Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two Blogs to Watch Out For...

Two blogs have recently come to my attention that both, in their own way, highlight certain aspects of the antiquities trade/heritage preservation issues worldwide, and deserve further exposure here.

The first blog, simply called "Looting," administered by Dr. Nathan Craig and Margaret Brown-Vega, details the ongoing threat of grave robbing/looting ('huaqueando' in Spanish) still encountered throughout Peru and South America. Most entries consist primarily of photos of all the scattered remains, discarded "worthless" artifacts, and irreparably scarred landscapes left behind by looting. The broken bones, the complete ceramics with holes punched through them from looter's testing poles, the cloth scraps, hair, etc. All that context and irreplaceable data, all that disrespect and violation of the ancestors, just so the still-impoverished looters can feed the habits of rich middlemen and the international market. As poignant as the blog is, this is the kind of information that needs to be broadcast far and wide, wherever it occurs.

The other blog, "Culture in Peril," is run by one Mr. Nicholas Merkelson, an up-and-coming early career archaeologist and cultural heritage specialist with field experience from Spain to Kenya, museological experience at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of Kenya, and current employment with Adventures in Preservation, a sustainable heritage tourism company. With a world-wide focus, centred more on the ethics/controversy inherent in heritage conservation, site preservation, and the illicit trade in themselves, more than news from any one region, this blog nevertheless offers well-reasoned arguments, a breadth of stories and unrestricted commenting. To quote from his initial post (Feb 7th, 2010) "Culture in Peril will point followers towards the latest reports of heritage issues ongoing in the world today and provide insight into why and how these issues are--and must be--a concern to every individual." In this blogger's opinion, Culture in Peril is meeting it's goal very well!

Keep up the good work, and Season's Greetings, readers!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Let's Not Forget the Palaeontologists...

Despite the number of times that archaeologists get confused for palaeontologists (no, we do NOT excavate dinosaur bones), it is easy to overlook the fact that those who do uncover the world's pre-Homo sapiens past often face their own set of illicit smuggling/collecting threats to their work, field sites, and continued integrity as a scientific discipline. This recent article from the New York Times highlights these problems well.

The article details the ongoing illicit excavation and smuggling threat to an immense cache of 40 million year old marine reptile, shark and whale fossils, now being gradually exposed by the elements in Peru's Ocucaje desert, near the south coast city of Ica. Discoveries include "gigantic fossilized teeth from the legendary 50-foot shark called the megalodon, the bones of a huge penguin with surprisingly colorful feathers and the fossils of the Leviathan melvillei, a whale with teeth longer than those of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, making it a contender for the largest predator ever to prowl the oceans." The area is becoming well known to palaeontologists with marine mammal specializations, such as Dr. Christian de Muizon, of the Natural History Museum of Paris, perhaps rivaling parts of Pakistan, long known for its concentration of whale fossils.

However, now that so many nearby, and national, archaeological sites have been/are being looted out, smuggling attention is turning to fossils. Peruvian law classifies fossils along with archaeological artifacts as "national patrimony," and thus special permission is needed for their export. The hyper-remoteness of the region, it's aridity, and the near-complete lack of police presence means enforcement's more or less a pipe-dream. Indeed, many shops in Ica itself sell fossils: shark teeth for from $60-100, with rarer pieces going for higher. I wonder what kind of documentation comes with purchase, or is available upon request to prove that one's new store-bought fossil was excavated according to best palaeontological practice? If that segment of the illicit fossil trade that violates international laws at the behest of greedy dealers is anything like the antiquities trade (and it's clear that it is), I'm guessing the answer is no. According to the article, it's mostly itinerant seaweed harvesters/merchants who collect fossils on their way back from the coast. I would guess that this is not the world's most lucrative profession, thus making the urge to brave tough conditions in the desert a strong one.

According to the article, 2,200 seizures of illicit fossil cargo occurred this year at Lima's airport, up from 800 last year. This could be viewed in one of two ways: does the increase mean illicit smuggling attempts are increasing, or that customs agents are getting better at recognizing fossils and the tell-tale signs of concealed cargo, or both? It's hard to tell. What is apparent is that this is a growing concern, even in this remote region, as the still-impoverished huaqeros (tomb robbers) look for new ways to feed the market. By way of summary, the article linked to above details the rescue of more than one dozen Chimu-era artifacts robbed from a tomb near Conache, with a lawyer now contacted, and police and archaeologists stepping up patrol of the area. Similarly, professional palaeontologists, both local and foreign, must now race against time, the elements, and the criminal underworld to complete expensive field expeditions successfully, when they are fortunate enough to find good specimens of the species they're after. With the palaeontological community aware of the problem, it is now up to ethical local dealers and international buyers to cut off the illicit market at the source, only allowing sale of 'duplicate' skeletal elements from common species with a complete paper-trail and provenance provided. Buen suerte, Peru!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pakistani Smuggling Attempt Thwarted...

A new article from the Daily Times (a national newspaper out of Pakistan), brought to my attention via the Museum Security listserv, reports on a significant confiscation of artifacts bound for export, but stopped at the Allama Iqbal airport, Lahore. The Federal Archaeology Department recovered a shipment of 272 ceramics and pieces of Gandharan statuary (although the presence of the latter is not clear from the article) originating from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan regions, including the Kuli site complex, but that some of the smaller ceramic objects might even have been unearthed on personal property, during home or yard maintenance for example.

Noting that artifacts such as these will often end up in the hand of collectors all over the world, the confiscating official lamented "ancient sites are plundered for short-term gains, this results in both the loss of heritage to indigenous people and irreparable damage to archaeological sites." Very savvy words indeed! Cultural heritage law in Pakistan dictates that if an object is verified authentic, but less than 75 years old, it is returned to its owner. In this instance, apparently the smuggling attempt wasn't well-disguised, and an on-the-spot determination of the general antiquity of the artifacts could be made, warranting their being turned over to the FAD. The stark cut-off point of 75 years applies even to small, more 'personal' items, as the ex-wife of famous Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan found out 15 years ago, when she attempted to take a few tiles from the couple's house out of the country, but was arrested and tried for antiquities smuggling instead, the customs official reported.

The international and Pakistani archaeological communities are fortunate that, this time, the relevant authorities were on the ball, and this confiscation could be made. However, we in the illicit trade monitoring world know that for every one apprehension, many more get through. Thus, the burden of proof remains firmly on the shoulders of international galleries, such as Gandhara Galleries, to demonstrate that the 'priceless' objects they are selling for a fraction of their true, immeasurable, worth (while still reaping absorbitant profits) are either replicas, or have valid pre-1970s export licenses and, ideally, completely in-tact paper trails from surfacing to export to sale. Since it's all too apparent that most recent artifacts smuggled from places such as Pakistan will lack this documentation, dealers and galleries can't provide it, and most don't care, confiscations like this will, at least occasionally, continue.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Another Arrest Made!

Another arrest, this time of two men from Harihar, Karnataka (names given as Parashuram and Vijayanand) was made this past Monday in the ongoing case of the smuggling of idols and statuary out of southern Indian temples. Specifically, these two individuals "used to steal ancient Panchaloha (alloy of five metals) idols as well as gold and silver ornaments from temples, Bhootasthanes, Jain Basadis etc., located in Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts since the last some years." Targeted this time was the Panchaloha idol of Karvalu Vishnumurty temple, Erlappady village, a conch shell with silver foil covering, a statue "belonging to Hiriyadka Garody," and the Panchaloha idol belonging to Brahmavar Mahalingeshwar temple.

