The problem of new looting in Iraq

From New York Times:

The looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is thriving again. This time it is not a result of the “stuff happens” chaos that followed the American invasion in 2003, but rather the bureaucratic indifference of Iraq’s newly sovereign government.

Thousands of archaeological sites — containing some of the oldest treasures of civilization — have been left unprotected, allowing what officials of Iraq’s antiquities board say is a resumption of brazenly illegal excavations, especially here in southern Iraq.

A new antiquities police force, created in 2008 to replace withdrawing American troops, was supposed to have more than 5,000 officers by now. It has 106, enough to protect their headquarters in an Ottoman-era mansion on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad and not much else.

“I am sitting behind my desk and I am protecting the sites,” the force’s commander, Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah al-Khazali, said with exasperation. “With what? Words?”

looting in the desert at Dhahir

The failure to staff and use the force — and the consequent looting — reflects a broader weakness in Iraq’s institutions of state and law as the American military steadily withdraws, leaving behind an uncertain legacy.

Many of Iraq’s ministries remain feeble, hampered by corruption, the uncertain divisions of power and resources and the political paralysis that has consumed the government before and after this year’s election.

In the case of Iraq’s ancient ruins, the cost has been the uncountable loss of artifacts from the civilizations of Mesopotamia, a history that Iraq’s leaders often evoke as part of the country’s once and, anticipating archaeological research and tourism, future greatness.

“The people who make these decisions, they talk so much about history in their speeches and conferences,” said the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Qais Hussein Rashid, referring to the plight of the new police force, “but they do nothing.”

The looting today has not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the American invasion in 2003, when looters — tomb raiders, essentially — swarmed over sites across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops, who until 2009 conducted joint operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep records of reported lootings.

Here in Dhahir, the looting is evident in the shattered bits of civilization — pieces of pottery, glass and carved stone — strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar Province. The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities, he said.

“For me, for you, it is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it in the market.”

The Dubrum site — which stretches for miles in a sparsely populated region — is pocked by hundreds of trenches, some deeper than 10 or 12 feet. At the bottom of some is the brickwork of tombs, marking the area as a cemetery. Mr. Hamdani said tombs were the most highly valued targets — of archaeologists and looters alike.

The headquarters of the antiquities police in Baghdad. The force has barely enough people to protect its own headquarters.

Many of the trenches date to the postinvasion chaos, but others have been freshly dug. Just last month someone used a bulldozer and plowed a two-foot-deep gash in the desert, unearthing the brick and bitumen remains of a stairway possibly leading to another cemetery. The materials dated it to the Babylonian period in the seventh century B.C.

The precision of the new looting indicates expertise. “The thief is in the house,” Mr. Hamdani said, suggesting that many of those involved worked on the sites years ago when legitimate archaeological excavations took place, before the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

A Bedouin reported the new excavation to the local police in Dhi Qar, but officers there could do little except to draw public attention to the problem.

Mr. Hamdani’s successor as antiquities inspector for the province, Amir Abdul Razak al-Zubaidi, said he did not even have the budget to pay for gas to drive to the sites of new looting.

“No guards, no fences, nothing,” Mr. Hamdani said. “The site is huge. You can do whatever you want.”

Until the creation of the antiquities police in 2008, responsibility for protecting archaeological sites rested with the Federal Protection Police, created, equipped and trained by the American military. The federal police, however, also guard government officials and buildings, like schools and museums. The ruins, some just desolate patches of desert, slipped down the list of priorities.

Rather than filling the gap, the creation of the antiquities police deepened it. Iraq’s various military and police forces simply left the issue to an agency that effectively still does not operate, nearly two years later.

Mr. Rashid, director of the antiquities board, also said his agency’s request for a $16 million budget in 2010 had been slashed to $2.5 million. The police officers promised by the Ministry of the Interior simply have yet to materialize, despite an order last year from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

“Not everything the prime minister requests from his ministers is obeyed,” he said. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry declined to comment on the status of the antiquities police.

