Archive for January, 2008

Grave excavation: Australian for tailgate

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Sydney’s city hall was built on a cemetery, so apparently every time they need to do some renovation work they end up excavating the remains of convicts. The last coffin/headstone type graves were moved in the 1880s, but convicts weren’t so formally buried, so their remains may have shifted.

This time around officials issued a public invitation to visit the site while it’s being excavated, and the response was enthusiastic, to say the least.

[M]ore than 2,000 people, many of them office workers on their lunch break, were estimated to have joined the queue which stretched around the building in the heart of the bustling modern city. [..]

Once inside, the crowds watched archaeologists at work in a shallow pit under the Peace Hall as they try to find any last shards of bone in the moist clay of the 53 graves of adults and children unearthed last year.

I think it’s neat that they allowed public viewing of the grave site, and even neater that so many people showed up. I know I would have.


From crappy claret jug to Holy Grail in one auction

Monday, January 21st, 2008

The auctioneers thought it was a 19th c. French claret jug with an estimated value of a couple hundred pounds. Turns out, it’s an 11th c. Fatimid rock crystal ewer, one of only 6 known in the world.

Fatimid rock crystal ewers are considered among the rarest and most valuable objects in the entire sphere of Islamic art, with only five known to exist before this extraordinary appearance. Indeed this is the first time one has ever known to have appeared at auction. The last one to surface on the market was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862.

It ended up selling for £200,000, which is still a ridiculous bargain give its £5,000,000 market value. There’s no comment in the article about how this piece got to auction. I’m curious to know the history.

Oh, and just in case you didn’t read to the end of the article, allow me to force you:

Disaster befell the final known ewer which was from the Pitti Palace collection in Florence and had an inscription to Caliph al Hakim’s general, Husain ibn Jawhar. For many years it had been on display in the Museo degli Argenti and in 1998 it was accidentally dropped by a museum employee, shattering it irreparably.



Today in antiquities fencing news

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

A bust of Marcus Aurelius that was stolen from an Algerian museum 12 years ago was pried out of Christie’s dirty little hands right before it was about to go on the block. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials returned it to the Algerian embassy this past Tuesday.

Dating from the second century, the three-foot-high, 200-pound marble sculpture depicts Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled during the period when what is now Algeria was part of the Roman Empire. The marble head emerged in the international market of cultural antiquities and was spotted by INTERPOL, which alerted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that an antiquity in an auction catalogue might be a stolen artifact. ICE experts worked with Algerian scholars to verify the statue’s identity and then notified the U.S. auction house that the piece was subject to seizure. The seizure was not contested.

Yeah, I just bet it wasn’t contested. Note: Interpol was after this piece, it was stolen from a museum very recently, and it was listed in the London Art Loss Register, and yet, somehow, Christie’s was an inch away from selling it to the highest bidder.

See why I say that they’re all in on it, or at least craning their necks so far to look the other way that they might as well be in on it? There is no way these high-end auction houses with their platoons of appraisers and researchers could be so ignorant unless they meant to be.

Another interesting item from the ICE’s press release:

An 18th century colonial painting, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which was stolen from a church in central Mexico, was returned to Mexican authorities in August 2006 after a two-year repatriation effort involving Mexico, the U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During the plundering of a church in San Juan Tepemasalco, Hidalgo, in 2000, thieves slashed the artwork from its frame, leaving tattered pieces of canvas behind. The restored artwork was acquired by the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) later that year from a private art dealer for $45,000.

What are the odds that neither major metropolitan museum nor the “private art dealer” noted anything fishy about the slashed-out-a-frame painting plundered out of a church 4 years before the sale? Best case scenario this is willful blindness.


The Euphronios krater comes home

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

One of the most celebrated Grecian vases made and signed by the ancient artist Euphronios has returned to Rome with great fanfare.

