The Year in Cultural Policy

2009 saw a number of interesting trends in cultural heritage law and policy.  Below are a few of the year’s prominent stories.  On a personal note, I am still enjoying the fellowship at Loyola in New Orleans; but still looking for a permanent position that will allow me to continue writing and thinking about cultural heritage.  But in the mean time your interest and support continues to enrich and support my work.  There is a need for people to continue thinking and writing about culture.  The blog saw a lot of  interest this year, with nearly 80,000 visitors.  I’d like to thank you all for your interest, comments, and helpful notes and conversations. 

The Four Corners Antiquities Investigation

A large federal investigation into the illegal trade in Native American Artifacts signaled a growing commitment of federal authorities into policing Native American artifacts.  A June 10th raid which searched the homes and businesses of over 20 people lead to arrests, and even two suicides.  So far charges have emerged in Utah, but charges may emerge in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and perhaps even Colorado.

Ongoing Repatriation Efforts

Repatriation continued to dominate headlines this year.  Peru, Egypt, Greece and other nations brought suits and made charges in the press.  One of the most interesting stories which emerged early in 2009 were the efforts by China to secure the return of objects  taken during the period of colonialism.  Many of the prominent details emerged in the press.  In February an auction of many works of art from the Yve Saint Laurent auction became the proving ground for China’s cultural diplomacy.  These two bronzes were slated for sale at the auction, having been looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860.  China first threatened suit against Christie’s, but that suit was denied. At the auction, Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. was the winning bidder on these bronzes.  Yet he refused to pay, essentially sabotaging the auction.  This was another indication of the increasing role that nations of origin are playing in the heritage marketplace.  I’m not sure how many wealthy bidders would be willing to stake their reputation or future ability to bid on such a move in the future, but this was a cunningly simple, very shrewd strategic move by Mingchao and the Chinese.  They wanted to disrupt the market in these objects which had been looted, and did a brilliant job doing so.  


The decision by museums to sell works of art generated considerable controversy this year, and no dispute better encapsulates the difficulties which arise than the decision by Brandeis University to close the Rose Museum of Art.  The University has shifted its position  since the initial announcement.  It has announced its intention to maintain the Rose in some form, but given the University’s financial difficulty the decision was not made lightly.  One of the difficulties with deaccession stems from its connection to our fundamental view of art and museum governance.  What is the nature of art?  An art museum?  Are either permanent?  Can we trust the governing structures in our museums?  Our inability to find common ground in crafting answers to these questions accounts for the continued difficulty.  But if the arts community cannot come together and craft viable solutions to these difficulties, we are going to be left with weaker cultural institutions and risk losing more works as a result of financial difficulty. 

Treasure Seekers in the United Kingdom

Earlier this year Oxford Archaeology released a report on the management of undiscovered antiquities in England and Wales.  The conclusion?  Illegal metal detecting in England has declined since the United Kingdom amended the Treasure Act and created the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This has led to the amateur discovery of some beautiful objects, including this Anglo-Saxon hoard discovered by a detectorist this summer.

And of course art theft continued to occur with alarming regularity.


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Odyssey/Spain Dispute Headed to 11th Circuit Appeal

The dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain over a shipwreck which was sunk in the early 19th Century will now likely be headed for appeal.  Federal District Court Judge Steven Merryday has issued an order that has adopted the Federal Magistrate’s Report and Recommendation.  In his order Judge Merryday stated a separate opinion would “add only length and neither depth nor clarity (and certainly not finality) to this dispute.”  Though this is a win for Spain, it also means the 11th circuit will now hear an appeal.   Back in the Spring, federal Magistrate Pizzo held the Federal District Court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute and the property should be returned to Spain. 

As I wrote then, though Odyssey Marine attempted to hide the true identity of the wreck, initially code-naming the wreck the Black Swan, there was enough information to conclude the coins came from the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes”, a warship which was carrying treasure back from Peru when it was sunk by the British off the Spanish coast in 1804. Spain, soon declared war on Great Britain, a point which may be lost in all this talk of the treasure. This treasure was an important piece of heritage, and all the talk of Odyssey’s share prices, and the rich treasure haul shouldn’t distract us from why these objects are protected, and why Spain fought so vigorously to have them declared the owner.This latest development then is not terribly surprising.  The case involves some complex issues of international admiralty law, and half a billion dollars in gold and silver coins.  It should be a fascinating appeal, as the 11th Circuit will set a precedent governing how these salvors can explore and remove historical objects from the ocean floor.

Odyssey Marine has a press release here.

