25 Objects Returned to Italy, 0 Arrests

A 6th-century BC Kalpis depicting Dionysos transforming pirates into dolphins



In a ceremony this week officials from the United States and Italy announced the return of 25 looted objects to Italy. The various press releases from the U.S. and Italian authorities have details on all the returns. But I want to highlight one object which fascinates:this 6th-century BC Kalpis, likely looted from near Vulci, which depicts how Dionysus dispatched some Tyrrhenian pirates. It was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1982, but was later connected by Italian authorities to Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. The vase was sold in 1982 for a mere $90,000. The history of the object given to the Toledo Museum was that it had been in the collection of a Swiss collector named Karl Haug, and had been in his family since 1935—predating Italy’s 1939 national ownership declaration. In June of 2012 Immigrations and Customes Enforcement agents “consctuctively seized” the vase, allowing it to remain in the possession of the Museum. This week’s ceremony marks the formal return of this and other objects with similar stories.


Elisabetta Povoledo reported for the NYT:

Inquiries were begun in the last decade or so in nine Homeland Security field offices, including New York City, Buffalo, Baltimore, Boston, Miami and San Diego, leading to the returns.

Gen. Mariano Mossa, commander of the T.C.P., said at the news conference that the value of the objects was difficult to gauge. But the quality and rarity of many of the artifacts made them irreplaceable, officials said.

Each artifact returned to Italy had its own story.

The three first-century B.C. fresco fragments depicting human figures, for example, were stolen on June 26, 1957, from the Culture Ministry offices at Pompeii. Tracked to a San Diego warehouse, they were taken by agents in September 2012 from the private collection of an unnamed “American magnate” before they could be sold at auction, Italian officials said.

The authorities later identified the frescoes as belonging to the Allen E. Paulson Trust, which forfeited them to the United States government, which then returned them to Italy.

This is very much in keeping with how these ancient works of art are dealt with. It’s almost exclusively an object-centered approach. These objects are returned while officials in both the United States and Italy are able to announce the hard work they are doing, but there are no new prosecutions.

Elisabetta Povoledo, 25 Looted Artifacts Return to Italy, The N.Y. Times, May 26, 2015.


Student Note on Underwater Heritage in the Dominican Republic

A small bell taken by Global  Marine Exploration found off the coast of the Dominican Republic
A small bell taken by Global Marine Exploration found off the coast of the Dominican Republic

Lydia Barbash-Riley, a student and Editor-in-Chief of the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies has an interesting piece examining the impact of globalization on underwater cultural heritage management in the Dominican Republic:

This Note addresses the management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) in the Dominican Republic as a case study of the effects of two aspects of globalization on cultural and environmental resource management in the developing world: the international convergence of values and the horizontal delegation of state power to private actors due to economic constraints. This Note posits that even as the global community of states moves toward a consensus on the ethical management of the UCH, this convergence combined with the global trend of horizontal delegation may incentivize some lesser-developed countries to deal with the economic pressures of resource management by permitting treasure hunting. To examine this phenomenon, this Note addresses national and international laws protecting the UCH, including Dominican laws and their actual consistency with the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. It then discusses how management in the Dominican Republic is not always in accord with either the country’s own laws or the 2001 Convention to illustrate both the impacts of globalization on management of the UCH when government resources are scarce, and the resulting need for an extralegal, community-based solution. This Note concludes with a suggestion that the Dominican government, Dominican communities, and international actors consider a variant of Common-Pool Resource Management known as Living Museums in the Sea incorporated into a Multilevel Environmental Governance framework as a potential solution to counteract the economic pressures on governments to allow treasure hunting while providing for long-term preservation of the UCH in this and other developing countries.

  1. Lydia Barbash-Riley, Using a Community-Based Strategy to Address the Impacts of Globalization on Underwater Cultural Heritage Management in the Dominican Republic, 22 Ind. J. of Global Legal Stud. 201 (2015).

Rome Convention: 20 Years after the UNIDROIT Convention

flyer-eI’m very much looking forward to participating in this Friday’s conference at the Capitoline Museum in Rome marking the 20th Anniversary of the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Property. If you haven’t registered yet, and happen to be in Rome, I’m afraid registration is closed. But I’ll be offering some thoughts on the conference when I get back home next week.



