Sunday, December 30, 2012

New SAFE blog post: Nancy Dupree in Afghanistan

A new blog post has 'surfaced' on the SAFE site within the last few days that I am happy to share. It features an important interview with one Nancy Hatch Dupree, dubbed by some as "Afghanistan's grandmother." The interview in insightful and even poignant, and describes her (and her late archaeologist husband's) own personal history and connection to the country, its archaeological heritage, preserving this heritage, and the ongoing work of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University that she and her late husband helped found. All this in the face of the constant strife plaguing the country over the last three decades. Worth checking out!


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Season's Greetings!

From me at It Surfaced Down Under to you readers out there, may the season bring you joy, happiness, and continued constant vigilance! Two posts are in the works, and there will be much to share in regards to my ongoing research as is takes off in earnest. To continued success and progress in 2013!

Merry Christmas and a Happy (Western) New Year!

Friday, November 23, 2012

And The Verdict Is...

The recent legal victory (see here) of BC Galleries and its owners to have several Han, Qi and Tang dynasty period sculptures, as well as a c. mid 1900s mounted trophy skull from the Philippines, returned to sender, has greatly challenged the efficacy of current Cultural Property import and export laws in Australia. While those of us who have been directly involved in this case are still very relieved that the Iron Age Cambodian artifacts and human remains were repatriated (see here), we were left flabbergasted about this final verdict.

As I understand it, the aspect of this verdict that alleges innocence due to a lack of proof on behalf of the prosecution that the artifacts in question genuinely came from within China's borders is as shocking as it is problematic. Unless the dealer was deliberately trying to sell forgeries produced on the well-attested-to Hong Kong forgeries market (e.g. here), something even some honest collectors are acknowledging (here), then the origin of these allegedly authentic antiquities within the borders of modern China ("owner" of Hong Kong since 1997) is all but certain.

Also relevant is the historically and archaeologically attested fact that Hong Kong and the Guangzhou region itself flourished as a trading centre during the specific dynasties in question, especially the Tang (for general background, see here and here). The question of what to do with confiscated artifacts seized within the border of a modern country that once was controlled by an empire with its headquarters in another modern country is always tricky (Roman coins, anyone?). However, in my opinion, it has long since lost its utility as an excuse to cover up smuggling or provenance manipulation.

As someone privy to the original verdict as handed down, I would also suggest that the argument used to get the trophy skull returned is quite flawed. I can share with readers that an internationally renowned expert in human osteology was asked to take cranial and facial measurements of the skull and run this data through a program routinely used in forensic cases to determine the most likely genetic ancestry of an unidentified person. Several runs of the dataset consistently showed the skull to derive from an Asian population distinctly not native to the Philippines. When mounted as a trophy by former "head hunters," it was thereby modified and adopted into the tangible cultural heritage corpus of the ethnic minority group in question.

Importantly, it would have been bought and sold by middle-men, and eventually by BC Galleries, as an ethnographic "curio" from the Philippines! However, because the craniometric measurements suggested a non-native ancestry for the skull in question, all other claims were rendered null and void. Really?!! If a local or international dealer was attempting to sell, say, the freshly dug up remains of a WWII veteran (of any nationality), straight from the grave...THAT is a different story. In that case, forensic osteological techniques would be ideal to help confirm a recent war casualty and affect appropriate repatriation. Not in this instance...

The article first sited above raises one last, worrying point. The verdict as currently stands does, to me, allegedly imply that it will be harder for the Australian government, international authorities via local embassies, and lawyers and criminological professionals advocating against the illicit trade to force and follow through with new seizures, especially against moneyed defendants. What is needed now to further the global fight are more up-to-date (and update-able) databases that can quantify temporal trends and regional and intra-national variation, especially regarding the smaller, portable, or more "common" artifacts that so often escape confiscation or media attention.

Information such as this would greatly assist outreach efforts towards the general public, producing consultable resources for customs officers in source and demand countries, museums, and even those responsible dealers and collectors who wished to consult the reports produced. There are currently several teams (e.g. Trafficking Culture) and independent scholars engaged in such research, and come December, a colleague and I will join these efforts. When things get fully underway, details will be shared as events warrant. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

All in the (Kapoor) Family?

As the Kapoor case continues and deepens, I'd like to quickly share two new news articles just released on the 11th in The Hindu (here and here), as they raise some important questions and reveal more important information about goings on, especially from 2008-2011. Paul Barford weighs in here. Both primarily concern allegations currently under investigation that imply that Kapoor's daughter, son and brother (allegedly directly implicated by Kapoor), as well as his father, are all tied to the smuggling ring. Both articles suggest again that the numerous charitable (tax-deductible?) donations Kapoor (and most likely his brother) made to museums were designed to curry favor AND most likely move pieces known to be "hot."

Having already had one shipment seized in 2007, and being on record in the US as being aware of relevant cultural property laws, further evidence is surfacing that suggests he continued to acquire new recently surfaced pieces from 2008 onwards, perhaps right up until his arrest by Interpol. Also pertinent is further revelation of the role of one Asokan, Kapoor's alleged primary middle-man in Tamil Nadu. Besides allegedly holding meetings with Kapoor in posh hotels across India during the height of the smuggling operation and coordinating most temple thefts via robbery and bribery, it is now known that Asokan and his associates were not always successful in exporting their acquisitions.

Previous reports have already begun to reveal the market prices some of these pieces taken from his warehouse could have fetched if sold; many staggeringly high. This latest Hindu article has begun to release prices for some of the pieces from the Art of the Past gallery itself; also substantial. It is especially intriguing for me to now have another source suggest that the smuggling network extended to Pakistan and Southeast Asia, including at least a few Gandharan pieces (in light of the recent Pakistan-internal smuggling and forgery cases) Examples of these can allegedly be seen above left, but their authenticity and exact collecting history is not yet confirmed.

