Tag Archives: looting

UPDATED: Fordham’s Folly? Some Answers, Many More Questions about Acquisition of Syrian Mosaics

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UPDATE 1/31: Fordham has hired an independent expert to “vet the provenance,” and is trying to obtain the original forms from the U.S. Customs Bureau, according to university spokesman Bob Howe. “We’ll share our findings and any appropriate documentation at at the end of the process,” Howe writes. I’ve asked for a timeline and the identity of the expert. Why was this vetting not done before the acquisition?  

UPDATED on 1/26 with comments from Peppard, below.

Last week, Fordham University announced it had accepted a gift of nine early Christian mosaics from an anonymous donor.

The mosaics formed part of a church floor located in what is now northwest Syria, according to a university press release, which showed University museum curator Jennifer Udell and Theology professor Michael Peppard posing victoriously next to the recently uncrated acquisitions.

The acquisition sparked concern for several reasons: According to inscriptions translated by Peppard, the mosaics likely come from an ancient church near Apamea, Syria — the site of devastating looting, particularly in recent years. The acquisition also falls outside the Fordham museum’s collecting area, which until now focused on Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. That collection was built largely from the 2007 donation of objects from William D. Walsh, many of which had no clear provenance before the auction sale where they were purchased. The donation raised concerns among scholars. “The message that it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects. Fordham needs to be very careful about this,” UPenn museum director Richard Hodges told the New York Times.

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Finally, the donor has insisted on anonymity, and the press release disclosed nothing of the mosaic’ removal from Syria or subsequent ownership history. Predictably, the announcement has caused a flurry of concern among archaeologists and those who follow the illicit antiquities trade.

Via Twitter, Peppard offered a few bits of information: “Excavation unknown. Entered Beirut antiquities market in 60s. Legally purchased/exported in 1972.”

Legally according to…? “According to Lebanese customs papers and all relevant international laws at the time. Henri Seyrig (Beirut) sent photos of these to J.-P. Rey-Coquais in 1968, so they were already there.”

Where were the mosaics likely found? “There were hundreds of rural church ruins in Syria in mid 20th c. Can’t know for sure, esp. since 2011. I argue Apamene diocese based on names, comparanda, and info from Seyrig in 1968.”

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When pressed for more detail, Peppard demured. “I was brought on to translate the inscriptions. I don’t know everything our legal counsel did, but it was a lot. I asked all the Qs that I knew to ask. I really can’t take this up on Twitter any more. Sorry.”

A similar conversation unfolded on the Facebook page of Elizabeth Marlowe, an art history professor at Colgate University, where Fordham’s Susanna McFadden defended the acquisition.

“Guys, I don’t disagree with you on the ethics of this issue, but to defend my colleagues and their decision to acquire these objects: 1) They were previously collecting dust in someones private collection and would never have otherwise seen the light of day if it weren’t for this acquisition. 2) The curator was very careful to make certain that the mosaics had a clear provenance detailing their purchase well before 1970 before accepting the gift 3) We wouldn’t know where they were from AT ALL if Fordham hadn’t acquired them and thus became accessible to a scholar who has managed to convincingly date and located them (article forthcoming in ZPE) 4) A discussion of the legal and ethical issues about this acquisition will certainly ensue as a result of this acquisition, and is welcomed by the curator and all involved. There will be full transparency. BUT, the mosaics only arrived a month ago, and this article was written by a PR person for the university who knows nothing of the issues and was simply trying to get the word out. Lets not attack prematurely.”

Marlowe responded: “Sorry Susanna; I don’t hold you accountable for this (obviously), but given Fordham’s recent collecting history, I don’t see why we should give their acquisitions decisions the benefit of the doubt. The argument that collecting looted antiquities saves them from oblivion is always trotted out, but the fact remains that if there were no buyers of undocumented antiquities, no one would bother to rip them out of their archaeological contexts in the first place. The celebratory tone of this article, and its utter silence about the larger issues, only encourages buyers and looters to keep doing their thing. And the gushing of the historian is naive, at best.”

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At our request, Fordham has now released additional information about the acquisition in an unsigned “university statement” provided by Udell:

Prior to acceptance of the mosaics, museum and University officials, including the curator, executive director of University Art Collections, and University counsel, plus a Fordham scholar specializing in early Christianity, conducted a thorough review of the mosaics’ provenance, ancient and modern.

In accordance with University policy, and in line with standard guidelines for museums, University personnel reviewed documentation provided by the donor. This included two separate special customs invoices, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and filed with the Treasury Department, which confirm that the mosaics were legally purchased in Beirut on May 19, 1972, and August 4, 1972, and shipped on the SS Concordia FJell and SS Star, respectively, and imported into the United States at the port of Baltimore on June 16 and August 23, 1972, respectively.

The mosaics remained continuously in the possession of the donor’s family until they were given to Fordham.

Though acquired in Beirut, their Syrian provenance was established by Michael Peppard, Ph.D, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham. Among Peppard’s research interests is early Christianity,  including its art, ritual, and material culture. His research on the prosopography of the early Byzantine Christian names on the large round mosaic (based largely upon the work of Pauline Donceel-Voute’s work on church mosaics of Syria and Lebanon) shows that the names, especially the bishop Epiphanius, are closely associated with the Apamene diocese of Syria, the region to the west of modern Maarrat al-Numan on the highway between Aleppo and Damascus.

In a forthcoming article in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE–Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), the international flagship journal for first editions of such artifacts, Peppard shows that:

[The mosaics] were available for purchase earlier than [1972], though. In a March, 1968, letter to Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais, Henri Seyrig reports having seen a group of mosaics from “the region of Tell Minis” for sale, which seems to have included these among others. He made photographs of two of them along with “une série de copies hâtives.” Then in a 1979 article about Apamene inscriptions from Huarte, Pierre Canivet reported that Rey-Coquais had shared with him knowledge of the mosaic inscriptions he had seen via Seyrig, one of which dated the episcopacy of Epiphanius to 463 CE. It would take until 1994, however, for the text of that mosaic (namely, the large rondel now in Fordham’s possession) to be printed, in a footnote by Denis Feissel, who had seen a photograph and a transcription of it from a different source, the records of Jean Marcillet-Jaubert. Finally, the transcription was included in a 1996 article by Rey-Coquais and in that year’s L’Annee epigraphique and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG).

Peppard’s research was conducted prior to the University’s acceptance of the gift. He and Jennifer Udell, Ph.D., curator of University art at Fordham, will continue to publish scholarly examinations of the mosaics’ ancient and modern histories.

Fordham has also amended the release on its website with some of the above information, adding this statement:

Fordham University acknowledges the serious and legitimate concerns for the security of Syria’s ancient archaeological sites and artifacts, and more broadly, the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity. The University is committed to best practices in antiquities acquisition, documentation, and display.

We have asked Fordham to release the underlying provenance documents to us, so they can be inspected widely and skeptically by those with no interest in the acquisition. We’ll post them here when we have them.

David Gill at Looting Matters has also asked several pertinent questions about the acquisition. [UPDATE 2/1: He has now also raised questions about the Fordham's Villanovan hut, a bronze head of Caracalla and the Walsh Collection.] To his list we add our own:

Lebanon is notorious as a country of transit for looted antiquities from the Middle East, in part because forged government export documents have historically been easy to obtain. (Just ask Arthur Houghton about the Sevso Treasure and other cases.) Did Fordham obtain copies of the provenance records described above? Do they hold up to close scrutiny?

Why has the donor of such valuable archaeological material insisted on anonymity? What tax write-off did the donor receive for the donation? Given the uniqueness of the material, who provided the arm’s length valuation?

Where is the other related material cited in the Henri Seyrig letter?

In our conversation over Twitter, Peppard asked us, “Honest Q: What would you do differently?” For a start: In light of overwhelming evidence of on-going and historical looting in Syria and the prevalence of false provenance documents, these questions should have been addressed publicly and in detail in the triumphant press announcement.

While we await the release of more details, perhaps now is as good a time as any to dig into that 2007 Walsh donation…

UPDATE 1/26: On Jan 13, I asked Fordham University to release the provenance documents referred to in their release above and details on their due diligence. Specifically, “What in the 1968 letter suggests the Fordham mosaics? Has Fordham seen/obtained a copy of the letter, the photographs or ‘hasty copies’? If so, would you please release copies of them to me?” Fordham curator Jennifer Udell responded the same day, saying, “I am working to get you the relevant documents and the answers to your additional questions. I appreciate your patience.”

It has been 13 days. Despite repeated requests for an update, I have heard nothing further and received no documents.

I have received a number overheated emails from Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard. In his first, on Jan. 14th, he described the above blog post as “a shocking and slanderous personal attack of me.” Noting my request for additional information, he asked, “…Instead of waiting to receive all your answers, why did you proceed to write such defamatory things?”  Subsequent emails continued in a similar tone, accusing me of libel, slander, defamation and unprofessionalism.

Peppard has launched similar allegations at David Gill and at Bill Caraher in the comments section of his blog. Caraher’s response A response from a user “Nakassis” is worth quoting in full: “Ridiculous. Nobody is making any such slanderous accusations and the scholarly community is perfectly legitimate in asking to see the documentation authenticating the legality of the sale. Your (I suspect false) offense is mere smokescreen. Nice try. In any case, the legality of the sale has no bearing on the ethical issue of their purchase, which I notice that you ignore altogether. The fact that thoughtful, professional archaeologists are taking issue with the purchase ought to suggest to you that they might have some legitimate gripes, in which case the best course of action is to say, as your institution did, that you agree with ‘the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity’ instead of doubling down.”

When I asked Peppard to identify a factual error in my post, he could not, saying instead that I had associated him with modern looting near Apamea. Of course, he made the link between the mosaics and Apamea, not I, and the looting there did not start during the current conflict. Putting his legal threats and outrage aside, Peppard’s point seems to boil down to this: “When photos and transcriptions of an artifact were made over 45 years ago and have been published over twenty years ago, it is simply impossible that said artifact was excavated in 2011.”

Impossible? Perhaps. It will be more clear if and when Fordham releases copies of the documents. But the question is not whether the mosaics were looted during the current conflict in Syria. It is whether they were removed legally – whenever they were removed. Nothing in the information Fordham or Peppard has released answers that question.

According to UNESCO’s database of national cultural heritage laws, Syria has had a national patrimony law since at least 1963. A quick search shows that Article 30 of legislative decree #222 adopted by Syria on October 26th 1963  states: “State owned movable antiquities might not be sold or given as gifts. They must be in state museums.”

Unless Fordham can establish the mosaics were exported from Syria before that date – or that the government sanctioned their export after it – it seems unlikely the university can acquire clear title. This is to say nothing of the ethics of Fordham acquiring the mosaics in exchange for an undisclosed tax-write off for donor who wishes, for reasons unclear, to remain anonymous.

We look forward to seeing the documents.

The Rosen Connection: Cornell Will Return 10,000 Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq

CUSAS_6_52-04-054reverse On the front page of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason has the scoop on Cornell University’s decision to return 10,000 cuneiform tablets of unclear provenance to Iraq.

The tablets were donated and lent to Cornell by New York attorney Jonathan Rosen, one of the world’s leading collectors of Near Eastern antiquities. Rosen is a prominent donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University, among others. For years he was also the business partner of Robert Hecht, a leading dealer of looted antiquities to American museums. Their Manhattan gallery Atlantis Antiquities was the source of several looted objects, including some that the Getty Museum has returned to Italy.

The source and ownership history of the Cornell tablets is unclear, as is the cause for their return. Neither Rosen nor the university will say where they were obtained, what their ownership history is or why they are being returned. Iraqi authorities requested their return in 2012, and likewise will not comment on what prompted the request. A press conference announcing the return is expected in the coming weeks, once a formal agreement has been signed. The deal will likely include a collaboration agreement between Iraq and Cornell.

Cornell has been criticized for accepting the Rosen Collection by scholars who suspect the tablets were looted from Iraq in the years after the 1991 Gulf War. Federal investigators suspected the same thing, records show.

The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law.

Investigators also looked into potential violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which at the time barred doing business with Iraq, and tax fraud, the records said. The 1,679 tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but the donor received a $900,000 tax deduction when they were given to Cornell in 2000, the records said.

Ultimately, there were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine precisely when or where the objects were found, the records show.

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The 1,600 tablets referred to in the records include the Garsana archive, a

… private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts’ and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

“It’s our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,” said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

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Below are copies of the investigative records related to the donation of the Garsana archive. They were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, a Harvard scholar who has a forthcoming book on a related set of tablets. The donor name has been redacted but Grunfeld confirmed the document refers to a donation by Miriam Rosen.

We’ll be posting more about this case and related ones in the coming days. Stay tuned!

Five Years After California Museum Raids, More Anger Than Indictments

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason has an update on the 2008 federal raids of Southern California museums:

When hundreds of federal agents raided four Southern California museums early one January morning in 2008, it set the art world ablaze, suggesting that even amid an international looting scandal museums had continued to do business with the black market in stolen antiquities.

LACMA's Michael Govan asks federal agents permission to enter the museum on the morning of the January 2008 raids.

