Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

Crosby Garret loophole to be closed

Friday, December 4th, 2020

The glaring loophole in the UK’s 1996 Treasure Act that allowed an exceptional Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet to disappear into a private collection will soon be closed. Last year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a planned revision to the Treasure Act that would update the definition of “treasure” to preserve priceless archaeological patrimony for the public. The ministry has now announced that after a period of consultation and study, the definition of treasure will be changed to allow the designation of objects of great cultural or historical significance as treasure no matter what their material qualities.

The 1996 Treasure Act defines treasure as coins in a hoard that are 300 years old or older, two or more prehistoric objects made out of base metal, any non-coin object that is at least 300 years old and composed of at least 10% gold or silver, and gold and silver artifacts less than 300 years old with no known owners or heirs of owners. Any object determined to be treasure according to these criteria is assessed for fair market value and offered to a local museum for that sum. The prize is then split between finder and landowner. If it is does not qualify as treasure, it can be sold to whomever. This definition is a holdover from medieval common law standards that claimed treasure trove — gold and silver objects buried with the intent of later retrieval — for the crown. The Act abolished the ancient expectation of retrieval, but the focus on precious metal content and quantity was a direct descendant of this narrow, outdated view of what constitutes historical treasure.

The first year the Treasure Act went into effect, there were 79 treasure cases. Twenty years later in 2017 there were 1,267. There are a lot more metal detector hobbyists today than there were in 1996, and a lot more archaeological treasures have been found, some of which did not meet the criteria for treasure despite their ancient age, rarity, national and international importance. The Crosby Garret helmet and a Roman licking dog statue, both completely unique in the British archaeological record, both dating to the Roman period, both museum quality, failed to meet to the criteria because they were made out of bronze. An Allectus aureus in impeccable condition failed to be declared treasure because it was a single coin instead of one of two or more. They were all sold at auction to the highest bidder.

The revision was open to public consultation from February until the end of April 2019. The ministry received 1,461 responses to the consultation forms, 1,352 submitted online (one of those was me!).  Most of the responses came from individuals, with 190 submitted by organizations or groups. Out of the 190, 51 of them (26.8%) were metal detecting groups, 36 (18.9%) heritage/archaeology groups.  The government’s response to the consultation has now been released.

The changes will bring the treasure process into line with other important legislation to protect cultural heritage and collections, including the listing process for historically significant buildings and the export bar system.

A specialist research project running next year will inform the new definition and there will be opportunities for detectorists, archaeologists, museums, academics and curators to contribute to options in development.

As a result of the public consultation, the government will also introduce new measures to improve the experience of the treasure process which include a new time limit to streamline some stages of the process, limiting the number of times the Treasure Valuation Committee can review a case and developing a mechanism to return unclaimed rewards to museums.

The changes will not go into immediate effect. The redefinition will be researched further, the research published, the changes to the code drafted and the attendant legislation passed through Parliament. Implementation of the new policies will, if all goes well, take place in 2022.


Export barred for 4th c. mosaic of leopard attacking a gazelle

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Panel of mosaic from a Roman villa at Dewlish, Dorset, second half of the 4th century A.D. Photo courtesy Edward Hurst.A fragment of a 4th century Romano-British mosaic depicting a leopard attacking a gazelle has been temporarily prevented from leaving Britain. Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage placed a temporary export bar on the artwork because it has been deemed an exceptional work from the Durnovarian (modern-day Dorchester) school of mosaicists. It hadn’t even left the county of Dorset for 1,700 years until it took a brief trip to London in 2019, so this would be a drastic move.

The leopard and gazelle pattern, guilloche pattern borders and small pieces of three adjacent panels were discovered between 1972 and 1974 during excavations of the Roman villa in Dewlish, Dorset. It was part of the pavement of Room 11, a large room that has an unusual rounded apse and was the largest room in the house. The villa replaced a 3rd century farmhouse and was expanded and upgraded in various phases of construction. The refurbishment of Room 11 took place in the second half of the 4th century and added the apse, hypocaust underfloor heating and the finest mosaics available in the county. Its most glamorous phase lasted only a few decades. Postholes in some of the mosaics found in the house indicate clumsy attempts to prop the roof up so it seems the fancy villa was dilapidated by the end of the century.

