Friday 27 March 2009

Earth Hour

Those of us who are concerned about conserving the archaeological record will also want our bit to help the environment. Remember to switch off the lights for one hour at 8.30pm on March 28.

More details on the Earth Hour website.

"The perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods"

James Cuno provides details of the purpose of his new edited book, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (Princeton University Press, 2009) [website].
It is the purpose of this book to challenge the perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods and to argue instead that our public museums build their antiquities collections responsibly and for the public’s benefit.
Later in his introduction he acknowledges:
... some high-profile museums—the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; among others—have negotiated for the return of dozens of antiquities to Italy ...
This issue may be addressed in detail by the contributors to this volume:
  • To Shape the Citizens of "That Great City, the World" by Neil MacGregor
  • "And What Do You Propose Should Be Done with Those Objects?" by Philippe de Montebello
  • Whose Culture Is It? by Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • Antiquities and the Importance--and Limitations--of Archaeological Contexts by James C. Y. Watt
  • Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums by Sir John Boardman
  • Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets by David I. Owen
  • Exhibiting Indigenous Heritage in the Age of Cultural Property by Michael F. Brown
  • Heritage and National Treasures by Derek Gillman
  • The Nation and the Object by John Henry Merryman
But it is worth remembering that well over 100 items - not "dozens" - of antiquities have been returned to Italy from North American collections. [See my earlier overview of these returns.]

How could so many high-profile museums have placed themselves in this position? I look forward to reading the full justification in this volume ... but I suspect it will not be there.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Mostra: L'arma per l'arte

My colleague Jo Berry has drawn my attention to the exhibition of seizures made by the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (Exhibitions: L'arma per L'arte, Blogging Pompeii). She writes:
In Naples, the exhibition is entitled 'Archeologia che torna' and will take place in the Palazzo Reale from 8th May until 30th September. As well as stolen archaeological finds it will feature objects from clandestine excavations. A large number are southern Italian or Etruscan in origin, their dates range from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. Objects from Pompeii will include the fresco of a 'female figure' stolen from the House of Fabius Rufus around 1975 and recovered in 2008 and the double bronze herm (faun and Satyr) stolen in 1988 and recovered just a few months later.

Further information:

The Promise of Museums

I am looking forward to reading James Cuno's new edited volume Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (Princeton University Press, 2009) [website].

Cuno's "Introduction" is available as a download and it starts with a reflection on the three elements of the title. Here is the second:
The Promise of Museums. As a repository of objects, dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.
Are we going to see museum directors also making the following promises?
  • They will not acquire antiquities that do not have collecting histories prior to 1970.
  • They will not accept recently-surfaced antiquities as short- or long term loans.
  • They and their curatorial teams will respond positively and co-operatively to enquiries about objects in their collections.
  • They will respond positively and co-operatively to requests by foreign governments when the ownership of antiquities is disputed.
  • They will seek to inform themselves about the destructive forces of looting.
  • They will condemn the looting of archaeological sites.
Some museum directors and their teams, of course, can already respond positively to such promises.

Cuno has not had time to respond to the numerous criticisms of Who Owns Antiquity? For my response see the review article in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Raid on a private collection in Taranto

A private collection in Taranto in southern Italy has been raided by Italian police ("Piccolo museo in case professionista Taranto" / "Man had home antiquities 'museum'", ANSA March 24, 2009). The owner is described as 'a wealthy professional'; the collection was displayed in his living room.

The collection consisted of around 170 antiquities and are "believed to have been bought from southern Italian tomb raiders". Colonel Giovanni Monaco of Taranto's Guardia di Finanza is quoted: "One of the two kraters and five small amphorae are of Greek provenance while the other pieces were made in Magna Graecia". The Italian news report suggests that the objects consist of Apulian and Lucanian material; the pieces were apparently found through illicit excavations ("scavi clandestini") in Daunia and Vulture melfese. The find came as a result as a tip-off and is reported to relate to a tax investigation.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Bonhams: Greek Bronze Situla

One of the pieces that caught my eye in the April sale at Bonhams was lot 11: A large Greek bronze situla, circa 4th Century B.C. The estimate is £4,000 - £ 6,000.

The cited parallel is "Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, exhibition catalogue 1978, no. 332." This piece was found in a tomb at Kalamaria, a suburb of Thessaloniki.