LACMA’s Michael Govan asks federal agents permission to enter the museum on the morning of the January 2008 raids.

Acting on evidence gathered during a five-year undercover probe, investigators seized more than 10,000 artifacts at the museums and more than a half-dozen other locations in California and Illinois. The objects had allegedly been illegally excavated from sites across South East Asia, smuggled into Los Angeles and donated to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to search warrant affidavits.

But in the years since the high-profile raids, no museum officials or collectors have been indicted, and none of the seized objects have been returned to the countries from which they were allegedly stolen.

Days before the statute of limitations on criminal charges were about to expire in January, a federal grand jury indicted two men in the case. Robert Olson, an 84-year old Van Nuys man, and Marc Pettibone, a 62-year-old American living in Thailand, are both accused of one count of conspiracy and one of trafficking in stolen goods. Two peripheral players in the alleged scheme pleaded guilty to similar charges last year.

2008-may-9-last-photoSeveral people targeted by prosecutors — including Bowers curator Armand Labbe and antiquities dealer Joel Malter — died during the 11-year investigation. A third target, UCLA trained pottery expert Roxanna Brown, was indicted in 2008 and died from health complications while in federal custody, leading the federal government to settle a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.

“I’m baffled,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami law school who has written critically of the raids. “Given the amount of illicit antiquities moving through the U.S. borders, these guys are really hacks. Surely there must be more significant people out there.”

In recent interviews, several people with direct knowledge of the investigation expressed anger and frustration, saying the case had languished in the U.S. Attorney’s office. They described Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, who has directed the case since its inception, as overzealous, eager to send federal agents into museums to gather evidence but too distracted or overwhelmed with other cases to bring timely criminal charges.

As a result, they say, the case has wasted millions of dollars and inadvertently encouraged the very black market it targeted by suggesting the government is weak on enforcement. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment and feared imperiling the criminal case against Olson and Pettibone, which is set to go to trial in June.

You can read the full story here. You can find the previous LA Times coverage of the case here:

Raid story: Raids suggest a deeper network of looted art

Chicago raid on Barry MacLean: Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Robert Olson profile: “Intrigue but no glamour for smuggling case figure”

Roxanna Brown’s story: Part I, Part II, Part III and settlement

Inflated Art Appraisals are Rampant: You Say That Art Is Worth How Much? 

Here is the Olson and Pettibone indictment:

And the indictments and plea agreements for the “peripheral figures” mentioned in the story.

Michael Malter

Robert Perez

UPDATED: The Met Returns Two Khmer Statues to Cambodia, Citing Clear Evidence Of Looting

DP212330-1UPDATE: The New York Times reported May 15 that Cambodia is also planning to ask for the return of a statue of Hanuman at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This is in addition to the Norton Simon Bhima and the Denver Rama we’ve written about previously, which Cambodian officials also want returned. All are said to have been taken from the same temple complex at Koh Ker. Neither Cleveland nor Denver would disclose the origins or collecting histories of the contested statues.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two ancient Khmer statues to Cambodia after reviewing clear evidence that they were looted. Here’s Jason’s story in Friday’s LA Times:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two ancient statues to Cambodia after receiving convincing evidence they had been looted and smuggled out of the country illegally.

The 10th century Khmer statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, have flanked the entrance to the Met’s South East Asian galleries for years and are among the museum’s most prized objects from the region.

They were acquired in fragments between 1987 and 1992 as donations primarily from Douglas Latchford, a British collector based in Bangkok who is at the center of a federal investigation of antiquities looted from the ancient temple complex of Koh Ker.

Cambodian officials announced last June that they would seek the return of the statues. At the time, Met officials said they had no information to indicate the statues were stolen.

On Friday, the Met would not release details on what information led it to decide to return the statues, but noted recent press reports and information provided by UNESCO officials, who have been investigating looting in Cambodia.

“All I can say is that sufficient evidence came to light,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer. “It was dispositive and more than satisfied the director.”

The returns suggest Cambodia has found substantial evidence to support its claim that several American museums possess looted antiquities that were illegally exported by Bangkok-based dealer Douglas Latchford. Latchford has denied the claim.

We’ve previously identified several other museums that acquired Khmer antiquities from Latchford: The Norton Simon Museum, the Kimbell Museum, the Denver Art Museum and the Berlin Museums. The Met continues to possess several other antiquities tied to Latchford that will not be returned in the deal announced Friday.

