Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

I fell for a “Swiss Private Collection” lie, dammit

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

My only excuse, and it’s a terrible one that you should throw back in my face in disgust, is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell for it too. Had they accepted a fraudulent ownership record starring a Swiss private collector a few years back I would have laughed mirthlessly at the very idea of it, but the sensitivity to potentially looted artifacts is so much higher now that museums and auction houses have been dragged kicking and screaming into giving a damn by source countries creating legal and PR nightmares for them. That such a recent, high-profile, much-publicized sale could be a looted artifact with phony papers is an ugly testament to how deep the rot runs in the antiquities market.

In September 2017, the Met announced the acquisition of what is without question the most beautiful, perfectly-preserved and uniquely rich cartonnage coffin I’ve ever seen. Made from layers of linen, gesso and resin, covered in gilding front and back and lined with sheets of silver foil inside the lid, the mummiform coffin was the final resting place of Late Ptolemaic official Nedjemankh, a priest of Heryshef in Heracleopolis Magna.

The gilded coffin of Nedjemankh went on display immediately in the museum’s Egyptian Art gallery, and soon got a dedicated exhibition that ran from July 2018 until Tuesday, February 12th. Or at least it was meant to. There was supposed to be an exhibition tour beginning on February 22nd. No longer. I don’t know exactly which day, but the coffin was taken off display this week.

On Friday the museum announced that it was returning the coffin to Egypt because the Manhattan’s DA Office had found evidence that the Swiss private collection and legal export document from 1971 were nothing but happy horseshit conjured up by traffickers in looted antiquities. Not only was it not legally exported in 1971, it didn’t leave Egypt until 2011 and I don’t need to tell you the circumstances were very, very far from legal.

Notwithstanding the representations that the coffin had been exported from Egypt in 1971, recent evidence suggests it was looted from Egypt in 2011. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said, “Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny. Following my Office’s investigation, this beautiful piece of ancient Egyptian history will soon be returned to its rightful place. Our Antiquities Trafficking Unit will continue to root out stolen antiquities in our fight to stop the looting of historic sites and the trade of stolen artifacts around the world.”

The seller was a Paris dealer named Christophe Kunicki. The Met is less than pleased with him having paid 3.5 million euros (just under $4 million) for the coffin in July of 2017, just six years after it was stolen from Egypt. This character has yet to comment on the fraudulent sale and the Met plans to consider “all means,” according to spokesman Kenneth Weine, for the recovery of the $4 million they were conned out of. There is no word on any criminal action that might be taken against him, and there probably won’t be.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today it will review and revise its acquisitions process. Max Hollein, Director of The Met, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow. We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

Here’s one revision to any museum or collector’s acquisition policy that needs to be carved in stone from now on: buy nothing purporting to come from Swiss private collections. It’s a scam every damn time. The Met apologized to Egypt profusely and abjectly, as well it should, and I do the same to you, as well I should. I can’t believe I was so thoroughly duped by the oldest lie in the book, one I have mocked and excoriated ad nauseum in this very blog a million times before.

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Speaking of looted art from Visigothic Spain…

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Two Visigoth reliefs looted from a church in northern Spain 15 years ago have been found in Britain and returned to Spanish officials. The theft was a total debacle, but the heavy reliefs depicting two evangelists managed to survive intact against the odds.

The 7th century limestone reliefs originally adorned the church of Santa Maria de Lara, one of only a handful of churches from the Visigoth era still remaining on the Iberian peninsula. Built in the 7th or early 8th century, the church was abandoned after the Umayyad conquest and was likely rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquista in the 9th century. It was donated to the neighboring monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza in the 11th century but was not maintained and fell to ruin, eventually being forgotten entirely. The remains were rediscovered by a priest on a walk in 1921. They were obscured by brush and the location was remote so even after the church was found locals still used the ruins as corrals for their livestock.

Its fortunes improved when scholars identified as a Visigoth church in 1927 and it was granted National Monument status two years later. It wasn’t until the custodian and guide built an asphalted road to the nearby town of Quintanilla de las Vinas in the 1970s that the church became a popular tourist draw and brought it enough money to fund the site’s maintenance.

