Thursday, 24 July 2014

Iraq: Mind your Sources

Dr. Saad Eskander (Head of the Iraqi Delegation to the Inter-governmental Committee for Promoting the Return of the Cultural Property (UNESCO) & Director General of the Iraq National Library and Archives) has just p[osted this on the iraq Crisis mailing list:
Dear All Ignorance is playing a part in the destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage. By this I do not only mean the blood thirsty ISIS' fighters but also those who falsify the events taken place in Mosul, namely the official propaganda machine, senior officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, some representatives of the Iraqi Christian community inside and outside the country, and some amateur journalists, local and foreign alike. I see any act of falsification as an encouragement to ISIS to committee more crimes against both the minorities and Iraqi cultural heritage. Wrong actions and false statements will certainly lead to the maximization of the damages inflicted upon our people and our culture. I ask you not to publish anything before making sure that the information is well documented or based on reliable sources.
As if to reinforce that within an hour, the UN was reporting false information (again)

Eight days after he contacted her on the matter UNESCO's Nada Al-Hassan tells "Mr" (recte Dr) Sam Hardy (in an email copied by her to me):
The mistake in the Sunday Time article you mentioned was signalled to them as soon as Mr Barford wrote to us and immediately corrected in the online version. I take this opportunity to also inform Mr Barford. Thank you for contacting us on this issue.
Anyone got access to the corrected version of "Loot, sell, bulldoze: Isis grinds history to dust"? The printed version contains the same story (was that corrected in print in the next issue?) and the online version currently has the picture of the stele, captioned: "Isis has imposed a 'tax' on looted antiquities in the vast region of Syria and Iraq it controls (Bonhams)", even though it has no connection whatsoever with ISIS... So that does not look much like a correction to me. The versions of the text quoting UNESCO's World Heritage Centre Arab States Unit Chief which are currently floating around the Internet seem not to have taken note of the correction. I suppose that's what you get for talking to foreign newspapers that shield your words behind revenue-generating paywalls, not everyone in the public gets the full story.

US Seizures of Indian Statues

I do not seem to have covered this story earlier, and should have done as it shows something about the movement of recently looted material through many countries to obscure the non-existence of licit origins. A recent article about a case in Canada mentions part of this story (Douglas Quan, 'Canada balks at returning statue believed stolen from world heritage site in India',, July 22, 2014).
Earlier this year, a sandstone sculpture from the 11th or 12th century that had been on Interpol’s list of top 10 most wanted stolen pieces of art was returned to India. The 350-pound sculpture representing the deities Vishnu and Lakshmi had been stolen in 2009 from the Gadgach Temple in India. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents learned that the sculpture had been transported to Hong Kong from India. From there, it was sold to a dealer in Thailand and then re-sold to a buyer in London, officials said. The London buyer shipped the sculpture to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010. Officials intercepted it before it could be shipped back to London.
The London owner is not named. There are more details here:
The investigation that led to this repatriation began on April 13, 2010, when HSI New York special agents received information that the Indian sandstone sculptures recently looted from India were being offered for sale in the US. HSI special agents discovered that the 'Vishnu and Lakshmi' sculpture was transported from India to Hong Kong. From there, it was sold to a dealer in Thailand, and then resold to a buyer in London. The London buyer shipped the sculpture to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010. On April 15, 2010, HSI special agents recovered the piece while it was being shipped back to London. On July 12, 2010, as a direct result of the 'Vishnu and Lakshmi' seizure, a sister piece, the 'Vishnu and Parvati', was seized. It was transported to Hong Kong, sold to a buyer in New York and then sold and shipped to a buyer in Basel, Switzerland. On July 7, 2011, the Indian black stone Bodhisattva figure was discovered being smuggled into America at Newark Airport by US Customs and Border Protection officers. HSI special agents seized it after discovering that its accompanying paperwork declared Great Britain as a false country of origin. In addition, the item was grossly undervalued.
Again, the dealers are not named. The case is not discussed by "Cultural Property Observer' who prefers to keep quiet about cases like this which call into doubt his own lobbying activities trying to get stuff 'laundered' through being taken to other countries from where they are then imported into the US freed from scrutiny. This is precisely why we should be talking about these cases and seeing how we can combat this problem.  If the dealers have any propositions, let us hear them.