The Met has had it since 1972. It was the flagship of their ancient collection. Only problem is, it turned up at the Met with zero provenance, ie, there was no record of previous ownership.

Italy had an idea of where it came from: Cervetri, the Etruscan town just outside of Rome packed with lootalicious unexcavated tombs and the source of most known Euphronios pieces. Since there are laws against digging stuff up under cover and night and selling it to the highest bigger — laws with which the Met was familiar, hence its 3 decades of stonewalling about where the hell they got the Euphronios krater — Italy went to the mattresses to get the vase back.

Finally, they succeeded. They had to make a deal with the Met, loaning them pieces of equivalent value for a few years, but still, the krater and 60+ of his little looted friends are back in Rome now and on glorious exhibit: Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces.

The antiquities trade is a dirty, dirty business, y’all. Everyone from the major auction houses to the snootiest super rich private collectors to the rarified curators of the greatest museums are elbow-deep in looted shit.

It’s not about colonialist Elgin-style theft from 200 years ago. We’re talking massive ongoing operations of stealing and fencing, and they’re all in on it, or at least craning their necks so far to look the other way that they might as well be in on it.

This is the first entry of a series on looting and antiquities. Watch this space for more riveting tales of filth and lucre.


Opening a Roman Coffin

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Wessex Archaeology is excavating a Roman burial site at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. They filmed the opening of a sarcophagus and posted it on YouTube.


It’s a wonderful find, unique in the UK due to the presence of two pairs of shoes belonging to the mother and daughter interred in said coffin, and it’s great to see the excitement of the excavators when they realize what they’ve just dug up.


Library of Congress on Flickr

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

The Library of Congress has uploaded thousands of historical photographs from the 1910’s, 30’s and 40’s to Flickr. Browsing the collection is not only an ideal means to whittle away the long workweek hours, but you could also be helping the LoC improve their records.

We want people to tag, comment and make notes on the images, just like any other Flickr photo, which will benefit not only the community but also the collections themselves. For instance, many photos are missing key caption information such as where the photo was taken and who is pictured. If such information is collected via Flickr members, it can potentially enhance the quality of the bibliographic records for the images.

This is just the beginning. Flickr is kicking off a pilot project called The Commons based on the LoC collection which will hopefully expand to cover other collections of historical, non-copyrighted works, all of them cross-referenced and tagged by the vast usership.


Soldiers in symbol formation

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Here’s some unusual WWI photography. It’s thousands of soldiers forming a well-known image photographed from a tower.

During World War I, photographers Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas traveled from one military camp to another taking photos of soldiers forming patriotic symbols as a part of planned promotional campaign to sell war bonds.[…]

Mole and Thomas spent days preparing formations which were photographed from a 70 to 80 foot tower with an 11 by 14 inch camera.

Pretty nifty as war bonds campaigns go.


The Lost Picture Show

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

The Royal Academy of Arts in London is putting on an exhibit of French and Russian modern masters. Hugely famous pieces that were kept hidden under Soviet rule are finally getting to leave the country for the first time since Lenin called art an appendix soon to be cut out.

For the first time in history, Russia’s four great state museums, the Hermitage, the Russian, the Pushkin and the Tretiakov Gallery, are joining forces to mount this blockbuster in the West. Long starved of funding, the museums badly need the cash, and the energy-industry giant Eon has sponsored the exhibition. The result is that over 150 paintings, half of them never seen before in Britain, will go on view at the RA when From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870–1925 opens later this month. Some of the greatest works by Renoir, Cézanne and Van Gogh will hang alongside those by Russia’s greatest modern artists, Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich.

The exhibit promises to be fascinating because of the history it will reveal about the wealthy (pre-revolution) Russians who collected these wondrous pieces, Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin. They went from living in palaces surrounded by Matisses, Picassos and Van Goghs, to living in shacks and guiding visitors through their former riches, to fleeing the country and dying forlorn.

