About the Author
Neil Brodie is Director of Cultural Heritage Resource, Stanford University Archaeology Center
In January, it was widely reported that antiquities dealer Ali Aboutaam (co-proprietor with his bother Hichaam of Phoenix Ancient Art) was detained in Bulgaria, awaiting extradition to Egypt in connection with an outstanding conviction. Phoenix Ancient Art clarified in a press release that in fact the Bulgarian authorities had rejected the Egyptian request and that Ali Aboutaam was home in Switzerland (PR Newswire “Phoenix Ancient Art clarifies misleading article regarding Ali Aboutaam from Thomson Reuters,” January 28). The press release further revealed that the conviction had been overturned on appeal in April 2008. Ali Aboutaam had not been present in Egypt during either the original trial or the appeal proceedings.
Association of Art Museum Directors’ Object Registry
In January, Portland Art Museum became the first institution to post details of an acquisition with incomplete provenance on the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) Object Registry. This web-based registry was created as part of the AAMD’s revised guidelines for museum acquisitions released on June 4, 2008. The relevant sections of the new guidelines are:
II E. Member museums normally should not acquire a work unless provenance research substantiates that the work was outside its probable country of modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. The museum should promptly publish acquisitions of archaeological materials and ancient art, in print or electronic form, including in these publications an image of the work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance, thus making this information readily available to all interested parties.
II F. The AAMD recognizes that even after the most extensive research, many works will lack a complete documented ownership history. In some instances, an informed judgment can indicate that the work was outside its probable country of modern discovery before 1970 or legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970, and therefore can be acquired. In other instances, the cumulative facts and circumstances resulting from provenance research, including, but not limited to, the independent exhibition and publication of the work, the length of time it has been on display and its recent ownership history, allow a museum to make an informed judgment to acquire the work, consistent with the statement of principles above.
In both instances, the museum must carefully balance the possible financial and reputational harm of taking such a step against the benefit of collecting, presenting and preserving the work in trust for the educational benefit of present and future generations.
The museum must prominently post on the AAMD website, to be established, an image and the information about the work as described in section E above, and all facts relevant to the decision to acquire it, including its known provenance.
Thus the Object Registry is intended to allow museums to notify the public and possible claimants about objects acquired after June 4, 2008 that do not have a complete post-1970 provenance, and that are acquired on the basis of an “informed judgment” after “extensive research.”
The Portland object is a relief Ganesha stele, acquired in September 2008 (2008.66), and said to be 11th century AD in date from the Bihar or Bengal region of India. The provenance details provided on the registry are: “Christie’s Rockefeller Center, Sale #2024, 16 September 2008, Lot 377. Sotheby’s New York, 23 March 2000, Lot 139.” These details are readily available in the relevant catalogues, and no further provenance-related information arising out of “extensive research” has been made public. When asked about its “informed judgment”, Portland justified the acquisition on the grounds that it would allow the people of Oregon exposure to Indian culture (M. Boehm, “Is Portland’s Hindu statue a looted antiquity?”, Culture Monster, Los Angeles Times, January 4).
That the first object to appear on the Object Registry is from Asia is not a surprise. It was easily predicted from the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Phillipe de Montebello Years.” Although artifacts from the Mediterranean area have been traded and collected for centuries, interest in archaeological and monumental “Asian Art” dates back only to the early-middle years of the 20th century, and the chances of acquiring something with a long provenance are slim. The posting does seem, however, to call into question the purpose of the registry. While the AAMD’s guidelines make clear that extensive research includes, but is not limited to, establishing “the independent exhibition and publication of the work, the length of time it has been on display and its recent ownership history,” it is not clear from Portland’s entry of two auction catalogue descriptions that this type of information has been gathered. It seems instead that placement on the registry has been used as a substitute for research, which is not the AAMD’s stated intention. If Portland has attempted to shirk the AAMD’s requirement for due diligence in this way, it sets a poor precedent.
