Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru

Between 1912 and 1915, Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III excavated thousands of artefacts from Machu Picchu — an Inca site perched high in the Andes Mountains. They were taken back to Yale University in Connecticut for study under a decree of the Peruvian government, but for 100 years they remained in Yale (in the Peabody Museum in New Haven) where they were at the centre of a long-running international cultural property custody battle. Many of those objects have now been returned to Peru, the university is giving back thousands of ceramics, jewellery and human bones to the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture.

Yale anthropology professor Richard Burger points out that "The Machu Picchu situation and dispute was really fundamentally different from other repatriation issues", unlike many art and artifact disputes, this one was not about stolen goods. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, explained that "They were never allegedly taken in violation of patrimony laws, or clandestinely dug up [...] This was really much more of a contractual dispute". Peruvian officials contended that the materials were loaned to Yale for research.
After World War I, the university returned some of the artifacts, but argued that the school could keep the rest under the laws of the day. Over time, Peru's demands grew louder. Machu Picchu is an iconic place for the Peruvian people, and the idea of bones and artifacts from Peru being held in the U.S. took on a powerful symbolism. In 2008, Peru's government filed a lawsuit against Yale. Negotiations intensified, and a letter from Yale alumni urging their alma mater to return the artifacts helped move the process out of the courts. Peruvian historian Mariana Mould de Pease was happy to avoid the expensive legal route. She says Yale alumni played a key role in "getting this matter where it has to be — in the academic world." In November 2010, Peruvians held a demonstration in Lima demanding that Yale return the artifacts taken by Bingham.
The dispute was finally resolved through two separate agreements. The first, between Yale and the Peruvian government, established that the university would return all of the objects by the end of 2012. The second established a partnership between Yale and the San Antonio Abad University in Cuzco to share stewardship of the collection. The schools will also collaborate on academic research. This agreement shifts the emphasis from the issue of the ownership of the objects to stewardship and preservation and research and exhibition.

As a result of the repatriation of the excavated material,
alongside the hundreds of thousands of tourists who pass through Cuzco each year to visit the terraced stone ruins of Machu Picchu, the citizens of Peru will be able to see the historic relics which many have never seen before.
Diane Orson, 'Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru', NPR 18th Dec. 2011.

Photo: The ruins after excavation.

Jordan Will Submit UNESCO Complaint Over Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Jordanian media are reporting that Jordan may complain to UNESCO over Israel's exhibition of the Dead Sea scrolls in the US. The scrolls went on display in New York for the first time on Friday. The West Bank was under Jordanian administration between the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and its capture by Israel in the Six Days War in 1967 and the manuscripts were discovered there between 1948 and 1957 by Jordanian archaeologists following the first find by Palestinian Bedouins in 1947. The scrolls were curated and first put on display in a Jerusalem museum administered by the Jordanian government.
A year after Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, the Jordanian government filed complaints to UNESCO complaining of Israeli appropriation of the manuscripts, which include religious and secular texts over 2,000 years old. [...] Faris al-Hamoud, Director of the Department of Antiquities in Jordan, told Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Youm that his office plans to notify UNESCO of the international exhibition currently on tour, and complain of Israel's use of stolen Jordanian artifacts.
Jordan's territorial claim to the region in 1948-67 was never formally recognized by the international community, with the exception of the United Kingdom, though it seems that the United States de fact accepted the situation but never formally recognized it. When the scrolls went on display in Canada in 2009, the Palestinian Authority wrote to the government saying the seizure of the artefacts from Palestinian territories was illegal.

Source: 'Jordan to complain to UNESCO over Dead Sea scrolls', Ma'an News Agency 18th Dec 2011.
Map, the findspot of the scrolls (NE end of the Dead Sea), Photo, some of the Scroll Caves.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bloomsbury man makes historic contribution to Crisis at Christmas with magnificent gift to Greece

As reported today by the usually well-informed 'ArtNose':
LONDON: Saint Neil MacGregor, the quietly spoken patron saint of Bloomsbury today astonished the museum world by sending the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens. As the ancient fragments were loaded on to the back of a flatbed truck outside the front entrance to the British Museum, Saint Neil took a small chopped shallot from his inside pocket and wiped a tear from his eye. Visibly moved by his own magnanimity and clearly struggling to maintain his legendary composure, he clutched to his breast a copy of his recently-penned international best-selling blockbuster A History of the World in 100 Looted Objects Belonging to the British Museum and to Nobody Else, So There. "Greece is teetering on the edge of the abyss," said the frail Scottish saint as he watched the venerable ancient fragments being man-handled onto the back of the waiting lorry. Wiping his nose on a dog-eared replica of the notorious firman that had enabled Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin to desecrate the Parthenon in the early nineteenth century, Saint Neil's voice cracked as he delivered a rousing valediction to the objects that have for so long mired his museum in ignominy and shame.
[more here]

Percy Flarge [Editor], 'Bloomsbury man makes historic contribution to Crisis at Christmas with magnificent gift to Greece', Artnose (

Would that it were true.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mokomokai Repatriated

Twenty tattooed Maori heads have been repatriated from France to New Zealand after more than 200 years. A team from Wellington's Te Papa museum plans to trace the origin of the heads and return them to their communities. More than 500 heads of Maori ancestors remain in collections around the world.
There is a video here. Source: Reuters Friday 27 January 2012

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Richard Gott: Let's end the myths of Britain's imperial past

Richard Gott (author of Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, - published by Verso) has an interesting opinion piece in the Guardian about British nostalgia about the days of Empire and false notions of the history of colonialism.
Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.[...]
The British understandably try to forget that their empire was the fruit of military conquest and of brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination.

A self-satisfied and largely hegemonic belief survives in Britain that the empire was an imaginative, civilising enterprise, reluctantly undertaken, that brought the benefits of modern society to backward peoples. Indeed it is often suggested that the British empire was something of a model experience, unlike that of the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese – or, of course, the Americans. There is a widespread opinion that the British empire was obtained and maintained with a minimum degree of force and with maximum co-operation from a grateful local population. This benign, biscuit-tin view of the past is not an understanding of their history that young people in the territories that once made up the empire would now recognise.

I wonder to what degree current British school textbooks address these issues.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quai Branly Museum to Return All Mummified Maori Heads

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris is organising the restitution to New Zealand of about 20 mummified Maori heads. Last year, the French parliament passed a law recognising the Maori heads as body parts and not museum objects (duh) which paved the way for their return to New Zealand. The first was taken back in May 2010 and last week Stephane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly Museum, said that the remaining heads held by French collections would be returned in an official ceremony in January. He insists however that this is purely on the grounds that they are human remains "that cannot be displayed and have no cultural gain, and would not be considering returning any other foreign artefacts in his museum's collection".

