Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bust in Cyprus

Authorities in Cyprus raided an antiquities smuggling ring last weekend, recovering dozens of artifacts valued at $15.5 million. Ten Cypriots and five other suspects were arrested by police for illegally possessing and trading in antiquities. This is believed to be the largest case of antiquities theft in Cyprus's history [NYT].

The Iraqi Jewish Archive

On January 17, the AP reported on the state of a Jewish archive found in Iraq and taken to the United States for preservation. In May of 2003, U.S. troops looking for weapons of mass destruction received a tip to investigate the basement of secret police building building. The troops discovered that the basement was flooded and that there were no WMDs on location. However, there was a finding to be made. The troops came upon books, photographs, and papers floating in the water, which, upon inspection, revealed themselves to be Jewish archival materials. Upon the approval of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the archive was sent to the United States in 2003 and is now at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. The original agreement was that the U.S. would return the archive to Iraq after two years but, although NARA has said that Iraq can have the materials back, more preservation work (and funding to do so) is needed.

The situation is complicated by the history of Jews in Iraq. As the AP article explains, the Jewish community once thrived in Iraq, despite periods of persecution. However, persecution of Jews intensified when Iraq sided with Germany during World War II and upon the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The 1950s saw a mass exodus of Iraqi Jews as a result of continued oppression; most current estimates put the Jewish population in Iraq at a staggeringly low figure of less than ten. The Jewish archive is believed to have been confiscated from Jewish families by the Iraqi secret police. Consequently, some Jewish authorities argue that the archive no longer belongs in Iraq.

However, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives says that the materials should be returned to Iraq because they are part of Iraqi cultural history, much of which was lost during the 2003 invasion. The AP reports that Iraqi officials plan to travel to the U.S. next month to assess the archive and to plan for its return. A 2003 description of the archive, plan for preservation, and estimated cost of preservation can be found here: Iraqi Jewish Archive.

Iraqi Jewish Archive upon Discovery

Saturday, January 30, 2010

UNESCO Calls for Ban of Trade in Haitian Artifacts

In the wake of war and natural disasters, cultural sites and museums become less secure and, thus, more vulnerable to pillaging. We witnessed rampant looting in both Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. Cultural heritage is dispersed, through an underground network, over state borders and on the internet.

In the aftermath of the earthquake's devastation in Haiti, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a statement calling for a ban in the trade and transfer of Haitian artifacts. This request was submitted to the UN Security Council by Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, on Wednesday. UNESCO has asked Interpol and the World Customs Organization to monitor this illicit trade. Two sites at risk of pillaging by treasure hunters are the Presidential Palace and Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, both of which collapsed during the earthquake.

In her statement, Bokova maintains that Haiti's cultural heritage "is an invaluable source of identity and pride for the people on the island and will be essential to the success of their natural reconstruction. "Loot!" will track the international community's reaction to Bokova's call, along with any developments regarding the trade of Haitian artifacts. [UNESCO Statement]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Rape of Europa

If you have ever traveled to Paris and visited the Louvre, you have stood more than a couple of feet from the Mona Lisa and viewed it through bullet-proof glass. But Frédérique Hébrard, daughter of a Louvre curator, got a little closer, as recounted in the documentary The Rape of Europa (2006). Hébrard's father was entrusted with the Mona Lisa when the Louvre was evacuated during World War II. The painting, along with thousands of other works in the Louvre's collection, was sent to a chateau in the south of France, to safeguard it from a Paris invasion and potential destruction or theft. In the documentary, Hébrard recalls opening the wooden case housing the Mona Lisa and gazing at her mysteriously smiling back.

In The Rape of Europa, a documentary based on Lynn H. Nicholas's book by the same title, we learn that, in addition to being mass-murderers who inflicted horror onto innocents, the Nazis were systematic plunderers of art. We all learn in grade school that Adolf Hitler was rejected from art school before gaining political power and establishing the Third Reich. But what many of us may have not learned is that art continued to be an obsession for Hitler throughout his life. The Rape of Europa describes how the dictator purged Europe of art that he hated and viewed as degenerate (modernist art, in particular) and stole art that he coveted. The Nazis' theft and destruction is still felt today, with lost art that has yet to be found and stolen art that is now the subject of disputes.

Hitler had a desire to make Linz, Austria a cultural mecca, with a museum of his design as the focal point. Even before his invasion of Poland in 1939, he had created a "hit list" of artworks that he wanted for his museum, including pieces in the Louvre. The documentary highlights heroes who saved Europe's cultural patrimony, including "Monuments Men" and Rose Valland, who will be the focus of their own post. In addition, Loot! will periodically highlight works of art stolen by the Nazis that were recovered, are still missing, or are disputed.

The Rape of Europa tells a truly riveting story that not even Hollywood's greatest screenwriter could imagine. Check out the trailer, head to the nearest video store (or to Netflix), and return to Loot! for more posts about Nazi plundering.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Met and the Euphronios Krater: The Origin of this Blog

In November of 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced the purchase of the Euphronios krater (515 BCE) for one million dollars, an acquisition that was soon dubbed the “Hot Pot” because of the intense public scrutiny that surrounded it. Evidence quickly emerged that suggested the krater had been looted from a site north of Rome in 1971, illegally smuggled out of Italy, and sold to the Met by Robert E. Hecht, an American art dealer notorious for his involvement in antiquity smuggling scandals. Still, the krater remained in the museum’s collection for over thirty years until an Italian Carbinieri “Art Squad” investigation led to a warehouse in Geneva belonging to antiquities trader Giacomo Medici. Medici’s massive collection of looted objects and telling documents and photos linked him to the sale of the krater to Hecht and gave insight into a highly organized international antiquities smuggling network.1

On February 21, 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed an accord with the Italian Ministry of Culture, agreeing to the return of the Euphronios krater, a sixteen piece set of silver, and four archeological objects that were used in the trial against Medici in exchange for long-term Italian loans of equivalent importance and beauty. The krater remained on exhibit at the Met until January of 2008.

It was the case of the Euphronios krater that first brought my attention to the illicit trade in cultural property. At Lehigh University, I completed my senior honors thesis on the international response to this issue. This issue is a historic problem and one that continues because of globalization and the burgeoning market for cultural property.

The goal of this blog is to highlight historic and contemporary cases of smuggling and looting and to examine the international community's response to this issue. I will post emerging news stories and track publications and resources that contribute to our understanding of the illicit trade in cultural property.

1. Watson, Peter and Todeschini, Cecilia. 2006. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs.