Tag Archives: looting

Hobby Lobby’s Legal Expert Speaks: “I can’t rule out…they used my advice to evade the law.”

In July 2010, Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, travelled to the United Arab Emirates to inspect a massive hoard of ancient artifacts.

A year earlier, Green and his advisor Scott Carroll had begun building one of the world’s biggest collections of biblical relics and manuscripts. In less than 24 months, the two would acquire more than 40,000 objects, building The Green Collection into “the newest and largest private collections of rare biblical texts and artifacts in the world.”

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Steve Green and his antiquities advisor Scott Carroll (NY Times)

Those objects will form the core collection of the Museum of the Bible, a 430,000-square-foot building that Hobby Lobby is building blocks from the National Mall. When it opens in the fall of 2017, its mission is to “bring the bible to life.”

Pitching Green and Carroll that day in the UAE warehouse were two Israeli antiquities dealers and a third local dealer (all unnamed in the complaint.) They were offering some 1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets and 500 stone cylinder seals, according to a federal forfeiture complaint filed last week.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 5.32.28 PMThe sample of those objects made available for inspection that day bore several hallmarks of the illicit antiquities trade.

They were “displayed informally,” according to the complaint –– “spread out on the floor before him, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.”

They belonged not to any of the three dealers present but to a fourth, who claimed they had come from his “family collection” in Israel. As for their provenance, the dealers claimed the objects had been “legally acquired in the late 1960s” from “local markets.” Bizarrely, they also said the objects had been sent to Mississippi for storage in the 1970s and had most recently been in Washington DC before being shipped to the UAE for that day’s inspection.

The final red flag: the objects were being sold at a deep discount. Carroll thought the objects were worth approximately $11.8 million, but were being offered for sale that day for just $2 million.

After Green got back to Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is based, the company’s in house lawyer contacted an expert in cultural property law. According to the complaint, in August 2010 that unnamed expert travelled to Oklahoma and gave a presentation to Green, Carroll and the company lawyer on the laws governing the purchase and importation of cultural property.

The presentation is cited prominently in the government’s recital of evidence leading to last week’s civil forfeiture of 5,500 ancient objects that Green bought in December 2010 for $1.6 million.

Responding to the seizure, Green released a statement saying he “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”

An interview with Green’s expert, however, suggests a different story: Green and his advisors were given detailed guidance from one of the leading legal minds on antiquities acquisitions, and then chose to ignore it.

gerstenblithI have confirmed that Green’s unnamed expert was Patty Gerstenblith, one of the country’s leading experts in cultural property law and a professor at DePaul University.

I reached Gerstenblith yesterday while she was in The Hague participating in an Expert Consultation on Policy on Cultural Property at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. What follows are excerpts from our conversation about her work for Hobby Lobby, edited lightly for length and clarity.

Chasing Aphrodite: How did you start working as an advisor for the Greens?

Patty Gerstenblith: The in house counsel – I’d rather not name the person, as they’re not named in the complaint – asked if I would be willing to explain the legal issues involved in importing cultural works and antiquities, what laws would pertain. This was 7 years ago.

They were planning to build the collection. I had never heard of Hobby Lobby but saw they had recently acquired a medieval manuscript that had almost singlehandedly changed the market. I agreed to advise them.

CA: Were you hired as legal counsel?

PG: No. I was not engaged as an attorney, and I didn’t act as their attorney. I acted as an expert and consultant. They compensated me. [Gerstenblith declined to state how much she was paid for the engagement.]

CA: Can you describe the presentation you gave to Hobby Lobby executives in Oklahoma City on August 10, 2010?

PG: It was a board room or seminar room. There were between 10 and 15 people there. The in house counsel, and the advisor. Steve Green was there to my memory. I don’t know if he stayed for the entire presentation. I have no idea who the other people were.

I gave them very general information about laws that applied to importation of antiquities, the same I would do in a public lecture. I went through the National Stolen Property Act, declarations of value and country of origin….