This would suggest that the piece on offer at Bonhams could have been found in Macedonia. The situla appears to be complete and is likely to have been recovered from a tomb.

When was it found? Where has it been residing?

Why is there no collecting history provided for this situla?

What sort of checks have been made?

Greece and Italy: co-operation over cultural property

In July 2008 Greece and Italy signed up to co-operate over cultural property (see original story). One of the most visible outcomes was the display of the Nostoi exhibition at the New Acropolis Museum.

I noticed an interesting story on ANSA ("Greece returns looted frescoes", March 23, 2009).
Greece on Monday returned to Italy two medieval frescoes looted from a tomb near Naples in 1982. ...
They originally adorned the walls of one of the famous tufa chambers called Fornelle at Calvi south of Monte Cassino ...

The particularly ornate chamber - many of whose frescoes are still missing - is believed to have been the tomb of 11th-century Count Pandolfo and his wife Countess Gualferada.

Handing over the frescoes, Greek Culture Minister Antoni Samaras said the event marked "another important stage in collaboration with our Italian friends and partners in the fight against art theft".
Where were these pieces found?
The frescoes of two saints were recovered by Greek antiquities police in a raid on Greek art traffickers on the Aegean island of Schinoussa in 2006.
I am aware of a raid on that island in 2006 (see earlier comments and short report in the New York Times). What else will be emerging?

Monday 23 March 2009

Bonhams: Partial Histories

Bonhams has released details of its April sale of antiquities [April 29, 2009: catalogue]. There seems to be a curious lack of history for some of the pieces. Take lot 17: An Attic red-figure bell krater, "Attributed to the Painter of Montesarchio T.121, circa 4th Century B.C."

The krater originally surfaced at Sotheby's London, May 31st, 1990, lot 376. The entry then tells us that it was "On loan to the Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, March 1995 - April 2008." (For a list of other significant pieces displayed at this location.)

However there is no mention that the piece was once owned by Graham Geddes and that it had been left unsold in the Bonhams sale of 15 October 2008, lot 8 [see earlier comment on this sale].

The krater had an original estimate of £10,000 - £15,000. Yet five months later the estimate stands at £5,000 - £7,000.

The key issue for this krater is the identity of the person(s) who consigned it to the Sotheby's sale in 1990.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Marion True takes the stand

Elisabetta Povoledo ("Getty Ex-Curator Testifies in Rome Antiquities Trial", New York Times March 20,2009) has reported on the latest proceedings of the trial of Marion True in Rome.

True said:
If ever there was an indication of proof of an object coming from a certain place... we would deaccession it and return the object, regardless of the statute of limitations ... And we have shown that we would.
Certainly the series of returns to Italy from the J. Paul Getty Museum suggest that recently-surfaced antiquities had been acquired, including objects from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. (See earlier comments.)

Povoledo notes:
The defense plans an object-by-object rebuttal of the prosecution’s case for each of the 35 artifacts that Ms. True approved for acquisition and that the Italians say were looted.
This can only shed further light on the network of dealers and agents handling the objects as they passed through the market on their way to their public display in California.

Friday 20 March 2009

New Acropolis Museum

The New Acropolis Museum is now due to open on June 20, 2009. The project will have cost some 129 million Euros (see IHT).

Further details are available from Bernard Tschumi, the architects responsible for the building.

Renewed calls for the return of the Parthenon sculptures can be expected.

© David Gill, 2008.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Toxic Antiquities

The global financial crisis has been making us think of the problems of "toxic assets". In the wake of the return of antiquities to Italy and Greece it is time to reflect on "toxic antiquities". The term is not intended to undermine the authenticity of the objects (see the discussion of the term "illicit antiquities"). Rather it should remind us that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of antiquities passed through the hands of tombaroli to be passed onto the market. So far just over one hundred pieces have gone back to Italy from North American collections --- and this is probably far less than 1% of what the Italian Government could request.

So where are the 99% of the antiquities that could be identified by Polaroid images seized in Geneva, Basel and Schinousa? Some are in public museums but others are likely to have passed into private collections or even "investment" portfolios which are waiting to be realised.

Imagine buying a marble sculpture for a $1 million or so - only to find that it features in one of the Polaroid archives.

Where are these "toxic antiquities" residing?