Mr. Rashid went on to complain that the looters in some southern provinces — including Dhi Qar and Wasit — operated with the collusion of the law enforcement authorities. “The hand of law cannot reach them,” he said.

The extent and lasting impact of the looting in sites like Dubrum may never be known, since they have never been properly excavated to begin with.

Mr. Zubaidi, the inspector in Dhi Qar, compared the current crisis to the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, a convulsive ransacking that shocked the world into action. The museum’s fate continues to attract far more attention from the government and international donors.

“Most of the pieces that were stolen from the National Museum will come back,” Mr. Zubaidi said. “Each piece was marked and recorded.” Nearly half the 15,000 pieces looted from the museum have been returned. “The pieces that were stolen here will never be returned,” he said. “They are lost forever.”

From New York Times

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Roman sculptures withdrawn from Bonhams’ auction

Four Roman sculptures are to be withdrawn from auction tomorrow  (28 April) amid claims that they were stolen from archaeological sites overseas.

Photographs seized by police suggested that the sculptures – funerary busts and a marble statue of a youth from the second century AD – were illicitly excavated, archaeologists told the Guardian.

A spokesman for Bonhams auctioneers said: “Whenever a serious question is raised about an item’s provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance.”

Dr David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said that the four antiquities bore soil traces that indicated they were excavated during illegal digs. Images in the Bonhams auction catalogue show the same sculptures cleaned and restored.

Archaeologists remain concerned about illegal trading of antiquities and some believe insufficient checks are carried out into their provenance.

Lord Renfrew, the eminent Cambridge archaeologist, warned that “such sales are maintaining London’s reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities”.

Gill said the withdrawal was the latest in a series of such incidents in London.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a researcher at Cambridge University and formerly an archaeologist with the Greek ministry of culture, uncovered the evidence suggesting that the sculptures had been illegally excavated. They had been moderately valued, at about £40,000, but he is concerned about the impact of illicit excavations.

He said: “The destruction leaves objects out of context. Even if [an object] is a masterpiece, our duty is to give people history.” It is a view shared by most archaeologists.

Since 2003, it has been a criminal offence to deal in “tainted cultural objects”, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Renfrew called for auction houses to identify the vendors of antiquities. “That would be a step towards clarifying the problem,” he said.

The style of the Roman busts suggests they are of eastern Mediterranean origin and were possibly dug up in Syria or northern Greece. The marble statue probably originates from Italy, archaeologists said.

The Bonhams spokesman said that the firm sends its catalogues for scrutiny to the Art Loss Register – a computerised database – to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold. “If they raise issues, we also withdraw items,” he said.However, Dr Gill said that the Art Loss Register only dealt with stolen items, and not antiquities that may have come from illegal excavations.

From Guardian

Rome wants the “looted” Etruscan artefacts back from UK

Ministers have been condemned for forcing through the sale of up to 1,000 antiquities allegedly stolen from Italy, in order to pay the debts of a bankrupt private collector.

The Home Office has sparked outrage by allowing Roman bronzes, Etruscan gold and other treasures to be placed on the market by liquidators acting for the government in an attempt to recover unpaid taxes from the former owner, Robin Symes, a dealer with alleged links to the smuggling trade and a UK prison record.

Lord Renfrew, a Cambridge archaeologist, described the handling of the case as a “scandal” and called for action to end London’s reputation as “a clearing-house for looted antiquities”.

The controversy comes after officials from 20 countries met last week in Egypt to discuss how to recover ancient treasures that may have been stolen or looted. Britain has been involved in long disputes with Egypt and Greece over artefacts held in the British Museum.

In documents seen by the Observer, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the relevant prosecutor in Rome, has repeatedly asked Britain to return the Symes antiquities to their “rightful owner”. The UK government has caused fury by stating that the antiquities could instead be bought.

Lord Renfrew

Symes’s collection includes objects dating back 3,000 years, which Rome says form a vital part of Italian heritage. Ferri said: “It’s like the Italian government making a profit from the mafia selling drugs.”