Archaeological Institute of America statement “On the Attachment of Cultural Objects to Compensate Victims of Terrorism”
On February 6, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) issued a statement concerning attempts to seize cultural objects on loan from foreign countries in US institutions, and sell them in settlement of damage claims awarded in US courts against the countries the question. This action is conceivable because of a 1996 amendment to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows victims of terrorist acts to sue for damages countries that the US lists as state sponsors of terrorism. Under this act, two separate groups of victims have been awarded claims against Iran, and faced with the difficulty of locating Iranian assets in the US, they are now demanding that the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago should be forced to relinquish two collections of cuneiform tablets that it holds on loan from Iran. The tablets could then be sold and the proceeds awarded to the victims. (Attachment means in this context to obtain for purpose of sale to satisfy a judgment). The AIA argued that such a decision would be against the US public interest as it would deter foreign institutions from entering into exchange agreements with their US counterparts, and invite retaliatory action against US material abroad. The lawyer representing one of the groups has claimed that he would be able to sell the tablets directly to an interested museum (Associated Press, “Terror victims seeking Persian relics in court,” February 22).
In January, Canada returned several artifacts to Mali and Nigeria. They were seized in December 2000 from a man re-entering Canada from the United States. No charges were pressed (A. Humphreys, “Plundered artifacts returned, but problem continues,” National Post, February 18).
On January 14, the USA reached agreement with China under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act to place import restrictions on selected categories of cultural material (R. Kennedy, “Pact on Chinese treasures wins praise,” New York Times, January 17). The agreement covers archaeological artifacts from the Palaeolithic period through to the end of the Tang Dynasty (AD 907), and all pieces of monumental art more than 250 years old. The designated list of protected material is provided in the Federal Register (vol. 74, no. 11/Friday, January 16, 2009/Rules and Regulations).
China reacted strongly to the February 25 Christie’s Paris sale of the estate of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent and his former partner Pierre Bergé (D. Barboza, “China seeks to stop Paris sale of Bronzes,” New York Times, February 17). At issue were two Qing Dynasty bronze animal heads, which had decorated a water fountain at Yuanming Yuan before it was ransacked and destroyed by British and French troops in October 1860. Christie’s ignored protests lodged by China before the sale, arguing that the pieces had a well-documented provenance, and they were subsequently sold for $20 million each to a telephone bidder (S. Reyburn, “Saint Laurent Chinese Qing Bronzes fetch $40 million,” Bloomberg.com, February 25). In retaliation, China imposed increased administrative requirements on Christie’s Hong Kong. It was later revealed that the telephone bidder was Chinese citizen Cai Mingchao, who announced that he did not have the money to pay for the pieces (“China ‘patriot’ sabotages auction”, BBC News, March 2).
Qing treasures might have been at issue in Paris, but apparently not so much in Beijing. The New York Times reported on the struggles of Beijing resident Li Songtang to rescue what architectural fragments he can of historical Beijing , which is slowly being destroyed by rapid urban development (A. Jacobs, “Finding treasures in a city’s disappearing past,” January 19).
On January 14, the USA reached agreement with China under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act to place import restrictions on selected categories of cultural material (R. Kennedy, “Pact on Chinese treasures wins praise,” New York Times, January 17). The agreement covers archaeological artifacts from the Palaeolithic period through to the end of the Tang Dynasty (AD 907), and all pieces of monumental art more than 250 years old. The designated list of protected material is provided in the Federal Register (vol. 74, no. 11/Friday, January 16, 2009/Rules and Regulations, 2838-2844).
A raid in north Cyprus by Turkish Cypriot police recovered a manuscript Bible written in Syriac. Opinions are divided as to whether the manuscript is genuine or fake, and, if genuine, about its probable date. Its find spot is unknown. Nine people were arrested as part of the investigation (S. Ktisti and S. Bahceli, “‘Ancient’ Syriac Bible found in Cyprus,” Reuters, February 6).
In January, Egypt requested that Sweden return 212 artifacts taken out of Egypt by a Swedish collector Otto Smith in the 1920s. The artifacts are now in Ostergotlands Museum. (Associated Press, “Egypt asks Sweden to return artifacts,” January 20).