Its existence had passed into oblivion when Dewlish House, a handsome Grade I-listed Queen Anne/Georgian mansion, was built on the site in 1702 by Thomas Skinner. The remains of the Roman villa were first discovered there in 1740 when a storm uprooted a tree in the garden. The finds were poorly documented, but were contemporary reports say they included a mosaic. The remains were left open to the depredations of the curious and cupidinous and dug up further in 1790. Again, documentation was all but nonexistent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the grounds were further churned up by agricultural work.

The estate was commandeered for the first wave of US Marines who made their base there in preparation for D-Day. After the war the family attempted to lease it, but there were no takers and by the early 1960s it was in such terrible disrepair that it was slated for demolition. It was purchased in 1962 by financier Anthony Boyden who restored the derelict structure to its former splendor.

The first modern archaeological excavation took place in 1969. Led by Bill Putnam, that first dig was just a 4-day fieldwork project for his archaeology students, but it evolved into a decade-long survey that uncovered, among other treasures, the remains of exquisite mosaic floors in several rooms. The leopard and gazelle fragment was raised, mounted and apparently presented to the homeowner as a way-too-nice thank you gift for letting them excavate. This was unfortunately legal in the early 1970s. A few sections of the remaining mosaics were given to the Dorset County Museum. The rest of the mosaics Putnam’s team unearthed were reburied.

The Dewlish House mosaic fragment was acquired at Duke’s Auction in September 2018 by antiques dealer Edward Hurst for £30,000. He exhibited at the 2019 Masterpiece London art fair and appears to have resold it for a tidy profit as the export license request places its value at £135,000.

The Minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee noted that there were few mosaics from the Durnovarian school showing this quality and exceptional workmanship. It was also widely agreed that there was much to be learned about Romano-British mosaics from further research and study of the fragment.

The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the mosaic’s outstanding significance to the study of Romano-British art and history.

Committee member Leslie Webster said:

“The mosaic‘s spirited depiction of a leopard bringing down an antelope is a brilliantly accomplished image of nature red in tooth and claw; the soaring leap of the deer, and the precise delineation of the leopard’s muscular power and ferocious grace is a tour de force of the mosaicist’s art. Such a resonant image, with its origins in the art and mythology of the classical world and beyond, has travelled a long way to Dorset, to feature in the villa of a wealthy Romano-British landowner; it must have been the latest thing in up-market house decoration. The grand mosaic from which this fragment came, dominating the principal public room of the villa, was clearly designed to impress the spectator with the learning and cultural aspirations of its owner. Perhaps this exotic symbol of the hunt, popular elsewhere in the Empire but exceptional in Britain, and its implicit theme of domination, were also intended to suggest its owner’s status and power.”

“In the later years of the Roman era in Britain, the representational innovation and technical sophistication of this mosaic, and of others produced by the Dorchester school of mosaicists, give fascinating insight into the lives of local Roman magnates, in a period seen as one of change and decline; they open up many questions and opportunities for investigation. For us to lose it from Britain would be a great misfortune.”

I suspect the mosaic fell victim to downsizing as Dewlish House, with all its outbuildings, cottages and its magnificent 134 acre park, was put on the market in 2019. It’s still available today for the bargain price (seriously, I’d pay it if I had it, no haggling or anything) of £9,250,000.


Turkey busts massive artifact smuggling ring

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Istanbul police have recovered 26,456 ancient artifacts and arrested 19 people in the biggest anti-smuggling operation in Turkish history.

Among the items recovered were a golden queen’s crown with an inscription of the Hellenistic god, Helios, a bust dedicated to Alexander the Great’s conquest of India and a statue of a goddess dating back to the Hittite era 3,000 years ago.

The 26,456 objects recovered also included Egyptian-origin statues and Phoenician-type teardrop vials.

“The retrieved artefacts are… more valuable than the artefacts in the inventory of an average size museum,” Istanbul police said in a statement.

One of the seized artifacts is a rare bird: a 3,000-year-old Mycenaean sword ostensibly owned by the hero Achilles himself. It’s not rare that some random object would be attributed to a hero of Troy — that kind of faux relic was venerated in temples for hundreds of years — but very few of them have survived in any recognizable form.

This archaeological bonanza was the hard-won result of three months of painstaking investigative work and surveillance of key suspects. Operation Zeus switched from tracking mode to busting on December 12th when six men in northwestern Turkey’s Duzce province were arrested in the course of attempting to sell some of the trafficked artifacts. They were interrogated and named names leading to more arrests in four other provinces.

