In January of this year I wrote a brief article for this Blog dealing with my own experiences as both a dealer in ancient Mediterranean art and an artist myself, and the influence one has upon the other. The article was inspired by an exhibition that was a collaboration between the British Museum and Turner Contemporary at Margate, England. Turner Contemporary has commissioned artist Hannah Lees to respond to a group of Roman Samian Ware bowls, part of the BM’s collections, that had been washed ashore from a Roman shipwreck quite near Margate. The result was a thoughtful collaboration between modern art and the art of antiquity, offering modern viewers a new level of insight into the art and artifacts of the ancient past, while also recontextualizing the modern work.
In that January article I compared some of own work to ancient and later works that had influenced my approach, even if I had not been fully aware when I was making it. In this article I’d like to continue exploring that theme. When I first began to make art of my own a few years ago, I made a very conscious effort to avoid copying or even allowing myself to be influenced by the types of art and artifacts I handled and sold every day as an antiquities dealer. Of course, one cannot entirely block out all influences. These will surface, as they did in my case, whether one likes it or not. So at some point I began to make, not copies but stylistically similar objects in some media, such as ceramics, to those I found appealing, not just from antiquity but the more recent past, as well. A good example is comparing the 13th Century French medieval tankard (top) with my own stoneware tankard with a pie crust foot (below), though mine was influenced perhaps more by medieval English types.
As I continued with this theme, I found great value in learning how ancient and other more recent works had been made from a technical standpoint. It is widely known that relatively few people in the field of art history have much practical experience in studio art. Having spent so much time the last few years working in various media in a studio setting, I can say with certainty that a more substantial studio art regimen should be a requirement for art historians. The insights gained from the practical side of “doing” art lend themselves well to finding answers to the many technical questions art historians must ask about individual works or whole classes of objects. Below is a series of images of English slipware, some marbled, some trail decorated, from the late 1600s to early 1800s. Below these, my own reinterpretations of these styles and techniques.
Medieval pottery of all sorts has long been an area of interest for me. So when I decided to make a “medieval” plate of my own, I added some personal touches. I simplified the central design so that it stood out against a cream to white plain background. I also set one of the fleur-des-lis in the surrounding “frame” off center, so as to eliminate any possibility of the piece being interpreted in a religious framework. Below are two examples of medieval to post-medieval plates of the sort I might have imagined when I was creating my own work, which is shown beneath them.
Still on the subject of pottery, closed form vessels have long been symbolic of many things to many cultures. One common thread is the notion of the female form as a vessel or of a vessel being analogous to female fertility. This last idea was widespread in popular – as opposed to official – religious thought in both classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. The transport amphora, the incredibly common pottery vessel used from at least the 7th Century BC through to the Byzantine period, and in some parts of the Mediterranean world right up into the modern era, certainly can be equated in many ways with the female form, in all its variety. Amphorae came in all shapes and sizes, depending on the products they carried, popular style preferences and by time period. Look at some of the examples below:
I have always had a strong personal response to this form. In 2015 I made the collage piece below. It involves simply colored paper and watercolors on a board backing. I found the act of repeating the small amphora shape over and over irresistible.
My favorite medium is glass, in all its forms. This includes glassblowing, flame or torch working, slumping, casting and enameling. Perhaps no other form of glass is so strikingly beautiful to my eye as the ancient glass inlays produced in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. Expensive to produce and time consuming to make, the astonishingly precise, technically accomplished small scale works were used as furniture inlays, architectural components and enhancements to a variety of small objects. Having worked in glass myself – torch work, blowing and enamels – I can fully appreciate the extraordinary technical skills of the ancient craftspeople who made these objects, using relatively simple technology. In making enamel pendants, I’ve had the opportunity to use a clean white enamel background against which to set simple multi-colored canes of glass. The effects are quite pleasing, though they seem paltry compared with the extraordinary mosaic glass products of post-dynastic Egypt. Below are two examples of Egyptian glass inlays from the Ptolemaic (305-30 BC) Period and very early Roman Period (30 BC-100 AD). Below them, two examples of my own work using enamel on copper with glass canes.