All were recovered when the arrests were made, and a van and motorbike used for transpart were also seized. Occasionaly, artifacts such as these are unearthed from controlled or uncontrolled archaeological contexts, but this arrest represents yet another example of targeted looting from poorly guarded, but actively used temples. Thanks again go to Mr. Santosh Kumar, local deputy director of police, and his Provincial and local detective colleagues. It will be interesting to see if further investigation of the (any) paper trail linking these statues to a pre-arranged international buyer, local middle-men, or even upscale 'final destination galleries, will be brought to light this time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A report on the Berlin conference...finally!

Ok, I've finally found time to gather my thoughts and write about goings-on at the EurASEAA conference just passed in Berlin. All in all, a roaring success! Held at the Free University of Berlin (nestled in the midst of a leafy residential area on the Southwest edge of the city...unfortunately far from a diversity of food options), but still within quick metro ride to the heart of Berlin, and the conference venues were sleek, modern, and provided excellent acoustics. Participation stood at around 200 people (by my estimate); small but comfortable as conferences go, with only two-three overlapping sessions at any one time, and easy movement between rooms.

Sessions covered topics ranging from new research on prehistoric exchange networks in beads and glass, to maritime archaeology itself (shipwrecks, boat construction, merchant marine iconography etc.), new insights into the Southeast Asian Palaeolithic period (i.e. the "Hoabinhian"), a small representation of bioarchaeologists/palaeoanthropologists (like myself), and a session covering/reassessing the terminology, and archaeological, linguistic, and skeletal evidence we use to define and understand the still-vague "Neolithic" period (c. 6,000-3,500BP?). This was where I presented...the "only bioarchaeologist in the village." Regardless, I feel that our session came together particularly well, raising many critical issues. The need for more data and more excavations is never ending in archaeology, especially in this still under-explored region.

Other panels discussed new GIS/geophysical/archaeological work on the Angkorian road system, the increasing number of late prehistoric (c. 500BC-50AD) sites knows from the Mekong Delta region (some represented by very large, but partially looted burial grounds), new rock art research in Malaysia, new archaeological survey work in the Laos/Cambodia border region, new excavations in Sumatra, and even the discovery of vast burial grounds, with associated settlement sites and metal weapon/jewelry manufacturing centres, in the still under-explored Yunnan-Guizhou area of southern China, dating to as early as 3,300BP. Sessions were well moderated, timely, and usually feedback was relevant. Several authors had books for sale, and Prof. Ian Glover (something of a deity in this field) was signing copies of an edited volume devoted to his life and times. I got mine!

Although catering was a bit lacking, we all had a lovely reception at the German Archaeological Institute and the Ethnological Museum, with mid-conference tours on offer to the Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum; repositories of the early 1900's German contribution to both nascent world archaeology (mostly Classical), and the "encyclopedic museum," with all its pros and cons as far as Heritage and the antiquities trade is concerned. Seeing the original "Helen of Troy" artifacts from the Schleimann excavation, and the original bust of Nefertiti (along side impressive exhibits on European prehistory etc.) was certainly awe-inspiring, displayed as they were within suitably contextualized exhibits, but the same arguments can be leveled against these institutions as can be directed towards the major museums of any former colonialist power regarding their retention of such artifacts for so many decades; enough already! It was fascinating to me to learn so much more about Germany's pre-and post World War role in the development of archaeology as a discipline, in the city to which so many early excavations returned, and from which many of Germany's current contributors to Southeast Asian archaeology hail from.

Throughout the conference, only minimal attention was given to the issue of looting, or sites under threat from such activities, but it was clear to me that many of the new sites discovered and recently excavated were only done so because archaeologists found them first; not due to any sudden uptick in the protection of the region's prehistoric past. Of course, this is a problem needing to be further monitored, as the antiquities trade continues to take its tole. While the new research disseminated at the conference certainly represents (for the most part) cutting edge analyses of new discoveries, it remains to be seen how the Southeast Asian archaeological community itself will continue to address, and more proactively deal with, the looting the extent that we can control it. Thus, while still presenting new research, this blog will continue to put the antiquities trade front and centre....where it belongs!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Take 2

Ok, maybe promising "live blogging" when on a conference schedule, still jetlagged, and having many colleagues to catch up with was a bit of a stretch! However, I can report that I took copious notes which I'll share the highlights of very soon; attending more than 3/4ths of all presentations, and leaning many new things about SE Asian art history/archaeology...the bulk of these new discoveries remaining under threat. I am in New York for one week now to visit SAFE ( colleagues. A real update soon, I promise.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Live blogging from Berlin

I am currently at the 13th Annual European Association for Southeast Asian archaeologists conference in Berlin, Germany. I will present preliminary results from my ongoing dissertation work, and I hope to give you, dear readers, one or two updates while here regarding the cutting edge research occurring in the region today. Although only one session specifically deals with heritage conservation, the looting problem is one that all Western archaeologists in collaboration with local colleagues have to continue to address. So, stay tuned for more....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Focus, Special Report: Art Crime in Cambodia

Through the online Museum Security listserv, I've come across this video (here), a newscast from the Focus program, hosted by the France 24 International News network. Centering around the recent return of several pieces of Khmer statuary to Cambodia from the US, under the auspices/pomp and circumstance of the US State department, the video then goes further, discussing some more recent thefts, such as those now occurring from active Buddhist monasteries throughout SE Asia. An excellent teleconference interview is then conducted with Christopher Marinello, of the Art Loss Register in London.

In regards to the ongoing theft of early Historic and Angkorian statuary from more remote outlying temples, Mr. Marinello makes the good, but entirely obvious point that it's all about following the money. People coerced into looting believe they'll be automatically lifted out of poverty forever by the middlemen who con them, private dealers will pay millions and spend inordinate amounts of time planning "thefts to order," and the local law enforcement in many countries, including Heritage Police in Cambodia, are unfortunately still quite underfunded in response. As the video highlights well, the flow of money and artifacts these days is not merely from poorer non-Western countries to richer Western countries, but is transnational in the broadest sense of that word.

In my opinion, resources like the Art Loss Register can be a meaningful aid in the recovery of those large pieces that would most likely eventually be noticed to be missing (if, as noted, individuals and countries come forward to report the thefts), but much less effective in dealing with the no-questions asked antiquities trade that continue to fuel the destruction of prehistoric sites in Cambodia (and elsewhere). I have heard tell via online contacts that a "registry" system was proposed to the members of various dealer and "responsible" collector groups as a way to better sort those licit items in circulation for decades from those recently surfaced, but I have yet to see or hear of any initial implimentation of this idea. All in all, I commend France 24 International News for airing this expose and helping to give more exposure to the looting problem in Cambodia, but would've liked to have seen a segment detailing the threat to prehistoric sites, from which followers of this blog (and Heritage Watch) would know the majority of artifacts come from.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scrambled Eggs?

Previously, it was reported on the Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues blog (here) that a dinosaur egg "collected in the Henan province in China and (was) valued at $1,700" was stolen from the Otago Museum last week. The original reporter was asked by an independant observer if the thief or thiefs also happened to steal any export licence paperwork associated with this find, to demonstrate that it legally left China, but at the time of this writing, the answer to this question is not known. The answer is relevant, as if affirmative, it would both increase the likelihood that the egg entered the museum's shop by legal channels (perhaps sold as an excess 'common' specimen from the acquisition of an old excavation assemblage), and make it easier for the thief to sell to any "responsible" dealers.

Now The Southland Times reports (here) that a "52 year old Invercargill artist" has been arrested and charged in relation to the theft of the egg, which was very well recorded by the museum shop's video cameras. Apparently, the perpetrator was also brought up on unrelated shoplifting charges, and returned the egg (voluntarily?) after two days, leaving it in a shopping bag at the museum reception desk. This seems like a very basic and spur of the moment robery...probably done merely to pay off some minor debts, as without official collecting history paperwork and export license, no responsible dealer, gallery or auction house should touch it. Much the same as what should be done to perform due diligence on any suspect archaeological infrequent and incomplete process at best.

