100 Objects Returned to Panama

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Yesterday the FBI announced the return of 100 antiquities to Panama, including this very small piece of jewelry.  The objects were seized during an investigation “conducted  by the FBI’s Portland Division”:

The FBI’s investigation revealed that the widow of an amateur archeologist was storing the items in and around Klamath Falls, Oregon. The investigation showed that the individual acquired many of the items while working as a teacher on a U.S. military base in Panama during the 1980s. It was also during this time that he married his wife, then a Panamanian citizen. The two brought many of the items with them when they moved back to the U.S. in the late 1980s. Over the years, the couple sold some of the items at various markets and on the Internet. The Klamath Falls man died of natural causes in October 2004.No charges are expected.


The 1972 Panama Constitution and a 1982 Panamanian law make it illegal for any person to own antiquities from that country. Only the government of Panama may own such items, and give permission for archeological digs and/or transport of antiquities out of the country.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Neko Case and a Post for Charity

Neko Case and Anti-Records have teamed up to support Best Friends Animal Society by donating $5 for each and every Blog post and $1 for iLike user that adds her new single, “People Got A Lotta Nerve” to their profile. This runs through February 3, 2009.

Here’s the MP3:

MP3 – Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve

More information can be found on Anti’s Blog: click here 

Hat Tip:  Jill.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italy Announces Recovery of 10 Works, Doubled Recovery of Stolen Heritage

The Holy Family, a 16th painting depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus that one expert attributes to Flemish master Hendrick van den Broeck was one of 10 paintings recovered. Italian police have recovered 10 works which were stolen back in 2004. Among the recovered works is this 16th Century painting depicting the holy family attributed ot Hendrick van den Broeck.

Gen. Giovanni Nistri announced the works had a value of $5.3 million USD, noting the works were found in a trailer wrapped in newspaper. The were were stolen in 2004 from “an ancient religious complex in Rome” according to the AP story.

The Culture Ministry also announced today that it had returned over 2,000 antiquities to Bulgaria, many of which were coins.

Nistri also announced that works totaling $243 million had been recovered in 2008, more than double the amount recovered the year before. Also noted in a Bloomberg account: “The number of known illegal digs in Italy last year increased by 15 percent to 238, mostly in the area around Rome, the Carabinieri police said.” It seems most of this increase was due to the increased policing of unauthorized archaeological digs (which we might just call looting). How has Italy found the resources or will to increase its efforts? Perhaps its new heritage advisor Mario Resca, profiled in today’s Wall Street Journal has some ideas on how to earn revenue from this heritage.

Whether Resca is the man to make the necessary changes remains to be seen, but he:

points in particular to Pompeii — Italy’s most popular site with 2.6 million visitors in 2007 — where littering, looting and the dilapidation of 2,000-year-old buildings and frescoes prompted the government this summer to declare a “state of emergency.” His concerns extend beyond conservation to issues of marketing and service.

Preserving this massive body of heritage is a difficult undertaking, and I touched on the difficulties at Pompei briefly here, but just because Resca is an outsider does not necessarily mean his ideas will be bad. In fact many of his suggestions have been floated before.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Egypt Returns Stolen Antiquity to Iraq

The AP is reporting on Egypt’s return of a bronze statue to Iraq. Zahi Hawass, ever the showman knows how to run a press-conference. I was also surprised to read Egypt has recovered some 5,000 objects from Iraq. The smuggler currently faces a 3-5 year prison sentence, but it could escalate to a troubling 25 years if the Egyptian parliament enacts a new law. I’m a proponent of serious penalties for antiquities smuggling, put a 25 year ex poste facto sentence seems outrageous, especially one enacted after the criminal activity:

Egypt’s antiquities chief unveiled Sunday a bronze statue of what he described as an ancient Mesopotamian goddess that had been looted from Iraq.

Zahi Hawass said an Egyptian man working in Jordan was caught at Nuweiba port trying to smuggle the statue into the country.

In the course of the ceremony, Hawass sliced through the plastic bubble wrap covering the 10 centimeter tall statue and handed it over to the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires, Abdel Hadi Ahmed.

“When the invasion of Iraq began in 2003, we wrote to the British and American governments asking them to protect Iraq’s heritage and museums,” said Hawass. “But that didn’t happen.”

