Category Archives: Ideas

People Not Stones: Fighting Looting With Local Development

We generally focus here on the demand side of the illicit antiquities trade – the museums, auction houses, collectors and dealers who buy plundered antiquities, providing the economic fuel that keeps looters digging.    

 Our friends at the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) have developed a promising paradigm for attacking the problem at its source—the impoverished communities where archaeological sites are frequently located.

Here’s a guest post from SPI’s Rebekah Junkermeier on that model and a new crowdfunding campaign to expand it:

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that looting and the illicit antiquities trade ravages archaeological sites, ones that contain many of the precious artifacts valued by collectors, dealers, and museums because they help explain the history of human beings on the planet. More specifically, it is often residents of an impoverished local community that loot the site or use it for other purposes (grazing animals, growing crops) in an attempt to provide themselves and their family with the essentials, thus accelerating the damage.

But how can someone tell an underprivileged person not to economically exploit a site, even if that exploitation is destroying the site, without providing a viable economic alternative?

logotypeSPI’s paradigm answers this question. It preserves endangered archaeological sites by empowering local residents through entrepreneurship. By investing in locally-created and -owned businesses whose financial success is tied to preservation of the site, SPI preserves cultural heritage and alleviates poverty in the surrounding communities.

Our first project at San Jose de Moro, one of the most important ancient cemeteries in all of Peru, has created over 40 jobs for local residents and generated over $16,000 in an impoverished community where the daily wage is only $9.50. Looting and destructive practices at the site have come to a halt and local residents now view the site as an economic asset.  After just one year of operations, the project is completely economically sustainable, no additional funding needed.

IvanCruzOur second project at Pampas Gramalote, Peru, is well on its way to the same type of success. The story of master gourd carver and designer Ivan Cruz there is a moving one. Before SPI, Ivan always struggled to make ends meet: “At first it was difficult, as I had to work at a number of jobs to support my family — as a house painter, as a brick mason, in my parents’ fields fumigating, weeding, and harvesting.” An SPI grant gave Ivan the entrepreneurial opportunity he needed to capitalize on his artistic abilities. He and local archaeologist Gabriel Prieto were able to build an artisan studio where he can create more artwork and train other local residents and a store where all of their works can be sold. He is now a proud and independent entrepreneur making a living by utilizing Pampas Gramalote and other local sites in a non-destructive manner. “I understand how my work can help preserve the art [of traditional gourd carving] and foster appreciation for such an important archaeological site as Pampas Gramalote.”

Tourists at Pampas Gramalote

Tourists at Pampas Gramalote

People Not Stones 2013

This week, SPI is launching its first crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo.com to raise the $49,000 needed for our two newest projects in Bandurria and Chotuna, Peru. Both sites are home to poor communities and rich cultural heritage. Bandurria contains pyramids in Peru older than those of ancient Egypt and Chotuna is a 235-acre monumental temple and pyramid complex, where several ancient royal tombs have been discovered (see National Geographic link here).

Bandurria Pyramids

Neither place can afford such basics as running water and electricity or has a sewer system. There are few jobs, little income and no opportunity to escape this cycle of poverty. Our project aims for nothing short of alleviating poverty in these communities and saving the archaeological sites, and we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to come on board.

Help us save sites and transform lives! Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution at indiegogo today and spread the word by liking our campaign on Facebook, posting our crowdfunding campaign on your Facebook page, retweeting us on Twitter (#peoplenotstones2013), or pinning our project video on Pinterest!

Decoding Eakin: Behind ‘Extortion’ Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened

imgresIt is no coincidence that The Great Giveback, Hugh Eakin’s lengthy argument against the repatriation of looted antiquities, landed in The New York Times on Sunday, just as the directors of America’s leading art museums gathered in Kansas City for their annual meeting.

A key item on the agenda in Kansas City that day was the museum community’s handling of looted antiquities, an issue that has roiled the art world for more than a decade.  The Assoc. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has repeatedly tried to put the issue to rest, adopting policy changes in 2001, in 2004 and again in 2006 as the controversy metastasized into a full bore international scandal. In 2008 the AAMD revisited the issue yet again, adopting acquisition guidelines that required a clear ownership history dating back to 1970, a position that put them in line with most archaeologists.

The 2008 policy was heralded as a turning point for the American museums and a victory for reformers like the Getty’s Michael Brand and Max Anderson, now in Dallas, who felt it was time for American museums to sever their ties to the black market. But those reforms are under attack. Museum directors are seeking to reverse the policy, which drives a wedge between them and wealthy patrons whose antiquities collections can no longer be donated in exchange for tax write-offs. These dissidents have made ample use of the policy’s major loophole, which allowed museums to violate the 1970 rule if they posted the acquisitions on the group’s Object Registry with a justification of why.