Even with a decent access road and thousands of visitors a year, Santa Maria de Lara was secluded enough that in 2004 thieves were able to use a crane to strip two 110-pound stone reliefs from the church and remove them unimpeded. They thought they had hit the jackpot. Very few Visigoth figural sculptures have survived, so these two pieces would be worth millions. Notice the conditional. They would be worth millions if they weren’t protected cultural patrimony, but they are.

As so often happens, the looters found themselves saddled with artifacts they could not sell for what they were worth. They had to take the hit and sell them off for whatever money they could get. And so in 2010, two priceless Visigoth reliefs were sold in Britain as garden ornaments for maybe 50,000 pounds apiece.

Somebody with a keen eye saw the “garden ornaments” for sale and thought they was much more to them. He alerted the Art Detective, private investigator Arthur Brand who recovers looted cultural material and stars in a TV show in the Netherlands dedicated to his exploits. Brand traveled to England to follow up, only to find that his informant had just died. His wife only knew a man named “Tony” was connected to the stones. All she had was his first name and a description of him.

It took Brand years to track Tony down. When he finally did, the fellow was suffering from dementia. He did remember the reliefs. He had seen them being delivered to London on a truck by a French art dealer and recognized that they might be Visigothic. Eventually he was able to locate photographs of them.

Brand then tracked down the French dealer, who pointed them towards an unnamed British aristocratic family living north of London.

“It ended up in the garden of an English nobleman, who did not know that it was world heritage, where they would stay like 15 years,” he said.

The owners were so shocked when told the truth that “they wanted to throw the artworks into a river and let them disappear forever. Fortunately we managed to convinced them not to,” said Brand.

I hope that was facetious. Destroying cultural heritage out of shame for having bought it through no fault of your own seems … well, nuts. Anyway it’s all good now. The reliefs are on their way back to Burgos and scholars are thrilled at what might be learned from them.

The looted artworks could also be “essential” evidence in a debate raging among scholars about the exact age of the church, said Oxford University researcher David Addison.

Addison said some believed it was a 7th century building while others dated it to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Brand’s return of the artifacts “would be a great service in this regard,” Addison said.

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A tale of Visigothic treasure lost and found

Monday, January 21st, 2019

It was August 25th, 1858. The night before had been dark and stormy, but this one was moonlit and clear. Francisco Morales and María Pérez were traveling on the road to Guadamar with their daughter Escolástica and a donkey when they reached the Guarrazar spring six miles outside Toledo. While answering the call of nature, Escolástica spied under the white glimmer of the moonlight a square hole barely covered with two flat stones. In the gap between them something shone gone. That something turned out to be a priceless treasure of gold crosses, goblets and other objects festooned with precious stones, pearls and glass. Francisco, María and Escolástica dug up everything they could find, rinsed the artifacts in the spring and quickly made off with their ill-gotten gains.

They didn’t know it, but they weren’t alone that night. Domingo de la Cruz, a gardener who owned an orchard near Guarrazar spring, had observed them digging up buried treasure. The next night, he went back to the site and did some of his own digging, finding a second, smaller collection of treasure. He too made off with it. Nobody told the authorities.

It was a hideous free-for-all. Within days unusual gold begemmed pieces began cropping up in the shops of Toledo’s famed gold and silversmiths. Many of them were broken up, melted down and reused making them untraceable. It’s said that one smith was so torn over what to do with a unique gold dove that he threw it in the Tagus. Gemstone trader José Navarro took a different approach. He had a yen for archaeology, so he bought numerous fragments and painstakingly pieced them back together, reconstructing the votive crowns commissioned by Visigothic royalty as donations to the Church, royals that can be identified with precision because pendant letters spell out the name of the exalted donors. Navarro did all this work under strictest secrecy. In 1859, his work as complete as he could get it, Navarro sold the crowns, pendants and assorted pieces to to Edmond Du Sommerard, director of the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny, France.

That’s when the news of this exceptional discovery finally broke wide. Cluny published their acquisition in the scientific press and Spain was horrified to discover that incalculably precious cultural patrimony had been found only after it was lost. The Spanish government repeatedly demanded that France return the treasure, but was blown off by Napoleon III and subsequent governments.

