Tag Archives: The Art Newspaper

The Lessons of Palmyra: Iconoclasm in the era of Clickbait

Breaking IconoclasmLast December I was invited to Harvard to participate in a round table on ISIS and iconoclasm. The event, organized by archaeologist Bastien Varoutsikos and sponsored by Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology, sparked a fascinating discussion of iconoclasm through the ages, putting the destructive impulse of the Islamic State into a context that I, for one, had been missing.

The speakers included Harvard’s James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, who offered a reminder that iconoclasm is a central strand in Western history. “This is not the other,” Simpson said. “This is us, we’ve been here.” Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, discussed iconoclasm in ancient Egypt and how 3D technology was allowing us to recreate the destroyed past. Joseph Greene, also at the Semitic Museum, surveyed the destruction of museums –  repositories of cultural icons – across Syria and Iraq. And Matthew Liebmann reviewed the smashing of church bells – icons of Spanish colonization – during the Pueblo Revolts of 17th Century New Mexico. Moderating with Bastien was Clare Gillis, whose intrepid reporting on the ground in the region with her friend James Foley is captured in the must-watch documentary about his life and death, Jim.

My contribution to the panel was “ISIS and the Media: Iconoclasm in the Era of Clickbait,” a review of how the media has covered the iconoclasm of ISIS. In short, I argued that ISIS iconoclasm was largely (not exclusively) a propaganda effort, and that many of us in the media and social media became complicit in their crimes by spreading those images as clickbait.

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With the fall of Palmyra to Assad forces this month, Bastien and I decided to revisit the subject in an essay for this week’s The Art Newspaper. What follows are excerpts of that essay with a few slides from my Harvard presentation.

The early assessments [of damage by ISIS] contain several important lessons for those of us who watched the destruction of Palmyra in horror last summer—and then shared it virally on social media.

First, they lend credibility to on-the-ground reports during the city’s harrowing occupation that the Islamic State’s destruction of historical monuments was motivated less by twisted ideology than a far simpler craving for attention.

“In-country sources… have overheard Isil commanders comment that attacking the ancient monuments ‘makes the whole world’ talk about them,” noted a September report fr om the American Schools for Oriental Research, an archaeological group tasked by the US State Department with monitoring heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq.

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Notably, the destruction of historical sites had started months earlier, after international media outlets had collectively decided to stop broadcasting gruesome images of Isil hostage beheadings.

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If media attention was indeed what Isil had wanted, the destruction of Palmyra was a coup.

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Respected international media outlets republished Isil’s carefully choreographed shots of the detonation of the iconic Baalshamin Temple on social media as if they were news photos, not the propaganda of a terrorist regime.

In Palmyra, we first witnessed the collision of iconoclasm and clickbait.

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Increasingly, modern media is funded by clickbait and the advertising revenue it generates.

This fact was not lost on Isil, whose sophisticated propaganda machine has created pre-packaged viral content—slick YouTube videos, Facebook posts and 140 character Tweets—designed to be spread on the web.

It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes.

You can read the complete essay here. My thanks to Bastien for his help with it.

 

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SCOOP: Bowers Museum will return 500+ Thai antiquities seized during 2008 raids

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

On the front page of this month’s The Art Newspaper I report that the Bowers Museum of Art has agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. The objects were allegedly looted from one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and smuggled into the United States by an antiquities trafficking ring that was broken up in 2008.

The Bowers will also forfeit 71 Native American ladles were allegedly taken from federal or native lands in the United States. The Bowers acquired the ladles and Thai antiquities from Robert Olson, an alleged smuggler who I profiled in 2008. Olson has admitted buying illegally excavated objects from looters and middlemen and bragged that his collection Ban Chiang artifacts and Native American ladles were the largest in the world. He currently faces a December trial on federal charges in Los Angeles.

The returns mark additional fallout from the 2008 federal raids on several Southern California museums. (Our previous coverage can be found here.) From the story:

The returns are the result of a non-prosecution agreement between the museum and the Los Angeles US Attorney’s office stemming from federal museum raids carried out in 2008. Following a five-year undercover operation, federal agents seized hundreds of allegedly looted antiquities at the Bowers, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum. The authorities were investigating an alleged smuggling network that funneled looted Thai, Cambodian and Burmese artefacts into local museums, often through tax-deductible donations based on inflated appraisals, court records show.

In exchange for the returns to Thailand, government prosecutors agreed not to criminally charge anyone at the Bowers, the museum’s lawyer says.