Egyptian mosaic glass griffin inlay. Ptolemaic Period, Circa 2ND-1ST Century BC
I could not review my personal relationship with and interpretation of the art of past without a brief visit to the shrine of Mark Rothko. In my opinion, Rothko was the greatest painter since Turner; certainly the greatest of the 20th Century. I can remember being quite young and visiting the Berkeley Art Museum, standing in front of several large Rothko canvases. I was stunned but didn’t know at that age how to articulate what I was seeing and experiencing. In fact, it was decades more before I really could. I have never tried to “copy” or in any way imitate Rothko. But his influence on my response to the visible world is always present and beyond my control. Perhaps it is no surprise that he was also a great lover of antiquity and also of Renaissance art. Below are two fine examples of his large canvases. Below them, two pieces of mine in very different media that I think are directly influenced by my reaction to Rothko’s work.
I am more convinced than ever that taking time to explore linkages in visual language and modes of expression in cultures separated by great distances in time and geography can help viewers appreciate more deeply both the ancient and modern.
This Blog has many links to Clio Ancient Art’s online stores. To access my personal artwork, go to (opens in a new tab or window): https://www.etsy.com/shop/PastPresentArtCraft
As an artist myself (yes, I have come to accept, to my own astonishment, that in addition to being an antiquities dealer / antiquarian / art historian, I am, at last, an artist) I often find myself influenced, even if sometimes subliminally, by the ancient and medieval art and artifacts I handle every day (see a few images related to this below). So when I saw a newly released YouTube video from The British Museum, in which they collaborated with both Turner Contemporary (one of the UK’s leading art galleries, situated on Margate seafront, on the same site as the boarding house where the great painter J. M. W. Turner stayed when visiting the town), I was ecstatic.
The British Museum and Turner Contemporary commissioned UK artist Hannah Lees to respond to a group of Roman Samian Ware bowls, part of the BM’s collections, that had been washed ashore from a Roman shipwreck quite near Margate. The result was a thoughtful collaboration between modern art and the art of antiquity, though it is worth noting that the Samian Ware bowls in question would not have been considered “art” in their own time, simply practical objects; that is, craft. This type of collaboration, when properly executed, can offer modern viewers a new level of insight into the art and artifacts of the ancient past. Some younger or more aesthetically extreme viewers might see the ancient objects as mere “dead people’s art,” while some more narrow minded viewers of any age might see the modern response to the artifacts as fluff or not even art at all. Well, where art is concerned one cannot please everyone. But collaborations of this sort are valuable and I wish they would become more common.
Here’s an image of a Roman Samian Ware bowl gifted by Clio Ancient Art to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA a few years ago, similar to those involved in this project:
Here is a piece I created last year that responds to both Medieval English tiles (a favorite topic) and Islamic “calligrams”- figurative calligraphy.
This is an example of a group of 13th Century English floor tiles at Exeter Cathedral.
And here is a 17th Century Persian calligram, with the “Bismillah” phrase in the form of a bird.
Here is an enameled copper pendant I made, responding to an ancient Egyptian faience flat amulet of the god Hapy, one of the four sons of Horus and god of the inundation – the annual flooding of the Nile. Flat amulets of this sort were often sewn into the wrappings of mummies, particularly from the New Kingdom period onward.
And here is an original example of a flat faience amulet of Hapy, dating to the 22nd Dynasty.
Of course, I could go on with many more examples. But the key point here is that modern and ancient art share a great deal in common, at the most basic levels. If we stop to self-examine our response to one, we may gain valuable insights into the other. That is what made the British Museum’s collaborative project so important and, I think, groundbreaking. Here is the link to their YouTube video on this project:
Here is a link to artist Hannah Lees’ website, with examples of her work, including more detailed views of what she created for this project:
Lastly, here is a link to my own art, available on my personal (not Clio’s) Etsy shop:
2015 was a year that saw unprecedented destruction of antiquities, ancient monuments and cultural heritage of all sorts, particularly in the conflict zones of the Middle East. And it wasn’t just IS that was responsible – even the Syrian government got in on the act by, among other actions, bombing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bosra during the final days of December (Ensor). But while the well heeled cultural heritage industry held countless conferences, attended posh receptions and issued gratuitous proclamations, damning the trade in antiquities, legal or illegal, and demonizing museums, collectors, dealers and governments alike, a few proposals floated in the final months of the year offered rational, practical options for saving antiquities and ancient monuments.