CA: What was their reaction to your presentation?

PG: I can’t say they reacted one way or the other. They didn’t seem surprised or upset, which in hindsight is kind of surprising. The impression I had at the time was that they were only considering buying antiquities. I had no idea until I read the complaint [released last week] that this was already in process. They had already earlier in July, before I talked to them, looked at cuneiform tablets. You would think if I’m talking about… you have to do this and that and they’re already in negotiations, they would have had some reaction to what I said. I’m pretty mystified why they bothered to have me do this for them.

CA: Did they ask specifically about laws pertaining to Iraq or the Middle East?

PG: At the time I knew their reputation in terms of their interest in things that pertained to the bible. After my presentation, we had a little lunch. That’s possibly when I found out their interest in cuneiform tablets.

CA: The complaint says you sent a written report to Hobby Lobby on October 19, 2010. What was the purpose of that memo? Can you provide us a copy of it?

PG: When I finished the presentation, the in house counsel asked me to write up a summary. It took me a while to get to it. It summarized what I had presented, but at this point I had been aware they were thinking of acquiring things from Iraq so made sure this was included in the memo.

Gerstenblith said she could not provide a copy of her memo on the law, but the federal complaint quotes from it, in part, as follows:

I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq (which could be described as Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Parthian, Sassanian and possibly other historic or cultural terms) as carrying considerable risk. An estimated 200-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s; particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted are cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets . . . . Any object brought into the US and with Iraq declared as country of origin has a high chance of being detained by US Customs. If such an object has been brought into the US in the past few years and was not stopped by US Customs, then you need to examine the import documents to see if the country of origin was properly declared; an improper declaration of country of origin can also lead to seizure and forfeiture of the object.

The complaint continues: “The Expert’s memorandum further advised Hobby Lobby that cultural property looted from Iraq since 1990 is specifically protected by import restrictions that carry criminal penalties and fines. The Expert’s memorandum was received by In-house Counsel but was not shared with Hobby Lobby’s President, Consultant, Executive Assistant, International Department, outside customs brokers, or anyone involved in the purchase and importation of the Defendants in Rem.”

PG: They didn’t even pass my advice on. I was surprised to learn that in the complaint. Why did they both having me do this?  The memorandum I wrote was never circulated beyond in house legal counsel, and they were already in the process of acquiring these objects.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 5.32.03 PMCA: Was there any follow-up? Did they ask you to review any specific cases or documents after that?

PG: My involvement as an expert for Hobby Lobby ended after I gave them the memo. There was no follow-up, no review of specific cases or documents or any specific objects pertaining to importation. I never evaluated anything for them.

CA: According to the federal complaint, they later did the very things you warned against. Do you think they used your advice to break the law rather than to follow it? In other words, do you feel used?

PG: I suppose one can’t rule that out. Which would be very upsetting to me. I can’t rule that out. My goal was to discourage them from doing the wrong thing by telling them all the wrong things they could do. I thought they would not want to do those things. I can’t rule out it was all the opposite…that they used my advice to evade the law as opposed to follow the law.”

CA: Many have asked: why were there no criminal charges in this case? As a law professor, what’s your answer?

PG: There is a lot here that does read as a red flag. Shipping boxes to various locations. Mislabeling cuneiform tablets as ceramic tiles. These have in many cases been the hallmarks of intentional violations of customs laws.

Yes it looks like there was criminal activity, but its not clear who committed the crime. The government would have to prove criminal knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury would have to find that these people knew not only what the law was but also that they were responsible for how the stuff was falsely labeled when it was imported. I have to assume the government felt it would have difficulty proving who knew what.

One difference from the Schultz case is the number of people involved. Schultz was doing it all himself. Here there were so many people involved, they’ve created plausbile deniability as to who knew what.

CA: In your view, what deterrent effect do seizures like this have without criminal prosecutions?

