Trump administration trades heritage for short term gain

Sites like the Cedar Mesa Ruins in Bears Ears National Monument are at risk with the proposed reduction in the national monument

Conservation is not a conservative principle anymore. Today President Trump signed presidential proclamations that will take the unprecedented step of dramatically shrinking two national monuments in Utah. The moves are largely seen as favors to Senator Orin Hatch, a frequent Trump apologist. This part of the American West frequently suffers from antiquities looting on the part of local residents, and the designation of these monuments was an important step to reduce the destruction and looting of these sites. A step that the Trump administration now is attempting to undo.

The reductions in these national monuments are a seldom-used step, one few other presidents have considered since the Antiquities Act was created in 1906. The New York Times reported that reductions have occurred before—Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of Mount Olympus, and Franklin Roosevelt reduced the size of the Grand Canyon monument.

Trump’s attempted reduction in size is not yet known, and will have to survive likely legal challenges, but mark an unfortunate step away from preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Instead the short-sighted move seems to prioritize development, mineral extraction, and ranching. Tribal groups are likely to be impacted most directly, and as a result some have already announced plans to challenge the reduction in court. The Navajo Nation in a statement declared:

The decision to reduce the size of the [Bears Ears] Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bear Ears . . . . The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.

 

Persepolis Relief seized from New York Art Fair

A fragment of a bas-relief from the city of Persepolis, dating from the 5th Century B.C.E.

On Friday afternoon New York prosecutors and police officers seized a limestone relief which once decorated a building from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. The New York Times reported that “cursing could be heard” from the booth. The seized bas-relief, valued at an estimated $1.2 million dollars was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a London-based antiquities dealer. In a statement, Wace argued that the stone fragment “has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years.”

According to Wace, the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s. It was on regular display until it was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. It was recovered by Canadian authorities, but rather than seek the return of the object, the museum decided to keep the insurance payout given by AXA Insurance Company. AXA then had title to the object, which sold it to Wace.

What then is the crime committed which would lead to a seizure? I have not had a look at the warrant, so I’m speculating here, but reportedly it alleges the bas-relief was stolen. Likely because it was removed from Iran after the enactment of an ownership declaration. That argument has not been helpful on its own for material from Iran when Iran initiated an unsuccessful civil lawsuit against Denyse Berend for another bas-relief removed from Persepolis before the Revolution.

This case may be different though, as this is a criminal seizure, not a private suite. Iran declared ownership of objects like this one in 1930. Adding to the claim is the immovable nature of this bas-relief. It had been affixed to the wall for 25 centuries before it was removed.

The Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

This object may have been transported in the modern era, but had been designed and crafted to stay on a wall as part of a monument. This seizure pushes up against some of the oldest successful seizure of illicit material, and has as one obstacle the passage of time. On the other hand though is the reality that this object was part of a monument, Persepolis, which was granted World Heritage Status in 1979.

The Antiquities Trade Gazette reported that the Art Loss Register was responsible for vetting objects at the fair. James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register stated:

We understand this piece was seized and although we’ve not seen an official explanation for this we gather it relates to the possibility that it was taken from Persepolis unlawfully. Given that it was on public display in a museum for over 60 years it will be interesting to see how the claim develops.

Indeed it will. What claims Wace will offer to defend his possession of the object, and what claims he may have against AXA or other predecessors up the chain of possession will be interesting to watch. One thing is certain though, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is vigorously policing the antiquities trade at a level not seen in the United States or elsewhere. Dealers of illicit cultural property are on notice.

  1. Laura Chesters, Persian limestone sculpture seized by police from antiquities dealer at TEFAF New York Antiquities Trade Gazette (2017), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2017/persian-limestone-sculpture-seized-by-police-from-antiquities-dealer-at-tefaf-new-york/ (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  2. James C. McKinley Jr, Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair, The New York Times, October 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/arts/design/ancient-limestone-relief-seized-european-fine-art-fair.html (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  3. Stolen artifact from Montreal museum recovered in Edmonton, CBC News (2014), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/stolen-artifact-from-montreal-museum-recovered-in-edmonton-1.2535754 (last visited Oct 30, 2017).

Katyal on “Technoheritage”

Artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles claimed to have scanned the bust of Nefertiti and displayed it at the “something Else Off Biennale in Cairo in 2015. Via Hyperallergic.

