Last March I participated in Cardozo’s Arts and Entertainment Law Journal Spring Symposium on the topic of Digital Art & Blockchain. I learned a lot about this new technology, and wrote a bit about how Blockchain can impact the antiquities trade. Here’s the abstract to my essay:
Blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies, offers promise to shift the gathering and sharing of information in profound ways. It could help form a new kind of financial system that limits current inefficiencies, or even radically change how parties enter into contract, or monitor supply chains. The technology’s distributed ledger allows users in a network to monitor and access peer-to-peer digital transactions in real time. This digital ledger allows users to maintain this information securely by encrypting and allowing access only to those who have permission, given by cryptographic keys.
For the art market, blockchain offers a tantalizing possibility: a verifiable provenance research platform that would eliminate or minimize the problems with title history, authenticity, and looting, which have long-plagued the art and antiquities market. This essay examines whether blockchain might offer a chance for the antiquities market to remedy its persistent problems. The antiquities market has been beleaguered by the sale of forgeries, allowed stolen material to find a market, been hampered by market inefficiencies, and even been a haven for looted archaeological material. Distributed ledgers and blockchain could alleviate or eliminate these problems, but only if the market and those who shape it want to utilize them. No technology, no matter how ingenious or elegant, can end problems caused by the unprincipled actors in the antiquities trade. Such change has to come about with a culture shift and continued pressure by regulators and cultural heritage advocates.
In 2017 the Council of Europe opened the Nicosia or ‘Blood Antiquities’ Convention up for signature. The new initiative is the first of its kind devoted to the criminal and penal aspects of policing cultural property. I wrote a discussion of the Treaty, examining its provisions in detail and thinking about what this initiative may mean for the future of cultural heritage law.
In 2017 the Council of Europe opened for signature the first ever international treaty aimed at policing cultural property. As more attention has been paid to the damage done by the theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural objects, the Council of Europe has met this challenge with an ambitious convention which aims to fill gaps in the current criminal laws. These gaps have too often been exploited by individuals in the illicit antiquities trade. The author had an opportunity to present his analysis of a draft version of the Council of Europe’s Convention at a meeting held in Lucca, Italy in 2017. The meeting of that group of experts revealed a document that had the benefit of grand ambitions and tough talk on the policing of illicit antiquities. Yet there was pessimism expressed by many experts that the Convention would accomplish the goals which it set out to achieve. The essay which follows is an expansion of the remarks given at that meeting. It argues that the cultural property trade badly needs to be properly regulated. This includes not simply seizure and forfeiture of objects, but also the prosecution of persistent bad actors. The Nicosia Convention opens up new possibilities for prosecution at all levels of the illicit trade. Although the Convention is the first of its kind, it has been met with surprisingly little attention in the cultural heritage law academy. This essay introduces the main reforms offered by the Convention and argues that it points the way forward for future policing of the illicit trade in cultural property.
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.
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.
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.
Manhattan prosecutors have continued to pursue the seizure of antiquities in 2018. Yesterday the NYT reported that investigators seized several antiquities from Michael Steinhardt. Steinhardt has been the focus of much of the investigative thrust directed at the antiquities trade. Chasing Aphrodite thoroughly discussed Steinhardt in the recent seizure of a Bull’s head originating from Lebanon. Steinhardt is a noteworthy figure as he was an early pioneer in hedge funds, reportedly worth billions, who has also collected antiquities. One of the galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is named for him. He has also continued to acquire antiquities even as investigations and repatriations have continued in recent decades.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has done much to use his office to secure the return of looted antiquities. That trend looks to continue with the creation of a new Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine who investigated the theft and looting of antiquities from Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion in the early 2000s. The investigation into these objects joins a long list of other investigations that the Manhattan DA’s office has successfully undertaken in 2017, including the return of a marble bull’s head to Lebanon which had been on loan to the Met, the return of an ancient limestone bas-relief on display at the European Fine Art Fair a the Park Avenue Armory, the return of a remnant from one of Caligula’s ships perhaps stolen from an Italian Museum before the Second World War, and other investigations.