“The Bowers Museum is pleased to have resolved this matter without any finding that the museum violated any law,” says Manuel Abascal. “The Bowers stopped collecting archaeological items years ago, and has instead focused on bringing important archaeological items from foreign museums to the United States for exhibition, such as the Terracotta Warriors.” Abascal says the museum had offered to return the objects years ago. “Since Armand Labbé died, it’s been in our basement. We’re more than happy to give it up,” he says. “We never conceded it was taken in an ill-gotten way.”

Most of the contested objects – many of which which are not of display quality but have cultural and archaeological importance – come from Ban Chiang, a Neolithic settlement and burial site that was continuously occupied from 1500BC to 900BC, making it one of the most important prehistoric settlements found in Southeast Asia. Thai law has claimed state ownership of all artefacts since 1961, a claim that would be recognized under American law if certain conditions are met.

Bowers donations

Since the 2008 raids, the fate of the seized objects at the Bowers and other museums have remained in limbo while the case inches through the legal process. Last year I reported on mounting frustration that little had resulted from the dramatic federal raids.

No other museums tied to the case have returned the contested objects, though some have tried:

 At the Pacific Asia Museum, 147 objects donated by various clients linked to the case remain in storage under “constructive custody” of federal authorities, a museum official said.

“The museum has not been told to return the articles,” says the interim deputy director Susana Smith Bautista. “Because [US authorities] retain ‘constructive custody’ of these works, the objects cannot leave the museum premises without written permission.”

The Mingei Museum offered to return 67 objects seized by federal authorities soon after the raids, says the museum’s attorney, Jerry Coughlan: “We have heard nothing other than a request that we continue to hold them.”

A lawyer for the Los Angeles County Museum, which has about 60 objects that were targeted in the raids, declined to comment.

The Bowers allegations were described in detailed search warrant affidavits released at the time of the raids.

The court records portray Armand Labbé, the museum’s longtime chief curator, as a willing participant in the alleged smuggling scheme, which orchestrated the donation of looted antiquities in exchange for inflated tax write-offs for donors. Labbe built much of the Ban Chiang collection with donations from clients of alleged smuggler Robert Olson, an antiquities dealer, according to the search warrant affidavits.

In a September 2003 meeting described in the affidavits, the undercover agent met Labbé at Olson’s storage locker. The curator pointed out several objects he wanted donated, and instructed the agent to pay Olson in cash for the objects and state that he had owned them for more than a year, as required to receive a tax write-off of their stated value.

Olson told the agent that he was getting objects directly from Ban Chiang, the affidavits say, and showed Labbé and the agent photos of the sites from which the objects had recently been excavated. On another occasion, Olson is alleged to have boasted that he had more Ban Chiang material than Thailand and said a client of his had donated some $250,000 worth to the Bowers.

The agent paid Olson $12,000 for the Ban Chiang objects and received an appraisal that put their value at more than $43,000. Labbé accepted that and a second donation from the agent before he died in April 2005.

In September of that year, the agent spoke with Keller, the director of the Bowers, about making a third donation. Keller said he knew Olson and had been to his warehouse, but refused to accept the donation. Labbé’s girlfriend, an appraiser, told the agent that Keller had personally donated to the museum on several occasions, the affidavits say.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy  of his monograph,  Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand, during her visit to Los Angeles.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy of his monograph, “Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand”, during her visit to Los Angeles.

The story details several indictments in the case that have been unsealed in recent months:

Olson was criminally indicted in 2008 along with Jonathan Markell, a Los Angeles gallery owner who arranged the donation of Ban Chiang objects to several museums. The indictment, which was only unsealed in January of this year, accused the men of one count of conspiracy to import antiquities from Burma and Cambodia and three counts of making false statements on customs forms.

In July 2003, both men allegedly travelled to Thailand to purchase the looted antiquities. The objects were listed on customs forms at 25% of their actual purchase price, and the objects were falsely described, with an ancient Burmese Buddha listed as a “wooden sitting man”, the indictment alleges.

Markell and his wife Cari were indicted in 2010 on federal tax charges that related to their alleged role in writing inflated appraisals of donations of Ban Chiang material to the museums. An attorney for Jonathan Markell declined to comment, and his wife’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Olson was separately indicted in 2012 with Marc Pettibone. Pettibone is an American living in Thailand who, the indictment alleges, bought the Ban Chiang antiquities directly from “diggers” and shipped them to Olson by bribing Thai officials. Both were charged with the transportation, possession and importation of stolen antiquities.

Olson could not be reached, and his federal public defender declined to make any comment. He has previously said he bought antiquities in Thailand but did not act illegally. Pettibone, who is being sought by the authorities, could not be reached by time of going to press.

