Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Swiss return 2 sarcophaguses, 45 boxes of Etruscan art to Italy

Monday, February 1st, 2016

The Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva returned two priceless earthenware sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of exceptional Etruscan artworks to Italy last month. They were found where tens of thousands of looted ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are usually found: in a giant warehouse at the Geneva Free Ports. They had been there for 15 years, stashed in the time of man’s innocency when looters, smugglers, middlemen and their brothers and sisters in the high-end antiquities market could do whatever the hell they wanted in Switzerland and nobody would question them.

Oh, if the walls of those warehouses could talk, what tales they would tell! Unique treasures fresh from the illegal dig, mud and salts still caked on the surface, files and Polaroids of even more unique treasures, many of them already in the hands of major museums, “Swiss private collection” ownership histories so blatantly fake they would make a seven-year-old forging a sick note from his mother stare in awed wonder at the sheer brazenness of it.

This particular smuggler’s cove was discovered after Italian authorities asked the Swiss to look for an Etruscan sarcophagus illegally excavated and thought to have been smuggled out of the country into Switzerland. The request, made in March of 2014, launched a search of the warehouse. The sarcophagus they were looking for wasn’t there, but a lot more was.

A search led by prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, at the Geneva Free Ports revealed an unexpected treasure. Two rare sarcophaguses of Etruscan origin – their lid representing a man and a woman lying – were found in a warehouse, as well as many other invaluable archaeological remains. The antiques had been stored there for more than 15 years, registered under the name of an offshore company.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the sarcophaguses first, then extended the decision to all items, considering their suspected illegal provenance. Among these are bas-reliefs, vases and fragments of decorated vases, frescos, heads, busts, and several other votive or religious pieces.

An expert examined the artifacts and determined they were likely looted from the central Italian regions of Umbria and Lazio which were Etruscan territory in the first millennium B.C. Investigators from the Carabinieri Art Squad were able to establish a connection between some of the artifacts and the tomb robbers whose shenanigans had sparked the initial investigation.

The legal machinery of Italy and Switzerland agreed that the objects should be returned to Italy, but the repatriation process was delayed by an appeal from the warehouse owner who wanted to keep the goods until he got paid for 15 years worth of storage. Why he had been so saintly as to allow a decade and a half of unpaid bills is unclear.

The press release from the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office didn’t name the person who filled the warehouse with ancient treasure, referring to him only as a “former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world.” That’s Robin Symes. Here’s a quick summary of the Symes saga I wrote ages ago, but to make a brief overview of a long story even shorter, for many decades Symes was the antiquities dealer to the rich and famous and the biggest museums in the world. The champagne lifestyle of chauffeured Bentley and homes in London, New York, Athens and the Cyclades islands came to an abrupt end when his business parter and long-time companion, Christo Michaelides, died in an accidental fall in 1999. The subsequent lawsuit from the deep-pocketed Michaelides family drove Symes into bankruptcy and, thanks to his inability to stop perjuring himself for one second, jail.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, Symes lived in Geneva where he could stuff untold ancient artifacts into Free Port warehouses. Some of the key lies he told on the stand, in fact, were about his warehouse activities. He told the court that he had five warehouses in Geneva holding his inventory when in reality he had 29 of them spread throughout London, New York and Geneva.

Symes, whose current whereabouts are unknown, cannot be prosecuted in Italy because the statute of limitations has expired, but this repatriation could have a chain reaction that puts pressure on the UK to return more than 700 disputed artifacts being held by the Symes’ liquidator. Objects in dispute have turned up on auction catalogues and in 2010 the Home Office instructed the liquidator to sell 1,000 pieces from Symes’ estate to settle his exorbitant tax bill. Italy complained vociferously and the sales were withdrawn, but the question of what to do with Symes’ stolen lucre is still unsettled. If Switzerland, which only ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 2003 and was the pivot point for this illegal traffic for decades, can send Symes’ loot back to Italy, the UK should certainly feel the heat.

