The Heritage Landscape: Key Players and Current Issues (Notes on the Past for Sale Conference, 2015)

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Neubauer Collegium

The following is Part 1 of a two-part series. Look for Part 2 on Friday, August 7.

The chronic and global problem of looted antiquities requires continuously relevant policy response and on-the-ground action. Given how much remains unknown about the scope of supply and demand also means research and documentations and shared reporting are vital to this endeavour. That was a fundamental goal of a symposium, Archaeological Looting: Realities and Possibilities for New Policy Approaches, held this past February at the Neubauer Collegium, University of Chicago.

In the hope of bringing the proceeds of this conference to a wider audience, I would like to offer a summary of the weekend. This two-part essay will highlight the key issues that many of us focus on in our research and outreach and, via summaries of what was presented, stress aspects of the antiquities trade that continue to be pressing.

Workshop Sessions

The conference began with two special workshops. I attended the session given by Neil Brodie entitled, The Use of Publicly-Available Data from Antiquities Catalogues for Investigating the Antiquities Market. In it, he presented a preliminary but very thorough review of how informative quantitative analyses of trends in supply and demand in the market can be gleaned from catalogue data, especially regarding estimated and realized price. He also addressed several other topics: examples of potential “bidding wars”; whether or not the introduced regulations (in the market for cylinder seals, for example) had a noticeable effect on their trade; and where we go from here in terms of market analysis from auction-house data.

Opening Remarks

The conference officially opened the following afternoon with welcoming speeches by Elsbeth Carruthers and Larry Rothfield. Held at the fantastic Regenstein Library, the opening remarks thanked all relevant funders and supporters of the conference (from the Antiquities Coalition to the AIA and the Neubauer Collegium and family itself) and introduced the larger goals of the Past for Sale initiative.

Day 1 Sessions

The first panel focused on the impact of looting, especially on the ground. The first speaker was Prof. Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. He surveyed the importance of context, knowledge and value of archaeological artifacts and gave an important overview of the importance of and threats to cultural heritage, especially from an archeological point of view. Contrasted with the “aesthetic view” that drove the “golden age” of collecting, three case studies of “lost context” were discussed; cuneiform tablets, the 3rd-2nd c. BC coins, sculpture, and other objects uncovered during the initial French excavations and subsequent looting at the Hellenistic Greek colony of Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan; and the silk road hoard from the 1st-2nd century AD Kushan capital city of Begram (Afghanistan)–an ethnically diverse assemblage spanning the length and breadth of that famous trade route (and here).

The next speaker was professor Catherine Raymond of the art history department at Northern Illinois University and curator of the Burma Art collection there. Focussing specifically on the movement of one particular type of artefact (c. 11th-13th AD Buddha statuary from Bagan, Myanmar) from Myanmar to Western markets, in the context of regional trafficking, Prof. Raymond offered an interesting examination of an usually overlooked part of Southeast Asia. She focused specifically on the case of a 1,000 year old Buddha statue (of a rare form known as a Buddha “Turning the Wheel of Law,” dating specifically to c. 1084-1112 AD). It was taken in 1988 from the site of Kyauk-Gu-U-Min, located in the first royal Burmese capital and sold to an American in Bangkok in 1990.

Confiscated before sale from Sotheby’s New York in 1991 and held by the FBI for five years, it was eventually returned to the National Museum in Yangon in 2012. The Burmese ambassador in Paris, also a representative of his country at UNESCO, helped with the repatriation request for this piece. Examples were given of other related Buddhas, however, being regularly decapitated to sell only the head. Looting has been documented at Bagan for a very long time, but it only intensified after the political turmoil of 1988 when the looting of antiquities from Burma began to contribute to the regional trade. Unfortunately, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, among Southeast Asian nations, has to date only been signed by Cambodian, Vietnam and Brunei.

Finally, Col. Matthew Bogdanos spoke on looting and broader links to organized crime; what we know and do not know about how the looting threat in the Iraq and Syria, how ISIS is operating, and the challenges the international community faces in several ongoing cases, including that of Subhash Kapoor.

