The Best Heritage Writing of 2012

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by at one point or another here this year. I wanted to share below some of my favorite writers, reporters and bloggers writing about cultural heritage this past year.

One of my favorite stories this year was Nancy Greenleese’s profile of Dr. Laurie Rush at the annual ARCA conference and her work with others to raise awareness in the U.S. military to the destruction of archaeology. Dr. Rush’s writing on the use of cultural property as a ‘force multiplier‘ was an example of thoughtful practical action that can be taken to secure heritage.

In terms of blogging, every year more and more voices join the blogosphere, and its always a pleasure to see more and more voices enter the conversation and offer unique perspectives. I found myself reading every post at Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s Chasing Aphrodite which has taken the investigative reporting of their book and expanded its scope to include other figures in the antiquities trade, including Douglas Latchford, and Subhash Kapoor. First-class investigative reporting has been one of the cornerstones of the heritage protection movement, and their thoughtful thoroughly researched writing has been a terrific resource.

Speaking of reporting, I want to highlight in particular the reporting of PRI’s The World, which has offered some of the best first-hand accounts of antiquities looting, especiall the ongoing looting in Egypt and in Syria. The New York Times also has a dynamic reporting team in Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal, who have done excellent reporting on Cambodia’s efforts to block the auction of a disfigured and looted Koh Ker statue at Sotheby’s in New York.

For those interested in the day-to-day developments in the American legal system, Rick St. Hilaire’s wonky ‘cultural heritage lawyer‘ does a terrific job updating the progression of cultural heritage prosecutions and seizures. His coverage of the Peter Weiss coin smuggling prosecution, Subhash Kapoor, and the Ka Nefer Nefer were particularly outstanding.

Though I haven’t read all the entries, the ambitious and much-needed encyclopedia being compiled by the Trafficking Culture folks will surely stand as an important resource for many years to come, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the field. Entries on the ‘Fano bronze‘, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina are particularly excellent examples.

In case you missed it, some of my personal favorite moments of the year including teaching a field class in Cerveteri with Stefano Alessandrini with the ARCA class of 2012, experiencing the salt mines and graffiti trains of Kansas, coaching another super group of lawyer’s to be at the cultural heritage competition moot court competition in Chicago, and visiting the best student art history conference, the Arthattack conference at Guelph.

And lastly, though its not writing, the moving documentary ‘Lost Bohemia‘ by Josef Birdman Astor is the best examination on film I’ve seen to chronicle the importance of preservation in all its forms. It is a straightforward effort to save something which is at risk. But its emotional core is the lives and decline of the artists it presents. Preservation is such an urgent thing when its impacting a living community. And though it was released in 2010-11, it was new to me this year. The documentary presents the residents who had been living for decades in the studio apartments above Carnegie Hall. The dancers, photographers, actors, music makers, writers and other characters had created this idyllic creative scene, and were being removed for the creation of offices and cubicles for Carnegie Hall. It’s not got a happy ending, but reinforced for me why heritage matters and how much hard work even small victories require. I’ll leave you with the trailer, please seek it out where you can find it.

Cheers to 2012 and thanks for reading!

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On Sentencing Antiquities Looters

Last week a number of folks drew my attention to the news that in Greece two men have been sentenced to life in prison for dealing in antiquities. The objects they looted and handled were worth an estimated €12 million. Two more men were jailed for 20 and 16 years. Based on the very brief AP report, it seems the men were digging near Thessaloniki close to an ancient cemetery.

I have seen a few remark that these very stiff sentences should be applauded and even are a sign that the Greek government takes archaeological looting seriously. I don’t know the specifics of this case, and it is not clear if these four sentences will be appealed and what kinds of parole options the violators will have. So we are dealing with a number of unknowns. And as a result I’d like to make a humble plea for a little sobriety when sentences of this nature are handed down. Too many archaeologists and other advocates hop up and down and either rejoice at these strong sentences—or criticize probation and fines which are at the other end of this spectrum. I think having a vigorous debate about what role prosecutions, and custodial sentences may play in reducing looting is a welcome development, but one should not make the mistake of jumping into sentencing policy without at least some cursory introduction very complicated field.

