Facebook will remove posts selling cultural objects

Facebook announced today that it will remove any content that is an attempt to buy, sell, or trade in “historical artifacts”. That decision is a welcome change, and the product of a terrific advocacy campaign by the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project. in a press release, Greg Mandel, public policy manager at Facebook stated “To keep these artifacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today we now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artifacts on Facebook and Instagram”.

Some of the posts were truly shocking. Katie Paul, co-director of ATHAR was quoted in the NYT: “They literally will post pictures from auction catalogs and say, ‘See, this is how much this stuff can sell for, so go for it guys.’” And that kind of buyer-directed looting was reported by the BBC in 2019:

This welcome reform will help to prevent Facebook’s algorithms and micro-advertising campaigns from being used to sell illicit cultural objects, but likely will not end it entirely. As Prof. Amr al-Azm, from Shawnee State University in Ohio, adequate enforcement efforts will also be needed because simply “[r]elying on user reports and Artificial Intelligence is simply not enough”. Though more work may need to be done, this is a welcome development, and big congratulations should be directed at everyone at the ATHAR project and who called for this reform.

Tom Mashberg, Facebook, Citing Looting Concerns, Bans Historical Artifact Sales, The New York Times, Jun. 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/arts/design/facebook-looting-artifacts-ban.html.

Carlie Porterfield, Facebook Bans Artifacts Trade After Uptick In Posts Of Looted Objects, Forbes (Jun. 23, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2020/06/23/facebook-bans-artifacts-trade-after-uptick-in-posts-of-looted-objects/.

Steve Swann, Facebook Bans “loot-to-Order” Antiquities Trade, Jun. 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53140615.

Tracking the history looted from a warzone, BBC News (May 2, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-47671566/syrian-looting-tracking-the-history-taken-from-a-warzone.

EDNY Files Forfeiture for Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

Gilgamesh Dream Tablet
A cuneiform tablet which may reveal a portion of the epic poem of Gilgamesh.

Today the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced the filing of a civil forfeiture action against a cuneiform tablet which was most recently purchased by the Museum of the Bible. The Government’s allegations show a familiar pattern: fake the history of an object, have the object published in a scientific publication, earn the endorsement of a prominent expert, and conduct the sale in secret. The complaint is docketed at Civ. No. 20-2222. Here are some of the best allegations from the government’s complaint, available here.

First off, the Government rightly points out the scourge of looting in Iraq, and the discovery of the epic of Gilgamesh in 1853:

This tablet was seized from the Museum of the Bible in September, and is storing the tablet at at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Queens, which may help explain why the EDNY U.S. Attorney’s office has filed this action and not another office. It may also be because this office is one which has good track record of successful civil forfeiture actions.

HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter Fitzhugh stated in the press release:

“We are proud of our investigation that led to this reclaiming of a piece of Iraq’s cultural history.  This rare tablet was pillaged from Iraq and years later sold at a major auction house, with a questionable and unsupported provenance, HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work with prosecutors to combat the looting of antiquities and ensure those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable.”

The laws at issue here are parts of the Customs laws and the National Stolen Property Act:

One interesting aspect here, and I’m not sure what the appetite for the Museum of the Bible will be to defend this action in court given the absolute devastating series of seizures, investigations and scandals, but they may have some legal defenses due to the difficulty in tracing an illicit antiquity to its point of origin. Federal law still hinges in many ways on pinning a specific time and place for a criminal act involving a piece of cultural heritage, whether that act is looting from context, theft, smuggling, etc. The government will have to show I think that this tablet did originate in Iraq after an applicable Iraqi heritage or patrimony law. Of course if the Museum of the Bible wants to do the right thing and just let this object be returned, those legal arguments are moot. But the complaint does I think leave open the specific origin for the fragment, and when. A very typical problem with illicit objects like this one.

The best argument the government laid out in the complaint is that the Museum of the Bible and the Auction House engaged in some really clumsy post-sale due diligence which only made the problems worse, and acknowledge Iraq as the origin:

The forfeiture here alleges some serious fraud and wrongdoing by a prominent new museum, the Museum of the Bible; but also dealers, antiquities experts, and prominent auctioneers.



