United Nations

United Nations

February 28, 2017

Submitted by Peter Herdrich

The principal effort by the United Nations to rationalize and strengthen national legal systems for the protection of cultural heritage received a significant boost at an event on February 28 in New York City. Called “Promoting and Strengthening the International Legal Framework for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention and other relevant legal instruments and initiative,” the permanent missions of Italy and Cyprus and the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) co-organized the effort.

In a crowded Conference Room Six at UN headquarters, featured speakers from Cyprus, the Council of Europe, INTERPOL, UNESCO, the United Nations Office

Deputy Ambassador Inigo Lambertini, Deputy Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations (Center) & Ambassador Kornelios Korneliou, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union (Right)
Deputy Ambassador Inigo Lambertini, Deputy Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations (Center) & Ambassador Kornelios Korneliou, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union (Right)

on Drugs and Crime, and UNIDROIT listened as Ambassador Inigo Lambertini, Deputy Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations opened the proceedings. Ambassador Lambertini introduced the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, the principal focus of the presentation. The first keynote speaker, UNIDROIT Secretary General José Angelo Estrella-Faria, outlined efforts to encourage UN member states to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

The Secretary General is well-known to the Antiquities Coalition. He joined us in Jordan in September 2016 for our second regional #CultureUnderThreat conference in Amman, effectively promoting the need for harmonization of domestic legal systems to create a more effective response to looting and the illicit trade to the assembled MENA ministerial representatives.screen-shot-2017-03-07-at-9-56-24-am

At the UN, he focused on legal frameworks that rationalize prevention and restitution statues among nations. He also discussed the issues of compensation in the case of good faith purchase, burden of proof and the responsibilities of the purchaser to actively pursue due diligence, and time limits on legal statues. Because these issues are not treated in a uniform manner across nations, the UNIDROIT effort is a strong step in the fight for cultural heritage preservation. The Secretary-General told me that there are currently thirty-seven nations that had ratified the UNIDROIT Convention.

Other speakers shared significant developments in the effort to combat looting. The other keynote speaker, HE Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, informed the participants that a new convention was currently under negotiation at the Council that will criminalize offenses related to cultural property.

Other speakers included Gilles Dutertre, Senior Trial Lawyer at the International Criminal Court, who joined by web link from The Hague, and discussed the significance of the Al Mahdi case. Ahmad al Faqi Al Mahdi, an alleged member of Ansar Eddine, a movement associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was found guilty of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu, Mail in 2012. Marie-Paule Roudil of UNESCO, spoke about the need to encourage international cooperation and promote popular awarenss; UNODC’s Yu Ping Chan remarked about the importance of national efforts to criminalize illicit trafficking and noted the large number of members states in attendance; and Emmanuel Roux of INTERPOL stressed the resources his organization has available, including the importance of inventories and INTERPOL’s effort in creating the Works of Art Database.

During a discussion led by the Italian Mission’s Legal Advisor and principal expert on cultural heritage issues, Judge Luigi Marini, (left, center) two significant issues received attention. UNIDROIT, Italy, and Cyprus announced the establishment of a task force with the goal of encouraging wider ratification of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention by member states. It will convene

annually in New York. Also launching soon is the UNIDROIT Convention Academic Project, which will support the task force. We also wish to thank Judge Marini for his generous comments about the Antiquities Coalition from the podium, citing the AC as “our longtime partners” in efforts to energize the UN’s world community in the fight against cultural racketeering.

Peter Herdrich is the Co-founder of the Antiquities Coalition.

Photos copyright by the Antiquities Coalition. All rights reserved.

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“Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology,” by Dr. Eric H. Cline

j10922Cline, in his new book, Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology, explores the history of an area of study made famous by the Indiana Jones franchise. But a western fascination in archaeology began long before the days of Indiana Jones, when a romanticized period of excavation and scholarship launched a new era of exploration into answers about our past. Some of the world’s most famous discoveries — from the golden mask of King Tut to the Terracotta Warriors — are the result of tireless scholarship and science to decode the places and pieces left behind by ancient people and to provide answers to the storied past of civilization.

That once romanticized era of exploration and study that defined early archaeology and served as the backdrop for Hollywood franchises and adventure novels has been brought to new life in the modern era with cutting edge technology opening new doors to the way we understand and interact with the past. The book is a compelling read for anyone with an interest in archaeology and our human story. And its release comes at a time when there is renewed interest in preserving and protecting the past as archaeological sites around the world are threatened by looting and destruction. This rings especially true in the Middle East and North Africa where terrorist groups and organized gangs threaten some of the most precious sites in the Cradle of Civilization, Cline’s book doesn’t just tell the story of archaeology, but teaches the importance of preservation in an era where scholars must combat terrorism as part of their efforts to record the past.

What others are saying

“This book takes your hand and leads you on a magical archaeology mystery tour across the globe. You’ll meet famous archaeologists, explore legendary sites, and see the latest discoveries using new technologies. Archaeology is full of ‘wonderful things,’ and Three Stones Make a Wall, written by one of the greatest storytellers, is a must-have.”

– Sarah Parcak, University of Alabama at Birmingham, winner of the 2016 TED Prize  

“Eric Cline takes the reader on an amazing journey through the history of archaeology, essentially allowing us to walk in the boots of archaeologists at the moment of the greatest discoveries of all time. This book is at once a wonderful introduction for those curious to know more about archaeology and a relevant read for lifelong excavators who uphold our human responsibility to uncover, preserve, and protect our past.”

– Kara Cooney, author of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

About the Author

2t4b7389Eric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

China’s Art Market Is Booming – But Not for Foreigners


China’s Art Market Is Booming – But Not for Foreigners

As China’s auction houses expand abroad, foreign firms are tightly restricted from entering the booming Chinese market.

By Deborah M. Lehr|February 25, 2017

In late 2010, an anonymous Chinese buyer snapped up a plundered 18th century Chinese imperial porcelain vase valued at $1.3 million for a stunning $86 million. A year later, a Chinese bidder purchased another vase from the Middle Kingdom for $18 million – more than 20,000 times the suggested price of $800.

The demand for Chinese art and antiquities is booming. But despite the buying frenzy, China’s domestic market remains highly controlled, with the government restricting foreign firms’ access while aggressively encouraging Chinese firms to expand overseas. This market distortion doesn’t just artificially help Chinese auction houses – it could also fundamentally change the standards of the art market today.

Today, China’s art and antiquities market rivals the United States as one of the largest in the world, with annual revenues of close to $12 billion – and growing. While sales in New York recently fell to half of their previous year’s level, they rose by 20 percent in China. This difference is even more striking given slowing growth in China and Beijing’s crackdown on sales of luxury goods.

Fueling this growth is the rise in the number of billionaires in China, many of whom made their fortunes through export and trade. Active pursuit of repatriating allegedly looted Chinese antiquities has given the market a boost. The limited number of investment vehicles in China has also made buying fine art more attractive for its rapidly increasing values.

Of course, the Chinese government has an interest in promoting a vibrant art and antiquities market. It has prioritized the development of a cultural industry as a means to create jobs, establish internationally competitive creators of content, and exercise “soft power” by promoting Chinese culture overseas. Chinese cultural companies are rapidly expanding at home and abroad.

China’s homegrown auction market has developed rapidly, in part because of this support. Of the world’s top ten auction houses, six are now Chinese – and all but one is just a decade old.

The state-owned Poly Auction House dominates the Chinese market, and is rivaling Christie’s and Sotheby’s in size. Interestingly, its parent company is the Chinese arm merchant, The Poly Group, which clearly has seen a financial benefit in launching an entertainment division that includes dealing in the fine arts.

One of the most internationally known houses, China Guardian Auctions, is owned by the politically well-connected founder of Taikang Insurance, Chen Dongsheng. Chen – who is married to Chairman Mao’s granddaughter – has made no secret of his plans to elevate the domestic market. “I want to create China’s Sotheby’s, and I want to recreate China’s cultural aristocracy,” he told a Chinese newspaper.

Sixth in the global rankings is the Beijing Council of International Auctions, owned by the Jiangsu Hongtu High Tech Company and led by flamboyant, rags-to-riches billionaire Liu Yiqian. Liu is well known in the international art markets for his record breaking purchases, including a 15th century Tibetan silk Thangka for $45 million – the most ever paid for a Chinese art work in an international action. He has a grand plan for his art collections: he has built two private museums in Shanghai focused on bringing Western art to China. Liu is on a global quest to bring home more treasures to fill his museums.

