Friday, October 31, 2014

Does Britain "condone systematic looting"?

I have been doing some work on the Icklingham bronzes that were apparently removed illegally from a Suffolk field. Neil Brodie, then in Cambridge, wrote a rather good letter in response to Peter K. Tompa (Washington Post 9 November 1999; with response 5 December 1999). Brodie talks about the Icklingham bronzes that "were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the United Kingdom and now are owned by an American collector". Brodie contrasted the Italian approach to that adopted in Britain: "At a recent conference held to discuss these issues, delegate after delegate from around the world expressed amazement at the British system, which allows the private excavation of antiquities and which, in the words of one participant, condones systematic looting."

Tompa did respond to Brodie (Washington Post 23 December 1999) and accepted that the Icklingham bronzes was indeed an "incident".

There are several things to note looking back at this exchange in 2014.

First, the present proprietor of the Icklingham bronzes has yet to return these objects to Suffolk. She has returned material to Greece and to Italy, so why not the UK?
Second, does the "private excavation of antiquities" continue in the UK? (I am not sure about the word "excavation" here.) This is exactly the point that I made in the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology in 2010 ... eleven years after Brodie's letter. And have there been any changes in the last four years?

Is it time that we heard more about the protection of unrecorded archaeological sites in the UK and less about the recording of portable stuff that has been hoiked out of the ground?

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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Archaeological Material

Context helps to explain archaeological material. There is information about the specific location, the stratigraphic relationship with other objects, and the association with related material. 

It is easy for archaeologists to document the looting of archaeological sites. And the Medici Dossier, the Becchina Archive, and the Schinoussa Images have made it possible to identify objects that have entered the market.

But we also need to consider the limitations of discussing such 'unexcavated' objects. Chris Chippindale and I explored some of the issues relating to Cycladic figures, and I have published a study of the intellectual consequences of acquiring the Sarpedon krater. I will be exploring further issues at a seminar in Cambridge this week.

Among the areas that the seminar will consider are:

  • Athenian red-figured pots attributed to the Berlin painter
  • Etruscan architectural terracottas
  • Apulian cavalry armour
  • Apulian pottery
  • Classical bronze statues
  • The Icklingham bronzes
  • The 'Crosby Garrett' helmet
  • The Sevso Treasure
Do archaeologists, and especially those dealing with the classical world, need to see how little material comes from secure contexts?


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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Curator, the Fax and the Mummy Mask



I remain puzzled by the St Louis Art Museum. It seems that less than one year after acquiring the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask (the one with the name erased from the hand), a distinguished Egyptologist from a major international museum faxed a member of the curatorial team at SLAM drawing attention to the link with Saqqara.

It also seems that another museum-based Egyptologist encouraged the leadership team at SLAM to contact the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), in part because it was known that the archaeological store at Saqqara had been 'disturbed'.

The leadership team at SLAM will need to explain how they responded to this information. Or did they wait until Zahi Hawass contacted SLAM's director of February 14, 2006?


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Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Cuno Revives "Culture Wars"

I have been unimpressed by James Cuno's attempts to be a commentator on the looting of archaeological sites. I have reviewed his works elsewhere:

Now Cuno has decided to reopen the discussion with an essay, "Culture Wars: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
", Foreign Affairs November / December 2014.

Cuno overlooks some issues that are very relevant to the debate about repatriation. What about the Egyptian material from the Tomb of Tetatki that had been acquired by the Louvre? Is the AAMD 2008 acquisition policy as tight as Cuno suggests?

Cuno limits the information about the returns to Italy as a result of the Medici Conspiracy to what was displayed in the Nostoi exhibition in Rome (and Athens).
it was the Medici scandal that eventually led the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Princeton University Art Museum to send those 69 objects back to Rome in 2007.
To that list of institutions (some linked to Gianfranco Becchina rather than Giacomo Medici) we could add (among others) the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Toledo Museum of Art. The Dallas Museum of Art took the initiative to return material without being asked. And there are other major collections in North America where acquisitions are linked to Medici (e.g. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). And my running list from 8 major museums adds up to 326 items returned. (And then we can add in material from a private collector, auction-houses, and dealers.) It does look as if Cuno has down-played the scale of the problem. And while we talk about figures, over 60% of the objects returned from those museums were acquired in the 1990s or 2000s.