These investigations have resulted in the seizure of a great deal of material. Prosecutions of individuals remain elusive. Steinhardt has had very valuable antiquities seized from him before, yet he has continued to acquire this material. Whether this investigation will be able to change his behavior, and the behavior of others is an open question. The Manhattan DA’s office would not comment on the specific grounds for the seizures of these objects, other than the use of New York’s state theft statute. The NYT notes that though Steinhardt has had many object seized, he has not been the subject of any charges for possessing this allegedly stolen material.
The NYT reported that the material seized from Steinhardt included:
[A] Greek white-ground attic lekythos — or oil vessel — from the fifth century B.C., depicting a funeral scene with the figures of a woman and a youth, according to the search warrant. It is worth at least $380,000.
Also seized were Proto-Corinthian figures from the seventh century B.C., depicting an owl and a duck, together worth about $250,000. The other pieces included an Apulian terra-cotta flask in the shape of an African head from the fourth century B.C.; an Ionian sculpture of a ram’s head from the sixth century; and an attic aryballos, a vessel for oil or perfume, from the early fifth century. The objects were all bought in the last 12 years for a total cost of $1.1 million, according to the warrants.
The exact nature of the illicit antiquities trade from ground to market in Southeast Asia remains poorly known outside of Thailand and Cambodia, where most research has been focused. This paper helps to address this imbalance by documenting and contextualizing looting activities at the Bronze and Iron Age site of Vườn Chuối, located within urban Hanoi. A brief excavation history is provided so as to place recent looting into archaeological context. The methods used to document the recent and on-going looting observed are then discussed, followed by the nature of the current threat to Vườn Chuôi and a summation of what little is known about the Vietnamese antiquities trade in general and its relationship to regional antiquities trafficking. Finally, we discuss the current regulatory landscape in terms of constitutional, ownership, penal and international law, difficulties with enforcement and prosecution, and what course of action is needed not only to protect Vườn Chuôi and similar sites in and around Hanoi, but also to continue to raise public awareness of the archaeological repercussions of the trade itself.
Ben Taub reported for the New Yorker on the real market value of the antiquities which are being looted and sold from ISIS-controlled territory. It seems the estimates are very, very inflated. Not a surprise given what we know about estimates of looting.
Taub reports on the event organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this Fall:
Steve Green has amassed 40,000 objects since 2009 for his Museum of the Bible. His name may be familiar, he’s President of Hobby Lobby (and one of the major funders of a successful Supreme Court challenge which allows employers to opt out of paying for insurance on religious grounds, which pays for some health care). Given that nearly all of those 40,000 objects originated from the Middle East, and given the unstable situation in that part of the world, where armed conflict has made securing heritage difficult, there was always a strong likelihood that a substantial amount of that material may have been looted, stolen, illegally exported, or even faked. The illicit nature of that material may be about to put the future of the museum in serious jeopardy. The Museum of the Bible will sit very near the National Mall, an important national space where the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, and other museums sit. America has reserved this space as a place for museums, so the optics of having a new museum filled with tens of potentially looted artifacts should not be underestimated.
Candida Moss and Joel Baden reported for the Daily Beast that Federal investigators are looking at whether the Greens have illegally imported objects from Iraq. One of the allegations is that some objects were misdeclared on customs paperwork:
If the investigation ends with a decision to prosecute, on either criminal or civil charges, the Greens may be forced to forfeit the tablets to the government. There may also be a fine involved. The Green family, who successfully forced the federal government to legally recognize their personal moral standards, now find themselves on the other side of the docket, under suspicion of having attempted to contravene U.S. laws. . . .