Mr Martin says the heads should be considered differently to other museum artefacts. "It's always uncomfortable to talk globally of restitution because each case has to be addressed distinctly and separately".

Australia Network News 'Paris museum returns mummified Maori heads', Oct 2011 09:16:00

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Namibian Skull Collection

Following protracted negotiations, it has been announced that the skulls of hundreds of Herero and Nama people slain by German colonial troops bent on subduing what they
called South West Africa will be returned to Namibia on October 4. Their skulls were taken to Germany for anthroplogical research from 1904 to 1907; but now more than 100 years later German authorities have finally agreed to return the skulls. Namibians have been agitating for reparations for the massacre of an estimated 65 000 Herero and Nama people by Germany.
The mass killings between 1904 and 1907 are regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century. On January 12, 1904 the Herero - led by Samuel Maherero - rebelled against Germany colonial rule. In August, German General Lothar van Trotha defeated the Herero in the Battle of Waterberg and drove them to the desert in the Omaheke Region, where many died of thirst when the Germans poisoned wells and the few other water sources. This was after the general had issued his 'extermination order', which sought to clear the land of all Herero people. In October of the same year, the Nama people also rebelled against the Germans only to suffer a similar fate. Estimates say when the uprising started, there were around 80 000 Herero but by 1907 there were just 15 000. In 1985, the United Nations Whitaker Report classified this as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama people. The government of Germany acknowledged its guilt in 2004 but has ruled out any financial compensation. This has not stopped a group of Herero from suing Germany for its crimes against humanity, though the Namibia government has been strangely quiet about assisting their cause.

Philip T Shingirai and Mabasa Sasa, 'A long-awaited homecoming', Southern Times, 30-09-2011

Deborah Cole, 'Germany to hand back stolen Namibian skulls' AFP October 1, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Heroic" collectors?

Heroic Africans
Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures
Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012
This major international loan exhibition challenges conventional perceptions of African art. Bringing together more than one hundred masterpieces drawn from collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, and the United States, it considers eight landmark sculptural traditions from West and Central Africa created between the twelfth and early twentieth centuries in terms of the individual subjects who lie at the origins of the representations. [...]

The works featured are among the only tangible links that survive, relating to generations of leaders that shaped Africa's past before colonialism, [...]
The works come from a number of west and central African cultures: the Akan of Ghana, ancient Ife civilization and the Kingdom of Benin of Nigeria, Bangwa and Kom chiefdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia, and the Luluwa, Hemba, and Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
sculptors from these regions captured evocative, idealized, and enduring likenesses of their individual patrons whose identities were otherwise recorded in ephemeral oral traditions.
This exhibition raises a number of questions about the presence of the objects themselves. Why are no African museums represented in the loans programme? Also if these works form a link with the past of the regions covered, why are they scattered in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, France, the UK and US?

Following the presentation at the Metropolitan, the exhibition will travel to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, where it will be on view February 26 through June 3, 2012. There are no plans to show it in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, Zambia, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Return of head from Sidamara Sarcophagus Requested

Turkey is asking for the return of a life-size marble head of a child, with curling hair, broken off at the neck that was knocked off the Sidamara Sarcophagus, now on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The head is now housed in the reserve collection of the Victorian and Albert Museum in London.

The head was snapped off a sarcophagus excavated in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in 1882 by a British archaeologist named Sir Charles Wilson, who then covered the tomb over again. He took the head to England and his family gave it to the museum in 1933. The tomb to which the head belongs, the 3rd century A.D. Sidamara Sarcophagus, was re-discovered in 1898 and currently resides in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Now, the Turkish culture ministry wants to reunify the marble head [...] with the sarcophagus.
This is rather brutal treatment of an artefact even by late nineteenth century standards, not having the resources or ability to remove the whole sarcophagus, the relic hunter took a "sample" with a hammer.

The Turkish authorities are currently in negotiations with the Victoria & Albert museum to repatriate the object. These negotiations between the two parties are said to be "amicable" and ongoing. If the object is reunited with the sarcophagus, it would be a gesture of international goodwill because its removal from Turkey was before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Laura Allsop, 'Echoes of Elgin Marbles: Turkey asks UK to return ancient sculpture',, September 8, 2011 (Photo, Konya/CNN)

Friday, August 19, 2011

More on Nefertiti

An interesting article on the continuing international squabble over the Nefertiti bust:

This queen owes her immortality to a gifted artist. The bust he fashioned out of gypsum and limestone some 3,350 years ago became an eternal monument to her beauty. As realistic as the image is, it has the radiance of a goddess. "It's no use describing it; you have to see it!" said the German archaeologist who unearthed the bust of the Egyptian queen in the desert sand almost a century ago. Hardly anyone is familiar with the name of the sculptor, Thutmose, but the bust is of the famous Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Great Royal Wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. And thanks to a coincidence, a minor detour of history, her likeness is not on display in a museum in her native Egypt, but in Berlin. Or was it not a coincidence at all, but rather fraud?

Michael Sontheimer and Ulrike Knöfel, 'German-Hating Frenchman Sparked Nefertiti Row', Der Spiegel, 18th August 2011.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Cyrene Apollo

At the two-day conference of the Council of Antiquities in Cairo about the repatriation of artefacts in 2010, Libya stated that it wished two antiquities to return, "a statue of Apollo from the British Museum and a marble statue of a woman from the Louvre". I'm not clear what the statue in Paris is, but the British Museum object is the ' Cyrene Apollo'.

The monumental Roman (2nd century AD) cult statue discovered in January 1861 by Lieutenant Robert Murdoch Smith and Commander Edwin Porcher, whose excavations in the Temple of Apollo in the Greek and Roman settlement of Cyrene, on the Libyan coast are recorded in a monumental site report published in 1864. The statue was found broken into 121 pieces, laying near the large pedestal on which it had originally stood. The fragments were painstakingly removed from the site and reassembled in the British Museum. The statue now stands 2.29 metres high but the right arm, which was originally raised, and the left wrist and hand are missing (photo).

In 1989 Libya requested from Italy the restitution of the Venus of Cyrene, a white marble statue (Venus Anadyomene) that dates from the second century AD. It was taken to Italy after it was found in 1913 by Italian troops near the ruins of the city and was housed in Rome’s National Roman Museum (AP Photo/Ministero dei Beni Culturali – Italian Culture Ministry). The Venus was only returned in April 2007.

Peter Higgs, 'The Cyrene Apollo', History Today, 44 (11) (1994), pp. 50-54
BM webpage

"The world's most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list"

Melanie Renzulli, 'The world's most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list', Aug 3rd 2011:
One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It's true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership".

1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece [...]

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy [...]

3) Objects from King Tut's Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt [...]

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles [...]