José Amador de los Ríos, art historian, archaeologist and a pioneer in recognizing the literary and artistic wealth of Medieval Spain, was enlisted to excavate and document the find site in 1859 after the treasure had made headlines. He found a few loose pearls and gemstones that had fallen off the jewels, graves, some architectural remains and lots of evidence that the site had been thoroughly picked over by local looters who had heard about the treasure through the gossip mill.

It was Ríos who recognized that while the form of the votive crown and the decoration were of Byzantine design, the pieces were manufactured locally. The conventional wisdom among European historians at that time was that Spain was a penurious backwater in the early Middle Ages and that the splendors of the Visigoths which had so astounded the Umayyad conquerors who took Toledo in 712 A.D. had to have been Germanic in origin.

In 1861, a very nervous Domingos de la Cruz went to the Royal Estate of Aranjuez where Queen Isabel II was staying and offered her majesty what was left of the treasure he’d discovered. Much hemming and hawing and hypothetical “if somebody happened to have purloined gold Visigothic treasure a few years back and wanted to hand it in, would he get thrown in the dungeon or paid off?” kind of talk ensued. Queen Isabel agreed to accept the remaining treasure — including the votive crown of King Suintila (r. 621-631) — and give Domingos de la Cruz a fabulous pension of 4,000 reals a year in return. The Suintila crown was stolen in 1921 and has never been found.

Cluny kept Guarrazar’s Visigothic treasure for 80 years until Heinrich Himmler stepped into the picture. In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Himmler returned most of the treasure to fellow fascist General Francisco Franco. Six votive crowns, a goblet and crosses are now in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid while the Cluny Museum still holds three of the crowns and a few smaller objects. The Royal Palace in Madrid has one crown left.

With all the loss that has bedeviled Spain’s greatest Visigoth treasure since it was discovered, proper scientific study was long in coming. The first comprehensive study took place in 1995 and revealed that the gemstones traveled great distances. The cabochon sapphires are from Sri Lanka. The emeralds are from the Austrian Tyrol.

The question of why they had been buried in the first place was still open, however. Historians speculated that the priceless religious artifacts had been secreted in consecrated graves to keep them safe from the invasion force of Táriq Ibn Ziyad. Spanish archaeologist Juan Manuel Rojas found this explanation wanting.

With the help of the Guadamur City Hall, Rojas embarked on an investigation that led to the establishment of an archeological site that the public can now visit.

During recent years, the walls of a building more than 30 meters long have been unearthed as well as a basilica, the remains of what appears to have been a palace, a Visigoth graveyard and even a guest house for pilgrims. Rojas’ research has led to the revelation that the place where the treasure was hidden was not a field at all but a religious complex not unlike the one at Lourdes, France, with its own healing water that sprung from the well where Morales cleaned the jewels. So, far from being buried in an ignominious field, the royal treasure had been hidden in a prestigious site whose own ceilings were decked with votive crowns.

When its occupants found out about the unstoppable advance of the Muslim and Berber forces, they sought somewhere to hide the jewels and decided on the graveyard. Raising two tombstones, they removed the bodies, buried the treasure, covered it with cloths and sand and put the corpses back on top. When Escolástica went to relieve herself at the spot more than 1,000 years later, she ducked behind what had once been the wall around the cemetery.

You can see the crown of King Reccesvinth (649-672) in a 3D scan here, another votive crown here and a third here. I regret to inform you that the 360 degree views of the crowns requires Flash to run, but the resolution is great and there are a paucity of good images of the treasure out there, so it’s worth the annoyance to check them out.

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Missing Ancient Greek decree found in wall

Friday, December 28th, 2018

More than a century after it was lost, a 3rd century B.C. stele has been rediscovered embedded in the outer wall of a home on the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades. The Nikouria decree went missing in 1908 and many researchers have tried and failed to find it ever since. An archaeology student, Stelios Perakis, and archaeologist N. N. Fischer found the piece with the help of local residents.