Dominating the home markets is not enough. These Chinese firms have virtually unfettered access world wide in the competition to sell – and procure – collectibles. They have been quick to establish in major art capitals to bring Chinese artifacts home but also to serve their clientele overseas.

The Poly Auction House has set up office in an upscale Manhattan building across from the elite Harvard Club, with additional offices in San Francisco, Sydney, and Tokyo. Guardian is also growing overseas with locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada. Council lags behind with just an overseas office in New York, but plans to expand.

Yet despite the growing demands of the new Chinese collectors, even the prestigious foreign auction houses are limited in their ability to serve the domestic market. While China seeks the return of its own heritage, it won’t permit foreign firms to sell these antiquities in China. Nor can they auction Western antiquities.

Only one firm, Christie’s, has been approved to establish a wholly owned venture and conduct auctions in China. Sotheby’s joint venture with Beijing-based Gehua Cultural Development Group, a state-owned multimedia company in China, appears to be a troubled partnership. It’s no wonder as their businesses are so tightly restricted.

While these two houses have been granted some degree of access to the Chinese market, they are still banned from selling “cultural relics” meaning any artwork created before 1949, the year of the founding of the People’s Republic. It is no coincidence that “cultural relics” are the most profitable sales in China today. To add insult to injury, sale of Western art and antiquities by the foreign houses is limited to post-1949 as well.

If China truly wants to be a global player in the art world, it should not fear competition. Competing with the best improves the quality for all; opening doors to foreign auction houses will raise standards among Chinese firms – a necessity in a field constantly scandalized by fakes and looted antiquities.

Opening up markets is never easy. But just as China has dramatically benefited from liberalizing its currency and financial markets in recent years, it would do well to show that same courage in opening its art and antiquities market.

Deborah M. Lehr is CEO of Basilinna, a strategic consulting business working with firms to expand their presence in China and the Middle East.

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2017 National Cultural Heritage Moot Court Competition

2017 National Cultural Heritage Moot Court Competition

February 24, 2017

Winners of 2017 Moot Court competition: Daniel Pickolick and Kyle Owen from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. Photo Credit: DePaul University College of Law

The Antiquities Coalition congratulates the champions of the 2017 National Cultural Heritage Moot Court Competition—Daniel Pickolick and Kyle Owen from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law—as well as the runner-ups, Rod Hickman, Alison Guider, and Zac Roberson, from the University of Mississippi.

Runner-ups of 2017 Moot Court competition: Rod Hickman, Alison Guider, and Zac Roberson, from the University of Mississippi. Photo Credit: DePaul University College of Law

This year’s competition was held from 24-25 February 2017 in Chicago at the Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse. It was organized by DePaul University College of Law with the Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP).

The Antiquities Coalition was proud to support this important event—currently, the only moot court in the world that focuses on cultural property issues. Each year it brings together teams from across the nation, providing students with a platform to explore, express, and grow in this diverse and growing area of law.

This year’s problem focused on the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA), which seeks to protect the species by prohibiting the killing, selling, buying, or possessing of any part of the bird dead or alive, including its feathers. It involved challenges to the BGEPA brought by a Native American tribe member under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Antiquities Coalition looks forward to the 2018 competition and again congratulates the students, DePaul, and LCCHP for another successful event.

Records Point to Dealer’s Role in Artifact Theft


Records Point to Dealer’s Role in Artifact Theft


Douglas Latchford, a globe-trotting 80-something Brit, has made a name for himself in real estate, bodybuilding and Southeast Asian antiquities collecting—the last proving the most controversial.

“Who is Douglas A. J. Latchford?” asked the website Chasing Aphrodite in a 2012 article, going on to describe a collector who denied wrongdoing in a litany of shady antiquities transactions while portraying himself as a preserver rather than pilferer of Khmer heritage.

Douglas Latchford, on the right.
Douglas Latchford, on the right.

Now, for the second time, Mr. Latchford’s deep—and allegedly illicit—role in antiquities trading has surfaced in a lawsuit filed by authorities in the U.S.