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany [...].

Photo: The London bits of the Parthenon Marbles

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Peru to sue Swedish city for theft of ancient textiles

Peruvian President Alan Garcia said that his country intends to sue the Swedish city of Gothenburg on charges of being accomplices in the theft of ancient pre-Columbian textiles more than 2,000 years old. The colourful Paracas culture textiles are currently on exhibit in the city-owned Museum of World Culture. The Paracas culture flourished on Peru's southern coast from around 100 BC to 200 AD, but little was known about their people until archaeological excavations starting in the 1920s.
According to the Gothenburg museum website, "large quantities of Paracas textiles were smuggled out of Peru and illegally exported to museums and private collections all over the world around 1930. About a hundred of them were smuggled to Sweden and donated to the Ethnographic Department of Göteborg Museum." The town possesses 89 of the textiles, displayed since 2008, according to the website. In May 2010, Sweden returned 33 pre-Columbian textile fragments to Peru, the Latin American country most affected by theft of archaeological artifacts.

"We have the right to pursue legal action at the international level, through Interpol, and to seek the arrest of those who are accomplices in the pillaging of a civilization," Garcia said.

AFP: 'Peru to sue Swedish city for theft of ancient textiles', 05 July 2011

Photo: Hummingbird tunic with fringes from The Paracas Collection [Credit: Paracas Foundation/Göteborg]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Peruvian Conference on Repatriation

The Second International Conference to Recover Stolen Antiquities is being held this year in the Peruvian capital city of Lima, and attendees come from over twenty countries. The first such conference was convened in Cairo in April last year with the presence of thirty countries. Therre does not seem to be much material about it available in the Internet at the time of writing.

Egypt's Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass went there on a four-day visit to share Egyptian experiences with the conference. Egypt’s expertise has,"over the past two years, helped Peru recover twelve archaeological masks from a university, who had borrowed these mask from Peru for many years and refused to return them to their place of origin".
Before leaving to Peru Hawass told Ahram Online that he would concentrate his speech on Egypt’s experience in returning their illegally smuggled antiquities, the development of legislation for the protection of monuments and the preservation of state’s rights to return home their stolen artefacts - even the distinguished objects from international museums. A list of unique artefacts that countries want recovered was prepared in Cairo and named the “Wish List.” Hawass added that the conference in Peru will solidify the position of all of the countries seeking restitution. Here, they will start the required communications and actions to demand the restitution of unique artefacts on display in a number of museums in Europe and the US.

The first session of the conference will be allocated for Egypt, where Hawass will[...] not only highlight Egypt’s interest in developing a legislative structure for the protection of monuments, but will demonstrate Egypt’s use of bilateral agreements as a means to show solidarity and reduce the smuggling of national monuments internationally.
Nevine El-Aref, 'Egypt Minister of Antiquities Hawas to assert rights of countries with ancient civilisations in Peru conference', Saturday 2 Jul 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Case Against the Repatriation of Archaeological Artefacts

Rachel Hallote argues that the real problem with repatriation is
the loss of history. When we repatriate artifacts to nations such as Greece and Egypt, we simultaneously destroy the evidence of the more recent history of other countries, including Britain, France and Germany. [...] current regimes of some of these countries [wanting cultural property returned] certainly have different priorities from previous governments, but that does not de-legitimate agreements made in the past. Certainly Egypt and Greece are entitled to write new chapters in their history, but they cannot pretend the past did not unfold the way it did.
Artifacts are not people, and as such, cannot be in exile. Many artifacts have only known one home since they were dug up, and for many of them that home is in a Western museum. To take the artifacts out of museums is to degrade the history of Europe and the West.
Rachel Hallote, 'Archaeological Views: A Case Against the Repatriation of Archaeological Artifacts', Biblical Archaeological Review 37:03, May/Jun 2011.

[It is interesting to note how many of the comments below the online version of the article 'agree with the author' while apparently thinking she had written the complete opposite of what she in fact did].

Vignette: BBC

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Egypt: Going Back on Partage

A German court ruling that the University of Leipzig must hand its ancient Egyptian artefacts to the Jewish Claims Conference triggers controversy in Germany and Egypt. The collection spans more than five millennia, since the pre-dynastic era to the Late Intermediate period. Among the most distinguished objects in this collection are the Ebers Papyrus (illustrated right), a medical papyrus purchased by George Ebers, and a small limestone head of the beautiful queen Nefertiti, wife of the monotheistic king Akhenaten:
A German court ruled that the University of Leipzig must hand over its 150 ancient Egyptian artefacts to the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) as compensation for Holocaust victims and their descendants.

This collection came into the possession of the museum of the University of Leipzig in 1936 when the late Jewish professor Georg Steindorff, who held Leipzig’s Egyptology chair, sold it to the museum. Steindorff possessed this collection since 1915 when he excavated the site located to the west of King Khufu’s necropolis in the Giza plateau in a German mission. In accordance with Egyptian law at the time, he received 50 per cent of the discovered artefacts. The court said Steindorff had been forced to sell his collection under Nazi rule for a price far below its actual value.

Leipzig residents are angry the museum would be losing its valuable collection, and under public pressure the Leipzig University promised to appeal the court ruling. For his part Zahi Hawass Minister of State for Antiquities sent an official letter to the JCC demanding restitution of these objects, and threatened to file a lawsuit against it before German and international courts if the JCC did not comply.
Nevine El-Aref , 'Head of Nefertiti emboiled in controversy over German court ruling on Egyptian artifacts', Sunday 29 May 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cashing in on Looted Heirlooms

Tom Flynn's blog discusses "What future for families hoping to cash in on the treasures looted by their forebears?". He starts of from some recent cases where auctions of objects of Chinese origins have been sabotaged with faux-bidders pushing up prices in protest and then failing to pay for works won. The need for diligence seems even more acute when it transpires that the works in question were originally looted from China. He uses as an example the forthcoming auction of important Chinese works of art at Duke's in Dorchester on May 19. This includes a number of items consigned by descendants of Captain James Gunter (illustration on right) who served with the King's Dragoon Guards in China during the Second Opium War in 1860 when the Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing) was looted by British and French forces on the instructions of Lord Elgin.
Whether the freight of exceptionally important treasures Gunter acquired as a result of his imperial adventures will give rise to the sort of controversy that is now a familiar aspect of the art market remains to be seen. One thinks of the storm of protest that greeted the prospective sale at Sotheby's of Benin works of art that were provenanced to a member of the British military involved in the desecration of the Benin kingdom in 1897 [...]. In the event, Sotheby's was forced to cancel the sale.

Auction houses are caught between a rock and a hard place over these issues. On the one hand, they are understandably reluctant to decline an invitation to sell a lucrative consignment of exceptionally rare objects. On the other hand, such commercial opportunities now have to be weighed against the potentially damaging PR consequences of selling ideologically contested cultural objects.

