Crosby Garret loophole to be closed

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expectation of retrieval, but the focus on precious metal content and quantity was a direct descendant of this narrow, outdated view of what constitutes historical treasure.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

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

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

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

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.”