The first of these came on October 1, with an announcement held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a one hundred year old professional association representing 242 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico. (Neuendort). AAMD issued “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.” Based on the principle that stewardship is the hallmark of the museum community, the Protocols would provide a framework for museums to give safe haven for works at risk due violent conflict, terrorism, or natural disasters. Owners/depositors could request safe haven at an AAMD member museum where the works would be held until conditions allowed their safe return. Works deposited would be treated as loans. To ensure transparency, AAMD member museums accepting such works would register them in a new publicly available online registry where information on the objects would be publicly available. The Protocols would even cover considerations such as transport and storage, scholarly access, legal protections, exhibition, conservation, and safe return of works to the appropriate individuals or entities as soon as feasible.
Not surprisingly, some of the leading players in the self-styled cultural heritage community, including the American School for Oriental Research and the Archaeological Institute of America, immediately issued a statement obliquely attacking the AAMD Protocols while offering no meaningful proposals of their own. They claimed that because depositors of objects in AAMD’s institutions might include private owners, rather than just national museums, there might be a chance of looted objects also being deposited, thereby indirectly supporting the illicit trafficking of antiquities (Sharpe). Presumably, they would prefer these objects meet the same fate as those in Afghanistan, where objections – based on the UN’s 1970 cultural property conventions – to the safekeeping out of country of ancient objects, led to their destruction by the Taliban.
In November came word from Paris of a French offer of “asylum” for artifacts under threat. French President Hollande had asked the President of the Louvre to develop a national plan for the protection of cultural heritage. The resulting 50-point proposal included using French museums as a temporary safe haven for antiquities, much like the AAMD plan, as well as a new European database of stolen art and artifacts and funding to preserve existing archaeological sites and monuments, train archaeologists and conservators abroad and reconstruct damaged or destroyed sites (Jones). Again, the heritage industry either ignored the French “asylum” proposal or offered criticism similar to that offered on the AAMD Protocols.
While it seems unlikely U.S. cultural heritage policy will be significantly influenced by either of the initiatives outlined above, there is at least now a glimmer of hope for antiquities to be spared destruction at the hands of extremist groups, indifferent governments and the random destruction so prevalent in all civil conflicts. With museums, acting in unison under the umbrella of organizations such as the AAMD, as well as some foreign governments, such as the bold French initiative, taking the lead, perhaps the tide of thinking is turning away from ineffectual, elitist, self-serving entities such as the so-called Antiquities Coalition, SAFE, and the AIA. Let us all hope that 2016 proves a safer and more stable year for antiquities, monuments and heritage in general.
- Association of Art Museum Directors. “AAMD Issues Protocols to Protect Works of Cultural Significance in Danger of Damage or Destruction.” AAMD website, 1 Oct. 2015. Web.
- Ensor, Josie. “Syrian regime ‘bombs Unesco world heritage site.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 24 Dec. 2015. Web.
- Jones, Jonathan. “Asylum for artefacts: Paris’ plan to protect cultural treasures from terrorists.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 Nov. 2015. Web.
- Neuendorf, Henri. “Museums Offer Safe Haven for Threatened Art and Antiquities.” Artnet News. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 2 Oct. 2015. Web.
- Sharpe, Emily. “We’ll store your artifacts, US tells Syrian museums.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 8 Nov. 2015. Web.
Making Matters Worse? The Debate Over
“Repatriating” Antiquities to Failed States in the Middle East
In November of 2013, at a private ceremony at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, DC, a group of four stone cylinder seals, artifacts used in ancient Mesopotamia to mark ownership of property, were handed over to the Iraqi Ambassador (FBI). Both before and since, United States officials and those of other nations have returned looted artifacts to Iraqi government representatives, often with much fanfare. Although the objects returned by U.S. officials in 2013 would have fetched only a few hundred dollars on the open market, that and other ceremonies were touted in official circles and the press as substantive progress in the effort to stem the flow of looted artifacts from the region. Little could those involved have known that just one year later much of Iraq would fall under the control of a self-styled Islamic Caliphate, bent on destroying all physical traces of the region’s pre-Islamic heritage. The fate of the many objects returned to the Iraqi government over the past decade is now uncertain, and serious questions are being raised as to the wisdom of returning more.