The question and answer session addresses to all the panellists afterwards touched on Syria, the hiding of antiquities during conflict for safekeeping, variations in Buddhist statue iconography, and the role and responsibility of eBay in offering recently looted items from Syria and Iraq in light of February’s UNSCR 2015. Thus in addition to visible destruction on the ground or the sacking of temples and museums, the symposium highlighted how the market itself is an ongoing source of concern.

Day 2 Sessions

The next day began with “Soil to Sale-Case Studies in Illicit Digging and In-Country Trafficking.” Understanding the “middle-range” of the antiquities trade and the diversity of means by which the sought-after antiquities of particular time periods or regions reach local and international markets; this remains one of the key open-ended questions in this field.

I myself spoke in this session about the Vietnamese antiquities trade using one case study; looting at the Bronze-Iron Age burial site of Vườn Chuối, now located within urban Hanoi. It was my privilege to share results of the latest excavations by my and Prof. Duncan Chappell’s Vietnamese colleagues from the Anthropology museum of the Hanoi National University; in the context of what is known about the looting of this site and connections to the wider trade within Hanoi and Vietnam.

Afterwards, Dr. Christina Luke of Boston University (Koç University from summer 2015) presented “From the US to the Persian Gulf: Case studies of objects on the move.” Important information was presented pertaining to large scale threats to cultural heritage from Southeast Europe to the Persian Gulf. The primary argument was centered on rampant economic development via carefully constructed diplomatic relations. Dr. Luke concentrated on both legacy, current, and future government-backed development agendas (e.g., EU members, USA, UAE) that have and will continue to reshape transnational networks and in so doing redefine strategic friendships. Interestingly, the elite ‘mystique’ of the antiquities trade, especially in new Middle-East market countries such as the UAE, was highlighted via a bizarre case. Apparently, according to Dr. Luke’s presentation, a sheik from Dubai purchased a “common” Roman sarcophagus for a reported $1 million, with the only goal being to host an “air party” in which the sarcophagus would be opened and guests could inhale the ancient air inside!

To close the panel, Dr. Alexander Nagel figuratively took us to Yemen to discuss “Last of the Qataban: Documenting Looting in the Yemeni Highlands.” The Yemeni highlands and the country as a whole is a region of the Near East much less in the spotlight these days. Demonstrably counteracting media misrepresentation of Yemen as a place of constant unrest and plunder, Nagel emphasized the importance of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, setting the stage for discussing how and why looted material goes from Yemen to international markets. Numerous case studies and examples of items in high demand at all levels of the market, including alabaster sculpture, funeral stelae, and Medieval manuscripts were discussed.

Dr. Nagel, in particular, emphasized the 2004 repatriation of an alabaster sculpture of the Qataban Kingdom c. 1st century BCE. The capital of the ancient Qataban, the site of Tamna, and her ancient cemeteries have a long and complex excavation history still poorly known outside Yemen. Nagel stressed how social media have been used in recent years to inform the public of successful Yemeni missions in retrieving stolen materials. Given the complexity of relevant laws (a former UK Colonial, UN, National and “tribal”), effectively controlling active site or museum looting will always remain complex. Regarding plans for the future, Nagel surveyed numerous options: from an ICOM Red List, to the distribution of a catalogue of lost materials, including a particularly sad theft of materials plundered in museums in Yemen in 1994; the possibility of a Memorandum of Understanding; additional support for projects such as the Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative and the Italian initiative Arabia Antica by colleagues from the University of Pisa. Preserving and protecting the heritage of South Arabia from plundering should be of concern for all, as Dr. Nagel showed.

Next Steps

In part two of this series, I will report on Neil Brodie’s keynote address to the symposium and additional sessions which put the conference into the wider context of current events.

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Damien Huffer is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and department of Anthropology. He earned MA and PhD degrees in archaeology and physical anthropology from the Australian National University and has active research interests in human osteology, bio-archaeology, the Southeast Asian and global antiquities trade, and the online trade in human remains, and new methods of archeological outreach.

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