I'll close this update with one final observation: As the investigation and preparation for trial by US authorities continues, it is interesting to know that repatriation claims have begun on at least four pieces. It is my hope that those pieces now residing in museums far and wide, with clear Kapoor association, can be returned with as little legal red-tape as possible...once, and if, the completed investigation confirms all hypotheses beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Back From the Dead

Greetings all! I know that I usually don't put personal news on this blog, but I figured an update is warranted. I have recently returned from my two month trip to the UK and the US, enjoying every moment of my travels and learning much in a part of the world (the UK) that I've wanted to visit since childhood. To anyone who's been there, I don't even have to begin to describe the gorgeous scenery, dynamic cities (with, to me, a wonderfully "gritty" feel about them; so steeped in history as they are), and the unique musical culture that seems to exist everywhere. Intangible heritage anyone? All in all, I loved it and really can't wait to return some day!

As mentioned in my last post, numerous museums were also visited on this trip. Most of them, like the Museum of London, the Musical Instrument Museum, the National Museums of Ireland and Scotland, the American Museum of Natural History, Page/La Brea Tar Pits Museum, etc., I found to be quite thorough and engaging all around. Even those museums or exhibits that dealt with the archaeology or history of a specific place tended to demonstrate real effort in presenting clear displays involving numerous multi-media components in order to place artifacts into full context. Some of the smaller museums, such as the Arizona State Museum (full disclosure, a former employer of mine) often made the best efforts to publicly state all information on provenance, provenience, whether or not an artifact was a bequest or gift, who from, when, etc.

Maps, video of excavations, well-done artistic renderings of scenes of daily life or reconstructed tomb or village dioramas, interviews with team leaders, etc. The Museum of London stands out especially for this. Of course, having top notch displays says nothing about the legality and documented provenance of every piece in their collections, but paying great attention to detail and, in my opinion, making this detail accessible and memorable, allows these museums to be true role models.

Other museums, such as the British Museum and the Met (with all its recent controversy), seem to rest much more firmly on their laurels. Sure, they are definitely worth seeing once, and are absolutely overwhelming and humbling in their encyclopedic grandiosity, but the semi-educated visitor can't help but feeling like they just walked through a slide-show. Yes, there is worth in being able to see the genuine original version of so many important and world-renowned artifacts (e.g. The Rosetta Stone), but I couldn't help wondering more about the effort if would have taken, back in the day, just to transport these pieces (whole obelisks?!), let alone build a museum around them and maintain their upkeep.

In the case of the Met, efforts by the curatorial staff to increase the implementation of due diligence is definitely an improvement, but more needs to be done to contextualise the artifacts and provide more than just artifact identification services to members of the public (especially nascent collectors). In the case of the British Museum, I know less about any recent changes to its acquisition process, but never forget, colonial-era looting is still looting, even if no laws existed to break and know archaeological science existed to inadvertently hinder... Just my two cents.

Even more disconcerting (but unsurprising) for me was the sizable number of antiquities and ancient coin shops (with only one noted to be devoted solely to selling replicas). Perhaps ADA membership kept them legal and a long history in the business has instilled honesty and full attention to the law in these particular dealers, but I am convinced that proximity to the BM and Christie's has fueled "no-questions-asked" sales... More than that I can not say.

The other BIG piece of news I am happy to share is that, barring minor corrections to be made, I am now the proud possessor of a PhD! To my ever-lasting surprise, this major chapter of my life can now more or less close, and close triumphantly! And now, as I slowly begin to settle into life in Sydney, fill out job applications, continue to work on various publications and develop potential research projects to keep my momentum going post-PhD, I can reassure you that more regular blogging will resume.

As a token of good faith, here's a link to an ICE/HSI news story detailing another antiquities seizure allegedly tied to Kapoor. Two statues (one 3rd century, one 10th), were lent (key word being lent, not sold) to a so-far anonymous hotel by Art of the Past, but seized on the 23rd October. They will join the growing body of evidence weighing against Kapoor, but as always with these cases, plenty of work remains... Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Live blogging" from Dublin

As promised, this is a brief report of the activities and goings on that transpired at the 14th EurASEAA conference in Dublin; just finished yesterday! I am pleased to announce that overall, it was a roaring success! My panel, entitled "Living and Dying in Prehistoric Southeast Asia: Advances in Human Bioarchaeological Science," proceeded smoothly (in my humble opinion), even though two individuals had to withdraw at the last moment. I am confident that I have begun a positive trend of ensuring a bioarchaeological presence at this conference, and that my colleagues can carry this forward in two years time!

Topics covered in my panel included: New isotopic analysis (migration and diet) research from sites in Cambodia (Iron Age), Thailand (multiple time periods) and the Phillipines (multiple sites and periods), preliminary details (age, sex, stature, pathology, etc.) of a new Pleistocene-aged skeleton from Java, the preliminary results of tooth blackening (i.e. deliberate staining) analysis from two Iron Age Cambodian sites, and my own work on "biomechanical" (i.e. mobility and activity) before and during the transition to agriculture in northern Vietnam. The conference itself was held in the incredible Chester Beatty library and Dublin Castle, excellent venues indeed, and our hosts, from the University College Dublin, went out of their way to make everything work. This is exactly why I prefer smaller conferences; for their cordiality, camaraderie, ease of networking and fun!

Other panels ranged from new research in rock art across the region to ceramics, historic period Khmer archaeology and the relevance of archaeology to "modern" questions of heritage, site conservation, governmental policy and educational outreach. While the antiquities trade was not addressed specifically in any talk (in favor of discussion of baseline archaeological research), certain presentations, such as the discussion of the excavation/illicit salvage of a 13th century ship wreck off Java) brought up what is by now a firmly ingrained topic.