Prominent Asian antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener, 34, was arrested in December in New York City for allegedly acquiring and selling millions of dollars worth of looted antiquities from across Asia, in a case that experts say is the largest of its kind in decades.

The state’s complaint accuses Ms. Wiener of working with “Co-Conspirator #1”—“an antiquities dealer based in London and Bangkok”—to mask the murky origins of two Angkor-era statues—collectively worth more than $2 million—by forging documents and conducting surreptitious restorations of the items.

The details of the alleged forgery for at least one of those items, a 10th-century Naga Buddha statue, involves a publication that matches one co-authored by Mr. Latchford, a well-known English collector based in Bangkok and London who was identified in a past New York court case over an allegedly stolen Angkor-era statue.

Prosecutors claim Co-Conspirator #1 sold Ms. Wiener the stolen bronze Buddha statue for $500,000 and then set about hiding its origins with Co-Conspirator #2, “a research consultant for an American museum,” by “arranging for a photograph of the Naga Buddha to be published in a 2011 book.”

In 2011, Mr. Latchford co-authored “Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past” with Emma C. Bunker, a research consultant to the Denver Art Museum.

The 544-page tome includes two photographs of the same Naga Buddha that appears in the court complaint, with a horizontal cut through the Buddha’s left arm. It identifies the statue as a late-10th century bronze statue 46 cm tall, while the statue in the court complaint also dates from the 10th century and has a height of 17.75 inches, or about 45 cm.

The court complaint notes that publishing photographs of pilfered archaeological items is a “common laundering practice” and that the statue “appeared to have been struck by an agricultural tool, resulting in a jagged break—a sign of looting.”

The statue was eventually restored by a third person and put on sale at Ms. Wiener’s gallery for $1.5 million before authorities seized it in March.

The complaint says that Co-Conspirator #1 told Ms. Wiener he typically gave Co-Conspirator #2 bronze statues in exchange for false letters of provenance.

The case also suggests Co-Conspirator #1 sold Ms. Wiener a looted 11th-century Angkorian Baphuon Shiva statue that Sotheby’s auctioned for $578,500 in 2011.

“According to documents provided by informant #1, a dealer in illegal antiquities known to the District Attorney, there was an agreement between Defendant and an antiquities dealer based in London and Bangkok (‘Co-Conspirator #1’) to purchase and sell a Baphuon Shiva from Cambodia,” the complaint says.

Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case against Ms. Wiener, declined to comment on the identities of the co-conspirators, citing professional ethics guidelines. Mr. Bogdanos is a former U.S. Marine who authored “Thieves of Baghdad,” a personal account of tracking down artifacts taken from the National Museum of Iraq.

None of the unnamed conspirators face charges. Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker did not respond to requests for comment.

The pair were swept up in an earlier case filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office to recover the Duryodhana warrior, a 10th-century Angkorian statue that was put up for auction by Sotheby’s in March 2011, which archaeologists believed was one of many items plundered from the ancient city of Koh Ker, in current-day Preah Vihear province.

Emails released by Sotheby’s during court proceedings outed a previously unnamed party—who had been referred to only as “scholar”—as Ms. Bunker, who in the emails described the statue as “definitely stolen,” but green-lighted the auction on the incorrect assumption that the Cambodian government had no plans to demand the artifact’s return. (The auction house eventually agreed to return the item in 2013.)

Mr. Latchford was named in other released emails and shown to have been corresponding with the auction house. In the emails, Mr. Latchford—who had until then been referred to in the case as “Collector”—first accepts and then denies that he ever owned the statue, which authorities claimed he purchased in the 1970s with full knowledge that it had been looted.

A photograph of a 10th-century Naga Buddha statue included in Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford’s 2011 book”Khmer Bronzes,” left, and a phot of the statue that was attached to US court documents.

A photograph of a 10th-century Naga Buddha statue included in Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford’s 2011 book”Khmer Bronzes,” left, and a phot of the statue that was attached to US court documents.
A photograph of a 10th-century Naga Buddha statue included in Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford’s 2011 book”Khmer Bronzes,” left, and a phot of the statue that was attached to US court documents.