ICE returns recovered, 'most wanted' stolen antiquities to India, January 14, 2014
US returns three ancient stolen sculptures worth $1.5 million to India: January 15, 2014

Questions About Didcot Mirror Fundraising

 "Discovered by a metal detectorist in the Didcot area prior to 2007, it is a rarity"

People are still trying to raise the £33000 quid to pay off an artefact hunter and his partner, the owner of its findspot, to put it in a museum in the UK. The Oxfordshire museum to be precise. It is said to be "extremely rare" ("there are only 18 complete and decorated mirrors are known from the later Iron Age" in Britain). Heritage Trust say: 'Say No to this British Iron Age mirror being lost to the nation'. I say "why?". Why? Minister Vaizey is reported as saying, “The Didcot Mirror is a beautiful object dating from the Iron Age and would be a tremendous addition to any one of ... " well, actually any museum in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere willing to buy it and exhibit it as an example of British culture. Like the Brits exhibit thousands of Greek vases, Egyptian reliefs, Chinese jades and Indian holy images and goodness-knows-what else, suggesting that the people of those countries (a) should be jolly pleased their culture is deemed worthy of display in a prestige gallery in London or Northampon and (b) if they want to see them, then they can get a visa, book a hotel and flight and come over to see them. Why actually, can the Didcot mirror not "leave the country" in a globalised world? What is so special about the Didcot mirror (one of eighteen known) and so special about it staying in Oxfordshire or the UK?

If this object is a National Treasure (of outstanding aesthetic importance, and of outstanding significance to the study of Iron Age Britain, the development of decorative styles in the period, and the evolution of Iron Age mirrors), then what are we doing let metal detectorists hoik them out of the ground willy nilly and conspire with the landowners of the land containing the archaeological site it came from to flog it off to the highest bidder? Either these things are national treasures which need protecting from hoikers and floggers or they are not - in which case we can happily wave them bye-bye. Either Britain protects the archaeological heritage from damaging exploitation  or it does not - but then don't expect the British public to fork out tens of thousands of pounds from their own pockets to put right the damage done by lax policies.As for the archaeo-whinging
"Mirrors from southern England, like this specimen are highly  significant for our understanding of the later Iron Age, and offer important insights  into the social changes which occurred in the century before the  Roman conquest in AD 43".
Do they? In what way will having it in a British museum do that which the other eighteen cannot?  In what way will an adequate record (like the millions of hoiked objects recorded in the PAS) perhaps with a nice electrotype expertly made with a silicone mould not suffice? Most artefacts enter ephemeral artefact collections with far less than that.

The decision on the export licence application for the Mirror will be deferred for a period extended until 14 September in order to pay the finder and sponsoring landowner their £33,000. I say, let it go abroad, to somebody whose already found the money to look after it - something the British seem reluctant to do. Maybe when enough hoiked metalwork is sold off on the open market people will begin to take notice of what is happening to Britain's buried archaeology at the hands of treasure hunters.

The Mirror and the Minister
Minister blocks export of national treasure
Bid to find UK buyer for Iron Age mirror 

Sekhemka Statue Vanishes

"Well, it was here a minute ago,
what have you done with it?"
It's official - Northampton Museum's Sekhemka statue has ended up in private hands according to the BBC:
 A 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue sold by Northampton Museum has been bought by a private collector, it has emerged. Auction house Christie's of London said the buyer wanted to remain anonymous. The statue of Sekhemka, court official and priest, which sold for £15.76m, will now vanish from public view, campaigners said [...] The Save Our Sekhemka Action Group said: "The people of Northampton have been robbed in broad daylight of the jewel in the crown of their museum. "This looks like the worst possible outcome for the world of Egyptology. "There is now no guarantee that the statue of Sekhemka will ever be seen again, even by professional researchers, let alone by the children who might be inspired to find out more about the riches of Egyptian history and culture." His Excellency Ahsraf Elkholy Ahsraf Elkholy, the Egyptian Ambassador, condemned the sale
The news was greeted with fury by the “Save Our Sekhemka Action Group” a spokesperson for the group told an online newspaper ('Sekhemka is like Gollum's "precious" say critics as Christie's confirm sale of statue to private collector', Heritage Daily,  July 23rd, 2014):
“Thanks to Cllr Mackintosh and Northampton Council, it looks as if Sekhemka may have been turned into the Egyptian equivalent of Gollum’s “precious” to be hidden away and even gloated over as a secret fantasy object.”