Police haven’t been to determine how such a vast number of high quality artifacts were acquired or where they came from, but we know they were intended to be sold on the black market through art dealers and shady outfits in multiple countries. Investigations are ongoing. The objects will be given to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology for further study and conservation.


Boys ruin iconic skier petroglyph trying to “fix” it

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

An iconic prehistoric carving of a person on skis has been irreparably damaged by two dumb kids who took a sharp object to it. The skier, part of a larger design known as Valentine Field which depicts a Stone Age hunting scene, was carved about 5,000 years ago on a rock face on the island of Tro off the coast of Nordland, northern Norway. The carvings have weathered over the millennia, making them hard to see on the dry rock. The vandals thought they could fix that problem by scratching out the lines with a sharp stone or similar object. Then they did the same to the figure of a whale that is also part of Valentine Field.

The vandalism was reported by one of the residents of a summer home on the island to Tor-Kristian Storvik, the Nordland County archaeologist, who immediately went to assess the damage. What he found was tragic.

“It’s a sad, sad story,” he said. “The new lines are both in and outside where the old marks had been. We will never again be able to experience these carvings again the way we have for the last 5,000 years.”

Experts will return to the site in September to study the skier and whale in depth and determine what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage, but as of now, there is little cause for optimism. The petroglyph appears to be irretrievably altered.

When the story broke, it made national and international news. The perpetrators, apparently chastened by the outraged reaction to their recklessness, confessed. They claim their intentions were good — to make the carvings more legible — and didn’t realize they were violating the law and every basic principle of how to interact with ancient and precious things. Their names and ages have not been released to the public.

Storvik has filed a police report on the vandalism and the boys could be criminally prosecuted as a violation of the Cultural Heritage Act, but no legal action has been taken as of yet. Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of Alstahaug, is discussing with county authorities how best to proceed. Apparently the boys are very young and remorseful, so it doesn’t seem likely at this point that they’ll have the book thrown at them. Last week they relayed an apology in a statement from the Alstahaug municipality.

The image of the skier was the inspiration for the set of pictograms illustrating the sports of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Each host city creates their own pictograms to identify events and venues by sport with an easily recognizable image. Mostly they look like very active versions of the signs on bathroom doors, but Lillehammer embraced its ancient heritage of winter sports and artist Sarah Rosenbaum created luges, hockey players and skaters that could easily have been carved on rock faces 5,000 years ago.


Heads roll in Slovakia over sale of Bernini bust

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

The bust of Pope Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year has left a trail of criminal investigations and fired civil servants in its wake. When the museum announced the rediscovery and acquisition of the long-lost sculpture this June, the only details released about the purchase where that it belonged to an unnamed private collector who arranged a private sale via Sotheby’s London. The last time before then that it appeared on the historical record was when it was sold to a Viennese collector at an 1893 Borghese family estate sale.

Last month, details started to leak about the acquisition. The Getty was reported to have paid a jaw-dropping $33 million to buy the bust from a still-unnamed Slovakian art dealer who had bought it unattributed and then found out it was the real thing, not a copy after Bernini’s original. Somehow, the work had migrated from Vienna at the end of the 19th century to modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. where it was in the collection of Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. In 2013, Zmeták’s heirs put some of this collection, including the bust of Pope Paul V, up for auction.

The bust, then attributed solely to an “unknown Italian sculptor,” was put up for auction twice, once in December of 2013 for 47,000 euro, and when it failed to sell, again almost a year later for 24,000 euro. Shortly after the bust couldn’t find a buyer even at the 50% off fire sale, the auction house sold the bust privately for the reserve price of 24,000 euro to one Clément Guenebeaud, a French collector living in Bratislava.

It was Guenebeaud who realized the bust was made by Bernini himself. He tried to sell it on his own but the large hole in its ownership history made potential buyers wary. A famous work of art that mysteriously traveled from Vienna to Slovakia over the course of the 20th century runs the risk of being Nazi loot which could mire the current owner in a messy and expensive restitution battle. Sotheby’s was game, though, and through them Guenebeaud was able to sell the bust to the Getty. The Baroque masterpiece left Slovakia without incident.