Renfrew said: “These illicitly exported objects are being sold to pay Robin Symes’s debts, which means that they are being sold for the benefit of the British government. This does reflect unfavourably on the British Treasury and Revenue and Customs, as they are encouraging the sale of material that the Italians say is looted.

“Many of the antiquities are Etruscan and could only have been found in Italy. They left Italy illegally because they would require an export licence. I can’t see how the Home Office can dispute that.”

The Italians said that requests to the Home Office asking for details on how the antiquities arrived in Britain, which must be given under international law, have been frustrated by “unhelpful”, delaying responses. For its part, the Home Office has asked Italy for evidence that the artefacts “were in fact stolen”.

The Symes treasures include Etruscan gold and amber necklaces, lead figures of warriors and a bronze mask of Acheloos, a river deity. There is also an Attic cup decorated with dolphins and a Roman bronze statuette of a bull. Many are still soil-encrusted, a sign of recent illegal digs, according to the Italians. Some belong to important known pieces in Italy and offer “evidence” of smuggling. One of the fragments with the liquidators comes from a looted vase that has been returned to Italy by the Getty Museum – “an absurd situation”, as they belong together, Ferri said.

The collection is expected to raise well over £100,000.

Fabio Isman, an Italian authority on looted art, said: “These objects were excavated illegally and are now being sold. It’s terrible – terrible for culture and for the country from where the objects came. It’s a scandal.”

A controversial figure, Symes built up a dealing company once valued at £125m. Selling antiquities to collectors and museums, including the Getty in Los Angeles, he lived a life of luxury. He went bankrupt after a legal dispute with the family of his late business partner. Aged 65, Symes was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005 by a high court judge.

The liquidator, BDO Stoy Hayward, declined to comment. A Home Office spokesman said its policy is “to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a request to the UK, or to comment [on it]”.

SOURCE

British Museum under pressure to give up leading treasures

The demand, issued in Cairo at the end of a two-day conference, is addressed to every country that holds ancient relics.

Western museum hold most of the items listed by countries ranging from China to Mexico. The British museum is the principal target because of the prominence of the artefacts it owns.

Egypt wants returned include the Rosetta stone in the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum. Both the British and Neues Museum have rejected the demand.

The conference was hosted by Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been an outspoken campaigner for the return of lost treasures.

Mr Hawass acknowledged that there was no international legal basis for the demands but said a united stand between affected nations would bolster the claims.

“Instead of Egypt fighting on its own, let’s all fight together. let’s all come out with a wishlist,” he said. “We need to co-operate all of us especially with that wish list. we need all of us to come with one list and fight until we return this artefacts back.

“Forget the legal issue,” he said. “Important icons should be in their motherland, period.”

A spokeswoman said the British museum had not received an official request from Egypt.

“The British Museum has not received an official request for the permanent return of the Rosetta Stone,” she said. “The Museum has received a request from the Supreme Council of Antiquities requesting the short term loan of the stone for the opening of the new museum in Giza in 2012 or 2013. The Trustees of the British Museum will consider this request in due course.”

It has faced a long running campaign by the Greek government for the return of the Elgin Marbles which were taken from the Parthenon at the outset of the 19th century.

Elana Korka, a Greek culture ministry official said the marbles were its prime concern. “We would like to see some good faith,” she said. “They are the Parthenon marbles and that is where they belong.”

International conventions written since 1954 prohibited wartime looting, theft and resale of artefacts but the agreements don’t apply to items taken abroad before national or global laws were in force.

Nigeria has listed its claims for the Benin bronzes, which are also housed from the British Museum. Mexico has demanded the return of a feathered headdress of a tribal warrior and China has sought the handover of astrological items looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing during the Second Opuim War.

