Chronicle

March-April 2009

 

Afghanistan
 
Gretchen Peters has written a trailer for her forthcoming book Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda (“The criminals running the Af-Pak border,” foreignpolicy.com, April 23). She has interviewed hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis living in the border area between their two countries, and argues that the armed groups dominating the area are criminally rather than religiously motivated – “more mafiosi than mujahideen”. Significantly, she drew attention once again to their involvement with antiquities smuggling.
 
Peters also reported for the National Geographic on the return in February to Afghanistan from Britain of more than 1,500 artifacts (G. Peters, “More than 1,500 stolen Afghan artifacts return to Kabul”, nationalgeographic.com, March 6). The artifacts, weighing 3.4 tons, range in date from the Mesolithic period to the 14th century AD. The material had been recovered by several seizures carried out at Heathrow since 2003 and is thought to derive from recent illegal excavations. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Department at Heathrow reported that that the “vast majority of the thousands of artifacts confiscated every year at Heathrow” are from Afghanistan. Many of them are discovered hidden in the luggage of people arriving in flights from Pakistan. Sometimes artifacts are declared at customs but falsely described or valued.
 
China
 
Bloomberg.com reported on Cai Mingchao, the Chinese art dealer who made a successful bid for the Yves Saint Laurent bronzes at the February 25 Christie’s paris auction, but then refused to pay for them (Le-Min Lim, “Chinese art dealer in unpaid YSL bronzes furor weeps”, March 10). Cai said he had originally bid for the bronzes in good faith, but had decided upon reflection that it would be wrong to pay for what he regards as stolen Chinese heritage.
 
The British Museum exhibition of Chinese bronzes and jades on loan from the Shanghai Museum “Treasures from Shanghai” included a decorated drum stand that is thought to have been illegally excavated from a tomb in Shanxi province (M. Bailey, “Bronze at British Museum may be loot”, Art Newspaper, March). The piece is now the property of the Shanghai museum, but questions were raised whether the British Museum’s exhibition of the piece had contravened its loans policy requirement not to exhibit pieces that have been illegally excavated.
 
Dead Sea Scrolls
 
In April, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyadand wrote to the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper protesting about plans to exhibit the Dead Sea Scrolls at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (O. Ross, “Dead Sea Scrolls stir storm at ROM”, thestar.com, April 9). The scrolls were recovered during the late 1940s and early 1950s from a series of 11 caves northwest of the Dead Sea. They were subsequently bought by the Jordanian government and stored in the Palestinian Archaeological Museum (Rockefeller Museum) in east Jerusalem, in what was at the time Jordanian territory. They were taken under Israeli jurisdiction when Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967. The Palestinian Authority now claims the scrolls to be stolen property.
 
Egypt
 
Der Spiegel claimed to have seen a 1924 document that throws new light on the removal from Egypt of the bust of Nefertiti (“Did Germany cheat to get Bust of Nefertiti?” Spiegel On-line, February 10). The bust was discovered in 1912 during excavations conducted at Amarna by the Deutschen Orientgesellschaft under the directorship of Ludwig Borchardt. The 18thdynasty bust, dating to about 1340 BC, is of limestone coated with stucco and depicts the head of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Under the partage arrangement then in force, the German excavation was entitled to keep a share of its finds, decided with the agreement of the Egyptian authorities, and the bust was obtained as part of the division. It was placed on display in Berlin’s Aegyptisches Museum in 1923. Der Spiegel claimed to have seen a minute made in 1924 of the 1913 meeting between Borchardt and Egyptian antiquities inspector Gustave Lefébvre at which the division of finds was agreed. According to Der Spiegel, the minute records that Borchardt deceived Lefébvre by claiming the Nefertiti head was made of gypsum, rather than limestone. The Deutschen Orientgesellschaft confirmed the existence of the minute but maintained that the division was fair. The secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has demanded a copy of the document.
 