Friday, July 30, 2010

New Insights into Hanoi's Prehistory

The links here, from the China Daily Post and Thanh Nhien, discuss the recent archaeological discovery (in April, this year) of approximately 15 "tombs" (read earthen pit graves) dating to the "Phung Nguyen" culture c. 3,500 BP, within the urban Dong Anh district of Hanoi, in advance of ongoing development. The excavation was lead by my colleagues Drs. Nguyen Lan Cuong and Lai Van Toi of the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology (Vien Khao Co Hoc). The photo above-left is of Professor Lan Cuong himself hard at work*! The results of the excavation indicated that men, women and children were buried in this cemetery, and that the local "aristocracy" (here defined as individuals with a somewhat greater quantity of diverse ceramic and bronze grave goods), consisted of adult individuals with their upper incisors removed (a practice referred to as tooth ablation in the bioarchaeological literature). Numerous studies can now be done on these individuals to determine their place of birth, any familial connections within this so-called "aristocracy," dietary, health or activity differences between the sexes, comparison to other sites, etc. Let the science commence!

Although I take semantic issue with use of the term "aristocracy" when referring to the social organization of this still-poorly understood time period, the material culture found in the graves, and in surrounding and overlying archaeological stratigraphy, all make sense as belonging to the Red River plain Bronze Age sequence. The uppermost soil stratum was even reported to contain "a system of holes believed to be the outer most rampart of the Co Loa citadel," but this claim will certainly take more excavation over a wider area, and further analysis, to verify. Regardless of the final verdict, the recovery of an intact prehistoric site with burials in urban Hanoi is quite fortunate, as many of the objects, especially the ceramics and bronze artifacts, are common finds in urban "souvenir" shops, even if many of them turn up through field plowing in surrounding areas. Furthermore, uncontrolled development has damaged several sites throughout urban Vietnam. The fact that the Phung Nguyen burials were 1.5m under the modern ground surface no doubt helped preserve them. Hopefully, this is the first of a series of new sites that will be discovered and carefully excavated before they are destroyed as Hanoi continues to "modernize." Fingers crossed.
*=photo from Thanh Nhien

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Taking a Quick Overview

This link, to a piece written by Terressa Davis of the NGO Heritage Watch, is an excellent summary of the c. 2006, and arguably still current, situation pertaining to the trade/smuggling of illicit antiquities, both historic and prehistoric, out of Cambodia; deserving to be further disseminated. While prehistoric and small portable artifacts now make up the bulk of the Southeast Asian trade, even a casual perusal of online sources will demonstrate that genuine Southeast Asian archaeological material culture of all types (with the occasional forgery thrown in) is still reaching its final destination in private collections and museum gallery floors, sometimes still with the compliance of major auction houses. Even with the majority of large pieces of Angkorian (12th-16thc) statuary still on the art market having at least some provenance back to the early-mid 20th century, stopping the in-country flow of those objects that are being traded, given continued cases of local corruption hampering efforts, remains difficult. Without the cooperation of source and demand country governments and citizens and further time and effort devoted to diverse educational outreach, current momentum will stagnate. Constant vigilance!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Continued Tragedy in Iraq

Although I'm aware that Iraq is not in fact in the Southern Hemisphere, I want to post a link to this video here to do my part to give it further coverage in the media and blogosphere.

I originally encountered the video here. The source is AlJazeera's English Language broadcast. It is only by further investigations and reporting like this, but in other heavily threatened locations around the world as well (Cambodia, for example), that the "Big Lie" perpetuated by die-hard antiquities dealers can be further exposed. Can anyone, especially anyone claiming to be a "responsible collector," look at videos like this and still not think that fresh loot is fueling the global market? Wouldn't one have to at least become a little "suspicious" as to the authenticity of that "Old Collection" provenance lable seen on yet another cylinder seal or cuneiform tablet? Yes, broken up musuem and private collections pre-dating 1970 do exist, but those items too are especially likely to have left their context through what would today be defined as looting, given the near-complete lack of heritage laws and systematic, scientific archaeology at the time. Seeing essentially the same activities continue today in war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, or those still reeling from the effects of war 35yrs on, could lead only the most willfully ignorant to the conclusion that the looting threat is "over exaggerated!"

Saturday, June 26, 2010

China's Sorrow...and the World's

I bring to your attention two recent articles regarding the current uptick in tomb robbing occurring these days in China. The first was written by Dr. Magnus Fiskesjo, an anthropology professor at Cornell University (and former Director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm). It was published in the China Daily newspaper. The second is by Calum MacLeod, for USA Today. Both center around the recent discovery of the tomb of general Cao Cao, a famous historical figure who lived between AD 155-220, at the very beginning of the Three Kindgoms Period (AD 220-280).

Although the tomb was eventually excavated (read "salvaged") by archaeologists, according to one of the farmers turned collectors in Anyang province (in the vicinity of Cao Cao's tomb), quoted in MacLeod's article, "since 2007, five gangs have targeted the tomb, and the region's poverty is the main driver." Although many locals supplement their meager income with selling field finds (usually obtained by less drastic means than the combination of metal detecting, bulldozing, mobile phone photography, "feng shue" divination and "traditional archaeological techniques" increasingly favoured by the organized tomb raiding teams), the articles stress that at least a few small-scale local collectors who might otherwise wish to see museums built to curate their artifacts are increasingly afraid of draconian penalties.

Both articles stress what is lost in terms of context and more specialized archaeological knowledge when a tomb is ripped open in search of artifacts. Importantly, however, Dr. Fiskesjo stresses that the majority of the blame should not lie at the feet of local looters or even local middle-men (beyond devising more appropriate punishments to act as deterrents as much as possible...certainly not the death penalty). Rather, the urban dealers and private collectors in China and abroad are assigned most of the blame; rightfully so, in my and the author's opinions.

The articles bolster this sentiment by pointing out that urban dealers and collectors in China are encouraged to only accept "the real deal" by such pop-cultural phenomena as antique shopping shows and game shows with content and discussion of antiquities far removed from the on the ground realities of looting. Indeed, MacLeod's points out how just how much "antiques have become the new currency of bribery" amongst corrupt officials in China, notes collector Hu Wengao (as quoted in MacLeod's article). This goes hand in hand with the rise of numerous "antiques malls" in Beijing, increasing export of rare pieces (or retention by corrupt local officials) and a thriving fakes industry, especially out of Hong Kong.

Banned under Mao in 1949 as "too capitalist," the MacLeod article notes that since the 1980's the "hobby" has been making a come back. However, the ideas proposed by Feskijo to use pop-culture as a force for good; something to remove the "lime light" that looting and collecting have been given in the local Chinese media, and expose the messy side of the trade to international collectors who might only see cleaned-up pieces online. To quote Fiskesjo "Alongside the antique shopping shows on TV, there could be programs that highlight this destruction. One could make arrested robbers walk the sites with reporters, under experts' guidance, and explain the damage they have done and reveal the names of persons who payed them to do it. Similar tell-all shows could be conducted with dealers who knowingly sell recently stolen items. One could interview collectors and ask them to reflect on the sad consequences of their activity."

While these seem like intriguing ideas in principle, I think it'd be rather difficult to actually arrange informants to interview or display to the public. However, if participation in such a program was implemented as a legal "community service" option, perhaps in exchange for a reduced fine, jail time, or a stay of execution, especially for those poor rural residents who might only be engaged in "subsistence digging," more of those convicted might try to arrange for it. Indeed, Fiskesjo concludes by noting that the shame itself could be a powerful deterrent, at least for locals (even urbanites who have yet to purchase and are simply not aware of how that shiny bronze object actually got into that gallery's window display). Shaming foreign (primarily Western) middle-men, collectors and dealers into giving up their hobby is another thing entirely.