As the “Arab Spring” movement for democratic change spread through the Middle East, sectarian violence on a scale that could not have been predicted engulfed the region, particularly Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. Many of the aforementioned states already had poor track records of heritage management, and as some simply disintegrated into warring factions (Libya, Syria and Yemen) the stage was set for ISIL (Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, referred to hereafter as Islamic State), to step into the resulting power vacuum. The result was wholesale destruction of ancient artifacts and archaeological sites and the looting and destruction of museums (Cullinane, Alkhshali and Tawfeeq). With Islamic State on the rampage, and other religiously motivated groups swearing allegiance to them in Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, the threat to ancient heritage is greater than ever, and the debate over whether or not to return antiquities, looted or legally exported, to the modern nation states where they were discovered is fiercer than ever.
To make sense of this issue, it is necessary to return briefly to an era in which the trade in antiquities from the Middle East was unregulated. This period may be roughly defined as beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ending with the United Nations 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” (Convention). This span of nearly 200 years coincides with the age of European colonialism and, for a few decades following the First World War, European occupation of much of the Middle East. With the rise of nationalism and independence for the new nations in the region, restrictions were imposed on the export of artifacts. Although many nations did not sign it right away, and some have still not done so, the 1970 United Nations convention became the standard by which the provenance, or documented ownership history, of an object might be judged. Still, the national export laws of the various states in the region often were out of sync with the 1970 Convention. Egypt and Jordan, for example, did not halt the legal trade in ancient objects until the early 1980s.
Key to understanding the demands by modern nations for the return of artifacts thought to originate within their modern borders, is the scale of the trade in ancient objects. Throughout the roughly two hundred years outlined above, antiquities of every sort were quite legally removed from the lands now defined as modern nations in the Middle East. This was done systematically on behalf of museums, universities and private collectors. Even in relatively recent times, one high profile New York antiquities dealer, who started out selling Egyptian antiquities in the gift shop of the Brooklyn Museum for only a few dollars each, recalled visiting Egypt annually in the 1960s and ‘70s on buying trips, sometimes leaving the country with thousands of objects, all entirely legal under Egyptian law at the time (Dorfman). The net result was a huge pool of legal antiquities on the market from Egypt, North African nations such as Tunisia and Libya and Middle Eastern nations such as Israel / Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Iran. Many of these same countless thousands of objects continue to circulate on the market today.
In the transitional years of the 1970s and ‘80s, when national and international laws governing antiquities exports were still new, many North American and European museums continued collecting antiquities in a fashion unchanged from the unregulated years of the past, resulting sometimes in the purchase of objects whose provenance was questionable. Over the past thirty years, western museums have been under growing pressure from some foreign governments to return objects, often using the threat of legal action or actual litigation, in some cases supported by documentation indicating the items had been removed illegally. A good case in point, one that generated considerable media attention, was The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1972 acquisition of the Euphronios Krater, a Fifth Century BC Greek vase, looted just months earlier from an Etruscan tomb in Italy. The dealer who sold the piece to the Metropolitan Museum had provided specious documentation on its origins. The Museum eventually conceded that the piece was stolen and returned it to Italy in 2008. Similar controversies have embroiled other North American museums, especially the Getty Museum in Malibu and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (McGuigan). But in all these cases, claims made were by European nations, such as Italy and Greece, and their claims could be substantiated. No such claims have been settled with western museums by nations in the Middle East.
Far more troubling for museums and private collectors is the “national identity” claim put forward by some nations. These rest primarily on the notion that a work of art produced thousands of years ago by a culture in which it would be impossible for people in the corresponding modern nation to survive, much less function, are the property of that modern state simply by accident of geography (Cuno, Artifacts). Perhaps the most famous example of this type of claim is the Greek government’s campaign to acquire the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812 under a permit granted him by the Ottoman Sultan (Greece was then a province of the Ottoman Empire and did not attain independence until 1832) and housed since 1816 in the British Museum. The Greek claim is primarily based on national identity, with arguments framed in moral terms. In the specific case of the Elgin Marbles, the Greek claim does have some merit, in that reuniting the fragments currently in London with those in Athens’ new custom built, climate controlled Acropolis Museum would make for a far more satisfactory arrangement and might lead to long term loans of antiquities from Greece to the British Museum (Maupin).