Wednesday 18 March 2009

"Found in a river": Tarentine coins for sale

Nomos AG of Zurich is offering a set of 4 silver diobols of Tarentum and a bronze lidded box in a Zurich sale (May 6, 2009; details). The sale is highlighted in a press release (July 25, 2008):
Nomos AG announces its first public auction of Fine Ancient and Early European Coins and Medals to be held on the afternoon of May 6th, 2009, in Zürich. The auction will take place at the Widder Hotel, a five star luxury facility in the center of town. Many major coins of great beauty and importance have already been consigned to the sale. The sale will be fully and expertly catalogued by Dr. Alan Walker, Director of Nomos AG, and will feature an elegant catalogue layout and design.
These Tarentine coins appears to be part of a group:
When found the box contained four diobols of Tarentum, all dating circa 280-228 (though probably in the earlier part of that period), and all with a helmeted head of Athena on their obverses and a standing figure of Herakles grappling with the Nemean Lion on their reverses.
The pieces formed part of the collection of Dr. Leo Mildenberg ("in 2000"). The catalogue entry suggests that the box surfaced in recent years:
According to the information that was supplied by Dr. Mildenberg, this box was found in a river and when the deposits that filled it were cleaned out, these four silver coins were found within it. This is by no means improbable: the box itself is probably slightly earlier than the coins, but idea that it contained them seems perfectly reasonable. Its small size implies it was meant to be used to hold relatively precious items. Given the kind of people who still brought things to Dr. Mildenberg in his later years, and this was brought to him a year or two before he died, it is very unlikely that anyone would have thought it worth while to create a fictitious history for the object (especially since the coins themselves were then of relatively minor value). It was undoubtedly shown to him because it was the kind of curiosity everyone knew he enjoyed seeing. In any event, being able to have the actual container in which the present coins were found is both exciting and romantic.
Mildenberg died in 2001 and this piece appears to have been acquired by him "in 2000" ("a year or two before he died"). Curiosity would prompt questions about the finders and previous owners of this box and its contents. What sort of people "still brought things" to Mildenberg "in his later years"?

A Lucanian nestoris sold by Mildenberg (see earlier discussion) was among the objects returned to Italy by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [abstract].

The box is also worthy of comment. The cataloguer (presumably Dr Alan S. Walker [for his views on cultural property see his revealing and frank review available from the web pages of the Committee on Ways and Means]) draws a parallel with a bronze "Box with relief-decorated lid" that once formed part of the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection (A Passion for Antiquities no. 29) and now in the J. Paul Getty Museum (inv. 96.AC.87). (No previous publication, history or find-spot were noted for the Fleischman box.)

The coin cataloguer adds:
The box is so close in form to the Fleischman example, now Getty 96.AC 87 (dated to 350-310 BC), that one wonders whether it could have been made in the same atelier. While its cataloguers pointed out its resemblance to the cinerary urns used in Macedonian tombs (especially that of Philip II), the fact that this one surely came from Magna Graecia makes one wonder whether the Fleischman piece came from there as well.
Magna Graecia is another way of saying that this box with four silver coins minted at Tarentum came from southern Italy.

And if it was found in Italy, what was the date of its discovery? How and when did it leave the country?

(The cataloguer should, perhaps, note that the gold larnax from Tomb II at Vergina is unlikely to have belonged to Philip II given the implications of the weight inscriptions on the silver plate. [Abstract])

I am grateful to Nathan Elkins for drawing my attention to this lot.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

"The result of a traumatic action": Hecht and Copenhagen

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen appears to have made several acquisitions from Robert Hecht over the years (see earlier discussions). Elisabetta Povoledo ("Danish Museum Resists Return of Disputed Artifacts", New York Times March 17, 2009) reports on the continuing negotiations.

So what are the issues?
  • a. Did the Ny Carlsberg acquire objects from Hecht?
  • b. What were the recorded and documented histories for the pieces?
  • c. Were the pieces known for certain prior to 1970?
Povoledo records that in the February hearing in Rome,
correspondence from the early 1970s between him [sc. Hecht] and former Glyptotek officials regarding the sale of dozens of objects to the museum — including an Etruscan calesse, or two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, excavated near Fara in Sabina, just north of Rome — was presented as evidence against him.
The tomb in the Colle del Forno necropolis had apparently been looted by tombaroli prior to its excavation in 1970. Material from the grave allegedly passed to the Ny Carlsberg. Daniela Rizzo commented:
They were visibly the result of a traumatic action ... It would have been impossible not to know that it had been illegally excavated. Archaeologists can read between the lines.