Artefacts that are on the looted list:

1 Elgin Marbles

(British Museum)

Greece has long fought to reclaim the frieze stripped from the Parthenon at the behest of the 7th Earl of Elgin in 1801

2 Rosetta Stone

(British Museum) Egypt demands the return of the 2,200-year-old stone tablet that holds the key to translating ancient hieroglyphs

3 Summer Palace

bronzes (private French owner)

China claims bronze heads from a zodiac clock were stolen during the Second Opium War in 1860

4 Benin Bronzes (British Museum) Nigeria lays claim to the royal treasures of Benin, saying that they were seized by British troops in 1897

5 Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Neues Museum)

Egypt wants the 3,500-year-old bust of the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten returned

SOURCE

Italian court demands Getty Museum return ancient statue

The Los Angeles museum said it would appeal the decision to Italy’s highest court and would “vigorously defend” its right to keep the bronze.

The “Victorious Youth” statue, which dates from 300-100BC, was pulled from the sea by Italian fishermen in 1964 off the eastern town of Fano, near Pesaro.

The Italian government, which has been on an international campaign to reclaim looted antiquities, says it was brought into Italy and then exported illegally.

The Getty Museum maintains Italy has no claim to the bronze and says it bought the statue in good faith in 1977 for $4 million (£2.5m).

In announcing its appeal, the Getty Museum said the ruling by the Pesaro court was flawed procedurally and substantively, noting that a previous case involving the statue was thrown out after the judge held, among other things, that the statute of limitations had expired.

“In fact, no Italian court has ever found any person guilty of any criminal activity in connection with the export or sale of the statue,” the museum said in a statement.

The statue, nicknamed the “Getty Bronze,” is a signature piece for the museum.

Though the artist is unknown, some scholars believe it was made by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor.

In recent years Italy has successfully won back artefacts it says were looted or stolen from the country and sold to museums and private collections worldwide.

In 2007, the Getty, without admitting any wrongdoing, agreed to return 40 ancient treasures in exchange for the long-term loans of other artefacts. Similar deals have been reached with other museums.

Under the 2007 deal, the two sides agreed to postpone further discussion of “Victorious Youth” until the court case was decided.

The Culture Ministry hailed Thursday’s ruling with “great satisfaction” and said it hoped it would lead to serious reflection on the part of the Getty about returning the statue.

The bronze is believed to have sunk with the ship that was carrying it to Italy after the Romans conquered Greece.

SOURCE

Treasure hunters ordered to return £250m of loot to Spain

Thistlegorm

The Spanish government has won a two-year legal battle against commercial marine archaeologist firm Odyssey, which Spain accused of plundering its national heritage.

The Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered 17 tons of gold and silver from a sunken vessel they code-named the “Black Swan” in March 2007. The Nasdaq-listed company refused to reveal the location of the wreck insisting that it had been found in international waters and therefore beyond the legal jurisdiction of any one country.

But when the record haul was announced Spain came to suspect the treasure had been looted from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate laden with bullion from the Americas that sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in October 1804.

Spain branded the Odyssey team “21st century pirates” and sent its navy to intercept vessels owned by Odyssey as they explored the waters around Spain. They seized equipment and records but failed to find the salvaged coins which had already been secretly flown out to a warehouse in Tampa, Florida.

In May 2007 the Spanish government launched legal proceedings with the US courts against Odyssey arguing that the wreck was protected by “sovereign immunity” which prohibits the unauthorised disturbance or commercial exploitation of state-owned naval vessels.

In a landmark ruling on Wednesday a judge at the Federal Court in Tampa found against Odyssey and ordered the treasure to be returned to Spain.

Angeles Gonzales-Sinde, Spain’s minister of culture, welcomed the decision. “The Judge saw that the ship and its contents belong to Spain. It’s a hugely important ruling and one that will set a precedent for future claims.”

The ruling could have an impact on future finds by the company, which is in talks with the British government over salvaging the wreck of the HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship believed to be carrying 10 tonnes of gold when it sank off the coast of Spain during a storm in 1694.

Odyssey said it will appeal the court’s decision. “I’m confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain’s claim,” said Gregg Stemm, the CEO of Odyssey. “We’ll be back to argue the merits of the case.”

SOURCE