The Art Newspaper reported on possible damage caused to archaeological heritage in Gaza during the January fighting in the area. Gaza’s only museum, a privately-run antiquities museum, suffered damage to its doors and windows and many artifacts were destroyed. No assessment has yet been made of damage caused to archaeological sites in Gaza, and no damage has been reported on the Israeli side of the border (L.G. Feldinger, “First evidence of damage to Gaza’s cultural sites emerges,” Art Newspaper no. 199, February, 1, 4).
On February 13, Greek police announced that they had arrested a man in Nea Moudania, near Thessaloniki, for possession of illegally-excavated Greek antiquities and a Precolumbian ceramic figurine. The artifacts included more than 1,500 silver and coins, dating to between the 4th century BC and 3rd century AD, and a further 680 clay and bronze artifacts (Associated Press, “Greek man arrested with stash of antiquities,” February 13).
The Guardian ran an article in January reporting on the threat posed to Greece’s underwater heritage by treasure hunters (H. Smith, “Divers plunder Greece’s sunken treasure troves”, Guardian, January 30). Underwater wrecks in Greece’s territorial waters were opened to divers in 2003, and since then international tour groups have started offering treasure hunting holidays.
In January, Zahi Hawass, who is secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced the return to Iraq of a 10 cm high bronze figure of a Mesopotamian deity, taken from a smuggler who was arrested bringing it into Egypt. He also announced that Egypt had recovered 5,000 artifacts taken illegally from Iraq (H. Al-Shalchi, “Egypt returns stolen artifact to Iraq,” Associated Press, January 11). More artifacts were returned to Iraq from Peru, where three cuneiform tablets were seized from a tourist last year (M. Kukis, “Iraq’s ancient treasures lost and found,” Time.com, February 19).
Iraq announced in February that the National Museum in Bagdhad was about to reopen. The Iraqi authorities are confident that public order has stabilized sufficiently to prevent any repeat of the 2003 break-in (K. al-Ansary, “Iraq to reopen museum, symbol of 2003 looting,” Reuters UK, February 11).
A Roman fresco from the wall of a villa in Boscoreale, buried by the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, which had been stolen from storage at Pompeii, was returned to Italy in February. Police recovered it from a London gallery in October 2008.
In February, Denmark’s ambassador in Italy was asked to mediate in a dispute between the Italian culture ministry and Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum over the ownership of 100 artifacts held by the museum (“Ambassador mediates in a case of stolen artefacts,” Copenhagen Post, February 3). Many of the artifacts were bought in the 1970s from Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici, and Italy claimed in December 2008 that they had been taken out of Italy illegally. The Glyptotek has refused to return them.
On January 14, the Carabinieri announced in Palermo, Sicily that they had seized more than 500 artifacts that a man was trying to sell on eBay (Associated Press, “Italy seizes looted artifacts for sale on e-Bay,” January 14).
The mysterious Dr K
The Art Newspaper reported on developments in France concerning the sale in 2004 in Paris of the archaeological collection of “Doctor K.” It alleged that French police had taken in several people for questioning, including dealer/experts Michel Cohen and Chakib Slitine, and “Doctor K” himself, who turns out to be a real doctor named Marc Keucker. The French investigation started when Crédit Municipal offered 24 lots from the collection of “Doctor K” at auction, which together sold for €2.1 million. Apparently, Keucker had obtained the pieces from Cohen for sale, and one of the pieces at least was a forgery. It is a bronze copy of a marble in the Naples Farnese Collection, which Slitine authenticated and valued at €1.8 million (R. Azimi, “Seven arrests follow ‘Dr K.’ auction investigation”, Art Newspaper no. 198, January, 47).
On February 2, Odyssey Marine announced it had discovered the wreck of the 18th-century British warship HMS Victory (L. Abend, “The HMS Victory, famed shipwreck, is found,” Time.com, February 2; Odyssey Marine Exploration, “Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration,” press release, February 2). The Victory foundered in 1744 with the loss of 1,100 men in the western approaches to the English Channel. It was rumored to be carrying £400,000 worth of gold. Odyssey claimed to be negotiating with the British Ministry of Defence about an agreement to excavate the wreck, along the lines of the agreement made in 2002 over the wreck of the HMS Sussex. The Ministry of Defence did not comment on this report.
