Orhan Pamuk calls for a different kind of museum

The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul
The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk was a keynote speaker at the International Council of Museums conference in Milan this week. In his address to the conference he called for a different kind of museum. He offered a vision for what museums could be if they put aside their universal mission.

The Turkish author of the terrific The Museum of Innocence (Vintage International), set the literary foundation for a very different kind of museum. The museum occupies a house in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul, near the Pera Museum. Each display cabinet is full of objects from time depicted in the novel, which echo the neighborhood’s antique shops. The museum highlights the lives of the characters depicted in his novel, and is a powerful argument that museums which only focus on grand universal cultures and themes have missed the mark:

All museums are genuine treasures of humankind, but I am against these precious and monumental institutions being used as models for the institutions to come. Museums should explore and uncover the population as a whole and the humanity of the new and modern man that emerges from the growing economies of non-Western countries. I address this manifesto in particular to Asian museums that are experiencing an unprecedented period of growth.

The aim of the great state-sponsored museums is to represent a state and that is neither a good nor innocent aim. Here are my proposals for a new museum, some themes on which we must reflect now more than ever.

Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk calls for a different kind of museum”

CBS report: Antiquities Smuggling from Syria to Istanbul

CBS News has some terrific first-hand reporting of antiquities smuggling from Apamea to Istanbul in a video report. Nothing here comes as much of a surprise sadly, but it confirms what we all suspect has been happening. A Roman mosaic, and various other portable objects, including some Roman glass (some of which the report points out may have been fakes).

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Reuniting the Sidamara Sarcophagus

A fragment of the Sidamara Sarcophagus; the head resides at the V&A, the Sarcophagus in Istanbul
A fragment of the Sidamara Sarcophagus; the head resides at the V&A, the Sarcophagus in Istanbul

In 1882 Sir C.W. Wilson, Britain’s consul-general in Anatolia did what many British diplomats did in the 19th century when visiting the classical world. He took pieces of it back with him to London. In this case this small infant’s head which was removed from what is know known as the Sidamara Sarcophagus. Wilson hacked off the head, and reburied the Sarcophagus hoping to return for the whole thing later. He was never able to return, and the sarcophagus was ‘rediscovered’ in 1898 (can anyone tell me by whom?). I remember seeing this small head at the V&A some years ago, and it always struck be then, without knowing th efull story, that it was incredibly odd to have just a small little head on display.



The Sidamara sarcophagus 3d C. AD; now in display in Istanbul
The Sidamara sarcophagus 3d C. AD; now in display in Istanbul

The sarcophagus now is on display at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. Though the head is in the collection of the V&A Museum in London. Turkey has renewed calls for its return. But the V&A has resisted these calls for return. Why? The value of the small head—aesthetic, cultural, historical, or otherwise of this little head would seem to be limited. Instead as Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper, the V&A is concerned about what appear to be some easy legal hurdles to overcome, and even the precedent that would emerge for other pieces of marble in British collections: Continue reading “Reuniting the Sidamara Sarcophagus”

Summer Abroad: Cultural Heritage Law in Istanbul, May 25 – June 15

The Alexander Sarcophagus
The Alexander Sarcophagus

This summer I’ll be teaching a 1-credit “International Cultural Heritage Law” course in Istanbul. Its a terrific city for the course, home to the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Hagia Sophia, we’ll have a rich set of local examples to draw from for our class discussions. The program is run by the University of Kansas and co-sponsored by William Mitchell College of Law, and my school South Texas College of Law. Information about the other courses and the program is available here.

Here’s the description of my course:

  • International Cultural Heritage Law
    (1 credit) Professor Derek Fincham
    This course will examine the intersection between law and material cultural heritage. It will show how nations and individuals resolve disputes over art and antiquities. We will examine the international conventions governing cultural heritage and show how they have been useful for nations like Turkey, Italy and Greece in securing repatriation of art and antiquities. Particular attention will be given to the private and public laws used to resolve the growing number of international cultural heritage disputes.

Iznik Tiles Returned

From the Art Newspaper, two Iznik tile panels stolen from an imperial Ottoman tomb from the New Mosque in Istanbul were offered for sale at Sotheby’s earlier this year; but are slated for a return to Istanbul sometime this month. Pictured here are other tiles from the new mosque. The stolen tiles had been slated for an April 13th sale, and were described as 16th century originating from Turkey or Syria.