Many nationalistic claims of this type can be easily dismissed simply by the complex nature of the objects themselves, such as a mosaic glass dish made in Egypt when it was a province of the Roman Empire, shipped to Rome itself in antiquity, and finding its way to a Roman town in England, by which time it had already become an antique. Or a shipwreck containing wine jars made in Greece in the Roman period and lost off the coast of Croatia. The question raised is who might claim ownership of these objects? In these two examples, a total of four modern nations could potentially lay claim, opening a Pandora’s box of legal challenges and counter-claims. But the larger issue is one of precedent. Museum officials worry that if every foreign claim on the basis of emotionally-driven national identity, political expediency, artistic continuity or one interpretation of morality were agreed to, many museums in North and South America, Europe and even parts of Asia would be virtually emptied of artifacts.
Some governments in the antiquities-rich Middle East have sought universal moratoriums on importation of specific types of antiquities into the United States, and the U.S. State Department has imposed bans on the importation of certain types of cultural items from Egypt, Iraq and Syria. These have been actively supported by a very well-heeled lobby composed of the Archaeological Association of America and a host of richly financed non-profit groups variously describing themselves as operating in the sphere of “heritage protection” or “cultural property” and constituting a flourishing new industry. In the face of these mounting pressures, a growing number of museum professionals, art historians, academics and commentators have, over the last few years, begun to call for a reexamination of museum practices and official policies advocating the return of antiquities to source countries. Their proposals for a changed approach to antiquities repatriation are based on wide ranging philosophical and practical arguments.
Perhaps the most prominent voice in advocating a reconsideration of antiquities repatriation is James Cuno, Former Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, now with the J. Paul Getty Trust, and author of several controversial but highly successful books examining such fundamental questions as “Who owns antiquity/” and ‘Does it serve anyone’s interest to limit access to antiquities?” (Cuno, Who Owns). He, and a number of other prominent academic critics of antiquities repatriation policies, argue that the art and artifacts of the ancient past are a global heritage that belongs to all mankind, and most modern antiquities rich nations have little or no real claim to the ancient heritage that remains in their borders by accident of geography (Appiah). Further, they argue, emotionally driven claims by foreign governments to objects of the distant past are most often about modern politics, not art or archaeology. Cuno cites as an example both Turkey and Greece, whose early governments used new laws banning the export of antiquities, and making all antiquities found on their soil property of the state, as a means of creating a clear national identity where one did not previously exist (Cuno, Who Owns). And more modern governments, including Mussolini’s regime in Italy and successive regimes in Egypt, have used antiquities and ancient monuments as a tool for stirring up nationalist sentiment and cohesion during times of crisis.
Scholars arguing against repatriation of antiquities share the view that “encyclopedic” museums, housing the widest possible range of man-made objects from around the globe and across time, are the best possible venue in which to see antiquities. They argue that the more objects that are removed from museum collections due to litigation by foreign governments, the less comprehensive these museum collections will become, and the cultural experience for the museum going public will also be reduced in quality (Bennett). Further, they make the case that by concentrating antiquities, or any form of art or artifacts, from a particular culture only in the museums of the modern nation state where those objects were found, they are placed at greater risk in times of political unrest. Better to spread the risk, they argue, by housing antiquities in many encyclopedic museum collections worldwide, thus reducing the chances they may be destroyed or looted in a single unstable nation (Mashberg and Bowley).
Both the governments of antiquities rich nations in the Middle East and the archaeological and “cultural heritage” lobby have responded in a predictably negative way to such proposals. Archaeologists, in particular, claim that antiquities that have no provenance or whose archaeological contexts have been lost are dead objects that cannot provide any meaningful information. The response from critics such as Cuno is that even removed from their archaeological context, ancient objects have much to tell. Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Philippe de Montebello, in reference to the Euphronios Krater, stated: “Although having not been properly excavated, it is far from meaningless…. All great works of art have, in addition to their historical and other learned contexts, an aesthetic context as well” (qtd. in Eakin).
