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.
Tonight at 11 EST on HBO, the VICE series takes on the problem of antiquities looting in the Middle East. A typical VICE episode combines two 15-minute reports with great camera work and a good investigative approach. As others have pointed out, the series does a terrific job showing us reports of what is happening in, say, Kashmir, or with human trafficking in China. It leaves to the audience to answer the question: what do we do about this?
In its 15 minutes running time the report on antiquities looting breaks new ground. It manages to take us from the site of the looting, starting with economic conditions, and finishing with the middle men who sell these objects all the way through to the customs warehouses and auction houses in New York. Its an ambitious arc to tackle, but the producers manage to give a complete picture of the many problems which lead to the looting of archaeological sites and the way segments of the trade skirt the rules. A middleman even gives us an estimate of how little the looters themselves make off an object which is smuggled abroad.
The primary focus is Egypt, and starts with the souvenir stalls at the Pyramids at Giza who are hungry for customers. Tourism we are told has all but ended in Egypt. It is the economic condition in the region, combined with the overstretched/inept/corrupt authorities inability to police sites that make it possible to loot. And the objects find willing buyers at auction houses and on the internet by using falsified histories. The program even manages to interview some looters, follow some down a massive (and dangerous) looters pit, and shows us the sad room where the antiquities ministry in Egypt is attempting to repatriate the huge volume of material which has left the country. Even Zahi Hawass makes an appearance doing what he does best, giving a great line to the camera, lit from below, in his favorite “Indiana Jones” hat, exclaiming how important it is to save all this material.
The camera work is stunning, showing us looting and the devastation it leaves behind so quickly that the viewer who is unfamiliar with the sites and locations will have a hard time keeping up. And maybe that is the point. As many of my colleagues look to tie terrorism and other nebulous evils to the antiquities trade, the VICE report does one better. Rather than make these cheap connections which are sure to evaporate with the advent of the next global threat; by showing us the daily lives of Egyptians and the incalculable loss to our collective human history; the people and history demand more attention, more resources, and better policy. Its well worth seeking out, and will bring a rare thing to the problem of antiquities looting, a well-reported and accurate picture of a troubling problem which is only getting worse.
Here’s a taste, a short interview with Monica Hanna at Abal Sir Al Malaq Cemetery, with a disturbing number of looted graves, with human remains and burial shrouds laying out in the open where looters discarded them.
Christie’s had an auction of antiquities on Dec. 11, and some of the objects up for auction were ‘matched’ with photographic archives seized from dealers and collectors who deal in illicit material. These matches have always left me a little uneasy. If an object is matched, it means it is most likely looted. But the auction houses have no good way to match these objects because these photo archives are closely held by law enforcement agencies and a group of researchers. There are claims that the auction houses could go directly to Greek or Italian officials and have these objects checked against these databases for free. As Christos Tsiogiannis answered when asked by Catherine Schofield Sezgin: “The auction houses, and the members of the international antiquities market in general, always have the opportunity to contact the Italian and Greek authorities directly, before the auctions. These authorities will check, for free, every single object for them.” But it seems they do not do this. Objects are invariably withdrawn after a match, where they disappear back into collections in most cases, and we are left with little progress in stemming future looting and protection of sites. And so each new antiquities auction continues the cycle of public shaming and return. But the looting continues.
That was the core point of a paper I presented last year in a meeting of ISPAC and the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime in Courmayeur. Some of the papers have been collected and published by Stefano Manacorda and Arianna Visconti. I’ve posted my short paper “Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage” on SSRN. From the introduction:
The title of this paper is, of course, a play upon the title of Professor John Henry Merryman’s well-known essay which laid out the ways of conceptualizing cultural property law there are two ways to think about cultural objects. One as part of a national patrimony, and second as a piece of our collective cultural heritage. In a similar way there are two ways to envision jurisdiction of cultural heritage crime. Criminal law can of course apply to policing the individuals responsible for stealing, looting, selling and transporting illicit art and antiquities. Or, law enforcement resources can be used to secure the successful return of stolen art, and the protection of sites. The criminal law can regulate people; and it can also regulate things. In order to produce meaningful change in the disposition of art, it must do both effectively. Focusing on art at the expense of criminal deterrence for individuals is an incomplete strategy.
Fincham, Derek, Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage (December 10, 2013). Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy, edited by Stefano Manacorda, Arianna Visconti, Ed. ISPAC 2014 . Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2536542
James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, has authored a short essay revisiting his arguments against repatriation. Those familiar with his arguments will see many of the same kinds of arguments he has made in the past. Mainly he criticizes repatriation as an exercise in nationalism:
Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.
Though he acknowledges the looting and destruction that has taken place and this was the impetus for a number of returns from his current institution, he’s attempting it seems to hold a firm line against calls for repatriation which pre-date 1970. While he does obliquely criticize looting, he offers no other solution to the problem. How can we prevent site destruction and looting without national legislation and domestic initiatives (which he has called nationalistic)? That question is left largely unanswered. He does make calls for more Universal museums in nations of origin.
He ends with a call for exchange and cooperation:
For encyclopedic museums to fulfill their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist. And existing encyclopedic museums should aid in their development. Already, there are laudable examples of how great museums in wealthy countries can foster a more comprehensive kind of cosmopolitanism. The British Museum established a program in 2008 to promote partnerships with institutions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to loaning collections and exhibitions from British museums, it focused on training: in conservation, curating, and archiving. In all, some 29 countries were involved. The program was supported by the British government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. But after three years, the British government cut the program’s funding. The partnerships continue on a smaller scale supported by grant funding, including from the Getty Foundation.
This process of exchange and cooperation should build trust among museums and national authorities. It will be a long, slow process, but if successful, it would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism.
Cuno, James. “Culture War” Foreign Affairs, December 2014.