The Menil and the Lysi Frescoes

Interior view of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel showing dome fresco depicting Christ Pantokrator. Courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Warchol
Interior view of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel showing dome fresco depicting Christ Pantokrator. Courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Warchol

I’ve posted on SSRN a short paper discussing the Menil Foundation’s stewardship of the Lysi Frescoes. Given how much art is in jeopardy in the middle-East at the moment, it may be worth revisiting the Menil Foundation’s courageous decision to purchase, restore, and return these frescoes. It highlights that permanent acquisition is not the only way for museums to acquire new material.

From the abstract:

The return of works of art by museums to nations of origin has generated considerable scholarly response, yet there has been little engagement with the potential role museums could have as responsible stewards for works of art that are at risk. One important example can be seen in the actions of the Menil Foundation. The Menil, with the permission of the Church of Cyprus, conserved a series of frescoes and created a purpose-built gallery on the Menil campus in Houston to safely house them. It was a novel solution to the problems caused by the situation in Cyprus. Acquiring and saving these thirteenth century frescoes gives an important template for the rescue and conservation of works of art that are at risk, but also exposes similarly-situated actors to the moral dilemma of purchasing looted art with the consent of the original owner.

The Rescue, Stewardship, and Return of the Lysi Frescoes by the Menil Foundation (September 10, 2015). 22 International Journal of Cultural Property 1, 1-14 (2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2661091

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).

Continue reading “CBS report: Antiquities Smuggling from Syria to Istanbul”

Profile of Syrian Preservation Group

“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.”

  1. Ben Wedeman, Syria’s Struggle to Save the Past – CNN.com, CNN.

A practical view from an archaeologist on looting

The Ruins of Gordion
The Ruins of Gordion

The IAL blog has a terrific preview of an upcoming interview with Kathryn Morgan, a PhD candidate and archaeologist who has dug at the ancient site of Gordion in Central Turkey. Nina Nieuhaus asked Morgan what can be done, from an archaeologist’s perspective to stem looting of sites. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Education and economic incentives are probably the two most effective anti-looting “measures,” if they can be called measures. Education, because if people value the past for itself and think that it’s important, they don’t want to loot; and economic incentives, because if they are reliably prosperous without relying on looting, they don’t have to. Alternatively, you can try to foster the idea that an excavation itself and/or the tourism that it brings is a more sustainable long-term alternative source of income than a quick loot-and-sell operation. As far as I understand it, looting often isn’t that profitable a business for the looter: he’s giving whatever he finds to a middle man, who may be giving it to someone else, and him to someone else, until it finds a legitimate seller and a legitimate buyer who hasn’t dirtied his hands with any of the illegal activity. So, for the little guy, it’s dangerous – because looting is of course illegal – and he’s not making that much money off of it; he’s not going to do it unless he has to. If you can foster a good relationship with locals – providing them with employment opportunities, buying food for the project from within the village, some projects get students to teach English or organize pick-up soccer games with the workmen – those personal relationships are key to the long-term success of your project. But that’s kind of a warm and fuzzy answer that doesn’t deal with all of the complicated motivations that real people have in the real world.

Realistically, what do we do? What can we do? The Gordion project employs a site guard year round who checks on the site. We give a map of the area to the local Jandarma, the police force, of the “most sensitive” areas archaeologically, that they need to keep an eye on. Also, in Turkey, sites that are looted or in danger of looting can be eligible for special “salvage excavation” permits. Near Gordion, several tunnels were dug into a large tumulus, looking for the burial chamber, over the past few winters. Last year, the Turkish authorities decided to excavate the tomb themselves, in a careful, scientific fashion with conservators on call – rather than allowing looters to make another attempt. The Gordion project was invited to contribute to the effort, which we did gladly. So, sometimes pre-emptive excavation is a necessary solution.

And there are other interesting insights, so I look forward to reading the whole exchange. Practical change is slow in coming to the antiquities trade.

The Consequences of Cultural Heritage Disputes

A Silver Rhyton depicting a stag, ca. 14th-13th C BCE. One of the objects Turkey has reportedly inquired about from the Met.
A Silver Rhyton depicting a stag, ca. 14th-13th C BCE. One of the objects Turkey has reportedly inquired about from the Met.

Disputes over works of art continue to hamper relationships between major Museums and nations of origin. One example is what appears to be a strained relationship between Turkey and the Met.

The Met is planning a major exhibition on the Seljuk Islamic empire. But the show

looks to be hampered by Turkey’s cultural embargo which demands a return of works of art before any new material will be loaned. As Tim Cornwell reports for the Art Newspaper:

Without loans from Turkey, and with Iranian loans unlikely unless there is a sudden improvement in relations between the US and Iran, the Met will have to rely on major loans from British and European institutions instead.

. . .

But Turkish loans could have ranged from manuscripts from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and trophy items, such as an extraordinary steel mirror with gold inlay also housed there, to reliefs from the walls of Konya, the Seljuks’ historic capital in Anatolia.

A tile from the Seljuk Ceramics Museum in Konya
A tile from the Seljuk Ceramics Museum in Konya

Turkey has asked for a number of objects back from the Met, the British Museum and other institutions. Some of them removed from Turkey very early in the 20th Century.

According to reporting at Chasing Aphrodite, those objects requested by Turkey from the Met include objects with no history before from the Norbert Schimmel collection acquired them in the 1960s-70s. The ongoing dispute is a pity, as it harms both the ability of curators at the Met to secure Seljuk material for the exhibition, and hampers Turkey’s opportunity to present its heritage to new audiences.

  1. No Turkish loans for big Met show, The Art Newspaper (Oct 9, 2014).

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”

Checking in on Repatriated works

One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil's Byzantine Chapel Museum
One of the Lysi frescoes on display in Houston at the Menil’s Byzantine Chapel Museum

Rachel Donadio reports for the New York Times on a number of repatriated antiquities back in their nation of origin. The list includes la dea di Aidone in Sicily, the Weary Heracles in Turkey, the Lysi frescoes on Cyprus, and the Euphronios Krater in the Villa Giulia.

Only the Lysi frescos, returned by the Menil to Cyprus after a 20 year loan agreement were acquired with permission of the creator communities:

In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.

When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.

Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. Themuseum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.

But in 2012, Cyprus asked for them back, in a climate in which the new government and leadership of the Church of Cyprus have been increasingly aggressive in their campaign to call attention to the deconsecrated Christian religious sites in the areas of Cyprus that Turkey still controls.

The Menil Collection made good on its promise. “Of course we were sad, but in the end we were very proud because ethically, from a moral point of view, this was exactly what needed to happen,” said Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection.

The frescoes are now on view in the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Byzantine Museum and Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus’s second-most visited museum, “until the day they will be put back in the chapel,” said John Eliades, the director of the Byzantine Museum. That might not be so easy.

  1. Rachel Donadio, Repatriated Works Back in Their Countries of Origin, N.Y. Times, April 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/arts/design/repatriated-works-back-in-their-countries-of-origin.html.