Sonia Katyal, Professor of Law at University of California Berkeley has authored a fascinating new article titled, Technoheritage in Volume 105 of the California Law Review. She engages with some of the interesting overlap between cultural property and intellectual property along with the physical and the digital.

Here’s the abstract:

This Article explores the legal revolution that is swiftly unfolding regarding the relationship between technology, user interactivity, and cultural institutions, both inside and outside of the law. At the same time that cultural properties are facing destruction from war and environmental change, we are also living in an age of unprecedented interactivity and reproduction—everywhere, museums are offering their collections for open access, 3-D printing, and new projects involving virtual and augmented reality. With the advent of other sophisticated forms of digital technology, the preservation and replication of antiquities have never been easier.

Today’s archaeological moment demonstrates both the possibilities and limitations behind “technoheritage”—the marriage of technology and cultural heritage. Toward that end, this Article argues that, in order to understand the relationship between technology and cultural heritage, it might be helpful to study the theoretical dimensions behind interactivity itself. Just as technology has the power to preserve and protect ancient artifacts, it also invites a dizzying array of legal conflicts over their digitization and replication, particularly with regards to the intersection of copyright law with cultural identity. Unpacking this further, this Article offers a tripartite taxonomy of interactivity: the first, described as extractive (drawing upon the accumulation and selection of data); the second, immersive (drawing upon new forms of user participation through virtual and augmented reality); and the third, derivative (drawing upon new possibilities of user creation). Normatively, I argue that these models of interactivity provide us with an important framework with which to examine the importance of copyright protection for cultural heritage. In the concluding section, I suggest a potential way of rethinking the museum by drawing on the logic and legal protection extended to databases and archives in an age of unprecedented user interactivity.

Sonia K. Katyal, Technoheritage, 105 Cal. L. Rev. 1111 (2017). Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/californialawreview/vol105/iss4/3

An Uncertain Future for the Art & Antiques Squad

A fake work of art created by Shaun Greenhalgh, which was purported to be a sculpture by Gauguin. It was revealed thanks to uncovering the Greenhalgh family forgeries

Some troubling news in London reveals that Scotland Yard may see an uncertain future for its Art and Antiques Unit. The offices who had been assigned to the unit have been reallocated to investigating the Grenfell Tower tragedy. This is a shame, as the unit is one of the world’s longest-running art crime policing units, with some terrific prosecutions of note, including the Jonathan Tokeley-Parry conviction (which set the stage for the Fred Schultz conviction in the United States), the discovery of the myriad art frauds committed by the Bolton Forgers, and many other notable initiatives.

Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper that:

Vernon Rapley, who led the Art and Antiques Unit from 2001 until 2010, told The Art Newspaper that he is “worried that the closure of the unit is now being considered”. He added: “I am very concerned that the Metropolitan Police is unable to give assurances on when the three detectives who have been temporarily reassigned will be returned to the unit.”

The three officers are detective constables Philip Clare, Sophie Hayes and Ray Swan. There is currently no detective sergeant responsible for the unit, following the departure of Claire Hutcheon last March.

James Pickford in the Financial Times also noted the importance of the unit to the United Kingdom’s licit art trade:

Dick Ellis, founder and former head of the art squad, said: “To close — if it is to be closed — a small but very specialised unit at Scotland Yard, which is there among other things to assist other countries, is madness.” He added the squad had been closed once before, in 1984, for budgetary reasons, but reopened again in 1989 following pressure from other international forces and the art market. One issue at the centre of concerns about the possible closure of the Met art unit is the fight to prevent looted or stolen antiquities from the Middle East being used to fund terrorism. The unit works with overseas forces to identify illicit trafficking of cultural goods, and can take action when UK-based dealers and auctioneers relay their suspicions about objects of questionable provenance. It also maintains the London stolen arts database, which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property. The UK had a 21 per cent share of the $56bn global art market by value in 2016, second only to the US with 40 per cent, according to research by Arts Economics, a consultancy. One art market professional who had dealt regularly with the Met art unit over the past decade described its detectives as “dedicated and knowledgeable”. “If that unit is lost it would be a great concern for the art market,” they said.