Opposing Papers on Numismatic Law


I happened on two opposing viewpoints on the import restrictions on ancient coins in my inbox this afternoon. The first, written by Nathan Elkins, critiques from an archaeological perspective the test case brought by the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. The case attempted to challenge the breadth of import restrictions against the import of ancient coins, “Ancient Coins, Find Spots, and Import Restrictions: A Critique of Arguments made in the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild’s ‘Test Case’,” Journal of Field Archaeology 40.2 (2015): 236-243. From the abstract:

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) has launched multiple legal challenges aimed at undermining import restrictions on ancient coins into the United States in bilateral agreements with foreign countries.  One key component of the ACCG’s argument is that the State Department has inappropriately restricted certain types of coins according to where they were made rather than where they are found, as mandated by the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.  Although the ACCG has thus far been unsuccessful, it has not been pointed out that existing import restrictions on coins, in fact, have been written to include coins that tended to circulate locally and that are found primarily within the borders of the country with which the bilateral agreement is made.  The ACCG’s argument is thus on shaky ground.  As the ACCG continues to press ahead with new litigation, it is worth drawing attention to realities and probabilities of ancient coin circulation as they pertain to protected coins.


An opposing view is offered by Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient coin Collectors Guild, ‘Ideology, governance and consequences from a collector’s point of view‘, Internet Archaeology 33. From the abstract:

This article is a condensed version of the background paper created for an Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) presentation at the 2010 CBA, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and Newcastle University conference in Newcastle, England. It presents a view shared by many American collectors and independent scholars. The ACCG, a member of the International Numismatic Council, is a registered non-profit organisation within the United States but enjoys the active support of members worldwide.

Outstanding report by VICE on antiquities looting in Egypt



Presenter Gianna Toboni, Image Courtesy of HBO
Presenter Gianna Toboni, Image Courtesy of HBO

Tonight at 11 EST on HBO, the VICE series takes on the problem of antiquities looting in the Middle East. A typical VICE episode combines two 15-minute reports with great camera work and a good investigative approach. As others have pointed out, the series does a terrific job showing us reports of what is happening in, say, Kashmir, or with human trafficking in China. It leaves to the audience to answer the question: what do we do about this?

In its 15 minutes running time the report on antiquities looting breaks new ground. It manages to take us from the site of the looting, starting with economic conditions, and finishing with the middle men who sell these objects all the way through to the customs warehouses and auction houses in New York. Its an ambitious arc to tackle, but the producers manage to give a complete picture of the many problems which lead to the looting of archaeological sites and the way segments of the trade skirt the rules. A middleman even gives us an estimate of how little the looters themselves make off an object which is smuggled abroad.

The primary focus is Egypt, and starts with the souvenir stalls at the Pyramids at Giza who are hungry for customers. Tourism we are told has all but ended in Egypt. It is the economic condition in the region, combined with the overstretched/inept/corrupt authorities inability to police sites that make it possible to loot. And the objects find willing buyers at auction houses and on the internet by using falsified histories. The program even manages to interview some looters, follow some down a massive (and dangerous) looters pit, and shows us the sad room where the antiquities ministry in Egypt is attempting to repatriate the huge volume of material which has left the country. Even Zahi Hawass makes an appearance doing what he does best, giving a great line to the camera, lit from below, in his favorite “Indiana Jones” hat, exclaiming how important it is to save all this material.

The camera work is stunning, showing us looting and the devastation it leaves behind so quickly that the viewer who is unfamiliar with the sites and locations will have a hard time keeping up. And maybe that is the point. As many of my colleagues look to tie terrorism and other nebulous evils to the antiquities trade, the VICE report does one better. Rather than make these cheap connections which are sure to evaporate with the advent of the next global threat; by showing us the daily lives of Egyptians and the incalculable loss to our collective human history; the people and history demand more attention, more resources, and better policy. Its well worth seeking out, and will bring a rare thing to the problem of antiquities looting, a well-reported and accurate picture of a troubling problem which is only getting worse.

The report is timely too, particularly as the Middle East Institute and the Antiquities Coalition are co-sponsoring a conference in Cairo from May 13-14 to discuss the economic and cultural impact of antiquities looting in the region.

Here’s a taste, a short interview with Monica Hanna at Abal Sir Al Malaq Cemetery, with a disturbing number of looted graves, with human remains and  burial shrouds laying out in the open where looters discarded them.