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Lost Caravaggio Nativity recreated

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

On the night of the 17th or early morning of the 18th of October, 1969, one or two men broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, and stole the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. They cut the monumental painting (9.7 by 6.5 feet) out of the frame and made off with it into the night. It was never seen again.

Over the years various stories have emerged attending its fate, none of them good. Mafia turncoats have proffered up a profusion of tales. One claimed it was hanging in the secret location where the Cosa Nostra leaders, known as the Commissione or Cupola, meet to make decisions and adjudicate disputes. Another testified in the 1996 trial of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti (who was accused of being mob connected) that he was one of the thieves who stole the Nativity on commission. He and his colleague had done such a bad job of cutting out and roughly folding the painting that the man who commissioned the theft wept when he saw the work and refused to accept it.

Another witness said the painting had been stolen by local amateurs who had seen a TV show about it and knew it was basically unguarded. They got in trouble with the Mafia for pulling such a heist on their turf without permission, so they had to hand it over. It then passed through the hands of a couple of other Mafiosi before ending up with murderer and heroin trafficker Gerlando Alberti who tried to sell it for a dozen years without success. When he was about to be arrested for yet another murder, he rolled the painting in a rug and put it in an iron chest with five kilos of heroin and several million dollars. When the cops went to the location where the chest had ostensibly been buried, it was gone.

Most recently in 2009 former hitman Gaspare Spatuzza testified that his boss had told him the Nativity was given to the Pullara family for safekeeping. They hid it in a farm outbuilding where it was eaten by rats and pigs and the remnants were burned.

As all these stories proliferate but lead nowhere, the small chapel adorned with white stucco sculptures in the Oratory of San Lorenzo where Caravaggio’s Nativity once towered over the altar was left bereft. A four-by-five inch color photograph taken by Enzo Brai in 1968 was blown up and inserted into the frame, but even a nice picture by a professional photographer can’t even begin to convey the greatness of the original when blown up to such a large size.

In December of 2014, Factum Arte got involved. The Madrid-based company is an innovator in using digital technology to create high quality reproductions of art. They made the exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb which opened last year at the Valley of the Kings, and that exceptional virtual tour through Piranesi’s fantasy prisons.

Factum Arte also made a frankly mind-boggling facsimile of Veronese’s gigantic 22-by-33-foot Wedding at Cana for the Palladio Refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The original was made specifically for that space and hung there for 235 years before it was looted by Napoleon’s troops. It is now in the Louvre and they ain’t coughing it up any time soon, so in 2006 they agreed to let Factum Arte scan the original to make an accurate facsimile for the Refectory. It was a smashing success.

The quality and beauty of the Cana facsimile sparked the idea of creating a better stand-in for the missing Nativity. Early this year Factum Arte began creating a rematerialization of the Caravaggio’s painting using Brai’s photograph and some very detailed black-and-white glass-plate negatives taken by conservators who worked on the Nativity in 1951. To say it was a complicated process is a significant understatement.

The experts used sophisticated, 52 mega-pixel cameras and purpose-built digital printers to make copies of the images, steadily building them up into a composite image that was as faithful to Caravaggio’s original canvas as technically possible. They painted in details in a style that was true to Caravaggio’s famous “chiaroscuro” technique of depicting light and shade. They were even able to replicate the original brushstrokes left by the Renaissance painter.

“We worked by hand to decipher and interpret areas where the photographic information was not sufficient,” said [artist Adam] Lowe, who did the painting along with a colleague.

“It was a constant process, moving between the digital realm and the physical realm. We created multiple layers to build up the densities of tone and colour. We took photographs about the size of a postcard and then stitched them together digitally,” said Mr Lowe, who founded Factum Arte, a multidisciplinary workshop aimed at art conservation, in 2000.

Factum Arte was fortunate to have precious data on Caravaggio’s brushstrokes and pigments. In September and October of 2009, they took detailed high resolution photographs of the three Caravaggio paintings in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to make facsimiles for the artist’s hometown of Caravaggio. For more details about how they made the magic happen, read this pdf from Factum Arte’s website.