In “The Stolen Warriors,” a 2014 documentary that chronicled the statue’s return to Cambodia, Mr. Latchford said that prosecutors’ “imagination has gone wild” and told filmmakers of a secret video that would exonerate him, though he declined to share it.

“They have seen too many Indiana Jones films,” he said. “As far as I know, there is no such thing as a smuggling network, and I certainly don’t belong to any smuggling network.”

Cambodia has had laws in place forbidding the private acquisition of cultural artifacts since 1900, according to Tess Davis, a legal scholar and archaeologist, meaning any artifact acquired since then would have been obtained illegally. Auction houses vigorously dispute that legal reading, arguing relevant laws came into force as late as 1999.

In a 2011 paper, Ms. Davis found that 71 percent of the at least 377 Khmer artifacts sold at Sotheby’s auctions between 1988 and 2010 lacked any published ownership history and contended that none appeared to have entered the market legally.

Subsequent research by Ms. Davis untangled a sprawling trafficking network stretching from poor villagers to an internationally connected art dealer in Bangkok, whom they called the “‘Janus’ interface between the licit and illicit trades.”

Ms. Davis declined to comment on Ms. Wiener’s case.

Mr. Latchford has on several occasions spoken of an earlier, laxer era for collecting that connected high-profile clients with casually obtained artifacts.

In “The Stolen Warriors,” Mr. Latchford said that “in the ’50s, the ’60s, nobody questioned provenance…. Not for me or for anybody else.”

“I would show local governors a picture of a sculpture and ask them if they’d seen anything like it,” he told Apollo magazine in 2008. “One time the governor of Surin Province [in Thailand] said, ‘Oh yes, there’s one lying over there in the field. I bought it and brought it to Bangkok. John D. Rockefeller bought it. It’s now in the Asia Society in New York.”

“With the Khmer Rouge, availability finished till 1981,” Mr. Latchford told Apollo. “Subsequently, there has been more control by the authorities over farmers digging. The big supply is I think finished, good pieces will come only from time to time.”

The sentiment has made art preservationists wary.

Anne LeMaistre, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia, told The New York Times in a 2012 interview that one of Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker’s books is more or less “the inventory of the missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.”

Other museums have raised questions about items that they acquired through Mr. Latchford.

In June 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two 10th-century statues that were believed to have been plundered from the Koh Ker complex in the 1970s and which had been donated by Mr. Latchford and other collectors.

Artifacts donated by Mr. Latchford of dubious provenance appear in museums and private collections around the world, according to journalist Jason Felch, who runs the Chasing Aphrodite website and wrote the book “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.”

Mr. Felch characterized the suit against Ms. Wiener as the most important criminal case in the antiquities trade since 2001.

“The arrest of a prominent dealer sends a clear signal that the antiquities market continues to [be] flooded with stolen property,” he wrote in an email.

In a 2012 interview with the Times, then-81-year-old Mr. Latchford said he made his fortune in the pharmaceutical and property industries, and cited a fortune teller explaining that “in a previous life I had been Khmer, and that what I collect had once belonged to me.”

Mr. Latchford also served as president of the South East Asian Bodybuilding Federation and honorary patron of the Asian Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Federation (ABPSF), whose website shows him accepting a royal order from the Cambodian government for generous donations of statues and conservation efforts to the National Museum.

Hab Touch, director of tangible cultural heritage for the Culture Ministry, estimated that Mr. Latchford and his colleagues had donated some $500,000 to improve the museum’s lighting. Mr. Touch said that his primary focus was the return of the plundered objects, but he was not interested in discussing Mr. Latchford.

“This is our main interest: that we work hard for the return of the pieces that have been lost,” he said in December.

Mr. Latchford has claimed in the past that he agrees with the sentiment.

“I feel strongly pieces should be in the place they belong,” he told The Phnom Penh Post in 2008, after making his third donation to the National Museum.

“In the speech I gave at the handover, I urged others to donate back too,” he said. “No one has come forward yet. They seem a bit reluctant.”