Cuno also could have discussed the loan of archaeological material from Italian collections to museums such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and to Dallas. And Princeton was allowed to retain some material although the title was given to Italy.

Perhaps Cuno needs to reflect on the lessons derived from the Medici Conspiracy and respond to the constructive comments by thoughtful museum directors such as Maxwell Anderson.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

US Government Pays $425,000 for Legal Case

It now appears that the US Government has had to pay $425,000 in legal fees and costs to the St Louis Art Museum (Jenna Greence, "Feds Lose Fight Over Ancient Mummy Mask", National Law Journal October 21, 2014).

The mask was purchased for $499,000 in 1998.

Pat McInerney of Dentons and Husch Blackwell was quoted:
"The Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer was a fascinating case that ultimately showed the extent to which the government unfortunately overreached in an attempt to literally take an artifact from the Saint Louis Art Museum using a lawsuit the court said was ‘completely devoid of any facts’ supporting their claims,” McInerney of Dentons said. “Credit really belongs to the art museum and its leadership for not caving in to the government's threats and, after winning the case, for compelling the government to pay the cost of defending a lawsuit that never should have been filed."
There are continuing questions about the acquisition that need to be resolved. The key ones are these:

  • When did curators at SLAM become aware that the mask was linked with Saqqara?
  • Did curators at SLAM contact the Egyptian SCA on learning that the mask was linked to Saqqara?
  • When was the personal name of Ka-Nefer-Nefer removed from the hand on the mask?


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Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mummy Mask: the unanswered questions

Paul Barford has drawn attention to the response by SLAM's legal team to the conclusion of the two parallel legal cases.

Patrick McInerney will need to explain when his client was first informed that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was derived from Saqqara. How did curators at SLAM respond? Then there is the issue of when (or if) SLAM contacted the Egyptian SCA about the mask. And was the Director of SLAM ever advised to contact Zahi Hawass about the acquisition and the Saqqara link? Did the curator responsible for the acquisition provide misleading or inaccurate information to the Cairo Museum? How was the collecting history authenticated?

The discussion about the mask is far from over.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice


"Cultural Heritage Ethics provides cutting-edge arguments built on case studies of cultural heritage and its management in a range of geographical and cultural contexts. Moreover, the volume feels the pulse of the debate on heritage ethics by discussing timely issues such as access, acquisition, archaeological practice, curatorship, education, ethnology, historiography, integrity, legislation, memory, museum management, ownership, preservation, protection, public trust, restitution, human rights, stewardship, and tourism."


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Looting In Syria

David Kohn has a useful article on looting in Syria ("ISIS's looting campaign", New Yorker October 14, 2014). He notes damage to sites such as Apamea and Dura-Europos. Interestingly the antiquities are apparently moved through Turkey.
Once the artifacts are out of the ground, they’re sold by second-hand dealers. Daniels said that many of the looted items, which include gold and silver coins, mosaics, figurines, jewelry, cylinder seals, and tablets, end up for sale in towns near the Turkish-Syrian border.
So should we be on the look out for Late Roman mosaics that are associated with classical sites such as Apamea?

And are other classical antiquities from Syria being provided with new collecting histories in Turkey? What classical sculptures from such a source are surfacing on the market?

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Bettany Hughes on the Sappho Papyrus

I have been returning to the case of the Sappho Papyrus as I have been working on the authentification of collecting histories. It is claimed that there is "documented legal provenance" for the papyrus. So what does this paperwork comprise?

Bettany Hughes has made some interesting comments on its collecting history ("Lover, poet, muse and a ghost made real: A find in a mummy's head has brought the Greek writer Sappho to life", Sunday Times February 2, 2014).

There are several pieces of information:
a. 'find in a mummy's head'. This indicates the papyrus had been repurposed as part of a mummy cartonnage. What is the date of the cartonnage? Where was it found? Who had owned it in recent years? How was the papyrus removed?
b. 'The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He'd noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mache, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing.' So we learn that the individual telephoning Dirk Obbink in Oxford was 'elderly' and male.
c. 'The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.' If the "provenance" (i.e. the collecting history) is 'obscure', how can it also be claimed to be both "documented" and "legal"? Who was the "high-ranking German officer"? When did this "German officer" acquire the papyrus and under what circumstances? What due diligence search did Obbink undertake to ensure that this papyrus had not been "confiscated" during the 1930s or early 1940s?