Interestingly, although Duke's catalogue includes a portrait of Captain Gunter posing imperiously on a French rococo chair, baton in hand, it studiously avoids referring to the precise circumstances by which the exquisite white jade cups and celadon pendants came into his possession. One white jade cup and saucer [...] is expected to fetch a quarter of a million pounds. Given the current bullish state of the Chinese art market, that estimate could be rendered meaningless on sale day.
Flynn notes that, given recent events, auction houses are requesting that prospective bidders lodge a refundable deposit with them before bidding. he suggests this means "we could be witnessing a major upheaval in the market for goods acquired during the age of imperialism".
How will this play out in the auction market? Might it divert goods towards other routes to market? Who knows how many UK family collections contain important works of art looted from China and elsewhere during the nineteenth century? It is problematic enough for museums who are increasingly being challenged over ownership of such objects, but they are not trying to liquidate their assets. Those families, like the owners of the Benin mask, who were hoping to capitalize on the fruits of their ancestors' plundering exploits may have to think again. They thought these objects were part of their family heritage, their birthright. Others would disagree.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Looted Art: The Neverending Story

Josh Rothman in the Boston Globe summarises the recent article ('Art in the Time of War') by British historian Richard J. Evans in The National Interest. This covers art-looting through the ages from ancient Byzantium, through Napoleon and the Nazis, up to modern Iraq and Egypt.
Evans begins in antiquity, when the looting of art objects in war seemed perfectly natural -- just a way of showing that you'd won. The general assumption was that the victorious nation had proved its essential superiority, and would be better able to appreciate the art anyway. Thus, when Napoleon conquered Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, thousands of artworks were brought to the Louvre "in a Roman-style triumphal procession, accompanied by banners that read: 'Greece relinquished them, Rome lost them, their fate has changed twice, it will never change again.'" (The loot included artworks which had, in turn, been looted by the Italians from all over Europe; included in the haul were "live camels and lions, and the entire papal archive.")

At Napoleon's defeat, cooler heads prevailed: Wellington insisted on returning stolen artworks to their original owners, and, in the American Civil War, the Union Army adopted an official policy of leaving art alone, putting museums and libraries in the same class as hospitals.

These enlightened policies however were swept away by the increased firepower and savagery of twentieth-century warfare which led to the wholesale destruction of cities and the collections they contained by bombing and shelling.
The Nazis looted art on a massive scale never before seen in history, and squabbled among themselves over the gems of Europe's museums and private collections. There was so much stolen art that it was often treated carelessly -- the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had to be reprimanded by a Nazi art historian "for hanging a painting by Leonardo da Vinci above a radiator."

A surprisingly large amount of the art displaced by the World Wars has been returned, not necessarily to its owners, but at least to its country of origin.

Evans notes, the looting and destruction of art continues with every new conflict, as we saw in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with its shocking images of the looting and destruction of the museum and library collections there.
The looting of art continues apace; if it's no longer motivated by nationalist fervor, it's still driven by personal greed. By 2005, four thousand of the 15,000 artworks looted from the Baghdad Museum in 2003 had been found. A thousand were found in the United States, and 600 in Italy. Many of them, Evans writes, were "pillaged by order from private collectors and their agents."

Photo: Looted art in WW2: Image Caption: American soldiers look at a piece of Nazi-looted art by the impressionist painter Edouard Manet (Keystone)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Iraq Calls for Discussion of Regulation on Repatriation

Iraq is reportedly seeking a new international agreement protecting antiquities as a response to the ongoing looting of saleable antiquities from archaeological sites there (Radio Free Europe, 'Iraq Seeks International Treaty Protecting Antique Artifacts', April 20th 2011).
Iraq wants to conclude a new international agreement that will designate the dealing of antique Iraqi artifacts a crime, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports. Iraqi officials said the goal is to preserve the country's heritage from thieves and smugglers. Baha al-Mayyah, an adviser at the Iraqi Tourism and Historic Monuments Ministry, [...] criticized the international community for not doing enough to deter smugglers and looters. He said Iraq wants to abolish the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property [...] Iraq plans to convene an international conference at the end of this year in Baghdad to discuss the creation of a new international organization. "Its task would be to push for the cancellation or the amendment of the 1970 convention," al-Mayyah said. "It would have as members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage."
This would be a very interesting move. It is quite clear that a convention discussed and written in the late 1960s cannot possibly be applied to the changed antiquities market (especially in its dominating no-questions-asked variant) that has developed since the mid 1970s and then was again completely transformed in the mid 1990s by internet trading. It is totally inadequate to the task.

Iraq suggests that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property "treats Iraq unfairly":
The 1970 convention urges signatory states to take all measures to prevent their museums from acquiring artifacts or art works illegally. It also urges countries to return such treasures to their country of origin. "But these measures are applicable only to cases that occurred after 1970," al-Mayyah said. "As for objects obtained before that date, these countries are allowed to keep what they acquired, even if it was done illegally."
This is why Iraq plans to convene a conference attended by members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage.

There seems to be a blurring of the distinction here between two things. the first is taking more effective measures against the ongoing looting and entering of freshly-looted items onto the international market, which we should be fighting in the interests of protecting the finite and fragile archaeological resource (the archaeological record, or what now remains of it). The second is the entirely different matter of objects dug up and which entered the market (and foreign museums) many decades ago, before there was global awareness and concern about looting.

Should we now create retrospective international laws forcing entities (individuals, museums, states) to return items taken a long time ago irrespective of the mechanisms of acquisition? What would that achieve? What problems would it produce? Would it be applied to every artefact, or just selected ones, and on what would the selection be based? Is the aim of the organizers to be the total dismantling of the antiquities market (and foreign museum collections with "universal" pretensions)? Obviously some countries have strong opinions about large swathes of their ancient cultural heritage being held by foreign collectors, they do not see this as beneficial to them, they do not see it as any kind of 'mark of respect', but as another form of expression of dominance and domination. Nobody, surely, can deny that it is their right to hold such opinions. Merely labelling it pejoratively "cultural property nationalism" (or "retentionism") by collectors is hardly helpful and avoids the question why these collectors want to hang on to it despite all. We will all watch the development of the plans for and discussion round this conference with great interest.

Vignette: British Museum Aidan McRae Thomson's photostream

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The obligation to repatriate

There is an opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian by Lily Yu (is an English major from West Windsor, N.J.). She had previously been an intern at Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2009. It is replying to a retentionist article by Aaron Applebaum in the paper a week earlier:
In his column last Tuesday, Aaron Applbaum argued for keeping antiquities in European and American museums regardless of how they got there. Looting should be eliminated, he wrote, but “the returning of already acquired artifacts should not be expected.” [....]