Other talks within the "contemporary relevance" panel addressed historical instances of theft or illicit trade, and challenged the idea that Western concepts of  what constitutes tangible and intangible heritage (as defined by UNESCO) might not be so applicable to Southeast Asia. This has been suggested for some time, but it bares repeating, especially as attempts to quantify, document, and ultimately  prevent looting in the first place continue (slowly) across the region. All in all, I feel that all delegates left very enthusiastic (if not somewhat melancholy, like me, in the realization that years can pass before seeing ones. close colleagues/friends again).

My time on the road before Dublin has also been a time of adventure, exploration, good multi-cultural food, great pubs, and incredible scenery. Numerous archaeological museums, both "encyclopedic" and not, including the British Museum, Museum of London, National Museum of Scotland and National Museum of Ireland (and numerous smaller ones) will deserve discussion in their own right in due time. I was also very fortunate to meet and discuss the issues with almost everyone involved in the new Trafficking Culture project of the University of Glasgow; to me, a great honour! I look forward to much collaboration with them in future. In two days, I set out to see the sights, scenery and, of course, archaeology, of more rural western Ireland. For those who read this, please wish me safe travels, good weather, and luck!

Monday, September 3, 2012

On the Road Again!

I am writing this from one of the many airport lounges of the Hong Kong airport, on my way to London and points beyond for two months of exciting, archaeology-filled travel. Why? On the occasion of the successful submission of my PhD, I figure a break is needed before the mad-cap process of application filing, paper writing, and the inevitable thesis corrections in a few months time, is allowed to resume! I am very excited to visit countries in the UK that I have dreamed of visiting most of my adult life, as well as a return to the US to visit family; catching up with archaeological and antiquities trade research colleagues both old and new.

I am also honoured to attend and present at the 14th EurASEAA (European Association for Southeast Asian Archaeology) conference in Dublin from the 18th-21st September, including chairing its first ever panel devoted to bioarchaeology. I will do my best to "live-blog" at least twice while the conference is on (and with more promptness than I mustered in Berlin). A post or two giving my impressions of the British Museum's displayed archaeological collections is inevitable... Stay tuned for all these updates and more as I set off on my next great adventure!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The looting and protection of the Amluk-Dara stupa

A recent article by the International Herald Tribune, the local paper out of Islamabad, Pakistan, details the recent "re-discovery," looting and now protection and scientific excavation of a very important Gandharan era site (see larger photo here). The Amluk-Dara stupa, located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province near Mt. Elum, is currently being salvaged by that province's archaeological department, in conjunction with the Italian Archaeological Mission.

It was apparently first discovered in 1926, then later re-studied in the 60s and 70s, but then fell into a period of looting. It has recently been acquired along with a series of other sites in the Swat valley, and the stupa itself apparently dates from the 3rd to 10th centuries and, remarkably, was one of the few sites still visited at the end of that period, when "90% of the Buddhist sites in the Swat valley had already been abandoned." If the site (and surrounding sites) are now truly "100% protected," as is claimed, then indeed much potential exists for open-air excavation and restoration projects to make them into major tourist drawcards, if funding can be found.

Careful excavation of such Gandharan period sites is all the more important given the known international smuggling of artifacts large and small from the region, even if the proportion of forgeries also seems to be high (here). Collectors and dealers might publish readily accessable guides regarding how to spot fakes, but this does not absolve anyone willingly on the demand side of the trade from responsibility in performing due diligence or supporting continued looting.

I will provide updates with news about both the excavation and related tourism, Heritage and outreach efforts as I hear it. All credit needs to go to both the Pakistani and Italian professionals who are leading this effort at what is likely great expense in a remote area. Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Destroying Syria's Past...

This excellent report, compiled in May, is just too important not to share. It details the massive damage still occurring to Syrian archaeological sites of all time periods, with or without World Heritage listing. It also documents the even more recent looting of some key museums (e.g. the Homs museum), and the involvement of players on all sides of the conflict. Despite repeated and ongoing calls for on-the-ground help and greater contingency efforts, it appears that the situation remains grave. Another excellent summary can be found here, with video testimony.

Much praise needs to go to Mrs. Cunliffe, of Durham University, for her hard work in bringing this information to light, and in such a multifaceted way. The use of photos, media links, YouTube etc. is, in my opinion, an ideal combination of resources that can ensure the facts reach the widest possible audience and stick. Unfortunately, it seems that the desperate times inherent in such situations of "cultural heritage in conflict" is the very reason behind the production and availability of such materials. Thus, the biggest kudos goes to those Syrian archaeologists and concerned citizens who are watching this happen and doing their best to do something about it.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Updates on Two Ongoing Cases...

In regards to the Kapoor and Koh Ker statue cases that I originally assisted in tracking or exposing, here are some excellent updates recently reported. Once my doctorate is finished, I will return to more regular and weighty posts where possible, as well as new topics as they arise!

-Regarding Cambodia vs. Sotheby's, the case now seems to be locked in a legal battle between Sotheby's lawyers and the US District attorney. Sotheby's is still prohibited from moving or selling the piece, and the fight will resume on the 12th April. My colleague Jason Felch reports for the LA times here, and Chasing Aphrodite has a great summary here.

-Regarding the Kapoor case, the global network of his contacts and charitable (tax deductible?) "gifts" is slowly being revealed (see Chasing Aphrodite again here). I predict that as more investigations occur, more antiquities trafficked from outside Tamil Nadu and beyond will be revealed. Does this include the alleged smuggling of Buddhist statuary and antiquities out of Afghanistan, and might they have ended up in galleries such as this one, investigated by Australian authorities once before?

Particularly interesting to me is the presence of antiquities (in the LACMA collection and elsewhere?) gifted by Kapoor's brother Ramesh via his independent Kapoor Galleries. I personally visited this gallery as well in 2010 and can attest that it is smaller is size/scope than Art of the Past and allegedly trades more in historic pieces and paintings. Is Subhash Kapoor merely trying to foist blame onto his innocent siblings and daughter (here), or are they more connected than we realize?

Of course, an investigation is currently underway regarding the National Gallery of Australia's Shiva statue, one of 21 artifacts purchased from Kapoor (see photo above, © The Australian). Several press releases have occurred locally (here, here, and here). I can personally attest to having been briefly interviewed for Mrs. Boland's article in The Australian, but more relevant authorities as to the specific legal matters were also approached. An additional update as of August 6th is that the Art Gallery of NSW has also purchased from Kapoor and is now under investigation (see reporting here). Another relevant question is what will recently proposed Immunity from Seizure acts currently moving through the Australian Parliament mean for repatriation or prosecution? More developments on these cases and others will be broken or shared here as situations warrant.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Kapoor Case Continues...

The latest new reports (here and here) regarding the extradition and trial of one Mr. Subash Kapoor (see photo at left) attest that prosecution has now begun. He is currently on trial in an Ariyalur courtroom for the specific charge of helping to illegally export 18 idols from Tamil Nadu, but he will apparently be interrogated for details regarding many other cases. Despite the very strict laws on the books regarding the private ownership (in India) and export of genuine archaeological or historic artifacts, and the requirement that any modern replicas be officially registered as such by local authorities before exportation, yet all involved in both supply and demand countries can attest that these laws are not enforceable enough.


Cases like Kapoor's (and that of one Mr. Ghiya, and the separate smuggling of the Sivapuram Nataraja bronze, both detailed in the article) make this all too apparent. The Indian Ministry of Culture continues to put out updated lists of high-profile antiquities of known or suspected illicit export, begging for their return from collectors or museums, but has had little luck, at least as of 2010. Perhaps some validly pre-date 1970 in exportation? Perhaps the Ministry drops the case at the first sign of objection from collectors or museum officials? Obtaining accurate information will be challenging. Perhaps what's now needed in a new ICOM Red List of Indian/South Asian cultural objects? This would at least provide Interpol and customs authorities one more weapon in this fight. I still feel that the arrest and trial of Kapoor will serve as something of a warning to other smugglers or would-be prominent dealers seeking to hide their role in the trade behind ownership of a glitzy gallery in a prominent demand country. Now the art, museum, and illicit antiquities research communities at large can only wait to see how the trial(s) unfold and what kind of justice is served. In this case at least, all roads eventually led to New York... 

Monday, July 9, 2012

And Now This...

Looks like Subash Kapoor will now be extradited from Germany to India to stand trial for at least one artifact (statuary) related smuggling charge. Primarily "panchaloha" statues (idols) such as the image at left. Three men from the Tamil Nadu police are apparently on their way to Germany to retrieve him as I write this. This is probably only the tip of the iceberg, both in relation to crimes that he personally connects to, as well as artifact smuggling from the region in general. Nevertheless, it should serve as a solid warning to others, especially transnational dealers in Indian antiquities, that they are not above the law. After being personally threatened by this man, or those working for him, vindication of this sort is welcome. Thanks go to Paul Barford for the tip off this morning!

Gandharan Antiquities Sting!

To further spread the word about the recent major antiquities sting in Karachi, please see this article. It appears that all come from the Northwest Frontier Province/Peshawar valley regions, and comprises mostly broken statuary and assorted figures of the Buddha. Most of the items derive from the Gandharan civilization and its regional centre of Texila, making them collectively over 2,000 years old. The photo at left shows just some of the seized material.

The artifacts were being transported in a large storage container that authorities confiscated from a truck driver hauling between Islamabad and Karachi. This is reminiscent of a previous (2005) smuggling attempt stopped in Karachi, in which 7,000 yr old artifacts were found in a crate apparently labeled as furniture. Fortunately, the authorities had the good sense to actually search the crates, just to be sure! What will happen to the artifacts now is unknown, especially as smuggling attempts of this scale suggest that security is lax. At the very least, they are off the market (e.g. this gallery?) and can perhaps be at least partially restored or repatriated. Professor Gill also reports on this incident here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tragedy in Mali...

Tragic news coming out of the northern Malian city of Timbuktu (see here and here) throws debates about heritage preservation in times of war or political uncertainty into new light. It appears that members of the newly victorious Ansar Dine Islamic extremist group, who recently staged a coup in Bamako and have "taken over" much of the north, decided to begin to manually destroy several ancient historic period tombs and shrines in early June.

Most of the damaged mausoleums and tombs in question are connected to the Sufi tradition and the ancient Ghanian, Malian, and Songhai Empires that collectively produced a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance, as well as numerous smaller surface sites, all now threatened with potential looting. Ironically, the ancient Sufi responsible for constructing some of these monuments are of the very same orders that helped spread Islam into Africa in the first place.

The attacks have, and continue to be, roundly condemned by local, African Union, and international politicians and governments. Some observers wonder if the recent move by UNESCO to place Timbuktu on the endangered heritage list was a catalyst for the raiding, but one Prof. Shamil Jeppie is quoted as saying "that is meaningless to Ansar Dine; what is UNESCO to them?" I agree. Even though Timbuktu has been sacked before in ancient times (kinda like Baghdad), it's the speed, pace, and targeted destruction of modern warfare, or looting driven by fervor and ignorance, that's the real concern these days.

An additional worry here (like most of the rest of the world when antiquities trafficking gets connected to warfare and other illicit trades) is that, as time goes on, historic period artifacts and manuscripts will be looted or go missing from collections and end up on the black market. Now, those tracking the trade out of Africa will have to be extra vigilant... I wouldn't be surprised if fresh loot has already reached the storerooms of online dealers. Whether or not the continued actions of Ansar Dine are in the name of their concept of a "purified" Islam, or more related to attacks against Western supremacy and imposed ideas of heritage itself, the time to act is now. Once destroyed, they can not truly be replaced....

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Remains in Evidence...

This article links to a rather old news story about human remains trafficking out of (in this case) India. Although the story is old, the points it raises about the general ineffectiveness of current laws, and the regional/global nature of this subset of the antiquities trade are definitely worth considering in more detail. What is needed and where in order to make a dent in a largely undetected aspect of the trade?

In fact, this is just what I am thinking about, and will be writing about in the coming weeks as I begin to put together an idea for a post-doctoral research project. Ideally, this research should be both practical to those directly on the ground fighting the trade, and able to unite my interests in cutting edge archaeological/chemical science and the antiquities trade. I am throwing this out to the blogosphere in the hopes that others might catch things I might overlook, give advice, or share resources of their own. All such help is most appreciated, and anyone is free to email me privately to discuss :) Let's see where the rabbit-hole goes?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Breaking News: Another Repatriation Claim for Khmer Antiquities



I just received an article a few moments ago from a colleague, written by NY Times authors Tom Mashburg and Ralph Blumenthal. It concerns a new repatriation case to get two c. 921-945AD statues ("The Kneeling Attendants") that likely stood at Koh Ker before their theft in the 1970s returned to Cambodia. This time, the Met is the defendant, with the Cambodian government's cultural heritage division (APSARA) and UNESCO currently assembling the evidence for this claim. 

In the Met's defense, the article attests that internal investigation in 1997 resulted in the return of a 10th c. head of Shiva to APSARA. However, from my own visits there in 2010 at least, I can attest that many of the prehistoric artifacts on display, due to their types and rarity (especially grave goods), have much more suspect origins. Their newest acquisitions policy, on paper, is supposed to be very strict in terms of all antiquities having pre-1970 provenance, but...?

The article alleges that these statues would have stood mere yards from the standing statue (referred to as Duryodhyana) that the US and Cambodian governments are trying to get returned by Sotheby's. All these peaces were connected to the London auction house Spink & Sons in the 1980s, likely arriving in London via Bangkok after being looted during the chaos of the Khmer Rouge regime. If the testimony of local villagers given in the article that the temple "had been virtually unmolested" before the 1970s is true, then this would add to the case, but the doubt expressed as to their origins by the individual who originally purchased them from Spinks is worth noting.

If Spinks really did loose the paperwork, this will make the case harder to prove. The Met's current Director of External Affairs is here on record giving the standard argument that Western museums have some sort of right/obligation to acquire cultural property/heritage at all costs, "especially if, by doing so, they might be protected from disappearance completely from public view and from study." While this may seem noble, it can never excuse arranging, relying on, or condoning obvious looting in order to flesh out one's 'encyclopedic' museum shelves.

On the other hand, however, Cambodia was in a state of turmoil and these pieces very well could have been destroyed if Koh Ker was bombed... I won't deny that cases like these are far more complicated than dealing with prehistoric SE Asian antiquities on the market, but the high profile nature of these statues should at least encourage all possible information to be gathered. All we can do is stay tuned as  this newest case develops.

Friday, May 11, 2012

I Report, You Decide...

Last year, I posted a series of blog posts concerning allegations that an art gallery (Art of the Past) on Madison Ave., NYC, was connected to multiple thefts/international smuggling of 12th-13th c. statues and "idols" from southern India; that they were serving as the end-point in this trade. For reporting on the stories that others wrote, I was threatened with legal action by the concerned party's lawyers, although I never ascertained if this threat was real  and I removed some of the offending posts in order to move on to other topics. Today I have received another article (Times of India, written by Ajay Kanth) from a colleague that once again seems to point to this same gallery, even mentioning the arrest of its high-profile owner in October, 2011 in Germany. I present it here for your perusal... I have hopes that at the very least this investigation will now go further, and let the verdict fall where it may.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Exploring the Depths of Vietnam's Ancient Past

A conference recently held in Hanoi (summarized here) sought to bring together new research, perspectives and voices of both international and Vietnamese archaeologists in a concerted effort to modernize the practice of our discipline within Vietnam itself, as well as give the general public a more accurate understanding of their own nation's past...before nation states existed. An example of just why this matters can be read here, in which the sale of a Dong Son Iron Age period bell (and many other items such as those in the photo above left) is discussed against a melange of viewpoints re cultural/national origins.

In preparation for an overview exhibit of Vietnamese archaeology and history that will tour three museums in Germany from 2014-2015, numerous scholars assembled at the Goethe Institute from Feb 29-March 2 to decide which sites, artifacts, maps etc. can best illuminate the last 4,000 years of Vietnamese prehistory and, most importantly, place it into regional context. The institutions in question are the Museum of Archaeology in Herne, the Reiss-Englehorn Museum in Mannheim, and the Archaeology and History museum in Chemnitz. It appears that the key sites and institutions in both northern and southern Vietnam (still a politically, culturally, linguistically and historically relevant division) are to be included in this traveling exhibit-thus providing a more unified background onto which the exhibit can 'map' the complexities of what is currently known about Vietnam's ancient past.

The goals of this conference in the abstract were two-fold: To highlight the importance of using and sharing contextualized archaeological discoveries as a means to counter-act the still prevalent nationalistic leanings of official interpretations and local public perception of the ancient past (when thought of at all), as well as share the richness of pre-Colonial Vietnamese history with a German public suggested to be mostly ignorant of it, according to project liaison Stefan Leenen. To me, the focus on continued improvement of methodology and analytical technique and the need for the current generation of local archaeologists (many the recipients of overseas training/field school experience and/or directly benefiting from international collaborations) to join the "pioneers" in "setting their own agendas for research," as noted by Prof. Ian Glover, one of the delegates.

