Is Cultural Heritage a Human Right?

One of the horses from a four-horse chariot group

The Guardian reported over the weekend that Turkey plans to petition the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Helicarnassus, currently held by the British Museum.  Norman Palmer is quoted in the piece, “I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim.” That strikes me as exactly right, I’ don’t see a direct human right to specific cultural objects. And my initial reaction is skeptical of attempting to use a rights-based approach for repatriation. One difficulty that this principle will have is in application. How would a court decide what should be repatriated and what should not. Are all objects from a region tied to that people’s human rights? And is this right only related to the original situs of the object. Could Londoners argue that they have a corresponding human right in some of the objects in the British Museum which is created because of the display and care of the objects. Lots of interesting questions, and this will be a legal challenge to follow closely. The Guardian makes sure to note that Turkey has had its own human rights record challenged by the Strasbourg court.

The mausoleum sculptures were first removed from what is now modern Turkey in 1846 by the British ambassador to Constantinople and others were taken in subsequent excavations by archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.

The piece also notes that the mere act of announcing a challenge will raise questions about the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, and will of course cause similar questions to be asked of other bits and pieces of the ancient 7 wonders which are currently held by the British Museum.

  1. Dalya Alberge, Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/dec/08/turkey-british-museum-sculptures-rights (last visited Dec 10, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Dallas Museum of Art Announces 6 Repatriations

The Orpheus Mosaic, once looted and now returned to Turkey

In a press conference today Max Anderson, the new director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced an agreement with Turkey to return this 2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, and other objects. The mosaic was acquired in 1999 at a public auction at Christie’s in 1999 for $85,000. According to the DMA, after noting on Turkey’s cultural heritage ministry website that there had been an Orpheus mosaic missing, Anderson contacted Turkish officials. He was given photographic evidence showing the and comparing the mosaic with a border, being removed by looters near ancient Edessa, modern Sanliurfa in Southern Turkey.

In announcing the return, Anderson also announced a new initiative called ‘DMX‘ which attempts to seek loans and exchange agreements. A move that if successful would position the museum to pioneer the ideals of a universal museum while also respecting the laws and restrictions placed on objects by their nation of origin.

But other objects were also revealed. The DMA officials also announced that they had uncovered objects in their collection from Edoardo Almagià, an on-again/off-again antiquities dealer who has been tied to looted antiquities by Italian officials. The other objects may be more interesting, including:

  • a pair of bronze shields decorated with the head of the man-bull deity Acheloos, dating from the 6th century B.C.E;
  • a red-figure krater, designed for the burial of Greek nobles in southern Italy, dating from the 4th century B.C.E;
  • the head from an antefix, dating from the 6th century B.C.E; 
  • and a calyx krater, dating from the 4th century B.C.E.
The volute krater, 4th century B.C.E. its
provenance was “English collection”

Almagià is an interesting figure. In a 2010 interview with the Princeton alumni magazine, he is boldly critical of Italy’s heritage laws, and the agreements between Italy and the United States:

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals? It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.

He has been investigated by the public prosecutor in Rome since 2006, and his New York apartment has also been searched by U.S. Customs officials. Chasing Aphrodite points out that the returned material has ties to the usual suspects: Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Giacomo Medici. And also notes other museums have similar objects. Given Turkey’s increasingly muscular calls for repatriation, the DMA has positioned itself to create favorable agreements with foreign nations, and also set itself apart from other institutions with similar material with insufficient histories. When I see these objects at a museum, with a scant or nonexistant provenance listed, I assume it must be looted. Forward-thinking museums are increasingly doing the same. And despite what value there may be in viewing the object in a ‘universal’ museum, that probable criminal history increasingly renders the display of these objects unjust.

  1. Michael Granberry, Dallas Museum of Art returns rare work of Roman art, signs memorandum of understanding with Turkish government for international exchange Center Stage, Dallas News (Dec 3, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Cleveland, Turkey and the belly of the whale

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One of the contentious Jonah Marbles—dating from the very
beginning of Christianity at the CMA which Turkey has asked about

Turkey has undertaken the initial steps which may lead to calls for repatriation of objects in the collections of a number of prominent museums in North America and Europe. Steven Litt reports for the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the objects Turkey has asked about from Cleveland (via chasing aphrodite) at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA).

On the one hand, Turkey has some evidence of the location of the removal of these objects, and on the other, Museums like the CMA respond with a no comment on specific histories of the objects, along with protestations that Turkey lacks “clear evidence” of wrongdoing.

