Sharon Waxman and Source Nations

I want to point out an interesting blog by Sharon Waxman, a culture writer for the New York Times. She’s writing dispatches from the middle-east while doing research for a forthcoming book on the antiquities and repatriation problem. She seems to have some impressive contacts, and has already talked about meeting with people like Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister. The question of repatriation is a difficult and controversial subject, and many journalists have done excellent work on the topic in the past. Books by Peter Watson and Roger Atwood have been particularly excellent. Waxman’s forthcoming work certainly starts with some fascinating stories and conflicts, and I’ll be interested to see her take. Here is an excerpt of her time spent with Hawass:

I’m sitting in the office of Zahi Hawass, chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in Cairo. His office, in the SCA headquarters on the island of Zamalek, is a garden variety Egyptian bureaucrat’s bland mix of tan walls and oversized stuffed furniture. (Happily, the wireless Internet works.) But there’s a curious thing in the lobby. In a large vitrine, the famed bust of Nefertiti — see it at left — sits in a place of honor. Strange because this is a copy, and Egypt has no end of authentic artifacts to show off in the lobby of its antiquities service. The bust has not been in Egypt since its discovery in the first part of the 20th century. It now lives in Berlin, and is prime on Hawass’s list of requests for loan in 2012. Berlin has responded that the statue is too fragile to travel. Hawass does not accept this argument, and continues to push.

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

Cultural Property Internationalism: A Raw Deal for Afghanistan? (UPDATE)


Cultural property internationalism is the idea that cultural objects have a value for all mankind. Unfortunately, sometimes taking that position can produce unsatisfactory results for source nations.

Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on the traveling exhibition of Afghanistan’s Bactrian Gold. The National Geographic Society has reached a deal which pays $1million to Afghanistan for display of the hoard, plus 40% of all profits. Sounds like a great deal for Afghanistan to generate revenue and engender some international appreciation for its heritage.

That’s not the case apparently:

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”

She said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the show.

The protocol accord signed over the weekend says that the exhibition revenue going to the Afghans will be derived from the fees paid by the museums as hosts of the show and from corporate sponsorships. It does not guarantee them proceeds from ticket, catalog or merchandise sales.

A similar exhibition by the Egyptians in 1994 earned that country over $10 million in every city visited. Some of the pieces were displayed in Paris and Turin, but the details of that exhibition were not made known.

I don’t know very much about how much a source nation like Afghanistan should expect to clear in an exhibition like this. Thomas Hoving and Lynne Munson certainly feel Afghanistan got slighted.

Though the Egyptian exhibitions seem to indicate that Afghanistan should have held out for more money, this may also serve a very important cultural mission for Afghans. Many foreigners view that nation as a hostile place with mountains and terrorists, or the source for much of the heroin trade. In reality it was once a very important stop on the silk road and the home to some very advanced ancient civilizations. Everyone knows that Egypt has a great archaeological heritage, perhaps this exhibitions will change the perception of Afghanistan and allow other exhibitions in the future to garner more funds for Afghanistan in the future.

UPDATE:

I missed Lee Rosenbaum’s excellent criticism of the Pogrebin article. I’ve come to increasingly rely on RSS feeds, and that site doesn’t have one. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many problematic aspects surrounding Robin Pogrebin‘s story in yesterday’s NY Times about the allegedly “unconscionable” financial arrangements between the National Geographic Society and the government of Afghanistan, for a proposed tour of that country’s Bactrian hoard, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics cited in the article charge that Afghanistan is being shortchanged in the deal although, from the Times account, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the financial parameters of the arrangement are.


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

How to be a tomb raider?

Slate’s regular Explainer feature covers Tomb Raiding 101 this week. It is generally well-researched and informative. Christopher Beam does a good job of giving an enjoyable overview, but gets a few things wrong.

For example, Beam writes

“Tomb raider” is really just a glamorous way of describing an unlicensed archaeologist. Anyone who wants to dig in Egypt must first go through the arduous process of getting official permission. The authorities demand an explicit description of any project, proof that the diggers are with a university or museum, and a list of everyone who will be working on the site. The license request goes to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government agency that oversees all excavation projects. If you try to dig without the council’s permission, you’re breaking the law—so “tomb raiders” might be opportunists looking to sell their findings, or they might be serious excavators who simply can’t get permission for a dig.

That is correct for Egypt, but looting takes place all over the world. In Latin America for example, a number of unlicensed digs take place, but many of the excavations in that country are not conducted by the stereotypical tomb raider, or simple villager. In many cases, illicit excavation is done by “subsistence diggers”. David Matsuda has done some good work on this subject. This is a controversial aspect of the illicit trade, because it means that the reasons for allowing the illicit trade to continue may be as compelling as the claims of archaeologists and other advocates who argue for an end to the trade in antiquities. When you are digging in tombs for your own survival, the ethical rationale for your illegal activity increases dramatically in my view. However, just how many “subsistence diggers” there are, and if the availability of other means of survival is open to debate. At the very least, though many media reports talk about the criminal “tomb raider”, this stereotype may be inaccurate.

Beam also references the criminal conviction of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry in England, and his counterpart Frederick Schultz in the US in recent years. These two were hardly tomb raiders. They never unearthed an object. Rather, Parry dealt with Egyptians who found or dug up antiquities. They constructed elaborate provenances and disguised the antiquities for Schultz to sell in his Manhattan gallery. They weren’t raiders, they were dealers and middlemen.

Beam talks about the various international agreements relevant to the illicit trade, most notable the 1970 UNESCO Convention. He says these agreements make tomb raiding “very difficult”. I think that may be giving a bit too much deference to these international instruments. The most important impact these international conventions have had on the illicit trade is in terms of raising the profile of the problem, and encouraging Nations to take action. The UNESCO Convention does not return objects. Rather it is the individual Nations implementing structures that dictate their return.

So, though “Tomb Raiding 101” may be an entertaining read, if you are considering a foray into the illicit antiquities trade, I’d consider a more thorough introduction. The sad reality is that becoming a tomb raider may be far easier then you would think.

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

Ramses II for sale

French police arrested a man attempting to sell pieces of hair from Pharoah Ramses the II on the internet. He was asking for 2,000 Euros for hair samples. The main claimed his father worked on restoring the body between 1976-77. Ramses II was born around 1304 BC. The unfortunate story highlights the fact that human remains are being bought and sold, and are an unfortunate component of the illicit market in cultural property. It will be interesting to see exactly how French authorities prosecute this man. The mummy most likely belongs to Egypt. Even if the man had nothing to do with the actual removal, it is likely he will be charged with receiving stolen property.

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

Arrests In Egypt

In Cairo, the AP reports police detained a group of 5 men who allegedly were attempting to smuggle stolen antiquities out of the country. Curiously, one man was a former state archaeologist, and another was a University Professor. Apparently the five had found five antiquities, and were attempting to sell them. It seems a security agent posing as an arab businessmen offered the men $2 million, but they were arrested. I’d be fascinated to know more of the details of who this ‘security agent’ is, who they work for, etc. The AP article is quite thin on the details. However, as I learn more, I’ll post it here.

My first reaction is that these men do not fit the stereotypical mold for antiquities smuggling. Writers in this field often assume much of the looting is done by dealers, thieves and looters. However perhaps that generalization is unfair. Academics and archaeologists may be involved in the illicit trade of cultural property as well.

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