French archaeologist Théophile Homolle, then director of the French School at Athens, discovered the stele in 1893 in the Panagia Church on the islet of Nikouria in northeastern Amorgos. The inscription records a response to Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ request that delegates be sent to Samos to discuss the Island League’s participation in the games and religious rites in honor of his father Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy, friend and general to Alexander the Great and ruler of Egypt after his death in 323 B.C., had “liberated” (really it was more of a take-over) some of the city-states of the Cyclades, restoring their ancient constitutions and repealing their taxes.

His son picked up where the father left off, expanding the Ptolemaic dominance in the Cyclades. The Island League was a political union of the Cycladic islands created by the Ptolemies to cement their influence. In the stele, the League agrees to send a mission to the sacred games held for Ptolemy in Alexandria. The Ptolemy games were also held every four years and the inscription explicitly addresses the obvious rival by stipulated that the members of the League hold the Ptolemaieia in equal importance to the Olympic games. The decree would be proclaimed in all the cities of the League. Ptolemy II would be gifted a gold crown at the cost of 1,000 staters. The stele then details how the island cities would pay for all this and names the three delegates they’d send to Samos. (The name of the third is lost.)

There’s been a lot of debate among scholars about the dating of the Nikouria decree. The first date proffered in 1895 was ca. 285-3 based on a reference to Ptolemy II’s accession to the throne, but Ptolemy didn’t conquer Samos until after his victory in the battle of Kouroupedion in 281 B.C . Later scholars shifted the range to the 260s B.C., likely 262 when the Ptolemaieia was held.

The specific stele is considered important since it provides evidence concerning the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BC and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemies.

Belying its significance, the stele was not kept in a secure location after is discovery. It was stashed in a stable near the find site for years. That stable was its last known address when all records of its ceased in 1908. It was found again in the wall at a newly renovated home which had once belonged to Stamatis Gripsos, a shepherd from Nikouria. Perhaps he had access to the barnus delicti. The Nikouria decree will now be removed from the wall and moved to the Amorgos archaeological collection.

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Ohio university returns looted mosaics to Turkey

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

Bowling Green State University has agreed to repatriate 12 mosaics to Turkey after discovering they had been looted from the ancient site of Zeugma. The university bought the mosaics in 1965 for $35,000 from New York antiquities dealer Peter Marks. There was little paperwork on the provenance of these mosaics, but the claim was that they were from Antioch, modern-day Antakya also in Turkey, raised by Princeton University archaeologists in an approved excavation in the 1930s and exported legally as their share of the finds according to the old partage system.

Those excavations, led by eminent archaeologist George W. Elderkin, discovered literally hundreds of mosaics in elite villas of the ancient city which had been one of the most important in the Roman Empire. Many of them were lifted, divided among the sponsors and either stored, exhibited or installed as architectural features. Princeton had a bit of mosaic fire sale in the early 1960s, and many smaller institutions scored Antioch mosaic panels at that time.

So the Antioch origin wasn’t an outlandish proposition in and of itself, but there was some shadiness. For example, the fact that 11 of the 12 mosaics panels were pulled up in a haphazard fashion with ragged, broken floral and geometric pieces attached the main figural panel should have raise red flags. It didn’t.

Many decades later in 2012, the sections were conserved so they could go on display in a handsomely lit underfloor installation covered with a thick coating of protective glass in the newly opened Wolfe Center for the Arts at BSGU. Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper, then assistant professor of ancient art history at BSGU, was asked to find out more about the mosaics and present her findings at a symposium dedicated to the artworks. She invited colleague Dr. Rebecca Molholt, an expert in Roman mosaics at Brown University, to work with her in researching the pieces.

They looked for the mosaics in Princeton’s enormous archaeological archive documentating more than a hundred excavations including the Elderkin digs. They couldn’t find the BGSU mosaics anywhere in the archive. When they looked further afield, they discovered the far more likely source was ancient Zeugma, only this was no approved excavation and partage arrangement.

