Donny George hired at Stony Brook University


Donny George, the former director of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad has been hired as a visiting professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island. George left Iraq recently, after he feared for his safety. For many, he was the public face of the much-publicized (and sometimes over-exaggerated) theft and looting of Iraqi antiquities in 2003. George featured prominently in Matthew Bogdanos’ work, Thieves of Baghdad, which I discussed earlier here. It is indeed unfortunate that George cannot continue his work in Iraq, but the situation there seems to be growing increasingly unstable. Unfortunately, protecting the nation’s antiquities, and ancient sites, is not a priority for the Iraqi government, nor the foreign forces stationed there.

The picture is of the ancient city of Babylon, taken by an American soldier from a blackhawk helicopter with his digital camera.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Thoughts on the Sale of the Gross Clinic


I have written a number of posts on the proposed sale of Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” in recent weeks, but the dispute is a fascinating one, because it cuts to the heart of the importance of the connection between art and its location. Do works of art or antiquities inherently belong in a given location?

Eakins, pictured here, is recognized as one of America’s greatest artists. He was known for bringing a stark realism to his work, which could often be unflattering to his subjects. The work has been sold for $68 million to heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune for the new Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University voluntarily agreed to delay the sale so community leaders in Philadelphia could come up with the funds to keep the work in the city. This is a voluntary version of the UK’s export restriction, which allow the UK government time to raise funds to keep a work at home before it is exported. Some have argued that as few as 500 visitors saw the work in Philadelphia last year. I wonder if debate surrounding the sale would be quite so adamant if the work was being sold to the Met, or the MFA in Boston, rather than what some may see as a new “Wal-Mart Museum”.

Efforts to prevent or delay the sale provides an interesting new way to think about export restrictions. Many nations use export restrictions to prevent the loss of important cultural works. The US is one of the few nations without such restrictions. Philadelphia’s mayor has nominated the work for historic status, which would effectively act as an export restriction at the municipal level. Export restrictions are a reality for the art and antiquities market, but they are quite controversial. They generally involve underdeveloped source nations (such as Peru, Guatemala, or Nigeria) and wealthy market nations (like Japan, the US, or the UK). At issue in the source nation debate are inherent concerns about the less developed world, cultural appropriation, and the continued exploitation of the underdeveloped world. If Philadelphia continues to prevent the sale, it would countervene the prevailing position of the US, which generally frowns on export restrictions.

The Eakins debate strips away those concerns, as Philadelphia is on roughly the same footing as Bentonville. This allows us to focus in on the core issue, which asks, do certain works belong in a certain context? Might context be secondary to the interests of the University, which plans to use the funds to expand its campus. Also, might there be a greater value in allowing more of the public to view the work? I think so, but one thing remains clear, I’m sure the painting has earned far more visitors in recent weeks because of the controversy.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Theodore Roosevelt’s Gun

Anthony Joseph Tulino, a postal worker from Florida, pleaded guilty to violating the Antiquities Act of 1906 yesterday. The gun has been missing since it was stolen from a display case in 1990. Roosevelt carried the 1892 revolver during the charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill in 1898. Roosevelt signed the 1906 Act into law, as a very early effort to protect the theft of relics from Federal property.

The FBI’s Art Theft Unit recovered the gun earlier this year, and it was returned to Roosevelt’s former home in Sagamaore Hill near Oyster Bay, New York. Tulino faces up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The revolver has been valued at up to $500,000.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Italy’s Aggressive Repatriation Campaign

Two articles from today’s New York Times further highlight Italy’s aggressive repatriation policies of late.

First, a new sculpture, the statute of Eirene, pictured here, is on extended temporary display until 2009 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Italy agreed to loan the sculpture after the Museum agreed to return antiquities to Italy. The Museum of Fine Arts held a news conference yesterday with Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli to announce the display. The Met will also receive a temporary exhibition of a 4th century B.C. drinking cup, called a kylix. However it has chosen to downplay the agreement. The granting of these two temporary exhibitions by Italy, further underscores its dispute with the Getty over antiquities. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Met have chosen to cooperate with Italy, and have been granted these works. It gives added emphasis to Italy’s threatened cultural embargo against the Getty, after negotiations broke off between the two parties.

