The Destruction of Memory: Cultural Crimes and the National and International Efforts to Combat Them

On May 18, to help raise awareness about the global impact of cultural crimes, the Antiquities Coalition joined international diplomats and experts at the New York City Bar for a panel discussion and public screening of The Destruction of Memory.

This award-winning documentary chronicles the “genocidal war against culture” over the last century, and features interviews with the Antiquities Coalition’s Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr, as well as its #CultureUnderThreat Task Force members Amr Al-Azm, Patty Gerstenblith, and Corine Wegener. The film’s Director and Producer, Tim Slade, participated in the event, alongside Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, Angelo Felicetti, Member of the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Team, Luigi Marini, Legal Advisor to the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations, and Lily Gray, Liaison Officer of the UNESCO Office in New York. The evening was organized and moderated by art lawyer Barbara Hoffman, another #CultureUnderThreat Task Force member.

After the screening, participants discussed the threat posed by cultural crimes to global peace and security, as well as national and international efforts to combat them. Topics included the growing recognition of the link between cultural racketeering and terrorist financing; progress by the United Nations Security Council, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe to combat the illicit traffic in conflict antiquities; initiatives by Italy, Jordan, France, the United Arab Emirates and other governments to deal with the current crisis; and recommendations for how art-market stakeholders can and should stem the illicit traffic in antiquities. The Antiquities Coalition thanks Barbara Hoffman and the New York City Bar for the invitation to participate in this informative event.  

CLIR, Antiquities Coalition Initiative Receives Major Grant from the Whiting Foundation

CLIR, Antiquities Coalition Initiative Receives Major Grant from the Whiting Foundation

Washington, DC, May 22, 2017—The Whiting Foundation has awarded the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) $170,000 to design, implement, and launch a prototype Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME). CLIR will work closely with its primary organizational partner on the DLME, The Antiquities Coalition, and with five universities to create a proof of concept for an interoperable, large-scale digital library of cultural artifacts from the Middle East and North Africa. Stanford University Libraries and its IT department will be the principal technical partner on building the prototype.

Along with the horrific loss of life and human suffering in the region, the cultural heritage of many nations in the Middle East and North Africa is under severe threat from destruction, looting, illegal trafficking, and terrorism. The DLME aims to help remediate this crisis by creating a globally available resource in partnership with collaborators throughout the region, that provides detailed descriptions and images of artifacts, along with information about the objects’ history, ownership, and legal status.

The prototype, which focuses on collections held in the United States, is a first step in developing a technical platform that can be used to aggregate collections globally. Some 100,000 objects, including text, video, photographs, archives, manuscripts, and maps illuminating the history of the Middle East and North Africa, will be included in the proof of concept. It will leverage many of the open source tools that have been developed and tested over the last decade through the open source digital library community. The prototype will be available in English and Arabic; the DLME is currently engaging with and preparing partnerships at museums and other cultural institutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Whiting Foundation grant is pivotal to the DLME project,” said CLIR president Charles Henry, a principal investigator on the grant. “It provides the support for our technical proof of concept, without which the project could not advance. The work funded by the Foundation will allow us to shape and define the future elements of the DLME and is thus essential to the success of this extraordinary, international effort of cultural cohesion.”

In addition to the technical effort, the project will create three exhibitions based on the DLME. Each will be devised for specific audiences, such as scholars, K-12 students, and the engaged public, to create user cases and test functionality.

“The DLME will offer an interactive suite of sophisticated content, applications, and tools that responds to human curiosity, whether by a high school student in New Jersey, a college student in Jordan, or a scholar at one of the world’s great universities,” said Peter Herdrich, co-founder of The Antiquities Coalition and a principal investigator on the grant project. “This is a solution that will make a difference in many ways.”

“The world needs a Digital Library of the Middle East to break down the barriers separating digital repositories and make this rich heritage easier to discover and explore,” said Daniel Reid, executive director of The Whiting Foundation. “This ambitious international project promises to bring cultural treasures housed at museums and libraries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia back to the people of the region where they were forged, and to guide students and scholars from around the globe to the institutions in the Middle East that safeguard its history and culture. The Whiting Foundation is proud to support such an important effort in its early stages.”

Initial partners include Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

CLIR expects to launch the prototype by the end of 2017.

For more information on the DLME, visit

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning.

The Antiquities Coalition is leading the global fight against cultural racketeering: the illicit trade in antiquities by organized criminals and terrorist organizations. The Coalition’s innovative and practical solutions tackle crimes against heritage head on, empowering communities and countries in crisis.

The Whiting Foundation supports literature and the humanities. We believe that it is imperative that the collective treasures of history and memory be passed on to the future with as little loss as we can manage. Recognizing that irreplaceable cultural heritage is being destroyed at an alarming rate around the globe, we are committed to supporting local stewards of human culture around the globe as part of this shared endeavor.

For more information contact:

Kathlin Smith

Laurie Kusch

The Antiquities Coalition Congratulates the Council of Europe for Criminalizing the Illicit Trafficking and Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Today, May 19, 2017 in Nicosia, Cyprus, Cyprus, Greece, Armenia, Portugal, San Marino and Mexico became the first states to sign the groundbreaking Convention on Offenses Relating to Cultural Property, demonstrating the growing political will to combat cultural racketeering as a means of criminal and terrorist financing, more states are expected to follow.

This international convention—the world’s first to criminalize the looting and trafficking of cultural property—was first adopted on May 3 by the Council of Europe (COE). It opened for signature today at the 127th Session of the COE’s Council of Ministers, which is being attended by the foreign ministers of organization’s 47 member states. Cypriot Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Ioannis  Kasoulides underlined the importance of this convention, emphasizing that similar efforts should be undertaken by the international community, “We believe that more efforts are needed to tackle the financing of organised crime and terrorism and that we need to better understand their interrelationship. Countering the illicit trade in cultural goods is of crucial importance. We believe that more effective, robust and credible legal frameworks, both domestic and international are required, including the Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property.” Minister Kasoulides has called on all states to sign the convention as soon as possible.