In light of the terrible damage recently done by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, the still fresh memory of other crimes against archaeological heritage in the broader Near and Middle East in recent years (dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, looting of the Baghdad and Kabul Museums, burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, bombing of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo and looting of regional museums in Egypt), and the near certainty that further damage will be deliberately done to the region’s ancient art and monuments by extremists or simply as a result of being caught in the crossfire, a growing number of commentators are asking if James Cuno’s reasoning should not be taken a step further. They point out that when antiquities were in danger of being destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, ironically it was the 1970 UNESCO Convention that prohibited concerned outsiders from removing the objects from the country for safekeeping, with the result that they were destroyed. Now they wonder if the UNESCO convention should be amended, imposing substantial fines or other penalties on nations that fail to protect their ancient heritage. Others are even advocating for a return to the old system of “partage,” under which foreign museums or universities excavating in the Middle East would evenly divide archaeological finds with the host government, thus insuring that a share of the objects found would be protected outside the country in the event of political instability (Marlowe).
Moralistic pronouncements from the archaeological community, countless conferences full of expensive luncheons and carefully worded resolutions put on by the heritage industry, high profile attempts by dysfunctional governments in the region to reclaim antiquities already looted or missing, and bans on the importation of objects from some countries, have all done absolutely nothing to reduce looting of archaeological sites or stop the ongoing destruction of the ancient past by extremists. With new reports coming out of the Middle East almost weekly of crimes against the shared ancient heritage of all humanity, the urgency that concerned governments, academia, the museum and collecting community, heritage organizations and others take some form of new and meaningful action, including adoption of some of the proposals outlined above, cannot be overstated. Based on the lack of meaningful action to date, it seems doubtful that such common sense will prevail.
NOTE: As this article is being posted, news reports indicate Islamic State is closing in on the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra.
* Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “There is No National Home for Art.” The New York Times. New
York Times Company, 22 Jan. 2015. Web.
* Bennett, Drake. “Finders, keepers.” The Boston Globe. Boston.com, 10 Feb. 2008. Web.
* Cullinane, Susannah, Alkhshali, Hamdi and Tawfeeq, Mohammed. “Tracking a trail of historical
obliteration: ISIS trumpets destruction of Nimrud.” CNN. Cable News Network. Turner
Broadcasting System, Inc. 13 Apr. 2015, Web.
* Cuno, James. “Artifacts as Instruments of Nationalism.” The New York Times. New York Times
Company, 21 Jan. 2015. Web.
* Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage.
Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.
* Dorfman, John. “The Lure of Egypt.” Art and Antiques Jan. 2010. Art & Antiques Worldwide
Media, LLC. Web. Accessed 21 Apr. 2015.
* Eakin, Hugh. “Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?” The New York Review of Books 56.8
* “FBI Returns Cultural Antiquities to Iraq.” fbi.gov. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S.
Department of Justice, 6 Nov. 2013. Web.
* “From The Elgin Marbles To King Tut’s Tomb: Who Owns Ancient Artifacts?” Here & Now.
Narr. Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson. Natl. Public Radio. WBUR, Boston, 15 Dec.
* Marlow, Ann. “Should Iraq’s Archaeological Treasures Stay in the West?” The Daily Beast. The
Daily Beast Company LLC, 11 Apr. 2015. Web.
* Maupin, Chris. “A Tale of Two Museums: Visiting the New Acropolis Museum and the
Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.” Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities, Jan. 2010. Web.
Accessed 21 Apr. 2015
* Mashberg, Tom and Bowley, Graham. “Islamic State Destruction Renews Debate Over
Repatriation of Antiquities.” The New York Times. New York Times Company, 30 Mar.
* McGuigan, Cathleen. ”Whose Art Is It?” Newsweek. Newsweek, Incorporated, 149.10 (2007).Web.
* United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Convention on the Means of
Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of
Cultural Property 1970. Paris, 14 Nov. 1970. Web. Accessed 21 Apr. 2015.
A BBC online feature entitled “The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS”, 16 February, 2015, opens with the following remarkable claim: “The trade in antiquities is one of Islamic State’s main sources of funding, along with oil and kidnapping.” At no point in the dozen or so paragraphs that follow does author Simon Cox offer any substantiating documentation for this astonishing claim. His is one in a long series of articles in the popular press that offer sensational headlines concerning the scale of the illicit antiquities trade and do a disservice not only to those involved in the legal antiquities trade but also to the news consuming public.