                                               
                                                  Nefertiti (image: M. Manske)
 
Meanwhile, Al-Ahram reported on a new antiquities law under consideration by the Egyptian parliament (N. El-Aref, “Hands off, and we mean it,” March 12-18). If it is adopted, it will offer better protection to sites and monuments from urban encroachment, stop the private possession of state-owned artifacts, and introduce stiffer penalties for offences. More controversially, the new law also moves toward capitalizing archaeological heritage. Commercial photography and production of replicas will be subject to licensing fees (although non-commercial photography will remain unrestricted). It is intended that any revenue generated by the new law will channeled towards the conservation of sites and artifacts. Doubts have been expressed, however, about the legality of imposing copyright on public domain monuments, and it has been questioned whether that aspect of the law would be respected by the international community (S. Stanek, “Can Egypt copyright the pyramids,” National Geographic News, January 15).
 
Finally, the New York Times reported on March 23 that Egypt was expected to request the return of the wooden coffin of the 21st dynasty Pharaoh Ames (1081 BC – 931 BC) (S. McElvoy, “Egypt requests coffin’s return”). It was seized by customs officials in Miami in February from a US citizen who had bought it in Spain.
 
Greece
 
In March, a Greek court sentenced British antiquities dealer Malcolm Hay in absentia to three years imprisonment. He was convicted of selling antiquities stolen from Greece. Mr Hay has protested his innocence and appealed (I. Macquisten, “Greek court gives UK dealer three years in prison”, Antiques Trade Gazette, April 3).
 
Mahatma Gandhi
 
On March 5, Indian businessman Vijay Mallya paid just over $2 million at auction for a collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal effects, comprising his spectacles, a metal bowl and plate, a pocket watch and a pair of leather sandals (“Indian drinks baron buys Gandhi’s glasses and sandals for ₤1.27m… 60 times original estimate”, Daily Mail, March 6).
  
                                          
                                       
                                                             (Image: Antiquorum)
 
The day before the sale, the Californian vendor James Otis had offered to donate the objects to the Indian state in return for a commitment from the Indian government to increase spending on public health. The Indian government rejected his proposal as an infringement of Indian sovereignty. The objects were sold for $2,096,000 at Manhattan auction house Antiquorum Auctioneers, with the price realized easily exceeding the pre-auction estimate of $25,000 (Antiquorum Auctioneers, press release, March 6)
 
Iraq
 
In March, it was reported that senior officials in the Iraqi government had donated 531 artifacts (including 366 gold and silver coins) to the Iraq National Museum. The officials concerned stated that they had received the artifacts from members of the public, but other than that their provenances appear unknown (Z. Khudair, “Government officials surrender 531 artifacts to Iraq Museum, among them gold and silver coins”, Azzaman.com, March 9).
 
A report from Nineveh, the site of the 7th century BC capital of the Assyrian empire, suggested that it is under threat more from urban encroachment than looting (J. Arraf, “Iraq’s urban sprawl, not looting, threatens Ninevah antiquities”, Christian Science Monitor, March 4).
 
Biblical Archaeological Review carried an article by Dan Levene reporting upon an Aramaic inscription on a human calvarium that has been recently acquired by the collector Shlomo Moussaieff (“Rare magic inscription on human skull”, March/April). It has no published archaeological context, but is probably of a similar date and related functionally to the well-known Aramaic inscribed incantation bowls. These are hemispherical or flat-based bowls with Aramaic inscriptions in ink on their inner surfaces, dating to the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Each inscription records a magical incantation intended to ward off malevolent spirits. The first bowls were discovered in 1850, and by 1990 just under a thousand were known, stored in various museums around the world. Since then, hundreds of previously unknown bowls have appeared in private collections, including 650 bowls in the Schøyen Collection, and an unspecified number in the possession of Moussaieff. Perhaps without exception, bowls of known context have been discovered in Iraq, and the many hundreds of bowls that have appeared since 1990 are clear testimony to the scale of archaeological looting in Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.
 
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
 
Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek continues to resist Italian claims for the return of artifacts acquired from Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici in the 1970s (E. Povoledo, “Danish Museum resists return of disputed artifacts”, New York Times, March 17). Of particular importance are parts of a 7th century BC Etruscan calesse (a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage) that were taken from a tomb near Fara in Sabina, just north of Rome. The tomb had been robbed by the time it was discovered by Italian archaeologists in 1970, though they recovered some pieces of the calesse matching those in Carlsberg, thus establishing the findspot and tainted provenance. Documents seized by the Italian authorities from convicted dealer Giacomo Medici’s premises at the Geneva Freeport show that Medici sold the contested pieces to Hecht for $67,000, who resold them to Carlsberg for about $900,000 (P. Watson and C. Todeschini 2007, The Medici Conspiracy, New York: Public Affairs,109).
 