“The action taken by the Council of Europe demonstrates the growing political will needed to halt the trade in conflict antiquities” said Antiquities Coalition Chair Deborah Lehr.  “We congratulate the Council of Europe on taking this important step and encourage more countries to sign this convention to show solidarity in the fight against  cultural racketeering.”

The convention, which is framed around the organization’s actions to combat terrorism and organized crime, aims to fight cultural racketeering by criminalizing a number of offenses. These include the looting and theft of cultural property—as well as its unlawful import, export, acquisition, and sale—in addition to related crimes such as the falsification of documents. It also seeks to strengthen the region’s ability to prevent and respond to these crimes through improved national and international cooperation.

According to the COE’s Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, “We can no longer stand by and watch the devastation of historic sites and trafficking of precious cultural goods by terrorists. The new convention marks an important step in our efforts to combat transnational organized crime and terrorist groups which are using the trade in blood antiquities as a source of income. I call on states to sign and ratify the convention as soon as possible.”

The Antiquities Coalition commends the COE for recognizing that cultural racketeering is not a white-collar and victimless crime, but a growing security threat throughout the world, and congratulates all who signed this historic convention today.


Archaeology Channel Conference Explores Relationship Between Media and Cultural Heritage

Archaeology Channel Conference Explores Relationship Between Media and Cultural Heritage

The fourteenth annual Archaeology Channel Conference on Cultural Heritage Media met in Eugene, Oregon from May 3-7. The conference series initially began as an extension of The Archaeology Channel website, designed to cater to live audiences, but it has now grown into an international cultural heritage film festival. The conference shines a light on the importance of the relationship between cultural heritage and media, whether through informative films on heritage, new technology and media as a means of preservation, or media as a tool for research and understanding of contemporary cultural heritage issues. The Antiquities Coalition was delighted to be asked to present at this important event.

The relationship between media and cultural heritage preservation both in the protection and promotion of its protection was a theme woven throughout the conference presentations.

Keynote speaker Dr. Christopher Thornton, Lead Program Officer of Research, Conservation, and Exploration at the National Geographic Society and the Director of Excavations at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat in the Sultanate of Oman. Exemplifies this interconnection.   His research and archaeological work in Oman, as well as beginnings as an archaeologist eventually qualified him to take on the role as Director of Cultural Heritage for the National Geographic Society where he promotes the science through raising awareness through the various Nat Geo media platforms.  His stories from the field and from his desk in Washington show that opportunities in archaeology and cultural heritage aren’t limited to just the classroom or the dig. Whether working in a university or promoting Explorers for the National Geographic Society, storytelling is a vital component of educating the public on the importance of cultural heritage and advocating for its protection.

Dr. Juan Aguilar of Heidelberg University in Germany explored the way technology can preserve rock art in Iraqi Kurdistan, both for archival purposes and for public education, awareness, and advocacy.  The ancient rock art in Iraqi Kurdistan faces a number of threats including conflict, vandalism, and looting. Dr. Aguilar and his team used drones and Digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) to record and develop high-resolution 3D models of threatened rock art.

The team enhanced imagery to recover lost features of the rock art that had been damaged as a result of militant target practice, graffiti and vandalism, and dynamite damage from attempted looting. Using drones and DSLR the Heidelberg University team is developing 3D renderings of rock art regions to create an immersive 3D experience for the digital exploration of art that is otherwise inaccessible to many due to ongoing conflict in the surrounding region and nearby Mosul. This is not only helping the local government of Iraqi Kurdistan preserve these valuable images before they are destroyed by a variety of threats from human or natural causes, but also creating a mechanism to educate the local population and greater public about the importance of preserving the rock art of the region. The Heidelberg University team developed a short documentary entitled Rock Art Project to chronicle on their efforts in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While technology can serve as an important tool for preservation of endangered cultural heritage, the stories of the people and process of preserving heritage can also help inspire efforts at protection.  Joseph Daniel of Story Arts Media in Boulder, Colorado was inspired to film Saving Places, a docu-series following the work of a nation-wide group of historic preservation volunteers called HistoriCorps.  These everyday citizens use their vacations to join a force of historic preservation enthusiasts who volunteer their time to preserve some of America’s historic hidden gems.  Using drones and GoPros, Daniel captured a touching series of stories following a series of projects led by HistoriCorps volunteers.  Inspired conference attendees picked up their phones to Google how they could join the effort. Learn how you can join here.

From work at the sites and TV series to movies, the conference featured a panel on a documentary project to find the lost Ancient Egyptian city of Cecil DeMille’s 1923 silent film, “The Ten Commandments” movie set in the Guadalupe Dunes of California. The documentary The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille follows the experts, archaeologists, and local officials who sought Art Deco Egyptian treasures in the local California protected park.  In the early 1980’s a group of film students read the biography of DeMille, which described how he abandoned the dazzling Art Deco movie set in the Dunes on California’s coast and that the set remained buried in the sand. Doug Jenzen of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and Colleen Hamilton, a senior historical archaeologist with Applied EarthWorks, discuss how the revelation by these film students set in motion an adventure to recover the ruins of old Hollywood before they are lost forever.