I-2008-5615-1

As Lee Rosenbaum recently noted, sixteen museums have posted nearly 600 objects there, many with no clear justification for flouting the 1970 rule. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, for example, acquired an unprovenanced collection of 31 pieces of ancient gold jewelry, saying it violated the 1970 rule so the objects could be “studied, displayed and publicized.” Last August, the Cleveland Museum posted a Roman portrait bust of Drusus (right) that has no documented ownership history prior to 2004 and was sold to the museum by the Aboutaam brothers, antiquities dealers who have been convicted of charges related to trafficking in looted art. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” Cleveland museum director David Franklin told the New York Times. (Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recognize the quote as a nearly verbatim echo of what the Getty’s John Walsh said in 1987 to justify the acquisition of the looted statue of Aphrodite.)

In short, the Object Registry has become a tool for laundering suspect antiquities. Once objects are posted there, museum officials believe, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking, giving foreign governments just a few years to investigate, build a case and file a claim before their time expires and the objects emerge sparkling and clean. More broadly, the series of reforms taken by many American museums in recent years — which include taking claims seriously and sending looted antiquities back to the countries from which they were stolen — are under attack from within.

That brewing fight is the context for Eakin’s polemic, which notably takes aim not at source countries so much as museums like the Getty and Dallas that have embraced reforms and begun to proactively search their collections for problematic objects. With Philippe de Montebello retired and Jim Cuno forced to moderate his view by the Getty board, Eakin has emerged as the spokesman for the dissidents.

Recent events have only raised the stakes, for the controversy over looted antiquities shows no signs of going away. The depth of the problem with American collections of Classical antiquities is just beginning to emerge, with more revelations certain to come as researchers comb through the seized archives of the illicit trade’s most prominent middlemen. Meanwhile, over the past year the search for loot in American collections has gone global, with countries like Cambodia, India and Turkey bringing claims. Museum directors know better than anyone that these claims are the tip of a very large iceberg.  

To the ears of some in the art world, that sound is the creaking of the floodgates swinging open.  

Spurious Claims

Eakin’s piece, then, is best understood as part of a broader effort to convince the public that claims involving looted antiquities are baseless and those who cave in to them, cowards. The reforms have not only failed to stop looting (a “scourge” often given lip service by museums, but never more.) They have “spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” Unless American museums grow a backbone and fight these foreign claims to the death in court, Eakin suggests, someday soon they will be empty of ancient art.

As he has done in the past, Eakin relies on a mosaic of selective facts and careful omissions to cobble together his argument. Many of its most serious flaws have already been rebutted. Lee Rosenbaum — who herself is often skeptical of repatriation claims — denounced it as a “distorted, often mistaken opinion piece” and concluded Eakin was “an extremist on the anti-giveback side.” Archaeologist Paul Barford was less kind, saying the piece “illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples’ cultural property, that internationally is losing America friends.” Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire noted that Eakin’s argument “overlooks the general principle that stolen property cannot be owned lawfully or that contraband antiquities (smuggled antiquities) are somehow legitimate.” Speaking in Eakin’s favor, I could only find three voices: Peter Tompa, the lobbyist for collecting interests; blogger Judith Dobrzynski, who calls the piece “pitch-perfect” but acknowledged a conflict of interest in the subject; and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who celebrated the piece’s “nuance” in a tweet.

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Let me focus on something I think Eakin gets almost right — his summary of recent events. (See below for his major omission.) Other archaeologically rich nations have been inspired by Italy’s success. In bringing their own claims, many have been less disciplined than Italy, which supported its demands with evidence — much of it photographic — gathered during a decade-long criminal investigation. But here Eakin misses an opportunity to articulate the key flaw of some recent repatriation requests — the conflation of historical gripes with the modern criminal behavior of looting, smuggling and fencing. For example, most of the objects Turkey is demanding from American museums were acquired since the 1960s and have no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they are likely the product of illicit excavations. Whether Turkey has evidence to support those claims remains to be seen — unlike Italy, the Turks are making their case to museums before sharing it with the public. But Turkey has also asked several European museums to return objects that were removed nearly a century ago, sometimes by archaeologists operating with government permission. And to increase their leverage, Turkey has denied digging permits to foreign archaeologists who played no role in the alleged wrongdoing. All of this — coupled with Turkey’s own history of plunder — has led to a skeptical reception of claims against American museums that may or may not be backed by clear evidence. And with good reason.

Likewise, Greece and Egypt have frequently included colonial-era claims with requests for the return of recently looted antiquities. Some of those historical claims may carry ethical weight, such as the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. But more often they blur the moral and legal clarity of claims involving modern looting. The same can be said for occasional statements that all things made in Country X should be returned to County X, which discredit the nations that make them.

So, there is legitimate reason for skepticism of repatriation claims. But these are not the arguments Eakin chose to make. Instead, he invents a picture of “terrified” museums being cowed by powerful foreign governments into giving back America’s innocently-acquired art. This description of the situation makes for an almost laughable reversal of reality.

American museums have long had the power when it comes to claims of restitution — the power to ignore claims, to withhold information and to create or defend false ownership histories. For decades, they have wielded this power freely, dismissing polite requests from foreign countries while continuing to buy looted art with impunity. For years, the Getty blew off Italian objections to their acquisitions of obviously looted art by simply refusing to respond to inquiries from senior government officials. The Met refused to allow scholars to look at its collection of looted Greek silver. Turkey has requested the return of the Sion Treasure from Harvard since the 1960s to no avail, while the university published a book about the treasure that detailed its illegal excavation and included a photo of the looter’s hole from which it was taken. Yet Eakin laments that today, 40 years later, Turkey has decided to begin withholding loans from Harvard until it responds. These are what he calls “blatantly extortionary demands.”

