Tag Archives: WikiLoot

Chasing Aphrodite 2012: The Year in Review

Cover

Happy New Year from Chasing Aphrodite.

It’s been a year and a half since our book was published, and during that time the hunt for looted antiquities at the world’s museums has gone global. Over the past 12 months we’ve revealed new information about objects looted from Turkey, Cambodia, India, Latin America, Italy and beyond. Visitors from 150 different countries came to read our weekly posts. (Those interested in a daily feed of relevant links and commentary should like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.) Our focus here is on scoops, and over the past year we broke several significant stories about the illicit trade, some of which led to the return of looted antiquities to the countries from which they were stolen.

Here are some highlights:

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

The year started with a bang in January with the arrest Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins who was arrested at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of allegedly ancient coins that had been recently looted from Sicily. Our scoop a few days later revealed that Weiss had told a confidential informant that he knew he was dealing in looted coins:  “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. We later traced Weiss’ donations to RISD and Harvard University Art Museums; revealed his business partner’s connection to the Getty; exposed the role of federal investigators in the case; and covered his guilty plea to selling what turned out to be clever fakes.

Princeton antiquities curator Michael PadgettAlmagia Returns: In January we also wrote about American museums returning a new wave of looted antiquities to Italy after the objects were tied to the criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. The Met returned more than 40 vase fragments from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. The Princeton Museum returned 160 objects and fragments, and stonewalled questions from the press about those returns. (The museum’s curator Michael Padgett, above, has been named as a target of the investigation.) In February we began tracking objects museums had acquired from Almagia and found several at the Dallas Museum of Art. We also traced Almagia objects to the Boston MFA, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Getty Museum. David Gill identified one additional Almagia object at the Tampa Museum. The Dallas Museum announced in December that five of the objects we had questioned would been returned to Italy.

Orpheus Mosaic

Orpheus Mosaic

Turkey’s claims: In March, we broke the news that Turkey was seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums. We also listed the specific objects being sought at those museums, including: 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 objects from the Schimmel Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. Since then, the Dallas Museum of Art has already agreed to return a looted mosaic to Turkey, and Bowling Green State University has signalled its intention to do the same. Negotiations with the other institutions are on-going, and we expect to have an update soon.

Koh Ker wrestlerCambodia vs. Sotheby’s — The Battle for Koh Ker. In April, we began following the legal battle between the US government and Sotheby’s over a 10th century Khmer statue allegedly looted from a temple complex deep in the Cambodian jungle. Government prosecutors, suing on behalf of Cambodia, alleged that Sotheby’s knew the statue was looted and and withheld the information from potential buyers, as well as government investigators. The auction house has denied those claims. Damning internal emails, however, revealed Sotheby’s knowledge about the statue’s suspect origins and the likely controversy its sale would cause. Also named in the case is a companion statue now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, whose feet remain in situ in Cambodia. The man at the center of the case is Douglas Latchford, a British collector/dealer based in Bangkok whose name has been linked with sever pieces of suspect Khmer antiquities. In recent months we’ve traced Latchford’s objects to the Denver Museum of Art, the Kimbell Museum and the Met. The outcome of the case could prove an important precedent for legal claims against looted antiquities in the United States.

James-CunoJim Cuno’s shakeup at the Getty: In May, the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust hired James Cuno to lead the organization. It was an odd choice — The Getty was still recovering from a devastating international scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, and had enacted a new acquisition policy that respected foreign ownership laws. Cuno had long been a vocal critic of those laws and advocate for the type of unfettered collecting that had gotten the Getty into trouble. One of Cuno’s first moves was the elimination of 34 positions at the Getty Museum, including two respected veterans and 12 professional gallery teachers who were replaced by volunteer docents. We broke the news, published Cuno’s memo to staff and covered the fallout. We also wrote about his decision to hire Timothy Potts, another advocate of unfettered collecting, and raised questions about Pott’s acquisition of a 5th century BC Greek cup at his previous post, the Kimbell Art Museum. In response to our questions, the Kimbell announced they would post the vase on the AAMD’s registry of ancient objects with unclear ownership histories. They never did.

PS1_TL.2009.20The Bourne Collection: Also in May, we featured a guest post by Roger Atwood on the Walter’s newly acquired collection of unprovenanced Pre-Colombian Art. Atwood described the “long and checkered history” of the Borne collection, which is sprinkled with fakes and at least one piece suspected of having been looted from Sipan, Peru.

subhash kapoorSubhash Kapoor Case: In July we began writing about the investigation of Subhash Kapoor, the New York based antiquities dealer specializing in Indian antiquities and temple idols. After federal agents raided his New York warehouse, we  identified more than 240 objects acquired from him in museums around the world. In December, federal investigators announced they had seized some $150 million in antiquities from him and consider Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smuggler in the world.” The case is on-going.

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.

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: Finally, this year we announced our plans to crowd-source the study of the black market in looted antiquities. We’re still in the development phase of the project — raising money, building partnerships and considering the structure of the site. But WikiLoot, as we’re calling the project for now, has already attracted substantial interest and media attention from the Guardian, the Economist, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and others. This spring we’ll be developing a prototype of the site and reaching out to more potential partners. Stay tuned for updates.

Thanks for reading. Our best wishes for 2013, and we hope you will join the hunt!

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!

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!