Park protections, shifting weather, and human interference presented many of the same challenges Egyptologists face in their own work half a world away.  The team successfully recovered the frame and façade of one of the sphinxes depicted in DeMille’s film, along with artifacts from the 1923 cast, fragments of cast tents and more – all pieces of Hollywood history born out of America’s fascination with Ancient Egypt.  When word of the unique discovery reached the media it became an international sensation, the local Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center exhibition of the finds became the most successful in its history. But media attention also brought about a new set of problems. Locals seeking to find their own piece of Hollywood’s ancient Egypt have threatened the protected park’s site.  Pieces from the set and cast area began surfacing on eBay, the project team even saw Instagram images at the site with #Trespassing. The interest in Hollywood and local rush of Egyptomania spurred a flurry of human interference to a site that was once only visited by the local population of roughly 7,000.

The connection between social media and looting activity as seen in the Guadalupe Dunes scenario above is evident in cultural racketeering activity in Egypt.  Antiquities Coalition’s Katie Paul highlighted some of these connections in her study on the examination of the patterns and trends of cultural racketeering in Egypt by using media and social media as a source. Using media that is coming out in real time helps understand patterns in the illicit trafficking of antiquities that can help governments allocate their scant resources in the most effective manner to combat looting. Social media has proven to be a major means of information sharing in Egypt and the Middle East and North African region. Graphing the data collected from the analysis of these on-the-ground reports provides a glimpse into the patterns that have emerged and the methods of operation for various types of looting and smuggling networks within Egypt.

Culture is under threat from natural and human challenges alike across the globe, and the looting and trafficking of cultural material has posed one of the greatest among these threats. But through the use of technology, film, media, and social media, archaeologists and story-tellers alike can contribute to preserving and protecting our valued past.  Media is not only a critical tool for understanding patterns and recording heritage before it’s gone, but also a means of raising public awareness and advocating for protection. In discussing the value of excavating Cecil DeMille’s lost city, Doug Jenzen noted that public interest in film is a cultural universal shared across the world, by capitalizing on that cultural universal, heritage advocates can continue to use technology and work with media to inform the public on how they can protect and preserve history.  

China’s Power of Culture in Promoting Perceptions: Lessons From the Qin and Han Dynasties

China’s Power of Culture in Promoting Perceptions: Lessons From the Qin and Han Dynasties

A Night at the Met Museum

The Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Friday, May 5, 2017 to celebrate the historic exhibit, the Age of Empires: How the Qin and Han Dynasties are Shaping China’s Contemporary Identity. Antiquities Coalition Chairman Deborah Lehr joined luminaries Elizabeth C. Economy a C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asian Studies on the Council on Foreign Relations, Howard French, Associate Professor of Journalism, Columbia University, Mike Hearn, Douglas Dillon chairman of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, and moderator, Joseph Kahn, Managing Editor, New York Times on a panel discussion related to China.

The focus was on the relevance of the lessons learned during the Qin and Han dynasties in the fields of government, law, commerce, and the arts and culture that might still be relevant in today’s modern China.  When asked about her impressions when touring the exhibit, Lehr remarked on how the exhibit is a reminder that even in the earliest stages of the uniting of China, the Chinese understood the power of culture in promoting perceptions.

As a trade negotiator on intellectual property rights with China, Lehr noted that even into the mid-1990s, culture was still viewed as a tool of propaganda.  During those negotiations, writings, inventions, and brands were viewed as belonging to the people not the to individual by many in China.  Fast forward a decade, and China declared the cultural sector a “strategic industry,” which would promote development of the sector as a business.  Innovations and writings were to be celebrated by the individual.

Now, we can see the results of the government’s efforts in the rapid growth of China’s dominance in movies and art. China is now the world’s largest art market, and still growing while NY and London are declining.  Out of the top ten auction houses, six are Chinese.  The largest of these, the Poly Auction House, owned by the arms merchant, the Poly Group, is third only to Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

While much of the Chinese demand is driven by a quest to repatriate historically looted antiquities, its collectors are now also some of the largest purchasers of impressionists paintings, fine wines, and potentially Middle Eastern antiquities, which are now flooding the market given the unrest in the region.  With 20-30 new museums being built each year in China, there is a lot of space to fill with new collections.  This need, combined with growing incomes and a lack of investment opportunities, will ensure that the Chinese demand for antiquities continues to grow.

As China continues to develop its use of “soft power” and expand its cultural sector overseas, just as happened during the Qin and Han dynasty along the path of the spice routes, there is growing concern about their efforts from a policy perspective. China has invested millions of dollars in US movie production companies, especially now that China is the world’s largest box office target for movies.  And concerns are rising as the content appears to be changing as a result of China’s influence.  China also continues to restrict US investment in Chinese production companies, as well as maintains quotas on the number of foreign films allowed to be imported.

In addition, while Chinese auction houses are free to establish and compete in the United States, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other foreign auction houses are severely limited in their ability to conduct sales in China. They are restricted both in terms of their ability to establish but also in the scope of what they are permitted to auction.  Even though pre-1949 “cultural relics” are the most sought after by Chinese collectors, the foreign auction houses are not allowed to auction any of these items.  To add insult to injury, nor are they are able to auction any pre-1949 Western art or artifacts.

The Qin dynasty are known for their building of China’s Great Wall, even though it was pointed out that there were actually portions of the wall build previous to the establishment of the Qin in 200 BC.  When asked about how the intent of building this Great Wall could relate to Xi Jinping’s China, Lehr responded that China has always been a country of contradictions.  The Qin, despite building the Great Wall, were actively engaged with the outside world through trade and commerce.  In the exhibit, we see the influences of foreign countries through the art of the times.

China today is also a dichotomy. While there is a growing sense of nationalism, China remains open to Western investment and trade.  The internet is connecting us in ways never imagined previously, but at the same time, the Chinese government closely monitors and restricts what can be accessed through the internet, just as it controls the role that foreign firms can play in the economy.