What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.

Let’s consider Eakin’s innocent acquisitions. If there has been a lesson from the last decade of controversy — and if there is one point made clearly in Chasing Aphrodite — it is that American museum officials were far from innocents. In case after case where internal museum records have come to light — via lawsuits or leaks to reporters — there is clear evidence that museums officials were aware they were buying recently looted antiquities. Met officials knew the Lydian Hoarde was looted and sought to hide it, as Turkey learned during its six year legal battle for their return. Dietrich von Bothmer kept a map of the precise tomb in Cerveteri from which the Euphronios krater had been looted, as we learned from Marion True’s sworn deposition. The Boston MFA’s longtime antiquities curator Cornelius Vermeule was close personal friends with Robert Hecht and acquired hundreds of looted objects from him, as the Italian investigation and Hecht’s own journal revealed.  

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

The Getty case, our most revealing window into a museum’s antiquities acquisition process, is startlingly clear: “We know it’s stolen,” Harold Williams said in a confidential 1987 meeting about the acquisition of suspect antiquities. “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Marion True discussed the contents of looted tombs in correspondence with Giacamo Medici, and declared the golden funerary wreath “too dangerous” before greed got the better of her. Her predecessor Arthur Houghton visited Medici’s Swiss warehouse and sought his help tracing the Getty’s griffins to tombs in Southern Italy. Houghton’s predecessor Jiri Frel ran a provenance forgery workshop out of the antiquities department and acquired thousands of looted objects through a tax fraud scheme whose scope is just now becoming apparent.

In other words, the evidence amassed to date makes abundantly clear that many of our highly educated antiquities curators and museum directors were not total dupes when it came to their role in the illicit antiquities trade.

They knew.

This is Eakin’s most glaring omission and the reason why repatriation is — at times — a reasonable response to foreign claims. They are the pound of flesh that must be paid for our collective cultural sins.

What standard?

How much evidence is needed to establish that an object is the product of the illicit antiquities trade and should be returned to the country from which it was stolen? For all the debate about acquisition policies, there has been nearly no debate or policy papers on this question, which is far more pressing concern facing museums today.

Eakin reminds us repeatedly that museums have returned contested antiquities under no legal order and often with no knowledge of their precise findspots. Such statements remind me of a phone conversation I had in 2006 with the Met’s de Montebello. He told me that the Met was prepared to give up its beloved Euphronios krater if Italy could present “irrefutable proof” of the precise spot from which it had been looted. Soon after, the Met’s general counsel informed him that there was no such legal standard — not even in cases of capital murder. Montebello left it to a spokesman to call back and sheepishly clarify that under the law, the vase could be seized by US law enforcement based upon probable cause. That is the legal standard for civil forfeitures. Apparently Eakin did not get the memo.

Orpheus mosaic in situThe cases that Eakin suggests are spurious are still being negotiated, and we don’t yet have access to the full array of evidence. But what has come to light suggests they are far from fickle. In the case of Cambodia’s claim on the Khmer statue in the Norton Simon, the precise find-spot is well-known and not disputed — the statue’s feet remain in placed today at the temple complex from which it was looted. In the two cases where claims from Turkey have been resolved — Dallas and Penn — there was compelling evidence. Penn acquired the Trojan gold  in 1966 from Hecht, whose ties to Turkish looters are well documented, and scientific tests later found it was consistent with samples found in Turkey. In the case of the Orpheus mosaic, investigators found Polaroids of the mosaic in situ when it arrested the alleged looters.

Eakin’s call to legal arms betrays both his ignorance of the law and of museums’ dilemma. There is a very good reason why museums have voluntarily given back nearly $1 billion in looted antiquities with no legal fight — it was in their self-interest. As cultural property attorney Rick St. Hilaire notes, taking these cases to court “is fraught with danger.”

LACMA's Michael Govan

Museums hoping to fight in court had better make sure they have no damaging internal records detailing their acquisition of looted antiquities, for those are likely to come out in discovery, as Sotheby’s recent learned. They had better also be sure that no other objects in their collections have dubious origins, because their legal fight will inspire a thorough examination of their entire collection. This was the lesson learned by the Getty, which, as Eakin notes, chose to fight rather than accept the voluntary return of six clearly looted antiquities. Several years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, they ended up returning more than 40.

Eakin laments the cost to museums of dealing with repatriation claims. The cost of litigation is far far higher. This is not to mention the public relations consequences, which concern museums far more than a few pieces of ancient art. The true and lasting damage to American institutions over this past decade has not been legal fees or lost antiquities. It has been the growing public perception that they are engaged in an illegal activity that, at its heart, is a deep betrayal of their public mission. If they follow Eakin’s advice, they will double down on that betrayal.

Greek deal

The enlightened solution that Eakin seeks is the one being taken by the institutions he targets — rebuilding trust with the public and foreign governments by taking claims seriously, engaging in proactive research of their collections and sober evaluation of the evidence and when appropriate, returning a token of the stolen property in their collections in exchange for a collaborative relationship with a potential adversary.