The deterrent power of criminal sanctions is very much an open question about even the ‘big’ crimes the justice system is supposed to prevent, things like murder and armed robbery. In the United States and in many other nations the criminal justice system is an imperfect mechanism which too often is asked to accomplish things it cannot. To expect this flawed institution to come riding in and solve the problems of heritage management, looting, and theft is terribly unrealistic. As many have pointed out, there is no magic bullet for heritage crime. Police and prosecutors have a role to play, but the stakeholders need to step up as well. Nations of origin, auction houses, buyers, and museums should not expect a flawed institution to fix what they are unable or unwilling to fix themselves.

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2nd Circuit Rules for the Met in a Bolshevik-era restitution suit

“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”, Pierre Cezanne (1891)

Pierre Konowaloff has lost a bid to secure the return of some art confiscated nearly a century ago. Konowaloff is the successor in interest of a Russian art collector who had his art collection confiscated in the 1917 Russian revolution. The 2nd Circuit held the claim is barred by the act of state doctrine, upholding a 2011 dismissal of the claim in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. In its simplest form, the doctrine protects the U.S. Executives dealings with foreign nations by requiring claimants like Konowaloff to seek a remedy with the state doing the expropriation. The doctrine states that separation of powers requires that federal courts not challenge the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments.

In 1911, Ivan Morozov purchased the work. Morozov was a Russian art collector, and lost this work and another Van Gogh currently held by Yale University after the Bolshevik seizures during the Russian revolution. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of Morozov. The Soviet Union in 1933 needed funds and decided to deaccession (if I can use that term in this context) the painting. The paintings were purchased by Stephen Clark, an American who bequeathed the Cézanne to the MET and the Van Gogh to Yale University. Yale decided to initiate a declaratory suit, getting ahead of the lawsuit, and is still ongoing.

So the Bolshevik-era claim has been extinguished. One wonders though if the way courts treat the act of state doctrine in this context may be different from the ways it might treat foreign ownership declarations of other works of art. That’s a question I don’t have the answer to. It may be there are peculiar aspects of the doctrine. But on balance this seems like nations are given the benefit of the doctrine when it comes to situations where museums have long possessed these objects, but they aren’t given the same advantages in other repatriation cases. That may be because of problems baked-in to the doctrine, or not. I’m not aware of any direct act of state doctrine argument which bends for claimant-nations, it seems primarily to assist current museums attempting to fend off suits arising from Nazi-era takings.

  1. Philip Boroff, Met Museum Sued Over Cezanne Painting Stolen by Bolsheviks From Collector, Bloomberg, December 8, 2010.
  2. Konowaloff v. Metropolitan Musem of Art 11-4338-cv (2nd Cir. 2012)
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DeMott on "Artful Good Faith"

Deborah A. DeMott, a Professor at Duke Law, has an interesting essay titled “Artful Good Faith: An Essay On Law, Custom, AndIntermediaries In Art Markets” appearing in 62 Duke Law Journal 607 (2012). From the introduction:

This Essay explores relationships between custom and law in the United States in the context of markets for art objects. The Essay argues that these relationships are dynamic, not static, and that law can prompt evolution in customary practice well beyond the law’s formal requirements. Understanding these relationships in the context of art markets requires due attention to two components distinctive to art markets: the role of dealers and auction houses as transactional intermediaries as well as the role of museums as end-collectors. In the last decade, the business practices of major transactional intermediaries reflected a significant shift in customary practice, with attention newly focused on the provenance (ownership history) of objects consigned for sale and on long-standing concerns with an object’s condition and authorship. During the same time major museums developed new policies and practices applicable to new acquisitions and objects already in held in collections, focused in particular on archaeological objects and ancient art, as well as paintings present in European countries subject to the Nazi regime between 1932 and 1945. The Essay argues that, in both cases, law furnished the backdrop to significant shifts in customary practice, augmented by heightened public knowledge and concern. Custom evolved in response to salient episodes of enforcement of the law, which furnished further rallying points for newly broadened or awakened public interest and concern. The relationships explored in this Essay are relevant to ongoing debate about the merits of the underlying law. In the United States, it has long been true that nemo dat quod non habet—no one can give what one does not have—with the consequence that a thief cannot convey good title. The subsequent transferees lack good title and are not insulated against claims by the rightful owner even when the transferees acted in good faith. To be sure, an elapsed statute of limitations may furnish a defense, as may the equitable doctrine of laches. Prior scholarship notes that the United States is unusual, but not unique, because it does not recognize any good-faith purchaser defense in this context and because it does not require that the rightful owner of a stolen object compensate the good-faith purchaser as a condition of obtaining the return of the object. However, this scholarship does not acknowledge (or does not emphasize) the significance of transactional intermediaries within art markets or the operation of customary practices of museums and transactional intermediaries. This Essay thus adds the context requisite to evaluating the merits of the relevant law.

