More Reports of Damaged Heritage in Syria

Aleppo’s Souk in Better Days
The Souk on fire Saturday

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.

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

Raising Awareness With Playing Cards

At the annual ARCA conference this summer in Amelia, a reporter based in Rome, Nancy Greenleese, was able to interview Laurie Rush and Joris Kila on efforts to protect culture during armed conflict, of which these cards are an excellent example.

Archeological playing cards created by US Army archeologist Dr. Laurie Rush and academic colleaguesSoldiers often enter conflict zones with limited knowledge of local cultural and historical nuances. Archaeologist Laurie Rush recognized that their ignorance can make conflicts worse. So she helped create a deck of playing cards that displays photos and messages about cultural heritage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon Troops see pictures of Buddhist statues and tablets when playing poker and other games with the cards. They may discover that buying and selling antiquities is illegal or be reminded to look before digging. And Rush’s concept has caught on: Soldiers from the US and other countries have snapped up more than 165,000 decks. The US invasion of Iraq offered examples of what troubled Rush about soldiers’ cultural knowledge. When American and Polish forces were building a camp in the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon in 2003, they inadvertently crushed ancient brick pavement and marred dragon decorations on the Ishtar Gate. “It immediately occurred to me that a better educated force would not have made those kinds of mistakes,” Rush told DW.

 Though I write about cultural heritage law, I spend most of my time teaching law students. It can sometimes be hard to explain to my colleagues just what it is that I write about, apart from the broad “art law”. So when I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one of the decks of cards which are increasingly being given to troops who enter conflict zones abroad, I thought at once of framing them.

  1. Nancy Greenleese, It’s all in the cards, Inside Europe (2012), http://bit.ly/O29VOY.
  2. Nancy Greenleese, Archeologist saves cultural treasures with cards Deutsche Welle (2012), (last visited Aug 27, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Examining the Wartime Looting of Art with Art

I have been alerted to a very interesting project conceived by Rob van Leijsen, Art Handling in Oblivion. It is a catalogue of five different instances of wartime looting. As issues of theft and looting become more widely understood I think more and more artists will decide to take up these issues in their own work. From the description:

The catalogue does not pursue to answer questions of restitution, but evokes discussion by contextualizing the objectives and procedures of wartime art looting. The glued catalogues are cut open on a predefined spot on the table. The central part of the display is designed for consultation and reading, and on the other end envelopes with copies addressed to the concerned museums are placed. This project was conceived by Rob van Leijsen as a graduation project at the Master Design Spaces & Communication at Head Genève (Haute École d’Art et de Design). 185 x 260 mm, 368 pages, laserprint on 70 gr. Edixion Offset, 20 copies (first edition).

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

Dr. Laurie Rush on "Cultural Property Protection as a Force Multiplier"

Laurie Rush, and Army archaeologist who has directed the In Theater Heritage Training Program for Deploying Personnel has a very interesting piece tin the March-April edition of Military Review, Cultural Property Protection as a Force Multiplier in Stability Operations The piece focuses on the work of the Monuments officers during WWII, but has much to say about the continued importance of heritage protection today. An excerpt:

Few contest the long-term value of cultural property protection during fullspectrum operations. However, one might reasonably question its immediate benefits to Western military personnel facing hostile engagements in today’s complex conflict situations. One immediate response refers to the media battle that is an inevitable part of all modern conflict. Just as the Italians and Germans used propaganda effectively to advance their causes during the African and Italian campaigns, the terrorists and insurgents of today are often on the scene with video cameras. The British monuments program in 1943 began in part as a response to an Italian propaganda effort centering on the ancient Roman city of Cyrenica in Libya. After the ancient site changed hands from the Italians to the British and back to the Italians, the Italian government put together a propaganda campaign with the message that the British had shown no respect for the glory of ancient Rome. The Italians faked damage to the museum, photographed statues under reconstruction and added captions accusing the British of deliberately breaking them, and offered examples of graffiti written in English. The power of these materials was manifest. They helped convince the Italian people that the British had no respect for any element of Italian or Roman history and culture.

The whole piece merits a good read, highly recommended. I wonder if the protection of these sites and objects can be considered an economic, cultural or other ‘multiplier’ as well, extending the arguments and resources we might dedicate to their protection outside of conflict zones as well.

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

Nemeth on strategic protection of cultural heritage

Does the citizen protection at the Cairo Museum
offer lessons for strategic protection of heritage?