As Eakin well knows, this approach is not “making great art ever less available.” It is providing museum visitors with remarkable rotating exhibits of the world’s great treasures while moving both source countries and museums toward a future where questions of ownership recede and the focus becomes cooperation and education. 

Castor and Pollux, Forgeries and Loot: Reflections on the Arnold Peter Weiss Case

original art by Elli Crocker (http://www.ellicrocker.com)

Looting and forgery are the Castor and Pollux of the antiquities trade, bound together by a love of murky origins.

That appears to be the lesson of the guilty plea earlier this month by coin dealer Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, which came with a twist – the “looted” coins he was hawking at the Waldor Astoria were actually forgeries.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

But why would Weiss brag so openly – to both a confidential informant and an undercover agent posing as a buyer, according to the complaint – that the ancient coins he was trying to sell had been recently looted in Sicily? Wouldn’t that fact lower the value of the coins and made them harder to sell?

And how could the three coins – which were proved forgeries by a scanning electron microscope only after being found authentic by several experts – fool so many, including Weiss and his Nomos partners and Herbert Kreindler, Weiss’ reported source for the coins? Who was duped, and who was complicit in the fraud?

The answers may come out as the on-going investigation unfolds in the coming months. But the case of another famous fraud, the Getty Kouros, offers some interesting hints.

The outlines of the Kouros story are well known: In 1985, the Getty paid $9.5 million for a 7-foot-tall Greek marble youth with a thoroughly detailed ownership history, amid speculation that the piece was a modern forgery. There are only a dozen such intact kouroi, making the Getty’s a truly remarkable find. The question of its authenticity has been hotly debated ever since. Today most are convinced the statue is a fake, though it remains on display at the Getty Villa, labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”

In the opening chapter of his bestselling Blink, Malcolm Gladwell suggests Getty officials were blinded by bad science in their decision to buy the statue. In Chasing Aphrodite we revealed that science was the public reason to justify the purchase, and the one given to the Getty board. But behind the scenes, museum officials concluded the Kouros was authentic because they heard from the dealer that it had been recently looted in Sicily.

As we write in Chapter 4:

Speaking in confidence, [Sicilian dealer Gianfranco] Becchina had cautioned [Met curator Dietrich] von Bothmer to ignore the cover story about the statue coming from Greece or being in the family of a Swiss doctor. He suggested instead that the statue had been found recently in Sicily, an origin that would explain many of the stylistic anomlies that had initially troubled him. It also suggested that the piece was freshly excavated and, by extension, authentic. The statue’s suspiciously voluminous ownership history must have been forged to cover the kouros’s illicit origins. Bolstered by the new information pointing to authenticity, [Getty director John] Walsh once again recommended the purchase of the kouros.”

This illustrates the first lure of loot: In a market rife with forgeries, evidence of looting is the ultimate badge of authenticity.

It is worth noting that one of the Weiss coins in question was a silver decadrachms of Akragas. Before being confiscated by authorities, it was given a record-setting estimate of $2.5 million because it was one of only 12 known such coins. That happens to be precisely as rare as an intact Kouros. When trying to explain the appearance of a rare masterpiece out of thin air, looting is the most palpable answer. The only other is forgery.

The second lure of looting is the uncanny appeal that “fresh” antiquities have long had for collectors and museums. Few have explained this better than Bruce McNall — who coincidentally used to employ Weiss’ Nomos business partner Eric McFadden.

McNall proved prescient in our January interview  about the Weiss case:

“[As a collector in the 1980s,] any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

Perhaps another lesson from the Weiss case, then, is that in the world of ancient coins, these two lures of loot appear to be as strong today as they were in 1985.

You can find all our coverage of the Weiss case here.

The Antiquities Trade as Organized Crime: Glasgow Team Digs Deep into the Market For Ancient Art

An exciting new research effort has been launched by some of the most prominent researchers of the illicit antiquities trade.

Simon Mackenzie, Neil BrodieSuzie Thomas and Donna Yates* at the University of Glasgow have received £1 million over four years from the European Research Council to pursue new research of the illicit trade in ancient art.

The program, called “Global Traffic in Cultural Objects,” will be based at Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Here’s how the team describes their goal:

“National and international laws intended to regulate or suppress the trade have been only partially successful, and the illicit trade has been linked to further criminal problems such as corruption and physical violence…By developing new empirical approaches and drawing upon criminological theory, this project will work towards a regulatory regime that goes beyond straightforward law enforcement, allowing the legitimate exchange of cultural objects while suppressing the illicit market.”

The project’s four main endeavors are:

1. Mapping and measurement. Through a series of case studies, the project will examine publicly available sales data to establish whether they can be used to estimate flows of illicit material through the market, and therefore to assess the effectiveness of any implemented regulation.

2. Qualitative data-gathering and analysis. Through ethnographic interviews of market agents such as dealers, collectors, museum curators and university academics, the project will gather information about the trade in licit and illicit cultural objects, and opinions about suitable regulation and opportunities for novel regulatory interventions. It will also, by means of a major case study, trace the path taken by a defined category of illicit material from ground to market, thereby offering greater depth to the analysis.