PG: The trend has, unfortunately, been away from prosecution. There’s a tendency to be happy with forfeiture. These cases in general have very little deterrent effect. Most collectors and dealers, having to return an object, thereby loosing the vaulue, is not really a big financial loss. In the case of Hobby Lobby, not at all. Therefore, its not a deterrent. I have come to believe that criminal prosecution is the only effective deterrent. I’m not the only person who’s made this comment.

 

UPDATED > Inside the ISIS Looting Operation: U.S. Lawsuit Reveals Terror Group’s Brutal Bureaucracy of Plunder

A civil lawsuit filed today by the U.S. government sheds startling new light on the brutality of the Syrian looting operations of the Islamic State.

The lawsuit seeks the forfeiture of four looted objects  – a gold ring, two gold coins and a stone relief – that were allegedly sold by the Islamic state to fund terrorism. Photographs of the objects were recovered during the May 2015 special forces raid on Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS leader in Deir Ezzor, Syria charged with managing the region’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which included looting operations.abu-sayyaf-isis-leader-2

The records show Sayyaf, who was killed in the raid, was part of a well-organized looting bureaucracy that ISIS used to generate revenue, as shown in this organization chart that was found among the documents recovered from his house:

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As a regional chief, Abu Sayyaf issued looting permits and charged looters a Khums tax, 20% of the value their finds. He also had the ability to arrest individuals excavating archeological objects without authorization.

Much of the evidence from the Sayyaf raid cited in the case was first released publicly in November 2015 – and greeted with some skepticism by experts on the illicit trade, including myself. In particular, the raid fueled the heated debate about how much revenue ISIS actually generates from looting. The seized documents showed just $211,000 in revenue generated by the looting tax, suggesting the millions in looting revenue cited in some news accounts could be far off the mark.

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Objects seized from Abu Sayyaf during a special forces raid in May 2015

But Thursday’s filing includes new records from the Abu Sayyaf raid that have not previously been released. Among other things, they include a harrowing account from looters who were extorted by ISIS – Abu Sayyaf ordered their child kidnapped when they refused to pay an low-ball price for a cache of gold and relics they had discovered.

The four objects being sought were shown in electronic images seized from Abu Sayyaf during the raid and were sold directly by him, according to the complaint. As detailed below, the FBI’s subsequent investigation was able to find additional information about at least one of the objects as it passed through the illicit trade.

Taken together, the newly released records give us a detailed but narrow window into ISIS’ efforts to profit off the international market in ancient art.

Like the evidence released before it, these new records should be considered critically – particularly at a time when a U.S. military intervention in Syria appears more likely. It is worth asking why the U.S. government has filed the complaint now, more than a year and a half after the evidence was gathered; why the government seeks the forfeiture of objects whose current location is unknown; and why this information is being released publicly, when it virtually guarantees the objects will not surface on the art market.

UPDATE 12/16/16: On Friday, I spoke with Arvind Lal and Zia Faruqui in the US Attorneys Office of the District of Colombia. Lal is the chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and Faruqui is the Assistant U.S. Attorney from that section who did much of the work on the complaint. Here is a summary of their answers to the questions above.

Where are the objects? Lal and Zia declined to say whether they knew where the objects were, citing the on-going investigation of the Abu Sayyaf material. But they said the complaint makes clear they are not currently in the United States.    

Why file the complaint now? Lal said that the time between the May 2015 raid and the forfeiture complaint was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of the records seized from Abu Sayyaf, consult with experts on the objects depicted in those records, coordinate with other federal agencies (FBI, State, Treasury and “other government agencies”) and compile the complaint. “We feel like we’ve done our homework with respect to these four items,” Lal said, suggesting that additional items may be added to the complaint in the future.

What is the strategy in filing a complaint against missing assets? “By filing this action, we hope we’ve dropped the market value of these four items to zero, along with anything else that may have passed through the hands of ISIS. Hopefully the market is now on notice that if something goes through the hands of ISIS, that item is subject to being seized.”