Two weeks after the Victory announcement, the Mexican government denied Odyssey permission to excavate the wreck of a 17th-century Spanish galleon Our Lady of Juncal which sank in 1631 in the Mexican Gulf (M. Stevenson, “Mexico says US firm can’t explore shipwreck,” Associated Press, February 16).
On February 9, British authorities returned 198 artifacts to Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London. The artifacts had been smuggled from Pakistan through Dubai and were intercepted by at Heathrow Airport in 2007 by UK customs. They are estimated to have a market value of $148,800, though the customs declaration listed them as “normal pottery” with a value of only $100 (M. Fuchs, “Britain returns smuggled pottery to Pakistan”, Reuters India, February 10).
On January 13, the FBI announced the return to Panama of more than 100 artifacts recovered during an investigation in Oregon (“FBI returns Pre-Columbian artifacts to Panama,” press release, January 13). The artifacts date to between 1100 and 1500 AD. The FBI claimed that many of them were excavated by John Shaw while he was working as a teacher at a US military base in Panama during the 1980s. Shaw died in 2004 (L. Terry, “Panamanian artifacts found in Klamath falls going home,” Oregonlive.com, January 13).
The Anatolia News Agency reported that the Turkish government is pushing for the return of “Anatolian” artifacts taken abroad at the time of the Ottoman empire, or more recently smuggled (Anatolia News Agency, “Turkish cultural heritage in the hands of foreigners,” January 5). They include the top half of the “Weary Herakles” statue in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, silver vessels on display in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum (the so-called Sion Treasure), and the Trojan material taken to Berlin from Turkey by Schliemann in 1880, and from Berlin by Russia in 1945, where it is now in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. Turkey is also trying to secure the return of artifacts recently seized by customs in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Ukraine.
These claims by Turkey demonstrate clearly that the 1970 provenance threshold, adhered to by most professional archaeological and museum organizations, is an ethical but not a legal one. The 1970 threshold, most recently adopted by the AAM and AAMD, is intended to distinguish between archaeological and other cultural objects that have recently (since 1970) been looted or stolen, and those that have not been recently looted or stolen (though they might have been at some time in the pre-1970 past). The rationale of the 1970 threshold is that the acquisition or study of material that has recently been looted helps to create a market for looted material, and so promotes the further destruction of archaeological sites and monuments to supply the market and the criminalization of the consequent trade. Restricting acquisitions and study to material that has been in circulation since before 1970 (or has entered the market through legal means since that date) is considered not to have the same positive impact on the market, and therefore not to have destructive or criminal consequences. Nevertheless, as the Turkish claims show, the 1970 threshold has no basis in international law, and adherence to the 1970 threshold offers museums no guarantee against future claims for restitution. It would be perfectly possible for a museum to acquire in good faith an object with a documented provenance stretching back to before 1970, and yet still come to face a claim for restitution if evidence emerged that the object was originally looted or stolen.
In February, a court in Uşak, western Turkey, convicted museum director Kazim Akbiyiklioglu and nine of his colleagues of stealing a coin and a golden brooch from Uşak museum (BBC News, “Thieves of Croesus riches jailed,” February 13). The theft was revealed in 2006, when an anonymous letter claimed that the original pieces in the museum had been replaced by fakes. The objects were part of the so-called Lydian Treasure, returned to Turkey by the Metropolitan Museum in 1993. Akbiyiklioglu was sentenced to 13 years in jail.
UNESCO Underwater Convention
The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Heritage entered force on January 2, with 20 parties. To celebrate the occasion, UNESCO devoted issue no. 1 of its 2009 on-line magazine UNESCO Courier to the underwater cultural heritage.