Hawass said that since then his office has been tracking stolen Iraqi artifacts and has recovered some 5,000 items.

Hawass, who is a vigorous campaigner to recover Egypt’s own stolen antiquities, said he will not do business with museums that buy stolen Iraqi artifacts.

The antiquities chief said he couldn’t tell exactly the age or historical background of the statue, but said its headpiece suggests it is a female fertility deity.

Hawass said the smuggler now faces between three to five years in jail, but this could change to 25 years if a new law is approved in parliament next month.

Iraqi diplomat Ahmed told reporters that 24,000 stolen artifacts have been returned to Iraq as of July 2008.

According to UNESCO, between 3,000 to 7,000 pieces are still believed missing, including about 40 to 50 that are considered to be of great historic importance.

The smuggling of stolen antiquities from Iraq’s rich cultural heritage is allegedly helping finance Iraqi extremist groups, according to the U.S. investigator who led the initial probe into the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

2008 In Review

I’m a little late with my 2008 in review, but as this post will be my 500th, and as the blog has eclipsed the 100,000-pages-read mark, I think its a good time to look back on art and antiquities policy in 2008.  Pictured here is a part of the New Prospect.1 New Orleans Biennial.

  1. In January a massive search of the the LA County Museum of Art, along with Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei Museum in San Diego seemed to signal new scrutiny by federal authorities of the antiquities trade.  However the investigation seems to have stalled significantly, as Roxanna Brown died in federal custody
  2. Also in January, Shelby White agreed to return antiquities from her private collection to Italy continuing Italy’s wildly successful repatriation policy, which was further-publicized by the travelling “Nostoi” exhibition.  
  3. The extent of the forgeries produced by the Bolton forgers started to emerge as well, and revealed the underlying difficulty the art and antiquities trade has in authentication.  Even for world-class institutions, the temptation to purchase a masterwork at a “bargain” price is too tempting.  
  4. The ongoing dispute between Spain, Odyssey Marine, and even Peru over a massive underwater discovery has been taking place in Federal District Court in Florida.  
  5. In December, Peru filed suit against Yale University seeking the return of a number of objects from Machu Picchu. 
  6. Italy and the Cleveland Museum of Art reached an agreement to return antiquities to Italy.
  7. The state of Iraq’s heritage has been in the news a great deal this last year as well, with a number of seizures, arrests and returns.
  8. In June, the AAMD issued a new ethics policy for the acquisition of antiquities, which stated essentially that in most cases a museum should not acquire an object unless evidence exists that the object was outside its “country of probable modern discovery before 1970, or was legally exported from its probably country of modern discovery after 1970.”
  9. New Economic models were proposed for the antiquities trade, which share a lot of characteristics with some of the old models, but could if implemented carefully do a lot of good.
  10. The state of the American economy has made deacessioning an emerging issue for many arts institutions, and reveals I think a number of interesting discrepancies in how we think art should be displayed and allocated.

Many thanks for your continued readership.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

How to Buy a $125k Sculpture for $900?

Open up a scrapyard.  Larry Harnisch reports on the theft of a 6-foot bronze miner statue stolen last February in Los Angeles and recovered by the LA Police Department’s art theft detail at a local scrapyard where the statue was purchased for $900. 

This is an emerging problem given the high price of metals, though these prices are falling again.  This is an inherent problem with public art, but much of the blame belongs to scrapyard owners as well, which might perhaps look the other way in such circumstances.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Subway Excavations Spur Looting in Phillipines

A very interesting story this morning from Jobers Bersales of the Cebu Daily News on the looting which took place when subway excavations under Cebu’s Plaza Independencia resulted in looting of ceramic and other objects uncovered by the digging. 

The tragedy of Plaza Independencia was compounded somewhat because of the failure of the National Museum to send a monitoring team to observe the subway project, a recommendation made by the private archaeological firm that was hired to conduct pre-project archaeological assessment of the plaza in 2006. It was only when this columnist came out in August last year to report the looting that the National Museum immediately and without haste came over to begin the monitoring process! That report was triggered by the same online heritage forum where a member mentioned the golden treasures that were taken out of the construction site with regularity.