The most revealing exchange, in my view, was Lal’s response to my question about the strategy. Filing the complaint makes it nearly certain that these will never surface, I pointed out. Why not monitor the art market to see where they pop up and seize them at that time?

“I have a case load from narcotics to fraud to national security cases,” Lal said. “I don’t have a staff available to monitor the international art market. When I find out about a crime, I feel obligated to do what I can.”

Where there political motives driving the decision to file? “I’m a prosecutor,” Lal said, “I don’t give an damn about the politics of this.”

 

The Looted Objects

 

The four objects described in the forfeiture complaint range in estimated value from $50,000 to a few thousand dollars, and date from various periods and civilizations found in Syria. Below I’ve posted below the highest resolution images available from the U.S. Attorney’s office, along with details described in the federal complaint.

  1. A gold ring, photographed in November 2014, may depict the Greek goddess of fortune, Tyche and dates to approximately 330 BC – 400 AD. It is believed to come from Deir Ezzor, Syria. Investigators found an earlier picture of the same ring showing soil embedded in the carving, suggesting it had been recently excavated and was later “enhanced” for international sale, the complaint alleges. The ring was part of a set that sold previously (presumably in Syria) for $260,000.

gold-ring-with-carved-gemstone

2. Another photograph recovered from Abu Sayyaf shows a Roman gold aureus dated to 138 – 161 A.D. showing Antoninus Pius on one side and the goddess Liberalitas on the reverse. It was photographed in November 2014 and may have been looted from one of the numerous Roman or Greek sites in Syria, the complaint states.

gold-coin-featuring-antoninus-pius3. A second gold coin depicted on images found on Abu Sayyaf’s hard drive shows Emperor Hadrian Augustus Caesar saying from 125 – 128 AD, the complaint states.

gold-coin-featuring-emperor-hadrian-augustus-caesar4. The fourth object, depicted in an image found on Abu Sayyaf’s WhatsApp account on his cellphone and created in August 2014, shows a stone relief with cuneiform writing. The inscription, which is legible from the photographs, is an Assyrian dedication to King Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC). The object is believed to be from the archaeological site of Tell Ajaja in northern Syria. The relief has an estimated value of $30,000 – $50,000, the complaint states.

carved-neo-assyrian-stone

Looters Testify about Extortion, Kidnapping under ISIS Antiquities Authorities

ISIS’ taxation system for looted antiquities has an obvious flaw: the value of the finds are difficult to know before they are sold on the international market. As a result, the basis for the Khums tax imposed by Abu Sayyaf’s department was often quite arbitrary. Not surprisingly, this led to conflicts between looters and their ISIS tax collectors.

Remarkably, one of these disputes is detailed in the newly released documents. The records show that ISIS authorities concluded that Abu Sayyaf had used his position of power to extort looters and kidnap one of their children when they refused to pay ISIS levies. screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-3-46-29-pm

Remarkably, the documents seized from Sayyaf include direct testimony from some of his victims, who filed a complaint with the Islamic State’s General Supervising Committee. A redacted translation of the testimony, as well as images of the original document, is included in the forfeiture complaint. What follows is an account based upon these records:

In 2013, seven women from the village of al-Duwayr spent eight months digging with pick axes in the al-Salihiyyah archaeological site outside Damascus. (There are two locations named al-Salihiyyah in Syria, but as Paul Barford notes in the comments below, given the context this likely refers to the site outside Deir ez-Zor, where Abu Sayyaf was based.) During the illicit dig they found a cache of gold and other ancient relics.

The women asked a male relative, whose name is redacted, to sell the finds, but he could not reach an agreed upon price with local merchants, who offered up to $180,000. (It is not clear what currency is being discussed, but else where the records note many deals were transacted in U.S. dollars.)

Abu Sayyaf’s deputy, Abu Layth, learned of the find and came to collect the ISIS Khums tax, 20% of the discovery’s value. He put the value of their discovery at just $70,000 and offered to buy it all. When the looters refused the low ball price, Abu Layth attempted to take one-fifth of the find in lieu of the tax. That too was refused by the women.

