Stolen and Looted: an interesting article

This is part of my on-going “Stolen and Looted” series in which I examine cultural resource management practices, looting of archaeological sites, and out-right theft of artifacts.

In an online newspaper called The Spectrum, which is the online version of a Southern Utah printed paper, there was an article by Byron Loosle titled Archaeological Artifacts: Grandfather Clause or Illegal Action? In this article, Loosle summarizes very well the problem with looting artifacts from public lands and archaeological sites in general. While it’s legal in the United States to remove artifacts from private lands (assuming one has the landowner’s permission), it is actually a crime to pick up even projectile points (a.k.a. arrowheads) from the surface when on public lands like National Parks.

Loosle makes a couple of quick points an analogies that I think are effective:

the impact of any type of collecting can be crippling to science and research efforts. In order to piece together the big picture and gain a firm understanding of the history of prehistoric cultures, scientists rely not only on studying the artifacts themselves, but the locations in which they lie.

A high percentage of sites in the Great Basin, for example, are the result of transient hunting and gathering activities that occurred over about 10,000 years. Many of these transient hunting sites are small and represent only temporary use. Even the larger sites usually show only surface or very shallow deposits. These variables make extracting information from sites very difficult.

Like clothes and hairstyles, arrowhead styles changed through time. Scientists rely on these markers to date a site. The type of stone used for the point can help us understand where people had traveled, and artifact placement shows where activities occurred in the past. Just one visit from an enthusiastic collector can virtually destroy the information potential of a small site, just as repeated visits to more substantial sites leaves devastating results.

Actually, that’s a relatively large portion of the article, which is very short, but these types of internet articles seem to disappear after a few months or even weeks and Loosle’s words are worth repeating. I hope he doesn’t mind my liberal interpretation of “fair use” with this quote.

In spite of the lucidity and clarity of Loosle’s remarks, there was a single comment at the time I wrote this by someone upset that “BLM people” would expect him to just leave an arrowhead on the ground where he sees it. The commenter makes several ignorant remarks about proving he didn’t make it himself or that he found it on public lands, etc., missing completely Loosle’s main points.

Interestingly enough, I empathize -as I’m sure most archaeologists and cultural resource managers do- with the commenter’s motivation to pick up and keep an “arrowhead.” But Loosle wasn’t speaking to the casual hiker that spots a projectile point on the surface along a trail. Indeed, he notes that “approximately 90 percent of the Anasazi structural sites in Washington County have been damaged by illicit digging, with percentages just as high for sites compromised by surface collection activities in Beaver and Iron counties.”

These damages aren’t done by people walking along and spotting arrowheads. These are people who are actively digging and looking for artifacts with an intent to remove cultural resources from lands shared by us all. These people are thieves and they’re stealing from me, you and even the commentor to Loosle’s article. They’re making a profit at the expense of us ever gaining contextual knowledge which could help create a more complete understanding of our cutural heritages.


The Italian Antiquities Trial – a Brief Review

During the summer of 2005, a trial began in Italy with the goal of deciding the guilt or innocence of Marion True along with Robert Hecht, Jr in conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The trial is still underway in Rome and has certainly fulfilled the 2 year prediction some gave. The result is that several museums have already returned antiquities of illicit origin to their countries of origin, pariticuarly Italy and Greece.

True, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Hecht, the descendent of the department store mogul, didn’t begin their portions of the trial until Wednesday, November 16, 2005. Hecht was implicated following the 2004 conviction of Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer found to be responsible for one of the most sophisticated and extensive illicit antiquities smuggling rings in the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Giacomo Medici probably sold more antiquities at Sotheby’s than any other single owner. Over the years, thousands of objects from Medici had passed through the London salesroom and millions of pounds had changed hands. None of the antiquities had any provenance because all were illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy (Watson & Todeschini, p. 27 ).

True resigned from her position, recently filled by Karol Wight, in October 2005 under the fire of criticism with regard to her handling of acquisitions that had questionable origins. As she and Hecht began the trial in November 2006, Italy was demanding the return of 52 artifacts that were deemed to be stolen or looted and in the possession of the Getty. While Italy was also in negotiation with other museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks with the Getty were the most difficult. The Getty initially only agreed to return 26 out of the 52 artifacts and the point of most contention seemed to surround the fate of a bronze statue, known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, snagged in the nets of an Italian fishing trawler of the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1964.

In December of 2006, however, The Getty returned several antiquities to Greece, including a funerary wreath, a kore, and a grave marker with a marble votive. And it was in this month that Marion True sends a letter to the Getty reflecting her bitterness of the museum board’s treatment of her in the media. She accuses the Getty of using her as the fall guy for a practice of antiquities acquisition that was the board’s own responsibility.

