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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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.
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).
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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