Days later, Layth and five members of the Islamic State arrived at the house of one of the looters in masks and toting guns. Abu Layth, brandishing a pistol, demanded to know where the gold was. The women said it had already been taken to Turkey.

At that point one of the ISIS men grabbed a 15-year-old boy. Abu Layth stated, “I will take the boy to al-Raqqah and I will not bring him back until you bring the gold.”

The boy testified about his abduction, saying he was blindfolded, beaten in the back of the vehicle, threatened with a pistol to his head and then held for 15-days in al-Raqqah.

In his own testimony, Abu Layth acknowledged he had no experience with antiquities. He had worked for the ministry of natural resources for nine months, and had previously sold clothes and food.

Abu Layth testified that he was given $130,000 to purchase the relics but offered only $70,000 to the looters. Merchants in Turkey, who he communicated with “via mediators,” said the finds could be worth as much as $200,000. He said he had arrested the boy at the order of his boss, Abu Sayyaf.

Having heard the testimony, the Islamic State’s General Supervising Committee issued its ruling: Abu Sayyaf should fire Abu Layth, hire own responsible men, and apologize to the family for arresting the boy without justification.

Below are links to the federal complaint and attachments containing the documents it references. I welcome your additional thoughts in the comments section.

Federal complaint: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3239356-Forfeiture-Complaint-Stamped-Copy-12-15-16.html

Attachments to the complaint: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3239355-Attachments-to-Forfeiture-Complaint.html

 

Danti’s Inference: The Known Unknowns Of ISIS and Antiquities Looting

Over the last month, a new meme has spread like a sandstorm across the internet: Looting of antiquities, we’re told, has become “the second largest source of revenue” for the hated terror group ISIS.

The claim is almost certainly false, as I explain below. Its provenance can be traced to a State Department-funded archaeologist who is now leading U.S. efforts to protect heritage sites in Syria.

The first reference to it came on October 17 in the magazine Foreign Policy, which published a provocative report on the role that antiquities looting plays in funding the Islamic State terror group.Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 9.40.48 AM

The terror group’s profits from antiquities looting “are second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales,” the article stated. “So understanding the Islamic State’s approach to the fate of ancient artifacts actually could be key to stopping its advance.” The article’s headline went even further: “Degrading and destroying ISIS could take place in the halls of auction houses, not the Pentagon.”

mdantiForeign Policy’s source was Michael Danti, an assistant professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s State Department-funded campaign to track cultural heritage destruction in Syria. In August, the State Department gave ASOR $600,000 to launch the Syria Heritage Initiative. The project is doing important work documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites in the country, primarily through the use of satellite imagery. Weeks before a week after the Foreign Policy article appeared, Sec. of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum calling Danti and his ASOR colleagues “literally the gold standard” for information on the issue. (Danti and his ASOR colleagues will give a public presentation on their work in San Diego on Nov. 23rd.)

Danti’s claim was surprising for those of us who have followed the looting in Syria. The scale of looting is devastating, undeniable and relatively well documented in satellite imagery. But to date, very little reliable evidence has come to light about where those looted objects are being sold, much less the profitability for sponsors of the plunder. I’m not aware of a single object offered for sale in auction houses having been reliably traced back to the conflict so far. And past research shows that the biggest profits in the illicit antiquities trade happen far upstream from the excavators, who take a paltry share of profits compared to middlemen and dealers.

john-kerry-dendur-speech-isis-1

Curious about his sourcing, I asked Danti for more information in an exchange on Twitter. Initially, Danti said the claim was based on “in-country sources.” Danti has dug in Syria for years, but did his Syrian sources really have access to ISIS accounting records? When pressed, he referred to “analogies with AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] finances,” and pointed me to a 2010 RAND study, Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The study is based on data from Iraq’s Al Anbar province dating to 2005 – 2006.