As native Vietnamese speakers, they are the best suited to directly disseminate the results of their research to the public, and I have been honoured to work with and learn from many of them during my own tenure at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi. I would add (as I always do), that for this collaborative progress to continue, it is crucial that more foreign archaeological scholars in Southeast Asian countries make efforts to learn at least one of the main local languages. The conference also saw the inevitable airing of differences in Western and Vietnamese viewpoints, and the use of the past (and key symbolic artifacts within, such as Dong Son drums) as a means to assert economic sovereignty to contested territory, such as the Parasol Islands, which Vietnam, China, and several other nations currently seek to occupy/exploit, and use deliberately targeted archaeological "research" to further.

While these are important, I will leave them aside in favour of giving proper mention to the looting issue as discussed at this conference. The fact that Vietnamese site looting (often less visible on the ground that in other regional countries such as Cambodia) was mentioned at all is a very positive outcome, if Vietnamese and international scholars and activists are going to ever stem the "cultural rape" (as Prof. Higham succinctly puts it) occurring throughout the region. With the collection of ancient artifacts, especially Dong Son metalwork, still openly discussed online, the outcomes of conferences such as the above deserve all the international press they can get. Let's see what shape the final exhibits take, how Germany receives them, and most importantly, how the Vietnamese public receives them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Organized Crime and the Antiquities Trade?

A manuscript released in January of this year, written by Dr. Alderman of the University of Wisconsin law school, takes a very thorough overview of the global antiquities trade's key factions and the purported links between it and trans-national organized crime. Providing numerous case studies and discussing several categories of so-called "criminal excavators," the middlemen they supply (both local wholesalers and inter-regional traffickers), and the roles of final-destination retailers, private owners, and museums/curators of diverse ethical stances in completing the circle. It is this very cycle that Drs. Neil Brodie and Simon Mackenzie and colleagues from the University of Glasgow have just received a major grant (and popular press) to study in more depth. I imagine that a good visual representation of the connection between syndicates and the trade is something like the visual above left...

Most case studies discussed in this original document derive from European, North American or South America, but the Southeast Asian trade through Bangkok and Singapore gets some mention. I am especially happy to note that the trade in small, portable items from Southeast Asian prehistoric sites (e.g. "beads by the bucketful," pp. 24) is also discussed, along with the more visible word-wide trade is historic period statuary from Cambodia, region-wide, and elsewhere. The key discussion of organized crime and the antiquities trade at the end of the document centers around the issue of "lateralization," i.e. the inter-connectivity of the various elements that sustain the trade (creatively termed a "biosphere," pp. 31).

The claim that there is no such thing as a licit trade truly separate from the illicit one is something that I in my research have come to agree with. As discussed in the manuscript, the licit trade uses the infrastructure of the illicit trade to support itself, and all participants help support said trade, even those individuals who "insist on provenance and have never handled a tainted object" (pp. 32). Although there are specific points I disagree with (e.g. referring to those who sell the occasional artifact found while digging gardens or plowing fields-the "subsistence diggers"-as criminal), the information provided is well written for the informed general public, well referenced, and deserving of wider dissemination.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is Christie's Turning Over a New Leaf?

Perhaps this is nothing more than a PR stunt to counteract some of the recent bad press that major auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have received of late in regards to Southeast Asian antiquities, but this article (brought to my attention by colleague Tess Davis), is worth sharing. It concerns a recent auction held in Phnom Penh by Christie's, in which recently produced pieces of contemporary Khmer art (mostly sculpture and painting), made by some of Cambodia's best up-and-coming artists. They were sold off purely to raise money for the NGO Cambodian Living Arts, a subsidiary project of the Marion Institute.

CLA enjoys a 14 year long history of helping to revitalize Cambodia's "intangible" cultural heritage, and is, according to their website, founded by and maintained by Khmer/ethnic minority individuals; both the masters who teach and the students who take instruction. Their logo above left captures their commitment to teaching both traditional dance and music (instrumental and vocal). Especially commendable to me is their scholarship program for high school-University students (in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture), as well as their commitment to including English and computer literacy to all their students, especially those from remote rural villages. As a 'home grown' way to continue to respond to the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge (that killed off 90% of the ethnic Khmer artists, let alone those of minority groups), these days it appears to be getting increasingly positive publicity and recognition nationally and internationally. It's multi-media Season of Cambodia show will even play New York City in 2013!

Of course, noble charity events like this do not excuse otherwise notorious auction houses of past crimes or current/future transgressions in regards to the selling of recently looted or insufficiently provenanced antiquities. However, their willingness to attach their name to this at least demonstrates that someone in their employ or board of directors is not solely concerned with profits, and I think they should be given the benefit of the doubt re their motives in this instance. Considering all the money such auction houses have made from the wholesale destruction of tangible heritage, giving some of it back to help preserve the intangible (itself arguably as finite as the archaeological record) is the least they can do.

Friday, March 9, 2012

(Re) Defining Cultural Heritage in Vietnam?

It appears that debate over what defines cultural heritage in Vietnam, both tangible and intangible, is being held once again. This article describes the goings on of "a series of conferences," all centered around the issue of where to draw the line between cultural performances for tradition's sake vs. renewing/maintaining customs that otherwise might die solely for the benefit of tourists. This is especially true for aspects of "intangible" heritage, such as folk music and singing and theatre, the beauty and merits of which would most likely not translate well or, rather unfortunately, be deemed not aesthetically or aurally pleasing enough for the majority of tourists. Certain aspects of a culture like clothing or handicraft will always find a market if the objects are at the very least "beautiful" enough (even if original dyes and patterns are not used, or if the more abstract meanings behind the use of authentic motifs are kept secret to foreigners).