Hecht now claims that he firs saw the objects in Switzerland. Can he remember where? Who had them in their possession at the time?

The Italian prosecutor, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, is now reported to be preparing a legal case against staff at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

The list of items said to have been acquired from Hecht and Giacomo Medici include:
  • an acroterion of a winged sphinx
  • an Etruscan terra cotta antefix ("similar to one returned by the Getty last year"; see report)
  • terra cotta reliefs of warriors on horseback.
The curatorial authorities at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek now need to demonstrate that they are willing to resolve the situation. Will they publish the documentation relating to each of the contested pieces?

A mature decision would lead to the negotiation for the return of a selection of the disputed pieces. Procrastination will only tarnish the reputation of the museum.

Friday 13 March 2009

New interview with James Cuno

James Cuno continues to air his controversial ideas with an interview with Janet Raloff for Science News ("Treaty on antiquities hinders access for museums", March 28, 2009, vol. 175, 7, p. 32). In spite of serious criticisms from a series of reviewers (see list) - see Roger Bland, Lord Renfrew, Peter Stone and me - Cuno does not seem to adapt his position.

Take, for example, his response to this question:
The [UNESCO] treaty seeks to keep wealthy nations from raiding the cultural history of poorer ones in the name of science. What’s wrong with that argument?
It perpetuates this false view or sentiment that things are appreciated better if they are encountered where they were made. But sometimes things are better appreciated if they can be compared and contrasted with similar artifacts from other cultures and geographic regions. Which argues for some sharing.
Would he argue that it was better to display the Sarpedon (Euphronios) krater in New York than in an archaeological museum in Tuscany surrounded by finds from the same Etruscan tomb? The krater could be better appreciated now if it had not been ripped from its ancient setting.

Or how about the series of Apulian pots attributed to the Darius painter that have been returned to Italy from North American collections? What other objects came from the rifled tombs?

The acquisition of recently-surfaced antiquities by museums has encouraged the continued looting of archaeological sites.

Looking ahead to new laws in Egypt

Egypt will be revising its laws relating to antiquities (see Nevine El-Aref, "Hands off, and we mean it", Al-Ahram Weekly 938 (12-18 March 2009)). Among the proposals is a change to the ownership of antiquities:
The second article to be repealed is the section of the law allowing possession of antiquities. A year after the approval of the law, all owners of Egyptian antiquities must hand over all objects to the SCA, which in its turn will install them in their archaeological storehouses.
The penalties will also be increased:
A smuggler who was sentenced to 15 years and fined LE50,000 would now be sentenced to life imprisonment and fined from LE100,000 to 500,000. Anyone who steals, hides, or collects authentic artefacts, or owns them without permission, will be imprisoned for 25 years and fined from LE50,000-250,000, instead of three years' hard labour and a LE100 fine. According to the new law, stealing or helping to rob a part of a genuine piece or intent deliberately to disfigure it will land a sentence of 15 years and a fine of from LE50,000-100,000.
There is also going to be a big change to Intellectual Property Rights (IP) (see earlier accounts from the BBC):
Sanctions would be placed for using photographs of archaeological sites or artefacts for commercial purposes without the permission of the SCA. Professional photography inside museums and archaeological sites will be completely prohibited unless permission has been given. Using photographs for educational purposes, by governmental authorities, for tourist attraction and for personal use will be free of charge; although the intellectual property on its own "logos" and trademarks will remain with the authority.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Looking Back: Dionysos returned to Turkey

I have been reviewing the case of a 2nd century BCE statue of Dionysos returned to Turkey in 2002 ("Dionysos statue to return to Turkey", Turkish Daily News October 19, 2002). Dionysos had apparently "been seized in Switzerland and delivered to England on the condition of giving it back to the country from which it was stolen."

The statue seems to reappear in a case heard in the Court of Appeal, London. An individual, formerly residing near Littlehampton, had been convicted in 1996 for drug trafficking (see The Times April 27, 1996). He reappeared in court in 2007. Apparently "he is unable to pay the outstanding £1.9m because his "exceptional" 2,000-year-old statue of Dionysus had been seized as a stolen antiquity by the Turkish government." ("East Preston drug baron's fortune amazes neighbours", Littlehampton Gazette December 24, 2007.)