There is also a growing insular focus as China takes steps to centralize power in attempt to better govern the country.  One of President Xi’s biggest challenges is to ensure that local officials implement the policies from Beijing on a consistent basis.  As with the Qin and the Han, China has a massive bureaucracy through which it rules the country.  But it can be a challenge to ensure that local officials follow the direction from the center, not just that of their own choosing.  The well known phrase, “the sky is high and the Emperor is far away” is as much of a challenge today as it was during those dynasties.  

The exhibit is a powerful reminder of China’s long tradition of the use of “soft power.”  In keeping with its past, China continues to value the important role that culture plays in shaping perceptions and projecting China’s own position relevant to other countries.

Full video of conference here.

Destruction, Looting of Antiquities Robs Nations of Their Heritage, Bankrolls Terrorism

Destruction, Looting of Antiquities Robs Nations of Their Heritage, Bankrolls Terrorism

By Karin Zeitvogel

Uploaded on May 5, 2017

In August 2015, Islamic State militants dragged an octogenarian, bespectacled man into a public square in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and beheaded him. The crimes for which Khaled al-Asaad paid with his life were listed on a placard that the group bound to his bloodied body, which they hung by the wrists from a traffic light, his severed head on the ground beneath his feet. He had attended “infidel conferences” and served for years as the “director of idolatry” in Palmyra, the Guardian newspaper reported. Asaad, who had served for 40 years as director of antiquities for his native Palmyra, was also murdered because he refused to tell his captors where Palmyra’s centuries-old treasures were hidden, according to the Guardian and other newspapers.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra “contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers,” UNESCO writes on its website. “From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.” Palmyra was — and still is to many — one of the world’s most cherished heritage sites, in spite of two occupations by the Islamic State, during which numerous structures and artifacts were destroyed for propaganda, while others were looted for profit.

A few days after Asaad was brutally slain, the Islamic State blew up the nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. Dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilizing rains, the temple had welcomed Christian and Muslim worshippers during its 2 millennia of existence. To Syrians, it symbolized the inclusivity and diversity of their culture. The temple was the first edifice in Palmyra to be set upon by Islamic State militants wielding jackhammers, pickaxes and explosives. Many of the lawless acts of destruction were filmed — part of the group’s well-honed communications effort.

Other ancient sites in Iraq and Syria that have been destroyed or ransacked by the Islamic State include the Mar Elian Christian monastery near Palmyra; the town of Dura-Europos, near Syria’s border with Iraq, which housed the oldest-known Christian church; the museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul; the Assyrian city of Nineveh, dating from centuries before the birth of Christ; and the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. That list is far from complete.

The two war-weary neighboring countries in the volatile Middle East are not the only ones to have witnessed the wanton and senseless destruction of historic sites and the looting of national treasures. The same is happening in Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, and has happened over millennia on every continent, usually as a byproduct of war or conquest in which thousands, if not millions, of human lives were lost.

Today, headlines from warzones tend to be weighted more heavily toward the impact on civilians, not the destruction of historical sites and artifacts. At a gut level, that makes perfect sense: Lives are more important than stone. Particularly with the latest revelations that a chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held area of Syria killed scores of people, including children, it is difficult to ignore the staggering human suffering in that country after six years of war, which has left an estimated 400,000 people dead. Images of children writhing and choking from toxic poison naturally take precedence over those of dilapidated ruins and relics.

But British philosopher Julian Baggini argues that it’s alright to be equally upset by the destruction of history.

“We know that people matter much more than things and yet it seems we can be more moved by cultural vandalism than cold-blooded murder,” he wrote in a 2015 commentary for the Guardian.

“Caring about humanity is about more than wanting as many hearts to keep beating as possible. What matters is not just how many people live, but how we live,” he said, adding that certain ideals are worth dying for. “If al-Asaad believed Palmyra’s heritage mattered more than his own life, then we are not so monstrous if we find our own reactions imply we feel the same.”

Compassion for Both

It’s not an either-or choice, argues Amr Al Azm, an associate professor of history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and co-founder of The Day After, an NGO that seeks to cut down on the looting of treasured artifacts from Syria.

“I hear a lot, ‘Why are you focusing on stones, on rocks, on the past? You should be focusing on the humanitarian disaster,’” Al Azm told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s as if there’s a binary — you can either care about culture and stones or you can care about people, but you can’t care about both. But the people and the culture are totally intertwined. The stones and objects without the people they represent are dead; the Syrian people, without their long and rich history, are lost.”

On that note, Deborah Lehr, founder of the Antiquities Coalition, and Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute, argue that the Islamic State is continuing a long tradition of using heritage as a weapon of war.

“The connection between the erasure of heritage and human atrocities is long-standing, as oppressors obliterate the past by erasing symbols of conquered cultures. From Caesar’s arson of the Library of Alexandria to the Nazis’ destruction of synagogues to the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, eliminating cultural identity is a strike against the spirit of a people,” they wrote in a Huffington Post commentary.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has fought viciously to control people’s past, present and future, seizing vast tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria before finally losing ground last year. The group was forced out of Palmyra in March 2016 but recaptured the city in December that same year, when the Syrian Army and its Russian allies were focused on other parts of Syria. The second occupation was much shorter-lived, but the group again attacked the city’s cultural heritage, demolishing much of the Tetrapylon monument and destroying the façade of a Roman theater. Again they captured their violence on memory cards and posted videos to social media.

But this was just the visible part of their destructive rampage. “You see a tower or tomb being blown up, but you don’t see that ISIS has stripped it clean before they blew it up,” Al Azm said. “The blowing-up part, they use for propaganda, to send a message — similar to what the Taliban did in Afghanistan to the Bamiyan Buddhas, for instance — that, ‘We have the ability to act with impunity and the international community is essentially impotent to respond.’ Looted artifacts, on the other hand, are an income stream for ISIS. They didn’t invent looting, but they’ve taken it and put it on steroids.”