The future of Chinese prehistoric and historic archaeology appears to be at a cross-roads, and as local and international archaeologists continue to collaborate in their race against time, they key here (as in Southeast Asia and everywhere else looting is felt...i.e. pretty much everywhere), is changing public attitudes. Easier said than done, but in my view, factually-grounded outreach can only be a force for good.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You call this "Archaeology," do you?

Yet another one... This time I direct you towards this and Trocadero affiliated dealer, simply called "Archaeology." Seriously. Operating out of Bendigo, Victoria, since 1996 (online since 2002), Mr. and Mrs. Munday claim to have, over their 12 years of operation, "formed fabulous relationships with dealers," primarily working with Licenced Antiquities Dealers in the Holyland (Israel). They boast that they have also received materials, of unstated provenance and collection history, from the former Museum of Biblical History in Columbus, Ohio (what, exactly, happened to it?). Indeed, through their "expertise" (primarily, it seems, in Classical World coins) they "hope to be able to help you with your collection, gift, or coffee table talking point" (italics mine). Coffee table talking point?!

There's nothing new about how they advertise their wares. Prices are usually offered, sometimes with discounts, sometimes noting what's been sold. No provenance, no collecting history, no mention of how these European and Middle Eastern coins made it to "a small country town" in Australia. However, what I want to highlight is the following statement: "We not only love our business, but also love ancient history and the fantastic feeling of connection with the past that antiquities and ancient coins provide the bearer. We hope to be able to share our passion and enthusiasm with you as we display our fantastic range of ancient history and art." If unsatisfied, items can be returned for a full refund, but if they come back damaged, don't worry...purchaser and supplier can just "talk about what went wrong." Really?!

The existence of stores like this represents, to me, the very fringes of the "no questions asked" antiquities trade. It is unfortunate to find them apparently alive and well in Australia, and using the same tired rhetoric used by dealerships/galleries big and small.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Angkorian Statuary Repatriation: What's Behind the Headlines?

The Seattle Post Intelligencer picked up an AP wire story dated June 17th, pertaining to the repatriation of seven pieces of c. 1000-1500AD Khmer statuary, including "two heads of the Buddha, a bas relief, and an engraved plinth" (photo at left). See here for the Phnom Penh Post's take. The statues were unloaded in port at Sihanoukeville on Thursday, after traveling aboard the USNS Mercy; bound to Cambodia on a "13-day mission to provide free medical care to Cambodians." The article makes some to-do about these pieces being recovered during a 2008 "raid" by US Immigrations and Customs (I.C.E.) agents, on the location they were being held at somewhere in Los Angeles, yet fails to report where this locations is, who possessed them, if they were recovered from private residences or institutions post-sale or were in some warehouse somewhere awaiting delivery. The article notes that, despite the M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understanding) signed between Cambodia and the US (and, I should note, the existence of an I.C.O.M. "Red List" for Cambodia since 2009), numerous artifacts large and small have ended up in private collections overseas. This is indeed true, and ongoing. What I question is whether there's more to this story than meets the eye.

What's missing completely from this article is any mention of this, the "seedier" side of the antiquities trade in Asian archaeological artifacts. A colleague of mine and I have been discussing the possibility that this repatriation came about as a result of the "Robert Olson" investigation, during which official warrant-mandated searches of his Los Angeles residence in 2008 directly led to the recovery of photographs, reference books, receipts, files, and "more than 2,000 bronze and terra cotta artifacts, mostly imported from Thailand, Vietnam, and other South Asian (sic) countries, from two storage lockers..."

The knock-on effect of this raid expanded to his son and daughter, four Southern California museums (including the high-profile L.A.C.M.A., or Los Angeles County Museum of Art), two LA art galleries, and a private collection in Chicago. Although he repeatedly tried to pass the buck and feign ignorance (the "I was just doing what THEY told me to do" routine), he was found guilty and had most of his property and asetts seized. Although 12th-15th century Angkorian sculptures are not mentioned in the list of seized materials, or photos/receipts documenting sold items, the very high profile nature of this return, the bulk and rarity of objects involved, and their recovery in/shipment from Los Angeles does make it seem possible that an unreported connection exists.

I will keep monitoring this situation to see if any more news is released post-repatriation. The welcomed occurrence of these repatriations, however, does not mean that other recently surfaced artifacts, even large statues, are not even now on display in international museums or being arranged for transport. While the deliberate or undeliberate selling of fakes to "satisfy" a private collector would mean one more genuine artifact might remain in situ, or at least in-country where it can be recovered and/or curated, galleries such as Gandhara Galleries (reported about here), should still be closely watched.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Annam Antiques and Gifts: From Bangkok With "Love"

As I, and others, have discussed numerous times before, Bangkok and Singapore have long served as major transit points for Southeast Asian antiquities to reach online markets far and wide. Yet, encountering examples of galleries based in either of these cities with active online sales is rather difficult, as many do not have active websites, but instead rely on walk-in traffic, telephone calls, or private email orders...spread by word of mouth on online dealer/collector forums, such as the Yahoo "Dong Son" forum. As a counter-example, I will discuss Annam Antiques and Gifts, a stark example of the "middle" step in the regional antiquities trade.

Located in Bangkok, in the Silom Galleria, and run by "Tom Chicago" (which certainly sounds like a pseudonym to me), they appear to have been in business since 2007, and are registered members of Trocadero; known hosts for several other online antiquities dealers. Very little about the organization or its history is made available, nor is a biographical statement about the owner/dealer. We are able to glean that they are self-proclaimed "specialists in Southeast Asian art with an emphasis on artifacts from Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam." They also offer Chinese ceramics, and one can email privately to request more information about the "Extremely RARE and absolutely Magnificant Champa artifacts in our collection!" When you're dealing in the illicit, it's best to shy away from public scrutiny as much as possible...

While the company's catalog mentions a few examples of contemporary and recent historic art and antiques (paintings, ceramics, sculpture etc.), the focus appears to be on the prehistoric/ancient historic...mostly metal and ceramic artifacts. Within that category, distinctions are made between Dong Son pieces (especially drums) originating in Vietnam, and those claimed to have come into their hands from "excavations" in Cambodia...undoubtedly coming from a site just like Prohear, or even Prohear itself. Some catalog entries, like this "assortment of Dong Son axes," are marketed for later resale by other dealers (with a bonus bracelet included)! Artifacts such as these are quite frequently encountered in antiques or 'souvenir' shops throughout Vietnam, and can usually be bought in bulk. Several different examples of Dong Son drums can be purchased (with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Yunnan "provenance"), as can bells, classic Dong Son orange wear ceramics,Cham earrings, Khmer influenced ladles etc. They're even hawking ceramics from the Hoi An Hoard, which suffered some illicet "salvaging" until divers could get to it. Annam helpfully warns buyers that it's now or never for these purchases.

I'm not surprised anymore that no information is given for any of these objects pertaining to previous ownership, and that many prices are only available through email contact. Indeed, chances are that not only would the seller and Mr. Chicago have no clear idea where the objects are deriving from (beyond "Cambodia" or "Vietnam"), but wouldn't care. As purchases at village level by middle men are done with cash in person, Annam Antiquities would then likely be the first point of sale from which a paper trail would begin, assuming these artifacts end up in Western markets....and if any subsequent dealers or collectors would care to follow up. As has been demonstrated, chances are slim that due diligence is performed.

To close, I highlight this brazen example of the flagrant dismissal of ethics in regards to where Annam Gifts gets its loot from. The only piece clearly from Thailand in this Thai gallery, it is stated to have been assembled after many days or weeks of burial looting around central and northeast Thailand. The 72 pieces strung on this necklace represents an unknown number of burials destroyed to "recreate" this item...and they've even had to offer it at a discount! What's worse is that they admit that these beads come from burials, and even provide a page from a book (this textbook) on prehistoric Thai archaeology to demonstrate this fact. Perhaps this "gruesome" origin will keep it unsold?