 An interesting approach which examines the successes generated with increased attention on Nazi-era taking of art and the antiquities acquisition policies of North American museums. Connecting legal shifts and the shadow they cast on auction houses and museums is an important consideration as we attempt to make informed recommendations about how the law should change.

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Documenting Destruction in Syria from Afar

Since Clemency Coggins criticized the looting of Maya sites in an influential 1969 article, there is a rich tradition of young archaeologists criticizing looting and destruction of sites. PRI continues its excellent reporting of looting in areas in the Middle East by speaking with Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist who has been tracking the destruction and looting of sites in Syria using facebook feeds and Youtube videos. We don’t just hear anecdotal stories of looting anymore, often times if someone has a phone or suitable camera, we can see video as well.

Every day she goes online, sometimes for a few hours, to monitor the Facebook feeds of local Syrian groups for word about damaged sites. She’ll scroll past horrific photos of dead children till she comes across mention of a new archaeological site that was shelled or plundered. She says it’s incredible just how much you can find out from these posts. “It’s a new world online now,” she says. “The prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook, ease of access to YouTube, and the way that most people’s mobile phones can take video, means that, all those people who are desperate to share information have a real easy way to upload it and make it accessible.” Cunliffe did her Ph.D research on monitoring Syrian archaeological sites with satellite imagery. When fighting turned fierce in Syria, she began to consult imagery much closer to the ground – videos and photos posted by concerned Syrian citizens. Sites were being damaged and also looted.

PRI embedded videos of looting in Syria. This video Cunliffe found shows looting in a necropolis in Northern Syria:

  1. Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
  2. Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological Sites PRI’s The World (2012), (last visited Dec 13, 2012).


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Is Cultural Heritage a Human Right?

One of the horses from a four-horse chariot group

The Guardian reported over the weekend that Turkey plans to petition the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Helicarnassus, currently held by the British Museum.  Norman Palmer is quoted in the piece, “I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim.” That strikes me as exactly right, I’ don’t see a direct human right to specific cultural objects. And my initial reaction is skeptical of attempting to use a rights-based approach for repatriation. One difficulty that this principle will have is in application. How would a court decide what should be repatriated and what should not. Are all objects from a region tied to that people’s human rights? And is this right only related to the original situs of the object. Could Londoners argue that they have a corresponding human right in some of the objects in the British Museum which is created because of the display and care of the objects. Lots of interesting questions, and this will be a legal challenge to follow closely. The Guardian makes sure to note that Turkey has had its own human rights record challenged by the Strasbourg court.

The mausoleum sculptures were first removed from what is now modern Turkey in 1846 by the British ambassador to Constantinople and others were taken in subsequent excavations by archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.

The piece also notes that the mere act of announcing a challenge will raise questions about the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, and will of course cause similar questions to be asked of other bits and pieces of the ancient 7 wonders which are currently held by the British Museum.

  1. Dalya Alberge, Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures the Guardian, (last visited Dec 10, 2012).
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Salt mines, graffiti and the mysteries of Kansas

The world has 7 wonders. But Kansas has 8. The effort to promote and advertise the beautiful, weird and historic corners of the state was an effort to, I guess, encourage some state pride and promote some prairie tourism. Despite the folksiness, the list is delivered free of irony. Many of the sites are indeed worth seeking out. The list is incomplete though.