James Thorner, Odyssey Marine’s treasure tangle with Spain moves to appeals court,  St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 23, 2009.

Richard Mullins, Sunken treasure case headed to federal appeals courtTampa Tribune, Dec. 23, 2009.  

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China’s Repatriation Team Visits the Met

File:Yuanmingyuan zuoshi.jpg“That wasn’t so bad after all”

So said James C.Y. Watt, the head of Asian art at the Met after a team of Chinese experts visited the institution looking for objects which had once been at the Chinese Old Summer Palace in Beijing.  China has been looking to buy or repatriate objects from the Old Summer Palace. 

The looting of the palace during the Second Opium War in 1860 holds great historical significance for many in China.  In response to the execution of twenty European and Indian prisoners, Lord Elgin (son of the the Elgin who removed the sculptures from the Parthenon) ordered the destruction of the palace.  As a 27 year-old captain in the Royal Engineers wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

This destruction continues to shape how China views its relationship with the West.  Chinese experts have conducted a campaign to seek the return of many of the objects looted from the palace.  This includes the “guerilla bidding” last year which effectively prevented the auction of two bronzes from the palace last year. 

Andrew Jacobs account of the visit calls into question the motives of the Chinese delegation.  He throws quotations around the phrase “treasure hunting team”, but the tenor in his piece echoes the pejorative of the phrase.  Many in the West still fail to engage with the fundamental issue.  Had the White House been burned and sacked in 1860, wouldn’t a powerful America be doing everything it could to seek the return of these objects? 

Jacobs references the criticism of Chinese destruction of historical sites.  But nearly every nation can be accused of the same.  What about the Native American burial mound which was decimated to create fill-dirt for a Sam’s Club in Alabama this year?  Does that mean America is an unsuitable steward for cultural treasures? 

  1. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009.
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Leonardo’s Stolen ‘Yarnwinder’ in Edinburgh

Image courtesy INTERPOL

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder has been put on display at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  The work was stolen in 2003 from the Duke of Buccleuch’s home at Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland.  The work was recovered in 2007, and eight men (including some once-prominent solicitors) are facing criminal trial for their involvement in the theft.  It is a rare good outcome for an art theft like this. 

  1. Stolen da Vinci back on display, BBC, December 17, 2009.
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Workshop on the Human Dimension of Cultural Heritage

A colleague in Florence has passed along this event at the European University Institute in Florence, this Friday December 18th. Looks to be a terrific event this week:

The Human Dimension of Cultural Heritage
Workshop organized by Professor Francioni
in cooperation with Professors T. Scovazzi and L. Pineschi
European University Institute, Florence
18 December 2009, Sala Europa (Villa Schifanoia)

  • 10.00 Welcome to the participants and introduction to the workshop by Professors Francesco Francioni, Laura Pineschi, and Tullio Scovazzi
  • 10.10-11.00
    • Francesco Francioni (European University Institute), The Contribution of International Law to the Development of a Human Dimension of Cultural Heritage
    • Tullio Scovazzi (Università di Milano-Bicocca), Recent Developments in the Fields of Intangible and Underwater Cultural Heritage
    • Ana Vrdoljak (University of Western Australia), Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects and Human Rights
  • Coffee break
  • 11.15-12.00
    • Federico Lenzerini (Università di Siena), Indigenous Peoples Cultural Rights vs. Cultural Heritage”: A Hard-to-Settle Tension?
    • Alessandro Chechi (European University Institute), Cultural Cooperation: A Revolutionary Tool for the Safeguarding of the Common Heritage of Humankind?
    • Uladzislau Belavusau (European University Institute), Freedom of Expression, Art and Pornography
    • General discussion
  • 12.15-13.00
    • Patrizia Vigni (Università di Siena), Claims To Discovered Shipwrecks: Restitution, Return or Something Else?
    • Valentina S. Vadi (Maastricht University), The Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and International Investment Law
    • Nicola Ferri (Università di Milano-Bicocca), The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage According to the General Assembly Resolution
    • General Discussion
  • Lunch Break
  • 14.30-15.15
    • Adriana Bessa Rodrigues (European University Institute), No Culture, NoHeritage: The International Regime on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing and Potential Threats to the Preservation of Local Cultures
    • Sabrina Urbinati (Università di Milano-Bicocca), (on intangibile heritage)
    • Mery Ciacci (European University Institute), The EU Ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions: New Challenges and New Implications for the EU
    • General discussion
  • 15.30-16.30
    • Riccardo Pavoni (Università di Siena), Developing Individual Criminal Responsibility for Wartime Offences against Cultural Property: The Italian Measures Implementing the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention
    • Micaela Frulli (Università di Firenze), International Criminal Law to the Protection of Cultural Heritage
    • Robert Peters (European University Institute), Defining Common Grounds in the Trophy Art Debate between Germany and Russia
    • Andrzej Jakubowski (European University Institute), Human and Cultural Heritage Aspects of State Succession: The Case of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
  • General discussion and final remarks by Professors Francesco Francioni, Laura Pineschi, and Tullio Scovazzi
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Ceremony for Egyptian Relics