By March, however, the Italian court gets to hear the contents of a 1992 letter that True wrote to the Getty board in which she informed them that the wreath mentioned above was “too dangerous for us to get involved with.” On the surface, it would seem that her intentions are pure, but Swiss antiquities dealer, Christoph Leon, stated that she advised the board to go ahead with the purchase the following year for $1.15 million. Leon is also on trial.

One of the interesting developments of the antiquities trial in Italy is the attention that has been spotlighted on the role of the collector as well as the museum in the antiquities trade. Indeed, without these entities, there would simply be no market for illicit antiquities. In June of 2007, the Italian court turned its attention to the American antiquities collectors who have collections that include objects looted from Italy as well as other countries. An Italian archaeologist, Daniela Rizzo, named Texas oilmen Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of whom liquidated their collections along with other assets after loosing their fortunes. Others were also mentioned, including Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, the art philanthropists who once loaned True $400,000 allegedly repaid at around the time the Fleischmans sold part of their collection to the Getty for $20 million.

Its worth noting that 90 percent of the art collections in American art museums are the result of private donation. The collectors aren’t simply being altruistic, the donations result in tax deductions equal to the current market value of the object being donated -often far beyond the price they paid for it. And museums struggling for funds are all-too-eager to accept these donations to increase their presence, particularly when the antiquities are top-rate. About a dozen of the 52 artifacts that Italy wanted returned was donated by the Fleischmans.

Most recently, while the trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continues, the Getty has agreed to return some 40 artifacts to Italy, including red and black figured craters and kylixs and amphorae, statues and bronzes. They’re even returning the Cult Statue of a Goddess. Most of the artifacts are destined to be transferred in the next several months, but the Cult Statue of a Goddess will remain on display until 2010 at the Getty Villa. The agreements that have been arrived at are important. Even though the artifacts are illicit in origin, they do serve to represent a cultural heritage and cultural ties between nations is extremely important in the field of archaeology.

The fates of Marion True, Robert Hecht and the Victorious Youth remain to be seen. Italy and the Getty agreed to “defer discussions” of the disputed bronze “until the outcome of the ongoing legal proceedings which are now underway in Pesaro, Italy.”

Related Sources

Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia (2006) The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy ‘s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Great Museums. New York: Public Affairs

The Getty (2007). Italian Ministry of Culture and J. Paul Getty Trust Reach Agreement. Press Release.

Povoledo, Elisaetta (2006). Italy Expresses Dismay with Getty’s Stand on Disputed Art. The New York Times, 11/24/06, E,1.

Higgins, Charlotte (2006). Getty returns disputed works to Greece: Antiquities may have been exported illegally: Museum tightens policies on provenance of objects. The Guardian, 12/13/06, pg. 5.

Felch, Jason; Frammolino, R. (2006). Getty lets her tak fall, ex-curator says; The trust’s silence in the art looting case is taken as sign of her guilt, Marion True asserts. Los Angeles Times, 12/29/06, Home Edition, B, 1.

Bosnian Pyramid Loses Funds!

Not a pyramid at all but rather a “natural formation,” says the Bosnian Culture Minister, Gavrilo Grahovac. So they’re pulling the plug on self-proclaimed, “amateur archaeologist,” Semir Osmanagic, who, for a little over a year now, has claimed that the geologic formations as Visoko, Bosnia are pyramids built by people in antiquity.

If true, the “pyramids” would be the largest in the world. However, not a shred of viable evidence has been produced to support the claim, which seems to be just so much fantasy generated by myster-mongers and significance-junkies. Read some of the details and a link to the story below the guide.

I found the article in the “World” section of the Croatian online news site, Javno, the exact url is here.

And the Javno article was refreshingly critical of the Osmanagic claims. And, by “critical,” I mean they gave a reasoned account of the situation compared with the mass-media attention of about a year ago.

The Culture Ministry found the “research” conducted by Osmanagic’s team to be questionable and the collaborators of Osmanagic to lack the credibility needed to allow for continued funding of their “project.” Also criticized by the Bosnian government, according to Javno, is the methods by which Osmanagic et al presented their findings, particularly the fact that they routinely kept their data from experts in relative fields.

The Bosnian Culture Ministry consulted experts including those in the fields of geology, mining, archaeology, and cultural preservation and arrived at the conclusion that Osmanagic’s foundation was not acting in the best interest of Bosnian cultural preservation and that the foundation is in violation of archaeological regulations. The Ministry even concluded that the nature of Osmanagic’s registration with the Bosnia-Herzegovina Justice Ministry may be suspect and should be “looked into.”

