The Fordham University Villanovan hut urn

Over on Facebook, Jason Felch has recently drawn attention to an old Chasing Aphrodite post about the Fordham University Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art. This museum collection comprises more than 260 objects donated in 2006 by William D. Walsh and his wife Jane [1]. Jason links to a January 2014 post on David Gill’s blog Looting Matters, which reports that legal title to a ninth century BC Villanovan hut urn in the collection’s possession was ceded to Italy in 2010 after it was discovered to have been illegally excavated and traded. The piece itself remained on long-term loan at Fordham. It can be seen today on the digital inventory of the Fordham collection (inventory number 4.021), where Fordham University is listed as the ‘owning institution’ – presumably a mistake.

At the time of the donation in 2006, Walsh said he had bought most of his material at public auction and reckoned his collection to be worth something in the region of $5-6 million [2]. It would be unusual and surprising if Mr and Mrs Walsh had not claimed a tax deduction on this sum for their donation to Fordham. It is after all standard practice, though one that is open to abuse [3]. In January 2014, David Gill went on to review the publication of the collection, drawing attention to the general dearth of useful information about provenance.

5-1b The hut urn seems to be the one appearing in the ‘Woodcutter’s Archive’ [4], as pictured here. The ‘woodcutter’ in question was Giuseppe Evangelisti, who in December 2003 was living north of Rome when the Carabinieri paid him a visit. They discovered a stash of hundreds of looted antiquities together with a photographic archive of every object he had ever found, said to number in the ‘hundreds of thousands’. Evangelisti is alleged to have sold finds to (among others) Giacomo Medici, the Aboutaam brothers, and ‘a prominent gallery in London’s Mayfair district’. As part of his PhD research [5], Gordon Lobay discovered that the urn had been sold at Christie’s New York on 18 December 1996 (lot 164) for $6,900. It is not known whether or not Walsh was the successful bidder, but it seems likely.

So, while the urn’s provenance might start with Evangelisti and end with Fordham, the money trail would start with the US taxpayer, passing through Christie’s to an intermediary dealer, perhaps Medici, the Aboutaams or a prominent London gallery (Christie’s would surely know), before finally petering out in the pocket of a tombarolo.


[1] Cavaliere, Barbara and Jennifer Udell (eds), 2012. Ancient Mediterranean Art. The William D. and Jane Walsh Collection at Fordham University. New York: Fordham University Press.

[2] Pogrebin, Robin, 2007. Fordham opens its gift: an antiquities museum, New York Times, 6 December.

[3] Thompson, Erin, 2010. The relationship between tax deductions and the market for unprovenanced antiquities, Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts 33: 241-265; Yates, Donna, 2016. Museums, collectors, and value manipulation: tax fraud through donation of antiquities, Journal of Financial Crime 23(1).

[4] Watson, Peter and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: Public Affairs, at 265-268.

[5] Lobay, Gordon, 2007. Objects and Objectivity: An Archaeology of Auctions. Central Italian Antiquities at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s 1970-2005. Unpublished PhD thesis: University of Cambridge.


Prevention is the best protection

Katie Paul has re-emphasized that cultural heritage is most vulnerable to depredation during times of conflict and civil disturbance. It is then that museums, archaeological sites and religious institutions are ransacked for their saleable contents – it is then that they are looted to feed the international demand for ‘cultural objects’. These are the so-called spikes in looting and theft that we are accustomed to reading about. As she observes, they are entirely predictable and they could happen anywhere, though just exactly where is a geopolitical uncertainty. They must be treated as a global problem. What can be done about it? The answer is hardly rocket science. We need to stop people buying and selling illicitly traded material. In other words, we need to reduce demand. And I am not just talking about material illicitly traded by Daesh, not just about material illicitly traded from Syria, not just about material illicitly traded from the MENA region. I am talking about material that has been looted and illicitly traded from anywhere in the world. We need a proactive global solution to a global problem, and we need it now. The best way to protect cultural heritage is to prevent people buying and selling illicit material. Prevention is the best protection.