They printed the finished file as an ultra high resolution digital print on canvas prepped with gesso. Once in Palermo, the painting was stretched and hung in the frame that once held the original. It was unveiled Saturday with much fanfare and emotion for the return in any form of one of Palermo’s most beloved treasures. The President of Italy, Palermo native Sergio Mattarella, presided over the ceremonies.

The work is funded by Sky Arte TV and Ballandi Multimedia who have made a documentary about the theft and the creation of the facsimile which is set to debut in January in Europe. No word on streaming services or US distribution.

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Stolen Dutch Golden Age paintings in the hands of Ukrainian nationalist militia

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

On the night of January 10th, 2005, four burglars broke into the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, and stole 21 paintings, the night the museum celebrated its 125th anniversary, four people stole 24 paintings and drawings and 70 silver objects from the museum’s collection. The market value of the stolen pieces was estimated at 10 million euros at the time, but believe it or not, the paintings weren’t insured. The museum had an excellent security system which did not appear to be damaged, but the alarm never went off and the burglary was only discovered by employees the next morning who arrived to find the place in a shambles with display cases shattered and paintings cut out of the frames. The damage to the museum facilities was in the millions of euros.

The stolen paintings date to the 17th and 18th centuries and include portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, allegories and maritime scenes, by well-known Dutch Golden Age artists like Jan van Goyen, Jacob Waben and Matthias Withoos. The burglars had suspiciously fine taste, selecting the most important paintings in the collection which suggests careful premeditation. This is usually where the eternal chimera of the museum heist gets bruited about, ie, that the theft was commissioned by an underworld collector or dealer with a specific looting list, a perpetually popular theory that never seems to pan out in real life. Art thieves do the research and pick the most valuable stuff because they think they can sell it for the best price. That doesn’t mean they have a shadowy villain in a volcano lair directing their movements, or even a sure buyer lined up. More often than not they wind up sitting on the unmovable works for years because nobody wants to touch pieces that are so obviously hot.

That appears to have been the pattern in the Westfries Museum heist too. For years museum and city officials sought the paintings to no avail. Last year they finally got their first big break in the case: a picture of one of the stolen paintings was found on a Ukrainian website. In July of this year, two people representing the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia informed Dutch embassy officials in Kiev that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings. They offered proof in the form of a classic from the kidnapper’s handbook: a picture of one of the paintings next to a current Ukrainian newspaper. They also claimed to have the stolen silverware, but they made no offer proof.

The militia men said the paintings were discovered in a villa that once belonged to cronies of the former Ukrainian president. Brand finds this backstory just a tad too convenient to be believable since it relies on the militia just happening to find a treasure trove of art stolen a decade ago in the home of its political enemies. Boris Goemenjoek, deputy commander of the volunteer OUN battalion, offered the art. He was acting under orders from the Oleg Tjagnibok, leader of the far right nationalist political party Svoboda. Brand believes Valentin Nalivaitsjenko, former head of the Ukrainian secret service is also involved.

The militia was willing to arrange a return of the paintings on condition that the Ukrainian police not be involved (page two of the kidnapper’s handbook). The embassy told the Dutch police and the municipal authorities of Hoorn were given the chance to negotiate directly with the militia. Aware that dealing with armed criminal organizations was a tad beyond their purview, the city officials enlisted the aid of a professional art investigator Arthur Brand.

Brand noticed during the initial interactions that the present owners had a completely unrealistic idea of the value of the stolen paintings. They estimated the value at 50 million euros. Brand presented a research report to his Ukrainian contacts that showed that, based on recent auction proceeds of comparable works of the same painters, the entire collection should be estimated at a minimum of 250,000 euros and a maximum of 1.3 million euros, if in good condition. Because the latter did not appear to be the case, he estimated the current market value at no more than 500,000 euros.