Of course, ISIS did not exist in 2010, much less 2005, and there is ample evidence that, while structurally similar to its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS enjoys different funding streams. Further, the RAND study Danti cited makes no mention — zero — of antiquities looting. The only reference to “looting” in the entire paper is this chart:

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In context, its clear that this “looting” refers more broadly to the spoils of war — seized cars and other commercial goods. “The provincial administration collected revenue mostly from the sale of stolen commercial goods and did not collect much revenue from black market fuel sales, large-scale extortion, or direct taxation,” the report states. “The financing of the western sector was similar, where AQI funded itself through the sale of cars and lesser-valued commercial goods.”

In short, the study sheds no light on contemporary archaeological looting in Syria by ISIS or any other group, something Danti has conceded only half-heartedly: “Needt to know more on how these estimates are made. In Syria/Iraq ‘ghanima’ is used for all looting/theft.”

I called Danti last week for more thoughts on the issue. After a lengthy discussion, he asked not to be quoted, saying he would need to clear any comments with the Department of State. (He hasn’t taken that stance in dozens of other interviews.) In essence, Danti said he stands by his claim while acknowledging there is little public evidence to support it. He also noted that as a “dirt” archaeologist, he is unaccustomed to the media attention his recent role has given him, and says he may have been misquoted.

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

There is no question that looting of archaeological sites has exploded across Syria in recent years, and the satellite evidence is unmistakable. I and others have argued that the various groups involved in looting on the ground — ISIS, al Nusra, Syrian opposition groups, the Assad regime, criminal groups and desperate civilians — would be unlikely to engage in such vast, laborious mining efforts if they weren’t paying off in some way. So, who’s to say Danti’s claim may not be right?

330px-David_S._CohenJust a week after Danti’s Foreign Policy article, David S. Cohen, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, gave a talk at the Carnegie Endowment describing the U.S. government’s best assessment of the Islamic States’ sources of funding. The assessment is based on intelligence sharing between Treasury, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, law enforcement and foreign governments.

In order, Cohen said ISIS’ primary funding sources are:

1.  The sale of oil from seized fields and refineries, estimated to generate $1 million a day.

2. The kidnap of civilians to profit from ransoms. With ISIS making “at least 20 million” in ransom in 2014 alone, Cohen described it as “one of the most significant terrorist financing threats today.”

3. Sophisticated extortion rackets, which bring in “up to several million dollars per month,” Cohen said.

4. Criminal activity, including bank robberies, stealing livestock and crops from farmers and, yes, looting antiquities.

Cohen’s testimony did little to stop the spread of Danti’s “second biggest source” meme. On Oct 27th, the claim was repeated by the U.S. Naval Institute in a article written by a retired brigadier general and two terrorism finance researchers at the Monterrey Institute (“How ISIS Funds Terror Through Black Market Antiquities Trade.” Soon after, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Stephennie Mulder, an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, repeated the claim. (She had it removed from the article after Danti’s sourcing was brought to her attention by other experts.) On Nov. 6th, Newsweek reported it again.

By Nov 13th, the claim was being repeated by Congressmen during a hearing on terror financing on Capitol Hill:

Danti is hardly the first to speak beyond the available evidence. I have spoken with imprecision about the link between terrorism and the antiquities trade. UNESCO officials frequently cite a $7 billion dollar figure for the global illicit antiquities trade that has a very shaky foundation. The Antiquities Coalition has referred to $3 – $5 billion generated by looting in Egypt alone since 2011 (or in some instances, per year), but the research supporting that claim has yet to be published. Rajendra Abhyankar, a professor at Indiana University and former Indian Ambassador to Syria, declared in the Huffington Post earlier this month that “thirty to fifty percent” of ISIS income comes from the theft and looting of antiquities. When asked for a source, he told me it was based on notes he had taken while reading articles that he could no longer find. (I’m now told Abhyankar relied in part on this story in Al-Monitor, which states, “Some even say the looting of historical artifacts has become the Islamic State’s main source of revenue…”) The problem is significant enough that Dr. Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities has made a cottage industry of debunking such claims.