In January, the Independent reported on information acquired under the Freedom of Information Act about the case of the Victoria and Albert Museum assistant John Nevin, who between 1944 and 1953 stole more than 2,068 objects from the museum (C. Milmo, “Stealing beauty – the curator who took priceless piece after priceless piece,” January 3). The objects included 20 Japanese silver sword guards, 229 illustrations torn from books, 18 pieces of Albanian embroidery, 132 original drawings and watercolors and a 300-year-old Flemish tapestry. The thefts were discovered when an inventory taken in 1953 revealed the losses. Police recovered the material during a raid on Nevin’s house, but at the time the investigating officer suggested that perhaps several thousands pounds worth of missing material had never been recovered.
Also in January, businessman Farhad Hakimzadeh was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing pages from rare books in the British Library (M. Cacciottolo, “The thief who stole pages from history,” BBC News, January 16). The following month, book dealer David Slade was sentenced to two years and four months in prison for stealing more than 30 rare books from the Rothschild family’s private collection while he was cataloguing it, and selling them at auction (A. Fresco, “Book dealer David Slade jailed for plundering Rothschild library,” Times Online, February 4).
United Kingdom nighthawking report
On February 16, Oxford Archaeology released its 212 page report Nighthawks and Nighthawking: Damage to Archaeological Sites in the UK and Crown Dependencies caused by Illegal Searching and Removal of Antiquities. The report is the outcome of an investigative survey into the problem of nighthawking, commissioned in November 2006 by English Heritage. The term “nighthawks” is used to describe metal detectorists who operate illegally, often but not necessarily at night. It was chosen to distinguish criminal detectorists from “responsible detectorists”, who operate within the law. As the title of the report suggests, the investigation encompassed the whole of the United Kingdom and its dependencies, though the report is largely concerned with England, which is where nighthawking is perceived to be a problem.
The report provides a useful summary of how it is possible to break the law while metal detecting. In England and Wales, which are governed by different laws to Scotland and Northern Ireland, important archaeological sites and valuable archaeological artifacts enjoy some degree of statutory protection, otherwise archaeological sites and their contents on private land are the property of the landowner.
Protection of archaeological sites is provided the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological areas Act. A list (schedule) of archaeological sites of national importance is maintained by the appropriate government department. Once placed on the list, the site is known as a “Scheduled Monument” (SM) and its preservation is given priority over other land uses. It is an offence to use a metal detector on an SM without permission of the Secretary of State. It is also forbidden to use a metal detector on Ministry of Defence land, and restrictions apply to other public land. Laws of theft and trespass make it illegal to use a detector on private land without permission of the landowner.
Protection of valuable artifacts is provided by the 1996 Treasure Act. Any object of treasure that is discovered should be reported to the appropriate government authority (a coroner) within 14 days of discovery. Treasure is defined as any object containing at least 10% gold or silver, other than a coin, that is at least 300 years old; groups of two or more coins containing at least 10% gold or silver found together that are at least 300 years old; groups of 10 or more coins containing less than 10% gold or silver found together that are at least 300 years old; any prehistoric metal object; any object found in association with treasure. The relevant museum has a preemptive option to purchase the treasure from the finder. If this happens, an independent valuation committee will decide an appropriate payment for the finder, which is intended to be the market value of the discovered object. If the museum decides not to purchase the object, it is returned to the finder, who acquires full title and may dispose of it as he or she sees fit.
This statutory framework is supported by a voluntary system of artifact reporting. Any non-treasure artifact found on private land, either accidentally or through deliberate searching, may be reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). The PAS was established on a trial basis in 1997, extended in 1999, and became fully operational across England and Wales in 2003. It comprises a network of 36 Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based at different locations around the countries. FLOs help to identify found artifacts and record the artifacts and their findspots on a database. The database is publicly accessible and its accumulated information forms the basis of several ongoing research projects. Another important function of the PAS is to engage in outreach aimed at encouraging metal detector users in particular to report their finds to FLOs.
It is important to emphasize that the nighthawking report is of an investigation into illegal metal detecting, not destructive metal detecting. Thus there is no consideration, for example, of metal detecting and destructive excavation of non-scheduled sites on private land that are sanctioned by the landowner. The report also contains several case studies of nighthawked sites and some useful appendices, including one based on information supplied by the National Council for Metal Detecting on artifact damage and erosion in the topsoil.