Heritage for Sale

This, of course, runs contrary to the official Islamic State line on selling looted goods — or at least contrary to the propaganda spiel the radical group puts out. It supposedly destroys ancient artifacts because pre-Islamic works of art are considered heretical.

But the sale of looted antiquities has helped finance the group’s destructive campaign — against both history and humans — on an unprecedented scale. Beyond extortion, oil profits and taxes, the group’s fighters have reaped untold millions of dollars from smuggling the artifacts they stole.

In fact, as the Washington Post noted in a 2015 report, plundering became not only a lucrative business but a well-organized one. “The Islamic State grants licenses for the excavation of ancient sites through its ‘Diwan al-Rikaz’ — a governing body for overseeing resources in the ‘caliphate.’ The body has a department for oil and gas, as well as antiquities,” wrote Loveday Morris.

“They steal everything that they can sell, and what they can’t sell, they destroy,” Qais Hussein Rasheed, Iraq’s deputy minister for antiquities and heritage, told Morris.

After capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, for example, the Islamic State released a video showing fighters smashing artifacts in the city’s museum with sledgehammers and drilling into them with power tools. A voice on the video said the ancient statues were worthless bits of idolatry and deserved their fate.

But when U.S.-backed Iraqi troops recaptured part of Mosul early this year, they found a tunnel underneath parts of the city, full of (thankfully) untouched artifacts. Similar stashes of ancient artifacts and artwork have been found in other Islamic State strongholds after earlier victories and raids against the terrorist group, such as when U.S. soldiers killed one of its top leaders, Abu Sayyaf, in May 2015. They found in his eastern Syria home not only a collection of real and fake artifacts, including electronic records of gold coins dating from Roman times, but also receipts on his computer for more than a quarter of a million dollars in taxes paid to the Islamic State for the sale of ancient artifacts. Sayyaf used to issue looting permits to locals who paid him a tax for the privilege.

In a lawsuit filed in December 2015, the U.S. government sought forfeiture of some of the artifacts found in Sayyaf’s home. Up until then, the conventional thinking about the Islamic State and antiquities trafficking was that the two didn’t mix. But experts soon learned that the group — like so many before it — made huge profits from plundering history.

“Cultural racketeering — the global trade in looted antiquities — is a multibillion-dollar industry that funds organized crime and terrorists like Daesh (also known as ISIS),” wrote the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force in an April 2016 report for the Middle East Institute. “Cultural cleansing — the systematic destruction of a targeted group and its heritage — has been used by Daesh, al Nusra, and other terrorist organizations to terrorize populations under their control.”

Breaking the Cycle

But it takes two to tango, and if the Islamic State makes money selling artifacts, someone is buying them.

“You need to cut demand for these antiquities,” said Tasoula Hadjitofi, who was forced from her home in Famagusta, Cyprus, when Turkey invaded in July 1974, and for most of her adult life has fought against antiquities trafficking. Once a thriving tourist destination, Famagusta has been a ghost town since the Turkish invasion.

“I’ve spent 40 years of my life bringing back the looted artifacts of Cyprus because I, myself, cannot go home,” Hadjitofi told The Washington Diplomat. “When you buy an artifact, you are giving money to extremism but also fueling division because you’re driving the demand for artifacts and offending a fellow human being.”

Stolen antiquities are extremely difficult to trace. Larger items often undergo a laundering process to conceal their source. Smaller items can be bought or sold over the internet or float on the antiquities market for years. The market itself is poorly regulated and littered with stolen goods that often wind up in the U.S. or Europe.

The Antiquities Coalition, Asia Society and Middle East Institute created the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force to raise awareness of the issue and advocate for government action. It created a series of recommendations for the U.S. government — among them, designating a senior director at the National Security Council to fight against what it calls “blood antiquities” and terrorist financing, as well as bolstering the Immigrations and Custom Enforcement’s “seize and repatriate” strategy with investigations and prosecutions that dismantle criminal networks engaged in the antiquities black market.

On that note, attorney Ricardo A. St. Hilaire wrote a recent paper for the Antiquities Coalition arguing that the Department of Justice should appoint prosecutors to specifically pursue criminal cases against smugglers, corrupt dealers and their accomplices.

He noted that in the last decade alone, the Department of Homeland Security has recovered and returned more than 7,500 illicit artifacts to 30 countries as part of its fight against cultural racketeering.

These restitutions, however, have rarely led to the successful prosecution or imprisonment of antiquities traffickers, allowing them to stay in business, Hilaire said in his brief. By prioritizing repatriations over indictments, he says the federal government’s “seize and send” policy has failed to curb a vast black market industry, which fuels transnational crime, conflict and terrorism.

“If you can imagine a world where police recover stolen cash, illegal drugs and hijacked autos but let the bank robbers, narcotics dealers and carjackers go free, then you can understand the unrestrained business of transnational antiquities trafficking,” said St. Hilaire.

Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition argues that to fully address the problem, destination countries and countries of origin must both take action.

“Given the level of destruction and the massive looting taking place in the Middle East and Northern Africa, these artifacts would inevitably begin to find their way to the United States — the largest art market in the world — as well as to the European Union,” she in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies. “This potential influx of illicit heritage has raised questions about the role of the United States and Europe as a ‘safe harbor’ for antiquities. Our view is that the long-term solution lies, instead, in blocking access to ‘demand’ country markets, while working with local governments to help strengthen their own laws, protections, as well as raising awareness about the long-term importance of protecting heritage. In many instances, these countries are dependent upon these very artifacts for their economic well being, so protecting the past is a way of ensuring economic potential in the future.”