On behalf of the municipality of Hoorn, Brand offered the militia a compensation, but received no response to the offer. The other party contended that a 5 million euro finder’s fee was in order and would not settle for less whereupon the municipality urged the ministry of Foreign Affairs to attempt to expedite the case along diplomatic channels. Talks on the highest political levels were held but to no avail. At present, there are serious indications that the current owners of the stolen art are attempting to sell it to others. Further research by Brand shows that other highly placed individuals are operating behind the scenes of the volunteer battalion. The stolen art is used as a pawn in a non-transparent Ukrainian political arena riddled with internal power struggles, favouritism and corruption.

With the art in danger of being sold out from under them, the Hoorn municipality and Westfries Museum have decided to drop the proverbial dime on these thieves. They’ve gone to the press and are making as big a stink as possible to stymie the OUM’s attempts at arranging a quick sale.

According to the museum director Ad Geerdink: “We have done everything we can and have reached a dead end. Now that it seems that the art works are disappearing again, we want to sound the alarm to let potential buyers know that they are dealing with stolen art, to give a correct representation of the actual value of the art works, but also to send a signal that these art works only belong in Hoorn. They are invaluable to the story we are telling about the extremely riveting period of the Golden Age in West Friesland.”

The Dutch Foreign Ministry has brought up the issue with Ukrainian politicians “at the highest level” and all this publicity might just light enough of a fire under them to burn through the power struggles, favoritism and corruption. The Ukrainian ambassador to The Netherlands contacted museum officials yesterday to tell them he would work to recover the works.

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Frescoes torn from Paestum tomb walls found

Friday, November 27th, 2015

A group of five frescoes torn from the walls of a tomb in Paestum, southern Italy, have been found by the Carabinieri art theft squad. The frescoes date to around the 4th century B.C. and depict a warrior returning triumphant from battle on his horse followed by attendants, one of them driving a mule laden with spoils, and being greeted by the lady of the household and two of her servants. They originally adorned the tomb of a wealthy man of the indigenous southern Italian tribe of the Lucanians before looters got to them. Unfortunately, since the frescoes were brutally removed and smuggled into the netherworld of the antiquities trade, we don’t know which tomb they came from or anything about its contents that might give us more information about the tomb’s owner.

The slabs were discovered last May, 20 years after the seminal investigation that first alerted the art squad to their theft. Operation Geryon was launched by the Carabinieri in 1995 after the theft of eight Greek vases from a Castle of Melfi in south central Italy. A fatal accident ultimately broke the case, when dealer Pasquale Camera crashed his car and died. Highway police found Polaroids of what appeared to be freshly looted artifacts in Camera’s car. A subsequent search of his house which turned up hundreds more pictures and a paper trail a mile long which named names, leading to 70 more raids and the arrest of close to 20 people involved in the looted antiquities trade.

The frescoes were found locked in a bank in Campione d’Italia, a town in Lombardy just a few miles form the Swiss border, which is a shocking twist to the oft-told tale because usually the ill-gotten goods cross the border into Switzerland as soon as possible. The collector who was in illegal possession of them claimed he had no idea they were stolen. We’re to believe he saw five Lucanian fresco panels, each of them cracked and damaged in the same way across the middle, and didn’t realize those were the characteristic wounds left by smugglers when they broken the frescoes in half for easier illegal export.

The recovered paintings will be on display at the Historic Museum of the Carabinieri in Rome before moving to their permanent home at the Paestum Archaeological Museum on January 10th.

Paestum was a Greek colony founded around 600 B.C. 65 miles south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. They called it Poseidonia after Poseidon, god of the sea. The Lucanians conquered the city in the late 5th century B.C. and renamed it Paistos. The name was Latinized to Paestum when the Romans took control in 273 B.C. after their final defeat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus whom the Lucanians had sided with against Rome.

The Lucanians left behind hundreds of richly decorated tombs in necropoli around Paestum. They are and have long been a prime target for tombaroli, the Italian term for the grave robbers who, through chains of increasingly well-connected and well-paid dealers, supply the international antiquities market with archaeological treasures that auction houses and museums can pretend come from “a Swiss private collection.”