Arts Council to Pronounce on Sekhemka Today.

The Arts Council is to review today Northampton Museum's accreditation in the light of the Sekhemka sale. Loss of Arts Council England accreditation would make the museum ineligible for a range of future grants and funding. However, the leader of the Conservative council, David Mackintosh, "said he did not see why this should happen". Probably because he does not seem to "see" anything wrong with what they've done - so we are counting on the Arts Coucil to take a stand against cultural asset stripping and show him. Pour encourager les autres.

Or are we going to see yet another shameful case of the UK being utterly ineffectual when it comes to financial interests and dubious dealings trumping public needs in  portable antiquity issues?

UK Dragging Feet on Cultural Protection

Criticism of repeated delays in the UK ratifying the Hague Convention  (Anny Shaw, 'Experts condemn British government for failure to ratify convention protecting cultural property' The Art Newspaper 21 July 2014)
Politicians and leading archaeologists have criticised the British government for failing to ratify the Hague Convention in the current parliamentary session. MPs and peers lobbied the government to introduce the necessary legislation at the beginning of the parliamentary year in June, but no bill was included. The Hague Convention was originally drawn up in 1954 and amended in 1999 to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. The UK is the only major Western power that has not ratified the treaty. In a letter published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper [...]  21 July, Nicholas Trench, the Earl of Clancarty who is a Crossbench peer, described Britain’s failure to ratify the treaty as “mystifying”[...]  The letter has been co-signed by nearly 100 supporters and experts from the art world [...]  “Why, after 60 years, has Britain still not ratified? The sense is that, as with all matters cultural, which end up low down in the political pecking order, it has simply neglected to do so. It is high time that the government put this right."

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

APiece of TT63 Sobekhotep Decoration Returns to Egypt

A painted limestone relief that was stolen and smuggled out of Egypt before 1986 will return to Egypt. A German couple had bought it from a collector in Britain in 1986 but learnt it was stolen and returned it on Wednesday. The item was part of the decoration of the much-robbed tomb (TT63 on the north flank of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna hill) of the 18th dynasty royal official Sobekhotep (temp. Tuthmosis IV) from the  Nobles necropolis on Luxor’s west bank. The relief had been spotted a few months ago by curators at Bonn University Museum while organising a temporary exhibition there.
The limestone relief is in very good condition. It is 30cm tall and 40cm wide. It depicts two figures of Sobehotep standing and making offerings to deities. The owners of the relief, a German couple, did not know it was stolen because they brought from a British private collection in 1986 and offered it to Bonn University Museum so it could be displayed at the temporary exhibition.
The tomb itself is listed on the excellent resource offered by Waseda University  where there are a couple of pictures showing what looters have left behind of the fine and important decoration. Here are some tracings of the remaining bits - including one that then ended up in Hildesheim, Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Pelizaeus-Museum, 5959 (the two plans of the tomb differ quite markedly). There is also a piece of one of the ripped-out bits that has not gone home in New York's met Museum, bought in 1930. Interestingly, the British Museum has six knocked-off bits from this tomb too, in two groups, five donated in 1869 by 'Henry Danby Seymour', one bought 1852 from 'Mr J H (or W) Wild'. Here they all are in their disjointed colourfulness:

 In the nineteenth century when these bits were levered off the wall (no doubt several other panels collapsed in the process - and to be fair, the plaster seems to have become detached in places in the tomb by itself) there were limited opportunities for the viewing public to visit the site. But these disjointed fragments make very little sense in the form we have them, scattered in different collections. Yet some of them are important for the information they offer, the foreign tributaries are often quoted, the metalworking scene is often used in archaeometallurgy books. It would actually be more helpful to see what is left of this tomb's decoration displayed back on site than little bits of it framed as scattered trophies of imperial plunder. 

Now, how did that bit which the Germans bought get to London, when and how was it removed from the tomb? From which collector was it acquired?

Nevine El-Aref, 'Stolen 18th dynasty relief returns from Germany' Al Ahram, 23 Jul 2014.

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.