Second, a private collector has been asked by Italy to return 20 artifacts it claims were illicitly excavated. The collector, Shelby White and her late husband, Leon Levy, acquired a significant collection of antiquities over the last 30 years. Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer with Italy’s Culture Ministry, has asked Ms. White to return the objects. The Italians have acknowledged that they do not have much legal pressure to force the restitution of these objects. However exerting public pressure may be their best chance at repatriating these objects. Highlighting Italy’s claims is a study conducted by two British archaeologists, Christopher Chippindale and David Gill. It suggested that 84% of objects owned by Ms. White and her husband which were exhibited at the Met in a special 1990 exhibition were illicitly excavated. Whether this Italian campaign will prove successful and will have an impact on the demand for illicit antiquities remains to be seen. It is an interesting move by Italy to attempt to convince private collectors that purchasing these objects without a solid provenance may indeed be unethical, and may be damaging the very tradition and heritage which they wish to preserve and own. Some commentator have argued for stiffer criminal penalties for collectors of these objects. That seems like a difficult thing to enact though, as these individuals are generally the pillars of their community. After all, Ms. White donated $200 million to NYU for a new antiquities department. A more effective approach may be a campaign to associate collecting of unprovenanced antiquities with the destruction of a nation’s heritage and archaeological record.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Problems for Marion True and the Getty


The New York Times reports this morning that the Getty Museum has unilaterally decided to break off talks with the Italian Culture Ministry, and return 26 artifacts to Italy. Italy still wants the return of 27 other objects. One of the works is this piece, “Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe”, dating from the 4th Century BC. The background for these negotiations is the trial of former Getty Curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht in Rome. If Italy is still unsatisfied with the Getty’s decision to repatriate only some of the antiquities, they may try to put pressure on Federal Prosecutors to bring charges against True in the US under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA).

Greek authorities have decided to follow their Italian counterparts, and have decided to bring charges against True as well, as reported by Reuters. This might be related to the Greek seizures on the Greek Islands known as the Small Cyclades, which took place in April of this year. I discussed them earlier here.

Despite True’s resignation, her aggressive acquisition policy still seems to be causing problems for the Getty, the richest art institution in the world. Italy and Greece are attempting to send a powerful message with these trials: dealing in unprovenanced antiquities will not be tolerated. It remains to be seen though if a conviction will take place in either trial.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Antiquities Seized in Pakistan


625 Antiquities, worth millions of dollars were seized in Karachi last week, Pakistan’s Daily Times reported on Sunday. The objects were hidden in a large freight container, under a shipment of furniture bound for the UAE. The UAE has a reputation for being a transit state, where antiquities can be purchased relatively easily.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Traprain Law Silver


Last Tuesday evening, I enjoyed a presentation by British Museum archaeologist Dr. Kenneth Painter at Marischal Museum, here in Aberdeen. He provided an interesting and insightful theory on the origins of this Roman silver hoard, which dates from the 5th century AD. His theory was that this silver may have been used as currency to pay Roman mercenaries. Many of these pieces had been cut up, into what is referred to as hacksilver, in specific sizes and amounts. It was a very interesting and insightful presentation, though it was presented in a typical British way, in which the presenter basically reads their paper. I found the discussion much better when he departed from his paper, and engaged the audience during a question and answer session.

There are many Roman hoards of silver which have been discovered all over the UK, and indeed Europe in general. This particular hoard was discovered by excavations in 1919. The state of archeology was much different then than it is today, and not much of the context surrounding the silver was preserved and studied. However, one of Dr. Painter’s comments struck me as quite interesting. Many of these hoards are found in remote areas. This makes sense. The possessor’s of these objects wanted them to remain hidden, and so they buried their silver in the countryside. As a result, the archaeological context surrounding these hoards generally reveals relatively little.

The question then becomes, would much have been discovered if a scientific dig had been conducted wherever the controversial Sevso hoard had been discovered? We’ll never know the answer to that question in all likelihood. In fact, even though Dr. Painter does not have contextual information for the Traprain silver, he at least knows the find-spot, which allows for a surprising amount of speculation, especially when this hoard is compared with others in the UK and Northern Europe. The idea occurs to me though is should there be a sliding scale for antiquities? I’m not up to date on what exactly an archaeological dig can yield, but there must be shades. If a dig is conducted in a city, surely it will reveal more information than if it took place in the countryside? Perhaps then, a case cold be made that the trade in these kinds of antiquities should be liberalized. It seems like a plausible argument, though I’m not sure archaeologists would support it. In any event, the pictures of the Traprain Silver and the other hoards Dr. Painter displayed were fantastic, and the stories and theories about how the silver found its way to Traprain law were really great.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com