Policymakers are taking notice. At a conference held at the Louvre Museum in Paris in March, a dozen nations and individual donors pledged some $75 million to safeguard endangered cultural heritage. Earlier the same month, France and the United Arab Emirates launched the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, a public-private partnership that will finance projects to protect, conserve and restore cultural property threatened by armed conflict.

Also at the end of March, officials from the Group of Seven (G7) bloc of industrialized democracies signed a declaration in Florence, Italy, expressing concern about the dangers of terrorist attacks, armed conflicts, natural disasters, raids and looting on cultural heritage. As the G7 culture ministers met in Florence, Italian police thwarted an alleged plot to blow up the famed Rialto Bridge in Venice, a reminder that violence targeting cultural treasures also strikes countries at peace.

Hadjitofi applauds all of the conventions and declarations that outline ways to stop the illicit trafficking of stolen heritage and the destruction of iconic structures. But she says that ordinary people need to be involved to make a real impact on the ransacking of world history.

A pillaged Roman coin from Palmyra, a statue from Sana’a, a mosaic from Tripoli or a bracelet from Helmand may be coveted treasures to many buyers. But to refugees like Hadjitofi and to immigrants from hotbeds of looting, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, they are reminders of home — and of what has been lost. Hadjitofi says enlisting the help of these people is critical to the cause. She herself has helped to recover and repatriate nearly 200 cultural artifacts that had been plundered from areas of Cyprus under Turkish occupation, including the sixth-century Kanakaria mosaics. In 2011, Hadjitofi founded Walk of Truth, an NGO that works to recover stolen antiquities around the world. Central to Walk of Truth’s ethos is Hadjitofi’s belief in the power of ordinary people to identify stolen treasures and protect threatened heritage. Walk of Truth also advocates for more countries to sign and ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict and for tougher laws against art traffickers when they are caught. But it also asks people to simply keep their eyes and ears open.

Al Azm has taken a slightly different tack by harnessing modern-day technology to protect the past. As you read this, a team of undercover operatives and archaeologists are at work in Syria, applying a water-based forensic polymer called SmartWater to some of the country’s most treasured artifacts. SmartWater is invisible to the naked eye but glows bright yellow when a special light is shined on it. It can’t be washed off and remains on an object for years.

“So let’s say a Roman gold coin shows up in an auction and you tell the seller, ‘Well, I think this was looted from Syria.’ And they say, ‘No, no. This comes from the collection of Uncle Luigi who got it from his grandfather, who had it in his collection since 1880.’ If you have a substance like SmartWater on the coin, then you can prove five, 10, 15 years later when this coin shows up in an auction that it was looted from Syria — and return it,” Al Azm explained.

The aim is to sow doubt in the minds of buyers, who might hesitate to spend thousands of dollars on a dubious item. “We can plant the seed of doubt in buyers’ minds and let it grow, so that demand subsides, prices go down and it’s no longer profitable to do this kind of work,” Al Azm said. “That’s our hope.”

PDF of article here 

The Wight Stuff

The Wight Stuff

CMoG’s Karol Wight Protects 3,500 Years of Glass in Corning, and Antiquities Worldwide

by Alison Fromme

May 3, 2017

Under the low lights of the gallery, Dr. Karol Wight stands with her arm outstretched, pointing toward a display case. Spotlights focus attention on an exceedingly rare piece of ancient glass protected inside. It is a small blue and white cup, just the right size to fit in your hand.

This is cameo glass, she explains, and a personal favorite. About two thousand years ago, a Roman glassblower layered hot white glass on top of blue and formed the cup shape. Once the piece cooled, a skilled artisan carved away some of the white, leaving a detailed religious scene on a rich blue background. A priestess stands in front of an altar with her right arm raised, and a woman approaches with offerings.

This quiet pause in the hushed gallery contrasts starkly with the rest of Karol’s day, scheduled to the minute with meetings, phone calls, and research, in between travel to conferences and other engagements. Her bright, light-filled corner office bustles with energetic evidence of work: papers, books, and notes organized on the desk, table, and shelves.

As president and executive director of the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG), Karol is charged with leading an organization with $45 million in assets and a priceless glass collection spanning 3,500 years. CMoG’s ultimate goal is to “tell the story of a single material: glass” and Karol and her team do that with hands-on technology exhibits, glassmaking shows, make-your-own glass activities, an extensive research library, and nearly 50,000 objects in the historic and contemporary galleries.

Now, Karol has a role beyond the museum as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. Not only is she an executive caretaker of CMoG’s antiquities, but also those threatened worldwide.

“I am deeply honored to have been appointed by [former] President Obama to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and look forward to representing the American museum community in future discussions concerning the protection of cultural patrimony of other nations,” said Wight. “I feel very privileged to serve my country in this way.”

Threats and Protections

Consider a family heirloom stolen and sold at a pawnshop. The story that gave the item meaning and value is lost forever. And a piece of family history vanishes.

Antiquities are like the world’s heirlooms: a physical record of our shared human history. An Egyptian sarcophagus, a Roman cup, an Islamic jug, a Buddha statue. Illegal looting and pillaging, careless removal from archaeological sites, and stealing from museums and collections all threaten cultural artifacts.

But for centuries marked by exploration, colonization, and war, returning with stolen loot was standard practice. And the cultural implications of thefts weren’t recognized.

People—from archaeologists to dealers to museum professionals to citizens—have since recognized that the looting of antiquities is a problem. In 1970, the countries of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) met to address the problem and figure out how to stop the illicit import, export, and transfer of culturally important objects. They agreed that ending pillaging meant reducing the market for stolen goods, helping countries protect their own archaeological sites and museums, and encouraging the legal exchange of materials for education and research. The U.S. later enacted its own law, signed by Ronald Regan, to implement the UNESCO agreement by the establishing the Committee and other measures.