The truth is we have very little reliable data on the global revenue generated by the illicit antiquities trade, and even less on the role it plays in funding terror groups. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown: we know it happens, but not much more. Claiming otherwise may in the short term bring  attention to the issue of looting, but ultimately saps it of credibility – and the urgency to answer those important questions with well-documented research. It can also taint important policy decisions, as Patty Gerstenblith, chair of the State Departments Cultural Property Advisory Committee, noted in response to Danti and similar claims: “Commentators and scholars should avoid sensationalism…Exaggerated [or] baseless claims hinder rational policies to restrict trade in illegal antiquities.”

This is particularly true, and troubling, when baseless claims come from a highly respected academic group being paid — and held out as the gold standard — by the State Department. When John Kerry gives a speech about looting at the Met, he is using the issue to help justify the escalating U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In that context, it is more important than ever to stick to the known knowns.

Twenty Percent: ISIS “Khums” Tax on Archaeological Loot Fuels the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq

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Early Sunday morning, a Twitter account associated with ISIS posted a horrifying photo gallery documenting the group’s destruction of religious sites.

The images show the demolition of several shrines in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS forces on June 1oth. Similar pictures and videos, touted by ISIS and its supporters via social media, have in recent months galvanized the world’s outrage and inspired rebellion in the local population.

Those dramatic images obscure a far larger and more alarming pattern of destruction, experts say: the rampant pillaging of archaeological sites across the region, with proceeds going to fund all sides in the conflict. Most recently, experts say ISIS has encouraged systematic looting of major archaeological sites in northern Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the illicit trade under the Islamic principle of Al-Khums, the Arabic word for one-fifth.

“And know ye (O’ believers) that whatever of a thing ye acquire a fifth of it is for God, and for the Apostle and for the (Apostle’s) near relatives and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer …” (8:41)

In the Koran, Allah instructs his followers to pay him one-fifth of what they acquire. While the Shia interpret this as an annual tithe on their earnings, the Sunni tradition believes it applies only to war booty. ISIS has cited Al-Khuns in ordering locals to pay one-fifth of the proceeds of looting, which they have sanctioned and overseen across the archaeologically rich northern Iraq and Syria, experts say, citing local sources.

The income from this looting tax is hard to pin down. A report in the Guardian citing flash drives seized from ISIS leadership suggested the group may have brought in as much as USD$36 million from looting in al-Nabuk area, west of Damascus. This figure seems outlandish to many experts, and has not been independently verified. But local sources tell observers that ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income.

These now-famous satellite images of Apamea, Syria hint at the scale of destruction:

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

 

While less photogenic than the demolition of shrines, experts say this wave of illicit excavations will have a more lasting impact not just on our understanding of human history, but on ISIS finances and the ability of local communities to find common ground after the conflict. In a region where ancient history is underfoot every day, the archaeological record provides one of the few glues that hold multi-ethic societies together.

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MONITORING AND PROTECTION EFFORTS

The situation has intensified efforts by governments, NGOs and foreign and local archaeologists to assess the damage and prevent further destruction to cultural heritage in the region.

In late May, UNESCO hosted an emergency experts meeting with representatives from 22 countries, including Assad’s regime and Syrian opposition groups, to discuss ways to protect heritage sites and prevent illicit trafficking. While much of the destruction in Syrian can be attributed to the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on historically important sites, participants said the focus was on the less contentious issue of looting, which has been conducted by all sides in the conflict. At the conclusion of the meeting, UNESCO agreed to establish an observatory to monitor “monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” It is unclear in the months since the meeting if progress toward the Observatory has been made. According to one participant, “No one has a plan to reach people inside of Syria.”

On the ground in Syria, groups like Association for the Protection of Syrian (APSA) are risking their lives to document the damage to cultural heritage. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center have been working with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey to train local archaeologists and museum officials to protect high-risk collections and sites, such as the Ma’arra Museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics.

