German police have recovered a work by Carl Spitzweg worth half a million euros, or $650,000. The painting, “Friedenzseit” (“Peacetime”) was taken last March from the Kunsthalle in Mannheim during a weekend in which the museum had been opened later to allow more visitors to view the work. Security may have been less than one would expect during the theft. It highlights a continuing problem for museums though. They want to attract more visitors, but as they do, security issues become more acute.
Today’s New York Times has a nice piece on the display of Afghan treasures at the Musee Guimet in Paris. A press release about the exhibition is available here. The last three decades have seen a great deal of conflict and destruction in Afghanistan, and the most remarkable thing about many of these objects is that they have survived at all. Unfortunately, these beautiful objects can not yet be safely displayed in Afghanistan. Some of these treasures, in a collection known as the Bactrian gold, were kept hidden in a bank vault under the royal palace just outside Kabul. The nation sits as a crossroads between many of the world’s great ancient cultures, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians, and these objects display these influences.
French archaeologists have long-standing ties with Afghanistan. In the 1920’s, the French were granted an archaeological monopoly, to counteract growing British influence there. At the time, it was commonplace for middle-eastern nations to allow foreign archaeologists to keep half of the objects they discovered. The French were later booted from the country after the communist takeover in 1982, however they returned in 2003 after the Taliban was removed from power. These ties are probably what helped secure the exhibition in Paris.
On one level, these continuing colonial ties make me a bit uncomfortable, as it is regrettable that other nations have to save these objects from theft, destruction, or sale, when Afghanistan cannot. It is indeed unfortunate that these objects cannot be enjoyed by Afghans in their own nation. However, it is certainly a great opportunity for visitors to Paris to see them, and at the end of the day, these objects are very valuable and rare, and their display should be encouraged, even if it is not possible in their nation of origin. A major, perhaps inevitable, flaw of allowing a source nation to decide the fate of the cultural objects and sites within thair borders is the possibility that the ruling power may not want the preservation of a certain cultural history. Nation’s use cultural history as a political tool, and Afghanistan is a potent example of this. The Buddha’s at Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban because the image of Buddha is un-islamic. One Islamic school of thought believes the destruction justified, as individual’s were practicing Buddhism, which was certainly frowned upon by the Taliban.
In the absence of a peaceful Afghanistan, visitors can enjoy and appreciate these objects in Paris, and appreciate the thriving society that existed in Afghanistan, perhaps with an eye towards bringing about positive change there now.
Morning edition today features a story on Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” and attempts by Philadelphia to prevent it from leaving the city. Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University have given the city and benefactors until December 26th to raise enough funds to keep the work in the city. The City has also chosen to invoke its Historic Preservation law to prevent the work from leaving the City. This is a fascinating example of a city choosing to exercise an export restriction, which normally only takes place at the national level.
Iraqi authorities have challenged an auction of two Sumerian artifacts which took place on Tuesday. One item was a limestone statue of a Sumerian (similar to the one pictured here), which dates to 2500 BC. The other was a nail made of clay bearing an inscription which puts its age between 2097 – 2095 BC. Iraq’s culture ministry appealed to UNESCO to intervene, but there is not much the organization can do in this case, other than publicize the problem and force German authorities to take action. There isn’t much information available on Iraq’s claim, so it’s very difficult to gauge the strength of their claim. Perhaps more information will come to light, but at this point, the German authorities are claiming that domestic law does not allow them to take any action. If this had occurred in the US, federal prosecutors may have been able to bring a forfeiture claim, if they were convinced the object was indeed stolen or illicitly excavated. I am not sure if Germany has a similar legal mechanism.
ANSA is reporting that two Second Century AD Roman antiquities have been recovered by Italian authorities. One is this marble head of Dionysus, and the other is a headless statue. The head was stolen from the Villa Torlonia gallery in the 1980’s, and was recovered after it was discovered in a Christie’s in New York auction catalogue. This is yet another example of the aggressive diplomatic and legal strategy being employed by the Italians. It seems a high-profile recovery or repatriation comes every couple of days. Italy certainly stands as the model for source nations who want to combat illicit excavation or seek the return of objects taken in the past.
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which announced a massive theft earlier this summer, was the victim of an attempted robbery last Friday. A man smashed a glass display and attempted to steal a silver cup before he was arrested. The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky said that the widespread coverage of the thefts this summer may have prompted the thief to try and steal the object. A great deal was written on the missing objects this summer, and the death of a former curator who died last October further increased speculation. However, this theft appears ill-planned. The man smashed the glass with his elbow or knee and was soon apprehended.
Rowan, an intrepid black lab unearthed a neolithic axe head near Drum Castle, just outside Aberdeen, Scotland. She dropped it on her owner’s foot as they were walking around the wooded estate. The dog’s owner took it back to the Castle, and handed it over to a National Trust for Scotland archaeologist.
