Art and Antiquities', mostly classical marble sculpture with two Attic kraters and two Egyptian pieces.

The stated sources are:
  • Galerie Akko van Acker, Paris: lot 695, marble Minotaur (1985; formerly French private collection 1970).
  • Galerie Krimitsas, Paris: lot 679, torso of Narcissus (around 1980); lot 681, Attic bell-krater (around 1970-1980; formerly Woodyat Collection, 1912); lot 682, head of Dionysos (around 1980); lot 688, Attic bell-krater (around 1970-1980); lot 690, head of Diomedes (around 1980); lot 691, Egyptian anthropoid wooden coffin (1975); lot 693, Attic black-glossed hydria (1970)
  • Galerie Marc Lagrand, Paris: lot 680, torso of athlete (1970-1980).
  • Galerie Simone de Monbrison, Paris: lot 694, torso of Mercury (around 1975).
  • Not stated: lot 687, torso of athlete (between 1970 and 1980); lot 689, Roman marble column (1970-1980); lot 692, Egyptian bronze of Mahes (between 1970 and 1980); lot 696, torso of athlete (between 1970 and 1980)
Two pieces have estimates of €300,000 - €500,000 (lots 680 and 695). Only one piece has a recorded history prior to 1970 (lot 681).

Saturday 7 February 2009

Bonhams: "The market for Classical and Egyptian antiquities is thriving"

I was interested to read the press release announcing the sales of antiquities at Bonhams for 2009. It started: "Following a series of strong sales, 2008 saw Bonhams’ Antiquities department established as the market leaders for UK sales of ancient art."

Yet 2008 could also be seen as a singularly unfortunate year for the antiquities department at Bonhams. The sale of the Graham Geddes collection was a PR disaster: intervention by the Italian Government, lots withdrawn, objects left unsold. And to cap it all the sale had been showcased in the Bonhams magazine (even to the point of featuring on the cover).

The sale raised some key issues about the way that the antiquities department had been operating. This new press release talks about "interesting and long-established provenance" for objects. Certainly the "provenance" of objects that had passed through a certain London auction house was not only "interesting" but also highly significant: but the staff at Bonhams seem to have missed the signs.

Have Bonhams adopted a more rigorous "due diligence" process? What action has been taken by Bonhams management team? Have they put in place new procedures to avoid a repeat of 2008?

We wait to see the latest catalogue.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Ny Carlsberg: failure to co-operate leads to intervention of ambassador

A diplomatic row is brewing between Denmark and Italy ("Ambassador mediates in a case of stolen artefacts", The Copenhagen Post February 3, 2009). Denmark's ambassador to Italy has been drawn into the dispute relating to antiquities acquired by the Ny Carlsberg (see earlier story).

Presumably the negotiations initiated by Italy in January 2007 had not been making progress. The Post notes, "for more than two years the museum and the Danish culture ministry gave various reasons for not co-operating in the investigation". But the pressure has been stepping up:

In December 2008, the Italians presented a list of 100 artefacts that they believed were acquired illegally and wanted returned. The Glyptoteket management refused to oblige, stating that many of the objects on the list were purchased legally after the former administrators, who are suspected of purchasing the alleged illegal artefacts, left their positions at the museum.
The paper also notes, "Many of the illegal artefacts purchased by Glyptoteket during the 1970s were from art dealers Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici."
The Ny Carlsberg has been asserting that Italy has no legal claim. But perhaps its curatorial staff should consider more important questions. Did the museum acquire objects that were unknown prior to 1970? Were these acquisitions ethical?

So what could the museum do to move ahead? Why not publish the list of the 100 objects along with their collecting histories?

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Nostoi in Athens

I noticed that the webteam for Mihalis Liapis, the former Hellenic Minister of Culture, has posted a news clip about the Nostoi exhibition in the New Acropolis Museum. You get glimpses of the returned fragment of the Parthenon frieze from Palermo as well a shot of the reverse side of the Sarpedon krater.

Monday 2 February 2009

The Making of the New Acropolis Museum

We look forward to the opening of the New Acropolis Museum this spring. A video, celebrating the construction of the museum and the transfer of sculptures to it, is available on the official website.

I provide a link here to the same video on You Tube.

The Stern Collection in New York: Cycladic or Cycladicising?

Courtesy of Christos Tsirogiannis There appears to be excitement about the display of 161 Cycladicising objects at New York's Metropolit...