© 2017, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

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Tearing the Historic Fabric: The Destruction of Yemen’s Cultural Heritage


Tearing the Historic Fabric: The Destruction of Yemen’s Cultural Heritage

By Frederick Deknatel | February 21, 2017

THE GREAT DAM OF MARIB was one of the first archaeological sites in Yemen that Saudi Arabia destroyed. In May 2015, barely two months after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began, the dam — considered the oldest in the world and an engineering wonder of antiquity built in the eighth century BCE by the ancient Sabaeans — was badly damaged in nighttime airstrikes. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in the entire Arabian Peninsula.

While the Islamic State’s cultural vandalism in Syria and Iraq has made headlines, damage to the rich cultural patrimony in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest country, receives far less attention. Saudi jets have bombed the Old City of Sanaa several times, most recently last fall, destroying several mud-brick tower houses, which date back a thousand years. The city has been inhabited for even longer, going back some 2,500 years; UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site in 1986.

For nearly two years, Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition partners have been bombing Yemen to oust the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite militia movement based in the highlands of northern Yemen. The Houthis took power in Sanaa in 2014 when they forced Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, out of the country. The target of last fall’s airstrikes in Sanaa was reportedly a Houthi security headquarters.

The Saudis maintain that the Houthis are heavily backed by Iran, creating another Hezbollah on their border. Tehran’s actual support to the Houthis, though, is more indirect, and they are not Iranian proxies. Such distinctions mattered little to the Obama administration, which backed Riyadh’s war from the start in March 2015 and continued to resupply Saudi forces with US-made munitions. The new Trump administration is unlikely to change course and will probably ramp up US support.

The destruction in Yemen, the vast majority of it by Saudi forces, fits a pattern of culture being targeted throughout the Middle East. A report last year by the Antiquities Coalition, the Asia Society, and the Middle East Institute recognized that “culture has become a weapon of war,” and the Islamic State “is not alone.” The report further noted that, across the region, “cultural crimes have proliferated in the vacuum of political instability and breakdown of security following the 2011 Arab Spring.”

“More than 95 percent of [the destroyed] sites have been destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition,” said Abdulhakim al-Sayaghi, an architect and senior consultant with the Cultural Heritage Unit of the Social Fund for Development, a Yemeni NGO. The rest of the damage has been caused by the Houthis, who have shelled areas, including a museum housing ancient manuscripts in Taiz, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is active in southern Yemen and has destroyed Sufi shrines and mausoleums.

Weaponizing culture might conjure images of looting and the black market trade of antiquities — one of the Islamic State’s various funding streams. But as Yemen shows, it also means the apparently deliberate decimation of a country’s past. “The same obscurantist ideology by which the Islamic State justifies its destruction of cultural heritage sites appears to be driving the Saudis’ air war against the precious physical evidence of Yemen’s ancient civilizations,” archaeologist Lamya Khalidi argued in The New York Times in 2015.

The scale of destruction in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention began can be captured in both broad strokes and terrible specifics. The civilian suffering is appalling. If they aren’t killed or wounded in airstrikes, many Yemenis are starving as a result of a punishing blockade from the sea. With no route to escape by land, like many Syrian refugees, Yemenis are internally displaced, either living amid bombed-out infrastructure or in makeshift refugee camps.

As the fighting continues, with brief cease-fires brokered and soon broken, the cultural costs keep rising in a country with perhaps the best preserved traditional urban fabric and vernacular architecture in the Middle East. It isn’t just cities like Sanaa or archaeological ruins like the dam in Marib, but places like Shibam, a walled city of 16th-century high-rises on an old caravan route, and many towns and villages, some predating the birth of Islam, built of stone and perched on remote hilltops and mountains.

More than 80 historical sites and monuments have been destroyed in airstrikes and other attacks, according to Nabil Monassar, the vice director of the General Organization for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen, a government agency. But, Monassar explains, that number counts Sanaa’s entire Old City as “one site wholesale,” as well as the Old City of Saada, which is also recognized by UNESCO and has endured heavy Saudi bombing. “If we instead considered individual historic buildings in both Sanaa and Saada, which is still being bombed now, the number of destroyed historic sites are in the hundreds,” he said.

Yemen is revered by many as a birthplace of Arab civilization, home to the Biblical Queen of Sheba — thought to be a reference to the ancient Sabaeans. It has always been the most fertile part of the Arabian Peninsula, separated from its desert neighbors by a range of volcanic mountains. “The crime is that the Arabs themselves are destroying their roots. It’s not only the Saudis,” said Marco Livadiotti, a cultural heritage expert who lived in Sanaa for the past 30 years and worked with several Yemeni government agencies. “It’s the Egyptians, the Sudanese, and the other Arab countries behind them.”