Applbaum is incorrect in claiming that repatriating antiquities would mean removing them from museums and reducing public access to them. Many of the countries requesting repatriation, including Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Italy and China, have excellent museums of their own. His description of these countries as “geographical and cultural ghettos” is condescending and inaccurate. Repatriation requests are often motivated by a country’s desire to make its cultural heritage available to its own people. In most countries that have suffered and continue to suffer extensive cultural theft, relatively few people can afford to travel to the American and European museums where major pieces of their heritage are on display. In 2010 the per-capita gross domestic product of Great Britain, where the Rosetta Stone is displayed, was $35,000; in Egypt, it was $6,200. The plane ticket between these countries is likely to be more affordable in one than the other. A long-term loan of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt would permit, without loss to the British Museum, millions of Egyptians to view a cornerstone of their history for the first time.

One of the stronger arguments against repatriation is that the security and means for preservation in the requesting countries are sometimes subpar. During the recent revolts in Egypt, archaeological sites and magazines at Saqqara, Abusir and Memphis were looted, and several museums in Cairo were attacked. But our responsibility to these security failures should not be to pat ourselves on the back for wisely refusing to return their antiquities. It is easy to approach the problem of preservation from a paternalistic point of view. But it is better to offer freely, when and where it is needed, our help in safeguarding a country’s museums and archaeological sites, by monitoring the traffic of antiquities over national borders, donating security systems and equipment or sending experts in conservation. By doing so we would discourage looting, improve cultural institutions around the globe, strengthen our relations with other countries and contribute to the maintenance of our world’s cultural heritage.

In this postcolonial world, we must recognize the sovereignty of other states not only in self-government but also in the management of their cultural patrimonies. While recognizing the importance of the legal acquisition of antiquities by museums, we cannot forget our obligations to those countries that have been plundered of their pasts, and we ought, where it is legally or ethically required of us, to repatriate — to render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s.

Some good points here to counter those of the cultural property retentionists who would like to see the world's heritage split up and scattered - as long as a goodly proportion of it is in "universal" museums in their own country.

Photo: General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, 1st Baronet GCB GCVO GBE KCMG DSO TD
(1861-1953) Governor-General of the Sudan, British High Commissioner in Egypt

Friday, April 1, 2011

Return that Loot!

An idea put forward recently was obviously intended as an April Fool joke by a US cultural property lawyer, but the idea behind it is in fact sound and would probably make good television. Maybe not "Zani Hanass", but another figure from the world of culture as the host, and instead of an "audience of archaeologists", a game show format with an invited panel of various people arguing the pros and cons, with short (no more than 5 mins) colourful film reports of where the object came from, what significance it has in its original context, what significance it has in its new context. Then viewers vote by texting the programme with the results announced the following week. The objects should be chosen from all over the world, from among the obvious famous ones which viewers may well have seen in museums (or been to the place they were taken from) on one holiday or another and a few more obscure ones.

If a British TV company made it, they could use the British Museum and its Portable Antiquities Scheme as a source of commentators and panellists - a far better TV use of the latter than what they were apparently proposing to do in December staging a programme about Treasure hunting.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hawass' Shopping List

Zahi Hawass has a shopping list of six unique artefacts which he wants returned to Egypt,

1) the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London, with the help of which we were able to decipher the hieroglyphic language;

2) the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin;
3) the Dendera Zodiac ceiling bas-relief from the ceiling of the pronaos of a chapel dedicated to Osiris in the Hathor temple at Dendera in Upper Egypt, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris;
4) the bust of the pyramid builder Ankhaf kept in the Fine Arts Museum in Boston in the United States;
5) the statue of Hemiunu, believed to be the architect of the pyramid of Khufu which is in the Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, Germany. This statue is scheduled to be loaned for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in 2011.
6) a statue of Ramesses II in Turin, Italy.

Kwame Opoku on the Recent Looting in Egypt and the Repatriation Debate

Kwame Opoku has a well-argued response (Restitution and Recent Upheavals in Egypt, March 24, 2011) to the comments of the antiquity dealers and collectors lobbyists alleging that the recent looting in Egypt shows what a bad idea restitution of scattered cultural heritage to their source countries is. Those who are against restitution will use the present situation as an excuse for rejecting the restitution of certain items.

Opoku argues that the disorder, revolt or revolution in Egypt does not change the nature of the debate on restitution nor does it provide any convincing excuse for the retentionists in the Western world. The determination of some museums and collectors not to return certain items to Egypt has never been based on the security or insecurity in Egypt. In all the previous thirty years in which Hosni
Mubarak ruled Egypt there were no reported major disturbances, but still the "cultural property retentionists" refused to return some of the Egyptian artefacts as requested by Zahi Hawass.
If we look at the other cases of restitution, for example, the Benin bronzes, we note that there is no revolution in Nigeria and yet for more than hundred years, including the period when Nigeria was a British colony, the British Museum refused to return the bronzes though the venerable museum has at times been very willing to sell these objects even to Nigeria. [...] Similarly, the British have been unwilling to return the golden Asante regalia they looted from Asante (Ghana) in 1874 even though the country which was British colony until 1957 has been peaceful without any major civil unrest [...]. Again, if we consider the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, there is no disorder in Athens but the British Museum is not considering the return of the marbles to Athens. Clearly, those who argue against returning artefacts to Egypt are using a very convenient but unconvincing argument. They will not convince anyone who has carefully followed the debates on the issue in the last years.

Opoku then turns his attention to the person who has done more than anyone to raise awareness of these issues in the past years:
Many Western museum directors may be rejoicing at the resignation and departure of Zahi Hawass from the position of the Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Let them rejoice for the period of respite they have unexpectedly gained will be shorter than they wish. The question of restitution was there before Hawass came and will remain after his departure and after all of us are gone if attitudes in the West do not change. Whatever happens to Hawass in the post Mubarak period, one must acknowledge that the celebrated archaeologist has rendered to Egypt and to Africa immense services which many others envy. He has made the issue of restitution known to a broader public in the world. Which other archaeologist is as well-known as the famous Egyptian archaeologist? He has made archaeology a lively subject for many persons. He has restored to Egypt, Egyptology, a science dominated for too long by Westerners. Westerners can no longer go to Egypt as if they were going to an archaeological supermarket to take whatever they want. They have to seek permission which may be refused and they may be asked to leave the country. One may not always like his style and tactics but there is no gainsaying that Hawass has been more successful with his approach than many others. The dedication and enthusiasm he brought to the issue of restitution deserve the admiration of all honest people. [...] How many people can bring such energy and dedication to their work? We wish other countries had such worthy and energetic representatives who speak out clearly in the cultural field. The West, of course, has never liked intellectuals and representatives of non-Western peoples who know their work and articulate their positions boldly. A man like Hawass who mastered modern media and used them effectively was a thorn in the flesh of many. [...] One undoubted achievement of Zahi Hawass was his success in bringing together states with restitution claims in April 2010 to the Cairo Conference on restitution - Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage - in Cairo, on April 7 and 8, 2010. For the first time, States with restitution claims met for two days to discuss common problems and to develop
strategies for recovering/stolen/looted cultural artefacts. In addition to emphasizing that ownership of cultural heritage by the country of origin does not expire, nor does it face prescription, the communique issued at the end of the conference added that the efforts initiated in Cairo should be pursued and expanded upon and there should be continued consultations among the participants as well as with other countries and institutions.
The dismemberment of the SCA which was to liaise with other delegations for the preparation of the next meeting and outlining the future activities of the Conference leaves the future of the initiative difficult to predict, but the very fact that it took place was an important step.