The key findings are as follows:
The report recommends improved law enforcement, in part through education of land owners and law enforcement agencies, maintenance of the PAS, improved reporting and archiving of information relating to nighthawking, and more control over the sale of illegally-acquired artifacts.
The report is important for the light it casts on nighthawking in the United Kingdom, but its significance is magnified by the fact that it will almost certainly be used by policy makers and other interested parties to gauge the efficacy of the British (or at least Anglo-Welsh) system of protecting undiscovered archaeological heritage. The Anglo-Welsh system is one of weak regulation, which stands in contrast to the strong regulation of countries such as Italy and Egypt that have taken all undiscovered archaeological heritage into state ownership. It is sometimes advocated that the Anglo-Welsh system constitutes a more equitable and successful regulatory regime than the stronger one of state ownership, and that its adoption in countries such as Italy and Egypt might go some way towards ameliorating the problems of illegal excavation and trade.
Archaeological opinions in Britain are divided over the effectiveness or otherwise of the Anglo-Welsh system, at least as regards treasure and artifact reporting. On the one hand, it has been argued that the accumulating information of finds and find spots obtained through the reporting systems has added to archaeological knowledge about the past, and that much of this information has only been collected because of the PAS establishing a rapport with metal detectorists. On the other hand, it has also been argued that the information is unreliable because often it cannot be verified, and that the PAS is promoting metal detecting generally, rather than encouraging only responsible metal detecting.
Unfortunately, the data contained in the report do little to settle the argument one way or another. The research project was well thought out and the research was clearly systematic and thorough, yet, nevertheless, the data are not secure and they can be ambiguous. This is largely because, as the report makes abundantly clear, data collection was fraught with problems, not least because nighthawking is a secretive activity that often occurs at night in remote locations. Thus evidence of nighthawking might easily go unnoticed, and the report concludes that the figure of 240 nighthawked sites is bound to be an underestimate. Furthermore, and partly as a corollary of this underestimation, the data are open to more than one interpretation. The crucial time trends, for example, which are necessary for establishing whether nighthawking is on the increase or decrease, might be artifacts of data collection, or, if real, be of uncertain cause. Thus the report suggests that the recorded general increase in nighthawking might be due to under-reporting of incidents for earlier years. It also suggests that the recorded decrease in nighthawking on SMs might be real, but due either to the successful work of the PAS, or to the fact that most SMs were worked out years ago, whereupon nighthawking attention moved elsewhere. The most reliable conclusion is the one relating to nighthawking on archaeological excavations. Most of these excavations were conducted as part of larger construction projects, and the report suggests that the reduction in nighthawking is probably real and due to improvements generally in construction site security.
Finally, it is worth drawing attention to something in the report that the report’s authors themselves did not enlarge upon. Paragraph 6.2.19 reads:
There is the possibility that the attitude of the local population to their heritage may play a part in deterring Nighthawking. Although Eire is outside the UK it is geographically part of the British Isles. The legal position for metal detecting was changed in 1994, prior to which there had been severe problems relating to Nighthawking. Although finders were required to report archaeological finds, very low fines for offending, coupled with poor offers of rewards to finders led to a high rate of offending. Before that date there was no offence of possessing unreported antiquities so dealers were immune from prosecution. All cultural heritage finds are now regarded as the property of the state and metal detecting without a licence is illegal (Kelly 1994). Eammon Kelly of the National Museum in Dublin said that the new regulation had been introduced with all-party support and strong backing from the general public, who have a well-developed sense of communal ownership of heritage. Although there are still isolated incidents, these often involve visitors to the country and farmers are ready to involve the police (pers. comm.).
This short summary of the Irish situation suggests that a strong regulatory approach to nighthawking has proved to be more successful than the weaker Anglo-Welsh one, though there might be cultural factors involved. It would be a useful exercise for any future investigation of nighthawking to include Ireland for comparative purposes, and to consider the apparent synergy between regulation and public opinion.