The growing list of damaged and destroyed sites now includes the historic centers of Saada, Marib, al-Jawf, and the early medieval city of Zabid — another UNESCO World Heritage site — as well as monuments like al-Muqah temple in the ancient Sabaean city of Sirwah and the 12th-century al-Qahira citadel in Taiz, which was recently restored by UNESCO. The Saudis have steadily shelled Saada, the capital of the northern province on the Saudi border that Riyadh declared a military zone.

“Yemen is an incredibly poor county, but it is one of the richest, and certainly the richest in the Arabian Gulf region, in terms of just historic fabric that’s been preserved,” said Michele Lamprakos, an architectural historian at the University of Maryland who spent several years as a researcher in the country. “Cultural heritage is unique in Yemen in the sense that it’s still a living heritage. It’s not antiquities or ancient history. It’s about everyday environments that still have meaning.”

When she was researching her book on preservation in Sanaa, Building a World Heritage City, in the mid-2000s, she said that “there was a lot of buy-in for cultural heritage among Yemenis in part because it wasn’t really part of the past.”

Yemen’s unrivaled patrimony in the Gulf region, if not the wider Middle East, is in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi state and Wahhabi authorities have tried to erase much of the past. That living history gives Yemenis a sense of cultural confidence difficult for outside observers to understand. “When you hit the heritage of a place like that,” Lamprakos explained, “you’re really hitting at their identity.”

There are also economic costs to this destruction of history. Cultural preservation and restoration projects, from prominent UNESCO initiatives to the many others at smaller historic settlements in rural areas that aren’t World Heritage sites, employ teams of builders, craftsmen, and laborers. With donor funding halted, Lamprakos noted, “a critical source of employment and rebuilding in cities and towns has dried up.”

Even the bombs that aren’t direct hits are damaging. The Saudis have often hit other parts of Sanaa, and experts worry about the impact of airstrikes on thousands of mud-brick tower houses nearby in the city’s ancient center. According to Livadiotti, the organic materials used in Yemeni architecture — clay, mud, stone, bricks, gypsum — are particularly vulnerable to the vibrations cause by massive explosions. Huge cracks now run up the walls of his house in Sanaa’s Old City.

“There’s nothing left to destroy,” he said. “All of Yemen’s infrastructure has been destroyed. So why keep bombing? Bombing what? Who?”

“Yemen’s main asset was really its cultural heritage,” he added. “The loss is for Yemenis and for the world.”

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Global Ties U.S. National Meeting “Unity in Community” Includes Focus on Heritage Protection

When global leaders from the public and private sectors collaborate with their American counterparts through international exchange, their coordination can become a critical tool in addressing some of the greatest challenges faced by the international community.  Global Ties U.S., a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Department of State, is working to foster this international collaboration by bringing the next generation of global leaders to communities throughout the United States.

The February 2017 Global Ties U.S. National Meeting “Unity in Community” incorporated workshops and panels tackling some of the most pressing global challenges today, including the many threats facing our shared world heritage. One of the panels at this year’s annual meeting was organized by the U.S. Department of State and focused on cultural heritage protection efforts by the U.S. government as well as independent institutions. This panel was meant not just to introduce future global leaders and exchange program organizers to threats facing our world heritage, but also to engage them in the ways that #CultureUnderThreat can be protected in their own communities. Antiquities Coalition’s Chief of Staff Katie Paul participated along with recognized experts from the FBI, the Smithsonian, and the U.S. Department of State.

The panel began with Martin Peschler, Program Director from the Cultural Heritage Office in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.  His discussion touched upon the tools used by this office to protect cultural heritage in peril.  One of these tools, bilateral cultural agreements, was highlighted by Peschler as a vital component in both keeping illicit artifacts from entering U.S. borders as well as enhancing transnational cooperation on cultural projects. The U.S. has signed 16 of these bilateral agreements, also known as cultural memoranda of understanding (MOU), the most recent being with Egypt, which was the first agreement between the U.S. and a country from the Middle East or North Africa.  