The Met’s returns will also have an impact on the on-going lawsuit in which the US government is seeking the return of a Khmer warrior statue at Sotheby’s. See here for our complete coverage of the case , including court documents that detail the government’s evidence.

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!

The Guardian and the Goddess: Looted Statues Reveal Workings of Illicit Trade

The Getty’s Aphrodite

The Contested Temple Guardian

What does a 10th century Khmer temple warrior have in common with a Greek cult goddess from the 5th Century B.C.?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Both were objects of veneration whose remarkable craftsmanship represented the apex of their respective cultures’ artistic achievement. Both massive limestone statues were looted and purposely broken  to make them easier to smuggle — telltale scars that decades later would bear witness to a violent and illicit origin. And both reveal a strikingly similar story about the ugly inner workings of the trade in ancient art.

We told the story of the Getty’s goddess in Chasing Aphrodite. The story of the Khmer temple guardian is being told today in legal filings by Sotheby’s and the US Attorney’s office, which is suing for the return of the statue on behalf of Cambodia in a federal court in Manhattan. (We’ve written previously about the case here here and here.) Both parties agree the statue was removed at some point from an ancient temple complex at Koh Ker, where the statue’s feet remain to this day. The key question — unanswered in the government’s earlier filings — is when.

The Norton Simon’s Bhima

This month the U.S. Attorney’s office amended its original complaint with damaging new details that apparently came to light through pre-trial discovery of Sotheby’s internal correspondence. The filing, which we’ve embedded below, is worth reading in full. Among other things, it reveals how little the art world has changed since the 1980s, when the Getty bought its cult goddess amid clear signs the statute had been recently looted and then sought to cover up those illicit origins.

Here are some highlights:

Date of looting: The federal government is now stating that the Sotheby’s statue, representing Duryodhana, and its companion at the Norton Simon Museum, representing Bhima, were looted from a temple complex in Koh Ker “in or around 1972.” This addresses Sotheby’s earlier contention that the statue might have been removed sometime prior to the 1920s.

Intentional Damage by Looters: Like the Getty’s Aphrodite, the Koh Ker statues were intentionally dismembered to make them easier to smuggle:

“In the case of monumental statues like the [Sotheby's warrior] the heads would sometimes be forcibly removed and transported first, with the torso following later, due to the difficulty of physically transporting the large torsos.”

In September 2010, this detail was noted by an expert hired by Sotheby’s to prepare a condition report on the statue.

“[The Scientist's] theory is that the sculpture was either forcibly broken for ease of transport from the find site and then put back together later, or that the head and the torso did not belong together.”

The feet of the two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia.

The Scientist proposed a testing plan to determine which was the case. Instead of accepting that plan, Sotheby’s fired the expert, the complaint alleges. Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recall that similar questions were raised about the head of the Aphrodite and the fresh breaks on the statue’s body (p. 93 – 94.) Luis Monreal, the head of the Getty Conservation Institute, proposed tests on soil and pollen found in the folds of the statue Aphrodite to determine its origin. The Getty Museum instead opted for ignorance.

Market Path: The amended complaint specifies that after they were stolen from Koh Ker by “an organized looting network,” the statues at Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon were smuggled to Bangkok and delivered to a Thai dealer, who sold them to a “well known collector.” The New York Times has identified that dealer as Douglas A. J. Latchford. (Latchford co-authored a book on Khmer art with Emma Bunker, the expert cited in previous filings as saying in emails to Sotheby’s that the statue had been ‘definitely stolen.’) Latchford allegedly conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for the statues and they were transported it to London in 1971 or 1972, the amended complaint states. The Duryodhana was sold to a Belgian businessman in 1975, and his widow consigned it for sale by Sotheby’s in 2010.

Sotheby’s Deceit: The complaint alleges Sotheby’s knowingly misled potential buyers, Cambodian officials and U.S. investigators about the statue’s ownership history, claiming it had been seen in the UK in the late 1960s — well before the 1970 UNESCO convention. In fact, the government alleges, Sotheby’s knew the statue had been with Latchford in SE Asia until the early 1970s. To support their claim, the complaint cites emails between Sotheby’s and Latchford, who is described as “the original seller of the sculpture back in 1975.” One of those internal emails reveals Sotheby’s concerns about how the statue’s provenance will affect its sale:

“The most important question is the provenance. Can [the Collector] tell us if he acquired this sculpture before 1970? That’s the standard [an art advisor to a prospective buyer] is applying. It’s what his client wants.”