When Summers spoke with us, he made it sound as if the ongoing federal investigation was simply the result of a logistical problem. “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” That innocuous phrase—“incomplete paperwork”—makes it sound as if some forms were simply missing a date or a signature. That is rarely the case with questionably-acquired ancient artifacts—and were the problem merely logistical, the chances are slim that it would take four years to resolve.
Summers suggested that the tablets were merely “held up in customs,” as if this was merely a case of bureaucratic delays. “Sometimes this stuff just sits, and nobody does anything with it.” But an individual close to the investigation told us that investigators have accumulated hundreds of hours of interviews, which doesn’t sound like bureaucratic delay—and which also suggests that there is more at stake here than merely a logistical oversight.
Gary Vikan, formerly of the Walters Art Museum, noted in an Op-Ed last week that Henry Walters amassed a relatively modest 1700 works from an Italian priest in 1902 and discovered many illicit works, including fakes which were purportedly by Titian, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The test according to Vikan will be whether the Greens will undertake the kind of rigorous study and authentication required of a serious cultural institution:
The collection in its entirety must, of course, be properly conserved and safely preserved — including those works the staff does not plan to exhibit, both for scholars, and in anticipation of possible repatriation claims.
This process, done right, will entail significant expense, but just a tiny fraction of what has already been invested. And it will go a long way toward repairing the Greens’ reputation as responsible stewards. As the Walters example suggests, there is a place in the profession for ex post facto due diligence on high-speed collecting: if you can’t get it right at first, make sure you do it right later. Full transparency is also the ticket price for membership in the museum and academic worlds to which the Greens aspire.
I urge Steve Green to announce that this approach is part of his strategic agenda, that it has his full support, and that its urgency is no less than that of his new museum. Should these efforts reveal specific evidence of illegally excavated and/or exported works from, for example, Iraq, I would urge Green to initiate an open, good-faith dialogue with officials in the country of origin and with the U.S. State Department, with the aim of repatriation.
What’s done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act.
In many respects these problems were predictable and foreseeable. The age when you could spend freely on the international antiquities market are gone. Buyers must be more careful. Another consideration I suppose is whether it would have even been possible to put together a museum of the bible if those questions were asked. Perhaps not.
Alexander Bauer, Chief Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Property has written an editorial arguing the destruction in Iraq and Syria though tragic also allows new approaches which can move beyond the old entrenched cultural property arguments. From the introduction:
In the dozen years I have edited the IJCP, I have chosen not to write editorials, as I have preferred to let the content of the journal speak for itself. As this issue was going to press, however, a series of events unfolded that I felt needed to be addressed. Over the past months, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (“IS”)—an armed militia with neo-medieval political aspirations in war-torn Syria and Iraq—has undertaken a direct assault on the archaeological remains of northern Mesopotamia, claiming that such art is idolatrous and thus forbidden in Islamic law. While looting of archaeological sites has been widespread and systematic in the region for at least the past two years, the destruction garnered international headlines in February and March 2015 when IS put sledgehammers to Assyrian statues and other artifacts in the museum of Mosul, then proceeded to bulldoze and ransack the spectacular sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, among others. The wantonness and scale of these destructive acts have been shocking, and certainly for anyone concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage, a terrible tragedy. This almost immediately brings to mind parallels with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose destruction fueled a resurgence of arguments in favor of Western museums’ collection of antiquities in order to “save” them from a similar fate. Of course, the Bamiyan episode was not so straightforward, and in some ways, the efforts of Western organizations to intervene on the Buddhas’ behalf may have made matters worse.Arguably, the destruction in Iraq and Syria is even more widespread, insidious, and complicated. It is thus difficult to know how best to respond to it, and what the implications of any responses will be.
In spite of the complexity of the situation, I want to address and critically confront three reactions that are likely to develop or be reinvigorated within current debate on how to respond to such destruction. It is my hope that we can use these terrible events to discuss new ways of approaching the issues of heritage acquisition and preservation rather than fall back into old and counterproductive positions.
It’s an important statement, and one that the Journal has made publicly available free of charge.