Graffiti Train
Imagine 200 of these flashing by 

The periodic accidental graffiti shows are one wonder I would have nominated. The spaniels and I experienced this by accident one humid August morning. Graffiti has started to earn the distinction of esteem. And I guess I’ve started appreciating more as well. But I’m not sure I realized its ability to really have a transformative effect until you are confronted with it in the last place you’d expect—a gravel road in small town Kansas. The French Spaniels didn’t think much of it, and at first I was a little frustrated our little  treated to a free rapid fire show of the stuff. The locals may not think much of their cluttered grain and cattle cars, but for those who think this is an art form, the contrast is a real trip. And who knew our food travels in such style.

So despite the omissions, the only wonder we were able to fit in to our last Kansas visit was an attraction known to the locals as the Underground Salt Mine. I had heard that groups as diverse as the Koch brothers, hollywood studios, and the National Archives have contracted to store documents, artifacts, film and other objects which their caretakers feel need to be secure but don’t need to be used. It’s not billed as such, but it must be among the the most secure storehouses in the world.

Joni and I sporting breathers and hard hats

The mine itself is 650 feet below ground. When you take the tour you receive your very own hard hat and breather (just in case something happens). After a wait in a gift-shop area, and a short video of the history of the mine itself, visitors crowd into elevators and enter the elevator that takes us down to the mine.  Despite the safety warnings that are an ominous beginning, the mine itself was surprisingly comfortable. It is lit and open and has a pleasant feel. Despite a few hours spent at the various exhibits, none of our little group was in a hurry to leave. That may have something to do with the fact that the temperature in the mine is a constant 68 degrees all year long. And at our August visit the ‘surface’ temperature was nearing 100. The mine itself is a museum carved out of one of the largest rock salt deposits in the world. At the tour we learned the mine has produced rock salt (not for eating as we were repeatedly told on the tour, I think to prevent visitors like me from licking the walls). The salt is removed in a large checkerboard pattern where large square pillars of left to support the rock above and to allow fresh air to circulate in the mine.

At the tour, we are reminded that what goes down in the mine stays there. So trash and newspapers are left there. The mines purpose was to blow up walls and extract industrial-quality rock salt. Its purpose is not for eating, but rather for use in ‘preserving hides and for use in road salt’. On the tour we are told the demand for the salt isn’t what it used to be. And current mining operations take place many miles from the museum, and the blasting of the walls to produce workable removable salt rock only takes place late at night.

Another treat is an electric tram which visitors are told is a “dark ride”. An ominious title that I wasn’t too keen to participate in. I imagined a fast and scary ride, but the tour was quite pleasant. But the main draw for me was a glimpse at the underground vaults. And I guess it makes sense that we weren’t really allowed to see much of this part of the mine. On the tour we were often reminded that the mine has a perpetual 68 degrees and 40 percent humidity. Perfect conditions for preserving lots of documents.

The company which operates this massive underground storehouse is named ‘Underground Vaults and Storage’. It has original film negatives of films like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur, oil and gas charts, health records, and other assorted things. According to the company’s history the company was incorporated in 1959 when a group of Wichita businessmen, no doubt influence by Cold War concerns, decided to make use of the space, environment and conditions that was being created in the Carey Salt Mine. During World War II of course forces on both sides used salt mines to safeguard and hide works of art from the enemy.

When many of these works were seized by allied forces that led to the strange juxtaposition of American GI’s, mine cars, and works of art.

Pictured here are American GI’s at the Merkers salt mine in central Germany and Manet’s In the Conservatory. Robert Edsel of course has been collecting the stories of these Monuments Men, which accounts for the work of these soldiers between D-Day and V-E Day.

I’m not sure if the Wichita businessmen would have been veterans of the war, or if they would have been familiar with the use of these mines to store works of art—but its seems very likely. At present the mine has a lot of the folksy charm of a goofy populist museum. But in the storage areas are objects from museums, governments, businesses, and others. The imagination wanders at the scope of material which might be collected there, and what might be lost. We know about the rediscovered libraries like the now strewn to all corners of the globe Cotton library, or even the tradition of preservation of islamic texts in Timbuktu (which is now at risk). Will the massive archive in Hutchinson and its other locations in Kansas City and elsewhere be forgotten or neglected, taken up by some future researchers or looters?

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