Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Antiquities Wish List Part One: The Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer

“St. Louis bought something from these guys? Boy, they should have known a lot better than that. As a museum director and as a curator, the very name 'Aboutaam' — bells would have started ringing immediately.” Thomas Hoving, former director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not alone in his wariness of dealings with the brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam and the Phoenix Ancient Art dealership they operate in Geneva. Regardless, when the St. Louis Art Museum saw the opportunity to purchase a 19th dynasty burial mask from the Aboutaam brothers, they leaped upon it.

With last month's international conference to repatriate cultural heritages, Dr. Zahi Hawass renewed his 2006 claim that the St. Louis Art Museum return the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Discovered in early 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim above the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, the mask was found covering the head and shoulders of an unmummified woman. She was thoroughly decomposed, buried only wrapped in a reed mat, but the beauty of the mask lead him to name her Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.

Though publicized along with the rest of the dig, the mask made little stir, especially following the discovery that the sarcophagus within the pyramid was empty. In the years that followed, artifacts of this dig were moved to a storehouse in Saqqara. In January of 1959, Goneim committed suicide amid accusations of looting antiquities.

Following his death, no public mentions were made of the mask until 1998, when the St. Louis Art Museum purchased it from Phoenix Ancient Art. Inside of a year, questions of the mask's provenance arose. The provenance supplied to the museum by its dealers is based upon the declaration of Charly Mathez, a Swiss citizen who claimed to have seen the mask in a Brussels auction house in 1952.

"I confirm that I saw this Egyptian piece...in an important antiquities dealership in Brussels, Belgium in 1952," reads Mathez's handwritten declaration, dated February 11, 1997. The declaration, written in French, continues: "I remember this date very well because I often traveled to Belgium on business during this time, and this piece interested one of my clients."*

According to the provenance, ten years after this sighting, it was sold to a private collector, who then resold it to an unnamed Swiss national, who kept it for 40 years prior to selling it to Phoenix Ancient Art in 1997. When Mathez was unable to provide the name of the auction house where he saw the mask, the museum hired an antiquities expert to validate the provenance. He concluded that the provided documentation “suggests that the mask was never displayed with the other excavated objects and was probably awarded to the excavator himself. This would correspond with its appearance on the European art market soon after its excavation.”

The problem with his assertion is assuming that the Egyptian government would allow one of its government employees to keep findings from one of its official digs.

“That runs counter to everything I would expect,” says Robert Ritner, a professor at the Oriental Institute, an Egyptology research center at the University of Chicago. “If it left Egypt that early, it probably left improperly. Any excavator for the Egyptian government is under obligation to provide that material back to Egypt — even in the '50s. It isn't his personal loot that he can then take out himself.”*

“It never happens,” seconds University of Virginia art-history professor Malcolm Bell, who is also vice president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America. “It sounds like the sort of thing you could say if you didn't really know the circumstances and you were trying either explain or invent. But it's not the sort of thing that happens.”*

Another theory for the provenance of Ka-Nefer-Nefer's mask has come from the infamous Dutch art smuggler turned watchdog (though self-serving in that role), Michel van Rijn. He asserts that it was stolen, along with a number of other artifacts, when the Sekhemkhet storage facility at Saqqara was robbed in the 1980's. Rijn cites a letter from Maarten Raven, Egyptian Curator for the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands, who said that he'd seen a number of artifacts from that storage facility on the Dutch market throughout the 1990's.

Though Rijn's reputation prevents an eagerness to believe him, the explanation he provided on his website was accepted by Hany Hanna, General Director of Conservation for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. In his open letter to the International Council of Museums he stated, “A mummy mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, published by Goneim in 1957, has been looted in the late '80s from the Saqqara Storeroom and sold in 1998 by Ali Aboutaam to the St. Louis Art Museum.”