Collectors are the real looters (1)

In 1993, archaeologist Ricardo Elia wrote that ‘collectors are the real looters’ [1]. He was making the crucially important point that the illicit trade in cultural objects and the associated looting of archaeological and cultural sites is a demand-led phenomenon. Yet, in contradiction to that fundamental reality, policy initiatives intended to protect cultural sites from looting are generally source-directed, or look towards interrupting supply to the destination market. (That is when they are not in reality concerned with documentation or reconstruction). Look at the ongoing looting in Syria, for example. The March 2014 UNESCO/EU International Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage calls for capacity building in Syria and neighbouring countries. The September 2013 International Council of Museums (ICOM) Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, the December 2013 EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013, and the February 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 are all intended to stop supply. Apart from some vaguely characterized strategies of ‘awareness-raising’, there are no practical actions aimed at reducing demand.

One reason that no action is being taken against demand is that nothing much is known about the organization and operation of the destination market. And that is a scandalous situation for us to find ourselves in. Remember that Elia was writing about demand back in 1993, nearly a quarter of a century ago now. But during that time only a few scholars have taken the time to research the nature of the destination market and of the collecting that helps shape it.

I made the point in 2006 that scholarly research into late-twentieth century (and now early-twenty-first century) collecting of cultural objects is a minority pursuit compared to research into the collecting practices of earlier centuries [2]. The following histogram shows the chronological range of papers published since 1989 in the Journal of the History of Collections, the foremost international journal for such research. The main focus of scholarly interest has been the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Histogram 1

The next histogram zooms in with a decade-by-decade breakdown of the twentieth century. Very little research has been published into late-twentieth century collecting. The few papers that have been published concern paintings and modern manuscripts, nothing that is likely to have been illicitly traded. These histograms between them demonstrate convincingly the general absence of scholarly interest in recently assembled collections of unprovenanced and most likely illicitly traded objects and their market contexts.

Histogram 2

Sociologist Angela Brew has written that ‘Research sometimes avoids attempting to solve society’s closest and most pressing problems, instead choosing to escape from the world to pursue knowledge of that which is distant and socially unproblematic’ [3]. How true. But there is a sad outcome of the scholarly reluctance to investigate modern day collecting. It encourages a misdirected policy response to a problem that appears in consequence to be intractable. This scholarly evasion must now be considered part of the problem and a topic worthy of research in its own right.


[1] Elia, Ricardo, 1993. A seductive and troubling work, Archaeology 46(1): 64-69.

[2] Brodie, Neil, 2006. Smoke and mirrors. In E. Robson, L. Treadwell and C. Gosden (eds), Who Owns Objects? Oxford, Oxbow: 1–14.

[3] Brew, Angela, 2001. The Nature of Research Inquiry in Academic Contexts. London: Routledge, at 78.

A tale of two news reports

What can be learned from two recent news reports about looting in Syria?

On 12 January, Business Insider took a look at Daesh. The article was reporting second-hand on how Daesh makes millions of dollars from looting archaeological sites, money which it then uses to fund its ongoing campaign of terror. One day earlier, on 11 January, the Syrian DGAM had reported the presence of ‘terrorists and smuggling rings’ excavating illegally in Quneitra province. The ‘terrorists’ are almost certainly not members of Daesh as the area in question is under the control of non-jihadi opposition forces. One country, two stories. What are we to make of them?

There is the obvious question of bias. Both reports are selective in their coverage. That is not to say though that one or other of them is false. Let us assume they are both true. They simply confirm what Jesse Casana has already demonstrated by careful analysis of satellite imagery. While Daesh is the most aggressive looter of archaeological heritage, it is certainly not the only one. Thus policy initiatives that focus only on Daesh, such as the US Department of State’s offered reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting Daesh, are not likely to offer much in the way of long-term protection to archaeological heritage so long as the conflict continues. As Daesh is forced back, the traumatised communities of the liberated territories and their resurgent militias will continue to seek financial rewards from archaeological sites.

Mile-high collecting

I have been attending meetings about how to stop the illicit trade in cultural objects for more years than I care to remember. (And if something concrete doesn’t happen soon, it will be more years than I am able to remember). Pretty near the top of any agenda is the need to raise public awareness of the issues involved. (Which are that buying illicitly-traded objects creates a demand which is fed by a trade which causes looting which damages and destroys cultural heritage). It doesn’t take long for someone to start talking about the potential of inflight magazines for reaching out to a good cross-section of the public. The travelling public at least, the type of people who might be expected to take an interest in such things.

