Marc Masurovsky, cofounder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) has published “A Comparative Look at Nazi Plundered Art, Looted Antiquities, and Stolen Indigenous Objects” in the North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation. The Piece is an ambitious and serious look at the different kinds of State-sponsored taking of art and heritage, and attempts to connect the different kinds of takings across different historical periods and cultural groups.
From the introduction:
The dispersal of Jewish collections during the Nazi years interestingly compares with the recycling of looted cultural property from conflict zones and the plunder of ritual objects from indigenous groups worldwide. There should be a common response by the international community to cultural plunder and crimes committed against culture, within the framework of State-sponsored persecutions of entire groups. And there should be common standards for prevention, seizure, and restitution. This Article explores these issues.
The treatment of cultural heritage during armed conflict has received an unwelcome wave of attention after President Trump made the decision to threaten Iranian cultural sites with an attack over the weekend. In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump stated that “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets,” that the United States has targeted 52 Iranian sites. This troubling threat would violate the Pentagon’s own War Manual, and the 1954 Hague Convention on Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Article 4 of the 1954 Convention requires Parties to respect cultural property by refraining from using such property or its surroundings for any purpose which may lead to its damage or destruction.
This is the kind of shortsighted and callous thinking I never thought I’d see displayed by an American President. But sadly President Trump has joined many of the absolute worst leaders in history in choosing to threaten the culture of another people. The threat marks a sharp reversal of decades of work done by the State Department and others in American public life to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of all nations. What a disgrace.
It might be useful to compare the current President’s callous indifference to culture with that of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1943, during the Second World War, General Eisenhower issued an order to his commanders to protect monuments and culture on the eve of the allied invasion of Italy:
Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.
If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.
Note that there was no hint of military necessity in Trump’s words.
A wave of sharp condemnation has followed the President’s threats, more than I can catalog here. The Archaeological Institute of America called “upon President Trump and the U.S. Department of Defense to protect civilians and cultural heritage in Iran, and to reaffirm that U.S. military forces will comply only with lawful military orders.”
The world community, including the United States, has rightly condemned the intentional destruction of cultural heritage for decades. Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria intentionally destroyed cultural heritage in the absence of any military necessity. If Mr. Trump carries out this threat, the United States will join the ranks of these destroyers of the world’s cultural legacy.
Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for fighting ISIS tweeted that “American military forces adhere to international law. They don’t attack cultural sites.”
In an OpEd in the LA Times Prof. Sara Bronin argued “A nation that willfully destroys another country’s heritage would be no better than the criminals who have destroyed irreplaceable sites in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.”
Writing for the Guardian, Simon Jones argued that the “threat to destroy the sites of ancient Persia should send a shiver down the spine of any civilised person.”
Writing in the Art Newspaper, Francesco Bandarin, a former senior official at UNESCO rightly pointed out that “[t]he territory of modern Iran has been home to some of the greatest civilisations of mankind from prehistory to classical antiquity down to modern times. Iran today has 24 sites on the Unesco World Heritage List. A deliberate attack would presumably target historic cities and monuments or archaeological areas.”
On Sunday, John Bellinger III, a legal advisor for the State Department under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009 called on Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Millet to publicly affirm that the United States will still comply with the 1954 Hague Convention. He also argued that the White House should learn the domestic and international law rules that govern the use of military force.
One of those reasons that ignorance is so costly of course is that when a culture is targeted, that makes any mission or conflict existential, and makes an ultimate victory more difficult and costly to achieve. Any thinking leader would appreciate this simple fact.
“A human life doesn’t have much value without culture to go with it” says Markus Hilgert, director of the Pergamon Museum. He’s interviewed in a CNN profile of Heritage for Peace, a group working to document the destruction taking place there. The group walks a delicate line, trying not to take a stand in the dispute. The group has limited funding and works with a number of volunteers with founder Isber Sabrine:
A 29-year-old archaeologist from a village near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria, Sabrine is using modern technology to trace and document the looting and destruction of his country’s ancient heritage.
Working from Berlin, he runs a network in Syria of around 150 volunteers — archaeologists, architects, students and simply concerned citizens — who often pose as antiquities buyers to see what has been stolen in the course of Syria’s now more than four-year uprising. He communicates with them via Skype when the Internet in Syria is working, which isn’t often.
“They go to the locals and they say look, we are interested. They cannot buy, but at least they make photos and they send us photos,” says Sabrine. “Like this we have a list of looted materials from Syria.”
That list is shared with law enforcement, auction houses and collectors. CNN asked if we could publish some of those photographs — we saw statues, mosaics and coins — but Sabrine declined for fear the photos might expose the volunteers.
After years of chaos, the market for stolen antiquities is flooded, and dealers are holding back some of their most valuable items. “We know that the most important objects don’t go to market now,” says Sabrine. “The big dealers are waiting, maybe two, three or four years, and then when the opportunity is right, they will sell.”