The looting was compounded further by the fact that Kajima Construction, which actually reported to the National Museum about the looting way back in June but got no response, had some sub-contracted workers coming from their former infrastructure project in Butuan province – workers who had experienced looting burial sites in artifact-rich Butuan. The looting had so alarmed Kajima that it ordered an investigation way, way before the looting was reported, fired the workers, and requested the sub-contracting firm to order the return of the gold bracelets, armlets, earrings and untold number of jars, plates and other ceramics that were carted away by an antiques buyer posing just outside the walls of the construction site, a gray-haired man who carried thousands in a clutch bag.

For more, see here, a series of blog posts with photos from Cebu. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting of Native American Sites in South Dakota

Josh Verges of the ArgusLeader had a good detailed story about the indictment of three men in South Dakota for trafficking in Native American artifacts:

The federal indictments of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture’s buried history.

U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley said the indictments – the first of their kind in his two and a half years on the job – are partly a response to his conversations with tribal members.”When I travel to Cheyenne River and Standing Rock … this is very important to their culture and their tradition,” he said.

Jackley said the investigation continues with the possibility of more indictments, and those already filed involve a “significant number of artifacts.”

Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby and Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre allegedly sold three copper arm bands in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and were involved in the collection of many other artifacts, including beads, arrowheads and bone tools.  Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre is accused of buying red stone discs, arrowheads and a sandstone scraping tool, all of which had been removed from public and Indian lands.

Each man pleaded not guilty earlier this month in Pierre and was released without bond until his next court appearance. In each case, court records do not specify how the items were obtained or to which tribe they probably belonged.  Matteson said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins. He said that transaction of less than $300 has resulted in what he hopes is only a temporary loss of his artifact museum.

He said federal agents recently confiscated his 38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years.

Verges and the two other men were most likely looting sites and burial grounds.  Policing these violations is difficult given the vast geographical area federal agents and prosecutors are tasked with safeguarding.  That’s why its particularly disturbing that President Bush has decided to pardon David Lane Woolsey (via) of St. George Utah, who violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

30 Works Stolen from Berlin

Art thieves don’t party.  30 Works were stolen from a Berlin gallery sometime close to New Year’s Eve the AP reported earlier this week:

Nu au rocking chair by Henri MatisseThieves stole works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and others from a Berlin gallery over the New Year’s holiday, police said Friday.
More than 30 works — worth an estimated euro180,000 ($250,000) — were stolen, apparently between Wednesday afternoon and lunchtime Thursday, police spokeswoman Claudia Schweiger said. The artwork was taking from the Fasanengalerie, a private gallery near western Berlin’s central shopping district.
The etchings, prints and sculptures included “Profil au fond noir,” a 1947 work by Picasso; “Nude in a rocking chair,” a Matisse print from 1913; and “Le Boupeut,” a 1962 color print by Georges Braque.
The gallery’s owner discovered the loss New Year’s Day, having found signs the door had been pried open, police said. Given the number of works stolen and the weight of the sculptures, two or more people probably were involved, police said in a statement.

New Year’s Eve is a popular time to steal works of art, as are other nights when cities revel and police may be stretched thin.  The theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum took place on St. Patrick’s day in Boston. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Brodie on the Market in Iraqi Antiquities

Neil Brodie, now at the Stanford University Archaeology Center, has posted a work in progress “
The market in Iraqi antiquities 1980-2008“. I highly recommend giving the text a read, but here are a few highlights:

  • It is clear that during the period in question [1990 to 2003] and despite UNSCR 661 the quantities of unprovenanced artefacts being offered for sale did not diminish; in fact if anything they increased over the years running up to 2003.
  • Since April 2003, the sale of unprovenanced Iraqi artifacts at public auction in New York and London has stopped entirely, perhaps because of the widespread negative publicity that followed on from the break-in at the National Museum, or because of UNSCR 1483.
  • After 2003, outside the auction market, Iraqi artifacts continued to be openly traded on the Internet. On one day – 5 December 2006 – there were at least 55 websites offering antiquities for sale and that might have been expected to sell Iraqi objects.
  • Circular saws are not the tools of archaeologists, and traces of their use are clear evidence that the “bricks” were removed destructively from their architectural context and cut down in size to facilitate their illegal transport from Iraq.

I think the final point is most damning of all, describing pretty clearly that many of the “bricks” appearing on the internet have been cut with circular saws, surely not the tool of an archaeologists, if there was any doubt that these objects were removed from their context by legitimate, legal means.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com