“Sotheby’s inaccurate representations dating the [statue's] appearance in the United Kingdom to the late 1960′s, rather than after 1972, therefore eliminated a significant obstacle to the selling the [statue,]” the complaint states.

Indeed, Latchford’s name was omitted from the object’s stated ownership history.

In a statement to the New York Times, Sotheby’s denied the government’s claims, saying the U.S. attorney’s office was trying “to tar Sotheby’s with a hodgepodge of other allegations designed to create the misimpression that Sotheby’s acted deceptively in selling the statue…That is simply not true.”

Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum Has Ties To Alleged Antiquities Trafficker Subhash Kapoor

UPDATED: In recent years Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum has acquired eight objects from Art of the Past, the Manhattan antiquities gallery specializing in South Asian art that is now the focus of an international investigation into its owner’s alleged ties to the illicit antiquities trade.

The now shuttered gallery is owned Subhash Kapoor, the American antiquities dealer of Indian extraction who has sold ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world since 1974. As we’ve reported previously, Kapoor was arrested in Germany last year and extradited to India, where he facing charges of trafficking in looted Asian antiquities and being the mastermind of a network of temple looters operating in Tamil Nadu. In July, American authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor and seized $20 million worth of ancient art from his Manhattan warehouse. Indian investigators have also asked authorities in Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom for help with their expanding investigation.

We’ve previously traced more that 200 Kapoor objects to museums around the globe. We can now add the Royal Ontario Museum to that list. Six of the Kapoor objects at the ROM are modern works on paper, a specialty of Kapoor’s that are not the subject of the current investigation. Two other objects, however, may be of interest to investigators.

The first is a Ghandaran stone reliquary from the 1st to 2nd century A.D.. in the shape of a stuppa that was featured in the museum’s 2004-2005 newsletter. “Purchased through the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, the ROM acquired a beautiful Buddhist Reliquary dated to the 2nd century CE,” the newsletter said. “The outer container is made of steatite, a grayish stone common to the region of Gandhara, in presentday western Pakistan. The inner container is carved from rock crystal and is decorated with stunning gold granular ornamentation, a testament to the level of skill in ancient gold craftsmanship. The ROM’s reliquary would have contained the relics (ash, bone, precious metals) of an important Buddhist monk and would have been placed in the centre of a large burial mound, called a ‘stupa.’”

UPDATE: In response to our questions, a museum spokeswoman said, “The Gandharan Reliquary was in the personal collection of a well-known US-based collector since 1969. A signed letter by the owner is on file at the museum and ownership was confirmed through direct contact with the collector.” We’ve requested the identity of the collector and any underlying documents to support that provenance and will post them when we have them.

The Taliban-controlled region of western Pakistan where the Gandharan culture thrived centuries ago has been the subject of extensive looting in recent years.

The second Kapoor object of interest is an 18th century bronze figure of Krishna Venugopala. While not ancient, it is listed as coming from Orissa or Bengal, India. It is not clear when the piece left India or whether it received the required export permit. Kapoor is alleged to have used false export permits to disguise stolen cultural objects as garden furniture or modern handicrafts.

UPDATE: The ROM museum apparently purchased this object in 2006 with no record of legal export. A museum spokeswoman tells us: “The statue of Krishna from Bengal or Orissa was in a UK-based collection since 1970. There is no documentation on file at the museum and we continue to investigate its provenance further.” We’ve requested details on the UK-based collection and will post it here when we get it.

Beyond the objects purchased from Kapoor, the museum has an extensive collection of recently acquired objects from South Asia that are of interest, some of which were acquired recently. (In an email, a museum official notes the South Asia collection has been built since the founding of the museum, with most of the historical collection coming into the museum in the 1920s to 1950s.)

For example, this 10th century figure of a yogini from the Chola dynasty of Southern India was acquired in 1956  in 2004. It is described by the museum as “part of a dispersed set of goddessed [sic] that occupied a temple in the Tamil region of southern India,” an area known for the rampant looting of temple idols. When did the group of objects leave the temple? Does it have a legal export permit from India? The museum is silent on these questions.

UPDATE: A museum official notes the object was acquired in 1956. “It is part of a set of similar sculptures dispersed across museums in India (Government Museum Chennai), Europe (British Museum, Guimet), and North America (Asian Art Museum San Francisco, Freer Sackler Galleries, and others). This set has been extensively documented and its collecting history published in a new book: Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis by Padma Kaimal, 2012.”