3. Regulation theory and practice. There will be a comprehensive review of the academic and policy literature as regards comparable transnational criminal markets and their regulation. Regulatory successes and failures will be identified, and considered in relation to the traffic in cultural objects, utilizing information obtained through themes 1 and 2. The project will also consider whether the traffic in cultural objects is ‘knotted’ together with other criminal activities in such a way as to render it insoluble as an isolated problem.

4. Knowledge mobilization. The project will establish a website that will make available project outputs and data, and that will also contain an ‘encyclopedia’ of material relevant to the project and to the traffic in cultural objects more generally.

Simon Mackenzie

We recently interviewed Simon Mackenzie, a criminologist who has been studying the antiquities trade since 2002, about his perspective on the illicit antiquities trade. (We’ve edited a bit for clarity and length.)

Chasing Aphrodite: What is known and not known about the illicit antiquities trade? How does our knowledge of it compare with our knowledge of other types of crime?

Simon Mackenzie: Compared to the trade in narcotics, we know virtually nothing. The narcotics trade has been heavily researched. There are specialist areas within the fields — country experts, modes of regulation. There’s been all sorts of research into the people producing drugs, the mechanisms for supply and demand. For people studying cultural heritage traffic, its a good place to start. The trade wild life is more comparable to the antiquities trade in terms of the state of research. There is some research and lots of policy activity. We see a remarkably high level of NGO involvement in awareness raising around wild life trafficking.

People are always talking about the illicit antiquities trade as something that is under-researched, with a small number of people working in the field. But when you think about it, it’s not too bad. Clemency Coggins really started the field in the 1960s. The last 40 years, from UNESCO onwards, has been a period of relatively high activity compared to other criminal problems – quite a lot has happened. There’s been increasing regulation of museums and ethical codes adopted. Once you start looking into the literature — for example, ethnographic studies of markets by Morag Kersel , the work of Christopher Chippindale  and David Gill, Ricardo Elia, Patty Gerstenblith. It has been a small field, but there are a good spread of methodological approaches, with respectable and reliable researchers.

Neil Brodie (left)

CA: Estimates of the size of illicit trade range from tens of millions to as much as $2 billion annually. Why?

SM: It’s amusing, or depressing, or tragic. I teach a course on transnational criminal markets — human organ, radiological material, etc. The first largest international market is drugs. The second is arms. Third is everything else — wild life says it’s the third largest, antiquities says it’s the third largest, several others also claim to be the third largest. The evidence disappears and nobody has any idea how big it is. Part of our project is to create more accurate sizing statistics.
I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter, but we know there is a lot of looting going on and we have first hand accounts of widespread looting. We see regular occurrences of looted objects in Western markets, in prestigious institutions and auction houses. We know we have a serious problem here and something needs to be done about it, whether it’s $6 billion of $50 million.

CA: Is organized crime involved in antiquities trade?

SM: There is clearly organized crime in the antiquities market, as we conventionally conceive of organized crime. The more interesting question is whether antiquities trafficking is in itself an organized crime. It’s not what we would think of as organized crime on its face because the actors are often quite respectable figures. It seems counter-intuitive to say that museums and auction houses are organized crime. But look at the definition of organized crime: three or more people operating over a sustained period of time in a serious criminal way. Antiquities trafficking meets that definition. So you can make a technical argument quite easily.

The more interesting question to ask is: why do we care whether it’s organized crime? The policy response to organized crime, the regulatory response, is much greater, more of an international threat. So the distinction can be quite important on a policy basis.

The reason why organized criminals are involved in the antiquities trade is because it’s under-regulated. But you can take the organized criminal out of the antiquities trade and you’ll still have looting. It’s a story of supply and demand on an international basis. The trade attracts organized criminals, but they don’t define the shape of it because it is created and sustained by more conventional trade actors.

Suzie Thomas

CA: The trade in illicit antiquities is often seen, especially in the United States, as a victimless crime. The public sometimes has trouble grasping the harm. Your thoughts?

SM: It’s difficult. The general public is not particularly interested in the context of any particular object dug up in a far flung corner of the world. And yet, museums and cultural debates are a strong current full of voices who feel very strongly about people’s culture and human rights. So in one sense, it’s certainly true that sometimes people don’t get that broken old pots are important to mankind. But when you elevate that to a greater concern with history and culture and knowledge and civilization, what that means and how we might find our way forward, people do care quite deeply about that. These are fundamentals.

CA: What do you think of the current regulatory regimes for the antiquities trade? Your thoughts on de-criminalization?

SM: Most criminologists agree that supply-side interventions are going to be problematic, particularly on their own. The drug trade and prohibition are  pretty good examples of trying to control something where there’s a high level of demand in a globalized economy. None of these have particularly good records of success. Most of the current ideas seems to be about reducing demand or, alternatively, taking an end-to-end type solution — take both ends seriously and start to unwind the economic cultural and social forces underpinning the market. Once you see that, strict legal responses begin to look problematic. It’s very difficult for the law to seriously engage with an entrenched, large-scale global trade. The nature of regulatory intervention in the cultural heritage market has largely been legal. Mostly its been about UNESCO, passing laws in source countries, prohibition of theft, and passing laws in market countries to prevent purchase. The interesting question for regulation is how do we build up systems around these laws we have.