"Intangible" heritage doesn't even have this luxury, yet it deserves protection all the same, especially as some styles of song and dance are being kept alive by very few elderly masters, desperate for apprentices. Examples given in the article from Vietnam include Central Highlands gong music (video example here). Although I can't personally attest to the accuracy of this video, I agree with the general sentiment expressed that renewing such performances for tourist's sake only would cheapen them in time, even if the younger generation would not have been made aware of these "lost" ceremonies otherwise. More popular forms, such as Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre will always have its commercial and international appeal, but where does that leave the so-called 'niche market' styles like Quan Ho (northern) or Ca Tru (central), or music of any of the numerous ethnic minorities (e.g. the Jarai)? Let alone those of the dozens of other ethnic groups throughout the region and more contemporary styles influenced by traditional music from (e.g. a Karen music video here and slightly older Khmer folk/pop here)?

I also agree with Dr. Trung Quoc's statement that too much government involvement, as opposed to grass-roots community initiative, is in the end not a good thing. The same problem is always at hand in regards to historical and archaeological site preservation/excavation vs. commercial management for tourism vs. short-term looting. The reality in much of Southeast Asia (and the world) is that there is only so much independent academic researchers/NGOs can be expected to foot the bill to subsidize the day to day needs/gear of non-commercial musicians (or everything needed to preserve an excavated site).

World class institutions such as the Musical Instrument Museum and Earthwatch routinely sponsor their own research or arrange for volunteers to help on digs, with the proceeds helping to fund the project. With so many art and music styles (and archaeological sites) worthy of protection or rediscovery before they are lost, a happy medium needs to be found soon. As with the archaeological record, linguistic diversity, biological diversity etc., when taken out of the purely academic realm, time is of the essence to preserve what we study for its own sake and the people who have always lived with it first and foremost.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Adventures of Captain Hatcher: Ethical Salvaging on the High Seas?

Yesterday marked another important event in the life and career of one Captain Mike Hatcher, namely the public auction by Lawsons (Australia's premier auctioneers since 1884) of 200 pieces from his personal collection of artifacts salvaged from shipwrecks. Consisting mostly of Chinese blue and white porcelain, celadon, white glaze, earthenware, and various metal and stone artifacts, it (according to a press release) charts his own "voyage of discovery." Although sales results are not available yet, I would not be surprised if all of the pieces offered were sold, or will later be sold through various small online galleries (e.g. here). The photo at left shows just a few of the artifacts available for purchase yesterday. The divers helmet alone fetched $900-1200 dollars!

No mention is given in the press release as to what will happen to the proceeds after auction house commission is taken; i.e. no charity is mentioned upfront (unlike a previous small-scale auction of Tek Sing artifacts in Vanuatu, with proceeds going to an emergency medical services charity). Previous auctions of artifacts salvaged from his diving adventures have sold at Nagel (Stuttgart, 1999) and Christie's (Amsterdam, 1985), for sums as high as US $20 million, helping to fund future efforts and further media attention. However, his press coverage to date has not been entirely positive, and real questions have been (continue to be) raised regarding his methods, and the very nature of maritime "salvage" work as a whole.

Some background is now in order to put this auction into context. Publicly known as the "salvage king," Hatcher is the well known operator of a commercial salvage company working in the Asia-Pacific region since the 1980s. In earlier years he was instrumental in the "salvage" of several high-profile wrecks. These include the Tek Sing (360,000 pieces of porcelain, as well as allegedly undisturbed human remains), the Dutch K XVIII class submarine, and more porcelain from the Geldersmalen (aka the Nanking Cargo), and several smaller wrecks.

However, controversy and doubt began to be raised almost immediately after the Geldersmalen was salvaged, with investigations by Indonesian authorities, threats of five years of jail time and large fines, and the eventual arrest of Australians Christopher Woolgrove and Lawrence James Phillips for their fleecing of investors through creation of the dummy company "Hatcher Unit Trust." Affiliation with Captain Hatcher's personal commercial enterprise was claimed; a fact which Hatcher continues to deny. Chinese authorities and archaeologists have also questioned his methods and the spike in small-scale maritime looting his large finds have inspired, even while acknowledging his role in initiating marine archaeological research off their coast.

The fact remains that, regardless of whether or not Indonesia continues to "let him in through the front door," maritime treasure hunting, also referred to as salvaging, and related to the practice of "wrecking" (recovering items from on or near-shore wrecks) remains fraught with ethical issues. Despite some large for-profit companies hiring self-identified archaeologists and marketing directors to lend an air of validity to their activities and handle the press, this is still primarily a profit driven industry. This is why private dealers and investors invest and real questions about provenance can dog even the most well-meaning museum curators arranging high profile exhibits (see the ongoing controversy over the Monsoon Winds exhibit in the Smithsonian for one example). Its image isn't helped when key individuals like Hatcher describe the discovery of gold cargo as "this is the dream of every diver, the classical children's story of shipwrecks and hidden treasures. It is already an adventure in itself to see such a fairytale come true."

These days, numerous scholarly articles, books, websites, and even entire archaeology departments (here and here) exist to continuously reiterate the point that conducting a context-driven excavation is possible even deep below the sea, and that this involves more than just counting how many pieces of eight or porcelain cups your wreck contains. Although an operation like Hatcher's is admittedly not as difficult for authorities to monitor as smaller-scale treasure hunting operations conducted by local fishermen in many parts of Southeast Asia would be (e.g. here), I have yet to read any statement released by Hatcher himself that comfortably puts to rest the legitimate concerns of archaeologists when dealing with any for-profit salvage operation.