The statue appears in the Annual Report (2007/08) for the UK's Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office (RCPO) [press release July 18, 2008]:
The Asset Forfeiture Division brought about our first case of returning a national treasure to its country of origin when David Telli, a drug trafficker successfully prosecuted by RCPO was jailed for 22 years with a confiscation order of over £3 million. Part of the order - a stolen 2,000 year old statue of Dionysus was repatriated to Turkey.

The text of the report gives more detail:
In the case of Telli, the offender was sentenced to 22 years imprisonment for drug trafficking offences and a confiscation order was made for £3,458,806. David Telli asked the court to reduce the amount of the order against him. He pointed out that when the confiscation order was made, the court had taken into account a 2,000-year old statue of Dionysus in his possession. It later transpired that the statue was stolen and it was repatriated to Turkey accordingly. Telli argued that this development entitled him to a certificate of inadequacy. AFD opposed the application, pointing out that when the confiscation order was made, Telli had hidden some of his assets and arguing that, because he had done this, he could not now show that he was unable to pay the order. We were successful in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, and Telli remains liable to pay the full amount of the confiscation order.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Changing attitudes

I have been returning to some of the cases of antiquities returned to Turkey. This included a detailed interview with investigative journalist Özgen Acar (UNESCO Courier April 1, 2001). He was asked, "From your experience, what are the most effective ways to prevent smuggling?"

First of all, we have to change the buyer's attitude. Court cases won by Turkey have discouraged museums and collectors from buying smuggled works. They don't want the inconvenience of a court case, having their names in the newspapers and loosing money. The Met paid $1.7 million for their collection [sc. Lydian Treasure] and Koch $3.5 million for his [sc. "The Elmali Hoard" / "The Dekadrachm Hoard"]. They spent at least twice as much as this on legal expenses. Secondly, Turkey should make agreements with museums in the purchasing countries. "Don't buy smuggled works--I'll send you exhibitions on loan every three or four years." As a matter of fact, Turkey has sent as many as 35 exhibitions abroad in the last 15 years. The third step is to expose the smuggling mafia with their international connections, and put them out of business. [...] Several respected antiquity dealers in the U.S. lost confidence in their business partners when they realized that they were, in fact, dealing with smugglers.

The Italian Government has certainly been using the media to great effect in its successful campaign to reclaim antiquities that appear to have been looted in recent decades.

Friday 6 March 2009

Did 1983 make a difference to acquistions?

David W.J. Gill and Christopher Chippindale, "South Italian Pottery in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Acquired Since 1983", Journal of Field Archaeology 33, 4 (Winter 2008) 462-72. [Website]
See also: Christina Luke and Morag Kersel, "Archaeological Heritage and Ethics", 461-62.

The 2006 deaccessioning of antiquities from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for return to Italy drew attention to the networks that allowed objects to be sold on the market. This case study analyses thirteen South Italian pots (Apulian and Paestan) which were acquired by the MFA since the revised accessions policy of 1983. Only three appear to have documentation that shows that they were known prior to 1970, and another three formed part of the 2006 return. The remaining pots include associations with restorers and dealers who are known to have been linked to the trade in recently surfaced antiquities. This suggests that museums need to adopt more rigorous policies to ensure that they do not acquire antiquities that may have been removed illegally from archaeological sites.

Monday 2 March 2009

YSL and Chinese Antiquities: Buyer Revealed

The mystery buyer for the two bronze heads has been revealed (Robert J. Saiget, "Chinese bidder says will not pay for relics bought at Paris auction", AFP March 2, 2009).
Cai Mingchao, a well-known antique collector, identified himself as the mystery bidder in a statement released in Beijing by the National Treasures Fund, which is dedicated to retrieving Chinese relics from abroad.

"I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at this time... I am making an effort to fulfill my own responsibilities," Cai said.

"But I must stress that this money I cannot pay."

The BBC has (5.56 GMT) issued a report with a video clip of the interview ("China relics buyer refuses to pay").

See also BBC video showing the other heads.

Another Bubon bronze head likely to be repatriated

It appears that a bronze head acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum from Nicolas Koutoulakis has been removed from display and appears to be...