No provenance was given and their estimate was £15,000 to £25,000 ($30,000-$50,000). Soon after the catalogue was published, the auction house was
informed by the Turkish authorities that the panels were among a large number of tiles which are said to have been stolen from the Hunkar Kiosk in the mosque on 20 January 2003. In a statement to the Turkish press, the head of Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations, Yusuf Beyazit, said that other tiles stolen from the mosque had been discovered near the coast of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. He said that the Sotheby’s panels accounted for the rest of the missing tiles and would be returned to the mosque where closed-circuit cameras were now being installed. Mr Beyazit said that the directorate’s new Anti-Smuggling Bureau had recovered the tiles in close co-operation with Scotland Yard and Interpol.

If the consignor has lost the tiles, she should now have a claim against the intermediate seller. Such suits are relatively rare though. That is seldom the case unfortunately. Importantly, though these tiles were certainly stolen, why no criminal charges? Well, because the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it nearly impossible to do so. A defendant must have been aware of an object’s “tainted” status under the offence, which will be impossible to do in nearly every case; especially considering the flawed way the market operates.
In this case, though the art loss register was checked, Turkey had not registered this theft. The reasons for that are unclear. I know there is something like a $100 dollar charge to search the database in some cases, but I’m not sure if there is a charge to include objects in the database. But the market cannot continue to just rely on these limited databases. These objects came from somewhere. Merely stating “Turkey or Syria” as the nation of origin is not sufficient; beautiful tiles like this don’t just go missing. We had a chance to visit a number of Mosques back in April, but not the new mosque. To my untrained eye, these tiles really are stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, if there is going to be a viable licit art market, buyers and auction houses must do a much better job of determining where objects have come from.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

International Law and Trade Conference in Istanbul

Last week I had the good fortune to present my work at the ILTC Conference in Istanbul. The title of my talk was “New Strategies for Source and Market Regulation of the International Trade in Cultural Property”. It went well, and we really enjoyed our time in Istanbul, the highlight of which was a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus. Here’s a quick summary of my presentation, in which I talked about the suitability of increased criminal penalties, antiquities leasing, and electronic databases as tools for decreasing the illicit trade:

Cultural property has a universal appeal. Objects of artistic, cultural, archaeological, and historical importance are rapidly escalating in price. As demand for these cultural items increases, the theft and looting of cultural property escalates as well. A number of legal measures have been created to attempt to limit the illicit market in cultural property. With notable exceptions, these restrictions have proved largely unsuccessful in limiting the trade in illicit cultural property, which has been estimated as the third largest black market behind illegal narcotics and firearms. Regulation of the illicit trade in cultural property has been difficult for two reasons. First, many of the current regulatory measures, such as export controls and national patrimony laws, have the unintended consequence of increasing demand for these objects on the black market. Second, the flow of cultural items is international. Many of the World’s most important and historic antiquities are located in the developing world. This international character requires an international regulatory framework. It requires the cooperation of authorities from the industrialized and the developed world. Regrettably, effective cooperation has not yet taken place.

Nearly every nation, especially those rich in art and antiquities, has some form of restriction on the transfer of cultural property. The restrictions at the source of these objects take various forms, and include: export restrictions, a pre-emptive right to buy some objects, or a declaration of national ownership. The United States and the UK have both recently affirmed the notion that their criminal justice system will recognize as stolen objects taken in contravention of a national ownership declaration. This stands as an important step, but only marks the very pinnacle of the regulatory framework, intended only for the most egregious transgressions.

A truly effective regulatory scheme must work in concert with the art and antiquities trade to push the movement of cultural items, and the profits derived from their sale, in beneficial directions. To accomplish this end, I advocate a strong and vibrant arts and antiquities market. However it must be closely regulated to prevent illicit transactions. To accomplish this, I propose a system of regulation and investment which would require arts and antiquities transactions to be conducted openly, with records of transactions, provenance, find-spots, and export permits. Regardless of the other intricate regulatory frameworks we might endorse, the illicit trade will almost certainly continue to flourish without a fundamental shift in the way art and antiquities are bought and sold.

In recent years, the cultural property debate has focused on the extent to which the criminal law can impact the illicit trade. This has unfortunately shifted the discussion away from cultural property policy. Museum curators are forced to acquire objects, not based on their artistic or historical value, but rather on the criminal advice of their counsel. Connoisseur ship has been displaced by other considerations. We should be looking at how best to safeguard archaeological sites, museums, and other historic sites to prevent theft and destruction. A criminal response, in isolation, can never hope to achieve success without overwhelming law enforcement resources or draconian legal measures.

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