United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue also stated in the release:

“Whenever looted cultural property is found in this country, the United States government will do all it can to preserve heritage by returning such artifacts where they belong, In this case, a major auction house failed to meet its obligations by minimizing its concerns that the provenance of an important Iraqi artifact was fabricated, and withheld from the buyer information that undermined the provenance’s reliability.



The forfeiture action is a very powerful and useful remedy to police specific objects, but it really may not do all that much long-term to disincentivize actors from doing this kind of thing in the future. A forfeiture every now and then is just the cost of doing business.

United States Files Civil Action to Forfeit Rare Cuneiform Tablet Bearing Portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh (May 18, 2020), https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/united-states-files-civil-action-forfeit-rare-cuneiform-tablet-bearing-portion-epic.

Lord Elgin and the Parthenon featured on Stuff You Missed in History Class

Parthenon Frieze at the Acropolis Museum in Athens
The Parthenon frieze depicting the Great Panathenaia at the Acropolis Museum in Athens

The excellent podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, (hosted by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey) has a useful overview of the chronology of the taking of the Parthenon Sculptures by Lord Elgin and his agents. It’s a useful overview, and will likely be of particular use for students or newcomers to the long-running dispute. Useful details include Elgin’s bitter divorce, and the reminder that it was never a good thing to draw the ire of Lord Byron.

Manhattan DA has Charged Kapoor and 7 Others

The Manhattan DA alleged that many illicit objects are still missing, including this grey schist Garuda Seizing a Nagini (via).

The office of the Manhattan District Attorney has charged Subhash Kapoor and seven individuals in a antiquities massive smuggling network. The arrest warrants filed yesterday allege Kapoor travelled to India to discuss the looting of objects, he then shipped these objects to London to be cleaned and restored, and finally these objects were given fraudulent histories before being sold through his galleries.

These arrests show the potential use of state and federal cooperation, unfortunately a massive investigation this large takes time. As Chasing Aprhorite pointed out, these arrest warrants come 7 years after federal agents raided Kapoor’s gallery in 2012:

The individuals arrested include two British citizens. Neil Parry Smith, an antiquities restorer was alleged to have prepared looted objects. Also, Richard Salmon is alleged to have helped restored recently looted material in New York. The five other individuals were a part of the alleged looting network in India and are Sanjeeve Asokan, Dean Dayal, Ranjeet Kanwar (aka Shantoo), Aditya Prakash and Vallabh Prakash.

Kapoor is currently jailed in India where he has been awaiting trial under the Indian criminal code for nearly 8 years. But his alleged looting network is vast, including an alleged 2,600 antiquities from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand. Helen Stoilas at the Art Newspaper compiled many of the images of still-missing objects provided by the Manhattan DA. Those objects are now presumed illicit, dealing a big blow to their future market.

For a terrific account of this looting network, you should seek out the work of S. Vijay Kumar:

Italian Court Upholds Seizure Order for Fano Athlete

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Will the Getty’s prize bronze return to Italy? On Monday Italy’s Court of Cassation upheld the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently on display at the Getty Villa. Though the legal dispute has taken years, that’s not out of the norm for the amount of time prominent repatriation conflicts take to resolve. The written opinion has not yet been published, but it certainly appears to be a favorable development for Italian officials.

Gaia Pianigiani reported for the New York Times:

After a decade-long legal battle, Italy’s Court of Cassation ruled Monday that the statue should be confiscated and brought back to Italy, rejecting the Getty’s appeal. The decision had not been published Tuesday but a message from a court official describing it was provided to The New York Times.

“It was a very, very long process, but we now hope that we will be able to have it in Italy as soon as possible,” said Lorenzo D’Ascia, a lawyer representing the Italian government.