“That site had been extensively looted … and comparing photographs of looted sites, we were able to pinpoint the exact location, the particular room in a mosaic house, where the fragments came from,” Ms. Langin-Hooper said. “A lot of the mosaic was looted and BGSU does not have all of it. Some of the mosaic, we don’t know where it is. It could be at another university, or lost or who knows, but there was enough there, the particular geometric patterning, the coloring, the size of the tesserae, the individual tiles, everything was a match.”

The pieces of chiseled stone and glass depicting masks of ancient Greek figures and birds surrounded by geometric and floral patterns in yellows, whites, reds, greens, and browns, formed part of a frame of a mosaic panel known as “Gypsy Girl,” a symbol for the city of Gaziantep. The professors discovered that 11 of the pieces, measuring about 12 by 12 inches, were part of the same floor. The 12th piece, 2 by 3 feet in size, depicts the mask of an ancient Greek female figure and was determined by Ms. Langin-Hooper and Ms. Molholt to have come from the same villa.

“Its edges are straight and even, indicating that they were cleaned up and possibly repaired or restored, sometime before the mosaic was purchased by BGSU,” Ms. Langin-Hooper wrote in an article.

To BGSU’s major credit, they contacted the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and informed them of the recent findings. Ministry experts investigated the mosaics and confirmed that the professors’ were right.

“As a public university, we have a special obligation to contribute to the public good. That obligation extends to the global community,” Rogers said. “The preservation and care of the mosaics has been a priority for BGSU for the last 53 years. We have relied upon the expertise of scholars to guide us, both when we acquired the pieces and now. Thanks to the work of Dr. Langin-Hooper and others, it is clear today that the best place for these precious artifacts is back in the Republic of Turkey at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. We greatly appreciate the collegiality of the Turkish Ministry of Culture in working with us through this process.”

The agreement was signed on Monday, November 19th. Its terms stipulate that the mosaics will be crated, packed and transported the long way home. The cost will be paid by Turkey’s directorate. When they arrive, conservators will puzzle the mosaic panels together with other pieces found during legal excavations at Zeugma in the 1990s. BGSU will receive high-quality replicas of the mosaics and a plaque explaining the whole story. It hasn’t been decided yet where they will be displayed.

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Last looted apostle mosaic returned to Cyprus

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

A 6th century mosaic of St. Mark torn from the walls of Panagia Kanakaria church in northern Cyprus in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion has been repatriated. The monastery church, originally built in the 5th century, was renown for its early Byzantine mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and the apostles. They were extremely rare, stylistically unique and some of the most important early Christian art in the world by virtue of having survived the Iconoclastic orgy of destruction during the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the late 1970s, they were plundered and sold in pieces to unscrupulous dealers who sold them all over the world to equally unscrupulous buyers. With a great deal of work by heritage organizations, police and committed individuals, almost all of the mosaics have been found in the decades since the brutalization of Panagia Kanakaria. Most recently, the medallion of the apostle St. Andrew was repatriated this April after four years of negotiation with a recalcitrant owner. It was the 11th of the 12 stolen apostle mosaics to be located and returned to Cyprus, leaving only St. Mark still on the lam.

Arthur Brand, who runs a firm that specializes in the recovery of looted artworks and stars in a Dutch TV program called The Art Detective which follows his cases, joined the hunt for the Mark mosaic three years ago. With the support of the Church of Cyprus and the Cypriot government, he was able to follow the trail thanks to tips from informants and his own detecting skill. Finally Brand found St. Mark in Monaco.

“It was in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago,” Mr Brand said.

“They were horrified when they found out that it was in fact a priceless art treasure,” Mr Brand said.[…]

The family agreed to return it “to the people of Cyprus” in return for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs, he added.

Arthur Brand recovered the mosaic from Monaco last week. On Friday, November 16th, he formally returned it to the Embassy of Cyprus in The Hague, The Netherlands. On Sunday, November 18th, St. Mark was home. That leaves only one piece of the Panagia Kanakaria mosaics still missing: the feet of Christ. Brand is on it.

