Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Setting high ethical standards for collecting antiquities

Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask. Source: SLAM
Victoria Reed, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has been discussing the need for due diligence in museums ("How should museums respond to art smuggling scandals?", Apollo January 24, 2017). This is clearly an important issue for the museum as it was one of the first of the North American museums to return objects to Italy in the wake of the Medici Conspiracy (see  "From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities").

Reed makes an important point about 'verified' information; I choose to talk about 'authenticated' documentation. How to we chart the collecting history of an object? What are the confirmed sources?

I was taken by this section:
If, however, an investigation turns up looted antiquities in a museum collection (for example, if photographs show an object shortly after it was illicitly removed from the ground, or if its provenance documentation was demonstrably forged), then a museum has an obligation to redress the break in the chain of that object’s ownership in some way. Usually such a resolution is achieved through a financial settlement with, or physical return to, the country of modern discovery. Museums hold their collections as public trusts, and no museum should wish knowingly to retain stolen property on behalf of the public.
It is worth returning to the case of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy case at the St Louis Art Museum ("The Case of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask"). Now that the email discussions have been made public it would be appropriate for the museum to revisit the acquisition and to start negotiating with the Egyptian authorities.

Minoan larnax. Source Becchina archive, and Carlos Museum
And what about the Minoan larnax in the Carlos Museum at Emory University? Why has there been no attempt to resolve this claim from Greece that has been on-going for so many years? Is the imagery from the Becchina unconvincing for the museum curators? How do they explain the images and the documentation?

Reed, I am sure, is sincere in what she writes. But her writing does not take full account of museums in North America that have yet to adjust their ethical positions in defiance of their public and educational roles.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Operation Pandora

A selection of coins seized in Operation Pandora. Source: Europol.
The Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH has reported that Operation Pandora has recovered some 3500 cultural objects including some 400 coins. 75 people are said to have been arrested in 18 countries.

Some of the selling of material has taken place online.

Europol has issued a press release ("3561 artefacts seized in Operation Pandora", 23 January 2017). The main activity took place in November 2016.

Countries listed:

  • EU-countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom. 
  • Non-EU countries involved: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Switzerland

What activity took place in the UK?

See also the report from the BBC ("'Operation Pandora' recovers thousands of artefacts", 23 January 2017).

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Further damage at Palmyra



The BBC is reporting further damage at Palmyra ("Syria: IS destroys part of Palmyra amphitheatre", BBC News 20 January 2017). This includes the theatre (not amphitheatre) and the tetrapylon.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Intellectual Consequences of Forgeries

I attended the Second AHRC Workshop | Art, Crime and Criminals: Painting Fresh Pictures of Art Theft, Fraud and Plunder at RUSI in London yesterday. I was very struck that some of the issues that I have explored with Christopher Chippindale in our work on Cycladic sculptures were emerging for other works of art and from so many different cultures. Undetected forgeries corrupt the corpus of knowledge and undermine the genuine pieces.

Some of the lessons derived from the conference should be that academics need to be more cautious about providing attributions and opinions as these can be used to authenticate the forgeries. Secondly, the due diligence needs to be far more rigorous.

I will be revisiting Cycladic figures in February as part of a presentation in Cambridge and I expect modern creations will feature in the discussion.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Sarcophagus fragment reported to have been seized

Image from Becchina archive. Source via Dr Christos Tsirogiannis
I was in London for a conference today and was informed that US authorities seized a fragmentary sarcophagus in New York over the weekend. Full details have yet to be confirmed and I also understand that the fragment remains on display in the gallery.

It seems likely that the piece of sculpture has associations with northern Greece.

The fragment featured in the Becchina archive.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Benin Bronzes in London

© David Gill
I have commented on the acquisition of the Benin Bronzes before (see here). The display of what can only be interpreted as plunder as a result of the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition sits uncomfortably in an internationally important encyclopaedic museum. 

I feel unhappy with the emphasis presented by Tiffany Jenkins (p.288):
In some circumstances ... the very sculptures and plaques that some would like to see returned to Nigeria were made from the proceeds of slavery, exchanged for men and women. Are these artefacts tainted by how the material was acquired?
She somehow seeks to justify the continued presence of the bronzes in London by looking back over the centuries to the context for how these works of art were created.

Johanna Hanink makes an important point about the Benin Bronzes in her review of Jenkins:
When not ignoring them outright, Jenkins over-simplifies, mocks, and dismisses the arguments in favor of artifact repatriation that detail the more abstract, lasting damage their (oftentimes violent) seizure caused.
Kwame Opoku adds in his important response to Jenkins:
Jenkins should be careful. If we apply her argument to Britain we could argue that Britain derived all her wealth from slavery and colonization and therefore all objects made in Britain, ignoring British industry, agriculture and manufacture, may be looted/stolen because they derived from slavery and colonization. Surely, this would be going too far. She should abandon this way of thinking which stretches ideas as far as possible to cover whatever view she shares even if the result is patently absurd.
If anything Jenkins has strengthened the cause for those who actively seek the return of cultural property.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

A sarcophagus passing through the Swiss market

Image from Becchina archive. Source via Dr Christos Tsirogiannis
When an object has a recorded collecting history of the 'Swiss market' it is likely to draw attention to itself.