Pictured here are French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during a ceremony today.  The French returned some relics taken from Egypt in recent years which were purchased by the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.  Egypt had made a dramatic call for the immediate return of the objects, ordering the removal of all French archaeologists from Egyptian sites if the objects were not returned.  They were returned quickly.

Egypt demanded the return of the stolen fragments in October and broke off relations with the Louvre. Afterwards, France agreed to hand back the works, which are from Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.  “France is particularly committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art,” Sarkozy said, in a statement.  The other four artefacts were to be given to the Egyptian embassy in Paris during Mubarak’s visit to Paris, French officials said.  The French president emphasized that the Louvre museum had acted in good faith when it purchased the artefacts and said that doubts were only raised in November during archaeological work at the site.  Egypt had produced photographs from the mid-1970s showing the fragments in place on the tomb’s wall.

  1. AFP: France returns stolen Louvre relics to Egypt, December 14, 2009.
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Italy Recovers 1,700 Looted Antiquities

The AP is reporting that Italian authorities have uncovered a looting network which raided tombs outside Naples and Venice.  The objects were then illegally exported to market nations like the United States.

During more than a year of investigations, authorities recovered nearly 1,700 statues, vases and other artifacts dating from pre-Roman times to the heyday of the empire. Police flagged 19 people for possible investigation by prosecutors.  The artifacts were mainly dug out from tombs in the areas around Naples and Venice and included a bronze bust of the emperor Augustus, customs police in Rome said.  Part of the loot had been smuggled to the United States to be sold to collectors, they said.  The Italians said they worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Haven, Connecticut, to recover 47 ceramic and bronze statutes that had been looted from a tomb in southern Italy dating between the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.

  1. The Associated Press: Italian police recover hoard of looted artifacts, Associated Press, December 11, 2009.
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Hawass Wants Rosetta Stone Loan

“We are not pirates of the Caribbean – we are a civilised country”

So says Zahi Hawass in calling for the British Museum to loan the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. The British Museum has said the museum’s trustees will consider the request. Hawass wants the loan in contemplation of the opening of Egypt’s Grand Museum at Giza, in 2013. Other prominent objects Hawass would like returned on loan:

  • a statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza (Germany);
  • the bust of Anchhaf, builder of the Chepren Pyramid (Boston);
  • a painted Zodiac from the Dendera temple (Louvre); ann a statue of Ramesses II (Turin).

The requests are part of a series of prominent requests by Hawass in recent months.

  1. Rosetta row ‘would end with loan’, BBC, December 8, 2009.
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Update on the Drouot Arrests

The AP reported yesterday that charges have been filed against nine employees of the Drouot auction house. French authorities last week found a stolen work by Gustave Courbet.

An auctioneer and eight commission agents were given preliminary charges, including ”organized theft,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Three others detained last week in the police raids on Drouot, its warehouses and homes of employees were released with no charges filed against them.
When the bust was announced last week, there was initial confusion about which Courbet work had been recovered. The painting — stolen several years ago from a collection whose owner had recently died — was not clearly identified, and the heir had confused it with another work, an official close to the inquiry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Police initially identified the recovered Courbet work as ”La Vague” (The Wave), worth euro900,000 ($1.3 million), but officials said Monday it was actually ”Paysage marin sous un ciel d’orage” (Marine Landscape Under a Stormy Sky), worth about euro100,000.
The stolen Courbet — one of several paintings by the convention-smashing realist master with a stormy ocean theme — was found at the home of one of the commission agents being investigated. Other pieces recovered in the sweep included artworks, frames and furniture.
Under French law, preliminary charges give the judge more time to investigate and determine whether to send the case to trial. Three commission agents were jailed in the case, with the prosecutor’s office accusing them of deep involvement in thefts dating back to 2001.
The auctioneer was released pending the investigation with the stipulation that he stop hosting sales.

  1. The Associated Press, Preliminary Charges vs 9 in Paris Auction Sweep, The New York Times, December 7, 2009.
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