In a report on ANSA, comments by Italian heritage advocates, ministers and lawyers seemed optimistic:

The top court rejected an appeal by the US museum against a Pesaro judge’s order to confiscate the fourth-century BC bronze statue.
“The Lysippos (as it is known in Italy) must return to Italy, it’s the last word from Italian justice,” Pesaro prosecutor Silvia Cecchi told ANSA after the long legal battle.
Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli told ANSA “now we hope the US authorities will act as soon as possible to favour the restitution of the Lysippos to Italy”.
He said he was happy that “this judicial process has finally ended and the right to recover an extremely important testimony of our heritage has been recognised.
“Let’s hope the statue can soon return to be admired in our museums”.
In June the Pesaro prosecutors announced that the order issued to seize the statue for years disputed by Italy and the Getty Museum in Malibu was “immediately executive”.
“The Lysippos statue must return to Italy,” prosecutors told ANSA, accompanied by Tristano Tonnini, the lawyer for the association “Cento Citta'”, which has been fighting the legal battle for 11 years.
“We expect politicians to play their part,” they said.

For Italy, the path to a successful repatriation of the Bronze could come via an agreement with the Getty. And such an agreement may be more likely to occur with this favorable ruling. The forfeiture can be successfully enforced by a U.S. Federal Court via transnational forfeiture and a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between Italy and the United States. I detailed how such a transnational forfeiture could work in a 2014 article, available here.

  1. Lysippos statue is Italy’s says court, ANSA.it (2018), http://www.ansa.it/english/news/lifestyle/arts/2018/12/04/lysippos-statue-is-italys-says-court_8405f7ad-e1d1-4aef-aa4d-998c98c1a7ec.html (last visited Dec 4, 2018).
  2. Gaia Pianigiani, Italian Court Rules Getty Museum Must Return a Prized Bronze, The New York Times, December 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/arts/design/getty-bronze-italy-ruling.html (last visited Dec 4, 2018).
  3. Derek Fincham, Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze, 32 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 471–500 (2014), available at https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/caelj32&i=485.
  4. Luis Li & Amelia L.B. Sargent, The Getty Bronze and the Limits of Restitution Symposium: The Cultural Identity and Legal Protection of Art, 20 Chap. L. Rev. 25–50 (2017) (for a discussion of the case from the perspective of the Getty’s attorneys).

Taxpayers paid triple for the forgeries at the Museum of the Bible

The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, a private museum located in Washington D.C., has announced that some of its most heralded objects are likely forgeries. Five fragments, purported to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are actually fakes. In a statement the Museum of the Bible announced that the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”

The Museum of the Bible has generated controversy since it opened. In 2017 for example the Museum paid $3 million and returned thousands of objects illegally removed from Iraq. The Museum is the passion project of Steve Green, a billionaire and founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.

Michael Press in a post for Hyperallergic  does an excellent job pointing out the real cost of these forgeries. He references the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden for a 2017 book Bible Nation, which reports the Green family uses a 3:1 tax deduction to purchase price ration. Meaning that for every dollar used to buy these objects, the tax write-off is triple the amount. We the american taxpayer are paying for the Green family to acquire this material, much of it either looted or fake.

As Press argues:

Some may celebrate the latest news as a vindication of their criticisms of MOTB or Hobby Lobby. But, as with the prior series of scandals with which they’ve been involved — the forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and other artifacts smuggled into the countrythe issuing of fake receipts for purchases along with tax evasion and money laundering; or the funding of an archaeological excavation in the West Bank in violation of international law — this is not really a loss for MOTB.

Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic”donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.

Sadly, that’s exactly right. We are paying for looting and forgery. Other museums certainly have acquired forged material in the past, but the Museum of the Bible in acquiring so much material so aggressively is bound to acquire looted and forged material.

Daniel Burke, Bible Museum say five of its Dead Sea Scrolls are fake, CNN (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/22/us/bible-museum-fake-scrolls/index.html.

Emily Sullivan, Museum Of The Bible Says 5 Of Its Most Famed Artifacts Are Fake, NPR.org (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659741484/museum-of-the-bible-says-5-of-its-most-famed-artifacts-are-fake.

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible Revealed as Forgeries, Hyperallergic (Oct. 0, 2018), https://hyperallergic.com/467318/dead-sea-scrolls-at-the-museum-of-the-bible-revealed-as-forgeries/.

Museum of the Bible Releases Research Findings on Fragments in Its Dead Sea Scrolls Collection (Oct. 22, 2018), http://www.museumofthebible.org/press/press-releases/museum-of-the-bible-releases-research-findings-on-fragments-in-its-dead-sea-scrolls-collection.