The museum acquired many of these objects during the notorious period of antiquities smuggling and looting. Litt’s conclusion to the piece nails the difficulty the CMA will encounter if it continues to avoid the issue with Turkey:

Whatever happens next, the Cleveland museum finds itself on the leading edge of a potentially bitter international controversy. Artworks that have resided quietly in its collection for decades have suddenly acquired a sharp contemporary relevance. And while the museum fends off challenges that could gut parts of its collection, it may also feel pressure to research and share more about the origins of works such as the Marcus Aurelius, which remain unknown.

Though this controversy differs from the Italian repatriations which had the benefit of direct photographic evidence tying the objects to the illegal smuggling network, the CMA will find itself in an uncomfortable position. Its best defense to the questions—and they are only questions so far as we know—is to respond in the same way the Getty, the Met, the MFA in Boston and others responded to questions about the acquisition of those other objects which suddenly appeared on the market in the 1970s and 1980s. Wouldn’t the just thing to do be to begin at least an initial good faith discussion with Turkey, especially when the Museum itself admits these objects originated in Asia Minor?

  1. Steven Litt, Turkey’s inquiry into 22 treasures at the Cleveland Museum of Art lacks hard proof of looting, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 May 2012 http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2012/05/turkeys_inquiry_into_22_treasu.html.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Realkulturpolitik: Turkey Requests 18 Objects from the Met

One of the contested objects, a Hittite silver cup (1400 BCE)

Jason Felch reports on the Chasing Aphrodite blog that Turkey is actively seeking 18 objects from the Met. Earlier this month Martin Bailey reported that Turkey would stop lending objects to the United States and United Kingdom, and this dispute with the Met may be one of the motivators for that cultural embargo. This seems a curious collection of objects for return, one that does not share many characteristics with the other kinds of objects requested by nations of origin in recent years. The objects were part of the Norbert Schimmel Collection. Schimmel was a former Met trustee and the collection itself was published in a 1974 volume edited by none other than outspoken looting critic Oscar White Muscarella.

I sometimes call these kinds of requests for return realkulturpolitik, in that there does not appear to be a direct legal mechanism for the return of these objects at this late date. In order to pursue a legal claim here Turkey would have to justify its reasons for not bringing a claim in 1974. Reasons for that delay may be new evidence  which has come to light which shows that these objects were illegally removed from their context or from Turkey. Yet we do not yet know of any of the specifics justifying the return. And if a legal claim was brought for these objects, Turkey would have to show the Met is not prejudiced by the delay under a laches defense. This could prove difficult. After all, Schimmel and others who would have acquired these objects are deceased and cannot provide evidence about how these objects were acquired.

And from the Met’s perspective, we do not yet have any of the histories of these objects before their acquisition by Schimmel. The absence of detailed information foreclosing their potential looting or acquisition of these objects makes them questionable objects perhaps, but does not give Turkey a legal right to them. The law requires Turkey to establish that they came from Turkey, which might be difficult. Schimmel appears to have acquired these objects before 1974, at a time when the heritage community was first beginning to pay attention to the looting of sites, after the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

What Turkey does have though is a potential ethical claim which the Met may respond to. And if the Met does not, Turkey is imposing a damaging cultural embargo, and pressure will likely mount on the Met to justify their continued possession of these objects.

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

Turkey Imposes Cultural Embargo on Museums with Contested Objects

The Art Newspaper reports that Turkey has refused to lend objects to museums in the US and UK until issues over disputed objects are resolved.

    The British Museum had asked for 35 items for the exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” (until 15 April). Although Turkish museums were agreeable to the loans, the ministry of culture blocked them, leaving the British Museum to find alternative artefacts at short notice. As part of the growing Turkish campaign, loans have been blocked to museums with disputed objects in their collections. The Met has confirmed that a dozen antiquities are now being claimed by Turkey, but would not identify the individual items. A museum spokeswoman says: “The matter is under discussion with the Turkish authorities.” This month, the Met is due to open “Byzantium and Islam” (14 March-8 July). Many loans are coming from the Benaki Museum in Athens, with none requested of Turkish museums.