Shortly after the signing of this historic U.S.-Egypt MOU, the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation announced a cooperative project between U.S. and Egyptian institutions to restore 600 pharaonic era coffins. The coffin restoration project is the first project announced since the signing of the MOU and shines light on the increased international cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt.  

The panel also featured efforts on conservation, heritage protection, and training for foreign conservators through the work of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. img_3947Alexander Nagel, Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discussed some of the Smithsonian’s state of the art preservation techniques, many of which are shared with foreign visitors through cooperative training programs. Dr. Nagel also focused on some of the critical threats to heritage occurring in Yemen, where culture is under multiple threats, including destruction as a result of conflict and unchecked looting which is surging during the current crisis. Dr. Nagel is working to track the looting and the global market in Yemeni antiquities to develop solutions to combat this crime in Yemen.

The transnational and criminal nature of looting and trafficking requires a robust response from law enforcement.  Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, Program Manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, addressed the work of the Art Theft unit in combatting cultural property trafficking crimes within the United States. She also discussed how the FBI works together with international law enforcement on transnational investigations. The FBI’s Art Crime Team investigates and recovers illicit antiquities and stolen works of art. The Team works to share their experience and best practices with international counterparts by providing training programs for international law enforcement in the investigation and recovery of stolen art. The investigation into stolen and trafficked artworks does not end with the recovery of the pieces. Once the Art Crime Team recovers illicit works that have been smuggled into the United States, the pieces are returned to their nation of origin when possible.

However, this process of returning recovered works is not without its challenges. Magness-Gardiner noted that one of the biggest hurdles in repatriating objects is that oftentimes the countries of suspected origin are not well versed in the types of documentation required by U.S. law to support the FBI’s investigation. As the FBI continues to coordinate with international law enforcement through training programs and investigations, educating foreign governments on the repatriation process is vital to aid in the fight to combat looting and ensure artifacts are returned to their rightful homes.

The importance of the involvement of U.S. government entities to combat threats to cultural heritage is paramount to protecting the past, but independent institutions and nonprofit organizations also have a role to play in developing innovative responses to pressing heritage crimes.  Katie Paul, Chief of Staff at the Antiquities Coalition, highlighted the role of the non-profit organization’s work to #CombatLooting.  By focusing efforts in areas such as advocacy, outreach, and convening with purpose, the Antiquities Coalition has worked with a wide range of partners to develop innovative tools and solutions in the fight against cultural racketeering.

img_3944Paul discussed three examples of the organization’s recent work in these areas of focus. The AC’s #CultureUnderThreat Task Force Report is one of the centerpieces of the organization’s collaborative advocacy efforts. The #CultureUnderThreat Task Force brought together leaders from the heritage, law enforcement, legal, military, and security communities to provide a comprehensive set of recommendations for the U.S. government to take in their efforts to combat looting and destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa.   

img_3960While the AC’s advocacy efforts have focused on actions that can be taken by government, their outreach efforts are geared toward raising awareness among the public on these pressing issues. One of the organization’s key outreach tools has been the #CultureUnderThreat Map, an interactive tool that illustrates the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage across the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. This outreach tool is fully interactive and open to the public to help educate communities through technology on some of the critical threats facing heritage in the MENA region.

The final pillar of the AC’s work that Paul focused on was the AC’s efforts to convene leaders from the Arab World to address these threats regionally. Highlighting the first #CultureUnderThreat Conference held in Cairo in 2015 and the second #CultureUnderThreat Conference held in Amman in 2016, Paul discussed the efforts being taken by MENA leaders as outlined in the Amman Communiqué and Action Plan. These nations are now working in coordination with the Antiquities Coalition and its partners to implement innovative solutions to combat cultural racketeering.

One of the common themes among the members of this panel is that all of these experts’ efforts cross into sectors that have not traditionally been considered part of archaeology or cultural heritage studies. But it is these cross-disciplinary efforts—not just in the MENA region, but in any nation facing heritage threats—that are the most essential element to developing solutions that work because they engage all parties that have a stake in these issues. Only with collaborative efforts will we be able to address these crimes in a way that has significant impacts on the illicit trade now and in the future.