Rare books and manuscripts
 
The spring 2009 issue of the American Bar Association’s Art and Cultural Heritage Law Newsletter carried a useful article by Kimberly Alderman reviewing recent thefts of maps and other illustrated pages from rare books and manuscripts (“Thieves take a page out of rare books and manuscripts”, 4-6). Alderman concluded that such thefts are facilitated by lax security provisions at many of the libraries where such material is held.
 
In London, the two-year jail sentence of Farhad Hakimzadeh, who was convicted in January of stealing pages from books at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the British Library, was reduced to 12 months (BBC News, April 29).
 
USA
 
There were a couple of good articles in Archaeology about artifact hunting in New Mexico. Samir Patel reported on a conversation with an unnamed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agent for archaeological crime in New Mexico about the link between methamphetamine addiction and artifact hunting (“Drugs, guns and dirt”, March/April, 45-47). The agent informed him that in the northwest corner of the state addicts are looting Anasazi sites to raise money for drugs, and that an “infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts” has developed to sell the looted material. The connection between methamphetamine use and archaeological looting was confirmed by other law enforcement officers across the Southwest. An undercover operation (code-named Silent Witness) in the late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in 12 arrests and exposed a network of looters with links to a single methamphetamine dealer. (Coincidently, Fox News carried a report about archaeological sites in Arkansas also being looted to raise money for methamphetamine purchase (L. Smith, “Druggies Stealing Arkansas artifacts”, myfoxmemphis.com, April 28)).
The BLM agent also talked to Patel about the case of Dee Brecheisen, who died in 2004 (“The case of the missing Buffalo Soldier”, March/April, 40-44, 62). Preliminary investigations culminated in an FBI search of Brecheisen’s home in April 2005, where agents found large quantities of Native American and Civil War artifacts. From the empty shelves, it was evident that many more artifacts had been removed after Brecheisen’s death. The investigators also recovered some human skeletal remains, which are thought to be of a US army soldier who died in 1866 and was buried at Fort Craig, 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. A subsequent excavation of the Fort Craig cemetery area in June 2007 found more than 200 graves, of which at least 11 had been looted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
 
J. Paul Getty Museum
 
On March 23, the Getty announced the establishment of a long-term collaboration with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze (“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze announce long-term cultural collaboration”, press release, March 23). The collaboration was part of the November 2007 agreement made between the Getty and the Italian Ministry of Culture, when the Getty undertook to return to Italy 40 objects that had been smuggled out the country. Several projects are planned as part of the collaboration. First will be an exhibition of Etruscan bronze sculptures “The Chimaera of Arezzo”, opening at the Getty Villa in July 2009, and including the Museo Archeologico’s Chimaera of Arezzo, described as a “life-sized” sculpture of a triple-headed monster comprised of a lion, a fire-breathing goat, and a serpent. Later projects will include an exhibition of Greek, Roman and Etruscan bronzes, and one of Etruscan archaeology.
   
                                                           
                                                            Shelby White fresco (top), Getty fresco (bottom)
 
This announcement was followed by another on April 7 that the museum would be returning to Italy a 1st century BC Roman fresco fragment (“The J. Paul Getty Museum will return a 1st century Roman fresco to Italy in May 2009”, press release). Director Michael Brand said that it matched another fragment that had been retuned to Italy by a private collector. The piece in question was returned by Shelby White in January 2008 (D. von Bothmer, 1990, Glories of the Past, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 201 no. 142).
 
Meanwhile, the fall-out from the Medici investigation continued as the trial of ex-Getty curator Marion True resumed in Rome (E. Povoledo, “Getty ex-curator testifies in Rome antiquities trial”, New York Times, March 21). On March 20, she testified in court, claiming in her defense that she had never acquired any object that she knew to have been illegally excavated, and listing objects in the Getty’s collection that had been recognized as stolen and returned to Italy during her time as curator. They included three pieces returned in 1999, and 3,500 objects from the archaeological site at Francavilla Marittima in Calabria.