After the Getty announced their new treasure with a splash, the fact that a small country with limited resources that could really use a tourism boost had somehow let a 17th century bust by one of the greatest sculptors in the world slip through its fingers did not go unnoticed back in Bratislava. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič ordered an investigation into the bust debacle and filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender involved in the sale on suspicion that someone involved in the appraisal and sale knew its true value but deliberately and fraudulently obscured it.

As of now, there is no evidence of deliberate deception. The auction house in Bratislava is a local outfit without the depth of expertise necessary to confidently attribute a sculpture to Bernini. Ernest Zmeták apparently had no idea the bust was original, nor did his heirs. The only person who had any idea, Guenebeaud, didn’t hide the fact that he thought it was a genuine Bernini in his application for an export license. He wrote that it was probably by Bernini and estimated its value at around €7 million, but the ministry employee in charge or arranging the permits changed the description from “bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini” to “bust after Bernini.” Apparently she decided to go with the auction house’s assessment rather than Guenebeaud’s, and the commission that reviews permanent export applications accepted it without ordering an expert examination to confirm or deny the disputed authorship. Minister Maďarič fired her and the director of the department in charge of issuing export permits.

The timeline of all these events is foggy. It’s not clear who determined the bust was original. It could be Alexander Kader, head of the department of European sculpture at Sotheby’s London, but usually the top experts in the field are consulted for works of this importance. Presumably the Getty wouldn’t have shelled out $33 million without being satisfied the bust was by Bernini.

If the special commission tasked with investigating irregularities in the export license find it to have been granted improperly, it’s possible the license will be revoked and the Slovakian government will request that the Getty return the bust. The museum does not seem concerned.

In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”


Help save unique Hopewell earthworks in Ohio

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

The Junction Group earthworks complex in Chillicothe, Ohio, is one of very few remaining ancient Native American ceremonial sites that hasn’t been sliced and diced by roads or train tracks or development. Situated on the south edge of the city at the confluence of the Paint Creek and its tributary North Fork Paint Creek, the earthworks take up about 25 acres of a 90-acre plot that is going up for auction on Tuesday, March 18th. The field belongs to the Stark family who have farmed it for generations but are now reluctantly selling the entire farm, including the earthworks.

The land has road frontage and is close to city water and sewer lines, which makes it a very attractive parcel for a housing development. There’s already a subdivision kitty corner with the property. Any such construction would destroy the foundations of the earthworks of the Hopewell Culture which we know are still there just underneath the surface. The Junction Group was built 1800-2000 years ago as nine earthworks enclosures: four circular mounds, three crescents, one large square and a quatrefoil. The latter is the only known example of that shape ever discovered in Ohio.

To keep this irreplaceable historical treasure from falling into uncaring hands, the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, the Arc of Appalachia and other non-profit organizations are working together to raise $500,000 to buy not just the earthworks parcel but the entire farm which is being sold in six lots. If they are successful in acquiring the land, the long-term plan is to turn it over to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park which is just six miles northwest of the Junction Group. The national park already administers five Hopewell sites in the Paint Creek Valley, and although the process of transferring a sixth site to national park stewardship requires legislative action that can take years, the Arc of Appalachia has already begun the process for another Hopewell earthwork and are confident they can pull it off in the end. They have the full support of the park service in their endeavours.

The Hopewell culture, also known as the Hopewell tradition because it describes a range of different tribes who developed an extensive trade network along the rivers of the northeast and midwest, flourished from around 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. They were the inheritors of the Adena culture who inhabited the same area in the Scioto River Valley in the first millennium B.C. There are two dozen Hopewell ceremonial sites in Ross County alone, most of them consisting of at least one burial mound and several earthwork structures. There is little evidence of settlement on these sites; their purpose appears to have been almost entirely religious.

The Junction Group was first named and documented by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in their seminal 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. It was the first major work on the archaeology of ancient mounds in the United States and the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution. When Squier and Davis recorded the Junction Group in 1845, the largest mound was seven feet high and some earthenwork walls were at least three feet high with deep ditches on either side.

Since then, farming has worn down the mounds and earthworks so they are no longer visible to the naked eye. It was a magnetic imaging survey in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the complex are still crystal clear under the plough line. The survey also was the first to recognize that what Squier and Davis thought was a smaller square was actually the unique quatrefoil.

