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consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the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.

Britain's Scattered Heritage

I come from a tiny little green island on the very edge of Europe, which due to a series of historical accidents [and actually against the odds] for a large part of recent history became very powerful (creating an "Empire on which the sun never sets") and then reluctantly gave independence to that nation over the other side of the Atlantic that now aspires to that mantle.

In that role Britain was one of the few states that in the past four or five centuries has grabbed an awful lot of "cultural stuff" from other nations by conquest, economic dominance and other mechanisms (and now the US is doing the same). Today many of these victim nations "want our cultural property back please". In response the cultural property grabbing states like Britain refuse and then make up some high-faluting stuff about "cultural cosmopolitanism/ internationalism" which is in some way superior to ill-defined "cultural nationalism" lying behind the request to be treated as an equal. Then came the Declaration of Universal (Encyclopedic) Museums and Cuno. All just different ways of saying "no, you inferior foreigners, shut up and go away and let us continue to enjoy your art and culture in our collections".

All this is very much to the taste of the no-questions-asked dealers and private collectors of portable antiquities, they too want to walk all over the rights of the people of the "source countries" to any of the archaeological (in particular) heritage of the land they inhabit. I have always felt however that including the broader "repatriation" issue in the debate on the current no-questions-asked trade in antiquities (which is the main subject of my blogging) is confusing the issue, and I believe this is done deliberatly by the dealers' lobby. For this reason, I have not dwelt on it much here on this blog, seeing it as a largely separate issue.

In one of the debates with Cuno last year (I think), a speaker asked how we would feel if it was our cultural property that had been taken "by the Chinese", would we still be spouting off about "universal museums" and a nation's manifest destiny to take everybody else's cultural stuff as trophies. This blog is an adaptation of that thought.

As I say Britain owes its former and current position (and survival of its own cultural heritage more or less intact) to a series of historical accidents. Britain came close to a Napoleonic invasion, arguably it would have only needed a few things go against Britain at the same time as a naval commander to woke up with a migrane on the morning of the Battle of Finistere for example and Britain to lose the air battle with Hitler to have had two invasions take place, with consequent serious losses of cultural property (and of course much else).

So in a new blog I activated today (I've been collecting the ideas and stuff for several weeks now) I decided to take a few significant pieces of our cultural property and imagine how in an alternative historical framework, they could have ended up in different places. Not all of the examples are entirely fictional. I had to use a bit of invention, I did not want to make the French, Americans and Nazis the only villans. I tried to make the discussed cases reflect the various types of problems involved, the Parthenon Marbles are (sort of) parallelled, the problem with repatriation of human remains is touched upon. I have not yet written the one on metal detectorists, but that will be going up in the next few days. I should admit that I do not intend maintaining it as a blog to which new material is constantly added, that is just the form I gave it when I set it up, it seemed less complicated than setting up a website.

The blog can be found here:"Britain's Scattered Heritage"

Is there anything else I should have covered?

Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues: Thursday, 26 August 2010

"Can we Have OUR Stuff Back Please?" - Cultural Property Repatriation Issues

"Can We Have OUR Stuff Back Please?"
For the past three years I have been blogging on "Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues" which covers the issues surrounding the antiquities market, and particularly the destruction of the archaeological record caused by ongoing commercial looting to supply it. The problems involved in cutting through all the pro-collecting rhetoric, conceits and deceits are manifold and I decided at an early stage to concentrate on that aspect rather than the more ambitious "heritage issues" implied in the title.

The question of the repatriation of things which are considered cultural property which were taken several decades and even centuries ago is - to my mind - quite a separate problem from the repatriation of items looted from archaeological sites or otherwise stolen more recently. The two however are often confused, whether deliberately to fog other issues, or unintentionally is questionable. My intention in opening this blog is to create a place to store a few news items I come across in my other reading, and explore a few issues for myself. It does not intend to be a comprehensive coverage of the issue, nor a particularly original contribution, many items will be summaries of recent news posts.

In general, this blog will cover calls for and moves towards (or resistance against) the return to the country they were taken from of material culture which had been removed before the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. My own interests are in archaeological material rather than paintings, literary memorabilia and postage stamps or whatever.

For other musings and rants connected with looting and transfer of ownership of cultural property, see my Portable Antiquities and Heritage Issues Blog, while a pseudo-blog I created last year called "Britain's Scattered Heritage" takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the scattering of a country's cultural heritage from a somewhat different angle (that blog is inactive - there will be no new posts there).