Erik Nemeth makes an interesting point in a special contribution to the Chicago Tribune. Rather than just consider what museums or ‘source nations’ lose when objects are repatriated; why not consider the gain and strategic benefit returns can offer to the returning nation or museum. And what other benefits might occur during armed conflict if heritage sites are aggressively protected?

The political turbulence in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain has seen both looting of artifacts and destruction of monuments. Last year, citizens linked arms in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with some success. This and other instances like it suggest potential for proactive protection of cultural artifacts, particularly in light of the U.S. ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention in 2009. Indeed, U.S. foreign policy can parlay risk to cultural property into diplomacy by insisting that military interventions, even when the U.S. is not engaged militarily, include a strategy for securing museums, monuments and sites of archaeological significance that along with tactical bombing avoids collateral damage. America might also assess objects that are likely targets for repatriation and consider offering their return as part of a strategy for relations with the nation of origin. If engaged in conflict — or even if not — an active interest in protecting the local cultural property would serve the purposes of garnering political goodwill and creating an opportunity for communication with the local government and potentially the insurgency.

  1. Erik Nemeth, Repatriating part of Saddam statue could promote diplomacy, Chicago Tribune, June 7, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-07/news/ct-perspec-0607-artifacts-20120607_1_hiram-bingham-iii-artifacts-collateral-damage (last visited Jun 10, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Destruction and Looting in Syria

AP Photo of destruction in Homs

There are increasing reports of destruction in Syria. Sites like Krak des Chavaliers, Palmyra, Elba, and historic buildings in Homs are all at risk. Government forces in some cases are shelling civilian areas—the Citadel of Al Madeeq has been shelled, with a tragic result for the site and for the inhabitants.

The AP describes the damage: “shells thudded into the walls of the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, raising flames and columns of smoke as regime forces battled with rebels in March. The bombardment punched holes in the walls, according to online footage of the fighting.”

There are reports of looting, including some by government forces and others. Rodrigo Martin, an archaeologist who has worked in Syria describes some of the destruction:

We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage,. . . What we know . . . Syrian heritage has already provided a huge quantity of information, but we can safely say that the part that has not yet been studied is even bigger,. . . [the destruction] is like burning a page in the book of history of mankind.

This kind of damage, which approaches intentional destruction similar to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan will be difficult to prevent. With respect to the looting and damage being done, sadly there are not a whole lot of good options the heritage community can call for, apart from a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and renewed vigilance in the marketplace to watch out for the kinds of objects which looters may be taking from Syria.

  1. Syria’s Cultural Treasures Latest Uprising Victim, NPR.org,   May 1, 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=151783292 (last visited May 3, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Cambodia Disputing a Koh Ker statue up for auction at Sotheby’s

The disputed limestone Koh Ker statue

Cambodia is asking for assistance from the U.S. government in repatriating a limestone statue which was likely looted during the Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge era. Jane Levine, compliance director for Sotheby’s argues that “there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects”. Here is mine.

The statue has considerable value, its pre-sale auction price was estimated at between $2-3 million. That estimate will likely be considerably less after the report in the New York times, detailing the dubious history of the object. Sotheby’s claims the object was acquired by a “noble European lady” in 1975. Hardly a complete history of the object, and hardly enough to invoke the protections of good faith. The absence of information should not confer the benefits of a good faith purchase. Sotheby’s argues the burden should be placed on Cambodia. I wonder though if the blunt reality of two feet without a body might lead a thinking person to a different conclusion. No museum can ethically acquire this object. Though the Norton Simon has a similar statue, also without feet, no word yet on whether Cambodia may seek the repatriation of that statue as well.

I would expect if a resolution between Sotheby’s and Cambodia cannot be reached that the government consider using its forfeiture powers on the grounds the statue was under the ownership of Cambodia after a 1925 French colonial law declaring objects in Cambodia to be the exclusive property of the state.

Should the forfeiture proceeding be declined, I would urge Cambodia or its lawyers to consider using a civil action using as a precedent the English case, Bumper Development Corp. v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [1991] 1 WLR 1362. That case successfully achieved the repatriation of an object taken from an Indian temple, but it was the temple itself was given legal rights as a party. Perhaps there is a legal personality in Cambodia which might offer a similar connection to this statue.

    A Pedestal in Cambodia, which might be the base
  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue, The New York Times, February 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/arts/design/sothebys-caught-in-dispute-over-prized-cambodian-statue.html (last visited Feb 28, 2012).

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