If you’d like to donate to save this irreplaceable resource, you can make a pledge on the Arc of Appalachia website here or pledge or donate on the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy page here. Pledges are very important to this project because the organizations are applying for grants that will match pledged funds and for loans that will be easier to secure with proof of financial backing.

Please spread the word! There are only a few days to go before the auction. So many of these mounds and earthworks are gone forever in Ohio. Let’s stop the Junction Group from succumbing to this tragic fate.



Another wall collapses in Pompeii

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. […]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.


Charles IV statue irreparably harmed by unauthorized “restoration”

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

A bronze equestrian statue King Charles IV of Spain that stands in Mexico City’s Plaza Manuel Tolsá has been damaged beyond repair by a botched and unauthorized “restoration” ordered by city officials. Cast in 1802 by artist and architect Manuel Tolsá (after whom the plaza is named), the statue is legally designated a historic property and is therefore under the purview of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). By law, any work on the piece must be authorized by INAH but in this case the Historic Center officials didn’t even apply for a permit until after the restoration was already in disastrous progress.

The city contracted one Arturo Javier Marina Othón of Marina Monument Restoration to clean, restore and maintain the bronze and its pedestal. He stated up front that he would only apply a weak 30% solution of nitric acid to clean the surface dirt and pollution, but when INAH experts examined the statue to report on the damage, they found a can of partially used 60% nitric acid on the scaffolding. Nitric acid in that high a concentration just eats through metal. Neither nitric nor any other inorganic acid have been used in restoring metals since the 1950s when conservators finally realized how much damage they cause.

Othón denies having used 60% nitric acid. He insists he only used 30% and that it’s a perfectly cromulent material for cleaning the outer grime layer of a bronze statue. In his opinion, he is being scapegoated to distract the public from the city’s failures to protect its cultural patrimony which could certainly be an element, but at the same time, there’s no denying the fact that the acid very obviously went far deeper than the top grime layer to expose the soft coppery underbelly of the statue.

Analysis of the statue’s dark, almost black patina done in September before the so-called restoration found that it was composed of oxide, carbonates, sulfur and sulfates under a layer of grime. Those compounds are what is known as passive corrosives, meaning they’re stable byproducts of exposure to environmental elements like oxygen, rain, carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds. They don’t damage the metal but rather form layers of protective coating.

Only 35% of the sculpture was directed treated with strong nitric acid, but 50% of it has been damaged by the acid dripping down from the application site. As a result, half of the patina is gone forever and the newly exposed bronze is particularly susceptible to corrosion. The strong acid also dissolved the less stable elements of the bronze creating an alchemical alteration of the material itself. Bronze alloy is made of copper, tin, zinc and lead. The nitric acid attacked the tin and zinc dissolving them and leaving behind shiny pink copper. The acid also pitted the surface, vastly increasing the area susceptible to corrosion. They used metal brushes attached to power tools to polish the metal, which of course did a whole other irreparable number on the bronze. There are patches of melted statue staining the stone pedestal now, runoff from the horse and king’s suppurating acid wounds.

The litany of incompetence doesn’t end there. The site was dirty, with trash and unused iron bars from the scaffolding scattered around. The iron stained the marble base and wooden planks trapped moisture in the area to compound corrosion problems. The scaffolding itself was apparently erected by drunken toddlers who had the brilliant idea of stabilizing the structure by tying a few bars to three of the horse’s legs, one of which already has a large crack in it. Some scaffolding planks were supported by the rump of the horse which puts it in danger of friction damage and further corrosion. It’s amazing the whole crew didn’t wind up in a pile of broken arms and legs.

INAH’s report strongly urges immediate intervention to stabilize the statue and restore it where possible. All conservation plans will be submitted to INAH for prior approval, needless to say, and you can bet they’ll be extra vigilant.

EDIT: I originally wrongly attributed the restoration order to the Historic Center Rescue Trust, a private organization founded by multi-billionaire Carlos Slim that has dedicated millions of pesos and much hard work to the revitalization of Mexico City’s historic center. This was my own erroneous reading of the original Spanish. In fact the restoration order came from city officials. I’ve removed the paragraph where I discussed the Trust and have redirected all references to the real culprit.

I apologize for the mistake. Many thanks to the anonymous commenter who corrected me. :thanks:


US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.