Since his first claim in 2006, Hawass has written a number of letters to Brent Benjamin, Director of the St. Louis Art Museum, as well as the museum's board of directors, St. Louis Congressman William Lacy Clay, the FBI, the State Department, and Interpol. So far authorities are hesitant to get involved in the matter, and the museum is standing my its account of the provenance.

“The mask's provenance sounds like the stuff we used to use,” explains Hoving. “It was kind of a joke. Everybody went nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You know: 'Oh, yeah, right, “the anonymous Swiss collector.” That's good.' It was kind of a joke. Now it's no longer a joke. This is the kind of provenance that, personally, I wouldn't have anything to do with.”

From the start the St. Louis Art Museum has stood by its provenance. "I think for 1998, the year that this mask was acquired, the level of diligence that was done here is exemplary," says Brent Benjamin. "We had an inquiry hand-delivered to the Cairo Museum's director, Mohammed Saleh, saying that this was an object that had been offered to the museum for acquisition, and did he know any reason why the museum should not do that. We got a written response from Dr. Saleh that raised no concerns about the acquisition."

The only issue with this letter was the minimal amount of detail given to Dr. Saleh to determine the status of this artifact, describing it only as “a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty ... with a reddish copper-like face probably owing to the oxidation of the gold surface.”

At present, Egyptian authorities are piling through records from the Saqqara to prove that the mask was stored there, a detail which would disprove the museum's version of the provenance. It remains to be seen if the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer's inclusion on Egypt's wish-list of stolen antiquities, and the increased pressure resulting from the international conference, will make a difference.

* - Quote courtesy of the Riverfront Times





Saturday, May 1, 2010

International Conference Produces Wish-List of Antiquities

Last week Egypt's Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Culture, hosted the first international conference aimed at the repatriation of cultural heritage artifacts in Cairo. Twenty-two nations in all were present, representing efforts as diverse as China, Mexico, Cyprus, Italy, India, Peru and South Korea. Elena Korka, who is in charge of protecting Greece's cultural heritage, explained, “This conference shows the importance many countries place in joining forces.”

One main goal of this conference is to call on UNESCO to amend the 1970 convention banning the export or ownership of stolen antiquities acquired after that date. The convention prohibits the illicit import, export and sale of cultural property, but states there will be no "retroactive" measure for artifacts acquired before the convention was signed.

The rather impolitic but typically effective Hawass points to his recent success recovering as many as 5,000 smuggled and looted antiquities for Egypt as reassurance of his method's effectiveness. One of his major victories came in response to the Louvre's refusal to return fragments of a fresco illegally removed from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Last October, Hawass cut all ties with the Louvre and barred them from their excavations at Saqqara. The French officials promptly reversed their position and by December, after the artifacts were returned, ties and permissions were restored. And then this March he secured the return of a 3,000 year old Pharoanic coffin that had been smuggled out of Egypt around 1884. It had been seized by US customs officials at the Port of Miami who discovered it among agricultural goods from a Spanish dealer who had no documentation of ownership.

Hawass hopes that through combined efforts they can achieve what these countries have failed to in the past. "Greece was fighting alone, and Italy was fighting alone, now for the first time we are united. We will fight together," said Hawass. "But I will tell you: some of us will make the life of those museums that have our artifacts miserable."

Out of these talks, nations are coming forward with a 'wish-list' of artifacts that they want repatriated, including the bust of Nefertiti from the Berlin Museum, Apollo at Cyrene from the British Museum, and the Machu Picchu Collection from Yale's Peabody Museum. While optimistic, several members of the conference are realistic in their goals. “If countries like ours — India, China, Iraq — demand for return [of antiquities],” said Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, “most museums worldwide would close.”

In the weeks following this post we'll highlight the history, provenance and disputes concerning the possession of some of these wish-list artifacts.

Nations in Attendance
South Korea
Sri Lanka
United States

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nine Months for Two Thefts: London's Lax Laws

The trial of James Hodges didn't last long, and his sentence was something to be laughed at and about; it made a mockery of the judicial system of England and represented just how low on the scales of justice antiquities theft truly lies within those borders.