The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) has signed a $600,000 agreement with the Department of State to “to comprehensively document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.” The effort will include the use of Cold-War era satellite imagery to record previously unknown archaeological sites in the region and track any subsequent destruction.

The Syria Campaign, funded by non-political Syrian expats, has gathered more than 9,000 signatures as part of a social media effort to ask the UN to ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. Heritage for Peace, based on Girona, Spain, has received funding from the Dutch government for a variety of protects to protect cultural heritage in Syria.

There are many similar efforts afoot. Please provide links to others in the comments section below.

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THREE TYPES OF THREATS

aalazm-220x260I recently spoke with Dr. Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University who is involved in several of the above efforts and is in frequent touch with Syrians who are monitoring the situation on the ground. Here’s an edited version of our discussion:

Jason Felch: What are the current threats to cultural heritage in Syria?

Amr Al-Azm: Generally speaking we can identify three types of threats.

First is intentional damage due to it being a war zone. Monuments become part of the war zone. For example, the regime air force dropping bombs on Crac de Chavealier, a world heritage site, because opposition had taken up residence in then. In Aleppo, itself a world heritage site, the regime takes up residence and the opposition tunnels underneath the building they’re in and blows up the entire building. We’ve seen severe damage to monuments like the minaret at the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, which was brought down by the regime because it was a high point. That’s one type of casualty.

Then there’s punitive damage, such as what was done to the souks in Aleppo. The burning of the souks was entirely a punitive act by the regime who had told the citizens that if they allowed their citizens to fall prey to the uprising, “we’ll destroy your livelihood.” It was one of the oldest covered bazaars in the world. Now its gone. Also punitive is ISIS blowing up shrines in Iraq and Syria. They’re trying to destroy the identity of one side or the other.

The third type is the most serious and by far the most common: archaeological looting. Its happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land. That’s the most dangerous, destructive and most widespread.a22_RTR38PMA

JF: What is driving the looting?

AA: First, there is an established historical knowledge that there is wealth to be found under the ground. In times when there is a breakdown of law and order and no authority, combined with extreme poverty, people will reach into their collective memory and someone will remember their great grandfather dug up a tomb and found a pot of silver and was able to survive the winter.

Another reason: Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it?660x39062663b27d00de1852b44033ec8a9e3c74736900a

JF: Why do you say the looting is worse that the destruction of monuments or holy sites?

AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.

Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.

JF: What evidence is there to support this?

AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.

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JF: What are the trafficking networks that move the objects out of the country to the market?

AA: My sources tell me a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back. One of the main centers for the illicit trade is Tell Abiab, on the Syrian side, across the border from Urfa. There is also lots of smuggling in Kilis, some of it archaeology. From there, I don’t know where it goes.

There is also evidence of some looting to order by wealthy private collectors. For example, in Palmyra, which is under regime control, there is a famous Roman tomb called the Brothers Tomb. I’ve been told the Tomb of the Three Brothers has been looted and sold off. My suspicion is that it’s looting to order for a collector. Something that well known and important won’t show up on the market.

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JF: What are you and others doing to stop the trade?

AA: There’s now a concerted campaign to try to talk to the main auction houses and the art dealers to persuade them not to deal with these antiquities. We’ve had fairly good progress on that front. Another thing we’re working on is setting up and training locals who are no longer employed in museums or archaeological sites because they’re not in regime areas. We’re getting them working again in a semi-formal function to protect sites and document damage. And we’re working with local activists who are out there with their cameras. One of the problems we have is revealing our sources because they’re working in a very dangerous state. So for now, much of the information they collect can’t be shared.

JF: Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?

AA: This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides.

ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated.

The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas as was a catastrophe, but it didn’t destroy the history of Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, we focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas and forget the rest. There are no big statues coming out of those sites, so we don’t see the damage. But in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence ton an industrial scale.

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.”