I presume that Obbink will release the "documented legal provenance" so that the paperwork can be authenticated.

[Paul Barford commented on this article back in February.]

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Bubon Caracalla at Fordham



I am sure that colleagues in Turkey will be interested in the way that one of the imperial statues linked to the Sebasteion at Bubon is being paraded at Fordham.

Let me quote from the Fordham catalogue: "it has been suggested that the Fordham example may have belonged to a large statue group of Roman emperors from a Sebasteion in the city of Bubon in northern Lycia, Asia Minor".

In fact there is even more reason for linking this head to Bubon.

I presume that Fordham will be contacting the Turkish authorities.

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Oxford Classics Endorses the Sappho Papyrus

Earlier this year I wondered about the full collecting history of the "Sappho Papyrus".

Dr Dirk Obbink has now published a short piece in the Oxford Faculty of Classics Newsletter. The double page spread (though the right hand page is by Dr Armand D'Angour on 'The song of Sappho') has as its flag: 'Sappho: a New Discovery from the Ancient World'.

If it is a 'new' discovery, please could somebody state where and when it was found? Who made the discovery?

What is the 'documented legal provenance'? Who has authenticated the collecting history?

Has the editor of the Newsletter considered the ethical issues over endorsing the papyrus by including this piece?

For some of the extensive discussion see:



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The Dumfriesshire Viking hoard: "an approachable stance towards engaging with detectorists"

Earlier this week it was announced that a metal-detectorist searching pasture in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, had discovered a significant Viking hoard in September ("Viking treasure haul unearthed in Scotland", BBC News October 12, 2014).

The "Code of practice for responsible metal detecting", available from the website of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (for England and Wales), suggests:
Wherever possible working on ground that has already been disturbed (such as ploughed land or that which has formerly been ploughed), and only within the depth of ploughing. If detecting takes place on undisturbed pasture, be careful to ensure that no damage is done to the archaeological value of the land, including earthworks.
The significance of this clause has been observed by Paul Barford ("Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Straight from the Horse's Mouth").

Yet Suzie Thomas's commentary on this Viking hoard does not comment on the searching of undisturbed pasture, nor on deep searches ("Discovering a Viking hoard: a day in the life of a metal detectorist", The Conversation October 14, 2014). Rather she seems to be happy with the official acceptance of metal-detecting:
today’s more typically co-operative relationship in the UK. The Treasure Trove Unit in Scotland, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales take an approachable stance towards engaging with detectorists.
Some of the issues were explored in a forum article (and responses) in UCL's Papers from the Institute of Archaeology [online].

Thomas's paper fails to engage with the nighthawking issue. She cites the 2009 Nighthawking Survey and she suggests that illegal activity was decreasing (a point dismissed at the time by Keith Miller). She does not mention that illegal activity on scheduled sites was actually increasing. Indeed her mention of Norfolk and the acceptance of metal-detecting needs to be read alongside what the Nighthawking Survey revealed for that same county.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Museum of Wales (Amgueddfa Cymru) announced only this week news of a major project to work on material discovered by metal-detectorists ("Unearthing the past: Heritage Lottery grant supports new initiative to get the best from archaeological finds").

Is the continued searching for archaeological material by metal-detectorists in England, Wales and Scotland sustainable?

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Due dilgence: time for a rethink?

I have been writing my regular column for the Journal of Art Crime. My focus is on the what auction-houses consider to be an appropriate level of "due diligence". Is there an over-reliance on searching the databases of bodies such as the Art Loss Register? Is this the time for a more rigorous due diligence process to be adopted? (I have made a suggestion in my column.)

I have also finished a separate major study of the acquisition of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask by the St Louis Art Museum. The underlying theme is on the quality of the due diligence process but also the professional responsibilities of museum professionals when concerns are raised about the origins of a piece. Readers of LM over the last few weeks will have realised that this has been a fairly regular topic.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

"From the collection of a European business executive"

Anybody who has worked on material surfacing through the art market will be common with the phrases that define property, including (one of my favourites) "property of a Belgian gentleman". But today, while looking at a North America gallery that had attracted my attention for other reasons, I came across this: "from the collection of a European business executive". The marble frieze had been purchased on "the European market" in the late 1990s.

What is a "European business executive"? Is it a euphemism for the person who runs an antiquities gallery in Europe? Who knows?