  1. Martin Bailey, Turkey blocks loans to US and UK, The Art Newspaper, March 1, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Turkey-blocks-loans-to-US-and-UK/25869 (last visited Mar 1, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Context on the Menil Frescoes

The Frescoes at the Menil in Montrose

The return of the Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus presents an opportunity to consider what will happen to the physical space which was specially created to house them at the Menil in Houston. But it also offers an opportunity to look back at the acquisition process for the frescoes. Lisa Gray reports that at the time of the acquisition, Dominique de Menil understood they were dealing with ‘Thugs’:

An example of the chopped up mosaics before restoration

De Menil and her associates had flown to Munich, expecting to see two Byzantine frescoes of unusual excellence. Their contact, Turkish businessman Aydin Dikmen, led the little party to a ratty neighborhood at the edge of Munich, then up a flight of stairs to an apartment that had no electricity. In a room lit only by two candles, de Menil was shown two pieces of plaster (John the Baptist, plus part of an angel) propped against a wall. Other bits were packed in a crate. De Menil was horrified. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she later told Texas Monthly reporter Helen Thorpe. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.” Through translators, Dikmen told her that the frescoes had been discovered under rubble at a construction site in Turkey. The de Menil party doubted the story. But de Menil agreed to pay Dikmen earnest money in exchange for the right to buy them in the future. At that point, she did something unusual for the wild-and-woolly 1980s antiquity market: She began earnestly trying to track down the frescoes’ rightful owner. Eventually, after many letters exchanged by lawyers and embassies, it became clear that the frescoes had been stolen from a tiny church near the town of Lysi, on the island of Cyprus. In 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, looters systematically robbed the area’s churches and monuments of anything they could carry off. In the little church at Lysi, where the frescoes were painted into the walls’ plaster, they’d glued cloth to the walls’ surfaces, then used a chain saw and chisel to hack away Christ, Mary and the angels, yielding 38 cloth-fronted pieces.

It is a fascinating story of one of the rare examples of a collector working with the original owner to solve a theft, restore the mosaics, display them, and return them to Cyprus. But in this case, the thieves were rewarded. The mosaics were stripped from their church, sold on the international market in Munich. So it is a good result, and the Menil and the Byzantine Church of Cyprus should be rewarded, and yet this was a success for the thieves as well.

The Chapel in Lysi, Cyprus where the mosaics were stolen
  1. Lisa Gray, Afterlife for a chapel, Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2012, http://www.chron.com/life/gray/article/Gray-Afterlife-for-a-chapel-2968817.php#src=fb (last visited Feb 6, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ancient Underground Tomb Discovered in Looting Raid

AP Photo:  Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay

 Authorities in Turkey have discovered an “important archaeological site” while searching for looted antiquities, reports the Associated Press.  The discovery was made near Milas, in western Turkey.  This sarcophagus may have contained artifacts, but they have disappeared, likely lost in the illicit trade.  The piece describes the tunnels:

[T]he suspects had dug two tunnels — 6 and 8 meters (yards) long, from the house and an adjacent barn, leading to the tomb that is buried some 10 meters (yards) deep.
They used sophisticated equipment to drill through the thick marble walls of the tomb and were working to remove the coffin from the underground chamber when they were detained, according to the Culture Ministry.
“I would have wished that this (archaeological find) had been discovered through our digs and not through digs conducted by a band of treasure hunters,” Anatolia quoted Gunay as saying.
“This is not an ordinary treasure hunt. It is very organized and it is obvious that they received economic and scientific help,” Gunay said, adding that Turkey also would investigate the suspects possible overseas links.

  1. Turkey Discovers Ancient Underground Tomb : NPR, , http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129174682 (last visited Aug 13, 2010).
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Turkey Plagued by Illicit Antiquities Trade

An interesting piece this Sunday on the problem of looting of sites in Turkey and the smuggling of objects from war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq through Turkey:

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.  In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.  Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008. . . .


The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.  The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

Ercan Yavuz, Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifact [Today’s Zaman, Sep.  27, 2009]

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9 Arrested on Cyprus

Today’s Cyprus Mail reports on the arrest of 9 individuals attempting to smuggle a Syrian Orthodox bible from Turkey to the island for sale:

A TWO THOUSAND year-old Syrian Orthodox bible, believed to have been smuggled into the island from southeastern Turkey, has become the subject of major police operation in the north that has so far led to the arrest of nine suspects.

The bible, estimated to be worth around €2 million, was seized during a raid at the Famagusta bus terminal last Friday where smugglers were seeking to sell it to buyers in the north. It is thought Turkish Cypriot police had been tipped off about the impending sale.

Although the north’s ‘antiquities department’ refused yesterday to comment on the bible, because it was “the subject of an ongoing inquiry”, a statement from police said it was bound in deerskin, written in gold letters in the Syriac language, and believed to be around 2000 years old. The bible may have come from the heartland of the Syrian Orthodox community in southeastern Turkey, where a small community remains, despite often being caught in the crossfire between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish military.

“It is very likely to come from the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey, where there is still a Syriac speaking community,” Dr [Charlotte Roueche], professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College, London told Reuters yesterday.
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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