In the Bill, the State Department commented that the expanding antiquities trade has led to “the mutilation of ceremonial centers and archaeological complexes of ancient civilizations” and to the stealing of objects from museums, churches, and collections. The victimized governments “have been disturbed at the out flow of these objects to foreign lands,” and when those objects turn up in the U.S., there are “outcries and urgent requests for return by other counties. The United States considers that on grounds of principle, good foreign relations, and concern for the preservation of the cultural heritage of mankind, it should render assistance in these situations.”

The assistance is ongoing and urgent. All nations are at risk, according to the Cultural Heritage Center. Culturally-rich countries lacking the funds to protect their cultural material are particularly in danger. And conflict zones are even more vulnerable. In Syria, for example, recent satellite imagery illustrated the rampant increase in “looting pits” dug at ancient archeological sites. According to experts, sales of items stolen across the Middle East have been used to fund the Islamic State (ISIS).

Although the eleven-member Cultural Property Advisory Committee doesn’t work directly on the current Middle East crisis (other legislation addresses that issue), it offers a layer of protection against trade in stolen antiquities from other countries. Peruvian figurines. Ancient Guatemalan stone masks. Bulgarian glass goblets. Egyptian Islamic glass lamps. Glass beads from funerary caves in Mali.

“The purpose of the Committee is global,” Karol says.

Here’s how it works. Countries around the world can submit requests to establish or renew agreements to protect their cultural heritage, and the Committee reviews the requests and advises the president on the matter. If the U.S. enters into an agreement, the U.S. will restrict the import of specific objects from that country, and the Department of Homeland Security will enforce the restriction, stopping items at the border. Before her appointment, Karol had already assisted the Committee by testifying for an agreement with Italy and by communicating with Homeland Security over a suspicious shipment.

Now, before purchasing items, many dealers and museums require specific documentation about objects’ “provenance”—a kind of pedigree of ownership to prove that the object wasn’t stolen, at least not recently.

“The issue of looted antiquities today is an even greater problem than it has been for the past ten or fifteen years because of the current situation in the Middle East,” Karol said at a forum of the Antiquities Coalition in 2015. “I really believe that anyone that’s engaged with the market, whether it’s a museum, a private collector, a vendor, whether an auction house or a dealer, is responsible for checking the provenance of these works that are being offered in the market, to the best of their ability. Having said that, it’s increasingly difficult to try and track provenances like this. But it’s only through controlling the market that we’re going to get a handle on stemming the flow of antiquities out of the Middle East and into Europe and American marketplaces.”

The blue and white cameo glass cup, says Karol, is one example of a CMoG object that has excellent provenance, tracing ownership back more than 100 years.

Known as the Morgan Cup, it was owned by J.P. Morgan, the nineteenth-century financier, and collector of art and antiquities. He acquired it from a dealer known as Joseph-Ange Durighello, the son of a French diplomat stationed in what is now Lebanon. In 1951, long after the death of J.P. Morgan, Arthur Houghton, vice chairman of the Pierpont Morgan Library and co-founder of the Corning Museum of Glass, acquired the cup and then donated it to the museum the following year.

Uniquely Skilled

Before coming to the Corning Museum of Glass in 2011, Karol spent twenty-six years at the world-renowned Getty Museum in Los Angeles. As a UCLA art history graduate student in the 1980s, she interned with Arthur Houghton, who had become a curator there, and met David Whitehouse, then president of CMoG, when he visited.

The two men asked Karol to prepare documents required to make ancient glass purchases at an upcoming auction in London. “I was suddenly working with a material that I had never studied before,” Karol later said. “The more I started doing the research for the acquisition proposals, the more I realized that this was really interesting material.”

One of the purchases—a mold-blown glass beaker—became the subject of her Ph.D. work, and after she graduated she stayed at the Getty as a curatorial assistant and resident ancient glass expert, seeing the museum through a $275 million renovation.

Then, before the museum reopened, Karol’s boss, Marion True, was accused by the Italian government of knowingly buying stolen ancient artifacts, along with a Paris-based dealer. Marion had already returned several Italian items when informed of their illicit origins and she had persuaded the Getty to establish strict standards for acquiring objects. She denied the new allegations and left her position before the trial began. Karol was appointed Curator of Antiquities.

“It was awful,” Karol says. “It could have been any number of curators.”

As the trial proceeded over  five years, some objects from the Getty were returned. The L.A. Times reported that one piece, an ancient urn dating to about 340 BC, was purportedly “unearthed in Italy by an excavator in 1974, sold to a smuggler for a pig, and purchased by the Getty from a Swiss art dealer in 1981 for $275,000.”

Despite the turmoil, the Getty Museum acquired in 2008 a third-century Roman marble sarcophagus, demonstrating its strict policy: proof that an artifact was removed from its country of origin before 1970 or that it was legally exported and then imported to the United States. An 1881 scholarly work traces the sarcophagus to a former French ambassador to Rome, who acquired it there in 1852, Karol explained at the time.

To move forward, Karol helped the Getty leadership shape a collaborative agreement with both the Ministry of Culture in Rome and Sicilian officials. They returned more items and kept some on loan while the Getty Museum staff completed conservation work on them.

“So much was learned about the objects,” Karol says of the conservation work. “It was richly rewarding.” And in 2010, the Italians dropped the charges against Marion True.