The take home lesson is that much of the small, easily portable loot stemming from Southeast Asia will first pass through galleries like this one. If it doesn't stay in-country (a growing possibility as Southeast Asia's middle class rises and gains more disposable income), then more often than not, artifacts will then end up in Australia, or New Zealand, the US, Europe...on into the shadowy world of online trading networks. It is important for monitors and responsible collectors (should any actually collect Southeast Asian materials...) to realise that fraudulent statements of provenance for a prehistoric Southeast Asian object in the catalog of any major online gallery will be covering up residence in a gallery like this one where, as far as prehistory is concerned, it's apparently anything goes.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The AAADA, Ethics, and Justifications...

The AAADA (Australian Antique and Art Dealer's Association) represents the largest professional network of on and off-line dealers in Australia. Although they have been mentioned before on this blog in association with the highly-suspect dealings of two affiliated galleries specializing in antiquities (BC Galleries and The Unique Things Store), nearly every medium to large scale online dealer of antiques or antiquities (from contemporary pieces to ancient artifacts) are registered members. Founded in 1992, and now boasting "more than 130 national members," the AAADA is "your brand for quality," where "your purchase is guaranteed and your transaction professional." This from the official online "Message" of President Warwick Oakman, who himself has a gallery dealing in recent antiques.

To further bolster the confidence of a gallery's clients who might investigate just who the AAADA is, upon finding out their favourite gallery is a member affiliate, the President's "Message," and web-site in general, advertises dozens of specialized service providers (conservators to customs and insurance agents to interior designers) to make sure that clients "get the most" out of their purchases. Since 2001, the AAADA has even offered an annual showcase of dealers and their wares, "the only event of its type fully vetted for quality and description." Underlying the Association's function is a "Code of Practice," to which all prospective members must, apparently, swear to uphold. As will be discussed in more detail, it appears that oversight of these standards is minimal, at least where antiquities are concerned.

While I must again emphasize that the vast majority of dealers affiliated with AAADA appear to offer only recent/contemporary antiques (entirely different from antiquities with former archaeological contexts), the points I will highlight from the "Code of Practice" are supposed to apply to everyone. So, for example, Rule #1b requires that all dealers list the price, manufacturing date, material, maker's mark (if relevant), and restorations for each item offered, and to state upfront if something is a reproduction or not. What about provenance or collecting history? Apparently not... Rule #2 requires that "the member shall not attempt to confuse or mislead the customer or falsely describe any of the goods he/she offers for sale or seeks to purchase." Is this another barrier against the selling of forgeries? Rule #4 requires that "members shall accept responsibility for descriptions of items given to members of the public by their staff." This rule seems to have been added to make sure no dealer can pass the buck onto their "underlings" if caught selling forgeries....but what about selling recent dug-ups?

Rule #5: "Members shall not make unsolicited visits to private domestic premises" struck me as strange. Does this actually happen? Is this to mitigate against shady back-room dealing? Rules #7 and 8 seem to absolve the Association of responsibility if a member dealer or gallery gets into trouble, while rule #10 requires that "members cooperate to the best of their ability with consumer protection agencies (e.g. the police, trading standards authorities). At the end of the list, the webpage states that, although the AAADA can not act on any wronged parties legal behalf, they do offer Conciliation Services to mitigate disputes. Why go through all this trouble if everything is above board to begin with? Furthermore, if the AAADA is so concerned with being Australia's foremost representative body for the licit sale of antiques, why allow any galleries in the much more risky/controversial antiquities trade to join? For that matter, why is the President's own gallery listed an an antiquities dealer?

Under the section of the webpage entitled "Our Services," something else suspicious came to my attention. When discussing how viewers of the website can "collect antiques with confidence" when purchasing from an AAADA affiliated gallery, the requirements that "members seek to advance the professional reputation of the Association," and "build long term relationships with their clients" are stressed. However, this point is also offered: "Clients wishing to form collections are able to do this discreetly and with complete confidence." Huh?! What need is discretion when only above-board, recent or contemporary antiques are being purchased? Does this imply that some member dealers are known to be less-legitimate than they let on, even with supposed adherence to the Code of Practice? that addendum merely to shield those who look for AAADA affiliation when they purchase antiquities off the black market? I feel this is a question needing answering.

In regards to the AAADA's stated international affiliations, I must highlight a further point. As Australia (and New Zealand, and all Southern Hemisphere markets for that matter) are still somewhat off-mainstream in terms of the global antiquities markets, it only makes sense that major dealer networks representing Southern Hemisphere countries would themselves be affiliated with larger networks. In this case, AAADA is a member of C.I.N.O.A. (as highlighted on my first post about BC Galleries). CINOA, out of Brussels, is Europe's largest art/antiquities dealing association, with most international/online dealers under its umbrella-and located in a country which even today is known as a major world centre for the trade.

I highlight the following sentence: "Through its membership of C.I.N.O.A., the international trade Association, it takes part in decisions of international and environmental heritage importance. These decisions can also affect your rights and ability to continue to enjoy collecting antiques for private use." Paul Barford has done an excellent job of demonstrating just how convoluted the "collector's rights" arguments have become, and the less-than-stellar responses to open questions that proponents of the no-questions-asked trade perpetually give. Leaving aside a potential scenario of the purchase of, say, a 19th century clock made using wood from a now endangered tree species, or the shipment of objects needing biological quarantine (which would run up against relevant environmental legislation and be subject to severe import restrictions, coming into Australia at least), it seems to me that a proviso such as this would only apply to the antiquities trade.

I'll now provide a couple of examples, from two different member galleries, to illustrate that, at least as far as antiquities are concerned, AAADA membership seems to be little more than a front, with the Code of Practice not being visibly adhered to. The first comes from Moorabool Antique Galleries, out of Geelong, Victoria. While specializing primarily in historic to recent period ceramics, they also deal in "glass, silver, artworks, and tribal & antiquities." As of today, there are 90 artifacts offered under antiquities, but only a few have pictures available and almost none have any stated collecting history (outside of the occasional previous sale at Christies or Bonhams, or the break-up of some c. 1980s private museum). See this Neolithic Thai ceramic pot and this Iranian buffware zoomorphic vessel for good examples! Look for a more detailed blog post on this specific gallery soon. These two antiquities (here and here), for sale via the Peter Lane Gallery out of Adelaide, have even less information attached to them. So, where's the oversight? What assurance can AAADA membership provide to a prospective honest collector that they're not being cheated if some affiliated galleries don't even offer the prices they're selling their antiquities for, let alone any pertinent background?

To close, while the AAADA might be a good idea in principle, and be able to quite capably handle its ethical and legal oversight responsibilities in representation of Australian dealers on the international stage when it comes to recent antiques, it seems that it has some explaining to do in regards to what it lets antiquities dealers get away with. Constant vigilance!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Soo Tze Oriental Gallery: A small contribution from Tasmania?

Another gallery, dealing in a mixture of contemporary, recent historic, and ancient art and antiquities, has come to my attention as needing mention here; another member of the Southern Hemisphere (and more specifically, Australian) trading "scene." Soo Tze Oriental Galleries is currently based out of Hobart, Tasmania (since 2005), but previously operated out of a Melbourne shop since 1983, with an online presence since June, 2003. To quote from their online homepage, it "is now Australia's premier private gallery dealing in a broad range of Buddhist and related art and ethnographic materials from Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, in addition to works from the rest of Asia." Furthermore, they highlight the "broad time span" and "high quality" of their products, and the self-stated fact that "items from our inventory [are] now found in many of the best private collections, galleries and museums around the world."