Browse this Flickr album for a marvelous collection of photographs of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the Paestum Archaeological Museum. The ones with men reclining at a symposium and the last picture of the diver are from the Tomb of Diver and are Greek, not Lucanian. The painting of the diver is unique in its iconography and is the most famous artifact in the museum, so much so that the silhouette of the man diving is the museum’s logo. Wikimedia has a great many pictures of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the museum as well.

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Totem pole looted by John Barrymore returns home

Monday, October 26th, 2015

In 1931, star of stage and screen John Barrymore sailed to Alaska aboard his new 120-foot yacht the Infanta. His purpose was to hunt Kodiak bear, but he took a different kind of trophy when he visited the village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska: a totem pole 25 feet high. Barrymore had the pole sawn down leaving just a stump behind, then had it sawn into three sections to make it easier to carry on the deck of his yacht. Once home, the actor installed the totem pole on the grounds of his Beverly Hills estate, Bella Vista.

Tuxecan had been abandoned 30 years earlier when a clan leader convinced the Tlingit tribe members who lived there to move south to the town of Klawock where there was a new school and the state’s first cannery. They left behind a forest of totem poles which the villagers occasionally returned to tend to, but over time began to tip over and decay, a process that the Tlingit held to be part of the natural lifecycle of kooteeyaa (totem poles).

Tlingit totem poles were carved from single trunks of Western red cedar and raised outside people’s homes. The animals from a clan’s crest were carved on the poles, but each one had a different combination of figures and a different meaning. They celebrated family history, could commemorate a person or event or broadcast a wrong done to the pole’s owner. Some were funerary monuments that included the ashes of the dead in bentwood boxes placed in niches in the back the pole. While the were not objects of religious veneration per se, they were and are held to be sacred.

The higher the pole, the more prestigious it was. The highest poles in Tuxecan reached 30 feet or so, which means the 25-footer Barrymore stole was a very important piece in its day. Its importance has only increased with the passage of time and the loss of almost all of the more than 100 totem poles that once graced Tuxecan. Only two other original totem poles survived, moved to Klawock along with the tribe at the turn of the last century.

The totem pole makes an ominous appearance in Gene Fowler’s biography of John Barrymore, Good Night, Sweet Prince. Barrymore was warned that removing the totem pole would bring him back luck, and Barrymore, who had an interest in diverse religious traditions, was somewhat concerned that the tribal gods “might take a notion into their whimsical noggins to wreak vengeance on the thief.” If they did, they used his preexisting alcohol addiction to get to him. John Barrymore died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1942.

The Barrymore estate was sold after his death, and the pole was bought by collector Ralph Altman. Altman sold it in the 1950s to actor, art historian and dedicated collector Vincent Price who had it installed next to his patio in his quarter-acre backyard in Benedict Canyon. Price loved it dearly, including photos of it in his books and showing it off to Edward R. Murrow in a 1958 episode of Person to Person. He described it in his memoirs as “sculptural and dignified and beautiful” with “its lovely warm browns and reds still glowing on the three great figures which compose its height. At the bottom a great bear-like creature, paws pleading; and on his head, a pale lean man who holds before him a gigantic fish which reaches from his shoulders to his toes; and on his head, hawk-nosed and savage, crouches a great bird, his tail behind him abristle with red feathers made of shingling.”

Price donated the totem pole to the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1981. The museum didn’t have space to exhibit the entire pole, so the top third was on display in the museum’s Kinau Courtyard while the rest was kept in climate-controlled storage. The top third joined its two brothers in storage 12 years ago when it was taken down during a renovation.

Meanwhile, University of Alaska Anchorage anthropology professor and Tlingit expert Steve Langdon stumbled on the totem pole in the 1990s while researching the Tlingit villages of Prince of Wales Island in a Ketchikan museum. He was looking through some old photographs when he came across a snapshot of Vincent Price standing in front of the totem pole. The cactuses indicated that this picture had not been taken in Alaska. Langdon consulted with Jonathan Rowan, a carver and cultural educator from Klawock, who helped him identify the pole in photographs of Tuxecan from the late 19th century.