In 2011, Karol was appointed Executive Director and Curator of Ancient and Islamic Glass at the Corning Museum of Glass, following the footsteps of her mentor, David Whitehouse. “I’m thrilled that I’m at an institution where I can indulge in my passion, 24/7,” Karol said at the time. “As much as I love the rest of ancient art, glass has always been my passion, so to be here is really a wonderful fit for me. I’m excited to be working with such a great team of people here at the Museum, people that I’ve known and worked with for many years.”

One of the first things Karol did on her arrival was review, strengthen, and formalize the acquisitions policy, with the advice and consent of the board of trustees.

“At the Corning Museum of Glass, we have a very restrictive acquisitions policy when it comes to archaeological material. We require some documentation of a work prior to 1970 and we try and go beyond that to establish the history of a piece once it’s left its country of origin,” Karol explained at a forum of the Antiquities Coalition in 2015. “And I have to say provenance really enhances the value of a work of art that’s on the market because museums and collectors feel secure in what they’re acquiring for their collections.”

Later, CMoG added two ancient items to its collection. One, a portrait inlay of the pharaoh Akhenaten from the 1330s BC, was acquired at an auction with a documented chain of ownership dating back to 1949. The second, a dark purple glass bowl from the fourth or fifth century AD with an intricate Nile River scene of birds, a dragon fly, and lotus flower—and among the most complete examples known of this type—was acquired from a private collector, who had thought it was a replica. The ownership documentation was scant, and CMoG required a certificate from the Israeli government stating that it had no claim to the object.

In 2015, Karol was promoted to president of CMoG. Throughout her time at the organization, she oversaw the $64 million Contemporary Art + Design Wing expansion, added new leadership positions, and assembled a new team of curators.

Karol has also asked, “What can we contribute?” Recently, she sent Assistant Curator Katherine Larson to a workshop at the University of Pennsylvania to learn about how others in the field document provenance and to share information about CMoG’s resources online and at the Rakow Research Library, which is a digitized collections catalogue, academic research, historic photos, and auction catalogues, all of which can help others document provenance of ancient objects.

“I think it is fair to say that we are an ambitious institution that has always wanted to grow and exceed our expectations,” Karol says. “We have successfully built our visitation over the course of our existence to reach our current total of 460,000 visitors a year from all over the world. You wouldn’t necessarily think that we are an international destination, but we are, and we are delighted that the guests who arrive from Europe or Asia carry back the news of their visit and inspire others to come.” In a town of just over 11,000 people, that is a lot of visitors.

Glass continues to fascinate Karol. “When I started studying the glass pieces, I realized that these craftspeople working two and three thousand years ago were being extremely experimental in what they were doing and, either through accident or intent, they had found ways to manipulate this incredible material,” she said. “Plus, everything they did in antiquity is still done today, utilizing the same techniques that were developed two thousand years ago. I think that’s incredible.”

As for the Morgan Cup, Karol says it’s lovely to have the collection history, but there’s also so much to be learned from the cup’s imagery itself. She still wonders: Did cameo glasses serve a purpose in rituals about the god of wine? Were they just drinking cups with nice decorations? Who used them? How were they marketed? Were they diplomatic gifts? Looking at glass this way helps us relate to it more, she says, and these types of questions might guide a future reinvention of CMoG’s permanent collections exhibits.

Without knowing where these antiquities—rare and ancient heirlooms—originated, how they were made and used, and the path they took to get to Corning, they might just be pretty ornaments, lacking a meaningful story. But antiquities like the Morgan Cup, with one layer carved to reveal another, offer glimpses into our shared human history, for anyone to see, protected and illuminated in the hushed Corning Museum of Glass gallery.

PDF of article here

Ancient Gold Angkorian Jewelry to Return to Cambodia From London

Ancient Gold Angkorian Jewelry to Return to Cambodia From London

May 1, 2017


A set of ancient Angkorian gold jewelry that found its way to a London art dealership will be returned to Cambodia after the government intervened to stop a planned sale.

The Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art dealership listed the jewelry in its online catalog, according to a statement from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

The ministry petitioned the dealership in November to return the Angkorian artifacts. They originated in the Khmer empire, a power in Southeast Asia from A.D. 802 to A.D. 1431. At one point, it included much of today’s Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam.

“Cambodia has provided concrete testimony to prove that the artifact jewelry belongs to Cambodia, is jewelry designed in the Khmer style and that only Cambodia has this style, and it was taken out of the country illegally,” the statement said.

Looting during the war

During decades of war, Cambodia lost countless priceless historical artifacts to looters and smugglers who targeted ancient sites. The Khmer Rouge and other military groups often controlled looters in their areas.

“There is a good argument that the illicit trade in artifacts, gemstones, and timber even helped to prolong the conflict,” Terressa Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition and School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, told VOA Khmer in an email.

Many of the items they took ended up with foreign art traders, although it is not clear when the jewelry in question was taken from the kingdom or by whom.

Jonathan Tucker, joint owner of the dealership, did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Items to return to Cambodia

The set includes a crown, necklace, earrings, armbands, belt and chest ornament, and will be returned with the assistance of the British government, Thai Norak Satya, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said. In recent years, Cambodia has successfully repatriated several ancient statues from the United States.

Looting artifacts has a history almost as old as some of the items themselves.

The earliest known trial of looters in Egypt took place in Thebes in 1113 B.C. Today, there are curbs on the trade.

In 1970, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which to date 132 countries have signed.

Antiquities in demand

Nonetheless, there is a multibillion-dollar demand for ancient artifacts such as the Angkorian jewelry — “too great a demand to be met by the legal supply,” Davis said.

“As a result, looting and trafficking is now an illegal industry that spans the globe, financing crime, conflict and even terrorism,” said Davis, a lawyer who in 2015 was knighted by the Royal Government of Cambodia for her work in recovering the country’s plundered heritage.

PDF of article here