Cox seems to be a generalist type of reporter for BBC. His forty or so published articles since 2007 cover every topic from local UK sports to medical research. Nowhere in his background is there any indication that he has prior knowledge or experience of the antiquities trade, legal or illicit. He seems to take at face value swaggering claims made by smugglers in Lebanon and Syria that they have “sold pieces worth $500,000, some for $1m.” This despite the fact that in his investigation Cox only once sees any antiquities described as having been looted. These he views via a Skype meeting and are described as small figurines, glass vessels, bits of pottery and coins, acquired over a period of several months. If looted, these objects, which typically bring only a few dollars even on the American and European markets, hardly seem capable of funding a powerful terrorist organization.
To be sure, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and other trouble spots in the Near and Middle East have suffered terrible damage to their archaeological heritage over the past several years. Some of this is the result of economic and political instability leading to impoverishment of local communities, which in turn fuels looting of archaeological sites. But much of what has occurred in Syria is the direct result of indifference on the part of all sides in this multi-sided civil war, and ideologically or religiously driven deliberate destruction of archaeological objects, monuments and sites by various factions, especially IS / ISIS.
Cox falls into the trap of reporting on an (imaginary) international criminal network, operating in a shadow world of diggers, smugglers, middlemen and dealers. Like many who have come before him, he presents a dime store crime novel scenario, where no physical evidence or documentation is required to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Vague, disjointed references to money laundering and criminal networks are used to suggest that because the underworld he describes is difficult to penetrate, the scale of the illicit antiquities trade must be worse than imagined. Implicit in his work is the view that all antiquities on the market must have an illicit past through construction of false provenance. In his confusion, he conflates the legal, transparent antiquities trade, comprised mainly of objects that long ago left their source countries prior to the creation of national and international laws governing the trade in cultural objects, with the illicit trade sourced through modern looting.
Two recent cases in which this writer was directly involved undermine this conflation of the illicit with the legal antiquities trade. In 2012 a vast collection of ancient pottery items privately acquired in the early and mid-1960s by a United Nations peace keeper in Middle East, came on the market. This collection was shipped to the United States at the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War and remained in storage for 45 years. It clearly predates both the 1970 UNESCO Convention and local laws in source countries governing export of antiquities. Also, in early 2012 the family of the late Dr. Richard Swift brought his collection of Egyptian antiquities on to the market. This collection was formed between the 1940s and 1960s, many of the objects having documented provenance as far back as the late 19th Century. Again, the entire collection predated both current Egyptian national laws governing export of antiquities and the 1970 UNESCO convention.
A 2010 article entitled “Organized criminal involvement in the illicit antiquities trade” by Blythe Bowman Proulx, Professor of Criminal Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, analyzed responses from archaeologists about their perception of organized criminal involvement and contrasted this with their actual experience of such activity. Her surprising results stand in stark contrast to Cox’s assumptions and raise questions about how the debate over international antiquities and cultural property should be framed. Surprisingly, while most archaeologists in Proulx’s meticulous study believed organized crime to be involved in archaeological looting, relatively few had any personal experience of this and some had never experienced any evidence of looting at all. Even more surprising, those working in North America were more likely to have had actual experience of looting, as opposed to those working in antiquities rich countries most often associated with looting (Syria, Egypt, Iraq, etc.). Proulx attempted to understand the disconnect revealed in her research between archaeologists’ perception of looting and their actual experience on the ground, suggesting that their views, and views of media consumers in general, may be heavily influenced by sensationalist news coverage of the issue of archaeological looting. More broadly, she concludes that there may not be any natural association of organized crime, as it is generally defined, with the illicit antiquities trade. This stands in stark contrast to Cox’s vague, unsubstantiated and deliberately sensationalist claims.
Antquities, 22 October, 2013. Bonhams. Knightsbridge, London, 283. Print.
Antquities, 23 May, 2012. Bonhams. Knightsbridge, London, 88-92. Print.