All signs point to this dealer operating a very small enterprise, or at the very least running a very controlled on-line store, as only six categories of artifacts/contemporary art are listed, each with very few items on display at any one time. These categories are "sculptures," "paintings," "objets d'art" (i.e. "small functional and decorative from 1000BCE to the 19th century"), "rugs & textiles," and "Tsakali and miniature thangkas." Leaving aside those objects that are being sold as contemporary art, ethnographica, or recent pieces (very few of which have displayed provenance regardless....provenance DOES matter, even for recent acquisitions), I will now turn to those few pieces recognizable as suspect antiquities.

What first made me determined to report about this gallery is this vessel, said to come from the site of Ban Prasat, northeast Thailand. Nearly identical examples are also on display at the Phimai museum. As is all too common, no provenance information, collecting history, or even price, is given for this artifact on sale. Without holding it in my hands, determining its authenticity just from photographs is difficult, but the form, color, and shape all match... Other artifacts, like this "Liao Dynasty copper funerary mask," this "repousse copper Linga cover," c. 17th century Nepal (albeit with provenance stated as from a 1994 Christie's auction), or this fragment of "Yuan Dynasty silk," are all equally suspicious to me. Although China has long been known for a thriving fake antiquities industry, most dealers naturally try to do their best, and stake their reputations, on the fact that they only offer genuine artifacts to the best of their knowledge. The fact that no prices are given, to me, points to even more suspicious dealings...artifacts, albeit in small quantities, bought and sold for a select group of favourite customers perhaps?

The burden of proof is now on Soo Tze Oriental Gallery to either provide evidence that due diligence has been conducted on these objects (and, ideally, make this information available as part of the listing for each artifact offered), or admit that they haven't, and remove from sale anything demonstrated to be a forgery or a recently surfaced artifact. If they can't and won't comply with these basic ethical standards to foster a licit and non-destructive trade, preferring to continue with business-as-usual, then they will be further exposed as such.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An all-too-typical example of Southeast Asian Looting

As a brief, interim post to keep this blog going, I would like to share the following two links, to give further publicity to a very important project:

1. The first describes the discovery and eventual cessation of looting activity during 2007 at the village of Prohear, Prey Veng Province, Cambodia. What has come to be understood as a very important Iron Age cemetery site-crucial to understanding how the complex and stratified social organization that characterized the Angkorian Empire arose-was almost immediately looted out before archaeologists (from the Memot Centre) could reach the site. Eventually, collaboration was established with the locals and the controlled excavation of what was left could begin. Unfortunately, many of the rarer and more intact pieces were sold off immediately...the complete Dong Son drum being one of the more striking examples (see above left for jewelry examples). This event is not widely known outside of Southeast Asian archaeology circles, so I've chosen to give it more publicity here, as it's important to provide more examples of the kinds of materials turning up on the market, often with no provenance more specific than "Cambodia" or "Thailand," and provide proof that fresh loot is still flowing out of the region.

2. This link, from the Deutsches Archaologisches Institut (German Institute of Archaeology), led by Dr. Reinecke and an international team of colleagues, documents this important work in more detail, in the context of recent archaeological discoveries across the boarder in Vietnam and elsewhere in Cambodia. 52 intact burials were uncovered in the last of the "emergency digs" conducted in amongst the looter's pits, and only because they were positioned directly under the village road, which no one wished to destroy! Results, however, were beyond all expectations for such a ravaged site-demonstrating the site to represent one of the most elaborate and wealthy burial grounds (i.e. communities) in the entire southwestern region of Southeast Asia. Three of the 52 burials even contained Dong Son drums, establishing connections far to the north. Just imagine if the entire estimated 20,000 square meters had been reached...if local poverty and international greed hadn't gotten to it first...

While the more detailed technical and restorative aspects of the excavation are ongoing, outreach to the local public and archaeological community is already occurring. As always, it is fervently hoped that future work at sites of this type throughout the region, especially in Southeast Asia, will begin in time to mitigate as much of the damage as possible.

I am currently conducting research into two current and former collectors who have direct ties to the overall antiquities trade emanating from East/Southeast Asia, and will blog about them in more detail soon. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Looting on the High Seas

Once again, a colleague of mine here at ANU (thanks J.L.!) has brought two recent news articles to my attention, both previously released in the World Archaeological Congress digest. They both (here and here) concern the arrest and travel ban imposed on British born Australian "treasure hunter" Michael Hatcher, who is wanted for "trying to smuggle thousands of pieces of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain out of Indonesia in July. Police intercepted two ships containing the items, for which they have "strong indications" that they came from a wreck site in the Java Straight. If convicted, he "could be jailed for 5 years and fined 50 million rupiah ($6,000)."

What's the most troubling about these articles to me is not the relatively insignificant fine he'll have to pay (although this slap on the wrist is tempered somewhat by the jail time), but that he has been "excavating" ship wrecks since the 1980s, making $17 million US at his first government sanctioned auction (of gold ingots and Chinese porcelain from a wreck off of Sumatra's Riau islands). Furthermore, despite his pending trial and 'house arrest' in Indonesia, the articles report that "he has already begun to market items from his latest wreck."

Another immense haul of ancient artifacts from a unidentified 10th century shipwreck "off of Cirebon, West Java" was brought to the surface between 2004 and 2005 by Belgian "treasure hunter" Luc Heyman's Cosmix Underwater Research, Ltd., and his "local partner" Paradigma Putra Sejathera, who, despite "arranged survey and excavation licences," faced the temporary arrest of two of their divers, conflict with the Indonesian Navy and rival 'salvage crews,' a "year of litigation and two years of waiting while Indonesia drafted new regulations to govern such work." In spite of the immensity and diversity of the haul and "expressions of interest from across Asia," the US $16 million deposit to bid, and short notice of the auction's existence, resulted in the auction being a bust. The disappointment of the "treasure hunters" in a situation like this is almost palpable, as they'd have walked away with one half of all proceeds! Even the UNESCO Director-General has weighed in on the matter, expressing concern over the fact that these important archaeological artifacts would have been (and still might be) dispersed wholesale.

There are numerous examples of shipwreck looting around the world, such as this instance from Spain, and this drastic response measure concerning a Greek wreck off of Croatia. Southeast Asia (e.g., cases from the Philippines and Cambodia), unfortunately, is becoming even more well-known when it comes to underwater looting...and let's make no mistake: "Treasure hunting" by divers, often as part of well-financed companies with backers and buyers already lined up, IS looting! As one dive shop owner in the Philippines article linked to above said "And this you can quote me-ankle weights, crowbars, hammers and chisels are not the ordinary tools of fun divers." For much more information on maritime (nautical) archaeology as it's really performed by professionals, please see the home pages of two of the best Nautical Archaeology academic programs in the world: Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas, USA), and Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). Let's hope for both a fair trial for Mr. Hatcher, but a quick succession of these clandestine activities as well, and museum curation/display by Indonesian and international authorities of as much of this haul as possible.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Archaeo Gallery: The Antiquities Trade Out West

In my previous posts, I have initially been focusing on galleries and trade activities (the online antiquities trading "scene," if you will) operating out of the major cities of Southeastern Australia (and an example from New Zealand). Although Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland are the region's largest cities, with the greatest amount of traffic (legal and illegal) attempting to flow through customs and quarantine, it is important to not overlook goings on on the other side of the continent in Western Australia. This post will detail and discuss one such example: Archaeo Gallery.

Archaeo Gallery is based out of Herne Hill, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia's capital, and the only major city/port for the entire western half of the continent. Indeed, its position on the Indian Ocean makes it closer to South and Southeast Asia than to Sydney. As usual, authenticity is stressed above all else ("certificates" included), with the gallery's webpage proclaiming itself "Western Australia's Premier online dealer in legally acquired (italics mine), affordable ancient art and archaeology." Indeed, their Sales Policy page states "in the unlikely event an item is proven to be "not authentic" a full refund or exchange will be granted, these claims must be accompanied with a written letter from a respectable dealer or museum."