Then there’s the ROM’s bronze dancing Shiva from Chola dynasty of the 12th century A.D., also from the Tamil region. The Shiva bears  some resemblance to those that Indian authorities said were allegedly removed from Tamil temples by looters in recent years. (One has allegedly been linked to Australia’s National Gallery of Art.) The ROM’s description of the object notes, “Such bronze sculptures were predominantly produced from the Chola period onward, a dynasty of kings that ruled over much of southern India from the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD. They were housed in temples and regularly brought out and decorated for processions.” Again, when did this particular object leave India, and did it have a valid export permit? UPDATE: A museum official says the Nataraja was acquired in 1938.

In a statement about the Kapoor objects, museum spokeswoman Shelagh O’Donnell said, “Following museum policy, each acquisition was carefully investigated in terms of quality, authenticity and provenance. The antiquities in this group have been documented as having acceptable provenance from published auctions or from known private collections. The modern works comply with all current Indian export regulations. The ROM is in the process of re-examining the documentation for this group of objects.”

On October 3rd, we asked the ROM to provide the underlying documentation supporting the ‘acceptable provenance’ for several of the above objects. We have not received a response. We’ll let you know when we learn more.

Here is the full list of Kapoor objects released by the museum:

Off to Amelia: Chasing Aphrodite Honored at Art Crime Conference

We’re off to Amelia, Italy this week for the 4th annual conference of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA).

The program includes talks by some of the leading experts on the illicit antiquities trade, including Italian journalist Fabio Isman discussing the latest developments and Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri on the use of international law to combat the trade.

There will also be panels on the display of contested antiquities at museums, strategies for combatting the illicit trade, a review of recent legal cases and a panel on forgeries and fraud.

On Saturday, Chasing Aphrodite will be honored with the Vallombroso Award for Art Crime Research. Jason will be accepting the award and discussing his latest initiative to combat the illicit trade, WikiLoot. It will be an opportunity to talk about the potential for the project, as well as the concerns some have expressed.

We’ll take good notes and will report back from Amelia soon. Ciao!

The Harvard List: Turkey wants Dumbarton Oaks to Return the Sion Treasure

Among the dozens of objects that the government of Turkey is asking American museums to return are 40 Byzantine relics at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

(We’ve previously reported on Turkey’s requests in the LA Times and detailed the objects being sought from the Met, the Getty, and the Cleveland.)

The silver and gold liturgical objects known as the Sion Treasure consist of plates, candlesticks, crosses and plaques. Some 40 pieces of the treasure are at Dumbarton Oaks, while another 10 or so are at the Antalya Museum in Turkey, with a few more said to be in private collections.

There does not appear to be much doubt that the treasure was looted and smuggled out of Turkey in 1963 — decades after the nation’s patrimony law made such acts illegal. Dumbarton Oaks’ own publication of the Sion Treasure suggests as much repeatedly.

In 1986, Dumbarton Oaks organized a symposium about the treasure at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which resulted in a 1992 book, “Ecclesiastical silver plate in 6th Century Byzantium,” edited by the museum’s Byzantium curator Susan A. Boyd. That publication includes this photograph of the looter’s hole where the treasure is believed to have been found.

The treasure’s precise findspot is later detailed at length: “Late in the summer of 1963, the Sion Treasure was found in the field called Buyuk Asar (big ruin) north of the hamlet Haciveliler (2km west of Kumluca, a modern town in southeastern Lycia,)” wrote German Byzantinist Hansgerd Hellenkemper. A marking on a nearby wall identified it as the ancient Lycian polis of Korydalla. The treasure was found some 30 meters from the ruins of an early Byzantine church, Hellenkemper added, suggesting it may have been buried by church leaders in the 7th Century to hide it from invading Arabs. She goes on to note that illegal excavations have made it difficult to know more about such treasures. “In the Eastern Mediterranean, a large number of Early Byzantine church treasures have been found, but an exact of nearly exact findspot is known for very few of them.”

Dumbarton Oaks’ acquisition history says the treasure was purchased in 1963 in Switzerland from the antiquities dealer George Zakos by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, a private collector who donated it to the museum the same year. Zakos has been repeatedly tied to the illicit antiquities trade — among other things as a major supplier to Robert Hecht and the source of the Metropolitan Museum’s looted Lydian Hoard, which was returned to Turkey in 1993 after a bitter six-year legal battle.

Turkey has been seeking to reunite the Dumbarton Oaks material with the rest of the Sion Treasure for decades. Nizeh Firatli of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum first noted the missing treasure at a 1964 meeting in Athens, and soon after Turkey first requested that Dumbarton Oaks return the treasure. Several subsequent requests have been sent over the ensuing years, and Turkey’s request was recently revived.

