Tang Shipwreck Exhibition at the Asia Society

Michael Flecker took this photograph of part of the wreck of the vessel in 1998.

The Asia Society has managed to avoid the scorn of underwater heritage preservers and exhibit objects from the Tang Shipwreck. Earlier attempts to display these objects by the Smithsonian in 2011 were cancelled because archaeologists argued the archaeological documentation of the wreck was insufficient and had been done with a primary aim of profit, not the advancement of knowledge.

The wreck was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Indonesia by sea cucumber divers. The vessel confirmed the sea routes between West Asia and Iraq or Iran. As the Asia Society’s director, Boon Hui Tan describes the exhibit:

[G]lobalisation is a very, very old concept—and it’s not just a Western concept . . . . There was a kind of economic dynamism [in the Tang Dynasty] that came from, in a sense, being connected with the outside world . . . . The Belitung shipwreck is one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent history . . .

The wreck held as many as 60,000 objects, including ceramic bowls; decorated mirrors; and valuable silver and gold objects. By all accounts this really was a chance find, fishermen were said to have been looting the wreck, so there was some urgency to recover the objects from the vessel while also undertaking research into the underwater archaeology. Whether that scientific undertaking was hastily done in order to secure financial rewards by putting together this kind of travelling exhibition, or the Indonesian authorities did the best they could with a limited budget is a question very much open to debate.  The exhibit titled “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia” will run through June 4, 2017.

  1. Robin Pogrebin, A Sunken Treasure Will Appear in New York Despite Its Controversial Excavation, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/shipwreck-treasure-new-york-display.html.
  2. Victoria Stapley-Brown, Controversial trove from imperial Chinese shipwreck lands in New York (Mar. 7, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/controversial-trove-from-imperial-chinese-shipwreck-lands-in-new-york/.

Student Note on Underwater Heritage in the Dominican Republic

A small bell taken by Global  Marine Exploration found off the coast of the Dominican Republic
A small bell taken by Global Marine Exploration found off the coast of the Dominican Republic

Lydia Barbash-Riley, a student and Editor-in-Chief of the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies has an interesting piece examining the impact of globalization on underwater cultural heritage management in the Dominican Republic:

This Note addresses the management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) in the Dominican Republic as a case study of the effects of two aspects of globalization on cultural and environmental resource management in the developing world: the international convergence of values and the horizontal delegation of state power to private actors due to economic constraints. This Note posits that even as the global community of states moves toward a consensus on the ethical management of the UCH, this convergence combined with the global trend of horizontal delegation may incentivize some lesser-developed countries to deal with the economic pressures of resource management by permitting treasure hunting. To examine this phenomenon, this Note addresses national and international laws protecting the UCH, including Dominican laws and their actual consistency with the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. It then discusses how management in the Dominican Republic is not always in accord with either the country’s own laws or the 2001 Convention to illustrate both the impacts of globalization on management of the UCH when government resources are scarce, and the resulting need for an extralegal, community-based solution. This Note concludes with a suggestion that the Dominican government, Dominican communities, and international actors consider a variant of Common-Pool Resource Management known as Living Museums in the Sea incorporated into a Multilevel Environmental Governance framework as a potential solution to counteract the economic pressures on governments to allow treasure hunting while providing for long-term preservation of the UCH in this and other developing countries.

  1. Lydia Barbash-Riley, Using a Community-Based Strategy to Address the Impacts of Globalization on Underwater Cultural Heritage Management in the Dominican Republic, 22 Ind. J. of Global Legal Stud. 201 (2015).

Varmer on Underwater Cultural Heritage law

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Ole Varmer, International Section, Office of General Counsel, NOAA has written a technical examination of Underwater Cultural Heritage law: Closing the Gaps in the Law Protecting Underwater Cultural Heritage on the Outer Continental Shelf, 33 Stan.Envtl.L.J. 251 (2014). From the abstract: Continue reading “Varmer on Underwater Cultural Heritage law”

Updating the forfeiture of the Fano Athlete

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Mike Boehm of the L.A. Times reports on the current status of the Fano Athlete/Getty Bronze dispute. A division of Italy’s High Court (Corta Suprema di Cassazione) is expected to weigh an appeal of an earlier forfeiture order this week. I’m quoted as the lone dissenting voice arguing the Bronze should be returned to Italy. I think a return is the just thing to do when you consider the violations of Italian patrimony laws which occurred when the Bronze was smuggled ashore, hidden in violation of Italian law, and then allegedly treated very badly before being smuggled to Brazil, then conserved in Europe before the Getty acquisition.

For a full discussion of my understanding of the history of the case and the reasons why I think Italy stands a good chance of having the Bronze returned soon, you can have a look at my forthcoming piece in volume 32 of the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal.

Both Stephen Urice and Patty Gerstenblith seem to see the case differently:

“I’m baffled by this,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who’s an expert on art law and cultural property law. “Even if you apply our ethical norms today, I don’t see a problem.”