In 1991, Hodges stood trial at the Knightsbridge Crown Court, now known as Blackfriars Crown Court, accused of stealing from London Sotheby's two pieces of antiquity (a 1st century BC bronze helmet and a 6th century BC terracotta bowl), of forging a release note (which allegedly allowed him to have these objects at his home with the approval of the auction house) and eighteen separate charges of false accounting (where he set up two different bank accounts, using false names, and regularly paid himself little by little, but over time, it definitely added up).

Days before Christmas 1991, Hodges was found guilty of stealing both objects along with forging the release note. However, he was acquitted of all false accounting charges. Throughout his trial, Hodges defended his actions. His defense was that antiquities smuggling and clandestine financial dealings were rampant at the auction house; basically, he thought: everyone else is doing it, why shouldn't I profit as well? The Knightsbridge Crown Court of London sentenced Hodges to nine months...but was out in five.

While in his late twenties, Hodges held numerous positions at Sotheby's. One of those included serving as an administrator in the Antiquities Department. Working in this capacity required Hodges to be in charge of antiquities paperwork ,with regard to buying and selling pieces, as well as all the financial transactions between the auction house and its customers.

After the bronze helmet and the terracotta bowl vanished from Sotheby's in 1989, Hodges was routinely questioned by law enforcement officials as to their whereabouts. Naturally, Hodges denied all knowledge and any involvement in the missing antiquities. His conscience must have gotten the best of him, however, because he later sent an anonymous note to the detective-in-charge. The note eventually led police to a luggage locker located at Marylebone station and the objects were, thankfully, recovered.

One possible reason as to why Hodges was only sentenced to nine months could be due to the fact that England is not a "culture rich nation." That being so, it could be entirely possible that the laws in England are not as stringent as the laws of nations in which cultural property and cultural heritage play a significant role in the lives of the people of Italy or Greece, for example. A short sentence, such as this, also conveys the message to the public that thefts of antiquities or cultural property will not produce a heavy sentence, at least in "culture poor nations."

I personally feel as though nine months for stealing two objects of antiquities was way too lenient of a sentence, regardless of the culture status of a nation. Uniformity in this area throughout the world would fare better for the protection and preservation of all cultural property and antiquities, known and not yet discovered, in all nations. And then, shortening Hodges original sentence by four months, it was basically a slap on the wrist. What would prevent him, or someone else, from stealing antiquities again? Especially if he knows the sentence could just as easily be reduced the second time around. Thankfully, after his arrest and prison sentence, Hodges turned his life around. Prior to his official release from Sotheby's, he had the bright idea of taking (or, stealing - which he apparently couldn't get enough of doing) internal documents that displayed the auction house in a bad light, as acting dishonestly and unethically. Hodges saw it fit that a publication of the wrongdoing of Sotheby's was the sweet revenge he needed after his five months of "hard time."

Randall, C. (1997, February 7). Reports of Cultural Property Incidents. From Museum Security Network:
Unknown. (2010). Blackfriars Crown Court. From London SE1 Community Website:
Watson, P. & Todeschini, C. (2007). The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. New York: Public Affairs.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New York Family Allowed to Keep Looted Tablet

Almost one month ago, a Long Island Judge decided to allow the children of Holocaust survivor, Riven Flamenbaum, to keep the small, inscribed gold tablet he got from a Russian soldier in post-war Berlin. Estimated to be worth around $10 million, the ancient Assyrian artifact rested for thousands of years in the remains of the temple of Ishtar, about 150 miles outside of Baghdad. It was discovered in 1913 and eventually found its way into the storerooms of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Germany during World War II. Officials believe that the item was stolen from the museum by Soviet troops in 1945.

How did Flamenbaum come into possession of this valuable artifact? He bartered for it with a Russian soldier in Berlin, following his release from Auschwitz. He gave the soldier a few packs of illegal cigarettes, and the soldier handed him the gold tablet.

