South American Antiquities Seized in Europe


There have been two major seizures of South American pre-Columbian antiquities in recent days.

On Tuesday, Spanish police announced they had seized more than 700 objects (pictured here), which included gold objects, masks, vessels, pendants, and maces. The objects may have been taken from Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. The objects were in the possession of a Spanish man and his Columbian wife, who it seems has been selling them mainly in France for many years, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry.

This follows on the major unrelated recovery in Germany of over 1,000 objects, including masks, necklaces and statues which may be worth as much as $100 million USD. This collection had been exhibited in 1997 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and were taken out of Spain in violation of Spain’s export restrictions. This group of objects may be more difficult to ascertain ownership, as Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador all may have claim to them. This may be the classic case of an orphaned object, stripped of its provenience (the place where it was unearthed).

It’s worth noting perhaps that this German seizure was made possible because of the EU regulations, which require one Member State enforce the export restrictions of other member states. In this way, objects have to pass multiple checks ideally before they can be sold. However this collection of objects has been missing for 11 years, since 1997.

These massive seizures seem to occur with more regularity now than they have in the past, which is certainly a good thing. We may perhaps speculate about how many objects escape regulation.

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

700 Antiquities Returned to Iraq


Syria returned 700 antiquities to Iraq on Wednesday, undoing in some small measure the theft and looting which has taken place since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here’s an excerpt of the AP story:

The head of the Syrian Antiquities Department, Bassam Jamous, said some of the objects were from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era.

The treasures were returned during a ceremony at the Syrian National Museum attended by senior Syrian officials and the Iraqi state minister for tourism and antiquities affairs, Mohammad Abbas al-Oraibi.

Jamous did not specify the value of the artifacts or single out the most important pieces, but clay jars, coins, daggers and what appeared to be a large trunk were displayed at the ceremony.

Syrian Culture Minister Riyadh Nassan Agha also said a “priceless Iraqi piece” of important historical value had been seized two weeks ago by Syrian customs officers. He gave no details, saying only that it would be returned to Iraq later after experts examined it.

AFP has a wire story as well, estimating that 32,000 objects were looted from 12,000 archaeological sites. Those numbers, though they are just estimates, speak for themselves. Given that Syria has returned 700 objects, this begs the question: how many more objects have been transported out of Iraq and have not been seized or recovered. I imagine many objects, especially the most valuable ones, are being hidden in anticipation of sales in the distant future, much as art seized or confiscated by the Nazis is still appearing.

As an indication of how serious the Iraq government considers those who are convicted of smuggling antiquities, despite overcrowding in Iraqi prisons, individuals detained for antiquities-related offenses were not released along with a number of other detainees under a law passed in February by the Iraqi government to ease prison populations. Many may remember that last month Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos argued insurgents may be using the antiquities trade to fund their activities.

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

Italian Police Seize 1,000 Artifacts… last year

The AP is reporting that Italian police have announced the raid of a wealthy Roman’s country home and the seizure 1,000 artifacts. It seems the objects had been stolen years ago in 2002 from one of Emperor Trajan’s villas. The suspect is not in custody, “The prosecutors declined to identify the suspect since authorities were still probing the theft, but said he was an affluent engineer who used the stolen artifacts to decorate his country home, inserting pieces of ancient Roman mosaics in his basement floor and decorating his fireplace and bathroom with other pieces.”

This is a depressing announcement for a number of reasons. First, why did it take so long for the announcement. Second, the thefts appear have been taken from a known site, which is only partially excavated. By all accounts this is an extremely important archaeological site. What kind of site security was in place in 2002? If the known sites cannot even be protected, how can unknown tombs and undiscovered sites be adequately policed. This highlights that though the antiquities trade is international, not every buyer of looted Italian antiquities comes from outside Italy, and in fact the looters are most often Italian. Finally, will there be no criminal charges filed? The wheels of the Italian justice system seem particularly slow.

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

Should Cultural Property be used to satisfy judgments?


There has been increasing attention paid lately to the use of art and antiquities to satisfy unrelated judgments against nations. In 2005, Russia had a $1 billion shipment of 54 paintings from Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum seized at the Swiss border to satisfy Russian debts owed to Noga.

Similarly, in 2003 a group of American plaintiffs won a $90 million judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran for a suicide bombing which took place in Jerusalem in 1997. James Wawrzniak Jr., a recent Harvard Law graduate has posted an excellent working paper on bepress titled Rubin v. The Islamic Republic of Iran: A Struggle for control of Persian Antiquities in America. It is likely to be published next fall.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in question, and the Rubin plaintiffs brought civil actions against Hamas, and also to Iran for providing material support and finance for the bombing. Experts testified that Iran provided both economic assistance from between $20 and $50 million dollars, and also terrorist training. Now I’m sure many readers would be quick to point out the US has given similar aid to similar groups, perhaps even during this Sunni awakening in Iraq, in which the US is essentially paying Sunnis to stop attacking coalition forces. I imagine Iran would have had a vigorous potential defense, however a default judgment was entered, whereby Iran essentially ignored the suit. Iran has since changed their stance after the Rubin plaintiffs decided to execute the $90 million judgment by claiming Persian antiquities in museum collections across the country. I’ll defer to Wawrzniak’s analysis as to what has transpired, but this litigation seems destined to last a number of more years.

One one level I can sympathize with plaintiffs who attempt to satisfy their judgments in this way. However, such a strategy, if taken to its logical conclusion would have troubling consequences for the cross-border movement of works of art. This was an issue in the recent dispute over the Royal Academy display of “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 From Moscow and St. Petersburg”. Russia nearly backed out of the deal, eager to avoid a replay of the Portriat of Wally litigation.

The display required an act of Parliament to grant special immunity to prevent the works from being claimed by descendants of the original owners from whom many of the works were summarily seized during the Bolshevik revolution.

The question is, are the cultural benefits Great Britain and Russia share by viewing these masterworks, many never seen in London before? I think there is, and this cross-border movement of art is an important ideal which should be preserved, the recent string of nazi spoliation, and terrorist and other claims are important, and those victims deserve their day in court. However it should not be at the expense of our collective cultural heritage.

(Photo: Wassily Kandinsky Composition VII, 1913 on loan to the Royal Academy)

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