Opoku concludes:
The recent events in Egypt may be analysed and assessed differently but it would clearly be illegitimate to argue that the temporary disorder in that country offers a valid reason for not returning artefacts illegally taken from Egypt. Certainly, we do not expect anybody to return artefacts in the midst of revolts and public disorder. This situation however will improve soon and the retentionists in the West will be exposed for their dishonest arguments which are based on grounds other than the present disorder.
Indeed, now the (initial) anti-government demonstrations are over, the main source of danger to antiquities in Egypt is continuing theft from sites and museum stores which Opoku is right to link with the appetite of the foreign antiquities markets, he quotes the view of Prof. Barry Kemp:
The most useful thing the international community can do about this is to examine its conscience. The looting of sites is done to satisfy the market in antiquities, which continues to flourish in Europe and the US. It is now a reasonable assumption that any Egyptian piece that is for sale is either fake or was looted.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Western archaeological concerns

Stepping into the role of a political commentator, Californian antiquity dealer Dave Welsh solemnly intones:
Whatever one's perspective regarding Libyan governmental legitimacy, such a state of flux is disturbing. In such circumstances there is always some risk that Western archaeological concerns may not be respected. At this point it appears that all that can be hoped for is that a Libyan regime will emerge which is sympathetic to Western archaeological concerns.
Why "western"? Is the "west" the only home of archaeologists who might be concerned about anything? Do brown skinned people in African countries not count for anything in the US antiquity dealers' world-view?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Looted Ghanaian Gold in Britain

Kwame Opoku., 5 January, 2011


A recent visit to London reminded me that apart from the British
Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum many other museums in
London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom are still holding onto
African cultural artefacts which, to put it very mildly, were removed
from the continent under conditions and circumstances which can be
considered as questionable. One such museum is the Wallace
Collection, London.

full text including links and images:

Can't Trust the Natives

In a post ('More on Benin Mask') on his little-read Cultural Property Objector blog, Washington lawyer Peter Tompa argues that "additional context is necessary" to the story of the withdrawal of the sale of colonial loot by Sotheby's last week. According to Tompa "any Nigerian claim to the high moral ground" is "undercut" by the "destruction of the Oron Museum and the wanton burning of hundreds of ancestral figures (ekpu) as firewood during and after the Biafran civil war".
In short, any self-righteous indignation about 19th c. looting needs to be tempered by an acknowledgement of what Nigeria itself did to Oron culture in 1975.
So basically Tompa is saying that material looted from Benin by the British punitive expedition should not be returned because the natives had a destructive civil war forty years ago? That argument reeks of neocolonial paternalism.

See also: Elor Nkereuwem, 'Time and tide at the Oron Museum'.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Benin Mask Sale cancellation: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle

[...] The cancellation notice of the auction of Queen-Mother Idia mask on 4 December by Sotheby’s could not have been shorter: “The Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the
consignors". This short notice is a great contrast to the enthusiastic announcement of the proposed auction where the excellent artistry of the hip mask was underlined. “All of the ivory masks are widely recognized for the quality of their craftsmanship, for the enormous scale of Benin’s artistic achievement and for their importance in the field of African
art “. But what more does the cancellation tell us? Very little except that the proposed auction will not take place as announced. Will the auction take place sometime in the future and somewhere else other than at Sotheby’s? Will the mask be silently passed on to one of the so-called “universal museums” without our knowing?

read full text and view images at:

Behind the Duveen Gallery


The recent of the new Parthenon Museum in Athens poignently reminds us of the marble fragments now kept defiantly in the stark gallery in the British Museum in London. The gallery itself was built in 1937-8 and named after its founder Joseph Duveen (1st Baron Duveen of Millbank), arguably one of the most influential art dealers of all time. In the context of the subject of this blog, though not directly involved in the trade in portable antiquities per se, Duveen seems to have been to no little extent influential on the development of the attitudes that lay behind a substantial part of it. Duveen died almost exactly seventy years ago (May 25th 1939), so it seems worth paying a little attention to this gentleman.*

Born into a family involved in the import business in Hull, from 1909 onwards Duveen began to focus on the lucrative trade in paintings. Due to his good eye, skilled salesmanship and insight into human behavior he quickly became one of the world's leading art dealers. In this he was helped by his partnership (between 1912 and 1936) with Bernard Berenson and together they above all generated increased interest in the US in works of art of the Renaissance. Duveen was knighted for his philanthropy in 1919 and in 1933 he was created Baron Duveen, of Millbank (in the City of Westminster).
A large part of the market on which Duveen concentrated was in the States, he famously noted that "Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money". He thus found a niche buying works of art from declining European aristocrats and selling them to the millionaires of the United States in which he was very successfull. See also the online review of the biography "Duveen: A Life in Art", by Meryle Secrest, New York, Knopf, 2004; by Peter Dailey ('The Dealer King').

Duveen played an important role in convincing the so-called "robber baron " industrialists and financiers that buying art was a means of social legitimation, a means of buying upper-class status and reknown. Duveen's clients included Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, Henry E. Huntington, J.P. Morgan, Samuel H. Kress, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, and Frank Porter Wood in Canadia. Another of his clients in his later years was J. Paul Getty. Through the donation of the collections of these individuals to public institutions, many of the works that Duveen shipped across the Atlantic now comprise the core of the collections of many of the United States' finest museums, for example the Frick collection in New York, the Frank P. Wood collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Huntington Library, and the Mellon and Kress collections now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and elsewhere.