A few years later, Flamenbaum moved to New York City. Meanwhile, the museum never placed the tablet on its list of missing items. This is quite understandable given the volume of artifacts looted in World War II. Though some note that the museum never made reasonable attempts to recover the item, even after receiving a tip in 1954. This is also understandable when one considers the number of hopeless leads and tips the museum must have received for many years following the war. Nevertheless, the Flamenbaum family benefitted from owning the item, by using it as collateral to purchase a business on Canal Street. An appraiser even told them it was worth a mere $100. It was not until the family contacted the museum that they learned of its true value and the museum sued for its return.

The Flamenbaum attorney, Schlesinger, argued that under the spoils of war doctrine, anything that the Soviet troops took from the museum during the war became their lawful property. Therefore, Flamenbaum’s ownership is legal as well. They also argued that the doctrine of laches, which essentially states that someone who is lax in pursuing their rights can lose those rights, applies against the museum since they did not reasonably pursue avenues to recover the item. Indeed, they did not even list it as stolen after the war. There are many issues surrounding this legal theory in the case of antiquities, however. Primary among these is the fact that publicizing this kind of theft can serve to push the item further underground. Also, it should be taken into account that there were so many items stolen during World War II, and the flood of “tips” and false leads that were being pursued following the war.

Personally, I feel that this was an incorrect application of the law under the circumstances. I do not presume to know, as a first year law student, the intricacies of the relevant law, but this offends my sense of justice. I understand that the judge insisted the doctrine of laches apply, due to the fact that Flamenbaum has died and the case is being fought by his children. Since he cannot testify as to exactly how he got the piece, prejudicing the trial against his family. However, holding the museum in fault for their actions hardly seems right. It was not feasible, or even really recommended, for them to publicize the theft and pursue it, particularly in post war Berlin.

Moreover, though Flamenbaum is no longer here to tell the story before the court, he always told his children that he got the tablet by trading some black market cigarettes for it. He obtained the tablets through a black market trade deal and I frankly feel that this fact should have been taken into account. I also feel that the spoils of war doctrine was incorrectly applied here due to the fact that there are numerous international laws in place to prevent plundering during times of war.

Kieran Crowley and Chuck Bennett, “Holocaust Survivor’s Kin Can Keep $10M Relic.” New York Post. April 6, 2010.

Vesselin Mitev, “German Museum Loses Attempt to Reclaim Artifact From Estate.” New York Law Journal. April 6, 2010.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Persian Antiquities Crisis - Pt. 2

Today, I received some more information on the issue concerning the Persepolis Fortification Archives. Dr. Amanda Podany forwarded me some relevant articles, which I will attach at the end of this post. One of these articles beautifully described the situation by pointing out that, though these plaintiffs deserve to be compensated for their loss, priceless antiquities should not be substituted for their damages.
The ramifications of selling the tablets were eloquently laid out by the California Literary Review:

"In addition to depriving Iranians of their cultural property, a decision to turn over the artifacts to the Rubin plaintiffs would have grave effects for the museums involved and cultural institutions in general. Four American institutions could be divested of objects currently in their collections and unable to use them for research purposes. In the case of the Oriental Institute, an opportunity to complete a ground-breaking research project that has been in process for over 70 years would be lost. The fallout from this case will also politicize art pieces and perhaps make countries think twice before sending their national treasures abroad for the purpose of scholarship – a potential problem for the entire museum and university community.

The use of the Iranian antiquities to satisfy the Rubin judgment could also put American cultural property at risk and cause foreign policy complications for the United States. The U.S. Government has filed several statements of interest with the court expressing these concerns. On June 6, 2006 Abbas Salimi-Namin, the former head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization sent a letter to the United Nations that illustrates the potential for problems. The missive demanded the immediate return of the tablets. While the Oriental Institute had previously enjoyed a good relationship with Iran based on a shared interest in gleaning knowledge from the tablets, the letter accused the museum of keeping the objects “on various grounds and pretexts” and ominously suggested that if the antiquities are turned over to the terror victims, American museums with objects in Iran would “face a similar measure from Tehran.””