Langdon, with the blessing of Tlingit leaders, visited the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2013 with his evidence in tow. Museum director Stephan Jost recognized that Langdon had the goods. A formal investigation by the museum determined that the totem pole was indeed an object of cultural patrimony and the official repatriation process began in January of this year. On Thursday, October 22nd, the kooteeyaa was formally returned to Tlingit tribal members including Jonathan Rowan and his daughter Eva in a ceremony at the Honolulu museum. This week it sails for Alaska.

Once home, the totem pole will be studied by Rowan and other experts in an attempt to identify which clan it originally belonged to and whether it was a mortuary monument. Altman told Price that it was, that the yacht crew members who cut it down “threw Mom and Dad in the creek” before sawing it in three. It will be difficult to determine whether it was a funerary piece because at some point during its California sojourn the back was back dug out to insert a pair of metal stabilizing rods and Barrymore had converted it into a fountain. Correcting Price’s understanding of the animals and identifying the crest is less daunting. Rowan believes from the photographs that the “bear-like creature” at the bottom may be a wolf, the “gigantic fish” is almost certainly a killer whale and the bird up top is an eagle.

If you’d like to learn more about the totem pole saga, Steve Langdon’s lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage last year is on YouTube in two parts.

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New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

Monday, September 28th, 2015

A newly discovered clay tablet in the Sulaymaniah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has corrected the order of chapters, filled in blanks and added 20 lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the invasion of Iraq and subsequent orgy of looting, the museum has a matter of policy paid smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was acquired by the museum in late 2011 as part of a collection of 80-90 tablets sold by an unnamed shady character. Professor Farouk Al-Rawi examined the collection while the seller haggled with museum official Abdullah Hashim. When Al-Rawi he saw this tablet, he told Hashim to pay whatever the seller wanted: $800.

Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert. Once it was clean, Al-Rawi identified it as a fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablet is the left half of a six-column tablet written in Neo-Babylonian. It’s composed of three fragments that have been glued together, oddly enough, probably either by the original excavators or the seller. It is 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) high, 9.5 cm (3.7 inchs) wide and three cm (1.2 inches) thick.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

The newly discovered tablet casts a new whole light on Humbaba and his forest home. From the absolutely fascinating paper about the find (pdf), which includes the entire text of the tablet both transliterated and translated into English, published by Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll. 12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Ḫumbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Ḫumbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.

The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Ḫumbaba is now better preserved (300–308). The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Ḫumbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland’ (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Ḫumbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.

Here is a video of Hazha Jalal, curator of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, displaying the tablet and talking about it in Kurdish. Translation below courtesy of neurologist and Mesopotamian history buff Dr. Osama S. M. Amin.

“The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period, 2000-1500 BCE. It is a part of tablet V of the epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and that Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and many new things this version has added, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and any one can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 morning to noon. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”

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Olmec relief looted 45 years ago found in France

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

An Olmec relief chiselled off a rock face in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in the early 70s has surfaced in France and was officially returned to Mexico in a ceremony at the Mexican Embassy in Paris.

The relief was discovered at the archaeological site of Xoc and dates to between 1,150 and 900 B.C. It’s 220 centimeters (7’2″) high, 115 cm (3’9″) wide and about 30 cm (one foot) deep. It depicts a man in profile, except for the chest an arms which face front. He has some characteristic Olmec features — thick legs, no neck, small feet, a very high headdress with a crossed band decoration — and some that are very rarely seen in Olmec art, like the round earplug with a curved tassel hanging from it and the sharp talons on his feet. He is clad in breechcloth tied by a large square element. He carries a baton or a knife in his right hand and a bundle in the crook of his right arm that is likely maize.