The marketing skills of dealers like Duveen seem to be responsible for the current attitudes of US collectors of portable antiquities such as coins. We see these collectors time and time again presenting themselves as some kind of intellectual elites, preserving for the hoi polloi around them selected elements of "classical culture" and an awareness of "other cultures" which (they argue) is being eroded by declining standards in public education in the States. They present their mission as a public one pursued through private collection, a paradox that is not peceived due to the legacy of dealers like Duveen and the "robber baron" collectors. The main difference is that the collections today are so much more widespread and down market from Duveen's day, instead of the second Ardabil Carpet, these collectors are buying "English dug ups" (bulk lots of Roman coins for "zapping"), bulk lots of broken metal artefacts stripped from Balkan Roman settlements and cemeteries, grave pots and lamps, shabti figures from Egyptian tombs and the odd mummified human foot or other such grisly status-enhancing (sic) "relic".

* This text is largely compiled from Wikipedia, which is also the source of the photo used here.

An "equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures"

"this equally important, although different story
about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures

Hannah Bolton, the British Museum's spokesperson does not have an enviable job these days. It is bad enough that she has to speak up in favour of the Portable Antiquity Scheme's disturbing "partnership" with portable antiquity collectors in the UK. Now the poor lady even has to side with James Cuno over universalism in collecting. The opening of the Parthenon Museum in Athens of course puts the BM in extremely bad light and they are going to have to do a lot more nifty PR work now to escape increasing international condemnation (for example, listen to David Gill waxing poetical on Looting Matters). Elena Becatoros (New Acropolis Museum seeks missing frieze return, Associated Press Sat. Jun. 20th 2009) quotes Culture Minister Antonis Samaras at the opening ceremony on Friday night as saying:

"We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts [...] We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th Century (B.C.) Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometers away [...] The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world [...] They were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum".
In reply Ms Bolton could only lamely reply:

"I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days [...] here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures".
What nonsense. Half of the marbles tells a very fragmentary story, when instead the "global citizens" can hop on a plane, train or coach to Athens to see the whole frieze telling the story it was meant to tell, and not the one modern collectors want to impose on it. The British Museum could equally "tell that story" about fifth century Athens with other "things" it has in its huge storerooms, including other items from Periclean Athens no doubt (vases, or any bits knocked or pried off other monuments they may have knocking about in the British public collections from over two centuries of Grand Tour collecting).

In any case, the only "story" these torn off, sawn off, dragged-away, overcleaned battered fragments of marble arranged around the inside walls of a cramped London museum gallery currently tell the viewer is a sad one. Only one of the greed of a small minority of British collectors and souvenir hunters in the past. The act is one that characterises the centuries before 'last minute' flights and cheap weekend breaks in almost any capital of Europe make the new museum accessible to all (to the same group of people at least that can afford the train fare to the British capital and a night in a London hotel, which is what the "Marbles" cost most people that see the "Elgin" marbles today).

OK, so let us hear this "this equally important, although different story " the British Museum feels it can tell us "all" about "about ancient Athens' place in world cultures" which London claims can be told better in a 1930s gallery tacked onto the side of the Greek rooms in London than a new museum in Athens right by the buildings concerned. I think we'd "all" like to hear it.

[Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues, Sunday, 21 June 2009]

Sotheby's Retract Benin Mask From Sale at Request of Consigners

"Sotheby's Retract Benin Mask From Sale at Request of Consigners" Originally published on Paul Barford's Portable Antiquities collecting and heritage issues Blog (Sunday, 26 December 2010)
Well, here's a piece of good news, it is being reported on MSN this evening that Sotheby's has withdrawn a controversial sale of a Benin ivory hip mask from sale. For the controversy see several recent texts by Kwame Opoku and also Tom Flynn's coverage: ' Sale of looted Benin treasures "reprehensible and unconscionable", say Nigerian cultural activists (don't miss the Open University film embedded in it). If this is true, it shows that public opinion can sometimes hold sway over commercial interests.

Hat-tip to MSN

The Independent has an article about the withdrawal by Sotheby's a few days ago of a Benin mask that had been causing such controversy (see also the Looting Matters coverage). I was interested to read the not-very sympathetic wikipedia biography of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Galway, KCMG, DSO (1859–1949) the British official in whose possession it left Africa.

Cairo Conference: International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage

Cairo Conference: "International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage" From Paul Barford's Portable Antiquities and Heritage Issues Blog (7th April 2010)
A lot of press attention has been received by the Cairo conference “International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage ” being held at an administration building next to Cairo’s opera house, 7th-8th April. This concerns the trafficking of ancient artefacts as trophies and seeks to find ways of securing the return of these artefacts which are now in the museums and collections of Europe and the United States.

The main subject of the current spate of news stories is the determination of the delegates to present a united front on these issues. As Zahi Hawass, the convener of the session and rapidly becoming the figurehead of the cultural property trophy artefacts repatriation movement pointed out to his audience: “We need to co-operate, we need a unification between our countries. Every country is fighting alone; every country suffered alone, especially Egypt". “We will battle together ... "Maybe we will not succeed in a lifetime, [but] we have to open the subject".

The session will discuss strategies for recovering key works from foreign museums. One proposal was that the delegates should produce one list of artifacts that world opinion should demand return home. "We need to co-operate all of us especially with that wish list. we need all of us to come with one list and fight until [we get these] artefacts back”, Hawass is reported as saying. He emphasized that countries are not seeking to reclaim all antiquities, simply those taken illegally and artifacts of great historical value to the original country. The range of artefacts involved is quite wide, and many of them have already been widely discussed. Greece wants the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles; Mexico seeks the feathered headdress of Montezuma which is now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology; the Nigerians wants bronzes and other items from Benin back from the British Museum, Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone and bust of Nefertiti and a number of other ‘iconic’ items scattered in several European collections.

The conference stressed that even in cases where these objects had been legally acquired by standards of over a century ago, this is more of a question of goodwill, of surrendering cultural items held as hostages by formerly powerful nations as a symbol of power and domination. “Forget the legal issue,” Hawass is quoted as having said. “Important icons should be in their motherland, period”.
Another of the aims of the conference was to find ways of ensuring a more fuller implementation of the 1970 UNESCO convention under which countries agreed measures to prevent the illegal export of national treasures. Hawass pointed out that international rules and treaties are of little use in getting key relics back; several international conventions since 1954 have prohibited wartime looting, theft and resale of artifacts. These conventions do not however apply to items taken abroad before national laws or global agreements were in force. The conference delegates are expected to conclude that they should. It has been stated that a major initiative for the conference will therefore be to draft an appeal to amend the 1970 UNESCO Convention. In its current form, the Convention is not retroactive, but the delegates are reported to want it changed so that it applies to items acquired prior to that date. A united stand between affected nations would bolster the claims.