Martin Bailey, Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit heading for closure, The Art Newspaper (Aug. 16, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/closure-of-scotland-yard-s-art-and-antiques-unit-now-being-considered/.
James Pickford, Warning over break-up of Scotland Yard specialist art unit (Aug. 0, 2017), https://www.ft.com/content/53a4d768-82a2-11e7-94e2-c5b903247afd.

European museums to hold Benin Bronze meeting

Benin Bronzes at the V&A Museum in London, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Benin_Bronzes.JPG

Ben Quinn’s piece in the Guardian sheds light on an interesting forthcoming conference which hopes to “establish a permanent display” of Benin material in Nigeria. The Benin bronzes are in many museums in the West, and viewing them gives me to very different reactions. On the one hand, they are terrific to look at, with wonderful detail. But on the other, many of these objects were seized by the British Empire during an 1897 Punitive Campaign. That campaign was as bad as it sounds. To give a brief overview, a British official and his advisors were sent to uncover whether there was ritual human sacrifice taking place in the Kingdom of Benin. When the official and his advisors were killed by the King of Benin, the British responded by destroying the city, and looting as many as 900 of the Benin bronzes to compensate for the costs of the exhibition. Many of these objects were purchased by museums.

Nigeria has requested the return of much of this material, but the museums and collectors who currently possess them have often refused to enter into a dialogue. These negotiations for the return of material can be difficult and contentious, but they do not have to be. Here is hoping the meeting, which will take place in the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will lead to a productive dialogue in the same way that Yale’s return of material to Peru or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act operates.

Quinn’s story highlights the ethical case driving the dialogue, but also some of the challenges:

“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”

Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.

John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”

Ben Quinn, Western Museums Try to Forge Deal with West Africa to Return the Benin Bronzes, The Guardian, Aug. 0, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/12/cambridge-benin-bronzes-loan-deal [https://perma.cc/8YTH-FC4G].
Folarin Shyllon, One Hundred Years of Looting of Nigerian Art Treasures 1897-1966, 3 Art antiquity and law 253 (1998).

The Met’s latest forced return of looted art

A Paestan Krater, which was connected to the Medici Polaroids

Yesterday Tom Mashberg reported in the NY Times that the Met would be returning this Greek krater to Italy. The Met has returned many objects to Italy in recent years, because they have been looted from tombs and archaeological sites before being smuggled abroad.

In 2014 this krater was linked by researcher Christos Tsirogiannis to Polaroid photos which had been seized from the Geneva warehouse of Giacomo Medici.

The interesting aspect of the story here appears to be the very slow response on the part of the Met to questions presented by Tsirogiannis. Tsirogiannis told the NY Times that the evidence: “[S]uggested that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters,” before it passed on to Medici.

Medici was an antiquities dealer, convicted of trafficking in illicit cultural objects, and many objects which passed through his gallery/collection/storehouse have been deemed illicit. Reached by Mashberg for the story, Medici said:

[H]e had no recollection of having handled the vase in question. “Absolutely not,” he said. He said he had been released from house arrest last year after serving half of an eight-year sentence that was shortened by time off for good behavior and a two-year amnesty provision granted to all Italian prisoners.

“I am a free man,” Mr. Medici said. “I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects” that Italian prosecutors believed had been looted, “and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished.”

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Antiquities dealer brings a libel suit

Hichaam and Ali Aboutaam

Antiquities dealer Hichaam Aboutaam brought a civil libel complaint against the Wall Street Journal on Monday. That article, which according to Aboutaam’s complaint had been in the works since at least January of this year, discussed the antiquities trade and ISIS involvement in it. The article reported on the separate investigations by Belgian and Swiss authorities of antiquities dealers, including Phoenix Ancient Art, the antiquities gallery with locations in New York and Switzerland which Aboutaam runs with his brother Ali. Sourcing for the Wall Street Journal perhaps came from law enforcement officials in those countries, though they are not named. The article also reported on the looting taking place in Iraq and Syria, and on the efforts by ISIS to profit of antiquities looting. The piece made no allegation that the antiquities sold or controlled by ISIS are handled by Aboutaam or Phoenix ancient art. But the complaint alleges that the juxtaposition of the two stories amounts to libel. The allegation by Aboutaam was that the piece:

[P]urported to link Plaintiff with ISIS funding through defamatory statements and manipulative juxtaposition of information about Plaintiff with unrelated information about ISIS funding activities.

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