Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kwame Opoku comments on Return to Namibia of Skulls by Germany

Namibia: Return of Stolen Skulls by Germany - Closure of a Horrible Chapter?
By Kwame Opoku, 22 March 2012

Vernichtungsbefehl (Extermination Order) by the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha (October 1904):
Ich, der große General der deutschen Soldaten, sende diesen Brief an das Volk der Herero. Die Hereros sind nicht mehr deutsche Untertanen. Sie haben gemordet und gestohlen, haben verwundeten Soldaten Ohren und Nasen und andere Körperteile abgeschnitten, und wollen jetzt aus Feigheit nicht mehr kämpfen. [...] Das Volk der Herero muß jedoch das Land verlassen. Wenn das Volk dies nicht tut, so werde ich es mit dem Groot Rohr dazu zwingen. Innerhalb der Deutschen Grenze wird jeder Herero mit und ohne Gewehr, mit oder ohne Vieh erschossen, ich nehme keine Weiber und Kinder mehr auf, treibe sie zu ihrem Volke zurück oder lasse auf sie schießen. Dies sind meine Worte an das Volk der Hereros.
"The return of the 20 skulls surely cannot be a symbolic closure of a tragic chapter in the history of Germany and Namibia. At best, the handing over could be regarded as a symbolic beginning of a process that may close this incredible chapter of cruelty and criminality organised by a European state against African peoples. German rule in South West Africa (1884-1915) was marked by singular brutality, disregard of the human rights of Namibians, confiscation of land and cattle, coupled with exploitation of the human and material resources of the vast colony. The massacres of the Herero and the Nama were the first genocides of the 20th century..."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Contested Turkish Objects in London

According to Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper, Turkey is blocking museum loans to some US and UK museums because they refuse to surrender objects excavated in Turkey in the past. In Britain, both the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museums are having problems in this regard in their efforts to create two 'encyclopedic' exhibitions.
The Turkish government wants the British Museum to return a carved stele (stone slab). Dating from the first century BC, it depicts King Antiochus I Epiphanes greeting Herakles-Verethragna. The stele was first recorded in 1882 when it was found in a field in Selik, near the town of Samsat in modern Turkey. The carved, sculpted relief, which is four feet high, had been used as an olive oil press and a large hole had been drilled through its centre. It was bought in 1911 by the archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who was digging in Carchemish with the permission of the Ottoman authorities. When the first world war broke out, the area around Carchemish was fought over. After the war, the archaeological store was in Syria, then administered by the French. In 1927, Woolley exported the stele with the permission of the French authorities and it was bought by the British Museum. Although a claim was made for the stele in 2005, it was not pursued by the Turkish authorities. In the meantime, loans between the two countries continued. Turkey’s claim to the stele was revived in January 2011 by its ambassador to London, Unal Cevikoz, after the appointment of a new director-general of cultural heritage and museums, Osman Murat Suslu.
The BM was keen to resolve this issue, it recently organized an exhibition about the “Hajj” exhibition and since Mecca was controlled by the Ottoman empire from 1517 to 1916, there are many historic artefacts referring to this site held in Turkish museums. (It would be interesting to know whether the Saudis are asking for their surrender).
A British Museum spokeswoman told us last month: “The museum would be willing to discuss a loan of the stele, subject to the usual conditions. The trustees cannot consent to the transfer of ownership and firmly believe that it should remain part of the museum’s collection, where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience.” It is on display in the Near East Galleries.
Bailey reports that the V&A is facing a similar problem over its planned exhibition “The Ottomans” intended to focus on the development of Ottoman art from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the 19th century. For this, loans from Turkey would be essential. The show was "scheduled for 2014, then delayed a year, it is now on hold". Turkey has requested the surrender of the stone head of a child, representing Eros, from the 3rd century BC Sidamara sarcophagus (The Art Newspaper, October 2010, p9).
The head was removed in 1882 by the archaeologist Charles Wilson, and donated to the V&A by his family in 1933. The head is now in store at the V&A. The Sidamara sarcophagus, which is otherwise intact, is on display in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum. A V&A spokeswoman says that the head was legitimately acquired and the museum is not allowed to deaccession. “The offer of a long-term loan of the head to Turkey has been discussed,” she adds.
Martin Bailey, 'Turkey blocks loans to US and UK', Art Newspaper, Published online: 01 March 2012