Aragon wants 13th c. frescoes back from Catalonia

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

The autonomous government of Aragon has formally requested the return of 13th century frescoes removed from the monastery of Santa María de Sigena during the Spanish Civil War and now installed in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña in Barcelona. The also-autonomous government of Catalonia has not been receptive. Ferran Mascarell, Catalan Minister for Culture, said on Thursday that the government will do everything in its power to keep the frescoes where they are on the ground that if Catalans hadn’t conserved the frescoes, they would not exist today.

This is not a solid legal argument, as the Catalan government has good reason to know since it too has campaigned vigorously for the return of historically significant items from places where they were conserved. Most recently the Salamanca Papers, a vast number of documents, books, magazines, newspapers and more that Franco pillaged from universities, trade unions, political parties, private homes, publishers etc. in 1939, have begun to be repatriated after a decades-long struggle in the legislature and courts.

Aragon has wanted the frescoes back for a long time, but the government wasn’t the official owner of the monastery and thus had no legal rights to claim the frescoes. The Order of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem has owned the historic building for eight centuries, although their nuns left in 1835 after anti-clerical legislation promulgated by Queen Isabel II’s prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal privatized monastic properties thus stripping the convent of its revenue. Some nuns filtered back over the years and since 1985, the Order of St. John has allowed the sisters of Bethlehem and the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno to carry on the tradition of monastic prayer at Santa María de Sigena.

The Order of St. John couldn’t just hand over the monastery without getting permission from the Vatican. Finally earlier this year the Vatican granted the Order permission to cede the rights to Aragon, so now the Aragonese government is the proud owner of a 13th century monastery in the Spanish Pyrenees. That gives them the right to take Catalonia to court should they refuse to hand over the frescoes. Since Catalonia only possesses the works because they were sent there in 1936 for conservation, not because their ownership was officially transferred, any legal battle is likely to favor the repatriation. The frescoes were removed by order of government during the Civil War, and are therefore spoils of war just like the Salamanca Papers. The monastery was declared a national monument in 1923, which also puts the frescoes’ removal in contravention of pre-existing Spanish law.

Santa María de Sigena was built between 1183 and 1208 by order of Queen Sancha of Castile. Intended to house nuns from the cream of Spanish aristocracy, the monastery was built in rich Romanesque style and was elaborately decorated. No expense was spared. The frescoes on the arches and vaults of the chapter house — plant and animal motifs accompanying scenes from the Old and New Testament and 70-80 portraits of the ancestors of Jesus starting with Abraham — were painted by the best English artists using precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli. This approach was employed nowhere else in Spain at this time. Historians believe the frescoes were painted by English artists who also worked on the Guardian Angels Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, the chapel of St. Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral and on mosaics in Norman-ruled Sicily in the mid-12th century. Queen Sancha was buried in the convent church after her death, as were her daughters Dolça and Leonor and her son King Pedro II of Aragon.

Its royal burials and architectural and artistic beauties couldn’t save it from a hideous fate during the Civil War. In fact, they probably condemned it. Santa María de Sigena was burned in 1936 by Republicans forces who were no fans of the monarchy or the Church. The royal tombs were desecrated Vultures followed to pick at the carcass and looters helped themselves to everything they could take, including the art on the walls, the wooden paneling, the devotional objects, the furniture. The chapter house frescoes were horribly damaged by the fire, some destroyed completely, some missing large pieces, all drained of their once-brilliant color.

To save what was left, in 1960 the paintings were removed and sent to the National Museum in Barcelona. There they were conserved, ultimately finding permanent placement affixed to arches and vaults designed to replicate the convent chapter house’s structure. The museum has an impressive collection of Romanesque frescoes removed from the walls of other churches and monasteries. You can take a tour of the museum’s Romanesque rooms on Google Art Project. (That link isn’t taking me directly to the proper location, for some reason. If you find yourself on the first floor, click the dropdown and choose the ground floor, then click on the light grey rectangle above and just to the right of the large oval room in the middle.) Compare what’s left with the black and white pictures taken right before the fire by photographer Ricardo del Arco.

Meanwhile, back in Aragon, the monastery got some long overdue attention. In 1974 the cloister was rebuilt. Between 1988 and 2009, the government of Aragon undertook an extensive program of restoration costing 3,350,447.71 euros ($4,425,271.34). Now that the structure is stable, Aragon wants to return the frescoes to their original location in the chapter house.





October 2022


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