How much has antiquities looting contributed to funding ISIS? There are a lot of speculative reports out there, but due to the nature of the illicit antiquities trade, and the dearth of first hand reporting the situation remains murky. There seems to be a good opportunity given what we know about the unscrupulous portions of the trade.
Michael Danti in an interview with Rachel Martin for All Things Considered summarizes the second and third hand accounts he’s heard:
MARTIN: Obviously this is part of the world that has a long history with cultural looting and the illegal excavation of antiquities, the sale of those treasures on the black market. How is what’s happening now different than other chapters of this kind of theft and destruction?
DANTI: Well, we’re used to, unfortunately, accustomed to seeing cultural heritage crimes in Iraq. What’s different with Syria is this scale of built heritage in Syria; old city neighborhood in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Hamas – neighborhoods that date back 4, 5, 600 years. The number of standing Hellenistic Roman and Byzantine architectural remains there are throughout the country; there’s so much that’s exposed to collateral or intentional damage through combat. There’s damage from vandalism. There are archaeological looters moving in and excavating into the sites. And then there’s just the inevitable destruction that’s caused by neglect because preservation specialists can’t come in and work at the sites and maintain them.
The sliver of good news that I see is the different tone coming from the State Department with respect to heritage issues. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry announced the State Department would partner with the American Schools of Orient Research to document threats to cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.
From Kerry’s remarks at the Met last week:
ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.
How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.
Ardelia Ripley Hall (1899–1979) served from 1946 until 1962 as the Fine Arts and Monuments Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. In this role she oversaw the recovery and restitution of movable cultural property that had been displaced during the Second World War. In spite of her vast accomplishments, almost nothing has been written on Ardelia Hall, and little is known about her life. She began her career at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but personal circumstances led to her resignation in 1941. During the war, she was employed by the Office of Strategic Services. The expertise she established as an art historian working with the Roberts Commission at this time led to her appointment at the State Department in 1946. This essay traces for the first time Hall’s remarkable journey from curatorial researcher to adviser on international art restitution.
Victoria Reed, Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman, FirstView International Journal of Cultural Property 1–15 (2014).
As Congress debates whether to authorize military action in Syria in the wake of reported chemical weapons attacks, NBC’s science blog discusses the current state of looting and destruction during Syria’s ongoing Civil war:
Over thousands of years, a large mound, or tell, forms with layers of each civilization piled atop one another, said Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Damascus Committee.
On Saturday CJ Chivers reported on looting in Syria, in particular at the ancient site of Ebla:
For decades Ebla has been celebrated for the insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria’s civil war — scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums ago because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more. Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again. The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.
Since Clemency Coggins criticized the looting of Maya sites in an influential 1969 article, there is a rich tradition of young archaeologists criticizing looting and destruction of sites. PRI continues its excellent reporting of looting in areas in the Middle East by speaking with Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist who has been tracking the destruction and looting of sites in Syria using facebook feeds and Youtube videos. We don’t just hear anecdotal stories of looting anymore, often times if someone has a phone or suitable camera, we can see video as well.
Every day she goes online, sometimes for a few hours, to monitor the Facebook feeds of local Syrian groups for word about damaged sites. She’ll scroll past horrific photos of dead children till she comes across mention of a new archaeological site that was shelled or plundered. She says it’s incredible just how much you can find out from these posts. “It’s a new world online now,” she says. “The prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook, ease of access to YouTube, and the way that most people’s mobile phones can take video, means that, all those people who are desperate to share information have a real easy way to upload it and make it accessible.” Cunliffe did her Ph.D research on monitoring Syrian archaeological sites with satellite imagery. When fighting turned fierce in Syria, she began to consult imagery much closer to the ground – videos and photos posted by concerned Syrian citizens. Sites were being damaged and also looted.
PRI embedded videos of looting in Syria. This video Cunliffe found shows looting in a necropolis in Northern Syria:
Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological SitesPRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/12/syria-archaeological-treasures/ (last visited Dec 13, 2012).
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There are more and more reports emerging from Syria which tell of destruction, looted museums, and smuggling salable objects. On Saturday Aleppo’s souk was caught in the middle of fighting between rebels and government forces and the souk burned. The old city of Aleppo, where the souk is located is a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova criticized the destruction over the weekend:
The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history – valued and admired the world over – makes it even more tragic. The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria’s economic and social life since the city’s beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.
The souk is situated underneath Aleppo’s 13th century citadel. There are reports that government forces have taken up positions in the ancient building. Rodrigo Martin, an expert on Syrian sites said the Souk “was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture” because it offered a progression of hundreds of years of architectural periods, and had been well-preserved.
There have also been reports that items from the National Museum of Aleppo have been moved into the central bank in Damascus for safekeeping. But there have also been reports in Time that museums elsewhere in the country are being looted and arms are being traded for antiquities at the Syria/Lebanon border. In Cairo there will be an emergency meeting to discuss possible efforts the international community can take in response to the damage and looting according to a report in ahram.
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