Patty Gerstenblith, a leading advocate of protecting archaeological sites and sending looted art back to nations of origin, said that “Victorious Youth” shouldn’t be considered a looted work and needn’t be returned. Italy never had a legally valid ownership claim, she said, because the statue wasn’t found in Italian waters or on Italian soil, and it wasn’t made or owned by modern Italy’s Roman and Etruscan forebears.

Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and director of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law, said the fishermen who netted the statue did break Italian laws by hiding their find instead of reporting it to authorities. So did the original buyers who shipped “Victorious Youth” out of Italy without a proper export permit.

Although those illegalities raise ethical questions that might make a museum in 2014 steer clear of a purchase, Gerstenblith said, they have no bearing on the fishermen’s right to have owned and sold the bronze statue, or the Getty’s right to keep what it bought.

In any case, the forfeiture effort is persistent, and the Italian authorities seem inclined to use every tool at their disposal to help secure a return, including cultural diplomacy, mutual assistance treaties, and domestic Italian court proceedings.
Mike Boehm, The Getty’s “Victorious Youth” is subject of a custody fight, latimes.com (May 7, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-getty-bronze-20140507-story.html.
Derek Fincham, Transnational Forfeiture of the “Getty” Bronze, 32 Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal (2014).

Vernon Silver reports on the Gaza Apollo

Palestinian MInistry of Tourism and Antiquities via Bloomberg
Palestinian MInistry of Tourism and Antiquities via Bloomberg

Vernon Silver reported on Friday for Businessweek on the Gaza Apollo. The Bronze was found in remarkably good condition in shallow waters off the Gaza strip, just north of the Egyptian border. Silver is an archaeologist who wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater in 2010 called “The Lost Chalice“. He’s done some excellent reporting on this Bronze. We learn a Palestinian fisherman, Jouda Ghurab, found the statue while diving with a net last August. Silver reports that with the help of his brother and other men, they were able with some difficulty to bring the Bronze ashore.

Ghurab dove down with the rope and tied it to the statue’s neck. Using the boat, they managed to right the statue. They tied another line around its base and tried to lift it so they could tow it to shore. Instead, they nearly sank the boat. Finally, Ghurab and another diver were able to turn the statue, sliding it head over foot, and foot over head, spinning it along the sea bottom until it reached the beach. They finished around 4:30 p.m., almost five hours after Ghurab had discovered the prize. It took six of them to lift the bronze onto a donkey cart. They took it to a nearby cluster of buildings Ghurab shares with other family members. Among the structures is a hut with a sand floor, a roof of palm fronds, and a wall made from a plastic banner picturing Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, whom Israel assassinated using Hellfire missiles in 2004. The men placed the statue on the floor of a house in the compound, unaware they had discovered what might be the most valuable archaeological find of the century. Soon, though, things would get very complicated. After all, it is Gaza.

It does not sound like much of the archaeology was recovered or even considered.

Jawdat Khoudary, “an antiquities collector who makes his money in construction” was asked to find a buyer for the Bronze. Yet conservation is essential.  A Bronze which has been preserved by the ocean for so long needs expert care, and time is extremely precious during the early moments of discovery.

Bauzou at the Université d’Orléans was one of the experts Khoudary called. The French archaeologist corresponded with the Gaza Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, using photographs to assess the bronze. “This statue is a major discovery,” he wrote in a Sept. 23 letter in which he expressed alarm over the work’s conservation. “I do not like the light green spots visible on the pictures … it is an emergency!” He said specialists in metal preservation and restoration needed to be called in at once to decide how to proceed. The transition from the dark color seen by the fisherman to the new green hue might be a sign of a type of corrosion akin to a grave dermatological condition.

. . .

Bauzou concluded from his research that the statue dated from between the 5th century B.C. and 2nd century A.D. “The Apollo of Gaza is exceptional because it is the only classical Greek bronze life-size statue found in the whole Middle East,” he wrote in another report, dated Oct. 4.

Silver notes of course that one of the difficulties plaguing the Bronze is the uneasy position that the Hamas government finds itself in. It is not an independent state yet, and has yet to be recognized by many foreign governments. Given that our current system of cultural heritage laws are predicated on state ownership and regulation, the Gaza Apollo is an uneasy case which stands in a gap in heritage law. A fact that some have speculated is quite convenient for the current possessors of the Bronze, and has led to speculation that the Bronze may have been discovered elsewhere and taken to Gaza.

David Gill speculates:

The surprising thing, as Silver points out, is that the statue shows little evidence that it was submerged in the sea for centuries. Is the reported find-spot a blind to distract the authorities from a ‘productive’ site?

Yet Silver’s reporting would seem to preclude that possibility.

Silver, Vernon. “The Apollo of Gaza: Hamas’s Ancient Bronze Statue.” BusinessWeek: Global_economics, January 30, 2014. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-30/hamass-ancient-bronze-statue-the-apollo-of-gaza.

 

Italian Court Confirms Seizure of "Getty Bronze"

The Getty received some very bad news Thursday.