It was first discovered in the 1920s, but its remote location and the sparsity of information kept people from exploring it any detail. A few archaeologists saw it, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which 20 years later would become an iconic Oscar-winning movie by John Houston starring Humphrey Bogart, who photographed it in the 20s. Thirty years later the relief was photographed by Wolfgang Cordan, a German-born poet, fighter in the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation and anthropologist who roamed the ancient sites of Chiapas in the 1950s and together with William Brito Sansores devised the (now largely discredited) Mérida System of deciphering Maya hieroglyphics. Cordan published the picture in a 1964 book about his Mexican travels, but was deliberately vague on its location.

Because very few traces of an Olmec presence have been found in the hot, humid jungles of the eastern highlands of Chiapas and all of the previous finds were small, portable artifacts, the relief was of great archaeological significance. In 1968 Susanna Ekholm-Miller of the New World Archaeological Foundation undertook to locate the relief in Cordan’s picture. She found a reference in a 1957 survey narrowing down the Xoc site to somewhere between the towns of La Martinica and El Porvenir. She took a puddle jumper to the El Porvenir landing strip and quickly discovered that the locals knew about the site and the relief. An hour-and-a-half horseback ride later, she was standing in front of the rock carving.

Ekholm-Miller’s expedition was a brief one. Her field director approved a two-day trip, so she had less than two days to clean, photograph and map the site before flying back out. In July of 1972, she got approval for a second, longer trip with a larger team. The elements conspired to make it a much harder and longer slog this time giving them only a day and a half to work on the site. When they arrived, they found to their horror that the relief had been looted.

From her 1973 paper on the find, The Olmec Rock Carving at Xoc, Chiapas, Mexico:

[I]t is impossible to describe the shock and anger we felt when we approached the nearby rock face where previously Eduardo Martinez and I had viewed the magnificent Olmec figure. The carving was no longer there. It had been brutally and completely removed. Apparently it was chiselled off the rock face, probably piece by piece. At least a 30 cm-thick layer of the surface had been removed; a huge pile of fragments of the stone lay at its base, though we could find none that bore any definite carving. We assume that the carved surface is on its way to the antiquities market, undoubtedly in many pieces, as the rock had fissures in it besides being of a limestone which fractures easily.

In the hope that the unique and priceless artifact might someday be found again, Ekholm-Miller published all her photographs of the relief. They were used to make copies for scholars to study. Though her paper was widely disseminated and the lost relief was very famous among pre-Columbian experts, neither hide nor hair of it was seen or even heard of in the past 45 years.

Now that the relief has been recovered, we know that it was cut into four pieces for transportation. When it arrived in France is unknown, but it was soon after the theft. The previous “owners” inherited it and had no idea what it was or where it came from. They contacted pre-Columbian art expert Jacques Blazy and Drouot auctioneer Jean-Claude Binoche to have it appraised. Even stashed in a dark basement, cut into four pieces and filthy, the relief was immediately recognized by the experts, thanks to Ekholm-Miller’s work. They told the family that the piece could not be legally sold.

Blazy and Binoche took the relief to a conservator to have it cleaned and then had it authenticated by preeminent archaeologist Dominique Michelet. One the authenticity of the piece was confirmed, they contacted the Mexican Embassy and arranged for the formal repatriation ceremony.

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Retired electrician found guilty of holding stolen Picassos

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle have been convicted of possessing stolen goods, namely 271 drawings, collages and paintings by Pablo Picasso. The trove of previously unknown works came to light in September of 2010 when Pierre Le Guennec carried a suitcase full of them to the Picasso Administration to have them authenticated. His story was that either Picasso himself or his wife Jacqueline gave the art to Pierre as a gift for having installed a security system and done some other work around the Côte d’Azur estate.

Picasso’s son Claude found this account unbelievable because while the artist was generous with his prolific work, he routinely signed and dated a piece before giving it to someone. There was certainly no precedent for Picasso handing over hundreds of random, unsigned pieces at one time. Claude pressed charges against the Le Guennecs for receipt of stolen goods.

Pierre and Danielle gave different accounts of how they had acquired this multi-million dollar treasure.