Is this sort of anonymous information supposed to be reassuring to the potential purchaser?

And an object that can be traced back no further than the late 1990s is immediately suspicious.

The fact that I can read this sort of language in October 2014 demonstrates that there are sectors of the antiquities market that seem to be totally unaware of the issues that have emerged from the so-called "Medici Conspiracy".

The same gallery has some other wonderful quotes: "Old American collection, New York, acquired 1988". This makes objects from the 1970s seem positively ancient history.

There is also the repeated phrase: "Good and legal provenance". So where and when were those Roman mosaics from the eastern Mediterranean found?

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Thor Heyerdahl Anniversary

Google is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of explorer Thor Heyerdahl. This is being noted by a number of papers including The Independent.

We celebrated the centenary with an exhibition and lecture earlier in the year.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

The private collector and museum donation

One of the issues that needs to be considered is how some private collectors have been passing on their acquisitions within months or a couple of years. What does this say about the relationship between the museum and the collector?

The issue becomes all the more interesting if the donations include objects that feature in the Medici archive.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Roman Herm Withdrawn from Bonhams: Becchina association established

Bonhams in London were due to sell a Roman marble herm today (lot 41) but it was withdrawn (Euthimis Tsiliopoulos, "Hermes head withdrawn from auction", Times of Change 1 October 2014). It was estimated to sell for £10000-£15000. 

The collecting history had been given as "Nicolas Koutoulakis Collection, Geneva, acquired circa 1965, thence by descent".

However Glasgow-based researcher Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has separately spotted the herm in the Becchina photographic archive. He writes:
I also identified the object in the Becchina archive. The origin of the head is Greece, because it is a Greek looter named Costas Gaitanis (from Herakleion, Krete) who sent to Becchina on May 29th, 1987 the Polaroids depicting the head. The envelope containing the Polaroids arrived in Switzerland (Basel, at Becchina's gallery) on June 1st, 1987. The envelope is included in a larger file that Becchina kept regarding dealings he had with a Greek middleman named Zenebisis. The same file includes the image of the gold wreath that the Greek state repatriated from the Getty Museum.
If the Polaroids were sent from Gaitanis to Becchina in May 1987 it seems that the collecting history provided by Bonhams is likely to be flawed.

This raises questions about how auction-houses and museums authenticate collecting histories. What questions do they ask? How do they check the paperwork? How are facts verified?

More interesting is why this "history" was not identified by the Art Loss Register or whichever agency had been asked to conduct a search on the objects.

Bonhams has not had a good track-record for handling antiquities:



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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Northampton Museums Service breached museum Code of Ethics

Northampton Museums Service has withdrawn from Museums Association due to the sale of an Egyptian statue (Geraldine Kendall, "MA bars Northampton Museums Service for minimum of five years", MA 1 October 2014).
The disciplinary panel ruled that the service, which is run by Northampton Borough Council, had breached the MA’s code of ethics by selling the ancient Egyptian statue Sekhemka from the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. 
The statue was sold at Christie’s in July for £15.8m and the council intends to share the proceeds with Lord Northampton, whose ancestors donated the statue to the museum. The council plans to use its share of the proceeds to fund a £14m extension of the museum. 
The committee ruling found that the council had not demonstrated that the sale of Sekhemka was funding of last resort in relation to the development plans for the museum site. In addition, its plan to share the proceeds of the sale indicated that legal title of the object was not resolved. 
David Fleming, the chairman of the MA's ethics committee, said: “We do appreciate the huge financial pressure that many local authority museums are under at the present time, but the MA's Code of Ethics provides for such a sale only as a last resort after other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored. 
“At a time when public finances are pressured it is all the more important that museum authorities behave in an ethical fashion in order to safeguard the long-term public interest. Museums have a duty to hold their collections in trust for society. They should not treat their collections as assets to be monetized for short-term gain.” 
Sharon Heal, the MA’s acting head of policy, said that the association had decided to bar the museums service from membership after careful consideration. 
“Northampton Borough Council has clearly breached the MA’s Code of Ethics by selling the statues from its collection. Its actions are a clear violation of public trust at a local, national and international level. 
“The MA is convening a summit of funding bodies later in the year to agree on a new range of sanctions and deterrents for governing bodies considering this course of action.”
This is a major setback for Northampton's plans to develop their museum service.

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