Donna Yates

Some scholars, such as Paul Bator, have argued that increasing regulation produces the black-markets — that regulators are culpable for the illicit trade. I’ve never really bought into that. It’s a dead end: if you believe that, what do you do, stand back? You can talk about decriminalizing cannabis use, where the moral limitations are so widely disputed so there’s a general debate about whether it should be a crime. But not many people would seriously argue that knowingly steeling cultural property is ok. It’s reasonably clear that all sides say it’s wrong. Therefore the idea that we should decriminalize it doesn’t seem to do much except legitimate illicit stuff. It wouldn’t stop the illicit trade. It might make it worse.

*UPDATE: We’ve added Donna Yates, who recently joined the Glasgow team fresh from her PhD work at Cambridge. 

Chasing Aphrodite at Google: Jason Felch on the Illicit Antiquities Trade and WikiLoot

Google's pet T-Rex, Stan, is on the prowl at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

On February 10th, Jason visited the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA to talk about Chasing Aphrodite and to solicit help with a new initiative, WikiLoot.

The talk was part of the Authors@Google program, and was organized by Jason’s old friend Steve Meaney, who works in marketing there. (Thanks, Steve!) Also attending were several people from the archaeology department at nearby Stanford University.

The hour-long talk gives an overview of the role of the Getty Museum and other American museums in the illicit antiquities trade. At minute 49 the talk turns to WikiLoot, an effort to harness technology to expose the illicit trade. A Q&A follows.

At Asia Society, Antiquities Collectors Describe “Climate of Fear”

On March 18th, the Asia Society convened a discussion titled, “Collecting Ancient Art in the 21st Century.” For anyone with an interest in the ethics of collecting ancient art, it is required viewing.

The conversation touched on many of the key issues facing collectors and museums today: the AAMD’s 2008 acquisition guidelines, which were roundly denounced; recent attempts by archaeologists and museum directors to find a solution to the question of archaeological “orphans”;  WikiLoot, our recent proposal to crowd-source the analysis of the illicit trade; the need to move beyond ownership to stewardship; and the various regimes used by source countries to limit the illicit trade.

But there was one recurring theme among participants, who included collectors, museum officials, legal experts and an archaeologist: the pervasive climate of fear brought on by recent attention to the link between looting and American museums and collectors. Several said this fear had all but halted museum acquisitions and would soon bring an end to American collecting. Participants may have exaggerated those fear somewhat — just a few days later, Sotheby’s South East Asian auction took in $13 million for ancient art. Still, it is remarkable to see many of the leading advocates of collector’s rights wrestle with the core issues facing today’s art market.

The participants were Naman Ahuja, an associate professor of Ancient Indian Art at Nehru University; Kate Fitz Gibbon, a Santa Fe attorney and vice-president of the pro-collecting Cultural Policy Research InstituteKurt A. Gitter, a prominent collector of Japanese art; Arthur Houghton, coin collector, former Getty antiquities curator and president of the CPRI; James Lally, Asian art dealer;  James McAndrew, former senior special agent at the Department of Homeland Security focused on cultural property and currently an adviser to collectors; Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery; and Marc Wilson, former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. 

I’ve posted the full video below. Here are some highlights that caught our attention.

Kate Fitz Gibbon opened the session with a strident call to arms: “We are facing a crisis. What began a decade ago as a few front page legal cases highlighting the greedier and less scrupulous side of the art business and the excesses of a few museums has grown into a sea change in arts policy and museum policy. There has been, I think, an over-reaction rather than an appropriate response, and the consequences are incredibly far reaching. These new policies threaten the very future of collecting and collecting museums. That may sound like an exaggeration today, but if we continue on this path there may not be a next generation of collectors, donors and patrons of ancient art. Not in the United States of America.”

She also described the current legal regime governing looted antiquities: “Under the current legal system we inherited from Britain, stolen is stolen forever, no matter how many times an artwork changes hands. So when an art source country passes such a [national ownership] law, there are no time limits, and knowing possession can be a crime.” Under such laws, she said collectors were being “victimized by a misinformed or over-zealous [federal] agent.” She called the AAMD’s 2008 policy a “self-administered self-poison, completely illogical and not required by any law.”

Mark Wilson: “Younger people have been deliberately misled into believeing that everything in museums is stolen. This is very bad…”

Naman Ahuja said that in many countries modern development proved as serious a threat to archaeologist sites as looting. It was imperative for collectors to engage with the views of archaeologists, whose position should not be so easily dismissed. “It’s not an outrageous argument, it’s a noble argument,” he said. He challenged collector groups to find ways to help source countries stop looting, not just defend American’s right to collect.

Julian Raby spoke about the need to move beyond fights over ownership of disputed antiquities. “We’re possibly on the cusp of a new model, a model that moves away from ownership to stewardship.”