Like the disclaimers offered by other dealers I've blogged about, this makes me wonder just how frequently Southern Hemisphere dealers have unwittingly purchased/sold forgeries, or if they have difficulty keeping track of the activities of their suppliers... Why offer this option at all if they're so sure that everything is authentic? Nevertheless, the gist of the gallery's website strongly suggests to me that they offer many examples of recently, or semi-recently, surfaced artifacts within their "vast selection of art from all ages and cultures," with free and quick worldwide shipping. The existence of a privately maintained guestbook which satisfied customers can sign to receive updates and special offers seems to be the key method by which they respond to customer "needs" and keep things going.

Catalog categories are indeed diverse, ranging from "Prehistoric" (flints, Danish Neolithic axes), to "Later Fine Antiques" (which includes the rather ironic sale of three antique albumen prints depicting early 20th century Roman excavations in England, all of which passed through Christie's in 1983-now on offer for $5-600). Perhaps this is what Archaeo Gallery staff truly believes archaeology still to be? All major Classical World categories are present, and separate pages exist for coins, weapons, "tribal art" (currently empty), Islamic art, and even one entry under "Fossils Natural History." Very few catalog categories have more than 3 pages of entries for them, and nothing currently on sale was offered for more than $11,500AUD (Ban Chiang jewellery), or $7,900AUD (this gold and agate Indus Valley necklace), although how much those items listed as "sold" actually sold for is unknown. The overall small number of catalog entries, and generally low prices for the artifacts on offer, suggests to me that business is modest overall, even allowing for the likelihood that what's displayed online is a fraction of what this gallery might have in storage.

Let's talk stated and unstated provenance now, shall we? Very few artifacts for sale have a multi-stage "paper trail" attested to upfront (which unfortunately does not eliminate the possibility of forged provenance). Without a doubt, the majority of catalog entries either have no stated provenance or acquisition date whatsoever, or are listed as coming from "private collections" (Australian, West Australian, German, UK, Netherlands, Denmark), or as deriving merely from the Australian, London, or general UK "art markets." Statements such as "acquired by previous owner circa late 1960's, Israel," just won't cut it for valid provenance these days. Let's see that paper trail. Several minor, and a few major, collections are also listed as previous homes for these artifacts, among them the Frieda & Milton Rosenthal Collection (USA), the Dr. Paul Otto Taubert Collection (both seemingly more focused on contemporary art), the Russel Collection (Arizona), the Dr. C. Gallanos Collection (Melbourne), and the Dr. Harley Baxter Collection (Melbourne).

There are pieces surfacing at Archaeo Galleries with stated claims of previous membership in the Royal Athena Galleries and Geddes collections, both of which, but especially Geddes, have been under intense scrutiny of late. There is even a piece which passed through Bonhams (as sale 10059, lot 62) after an undisclosed period of time in a private UK collection. Bonhams itself has also been much in the news lately, recently having to remove several Medici and Symes objects from an auction in April due to very negligent provenance checking. Its pre-Archaeo Galleries "provenance" as stated is, to me, certainly not enough to waylay reasonable suspicions, especially given Bonham's recent embarrassments. My favorite is this offering of a Roman stucco wall fragment, coming from a "private New York Collection," which apparently acquired it from a "reputable New York City auction house." Another example is this Canaanite vessel "acquired from a reputable New York auctioneer." Really? Names, dates, and evidence please...
The "Asian Art" section itself contains Thai, Vietnamese, and Khmer antiquities, along with more frequently encountered artifact types from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but relatively few artifacts of each category. There is even a "guaranteed authentic" vessel from the Hoi An shipwreck! Let's not forget that the looting of shipwreck sites around the world, but especially in Asia, is also a major issue.

What to do about this? As always, appropriate, effective, and legal response to trade in blatant disregard of the law is difficult, and takes time. Beyond better archaeological community monitoring of traffic flowing into Perth, if some of the objects detailed above (and in the catalog in general) have more secure or independently verifiable provenances, now would be an excellent time for Archaeo Galleries to make this information public on the relevant catalog entries, and to authorities, or else remove them for sale. If they were interested in truly proving that they deal in "legally acquired" artifacts across the board, then why not chase up ownership/provenance history for any artifact that's missing it, question their suppliers more thoroughly, curtail business with any local dealer or middleman known to be procuring recent loot, and remove anything for sale that first surfaced post-1970? Due diligence would also dictate that if an artifact was offered to them with a stated pre-1970s surfacing and specific find spot, they check that at least this basic information is accurate, even if the object then dissappeared until it resurfaced in their possession. The current website and catalog strongly suggest to me that this is not being done, and Archaeo Galleries is thus quite complacent in today's modern online trade. I, for one, will be keeping a closer eye on what surfaces here. Constant vigilance!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gandhara Galleries: "Statue-ary Rape"

Another gallery has come to my attention as of two days ago, well deserving of more intense scrutiny. The word "unscrupulous" comes immediately to mind! Gandhara Galleries, based out of an undisclosed location in Australia, boasts on their website of 20 years experience in the acquisition, appraisal, and sale of stone, wood, and bronze statuary from "Gandhara," that is Afghanistan to China to Southeast Asia, with a stated specialty in, and strong representation of, pieces from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). On their website, they take pride in the fact that they've "developed a client list, who return to buy from us again and again," and boast about their offering of pieces "at the same price as the dealers, galleries, museums, and auction houses," which "can of course amount to considerable savings."

Yet again, authenticity is emphasized above all else, and extensive description of the art historical background to Gandhara region sculpture is provided, with emphasis placed upon the uniqueness, and time-consuming manufacturing methods, of every piece offered. To whit: "All pieces are unique, individually hand-crafted by master sculptures using ancient techniques and driven by Buddhist religious ideology and merit, carved and sculptured for religious purposes. Bronzes were produced using the lost wax method, a highly innovative process requiring great skill, experience and patience." Despite the underlying truth that such sculptures (and indeed all artifacts traded as "antiquities," to one degree on another) would've been made with refined and well-practiced techniques, it is statements such as these that directly appeal to the "Connoisseur's View" guiding those who would repeatedly purchase antiquities on the global black market, especially something as bulky, difficult to smuggle, and expensive as complete statues.

Let's talk about the issues of authenticity and provenance as displayed (or not) on this site. First of all, I highlight the following: "Please note: all pieces for sale through Gandhara are in Australia at the time of advertising for sale, unless stated otherwise" (italics mine). The heyday of the wholesale looting and removal of temple frescoes and statuary (or just the heads from said statues), at least in Cambodia, occurred in the 1980s/early 1990s, although statuary looting incidents were known during French colonial days as early as 1924. With more stringent APSARA (local Cambodian Heritage police) and U.N. protection now in place around the major temple complexes, tourism has greatly increased, as have collaborations between Cambodian, regional, and Western authorities to implement new legal and educational measures. As a result, confiscations and apprehensions have begun to occur. Evidence from both Gandhara galleries and others, such as BC Galleries, suggests such apprehensions are nowhere near enough.

If the majority of the pieces left the country many years ago, even pre-1970s, and have been moving from legitimate owner to legitimate owner since then, then where's the evidence up front? Why no provenance history (even as suspicious as "private collection," "Old collection," or "Ex Christies or Sothebys") for all of them? It is readily apparent to anyone who views their website that what they offer for sale could never have 'surfaced' "accidentally" as a "field find." Regardless of when the destruction occurred, or if any actual digging was required to get the piece out of the ground, the mere fact that they had to be located, transported, packaged and shipped is proof positive that these artifacts are 'victims' of organized efforts. I point out again that their own website only puts them in business for 20 years!