“The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS.” Simon Cox. BBC News. BBC,16 Feb. 2015. Web
Proulx, Blythe Bowman, “Organized crime involvement in the illicit antiquities trade.” Trends in
Organized Crime 14.1 (2010): 1-29. Print
This is not completely confirmed yet but ISIS had been claiming for some time they would do this. They clearly wish to erase any traces of ancient Assyrian heritage from their self styled caliphate. Here’s the Iraqi news item (open in a new tab or page): http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/isis-detonates-large-parts-nineveh-historical-wall/
The recent decision by The British Museum to send a single sculpture from the famed Parthenon Marbles (or Elgin Marbles) on loan briefly to the Hermitage in Russia, causing outrage in Greece, has once again drawn attention to issues of cultural heritage relating to antiquities. Whatever the merits of the arguments put forward by those demanding the return of the marbles to Greece and those arguing for their continued care in The British Museum – and both sides have many valid points – there can be no doubt that the Museum has been a vital source of knowledge, stewardship and inspiration for those with an interest in classical antiquity, in a way that perhaps no other institution in the world has. Visitors to London may drop in at the Museum free of charge, as millions do annually (6,701,000 in 2013) and this writer has on more than one occasion, to marvel at the most exquisite works of antiquity from all over the globe, thoughtfully presented in a secure and pleasant environment.
The current tempest over the brief loan to the Hermitage seems a good opportunity for a broader review of the British Museum’s ancient Greek holdings. Every medium and material is presented in their displays, including sculpture in stone and bronze, ceramics and terracotta, glass and organic materials. The collections reflect the broad sweep over time and geography of Greek influence in the broader Mediterranean world. In this brief photo essay, I have entirely left out the Parthenon marbles and have selected 15 images that are personal favorites and I hope capture a sense of the complexity of ancient Greek art. I have focused only on Greek art from the Archaic through Hellenistic periods and have incorporated works not only from Athens and other important centers in Greece itself but also in regional styles from Greek communities in Asia Minor, North Africa and southern Italy.
All images are original and should be credited to Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities.
This is a truly amazing piece of research with broad implications. The international team involved plans next to determine if these trade routes for valued materials continued into the later Bronze Age and beyond. Here is the article in the online journal ScienceNordic.com, including a link to the original research in Danish (opens in a new window or tab): http://sciencenordic.com/danish-bronze-age-glass-beads-traced-egypt
The deeply troubling damage caused to antiquities and ancient monuments in the Near and Middle East, particularly Egypt, Syria and Iraq, as a result of war, insurgency, neglect, looting and deliberate destruction at the hands of religious fanatics is a subject I have addressed in this Blog before. It is likely to remain very much alive for the foreseeable future, causing me to reflect upon one institution, in particular, that has safeguarded a vast collection of antiquities from the region for two centuries. This institution is, of course, The British Museum in London.
A great many public and university museums in North America, the UK, Europe and beyond do house collections of Near Eastern and related antiquities, often collected long ago when there were no national laws or international regulations governing their acquisition from source countries. Acquiring antiquities, sometimes using methods that would be considered shocking today, was a normal and perfectly legal practice for large museums, private collectors, dealers and even ordinary tourists on the Grand Tour. In many cases, the modern nation states from whose territories these items were removed are entirely artificial creations on a map, holdovers from colonial occupations by the Ottoman Empire and later by European powers, with little sense of a cohesive national identity; e.g., Iraq and Syria. Many antiquities removed from their place of origin might well have been destroyed had they not been collected in this way. Even in Greece, with a much clearer sense of national identity and respect for its past, it was common well into the early 20th Century for antiquities and ancient monuments to be broken up for building material or road fill, burnt to make lime mortar or defaced because they were considered anathema to local religious beliefs. The British Museum, an island of stability, has safely housed some of the most iconic pieces of ancient Near Eastern art; objects that are now recognized as groundbreaking in the history of human artistic expression.
In this brief entry I would like to share just a very few of these objects, excluding the British Museum’s marvelous collection of Assyrian art, as I have addressed this in another recent article: https://clioantiquities.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/assyrian-art-and-the-repatriation-of-antiquities/
To learn more about The British Museum’s collections of Near and Middle Eastern antiquities, visit their website, where visitors can explore their collections by place, by culture, by date, by name or by material: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore.aspx