I am grateful to Dr Christos Tsirogiannis for drawing my attention to a series of images from the Becchina archive that relate to a fragmentary Roman sarcophagus.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

The London market: Christie's


I have been presenting a regular overview of the New York sales of antiquities at Sotheby's and at Christie's. However this chart shows the value of antiquities sold at Christie's in London (in South Kensington and at Duke Street).

Some of the more expensive pieces included an Egyptian sculpture of Isis for £3.6m (October 2012), the so-called Crosby Garrett helmet for £2.2 (October 2010), and the portrait head of an Hellenistic ruler for £1m (October 2012).

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Due diligence searches and appropriate rigour

One of the recurring claims from dealers and auction-houses in the last year is that those from outside 'the trade' are spotting toxic antiquities. Members of the trade need to examine is why their due diligence searches are not picking up this material. Are they placing too much confidence in searchable databases? Are they aware that these databases will be unlikely to pick up archaeological material fresh out of the ground?

But then there are the other clues. For example, if the personal name on an Egyptian relief is linked to a known tomb in Egypt, it could be worth checking the publication. If the vendor of a group of material appears in published lists linked to the "Medici Conspiracy", then it is worth checking the material a little more carefully. If an object is similar to material that has been returned to Turkey, then ensure that the collecting history can be authenticated. If a lot is linked to a dealer known to have handled material whose collecting histories are suspect, then dig a little deeper.

The appropriate response from the members of the trade is to improve the rigour of their due diligence searches and to work with members of the academic community to protect our universal archaeological heritage.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Metal-detecting and archaeology

Displays in Lincoln © David Gill
The recent archaeological survey work at the Anglo-Saxon vicus at Rendlesham in Suffolk has reminded me of the contribution of controlled metal-detecting on archaeological sites. But the account of the discovery of this significant site is partly due to the unauthorised activity of metal-detectorists on the site.

The archaeological community needs to be reminded that there is a difference between scientifically excavated material and finds that are scooped out of the ground and literally carried away in a supermarket carrier bag. Contrast the difference between the Lenborough Hoard (and see my discussion here) and the Beau Street Hoard. I was full of praise for the excavation of the Beau Street Hoard (e.g. "It is a good reminder of the amount of information that can be gleaned from a properly excavated, conserved and studied Roman coin hoard").

As we start 2017, would it be possible for there to be a sensible discussion of how the archaeological heritage of England and Wales can be protected from unauthorised disturbance?

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Monday, January 2, 2017

New York Auctions: Overview

There has been a marked decrease in the value of antiquities sold at auction in New York during 2016. This is partly due to the splitting of sales between London and New York rather than the usual two sales a year. The combined sales of Sotheby's and Christie's in New York for 2016 were half that of the combined sales in both 2014 and 2015.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Ahead: 2017

As we look ahead for 2017 there are likely to be some key themes.

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill is likely to complete its passage through Parliament and pass onto the statute book. However it is likely to be applicable to material coming from conflict areas in the Middle East and a new legal response will be required. I also remain unconvinced that there is sufficient resource within London (and certainly not outside it) to enforce the legislation. The Cultural Property APPG will be changing its focus to museums and there is likely to be discussion about repatriation.

It is not clear how Brexit negotiations and intentions will affect the protection of the UK's cultural property or co-operation with other European nations to enforce the restrictions on movement of recently surfaced cultural property. The Heritage Alliance is clearly watching this brief.

Due diligence is a theme that has emerged from the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill. Although we hear that auction houses and galleries are conducting due diligence checks, it is also clear that suspect material continues to surface on the market (including known material from Syria). There is a need to move away from an over-reliance on art databases, and to replace it with solid research on the authenticated collecting histories.

Even so, I suspect that we will see more material identified from the Schinoussa, Medici and Becchina archives.

Heritage Crime is a continuing problem in the UK. I am acutely aware that the theft of lead from medieval churches in East Anglia is damaging the fabric of some of the finest heritage structures we have in the region. However it is also clear that there is a passive acceptance in most of the archaeological and heritage communities of the use of metal-detectors on archaeologically sensitive sites in England and Wales.

I am also aware that heritage more broadly, and archaeology more specifically, will need to be seen to be contributing to the economy of the UK (and indeed other countries). Some of these broader trends will be addressed though our research unit, Heritage Futures (heritagefutures.org.uk), in collaboration with Professor Ian Baxter.

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