At minute 60, Arthur Houghton introduced the audience to our initiative WikiLoot, warning the audience, “We’re that far away from launching a vigilante effort that may flood the Asia Society and other American museums with people wanting to find out, Is this object looted or not? If it is unprovenanced, how do you know where it came from? And what should we all do about it?”

Houghton denounced the AAMD’s 2008 policy, saying, “Hundreds and hundreds of Americans, even thousands, have collections that are no longer available for study, protection, or exhibition or conservation.” A CPRI study suggested there were millions of objects in private collections that can no longer be donated to museums, he said.

Arthur’s provocation sparked a revealing debate about what the AAMD’s policy did and did not allow museums to acquire. “The real fact of the policy is to freeze acquisition boards,” argued one panelist. Others argued acquisitions of unprovenanced antiquities were still possible, but had to be posted on the AAMD’s object registry. Others noted that the AAMD position was merely a guideline, and museum directors and their boards were free to set their own acquisition policies.

At minute 72, the conversation moved to possible solutions.

Julian Raby said that in addition to the stated arguments for “retentionist” views — protecting archaeological context and defending the ownership rights of source countries — there was a third, more primal motive: the emotional impact of possession and control felt by both sides. “I can understand why my possessions might feel like others losses,” he said. “How can we rebalance a feeling of asymmetry between those who have and don’t have?”

Raby proposed two paths forward: advocacy for the creation of licit markets, and the development of a modern version of partage in which museums help fund excavations and participate in long-term loans and shared stewardship.

By minute 90, the panel was ready to conclude when the crowd nosily demanded that the all-but-forgotten James McAndrew be given his chance to speak. His message: “Don’t be fearful. US laws are very specific.” But his description of the law no doubt raised some concerns. All the talk about UNESCO and 1970 was irrelevant to law enforcement, he said. What they looked to instead was the source country’s date of state ownership laws, many of which go back a century or more. His advice to collectors and museums was to avoid the temptation to fudge import documents, which are the first thing federal investigators will seize on. “If you document your imports properly, you should have nothing to worry about,” he concluded.

The Q&A began at minute 102, and touched on the AAMD policy and the orphan issue, among other issues.

The session concluded with a plea for support by the event’s co-sponsor, William Perlstein of American Committee for Cultural Policy (AACP), whose mission Perlstein said was “to get US policy back to the reasonable middle ground.”

Watch the entire video here, and leave us your thoughts in a comment.

Introducing WikiLoot: Your Chance to Fight the Illicit Antiquities Trade

[UPDATE: Our WikiLoot proposal has sparked a great conversation about the project. Thanks for all the comments submitted below and on the application, which you can find here. Collaboration is at the heart of this project, so we’ve created an open group in Facebook where people can continue to exchange ideas about the potential (and pitfalls) of WikiLoot. Join the conversation here.]

Today we’re pleased to announce — and to seek your help with — an exciting new project we’ve been tinkering with in private for some time. We’re calling it WikiLoot.

The idea behind WikiLoot is simple:

1. Create an open source web platform, or wiki, for the publication and analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities.

2. Use social media and other tools to engage a broad network of contributors — experts, journalists, researchers, dilettantes and curious citizens — to collaborate in the analysis of that material.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The inspiration for WikiLoot is the vast amount of documentation seized by European investigators over the past two decades during investigations of the illicit trade in Classical antiquities smuggled (primarily) out of Greece and Italy. The business records, journals, correspondence and photographs seized from looters and middlemen during those investigations comprise a unique record of the black market.

Much of that documentation remains tangled in legal cases that are likely to end inconclusively, like that of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and dealer Robert Hecht. Despite remarkable investigative work by authorities in Italy and Greece, only the trial of Italian dealer Giacomo Medici reached a verdict.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot will make these records and photographs publicly available on the web and will enlist collaborators around the world to tag and analyze them. As with Wikipedia, participants will be given credit for their contributions. Ultimately, we hope to create the world’s most authoritative dataset of a black market whose size and reach is still poorly understood. (Estimates of the illicit antiquities trade range from $200 million a year to $10 billion dollars a year.)

The project is still embryonic — we’re consulting with open-source techies on the best way to structure the wiki; with lawyers about the legal issues involved; and with social media experts on on how to engage the broader public in the effort. We’re also considering concerns about the effect this release of information will have on existing collections and the still-thriving market for antiquities with unclear ownership histories.

Today we’re taking an important step toward launching WikiLoot with our application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant. And we need your help.

Challenge Grants reward innovative uses of new media to solve problems and inform the public. The theme of this round of grants is “networks.” Here’s how the folks at Knight explain what they’re looking for: “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways. Witness the roles of networks in the formation, coverage and discussion of recent events such as the rise of the Tea Party, flash mobs, the Arab Spring, last summer’s UK riots and the Occupy movement. We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools – that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

For WikiLoot, our network is YOU — the growing number of interconnected people around the world concerned about the illicit antiquities trade and looking to do something about it. We’re relying on your input to shape the project and, once launched, contribute to it with your knowledge.

To start, we need your support for our Challenge Grant proposal. One of the key things considered by judges is public engagement with the proposed idea. The best way to show this is for you to “like” our proposal or add a comment on how you think it could help — or be improved. (You may need to sign in with a Tumblr or other social media account.)