Turkey Seeks Surrender of Part of the Met's Norbert Schimmel Collection

The Turkish government is currently seeking the return of 18 objects from the Ancient Near East Galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (reported by Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper earlier this month). Turkey is threatening to refuse to loan objects to the institution until questions about the contested objects were addressed.
Turkey claims all of them were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of its cultural property. All the contested objects are from the Norbert Schimmel Collection, which the museum has described as “the finest private assemblage of its kind in America” and “one of the most important gifts of ancient and Classical art ever presented to this museum.” Between the 1950s and his death in 1990, Schimmel was a member of the Met’s board of trustees and acquisitions committee. In 1989, he donated 102 objects from his collection to the Met.
Chasing Aphrodite lists the Norbert Schimmel Collection objects, mostly Hittite and Urartian. Most of the objects have no documented ownership history other than being in the Schimmel Collection by the mid 1960s or 1970s. As Felch and Fremolino note:
The Schimmel Collection was published in a 1974 volume entitled “Ancient Art:The Norbert Schimmel Collection.” The editor of the volume was Oscar White Muscarella, a former Met curator who has been an outspoken critic of the role museums have played in the illicit antiquities trade. We’ve asked Muscarella for his thoughts on the Turkish claim and will post his response when we have it.
It is interesting to note that for some reason Turkey waited 38 years after the publication of the collecting before asking for the objects back. Turkey is also requesting surrender of an object from the British Museum and one from the Victoria and Albert Museum. According to Chasing Aphrodite, Turkey is also considering asking for the return of 11 other (?) unidentified objects at the Met, and apparently objects from several other US museums.

Chasing Aphrodite, 'Exclusive: Turkey Seeks The Return of 18 Objects From The Metropolitan Museum of Art', Chasing Aphrodite blog, March 20, 2012.


Benjamin Sutton, 'More Antiquities Woes for U.S. Museums Loom, As Turkey Demands 18 Artifacts From the Metropolitan Museum', ArtInfo, march 20th 2012.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Book on Trade in Egyptian Antiquities

Ashraf El-Ashmawi was for more than seven years the legal consultant for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities. He has a book coming out within days, published by the Lebanese Egyptian Printing House (the German version will be released in October, an English version is in the making). It is titled: 'Legitimate Robberies, on the illicit trade of Egypt’s antiquities'. This relates the history of trade of Egypt’s antiquities during the last 200 years (the blurb says 'illicit trade').
Due to his legal position at the SCA El-Ashmawi witnessed and collaborated in the restitution of almost 5,000 artefacts that have been illegally looted and smuggled out of the country. Legitimate Robberies reveals the mysteries behind several recent antiquities thefts and ones from all the way back to the end of Napoleon's French Expedition to Egypt in 1802. In his book, El-Ashmawi uncovers that laws and regulations that controlled Egypt’s antiquities in earlier centuries actually legitimated the antiquities trade - a major crim, robbing Egypt of its history and civilisation.[...] Among these stories is the controversy over the exhibition in Germany of the exquisite, painted bust of Nefertiti
Uh-oh. El-Ashmawi relates the stories behind several antiquities thefts and the efforts exerted by the SCA and himself to return those objects back to their homeland, Egypt. The ideology behind this book would seem (from this pre-publication blurb) to be that if it is from Egypt, it belongs back in Egypt, no matter under what laws (or lack of them) it was removed in the past. Personally that is not a position I accept. There is a legitimate trade in antiquities of documented collecting histories which take them back to beyond vesting ("retentionist" if you like) legislation.

Nevine El-Aref, 'New Release: Legitimate Robberies, on the illicit trade of Egypt’s antiquities', Ahram Online, Monday 19 Mar 2012

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Armenia lays claim to the Satala Aphrodite in the British Museum

Gevorg Martirosyan is the organizer of a campaign called "Bring the Goddess Home," and asked me to discuss it here. This campaign is aimed to repatriate "the remains of Armenian pagan goddess Anahit's statue" from the British Museum to the Armenian people". The campaign has a petition: and a Facebook page:

The head and hand of a Hellenistic bronze statue were found about 1872 by a farmer digging his land in the ancient city of Satala (modern Satagh/Sedak), north-eastern Turkey in what the campaign considers "Armenian lands" (presumably the conquests of Tigranes the Great). The head made its way via Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Italy to the dealer Alessandro Castellani, who eventually sold it to the British Museum. The hand was presented to the Museum a few years later (despite rumours that the whole statue had previously been found, the body has never come to light). The statue was believed to represent nude Aphrodite, her left hand pulling drapery from a support at her side, like the famous statue of Aphrodite at Knidos by the fourth-century sculptor Praxiteles. But the Armenian campaigners say the statue represents the Iranian goddess Anahita:
Anahit is the goddess of fertility and beauty and her statue statue is from 4th-1st century BC. It was discovered by farmers in 1872 in historic Armenian lands. Ever since then, the statue has been at the British Museum as the statue of "Aphrodite" (but not Anahit) without stating its Armenian origins. In a matter of few weeks we have gathered more than 1100 "online" signatures and we are receiving positive response from the British Museum, however, they are only willing to temporarily display it in Armenia. An organization in Armenia has collected more than 20,000 paper signatures.
Armenia has put a picture of the head on a banknote and a postage stamp. I wrote (Mar 18) to Mr Martirosyan (who had offered to answer any questions I might have) asking:
What makes you so sure it is Anahit? There is no inscription, no temple, so why her? Who actually identified the statue as Anahit, and when was that? How long has she been put on Armenian banknotes and stamps (etc)?Why is it specifically Armenian (where was the boundary of the "Armenian lands" in Hellenistic times to which you refer? Are you suggesting it was removed from Turkey illegally, if so, why should it go to Armenia - several hundred kilometres from where it was found, rather than go to Turkey, the territory from which it was taken?
So far, however, I have received no answer to these questions, either the campaigner does not know or does not want to say.

The British Museum website might be the source of the Armenian claim:
The size of the head suggests that it came from a cult statue, though excavations made at Satala in 1874 by Sir Alfred Biliotti, the British vice-consul at Trebizond, failed to discover a temple there. The statue may date to the reign of Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia (97-56 BC), whose rule saw prosperity throughout the region. The thin-walled casting of the bronze head suggests a late Hellenistic date.
I am not sure I see any justification for the BM permanently relinquishing this object, it seems to have been legally acquired under the market conditions legitimate at the time, and it seems to me that the Armenian claim is extremely tenuous.

UPDATE 22.03.12:
See now: 'How a Mythical Fertility Goddess Could Help Steer Armenia's National Election', The Atlantic March 17th 2012. Mr Gevorg Martirosyan has still not bothered even to acknowledge he received my questions, let alone attempt to answer them.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tess Davis on Khmer "Blood Antiquities" in the US

There are many Khmer artefacts looted in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge atrocities in the US. The audio clip 'Call to halt sale of 'blood antiques' on Australia Network News concerning the Koh Ker statues, one currently in Californian museum and one on the New York antiquities market. Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation talks about the Sotherby's statue. She says she believes the company is still trying to salvage a deal and sell the statue.
"If I were a collector myself I would be very nervous about buying an object who's title was questioned on the front page of the New York Times," Ms Davis said. She said potential buyers need to understand the scale of the crime. "A number of American and European museums and auction houses have been caught with illicit, illicit Cambodian antiquities, many of these were taken from Khmer Rouge occupied areas during the countries long conflict, which makes them blood antiquities," she said. "It's no different to blood diamonds from Sierra Leone."
Ms Davis has an answer to those among collectors applying the 'Witschonke Premise' that countries which cannot unaided stop the looting of archaeological sites on their territory should not be helped:
The Cambodian Government have introduced measures to combat looting, but Ms Davis said the problem is a global one. "As long as there is a demand for stolen and looted Khmer art there will be looting," she said.

And Ms Davis said while it is often assumed most of the looting is being done by poor villagers, this is not always the case. "When you look at these vast temple complexes that have literally been taken apart stone by stone and carted over the border to Thailand," she said. "I mean think about this, this is sandstone blocks we are talking about, weighing hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, that is not being done by poor villagers, that would require money and organisation."
Indeed, criminal organization to commit culture crime. Collectors are often buying no-questions-asked, items supplied to markets by culture criminals.

US law is loathe to help the victims of culture crime, even though US citizens are responsible for the perpetuation of its effects. Ms Davis has recently discovered French laws from 1925 which could help Cambodia prove title over looted antiques. I was struck by her explanation of this (2:06 before the end onwards, not reported in the article): "from 1975 to 1979 most of Cambodia's legal profession died in the killing fields, law schools and libraries were decimated, and as a result, the codes, decrees and regulations that once governed the country's archaeological sites and antiquities were nearly lost to history, but recent research at the national archives in Phnom Penh have unearthed [...] dozens of documents that demonstrate that cultural heritage [...] has long been protected[..], and in particular a series of laws of 1925".