Read the complete story “Victory for Thailand in US” on The Art Newspaper’s site here. Here are copies of those recently unsealed indictments:

USA vs. Robert Olson and Jonathan Markell

USA vs. Jonathan and Cari Markell

 

 

 

Notes on a Scandal: Our Advice for Italy and American Museums

The Art Newspaper is preparing an article looking back at the looting scandal that erupted between Italy and US museums in 2005 and continues today. They’ve asked us what advice we might have for both parties.
Here’s what we had to say:
“Now is a critical time for both parties. These next few years will determine whether the spirit of cooperation achieved after a painful period of scandal will amount to more than a mere pause in the antiquities wars. Both sides must to work hard to ensure it is a lasting peace.
Italian authorities helped promote dramatic changes in collecting practices in the United States. They should resist the temptation to continue strong-arm tactics (see Padgett), which will ultimately lose them the public support they have enjoyed. Rather, they should build on their success by extending the collaboration agreements they forged with the Met and the Getty to all American museums open to the exchange of cultural property and conservation know-how. They should continue to extend the period allowed for long-term loans, and find new ways to share their remarkable collections. Finally, they should find a way, within the bounds of the legal process, to publicly release the Medici archives and other evidence of the illicit trade. Museums should confront the truth, not live in fear of the next Polaroid to be leaked from the archives.
American museums have made remarkable changes in a relatively short period of time, rejecting the illicit trade and embracing a new era of loans and collaboration. To indicate their commitment to this path, they should double down on their efforts at transparency, publishing their complete antiquities collections online with detailed provenance information available to the public. They should take a proactive role in investigating their own ancient art, treating it with the seriousness they do their provenance research of possible Nazi loot. They should disclose the troubling information they are likely to find as a gesture of their good faith embrace of reform, and as an opportunity to build collaborative relationships with foreign governments like Italy.
Two key events will provide both sides the opportunity to build trust and show their embrace of the new ethos: The trial over the Getty Bronze and the Michael Padgett case. Italy and the Getty should find a way to settle their dispute over the bronze outside of court, using the principles both sides articulated in their 2007 agreement. This will involve some painful compromise. And the Padgett case should be resolved without the need for another criminal trial like that of Marion True — lengthy, destructive and ultimately fruitless.”
What’s your advice for Italy and American museums? Let us know in the comments below.

The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

Italian culture reporter Fabio Isman has an important story in the current issue of the Art Newspaper [no link available yet] about Gianfranco Becchina, the retired Sicilian antiquities dealer who now faces trial in Rome for conspiracy to traffic in looted art.

Sicilian dealer Gianfranco Becchina gives the authors a tour of his renovated pallazzo in Castelvetrano, Sicily.

While reporting our book, Italian authorities told us that Becchina’s role in the illicit antiquities trade may have exceeded that of his now notorious rival, Giacomo Medici, who was convicted in 2004 in the biggest looting case in Italian history. Becchina, now 72 and retired from the trade in his native Sicily, is appealing a February 2011 conviction for illegal dealing and has denied pending conspiracy charges, Isman writes.

Becchina is perhaps best known as the dealer who sold the Getty its famous fake marble kouros. (See Chaps 4 and 5 of Chasing Aphrodite.) But that was just one sale in a 30-year career that Becchina meticulously archived in 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents. The archive was seized by Swiss authorities in 2001, along with 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated, Isman reveals. The dossier shared with Italian investigators, who needed two months just to digitally photograph it.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Today, the Becchina Dossier forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities, which began in 1995 with the seizure of a similar cache  of records and Polaroids belonging to Medici. Like the Medici files, the Becchina Dossier provides a striking record of the illicit trade, showing the path of thousands of looted objects from tombs across the Mediterranean to the display cases of leading museums around the world.

Becchina has previously admitted to providing objects to the Getty, the Boston MFA, the Met and museums at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Washington, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and museums in Japan. The archives reveal an even broader reach, Isman reports, including “the clandestine investigation of a million artifacts and police investigations into the affairs of 10,000 people.”

Among those tied to Becchina are the Toledo Museum of Art, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Lourve in Paris, the Merrin Gallery in New York, collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White and a large cast of middle men and looters familiar to those who have studied the illicit trade.

Italian investigators Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniella Rizzo have been combing the Becchina Dossier for several years.

Italian investigators Daniella Rizzo and Maurizio Pellegrini have had the painstaking task of combing through the dossier since its seizure, matching objects described there to known collections. Their work continues today. Isman’s revealing story is the first of what will likely be several uncovering the contents of the Becchina Dossier.

We too have reviewed the Becchina Dossier and will write more about it in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that and stories about Becchina, who the authors visited in 2006 while reporting on the book.