Profile of Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver

This polaroid image of a Bell Krater from teh Medici archive was submitted by Tsirogiannis to Manhattan prosecutors, who seized the krater from the Met in 2017.

If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:

When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.

To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.

He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.

The Ancient-Art Vigilante Who Holds the Global Market Hostage, Bloomberg.com, Jun. 26, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-06-26/if-you-steal-it-the-art-vigilante-will-find-you.
Laura Chesters, Auction house Sotheby’s takes on Greece in landmark antiquities court case, Antiquities Trade Gazette (Jun. 6, 2018), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2018/auction-house-sotheby-s-takes-on-greece-in-landmark-antiquities-court-case/.
Tom Mashberg, Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted, The New York Times, Jul. 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/arts/design/ancient-vase-seized-from-met-museum-on-suspicion-it-was-looted.html.

 

BLM Accidentally Reveals Location of 900 Heritage Sites

Cedar Mesa in Utah”That’s a big screwup”

So says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest in a story by Jennifer Oldham for Reveal and Salon, which describes the massive error by Bureau of Land Management officials who posted a 77-page report which included the locations heritage sites in Utah. All in all 900 sites were described, including cliff dwellings, religious sites, rock art, and other archaeological sites.

The Bureau of Land Management posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.

The document appeared on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah. The BLM removed it and then reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February and remained there for at least a few days – long enough for a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the state’s privacy restrictions.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa was quoted in the story expressing his surprise at the report, which “went to a level . . . that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.” So how did this information get published? Oldham’s story notes that the BLM field offices are understaffed, and have been instructed by the Trump administration to undo the “regulatory burdens” impacting the energy industry. The report was only online for a few days, but likely made it easier for determined looters to target and clandestinely remove material from a staggering number of archaeological sites.

Jennifer Oldham, Oops! Federal officials divulge secret info about Native American artifacts, Salon (Jul. 15, 2018), https://www.salon.com/2018/07/15/oops-federal-officials-divulge-secret-info-about-native-american-artifacts_partner/.

Operation Demetra and familiar names

The Aidone goddess, likely depicting the Earth goddess Demeter at the Archaeological Museum in Aidone.

Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.

As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe.  She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.

These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.

One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:

The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .

He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:

If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.

Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.

It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.

John Phillips & Justin Huggler, Italian Police Smash £30m International Ancient Artefact Smuggling Ring, The Telegraph, Jul. 4, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/04/italian-police-smash-40m-international-ancient-artefact-smuggling/.

Italian Court Again Orders Seizure of the Victorious Youth

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa in 2007

“sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi”

Translation: Seize the Athlete of Lysippos, wherever it is found.

A court in Pesaro on June 8 has for the third time ordered the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently in the possession of the Getty Foundation. The Getty Foundation purchased the Bronze in 1977 for approximately $4 million dollars. The Getty has maintained that the Bronze was found in international waters in the Adriatic Sea. Italy though has long sought the return of the Bronze on the grounds that the fishermen who pulled the Bronze up in their nets were required under Italian law to report the discovery, that the Bronze became subject to Italian heritage law when it was brought ashore, and that it was abused and smuggled before ultimately being acquired by the Getty.

The difficulty of course will be can an Italian court successfully seek the assistance of an American court to enforce this forfeiture order. I have argued that yes, it could. Italy via its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States could trigger a transnational forfeiture that if successful would be a powerful tool on the part of nations of origin.

The Getty though may decide to appeal this decision, and I’ll defer to Italian attorneys the question of whether those appeals have merit. To be sure though, Italian officials are continuing to aggressively use their own courts to seek the return of this rare Bronze.

Fincham, Derek, Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze (August 22, 2013). Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 32, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2238204 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2238204

ANSA, Lysippus must be seized wherever it is, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/lifestyle/arts/2018/06/08/lysippus-must-be-seized-wherever-it-is-4_6ed58f7c-9127-44f8-8fa4-f4e599a91b8a.html, 8 June 2018.

Il giudice dà torto al Getty Museum: sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi, Il Messaggero, https://www.ilmessaggero.it/primopiano/cronaca/ordinanza_sequestro_lisippo_atleta_getty_museum_malibu_tribunale-3785377.html, 8 June 2018.