I must admit that I’ve taken my own dog, a french spaniel named Morteau, out to walk on this estate many times, but he did not come up with any antiquities for me. He was too concerned with the pheasants apparently.
The New York Times today cites an anonymous source who claims that the Getty Museum has agreed to return this 4th-century B.C. gold funerary wreath to Greece. A press conference has been scheduled at noon in Athens to announce the agreement. The Getty first acquired the wreath in 1993, but there has been a growing body of evidence presented to the institution that the wreath was unearthed by a farmer in 1990 near Serres, in Northern Greece, and entered the market through Switzerland and Germany. The agreement may also involve a 6th-century B.C. marble statue, which has also been claimed by Italy. As I’ve written earlier, the Getty has agreed to return 26 objects out of 52 claimed by Italy, after negotiations between the two broke down. The fact that both Italy and Greece are claiming the object cuts against both nation’s arguments, though it seems Italy has since abandoned its claim to the statue.
Perhaps the Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis’ address to the UN General Assembly, might have been planned to set the stage for today’s announcement. It might also indicate increasingly close ties between Greece and Italy. The Greeks seem to be adopting some of the more aggressive repatriation strategies employed by their neighbors. In the NYT, Voulgarakis has outlined an accord between Italy and Greece which would form a united cultural policy, and could even help the countries pursue claims jointly. The new Italian strategy employs prosecutions, public pressure, and bilateral agreements with transit states like Switzerland as well as market states like the US or UK. Interestingly, the headlines have been made, and repatriation has occurred not by using International Treaties, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but by working with individual nations and employing existing domestic law. It’s not clear either how much today’s announcement will impact a potential prosecution of former Getty curator Marion True in Greece. She is currently on trial in Rome.
It will be interesting to watch how successful this Greek/Italian cultural alliance will actually be. Public opinion seems to be favoring their position at this point, but Voulgarakis may want to be a bit more diplomatic about his public comments if he wants that to continue. In the NYT, he says that “…the Parthenon frieze has to be reunified, otherwise it has no historical value.” I can certainly appreciate the Greek desire to have the Parthenon sculptures returned, and they have a number of good claims, but the idea that they have no historical value hanging in the British Museum is simply preposterous, and does not strike me as a particularly useful way to conduct negotiations.
I would like to know more about how this object was found. If it was a chance find, that might make for a slightly different situation than occurs when individuals simply dig into tombs or other cultural sites. Chance finds are a point of contention, as internationalists point out that restraints on alienation of cultural property do not satisfactorily deal with them.
The AP is now reporting that the Getty Museum has indeed announced it will return the funerary wreath, along with the marble statue. An agreement has been reached in principle, but details have yet to be released. It’s still not clear whether the agreement will impact any potential criminal charges.
Earlier this week, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Greece on “The Return or Restitution of Cultural Property to their Countries of Origin”. The resolution lacks any real bite, as most resolutions of the General Assembly are symbolic in nature. However, it does indicate continued pressure by the Greeks on foreign nations to seek the return of Greece’s cultural property. Most notably, the Parthenon sculptures, or Elgin marbles as they are often referred to in the UK.
The Greek culture minister, George Voulgarakis hailed the initiative as “an exceptionally important event”. Discussing the Parthenon Marbles, he said “The adoption of this resolution in itself signals and guides the countries to help so that the antiquities from all over the world will return to their homes. Greece will always seek and strive, in that direction, for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful place”.
A great deal has been written about the Parthenon Marbles, and whether they should remain in the UK, or return to Greece. One noted scholar in this field, John Merryman, has argued that the sculptures should stay in the British Museum, because they have been resting there peacefully for nearly 200 years. The debate is an emblematic one in many ways for the two primary schools of thought on cultural policy, the cultural nationalists and internationalists. This discussion by the Greek minister of culture seems an effort to try to continue to pressure the UK into returning the sculptures. Perhaps he is learning some lessons from the Italians and their aggressive recent efforts at repatriation, though I think forcing the British Museum to share some or all of the sculptures will truly be a herculean task.
Donny George, the former director of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad has been hired as a visiting professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island. George left Iraq recently, after he feared for his safety. For many, he was the public face of the much-publicized (and sometimes over-exaggerated) theft and looting of Iraqi antiquities in 2003. George featured prominently in Matthew Bogdanos’ work, Thieves of Baghdad, which I discussed earlier here. It is indeed unfortunate that George cannot continue his work in Iraq, but the situation there seems to be growing increasingly unstable. Unfortunately, protecting the nation’s antiquities, and ancient sites, is not a priority for the Iraqi government, nor the foreign forces stationed there.
The picture is of the ancient city of Babylon, taken by an American soldier from a blackhawk helicopter with his digital camera.