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Enthroned Zeus returns home to Baiae

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

A statue of Zeus that was part of the ill-gotten antiquities in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum has returned to its place of origin, the Archaeological Park of Campi Flegrei at the Castle of Baiae on the Gulf of Naples. The museum acquired the statue in 1992 under the tenure of Marion True who would later be tried for her long history of buying looting antiquities from shady dealers. The Getty bought it from Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, wealthy private collectors who had a $60 million collection of antiquities. They got this statue and many, many others like it from infamous loot dealer, perjurer and cheater Robin Symes.

The lack of export paperwork or ownership history was no deterrent to these acquisitions, and the Getty only agreed to return the statue in 2017, five years after a missing piece of it was found by local archaeologists in the ancient resort town of Baiae, modern-day Bacoli. The statue was repatriated in June 2017 and put on display at the National Archeological Museum in Naples. In late October it was loaned to Archaeological Park of Campi Flegrei so it could take part in a new exhibition of artworks that once adorned the villas of the rich and powerful at Baiae and environs.

Fresco of Zeus enthroned inspired by Pheidias sculpture, Casa dei Dioscuri, Pompeii. National Archeological Museum of Naples.Zeus Enthroned is a 29-inch-high marble statue dating to the 1st century B.C. and is likely of Greek manufacture. It was inspired by the colossal gold and ivory statue of the god at the temple of Zeus at Olympia made by sculptor Pheidias in 430 B.C. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. First century orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom wrote about it in glowing terms in his Olympic Discourse:

For verily even the irrational brute creation would be so struck with awe if they could catch merely a glimpse of yonder statue, not only the bulls which are being continually led to the altar, so that they would willingly submit themselves to the priests who perform the rites of sacrifice, if so they would be giving some pleasure to the god, but eagles too, and horses and lions, so that they would subdue their untamed and savage spirits and preserve perfect quiet, delighted by the vision; and of men, whoever is sore distressed in soul, having in the course of his life drained the cup of many misfortunes and griefs, nor ever winning sweet sleep — even this man, methinks, if he stood before this image, would forget all the terrors and hardships that fall to our human lot.

The temple of Zeus was abandoned in the 4th century when emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic games and all the religious rituals attendant to them in 393 A.D. It’s known when the statue was destroyed.

By then, Pheidias’ masterpiece had been considered the pinnacle of Classical Greek sculpture for 700 years and it was widely copied in the Greco-Roman world. A fresco of Zeus enthroned holding a statue of Nike (Victory), a scepter with an eagle by his side a fresco was found in the Casa dei Dioscuri in Pompeii and is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A statue 11 feet high created in the 1st century A.D. and discovered at the villa of Emperor Domitian (now at the Hermitage Museum) meticulously copied the original, using marble, gilded wood and stucco to capture the beauty of the chryselephantine technique.

The Zeus Enthroned sits on a throne, a high-backed one, and rests his feet on a stool. His right arm is raised high, his left by his side. His raised hand likely held a high scepter and his left a thunderbolt. If it precisely matched the Pheidias statue, however, the left hand would have held a statuette of the goddess of Victory. The attributes are long missing as is the right hand so it’s hard to know what he carried.

Evidence of marine life is rife on the right side of the statue and its condition is far more deteriorated there than on the left side. The statue was likely resting on its left side in the sand of the seabed. The sand protected it from the elements. Before then, it was probably part of a home shrine in one of the elegant country villas that were so popular among the wealthy of the late Roman Republic.

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Three stolen Moundville artifacts recovered

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

It’s been almost 40 years since thieves broke into the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository at the Moundville Archaeological Site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and made off with 264 Native American artifacts, a fifth of the total number of artifacts excavated at the site and an agonizing 70% of the museum-quality pieces. Clay vessels exemplifying eight centuries of Mississippian artistry and craftsmanship were gone without a trace.

Thirty-eight years passed. Not a single one of hundreds of stolen objects was found in all that time. An FBI investigation turned up nothing and ended in the late 1980s. This May, a private organization of archaeologists and other donors decided to heat up this long-cold case by offering a reward for information leading to the recovery of any of the stolen artifacts. The Associates for the Return of Moundville Artifacts ultimately raised enough money for a $25,000 reward and established a confidential tip line (still active at 205-348-2800) for would-be informants to call. Nobody expected it to work.