The continued looting that erodes the archaeological record of the unlucky “source countries” is also a source of concern. Apart from indiscriminate private collectors, “museums are the main source for stolen artifacts. If they stop (buying stolen artifacts) the theft will be less," Hawass told delegates. Nevertheless some advances have been made. Hawass also pointed out “we have good cooperation with other countries. We have had artifacts returned from Spain, Italy but the number one country that has returned artifacts is the United States". He discretely did not add that the US was probably the number one country which provides a market for stolen antiquities, with (according to ACCG figures) an estimated 50 000 collectors of ancient dug-up coins alone.

It seems to me that the programme of this conference is a trifle over-ambitious for such a short meeting. Defining a wish list of artefacts to be returned may sound easy, but to be effective it needs to be global in extent, and not exclude nations that were prevented from sending delegates for one reason or another (was Israel invited for example?). Also it is likely to mix objects which are not where delegates would want them to be for different reasons. Should the Benin Punitive Mission of 1897 be seen in the same terms as Lord Elgin's men about a century earlier sawing off bits of a ruined building to make portable pieces of art? It seems to me that two days for a presentation of the issues and debate on this one topic alone are scarcely enough if it is intended to produce by the end of the meeting a definitive list.

Secondly there is no way that (however much one might regret the way it is phrased) the 1970 UNESCO Convention can be amended to be retrospective. The very notion is simply naïve. At the very inkling of such a thing happening key market nations will withdraw and the whole shaky edifice of international co-operation on its basis will collapse. This is a pity because the UNESCO Convention is full of holes and we do need another better one. Nevertheless rendering it retrospective to include past “wrongs” really is not its function, neither is it practical (I think the 1970 cut-off date for legitimacy is already too much in the “historical past” of the antiquities). I also wonder to what extent it is really needed to regulate what must in the end be settled by compromise and gestures of goodwill between nations – and yes, naming and shaming and even a little gentle academic-political blackmail like the resolution of the Louvre stolen TT15 relief affair.

I am therefore unsure what the purpose of “uniting” would be and what form that could take. Perhaps the reports of the conference’s final conclusions tomorrow will give a better idea.

Marwa Awad, Egypt urges states to cooperate on artifact return, Reuters Television Apr 7, 2010.
Daniel Williams Egypt Leads Multinational Call to Bring Disputed Relics Home April 07, 2010
CBC News Teamwork needed to recover looted antiquities: Hawass , April 7, 2010
Unite to recover looted artefacts, Egypt forum told

Vignette: "The British Museum Looter of Africa"photomontage.

The Scramble for Africa's Treasures

The Scramble for Africa's Treasures
From Paul Barford's Portable Antiquities and heritage Issues Blog ( Sunday, 21 March 2010).

From Nigeria Daily News Sun, 21 Mar 2010:

"The history of the African continent is littered with the exploits of plunderers. Slave traders - local and foreign - held sway for centuries, carting multitudes of Africans across the Atlantic, to plantations in the Americas and elsewhere. When the slave trade went out of fashion, the land grab followed. In Berlin in 1885, the colonial warriors carved Africa up into bits - represented on the map as brightly coloured slices - which they then proceeded to administer and exploit, until the wave of independence that arrived with the 1950s. Following that phase, the scramble has largely taken on an economic dimension, with Africa’s oil and minerals and farmlands up for grabs. Less overt, is another kind of plunder - involving the relocation of hundreds of valuable pieces of artwork - sculptures, pottery, from Africa to museums and private collections in the West. Take Benin’s bronze heads for example. In 1897, the British attacked and destroyed the Benin Kingdom. In the process they gained access to the Kingdom’s rich trove of extraordinary artwork, which they wasted no time looting. And the plunder has continued to the present day. Over the last few decades, hundreds of vigango (ancestral totems used to mark burial sites) have disappeared from Kenyan villages, ending up in museums and private collections in the United States. In 1994, the National Museum in Ile-Ife was broken into three times, with the vandals carting away some of the finest heads in the collection.

It is estimated that the global illicit trade in artifacts is currently worth billions of dollars. It would also not be farfetched to say that the West’s thriving exhibition circuit is propped up to a significant extent by artifacts illegally acquired from Africa. An exhibition, currently going on in London at the moment, is showing the finest of Ife’s terracotta and brass heads. At the moment, there are no plans to host the exhibition in Nigeria.

It would not be true, or fair, however, to lay the blame solely at the feet of Europe and America. The West would find it extremely difficult to gain possession of African artifacts, especially in contemporary times, without the collusion of Africans themselves, within and outside the government bureaucracy. Unscrupulous Western businessmen and art dealers may pay for Kenya’s vigango, but the actual stealing is done by unscrupulous Kenyan youth, who loot burial sites

The rest is here.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sarkozy criticised for Korean Manuscripts Deal

President Nicolas Sarkozy struck a deal with Korean officials in November at the G20 summit, allowing the long-term loan of 297 volumes of manuscripts housed in a major French public collection to South Korea. This has unleashed a wave of criticism among French culture professionals who fear that the items may never return to France. The manuscripts concerned are royal records from the Joseon Dynasty of the 17th and 18th century which had been seized from Korean royal archives in 1867 by French soldiers and have since been housed at the the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. The objects have been loaned to Korea under a renewable five-year agreement. Sarkozy told French newspaper Le Monde that this agreement honoured a promise made in 1993 by the late president François Mitterrand who had promised to return the archives in exchange for a French-backed high-speed rail link which has since opened between Seoul and Pusan).

Sarkozy is adamant that the agreement does not contravene state law which ensures that French public archive items, as inalienable state property, cannot be removed indefinitely from national collections. “We will not be moved on this point and the Koreans have decided to accept a long-term loan,” said the President.

Not so, according to a petition signed by over 30 BNF staff including Thierry Delcourt, the director of the manuscripts department, and Denis Bruckmann, director of collections. “Under the cover of a loan renewable every five years, the decision is equivalent to a de facto restitution, contradicting the law. It will allow manuscripts to return to France in a manner that is at best episodic, and is sure to strengthen the increasingly sustained claims for the return of cultural property that various countries are making to the archives, museums and libraries in France, Europe, and beyond,” note the signatories. French art scholar Didier Rykner goes further, calling the move “totally illegal”. Ministry of Culture officials reportedly insist nonetheless that some manuscripts will return to France, notably for joint cultural festivals in 2015 and 2016.
The BNF believes that Mitterrand’s decision to return one volume in 1993 set a precedent, caustically noting on its website: “One of the volumes (identified Coréen 2495) was delivered to the Korean government on September 1993, on the occasion of a state visit by François Mitterrand, following legal conditions that are not interpreted the same way by both parties (long-term loan according to France, which is confirmed by the regular renewal of the authorization for temporary exit of the document; restitution according to Korea).” The Korean embassy in London declined to comment.
Gareth Harris, 'Sarkozy criticised for loaning French manuscripts to Korea', Art Newspaper
(online only), Dec 10 2010.