Jason Felch reports on a ruling by an Italian regional magistrate in Pesaro upholding an earlier ruling to seize the bronze statue.

The ruling Thursday by a regional magistrate in Pesaro will likely prolong the legal battle over the statue, a signature piece of the Getty’s embattled antiquities collection whose return Italian authorities have sought for years. “This was the news we were waiting for,” said Gian Mario Spacca, president of the Marche region where the statue was hauled ashore in 1964, in an interview with Italian reporters. “Now we will resume contacts made with the Getty Museum to build a positive working relationship.” Spacca visited the Getty last year hoping to negotiate an agreement to share the statue. But the Getty has made clear it will fight in court to keep the piece and is expected to appeal the ruling to Italy’s highest court.

Using a domestic court to seek the seizure of an illegally exported object from another country has not been attempted before. But Italy has been at the forefront of repatriation strategies. This novel approach could lead to a new legal tool for nations of origin to pursue, if it can convince the Attorney General and a U.S. District Court to enforce this seizure order. The Getty appealed the earlier ruling, and they did so for a reason, this case could set a precedent which would open up museums to seizure suits in the nation of origin.

It should be interesting to watch this dispute continue. For background on this dispute, see here.

  1. Jason Felch, Italian court upholds claim on Getty bronze, L.A. Times, May 4, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-getty-bronze-ruling-20120504,0,2759444.story (last visited May 5, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Objects from the Mercedes Wreck to be Returned to Spain

Images from an Odyssey Marine Press Release of the Coins

The costs of recovering objects from underwater sites is very high. As Andrew Lambert, a maritime historian says, “If you want to stand in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes, go shipwreck hunting . . . Most shipwrecks are rotting away, or carrying dull things—all the romance has been taken out of it.” Those working for Odyssey Marine may feel the same way this week.

The company has had its motion denied; the motion asked to stay last year’s decision in the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta this week.

This means the thousands of silver and gold coins the company spirited up from the ocean floor in the North Atlantic, and flown to Florida—will now finally reach Spain. The company may decide to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, which would be an expensive and risky undertaking. So for now at least, Spain has prevailed. As the embedded video below reports, the coins may finally reach their ultimate destination—Spain—over 200 years after they first began their journey. The coins were minted in Peru and were sent around South America, before their vessel wrecked in the North Atlantic. The Spanish culture minister states in the video embedded below the jump that Spain is willing to return some of the coins to South America, which is the origin of many of those objects.

Odyssey Marine will not be going away any time soon however. Odyssey has it seems carefully timed an announcement that it reached an agreement with the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that will provide for, as Odyssey’s press release puts it “financing, archaeological survey and excavation, conservation and exhibit of HMS Victory (1744) and artifacts from the shipwreck site”.

HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour, 1828

So that site may provide objects, and Odyssey will receive “80% of the fair value” of most of the objects it may recover for the site. I’m not a marine archaeologist of course, and don’t know how well this agreement will preserve the archaeology of the site. On the one hand the wreck has been underwater for nearly two centuries, and the policy international legal instruments have taken is that that is the best place for them until they can be recovered. But on the other hand I’ve spoken to Odyssey employees that sites like this in the Atlantic are at risk due to commercial fishing, and other activities which disturb the site. And they have the pictures of scallop trawlers dragging through underwater sites. Yet is the answer to that destruction that we get these objects up quickly? Or should we mark these sites as marine preserves where commercial fishing cannot take place?

In the short term Odyssey has another wreck to attract investors, and buoy its stock price. This ‘stock treasure’, as one analyst argues, is the real treasure Odyssey is pursuing:

If the net recovery of Odyssey Marine is consistently negative, what exactly is its treasure? Like Mel Fisher, these folks want to chase the dream of finding the big score, with the romance of searching the unknown, and the possibility of becoming really famous (at least among wreck divers) and of getting on TV a few times to smile for Mom. Unlike Mel Fisher, these guys ahve figured out how not to get ruined doing it: Every time they run out of money, they ask you to refill their coffers. And that’s the real treasure of Odyssey Marine — they are chasing a romantic dream and being paid a nice salary to do so at the expense of investors who are unfamiliar with the outlandishly poor outlook for salvage operations.

Or as the New York Times breathlessly proclaims, this deal may be the ‘world’s richest shipwreck trove’. Perhaps, but not in the ways we might expect.

Background on Odyssey Marine here.

  1. Al Goodman, U.S. court backs Spain over $500M sea treasure, CNN, February 2, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/01/world/europe/spain-u-s–treasure-dispute/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  2. Brooke Bowman, Shipwreck hunters stumble across mysterious find – CNN.com, CNN, January 30, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/28/world/europe/swedish-shipwreck-hunters/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  3. William J. Broad, Deal to Salvage Britain’s Victory May Yield Richest Trove, The New York Times, February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/science/wreck-of-british-ship-victory-may-yield-richest-trove.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).

 

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