I have, however, received personal communication from a source in the media that Hatcher was overseas (literally) for several days before yesterday's auction took place, thus this colleague's scheduled interview could not go ahead. This is a shame, as it would be nice to have an update from the Captain now that one more private auction has occurred. Can he provide demonstrable proof that everything removed and sold was done so according to best practice? We'll see...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Antiquities Sting in Nepal

This article came to my attention this morning, courtesy of my colleague Noel Hidalgo-Tan (ANU). It concerns the recent arrest of many of the players in an antique/antiquities smuggling ring operating in Kathmandu. According to the article, the heads of this particular smuggling operation are "real estate brokers," while the on-the-ground operatives are younger "daily wage earners." It appears that most of the items confiscated off them are historic period religious manuscripts such as the Tibetan manuscript Ratnaketu Dharani, however a sword (undescribed in the article) was also seized. Investigation is underway in regards to clients and paper trails, and charges will be pressed under Nepal's Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, originally conceived in 1956, but very recently extended and updated. Let's hope more information will surface in time and that every illegally traded artifact will be recovered.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Spreading the Word: Angkorian Plate Returned to Cambodia

This post is to further spread the word on the recent repatriation of an Angkorian (Jayavarman VII) era silver plate to Cambodia. The original article is here, and this story came to my attention through the vigilant reporting of my colleague Alison Carter (here). Thanks! What's important to me is that the article suggests the plate was voluntarily returned by its original purchaser, one Zelnik Istvan, a Hungarian businessman who claimed to have purchased the item in 1970 in order to add it to his private Southeast Asian Gold Museum. Of course, the legal export status, context, ownership history and provenance of the other 50,000 artifacts is not discussed, but this case demonstrates that repatriation is not out of the question for his museum when warranted, which is very commendable.

According to the article, the original vendors claimed a provenience around the Banteay Chhmar temple, but this is unverifiable. Tit Sokha, a representative of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, mentions the ICOM Cambodia Red List of stolen antiquities, which has encouraged the return of some specific artifacts (mostly sculpture) by private foreign collectors, but no mention is made if the plate was on the list itself, or known about at all before Istvan returned it. Thus, although original context will forever be lost, the return of this item at least allows it to be repaired and shared with the Cambodian people (and the world) as part of their heritage.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Two Repatriation Successes

I can happily report that two recent legal efforts to repatriate important items of cultural heritage, long held outside of their place of origin, have both ended in success. The first case (also here) conserns the return of a gold bead in the shape of a screaming monkey with turquoise eyes belonging to the Moche culture, which flourished along the northern Peruvian coast from c. 100BC-800AD (see above left). The pendant is known to have been illegally looted from an unidentified tomb (suggested by one of Peru's most preeminent archaeologists, Dr. Walter Alva, to stylistically affiliate with funerary objects from the elite tombs of Sipan, in the northern Lambayeque valley) in 1987. For decades, archaeological sites large and small have been targeted by huaqueros (tomb robbers) in this region, but transnational cooperation between Universities, museums, the more consciencous private dealers, and governments themselves have begun to turn the tide.

The case for repatriation began when Dr. Alva recognized the artifact in the Palace of the Governors History Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As noted in the article, artifacts similar to this pendant have likely been looted from smaller sites within the Sipan sphere of influence, making the removal of this item from the private antiquities market all the more unusual, especially given the high prices fetched for other golden Moche artifacts on the black market or in federal stings. The bead was originally part of the Bourne collection, dubbed by journalist Roger Atwood as "the finest small collection of pre-Colombian art anywhere," but obvious care seems to have been given in its curation, and museum authorities commendably agreed that this artifact more appropriately belongs in Peru so that, in the words of Director Frances Levine "it can be better used to help museums in Peru tell their own stories."

The second case involves the recovery of 20 severed Maori heads (!) by New Zealand after almost two centuries of storage in museums. The repatriation ceremony occurred at the Musee du Quai Branley, Paris, with relevant governmental authorities, New Zealand embassadors, and anthropologists/historians from the Te Papa museum, Wellington. According to the article, 200 heads have been returned from a total of 14 countries (demonstrating the wide distribution these "memento mori" had during the Colonial period), but several others "might remain in private collections."

What struck me specifically about this case is both that a special law had to be passed to finalize this specific repatriation (why?), and that French authorities "worried that this might set a worrying precedent for other artefacts such as Egyptian mummies and the bones of early Christian martyrs." Given that many of the artefacts taken during colonial expeditions have been languishing in museum storage for as long if not longer than the Maori heads discussed above, perhaps success stories such as the above WILL provide the incentive needed for small European museums to assess their old collections, record all that can be recorded from such human remains, and then take the lead in repatriation instead of waiting for legal action. Fair's fair...

Monday, January 9, 2012

Antiquities Smuggling through the Sunderbans

Today, this article came to my attention (via Museum Security Network). It concerns the recent busting of an antiques smuggling network through India's Sunderbans (the vast wetland formed by the superconfluence of the Brahmaputra, Padma and Meghna Rivers and their tributaries), into today's Bangladesh and Myanmar. According to the article, 11 people were arrested, but authorities had an inkling of this network's existance as far back as 2010. Due to its remoteness and primarily waterlogged state, artifact and people smuggling and wildlife poaching have proven difficult to patrol throughout this vast area.

The primary artifact confiscated in 2010 was a two-foot tall bust of the Buddha, but no mention is given in the article of the type or age of the antiques or antiquities most recently confiscated. Numerous cases involving the smuggling of historic period or ancient Hindu and Buddhist statuary and religious paraphernalia, sometimes boldly robbed from temples at night, have been reported in recent years, including on this blog (e.g. here and here). Now that those who appear to be the main ringleaders have been confiscated, we can wish the local and transnational authorities much success in all future raids and in getting to the bottom of just how extensive antique/antiquities smuggling is in the Sunderbans.