I will try to stay abreast of this case as it is futher resolved. In the meantime, for more details, peruse the following links:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Persian Antiquities Crisis

In 2003, a U.S. Federal Judge awarded 423 million dollars in a lawsuit against the nation of Iran by the victims of a Hamas bombing in Jerusalem. The plaintiffs alleged that Iran was complicit in the attack due to the country's sponsorship of Hamas. Since Iran did not respond to the suit, a default judgment was given in favor of the plaintiffs.

The major issue with this case has been how to collect the money. Since there are no official relations with Iran, there are no assets in the US that can be seized to pay the damages. Almost. The Persepolis Fortification Archive, a collection that has been on loan to the University of Chicago since 1937, has found its way to the center of this controversy as Iranian property in this country. The plaintiffs of this case have, over the last few years, made a push for the sale of these items to private hands, in order to pay their damages award.

This collection, composed primarily of tablets from the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Iran. The tablets have proved invaluable at piecing together daily life during those times. The Iranian government has openly condemned the US attempt to confiscate the tablets. According to the UNESCO has spoken out as well, calling the US court's decision illegal. The US State Department and Justice Department are also taking the side of the University of Chicago and the nation of Iran, pointing out that these items are protected under sovereign immunity doctrines. This could also have seriously detrimental effects on future cultural exchanges. Other nations would see little incentive to allow us the educational opportunity of borrowing their property after seeing how the US treats these items while in their care.

Gil Stein, Director of Chicago's Oriental Institute, made a stark comparison, saying that the United States would be appalled if the Russian Government sold the US Constitution or the Liberty Bell to settle a suit by some of their citizens against them.

MSNBC wrote:

"Studying an ancient society
Studying just one tablet was like trying to understand a society with a single grocery receipt. Scholars had to figure out how they were connected.

They also had to translate them. While some pieces were as large as place mats, others were nuggets. Many were written in Elamite, a complicated language dating back to 2300 B.C. or earlier. (Stolper is among a small group of people in the world who understands it.)

The tablets revealed how rank shaped food rations, the movement of animals and the distant travels of people. It was a top-to-bottom look at a society.

"It wasn't just a bunch of guys in bed sheets running around saying thee and thou," Stolper says. "These guys were highly civilized people who could operate extremely complicated bureaucracies because, after all, they had conquered an entire continent and what's more important is ... they held on to it."

Over the decades, tens of thousands of tablets were returned to Iran after scholars finished studying and cataloguing them.

When the Oriental Institute announced it was delivering more to Iran in 2004, Strachman heard about it.

He had been able to collect just a small part of the judgment from Iranian bank accounts and a house in Texas once owned by the shah of Iran.

This, he realized, could be an opportunity.

Chilling effect on safeguards
The prospect of losing the tablets has prompted Stolper to speed up his work.

Aided by experts from the United States and Europe, Stolper is rushing to put online this winter the first installments of a digital photo archive of the collection.

No one knows how much the tablets would fetch on the open market. Some academics believe it would be a mere fraction of the enormous judgments; others think no institution would even bid on them considering the legal tug-of-war.

Strachman, however, maintains he has been contacted by interested museums who want to expand their collections and says he has no intention of trying to sell them commercially.

He has sued the Field Museum in Chicago, too, as well as the Harvard museums and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for other Persian artifacts. In those cases, lawyers deny the items belong to the government of Iran.

As this case works its way through the courts, Stein, head of the Oriental Institute, worries about broader implications.

"It would have a deadly, chilling effect on any kinds of cultural exchanges in the future," he says."


It remains to be seen whether or not the tablets will be confiscated from the University and put up for auction. Let us all hope that these priceless pieces remain where they are and eventually are returned to their rightful owners in Iran.

Tomorrow, Matthew Stolper will give a lecture about this ongoing issue at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia entitled, "Persian Antiquities in Crisis."