According to Osmanagic, his reckless destruction of the site (which does have legitimate cultural resources of the Roman period as well as perhaps others) is justified due to the “positive image” he’s created of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the world.

Personally, I’d have to disagree, since the image being created was potentially one of ridicule among serious academia. But this recent position of the Culture Ministry is one to be respected and it’s good to see truth and reason win out against pseudoscience and woo. I don’t know if the Ministry’s protection can extend to lands that are on private property or controlled by local governments, but it is certainly having the effect of keeping Osmanagic’s band of woo-woo’s from destroying cultural resources on much of the hill. According to Osmanigic’s woo-woo site, they are resuming “excavations” as of 28 June 2007 on local government controlled lands.

One can hardly blame local governments from trying to continue cashing in on Osmanagic’s nonsense since it is drawing tourism to the region. And, to be honest, the current situation isn’t much different than that of a typical cultural context in the United States, where private land owners are free to allow looters and idiots to ravage archaeological sites, plundering valuable pottery and lithic artifacts while completely ignoring the more culturally valuable contexts of these artifacts. I think, however, that many local governments are influenced by whether or not they receive federal funding, which may impact how they are required to preserve cultural and historical resources.

Meanwhile, Osmanagic and his foundation of woo are the continued laughing stock of the archaeological community -or, perhaps they would be if it weren’t for the fact that they are endangering genuine cultural resources with their pseudoscientific endeavor.

Stolen & Looted: Convicted Smuggler and Looter Reveals Trade Secrets

Pietro Casasanta spent five decades robbing his country of priceless artifacts and cultural items which he sold on the open market. According to Signor Casasanta, however, his efforts should earn him a senator’s seat instead of a jail cell.

Look below the fold to find out why.

The testimony that allowed Casasanta’s description of the methods and extent to which he and his people plundered Roman villas and archaeological sites of their artifacts and art came during the trial of Getty curator (former) Marion True and art dealer (former) Robert Hecht, who are both charged with trafficking in stolen antiquities. Though he never met with or dealt with True and Hecht directly, Casasanta was providing the court with an overview of the way the illegal antiquities market worked in Italy. He claimed that his plunders saved art that would have been destroyed anyway in development projects and fancied himself just in his work:

I saved thousands of artifacts that would have been ground into cement. … It’s a shame that they don’t make me a senator for life.

Apparently, much of the art he recovered was in the rubble being moved for construction of buildings and public works, but rather than share the treasure with the Italian public, he chose to profit from the finds. He even admitted to “excavations” of his own and the manner in which the loot was processed:

Casasanta told the court he would poke around construction sites and find treasures in piles of earth that had been dug up. But he also organized his own vast excavations – largely the ruins of ancient Roman countryside villas – working in daylight with two or three people using bulldozers over thousands of square yards.

He also explained how he and other looters would give their finds a clean record by selling them to themselves at international auction houses through dummy companies or straw men.

“This allowed me to legalize the piece and put a price on it,” he told the judges.

Its good to see the Italian and Greek governments working hard to get a handle on their national treasures. To paraphrase Colin Renfrew, it’s the curators and dealers who are perhaps the most complicit since those that plunder antiquities of their nations wouldn’t have a market without them. I think the on-going trial of True and Hecht (of the Hecht co. department stores chain) will be on the minds dealers and curators for years to come.

Source: Witness in Italy antiquities case reveals secrets of art looting

Stolen & Looted: Getty Curator on Bail and Italians to Ask Japan for Return of Antiquities

Marion True, already on trial in Italy for dealing in looted artifacts, posted bail of $19,000 US this past Wednesday. In December, the Getty returned a gold wreath and marble statue to Greece, just months after returning other artifacts including a tombstone and a marble relief (see my earlier post). And Italy is expected to request the return of antiquities from Japan, where 50 items smuggled out of Italy are alleged to reside in the Miho Museum.

Read more of these two developments below the fold.

Marion Being True?
Marion True, of course, maintains her innocence. She’s critical of the Getty for returning the artifacts without making any attempt to explain the circumstances of their procurement. True is apparently insistent that the Getty was “fully aware of the risks” involved and that she initially tried to dissuade them from procuring the items but later, according to Greek prosecutors, advised the Getty’s board to obtain them. Greek officials, however, aren’t as interested in True as they are a Serbian middleman and Swiss-based antiquities dealer Christoph Leon.

Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Curato!
The Miho Museum, a private museum in Shiga, western Japan, may have a fresco and sculpture from ancient Rome that is in dispute and, according to a museum official, there are less than 50 artifacts from the Roman period. The Associated Press picked up this news form a Japanese news report in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, that indicated the Italian government plans to put together a catalog of 100 antiquities that have been smuggled or otherwise illicitly removed from the country. The report also indicated that the Italian government planned to “ask the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency to cooperate in recovering them.”

Stolen & Looted: Grave Robbers in China

In China, looters are robbing graves at a rate that far out-paces the ability for Chinese authorities and archaeologists to keep up.

Still, public officials of the Gansu province report having arrested 1,283 people and seizing 1,959 artifacts and cultural items between 1998 and 2005. Gansu is where some of the earliest known sites of Chinese civilization are evident. And it was in this province that grave robbers recently discovered two important sites:

[O]ne dat[ed] back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and the other to ancestors of China’s first emperor Qinshihuang. […] The Warring States grave in Zhangjiachuan county was discovered last August when local police caught grave robbers who had unearthed an ancient tomb, that had remained hidden for more than 2,000 years. By mid December, archaeologists had excavated from the grave more than 500 pieces of items of gold, silver, bronze, iron, bone and porcelain
as well as more than 800 other decorated relic pieces.

Read more at Grave robbery keeps Chinese archaeologists bustling around.

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Stolen and Looted: Who Does the Past Belong To?

It would seem that The J. Paul Getty Museum disagrees with the nation of Italy with regard to ownership of antiquities in their possession:

Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said that an offer by the J. Paul Getty Museum to hand over 26 disputed antiquities doesn’t go far enough and that the museum needs to return all of the artifacts Italy has requested.

Italy is asking for 21 others, including “Statue of a Victorious Youth,” known as the Getty Bronze. The Los Angeles- based J. Paul Getty Museum, the world’s richest private art institution, said on Nov. 21 that it would return only some of the contested objects.

In a statement issued after the press conference, Getty Museum Director Michael Brand said the museum was “deeply saddened” by Italy’s response, and offered to continue talks. Brand invited Rutelli, who plans to be in the U.S. next week, to the Getty Villa, a museum of Roman, Etruscan and Greek art, “so he can see for himself the impact the magnificent works of art displayed there have on the American public.”

The quote above is found at:
Italy Says Getty Needs to Surrender All Disputed Artifacts []
But it raises the question: “who does the past belong to?” I don’t know the provenance of the antiquities in question or read as yet whether or not there is any documented evidence of their existence before the 1970 UNESCO conference (though it would seem there isn’t given the Italian government’s interest in them), but should museums be required to give back antiquities that draw thousands of visitors and inspire many to take an interest in history and archaeology? I say yes. Particularly if the artifacts are post-1970 and have no provenance. Clearly, with these antiquities, museum curators should have known something was not on the up-and-up if a dealer was unwilling or unable to provide provenance. Museums stand to loose millions of dollars in handing back stolen and looted property, but such is the risk they took by accepting questionable goods to begin with.

In other looted news:

“Relics looted from the Middle East being sold on the Internet and at markets in Britain may be helping to fund international terrorism,” which can be read at: Artifacts sold in Britain could be funding terrorism []

Poverty makes Bulgarians Rob Archaeological Heritage – National Geographic []
The trade in artifacts is more profitable than drug trade in poverty-striken Bulgaria, where the middle-class is now “flat broke” and looking for subsistence. Their strategy is to loot their cultural heritage of Thracian gold. The risk associated with such activity was once considered great, but desperate times may call for desperate measures. It continues the question of “who does the past belong to” in a different perspective: do the Bulgarian people have the right to sell their own cultural heritage on the black market in order to sustain themselves? The archaeologist in me balks at the idea. The father in me understands the need to feed and clothe the ones you love beyond all else.

Holocaust heirs still being sought []
The Czech Republic is wants to answer “who does the past belong to?” and has even set up a website to do it. During World War II, the Nazi regime and the Gestapo confiscated thousands of art and cultural items from Jewish citizens as part of the Holocaust. Earlier this month, the Czech Republic voted to abandon a deadline for the families of Holocaust victims to reclaim their property, which includes: “[o]
rnate metal goblets for the Seder table. Porcelain figurines and marble sculptures. Oil paintings dating to the 17th century. Hundreds of copies of the Torah and other Holy Scriptures.”

They’ve also established a website (set up by Sotheby’s, ironically enough) called Restitution-Art [] to help locate individual pieces of art and cultural items.

In the past four years, some 20,000 pieces — textiles, liturgical objects, furniture, paintings and sculptures — have been identified as Holocaust spoils, said Kraus. About 3,400 pieces have been entered into a searchable online database: The rest will be gradually added, but until then a complete list is kept at the Culture Ministry.