In Syria, looting causes faked antiquities too

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

Reporting for the L.A. Times last week, Nabih Bulos indicates that with the rise in looting of ancient sites, the market demand is starting to also be met by forged antiquities:

“In the last year, we’ve caught thousands of pieces. We noticed that the percentage of fakes has risen up from 30 to 40% to over 70%,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums.

“Bibles, coins, statues … the buyer wants a certain model of artifact. The seller doesn’t have it, so you have workshops that produce fakes.”

On his laptop, Abdulkarim played a video depicting an open-air workshop, which he said was in the town of Khan Al-Subul in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Men, their hands covered in white dust, sit cross-legged on the ground, carving delicate patterns on pieces of stone.

Off to the side, one worker washes down a column head with a wet sponge. The rivulets of liquid work their way down the stone’s surface, leaving a dark sediment that would give it the appearance of age, according to Abdulkarim.

But are the faked antiquities new, or are we just paying more attention because of the loud destruction and institutionalized iconoclasm taking place in parts of Syria.

In 2009, Charles Stanish argued that he stopped worrying about the sale of faked antiquities on internet sites such as eBay, in the hopes that antiquities fakers would ultimately put antiquities forgers and looters out of business. In Syria at least, this report indicates that instead, the art market’s failure to often sell objects with detailed and legitimate histories leads to first looting, then also a rise in faked artworks. Some of course will argue that there should not be a market for this material at all. Others argue that the market should be preserved. The inability to compromise, of these two competing interests to even discuss the possibility of the other existing has served to preserve not the sites or context, but the black market in looted archaeological material and fake antiquities.

 

  1. Nabih Bulos, After Islamic State Institutionalized Looting in Syria, the Market for Fake Antiquities is Booming, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-fake-antiquities-2016-story.html.

The US initiated an extraterritorial civil forfeiture of antiquities

Last week, attorneys filed a civil forfeiture action on behalf of the United States for four antiquities allegedly being held as foreign assets of ISIL. The case marks a couple firsts. For one it is the first forfeiture action targeting foreign assets of ISIL of any kind. Second, it marks the first forfeiture initiated by the U.S. government of this kind, where the objects at issue have not been seized by the government, but rather only photographic and associated evidence of their possible introduction into the antiquities trade exists. As a consequence this is an extra-territorial forfeiture which shares many similarities with the efforts of Italian prosecutors to forfeit the Fano athlete/Getty Bronze.

The best overview of the forfeiture I’ve seen can be found at chasing aphrodite. There, Jason Felch was able to speak with Arvind Lal and Zia Faruqui in the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Colombia:

Where are the objects? Lal and Zia declined to say whether they knew where the objects were, citing the on-going investigation of the Abu Sayyaf material. But they said the complaint makes clear they are not currently in the United States.    

Why file the complaint now? Lal said that the time between the May 2015 raid and the forfeiture complaint was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of the records seized from Abu Sayyaf, consult with experts on the objects depicted in those records, coordinate with other federal agencies (FBI, State, Treasury and “other government agencies”) and compile the complaint. “We feel like we’ve done our homework with respect to these four items,” Lal said, suggesting that additional items may be added to the complaint in the future.

The practical implication of this forfeiture will mean that the market for these four objects, and perhaps objects like them, has been sharply diminished. The forfeiture complaint also details the ways in which looting takes place. The traditional rationales for antiquities looting may be much messier than we have thought, with women and family members forced to loot the al-Salihiyyah archaeological site to prevent harm to a young family member, as the documents seized in the Abu Sayyaf raid which have been made public for the first time in this complaint seem to show.

  1. US files first case against ISIS to recover antiquities, http://ara.tv/m65yq (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  2. UPDATED > Inside the ISIS Looting Operation: U.S. Lawsuit Reveals Terror Group’s Brutal Bureaucracy of Plunder, CHASING APHRODITE (2016), https://chasingaphrodite.com/2016/12/15/inside-the-isis-looting-operation-u-s-lawsuit-reveals-terror-groups-brutal-bureaucracy-of-plunder/ (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  3. Brandi Buchman, U.S. on Hunt for Antiquities Trafficked by Islamic State Courthouse News Service (2016), https://courthousenews.com/u-s-on-hunt-for-antiquities-trafficked-by-islamic-state/ (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
  4. United States Files Complaint Seeking Forfeiture of Antiquities Associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/united-states-files-complaint-seeking-forfeiture-antiquities-associated-islamic-state (last visited Dec 20, 2016).

Obama could still save Bears Ears

Cedar Mesa, one of the estimated 100,000 archaeological sites in the proposed Bears Ears monument
Cedar Mesa, one of the estimated 100,000 archaeological sites in the proposed Bears Ears monument

Former Senator and U.S. Representative Mark Udall argues President Obama could still set aside the “Bears Ears” National Monument:

The president has a rare opportunity to advance this proud tradition by protecting a spectacular area critical to our western heritage: Bears Ears, a 1.9 million-acre area in southern Utah replete with thousands of historic and cultural sites.