Where were all these pieces hiding before that if they weren't instead taken out of their source countries recently? I found a scant few examples of artifacts with minimally stated provenance identifying it as part of a previous auction (e.g. this c. 12th century Naga balustrade), or this pre-Angkorian head of Vishnu, and these bronze statuettes (appraised, but purchased in the "late 1970s" From whom?). The catalog entries for many objects mention published sources to check and similar examples sold at auction elsewhere, yet even the robbery of monasteries as an act of looting to provide the market with, for example, these colossal Lao bronze Buddha statues, is unsurprisingly completely ignored. In countries currently experiencing warfare and ethnic strife, such as Afghanistan in this case, the antiquities trade can operate all the more openly.

Note how almost none of the objects have stated prices (except for a few small items, such as these coins), bur are rather "P.O.A." (price on application). At the same time, on the Guarantee page, they state "We are constantly offering quality Gandharan and Asian artifacts at extremely competitive prices, a fantastic opportunity for private collectors and people interested in ancient objects to acquire truly unique works of art, all of which are almost 2000 years old, only previously believed to be accessible to museums and art galleries." So why not state your prices upfront? On what basis do they determine the price of the priceless art/artifacts they sell?

Further adding to my sense of an underlying "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) attitude is that, for all the emphasis they place on statements of authenticity (highlighting soil accretion, weathering, damage, and a few T.L. dated objects), a disclaimer is provided stating that a customer can return the object within five days (in its original packaging) if it's not found to match the description. "After this initial five day period any goods you wish to return must be accompanied by a written evaluation from an internationally recognized dealer of Asian Antiques stating that the item(s) purchased are not authentic pieces as described within our description." Why offer this service at all? Have they themselves been fleeced by in-country middle-men before? Just who would be acceptable to provide the second opinion and appraisal needed? That segment of the professional academic archaeological/art historical community with the relevant specialization for pieces such as these isn't exactly large... All things considered, I fear that in this respect at least, they're doing 'honest business.'

I will close this expose post with description of what might be Gandhara gallery's most galling affront to heritage laws and humanity's shared past of any I came across; namely the advertised sale of fragments of the original Bamiyan Buddhas! As discussed on their "Talaban destruction of ancient Buddhist Art in Afghanistan" page, they first 'set the scene' by describing the role of central Afghanistan as a major cross-roads (when once the Kingdom of Kushan), with "one of the world's greatest archaeological treasures;" namely, the Bamiyan Buddhas, at its heart. Lamenting a few previous attempts by Muslim individuals (the "fanatical trader Yaqoub") and groups (the Hezb-i-Whadat and Taliban political parties) to destroy these and other related statues both during antiquity, and during the recent/ongoing wars. The description closes with the final destruction of the Bamiyans, to the horror of the international community.

The very last sentence in the text shocked me. "In the days that followed we were offered a number of pieces mainly stucco, in order to preserve these rare historical artifacts we now offer them for sale on our website in Gandhara Afghan galleries." Although nothing on offer in the relevant galleries is specifically identified as formerly part of the Bamiyan Buddhas, what the above makes clear is that the Afghan pieces for sale would almost certainly have left the country after the Taliban resurgence c. 2001! Although no antiquities related M.O.U. exists between Afghanistan and major demand countries yet, an IUCN Redbook has since 2006...yet, here these artifacts are...languishing in some undisclosed warehouse somewhere, rotated on and off line until they're bought, forgotten about, or perhaps, someday, returned to where they belong. Constant vigilance!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is it really just "Old Money"?

Much has been written, both academically and on blogs, regarding the logistics, ethics, complexities, and archaeological significance of the trade in ancient coins world wide, but particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, the Archaeology and Numismatics blog frequently provides new information concerning the deleterious effect that the wholesale removal and trade in ancient coins can have to the larger archaeological record of those locations and time periods in which coins routinely surface during excavation; primarily within Mediterranean countries. In short, it is becoming increasingly well documented that coins, even commonly minted coins, out of context, are as "adrift" as any other category of artifact. Furthermore, the ongoing blogging by another colleague of mine, Mr. Paul Barford (Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues), has been consistently monitoring and responding to the sometimes voracious and vociferous extents that the majority of the pro-collecting lobbies and "activists" in the Northern Hemisphere, primarily England and the USA, can go to in order to keep the trade in illicit recently-surfaced 'dugups' going, while branding all opposition as baseless propaganda by "cultural heritage nationalist" radicals. As usual, the Southern Hemisphere is still widely overlooked in this discussion. This blog post will report my observations and thoughts about one such dealer; namely "Walter Holt's Old Money" ("In proud association with M.R. Roberts' Wynyard Coin Centre").

Based out of Sydney, the Wynyard Centre maintains its own newsgroup (with all subscribing members receiving a free copy of NUM$NEWS ("Numis News"), the official newsletter of Walter Holt's Old Money), although no separate webpage or online order forms could be located for this gallery specifically. Mr. Holt began collecting at 14, he has spent the intervening years amassing a large collection while traveling, meeting people, and seeing "scores of wonderful places," all of which have helped him "gather substantial knowledge about ancient coins and the places from which they come." Nothing mentioned about how they arrive on the market, or when, or from whom...? Initial efforts to emphasize the antiquity and authenticity of the coins for sale was first encountered on the "Old Money" homepage itself, on which Mr. Holt clearly advises potential customers that "if you have a 1915 Sovereign or a 1952 Australian Penny then DO NOT call me - it's not ancient, I can't help you. Ok! Basically, if it isn't well over a thousand years old, I may not be able to help you unless it is a British hammered coin. Thanks!" The seeming exasperation noted in the above quote suggests to me that Mr. Holt has encountered this problem before, and only the rare will suffice for sale.

"Old Money" is a direct subsidiary, for sales purposes, of the world-wide online clearing house "," and also maintains links to "A.S.A.N." (Australian Society of Ancient Numismatics), provides many related books or identification guides for perusal or purchase, as well as detailed guidelines for customers to learn how to correctly interpret coin quality, description, and mint of origin (in antiquity) information when browsing. Consistently absent from all catalog entries and supporting information is clear indication of provenance for any artifacts offered for sale. Most lack any indication of a collection, museum, or archaeological site of origin, or the year or decade of acquisition by Old Money. In short, it seems that this Southern Hemisphere dealer is borrowing liberally from the play book of Northern Hemisphere colleagues. A "free-market" antiquities trade, no questions asked.

Ancient coins are not the only antiquities traded in by Old Money. A link is also provided to a separate webpage offering a small selection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts. As readers and potential customers can see, much information on artifact condition, hieroglyphic text translation, and academic background is provided up front, along with age and price. Perhaps information about date and place of 'surfacing,' and pre-1970 collection/auction history is provided with purchase...perhaps not. I strongly suspect that, like the coins, no one knows for sure. Perhaps Old Money feels that they make up for this dubiousness by suggesting the services of an on-call hieroglyphics specialist?! Authenticity above legality?

This is certainly not the only such coin dealer in the Southern Hemisphere, especially located as it is within a major 'importing' nation like Australia. The fact that Old Money is well connected to, and that they advertise international shipping, indicates that although their operations are small, they are not overly isolated from new "merchandise." This does not appear to be merely the gradual sale of a single, large deaccessioned private collection. Indeed, Mr. Holt has boasted about his past and current travels. Although the mere act of purchasing is legal, the sale of small, "common" objects such as coins is still antiquities trading. As this article documenting the various uses for coins in Medieval Italy, and this image showing a Late Romano-British grave good assemblage for an adult male indicate, coins have diverse contexts in their own right! It is now up to all concerned citizens, ethical archaeological, historical and numismatic professionals, and investigative authorities to keep monitoring operations such as these, and to not purchase from such organizations without upfront and verifiable proof that, at the very least, the coin in question did not just recently 'surface Down Under.'