The British Airways High Life magazine is a case in point. Published monthly, it is found in most seat pockets on all British Airways flights, domestic and international. The December 2015 issue showed exactly what might be possible. It featured a well-illustrated article called Tusk Force, describing how poaching threatens the survival of elephants in Kenya and reporting on conservation strategies that are in place to save them. Good stuff. The same issue carried a piece by BBC world affairs editor John Simpson reminiscing about the time he bought what he believes to be Northern Song bowl from a bunch of tomb robbers in Beijing for ‘a hundred bucks’. He knows he really shouldn’t have, but he ‘can’t help thinking that the gang of skinny, jokey little characters from remotest China have brought something wonderful to light from the depths of the earth’. That’s all right then. Not really what is envisaged though at the meetings I attend.

High Life is produced and published for British Airways by Cedar Communications Ltd of London. The small print advises that ‘… opinions expressed in High Life do not necessarily reflect the views of British Airways or the publisher’. Let us hope they don’t. Let us hope too that the millions of passengers reading Simpson’s piece do not follow his example.

Market of mass destruction: the policy omnishambles

I have been prompted to start this blog by the omnishambles of international public policy as it struggles but fails to achieve some kind of grip on the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Since 1990, a series of international, proxy and civil wars together with associated episodes of civil disturbance throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have triggered wave after wave of damaging attacks on cultural heritage. Cultural sites have been ruined for motives or pretexts of cultural cleansing and iconoclasm, damaged deliberately or accidentally by the actions of armed forces, or simply overwhelmed by the more peaceful though still destructive processes of urban expansion and agricultural improvement. Through all of this, however, a major cause of damage has been and continues to be the looting of archaeological and cultural sites to feed the illicit trade in cultural objects. Certainly, sitting here in the United Kingdom, it looks to be the most regrettable cause of damage, as it is the most preventable one. The trade exists to feed the collecting mania of destination countries far removed from the MENA region itself, and thus within easier reach of policy countermeasures. Or so it would seem. As the cultural heritage of country after country has fallen victim to looting and illicit trade, however, the international community has looked on despairingly but with little to offer in the way of effective amelioration. The looting and trade continues, seemingly unabated.

The shambolic nature of policy is reflected in the confusing terminology used to describe initiatives aimed at preventing damage. Sometimes it looks as though policy-makers do not have access to a dictionary. In October 2015, for example, the UK government announced a ‘New scheme to protect cultural sites from destruction’. Notice the headline use of the word ‘protect’. Protection was promised against the ‘destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists’. The scheme in question is the Iraqi Emergency Heritage Management Project. £3 million was granted to the British Museum to ‘create a team of local experts to assess, document and stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and help begin the process of reconstruction and preservation of some of the world’s most precious cultural artefacts’. So, despite headlining the need for protection, in reality the project has nothing to do with protection. It is all about documentation and reconstruction, things that are needed when protection has failed. Nothing wrong with that in principle, it is nice to see some money going to support initiatives aimed at restoring damaged cultural sites, but it is hardly protection, so why headline it as such? And furthermore, having discounted the protective agency of documentation and reconstruction, what exactly is being done to protect sites?

And just in case readers in the United States are feeling smug, something similar has been going on there. Between August 2014 and September 2015 the US Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) secured $1.5 million of federal funding for what is now called Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI). The stated aim of ASOR CHI is to implement ‘cultural property protection’ by: (1) documenting damage; (2) promoting global awareness; and (3) planning emergency and post-war responses. Again, the headline is ‘protection’, but the reality is more about documentation and reconstruction. Most of ASOR CHI’s operational effort is directed towards producing weekly reports of damage caused to cultural heritage in Syria and north Iraq. There is a real need for this kind of work, and the reports comprise a singular resource of undoubted value. But again, it is not protection.

ASOR CHI has produced a nice infographic describing its work. At one point, the infographic states that ‘Priceless artifacts have been looted & sold on the black market’. Quite. Probably sold on the not-so-black and nearly-white markets too. It is a pity then that ASOR CHI is not tackling the black market head on, by designing and implementing strategies aimed at reducing the demand for looted objects or interrupting their flow to destination countries. Preventing the illicit trade would be a sure route to protecting cultural sites, and yet it is a route not followed. Perhaps it is time that it was. Prevention offers protection in a way that documentation and reconstruction do not.