It worked. Less than three months after the reward was announced, three clay pottery vessels stolen from the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository in 1980 were returned to the Moundville Archaeological Park.

“We were all thinking we’d go to our graves without anything turning up from this burglary,” said Jim Knight, curator emeritus of American Archaeology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History at UA, at a press conference held to announce the find Monday. “This is one of the most exciting things that has happened during my archaeological career.” […]

“I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for actual recovery,” said John Abbott, director of Museum Research and Collections for the Alabama Museum of Natural History. “In fact, I was stunned when there were some that turned up.”

As the investigation is ongoing, authorities are not commenting on the how and why of the vessels’ recovery. All they’ll say is that nobody has claimed the $25,000 reward.

The pots were made for ceremonial use and are in impeccable condition. Whatever adventures they’ve experienced over the past four decades have not damaged them in any way. There are no chips, fractures or scratches. The original museum marks are still on them.

All three vessels depict religiously significant iconography. One features a skull, skeletal forearms and hands with crosses inside. Two are incised with images of a winged serpent, a combination creature like a sphinx or chimera with the tail of a rattlesnake, the antlers of a deer and bird wings. In the Mississippian culture at Moundville, the snake god was the lord of the underworld.

Bill Bomar, executive director for University of Alabama Museums, noted the advances in research into iconography, symbols and art that have taken place since the theft nearly four decades ago. UA faculty and students will also be able to study whether the vessels originated or were traded here.

“All of this has advanced in the last 40 years, and we haven’t had these artifacts to do those kinds of studies on,” he said. “Hopefully with these, and any additional ones that are recovered, our information about Moundville is going to increase greatly.”

The pieces will go on display at Moundville Archaeological Park shortly.

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Twice-stolen Persian bas-relief returns to Iran

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

An ancient Persian bas-relief that has been stolen twice in two places across the world from each other has returned to Iran. It is a carved slab of limestone eight inches square depicting a curly-bearded “Immortal” (imperial guard) from the Achaemenid dynasty. He was one of a long line of soldier reliefs arrayed in precise formation on a balustrade besides the steps of Persepolis’ main building. They were carved between 510 and 330 B.C.

The bas-relief was discovered in Persepolis in a 1933 excavation of the site by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Contemporary photographs show the relief in situ, part of a line of imperial soldiers. Photographs show it still in place and untouched at least up to 1936. After that it vanished, reappearing 15 years later in the hands of French antiquities dealer and expert in Mediterranean sculpture Paul Mallon. Mallon sold it to Canadian department store heir and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan for a comparative pittance ($1,000). Morgan donated the relief to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the 1950s. It was on display there for six decades.

It was stolen again in September 2011 when a man wearing jeans, a dark jacket and a baseball cap casually walked into the museum in broad daylight and walked out with the Persian relief and a 1st century Roman marble head of a man. The brazen crime was never solved, but the bas relief was found in January of 2014 in the Edmonton home of a collector who claimed he thought it was a replica when he bought it from “a friend of a friend” for $1400 Canadian.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts decided to keep the $950,000 insurance payout it received after the theft and let its insurer, AXA, keep the title to the relief. AXA sold it to British antiquities dealer Rupert Wace. In October 2017, Wace offered the piece for sale for $1.2 million at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). There it was, exposed to some of New York City’s deepest pockets, when the cops and city prosecutors waltzed in and seized it. The vociferous protests of the dealers — apparently the language got a tad bluer than the TEFAF crowd is accustomed to — fell on deaf ears.

Wace and his partner were shocked because the relief had been published and displayed extensively for 80 years, long before the 1970 UNESCO convention cutoff on the illegal export of cultural artifacts, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office was acting on evidence that the relief had been stolen after Persian passed the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1930 prohibiting the export of such artifacts.

The Manhattan DA created a full timeline of tracing the location and ownership history of the relief. Their contention was that nobody could own stolen property “in good faith” because there is no valid title to transfer in a sale and because the buyer should do his due diligence in ascertaining the reality of an object’s provenance instead of relying on conjecture. In this case, dealers said they just assumed the bas-relief had been looted from Persepolis in the 19th century. They had no evidence to support that hypothesis nor did they make any effort to determine its veracity.

In July of this year, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered that the relief be repatriated to Iran. After some negotiations, the London dealers agreed to fork it over. As of this week, the relief is back on Persian soil.

“It now belongs to the people who made it in the first place, and who are now going to preserve it, and is part of their identity,” Firouzeh Sepidnameh, director of the ancient history section of the National Museum told AFP on Tuesday.

The limestone relief was handed over to Iran’s representative at the United Nations last month and was personally brought back to Iran by President Hassan Rouhani, returning from the UN General Assembly.

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Tiny but mighty looted Thracian tomb excavated

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

A Hellenistic era Thracian tomb near the town of Rozovo has been found to be the smallest ancient Thracian brick tomb ever excavated in Bulgaria. It is a beehive tomb, known in Greek as a tholos (“domed”) tomb because of the progressively smaller stacked rings of bricks that create an interior false dome that looks similar to a beehive. The style and materials of the construction date it to the first half of the 3rd century B.C.

The Rozovo tomb is two miles from the Kazanlak Tomb, a 4th century B.C. tomb whose beehive dome is covered in elaborate murals depicting a funeral feast. The Kazanlak Tomb, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, is much larger and more expensively built and decorated than the Rozovo tomb, but they have one very important thing in common: they are the only beehive tombs ever found in Bulgaria whose domes are fully intact.

The Kazanlak Valley in central Bulgaria is famed for the great number of Thracian tombs in the area, most of them unexplored. There are an estimated 1,500 tumuli and only 300 of them have been officially excavated by archaeologists. All of those unmonitored, clearly distinguishable archaeological sites are frequent targets of looters hoping to find ancient funerary treasures which are eminently portable and in-demand goods on the illicit antiquities market.

The little beehive tomb slumbered undisturbed in the embrace of the burial mound above it for two thousand years or so until it was brutally assaulted by looters in 2010. Their filthy work was immediately noticed, but it another eight years would pass before the Kazanlak Museum of History was able to secure the necessary funding from the Bulgarian government for the urgently-needed salvage excavation of the tomb.

It was undoubtedly worth the wait. Even with all the wanton destruction wrought by those brutes in 2010 and their emptying the tomb of its contents, the architectural remains of the tomb itself are archaeologically priceless.

Lead archaeologists Georgi Nehrizov:

“It is curious that the treasure hunters’ digs were illogical and even a little. One of them was outside the burial chamber, and exposed its outer wall, which is totally pointless. Another dig came from the west, reached the burial chamber, and pierced its wall, which is also totally useless, destroying part of the dome room,” Nehrizov says.

He explains that the Ancient Thracian tomb near Rozovo is of the type of the Kazanlak Tomb, with a burial chamber and a small antechamber.

“This Hellenistic Era Thracian brick tomb is the second one after the Kazanlak Tomb to be discovered with a fully preserved dome. Several other such brick tombs have been found in the Kazanlak Valley [the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings] but they are less preserved, and material from them was used for other structures in later periods,” Nehrizov explains.”This is the smallest tomb of this kind to have been discovered so far. The dome’s top is covered with a stone slab. It consists of 23 rows of bricks of various shapes and sizes. There are rectangular, square, and sectoral bricks, and some of them are very thick. Our excavations lead to the conclusion that the bricks were baked here on the spot depending on the detail that the architect and builder needed, and everything was made to fit together,” the archaeologist elaborates.

In front of the burial chamber and the antechamber, there was a shed covered with Laconian – type roof tiles, large flat tiles which were pieced together with curved tiles.

“Apparently, the shed was a wooden structure. Such sheds have been found in other Ancient Thracian tombs in the Kazanlak Valley such as Shushmanets, the Griffins’ Tomb, the Helvetia Tomb, but here the shed seems better preserved. The treasure hunters didn’t dig from the south,” Nehrizov adds.

On the outside, the Rozovo Tomb was plastered with river stones shaping what the Bulgarian archaeologists refer to as a “coat”, which both solidified the structure and prevented atmospheric water from penetrating the tomb.

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