Show your support by liking or commenting on our WikiLoot proposal, which is posted on Knight’s Tumblr page here

We’re also eager to tap your expertise — or curiosity — during this development stage of WikiLoot. What features would help engage a broad audience in the analysis of this material? What concerns do you have about its release? Who else should we be reaching out to or partnering with? What can you contribute?

To that end, we’ll be making WikiLoot a new tab at the top of ChasingAprhodite.com. That’s where you can submit public comments, suggestions or rants. We’ll update it with new information as things develop. If you’d like to contact us privately, do so via email: chasingaphrodite@gmail.com

Thanks for your interest and support. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on WikiLoot!

Gary Vikan on Moving Museums Beyond Ownership

In February 2006, shortly after Getty Trust CEO Barry Munitz was forced to resign in the wake of an LA Times expose on his personal excesses with Getty money, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman weighed in with an analysis of the institution’s core problem.

Barry Munitz, former CEO of the Getty Trust

“The Getty, at staggering cost and at little or no obvious benefit to the general public, directed millions to new programs,” Kimmelman wrote, referring to the Trust’s investments in conservation, research and education. Instead, Kimmelman argued the Getty should do what the Met had done a century earlier: spends its money buying A-list objects with the hope that, over time, the museum could catch up with the world’s great collections.

Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, read the piece and immediately recalled a conversation he had had with Munitz a few years earlier. During a seminar at the Trust, the profligate CEO had proposed a surprising new direction for the Getty, one that flew in the face of critics like Kimmelman:  rather than spending vast amounts buying a handful of masterpieces, why not bring them to the Getty on loan, leveraging the Getty’s conservation expertise for a chance to display world-class art.

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Museum

This ” “simple and provocative” idea — moving the museum beyond ownership — stuck with Vikan, and he expanded on it in a rebuttal to Kimmelman that was never published. Here are excerpts of Vikan’s letter, whose ideas have taken on new relevance in the wake of the antiquities controversy recounted in our book:

“Why shouldn’t the Getty, with its spectacular wealth, its enormous prominence among the world’s art centers, and its relative ‘institutional youth,’ challenge the very notion of art acquisition and ownership?” Vikan asked. Such a move would “cut to the heart of the disequilibrium” between artifact-rich but cash poor nations like Italy and the wealthy young museums like the Getty, which have the expertise to conserve works and the burning desire to show them.

Museums “can offer an art experience, with its associated learning and scholarship, without having to own the work of art.” Vikan proposed replacing many acquisitions with a system of “innovative long-term loans derived from partnerships across the divide that separates the cash-rich/art poor from the cash-poor/art rich.”

“Such a visionary reordering of Getty Museum priorities would not only create a shining new model for art museums worldwide, it would remove a troublesome roadblock that would almost immediately open up at least two great opportunities. First would be the the opportunity to form a much stronger, more synergistic community of purpose among the four programmatic components of the Getty Trust under a single, education-centered mission — one wherein the Museum becomes at once the laboratory and showcase for the aspirations and achievements of all that the Getty Trust undertakes….Second would be the opportunity for the Getty Trust to play a leadership role in forging a community of purpose among museums internationally, and in establishing new, transparent models of mutually beneficial partnership….”

“This,” Vikan concluded, “is a vision that could help to re-shape the entire world community of art museums in the 21st century.”

Vikan and Munitz did not invent this vision — others had made similar proposals, notably Max Anderson of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer of the Berlin Museums. Ironically, former Getty curator Marion True emerged as the the greatest champion of the idea before her indictment by Italy. (See our Chap 8.) Still, the vision articulated by Vikan and others was strikingly audacious:  a rethinking of centuries of collecting practices.

Remarkably, five years later, it is a vision that appears more and more like reality, especially at the Getty. A year after Vikan’s letter, the Getty ended its decade-long controversy with Italy over its purchase of looted antiquities and forged an agreement that embraces the key ideas in Vikan’s letter. Subsequent agreements were also struck with the National Archaeological Museum in Florence and the autonomous region of Sicily. In the end, the Getty lost 40 of its most prized antiquities, but has begun receiving on loan prized masterpieces from Italy, some of which had never before left Italy.

Here are a few (click the images for details on the loan):

Chimaera of Arezzo

Agrigento Youth

The Gela Krater

Statue of Ephebe from Pompei

Apollo from Pompei

Mozia Charioteer (coming Spring 2012)

To be sure, the Getty continues to purchase art, and – cautiously – antiquities. But with the growing roster of loans and collaboration, the historically underachieving Getty has also begun to look something like that 21st Century museum that Vikan envisioned. And the Trust’s new CEO Jim Cuno has already signaled that he hopes to continue in this direction.

As we wrote in the epilogue of Chasing Aphrodite: “The new era…is now within sight. It is one in which museums and countries alike will look beyond questions of ownership and embrace, as True said, the “sharing of cultural properties, rather than their exploitation as commodities.”

What are other examples of museums moving beyond ownership? Leave a comment below and we’ll raise them Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking with Vikan at the Walters Museum on October 29th at 2pm. Details here.