President Obama has already demonstrated his commitment to preserving and protecting unique public treasures for generations to come. He did so with Chimney Rock in southwest Colorado and again with Browns Canyon in Chaffee County. I was proud to champion both bipartisan efforts to protect these landscapes for future generations.

The president now has the chance to preserve lands vital to our nation’s heritage and history with the support of five Native American tribes whose heritage is memorialized in this area. He should utilize the Antiquities Act to protect the Bears Ears region in southeast Utah — a site that represents our western pioneering history and that of the tribal communities across the region, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Numerous Native American tribes trace their roots to Bears Ears. In fact, the strongest voices in favor of a designation have come from the Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribes. The site also is home to artifacts from pioneers who made a home in the American West.

One of the prominent natural features in the landscape is Jacob’s Chair, named after my great-great grandfather, Jacob Hamlin, who was known as the Mormon Pathfinder. Hamlin spent his life working tirelessly to resolve conflicts that arose between the newly arrived settlers and the deeply rooted Native American tribes and bands already living in the area. His vision encompassed a future where both groups lived and worked together collaboratively, respecting each other’s traditions and beliefs, and living in harmony with the land. A Bears Ears National Monument would be a 21st century investment in that vision.

  1. Mark Udall, Still time for President Obama to save Bears Ears, The Denver Post (Nov. 20, 2016).

A strong connection between looting and organized crime in Greece

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Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.

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Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.

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The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.

Nicholas Paphitis, Greek police break up gang that excavated, sold antiquities, US News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2016), http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-10-05/greek-police-break-gang-that-sold-thousands-of-antiquities.
Helen Stoilas, Police in Greece arrest 26 in bust of alleged antiquities smuggling ring, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/archeology/police-in-greece-arrest-26-in-bust-of-alleged-antiquities-smuggling-ring/.

Eakin on the destruction at Palmyra

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)
Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

In an essay in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin criticizes the actions of UNESCO, the United States, and Russia in the wake of the retaking of Palmyra from the Islamic State.

For all the pageantry, the retaking of Palmyra has served as a powerful reminder of how detached from reality the international campaign to save Syria’s endangered cultural heritage has been. Chastened by the damage wrought in recent wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, Western leaders, cultural officials, UNESCO, and even the UN Security Council have for several years now devoted unprecedented attention to the threats to sites in Syria by ISIS and other extremist groups. Millions of dollars have been spent to document, with the best satellite technology available and other resources, the current condition of archaeological monuments in the areas of conflict; legal scholars have called for war crimes prosecutions against those who intentionally damage historic sites and monuments; while top officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and French President François Hollande, have long warned of the cost of Western inaction. Above all, a continuous series of initiatives have been aimed at cracking down on the international trade in looted Syrian antiquities, often described as a major revenue source for ISIS.

He argues instead that the best progress will likely come as a result of action done by local populations: Continue reading “Eakin on the destruction at Palmyra”

Comment on Pragmatic Reform in the Antiquities Trade

The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja)  returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014
The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014

Cornelius Banta, Jr. a recent graduate of the University of Houston Law Center has written an interesting piece in the Houston Law Review putting forth some pragmatic reforms to the antiquities trade. From the abstract:

The debate over the trade in antiquities generally pits archaeologists and antiquities-rich nations (cultural nationalists) against museums, art dealers, and private collectors (cultural internationalists). The former alleges that the latter’s lusting after antiquities perpetuates a black market that threatens the archaeological record and undermines the sovereignty of source nations. Conversely, cultural internationalists assert that policies favoring cultural nationalists stifle the free exchange of artifacts that belong to mankind as a whole, not just a select group of scholars and countries. The problem is that both sides are so intent on pointing the finger at each other that they fail to realize cooperation could produce a mutually beneficial outcome. The solution lies in changing the current adversarial debate into a cooperative dialogue where each side gives a little in order to ensure both sides gain more in the end.

This Comment attempts to break through the polarization in the debate over the trade in antiquities by stressing the shared interests of both sides and advocating pragmatic reforms. The current debate is first viewed through an intellectual framework, where the interests of cultural nationalists, who want to protect antiquities, runs up against cultural internationalists, who advocate for the free movement of antiquities. With the theoretical framework set, one can then analyze the debate through the current legal approaches towards regulating the antiquities market. The United States’ blend of criminal prosecutions and trade restrictions is illustrative of present efforts to control the antiquities trade. Yet despite the ineffectiveness of current polices, the hardline stances taken by both sides of the antiquities trade debate create an impasse for reform. Consequently, change can only come by recognizing the shortcomings of the current approaches and promoting civil and private remedies that benefit both sides.

Cornelius Banta Jr., Finding Common Ground in the Antiquities Trade Debate to Promote Pragmatic Reforms, http://www.houstonlawreview.org/2016/05/06/53-4-finding-common-ground-in-the-antiquities-trade-debate-to-promote-pragmatic-reforms/.

We Visited Morgantina and Aidone, they were great

This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.

The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.

If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.

To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.

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The baths at Morgantina. Notice the painting on the walls

Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who

A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the "Morgantina Silver"
A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the “Morgantina Silver”

acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.

Continue reading “We Visited Morgantina and Aidone, they were great”