[On the stand Pierre] recalled that one day, in a corridor, Jacqueline Picasso had handed him a closed box containing the works, saying: “Here, it’s for you. Take it home.” He said: “Thank you, madame” and they never discussed it again. During the inquiry, Danielle Le Guennec had separately recalled a different version: that her husband came home with a stuffed rubbish bag, and told her Picasso had given the works to him when tidying his studio.

Both stories strained credulity, as far as the Picasso heirs were concerned, and no clear answers were forthcoming in court. They do suspect that third parties may be involved.

The Picasso heirs’ lawyer had suggested in court that the couple might have been manipulated by an art smuggling ring. Pierre Le Guennec had claimed that, despite knowing nothing about art, he had personally used books about Picasso to draw up an inventory that was found with the cache of 180 lithographs, collages and paintings and 91 drawings. But in court, lawyers cast doubt over whether he wrote the inventory himself. It contained a note about a similarity to a Picasso work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But in court, Pierre Le Guennec seemed not to have ever heard of MoMA.

The couple are in the 70s now and won’t be going to jail. They were given a two-year suspended sentence and the collection will be returned to Picasso’s heirs. The court made no determination as to who was responsible for the theft.

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Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

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30 euro “art craft” is $15 million Picasso

Monday, August 17th, 2015

A package described on the shipping label as an “art craft” worth 30 euros ($37) turns out to have been a stolen Picasso worth $15 million. The package was sent to the US from Belgium last December and was opened by customs agents at the Port of Newark who were acting on a lead. The sender’s name was listed only as “Robert” and the destination address was a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens. Because the statements on the label and the commercial invoice describing it as an “art craft/toy” were false, the painting was seized. Authorities have made no comment on any current investigation of the theft and attempted smuggling, who the “Robert” in Belgium might be, who the recipient in the United States was meant to be.

On January 30th, experts authenticated the work as La Coiffeusse (The Hairdresser), an early cubist piece painted by Picasso in 1911. It was once owned by art historian and hero of two world wars Georges Salles who bequeathed it to the National Museums of France after his death in 1966. Salles’ mother was Claire Eiffel, daughter of engineer Gustave Eiffel of tower fame, so from a young age he was traveled in high cultural circles. He studied literature and law and school and immersed himself in the rich artistic world of pre-war Paris. He fought for France in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice. After the war he become the Louvre’s curator of Asian Art. He was the director of the Guimet Museum in Paris when World War II broke out. Again he fought for his country, this time in the French Resistance, and was instrumental in keeping the irreplaceable artistic patrimony of France’s museums out of Nazi hands. His efforts won him yet another Croix de Guerre.

Salles was a close friend of Picasso’s. There are four drawings of Salles by Picasso in the National Museums bequest, and it was Salles who persuaded Picasso to directly donate several major works to the National Museums. After Salles’ death, his Picassos were assigned to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, among them La Coiffeusse. The painting was not on display when it disappeared. The last time it was exhibited was at the Kunsthalle Munich in 1998 after which it returned to the Pompidou Center where it was kept in storage. Only when another institution inquired about a possible loan of the piece in 2001 did museum personnel realize that it was gone. The museum reported the theft to the police in November, 2001, and the work has been listed on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database since then.

Once the authenticity of the painting and was confirmed, Loretta Lynch, then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now Attorney General, filed a civil forfeiture complaint which allows the government to gain legal title to a forfeited good and, in this case, to return it to its rightful owner. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah R. Saldaña officially handed over the painting to Frédéric Doré, Deputy Chief of Mission of France at a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 13th.

While the museum is keen to kill the fatted calf and display its prodigal daughter as soon as she gets home, La Coiffeusse is going to need some recovery time. In the (at least) 14 years since the theft, the painting has significantly deteriorated. Apparently the thieves and whoever else has put their hands on it over the course of a decade and a half treated it like the 30 euro handicraft they claimed it was. It will require extensive conservation before it can be exhibited.

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