Thursday, May 30, 2013

Finnish Museum Asked to Return Ancient Artefacts to Iraq

In April, the Iraqi Embassy in Helsinki sent a letter to Helena Edgren, the Director General at National Museum of Finland asking her to return to Iraq six ancient artefacts from its collection. The items include a clay foundation nail inscribed with cuneiform characters and an incantation bowl.
The unusual request led to a thorough investigation of how the artefacts came into the museum's collection that included information from records at the Office of the President and the Urho Kekkonen Museum.  In August 1977, the Amos Anderson art gallery in Helsinki saw the opening of a "Land of Two Rivers" exhibition of ancient art from Iraq. The opening coincided with the visit of an Iraqi delegation that included the country's Information Minister Tariq Aziz, and Iraq's chief state archaeologist.  The Iraqi group met with President Kekkonen both at the opening of the exhibition and at his residence. During the visit to his residence, the delegation presented President Kekkonen with a number of objects as gifts. These same items are those that the Iraqi Embassy has asked to be returned. In the autumn of that same year, President Kekkonen donated the artefacts to the National Museum which added them to its general ethnographic collection. [...] The National Board of Antiquities reviewed applicable laws and international regulations regarding the case, as well its ethical aspects. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Culture pointed out that the request was not official, as it did not originate from the Iraqi government. The conclusion reached was that the items were legally obtained and there is nothing legally suspect about their entry into Finland. Early this month, the directors of the National Board of Antiquities decided that there is no need to comply with the request to return the artefacts. 
The Iraqi Embassy has so far refused to discuss the matter with Finnish journalists. I would say the situation is relatively clear-cut and the donation of the items in 1977 makes the Finnish Museum's hanging onto them entirely legitimate (whatever people want to say about the past Iraqi regime). It really looks as if the intention was to share Iraqi antiquities with the people of Finland. The only complication may arise (and there is no word of this here) if the objects had been taken from the inventory of an Iraqi museum collection by a member of the ruling elite in a manner that raises ethical issues. 

'Finland refuses to return ancient artefacts to Iraq', Yle News, 30th May 2013. 
Photo: President Urho Kekkonen attended the opening of the Land of Two Rivers exhibition in Helsinki in August 1977. Also in attendance were ministerial-level guests from Iraq (Image: Amos Andersonin taidemuseon kuva-arkisto). 

G.I.'s family returns World War II antiquities to Italy

Antiques lifted from an Italian church by a G.I. during World War II, were returned in a ceremony at the Italian Embassy, the latest in a call for aging veterans and their families to repatriate such "souvenirs" of the war. In 1944, Irving Tross of Chicago, now 96,  was a radio operator with the U.S. Army's 88th Infantry Division. The soldiers came across  170 crates of cultural property hidden by the University of Naples library during the Invasion of Italy, inside a church that was damaged by shelling and some of them it seems helped themselves to some of what they found. Mr Tross was troubled by his conscience however which led to yesterday's ceremony. The return
represents the latest efforts of the Monuments Men Foundation, a group set to become more famous this year with the release of the upcoming movie, The Monuments Men, starring and directed by George Clooney. The film will highlight efforts spearheaded by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, acting as allied commander, in a 1943 order that required all military personnel to safeguard cultural treasures. The order created the Monuments Men, formally the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, some 345 men and women, curators, librarians, historians and artists, who raced around Europe in the last years of World War II, until 1951, seeking the return of looted artwork and antiquities. [...] Ironically, the United States only formally ratified a 1954 international treaty built around Eisenhower's orders in 2008, says antiquities law expert Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University in Chicago. Eisenhower's elevation of protecting cultural artifacts into a military priority was a far-sighted change to the rules of war, she says. "I think it is a fair question to ask if we are doing as good a job now as we did then," Gerstenblith says.
There is also a book out, by Robert Edsel, "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis". The recent ceremony, however, is a reminder that it was not just "the Nazis" who were pinching stuff, as happens everywhere, many people took advantage of the chaos of conflict to enrich themselves.

Dan Vergano,  G.I.'s family returns World War II antiquities to Italy USAToday May 29, 2013.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Greek Antiquities Excavated during Second World War Repatriated from Germany

In June, Germany's Pfahlbaumuseum will return to Greece 8,000 pottery fragments excavated from Thessaly during the Second World War. The material is Neolithic in date and was excavated in 1941 near Velestino, Thessaly.
The ministry's general directorate for antiquities is collecting data for all antiquities illegally removed from Greece during the German occupation. The repatriation of Greek cultural artefacts is among Greece's demands for German reparations from World War II, according to the foreign ministry. The two ministries are working together on the formation of an international cooperation network through the signing of bilateral agreements for the protection of cultural goods and the prevention of artefact trafficking. Greece has already signed agreements with Switzerland, China, the US and Turkey and negotiations are ongoing with several other countries for the signing of similar agreements. 
'Thousands of Greek antiquities repatriated from Germany',, Wednesday 29 May 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Koh Ker fragments in US Collections

The New York Times has an article which is the follow-up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent decision to return two statues to Cambodia (Tom Masberg, 'Cambodia Presses U.S. Museums to Relinquish Antiquities', New York Times May 15, 2013).  This refers to the several other US museums that own works believed to have been taken from the same 10th-century Khmer temple, Prasat Chen, part of the archaeological site Koh Ker. It shows that at least six of the looted works ended up in the United States. Among them are the figures at the Metropolitan Museum, and the one in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and the one being contested with its Belgian owner (Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa after she shipped it to Sotheby's in the US to flog off). In addition to these, Cambodia says the Denver Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art also have material illicitly taken from this temple. There is an excellent presentation here -  From Jungle to Museum and Back? which puts the known statues in the context of the site itself and the plan of the temple. It gives the date of acquisition of the items in US museums ("acquired in four pieces 1987-92", "acquired 1980", "acquired 1982", "acquired 1986"). If we assume that they were looted at the same time as those presently contested (ie c. 1970/71) it raises the issue that several of them must have passed through some private collection or other after dismemberment. 

Here are several other "Koh Ker style" objects at the Cleveland Museum,  note in particular the:
"Head of a Deity or a Deified King, 928-941 Cambodia, Style of Koh Ker, Reign of Jayavarman IV, 928-941 gray sandstone, Overall - h:37.40 cm (h:14 11/16 inches). Dudley P. Allen Fund 1923".95"
thus dating back to 1920s. So how did this leave the jungle site? Who removed it? How did it get to Cleveland?