That same year his private collection was nationalised too, his house later becoming part of the State Museum of Modern Western Art. For a while, Shchukin swallowed his pride, moving into the caretaker’s lodge and acting as guide and curator. But in the summer of 1918 he fled Moscow with a train ticket to Kiev, a false passport and a doll stuffed with diamonds.

Morosov, meanwhile, whose 300-strong collection of Monets, Bonnards, Gauguins and Cézannes had also been seized, was forced to work as deputy keeper of his collection, taking the proles around his beloved pictures. But when he received orders to move into the basement, he fled with his wife and children to Switzerland. He died three years later at the age of 50, no doubt broken by the loss of his homeland and his collection.

Read more about these great collectors in the Royal Academy’s magazine. Read more about the exhibit on the RA’s website.

It runs from January 25 to April 18. I shall browbeat my London stringer (that’s you, Leesifer, just in case you don’t know yet) to go and write us a review.


Update: Restoring Medieval Kabul

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Way back in the June of 2006 I posted about a the Turquoise Mountain Foundation‘s efforts to restore the medieval Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khane and revive the traditional local crafts of calligraphy, woodcarving and ceramics.

Now it seems that those efforts are paying off enormously, and that can only improve with the $3.5 million dollar donation they’ve just received from the Canadian government.

One-and-a-half years along, the scene just beyond the north bank of the Kabul River is impressive. A fleet of more than 50 wheelbarrows criss-crosses constantly, hacking through and carting away decades of chest-high waste from the last of four traditional courtyard houses targeted for renewal.

In their wake, aging craftsman lead teams of young men newly schooled in Afghan joinery in restoring the skeletal timber-frame buildings. A few of these homes remain diamonds in the rough, but one, known as The Peacock House for its distinctive feathered Nuristani marquetry panels, is already a shining jewel.

Not only are the restorations coming along at a brisk pace, but the craft school is a raging success as well, with ten times the expected number of applicants and big money commissions for their wares from British hotels and Arab collectors.


Update: © Egypt

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Akhenaten and family worshiping the copyright AtenAn update to this entry on Egypt proposed law to copyright their ancient artifacts. Eric Kansa at iCommons has a piercing analysis of the law as an instrument of nationalism, a way for countries whose cultural patrimony has been used by external powers for centuries to get a little of their own back via intellectual property legislation.

It’s understandable because the U.S. and the European Union have long advocated intellectual property maximalism (expanding the scope and reach of copyright and patents), usually to the disadvantage of the developing world. The Egyptian case, in many ways, reflects a growing trend on the part of the “Global South” to attempt to use their own versions of intellectual property protectionism for their advantage. For example, Peru has laws to regulate access to genetic resources of its natural heritage. Similarly, India has also enacted legislation to protect some traditional medical knowledge. The issue of “bio-piracy” in general reflects how nations in the developing world as well as some indigenous communities are attempting to use intellectual property legal frameworks to benefit from developments in biotechnology.

Egypt in particular has incentive to deploy IP in this manner, given how dependent the Egyptian economy is on tourism and how cash-strapped the Supreme Council for Antiquities is.

Egypt’s case is interesting, because of the complex role that the legacy of the Pharaohs plays in modern Egyptian politics and identity. Many Egyptians take great pride in the accomplishments of the ancient civilization on the Nile, but this view is also tempered by an Islamic world-view that sees the Pharaonic past as part of a pagan age of darkness and ignorance. In any event, Egyptian policy makers are acutely aware of both how the international IPR regime stacks the deck against them, and also how important antiquities are to their economy. The Supreme Council for Antiquities is resource-starved and has great difficulty paying for the upkeep and maintenance of thousands of monuments situated among a poor and rapidly growing population. Since tourism is so strategically important for Egypt, perhaps any competition in the tourist experience of Egyptian antiquities may be something of an economic threat – hence, the move to monopolise the legacy of the Pharaohs.

Anyway, read the whole article ’cause it’s smrt.






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