Dumbarton Oaks director Jan Ziolkowski

Dumbarton Oaks did not respond to repeated requests for comments on Turkey’s request — a curious position for an institution that serves as a research library. We eventually contacted Harvard University’s press office, which released the following statement on behalf of director Jan M. Ziolkowski: “Dumbarton Oaks has made the Sion Treasure available for exhibition, research and study for nearly a half-century. We are confident that we have proper title to these antiquities and, while representatives from Turkey have inquired about them on occasion over the years, they haven’t responded to requests for any documentation that might raise questions about the provenance of this important part of the collection.”

We asked both Ziolkowski and Harvard for additional information about why they believe the museum has proper legal title to the treasure. Given the suspect source of the treasure and Dumbarton Oaks’ own publication of details of its looting in 1963, what further “documentation” is Harvard waiting for? So far, our follow-up questions have been met with silence.

Feds vs. Sotheby’s: Legal Tangle over ‘Looted’ Khmer Statue Continues

The feet of the disputed statue were left behind when it was taken from the ruins of the Prasat Chen Temple, 80 miles east of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The other set of feet belong to a statue now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, experts say.

In Friday’s LA Times, Jason reports on the federal lawsuit (case #12cv2600) seeking the return of a 10th Century Khmer statue now held at Sotheby’s.

Here’s a late-breaking update: Federal authorities expected to seize the statue from Sotheby’s on Thursday afternoon. But the seizure order was delayed by a late night legal spat between the US Attorney’s office and attorneys for Sotheby’s, authorities say.

UPDATE: Judge George B. Daniels issued a judicial restraining order late Thursday afternoon, prohibiting Sotheby’s from selling, transferring or otherwise disposing of or removing the statue from its current location. The parties will convene again at 10:30 on April 12th.

In dueling letters faxed to District Court Judge George B. Daniels, the two parties traded barbs about their respective legal arguments. The letters offer a preview of a legal battle that could have broad implications for repatriation efforts by source countries, which often rely on indirect evidence of looting to support their claims.

We’ve posted the complete letters below. Here is a summary of the arguments:

Sotheby’s makes no mention of the damaging internal emails cited in the governement complaint. Instead, it argues against the statue’s seizure saying it is based on the government’s “novel reading of ancient Cambodian law” and “the tenuous ‘belief’ of an expert who theorizes (from exceedingly modest evidence) that the statue was looted at some time after Cambodia declared national ownership of its antiquities.”

A looter's pit found during a recent survey of the archaeological site of Koh Ker.

The auction house goes on to point out what it calls “major legal and factual holes” in the government’s case. The evidence that the statue was taken from Cambodia recently are photographs and surveys of Koh Ker taken in the 1950s and 1960s, but those photos and surveys do not show or mention the statue in question, Sotheby’s points out. Cambodia’s 1900 patrimony law cited by the government was only discovered in rediscovered by American lawyers in recent months, and is not listed on UNESCO’s database of national patrimony laws, Sotheby’s also notes.

Finally, Sotheby’s points to the recent dismissal of a government suit seeking the seizure of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask at the St. Louis Museum of Art on behalf of Egypt, which claimed the mask had been stolen from a government storage facility in the 1960s. In that case, the court ruled that the “Government cannot rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a [suit] on the basis of one bold assertion.”

In response to Sotheby’s claims, Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin sent her own fax to Judge Daniels, citing the federal rules of civil procedure to argue the government has probable cause for the seizure.

Dougald O'Reilly, founder of HeritageWatchInternational.org, surveys looting at an archaeological site in 2006.

Levin calls Sotheby’s request to maintain possession of the property “inappropriate” given that “Sotheby’s marketed and attempted to sell the defendant property for more than a year after being informed by its own expert that the defendant property had been stolen from the Prasat Chen temple. Given Sotheby’s own significant role in the offenses on which this forfeiture action is based, they are not an appropriate independent third party for the Government to entrust with the property during the pendency of the action.”

The government suit was brought at the behest of the Cambodian government, Levin states. And Sotheby’s argument that the statue was not stolen “is at odds wit the conclusions reached by their own expert,” Levin argues, citing the internal emails in which the expert advises the auction house that the statue was “definitely stolen.” Further discussion of the merits of the government’s case should be saved for future hearings.

We’re interested to hear from many of the lawyers who read this blog what their take is on the respective arguments. Feel free to weigh in via the comments below.