Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy New Year!

No, those aren't belated Christmas offerings from me to you, dear reader. Instead, they represent yet another grim reminder of the kinds of small antiquities (some with human remains!) that continue to be trafficked in the Southeast Asian region, whether in Hanoi, where I took this photo (the Viet Culture antiquities shop), or even in countries "Down Under" themselves.

I post it as a promise of more active blogging in the New Year, during which I will eventually share more photos and on-the-ground information from my most recent time in Hanoi this past November, as well as launch into discussion of new themes, cases and ideas as they themselves "surface." When I can wrestle time from the PhD, job/post-doc hunts, contract archaeology (survival funds always appreciated...) etc. As always, I consider this blog somewhat "open-source," so feel free to shoot ideas my way and I'll give them due consideration.

Season's greetings and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Good News From China!

This link points to a recent news article discussing new measures to patrol and prevent maritime looting of shipwreck sites around the Xisha (Paracel) Islands, in the South China Sea. Although a few controlled excavations have been done, according to the article, the scope of illegal wreck diving is severe, and the area to monitor is immense, but officials acting on any further recognition of the problem is a step in the right direction. Some success in boat and artifact confiscation is already reported. Let's wish local authorities even more resources and vigilence.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Getting the (Copper) Out

This link will point you to a Salon.com article written by Associated Press reporter Donna Bryson, for which myself and my colleague Dougald O'Reilly were interviewed. In the end, the report focused on the theft of contemporary bronze sculptures and statuary from South African art museums, so that these expensive, highly elaborate pieces could be sold for next to nothing and melted down for scrap. A real crime in its own right! However, Dougald and I were happy to provide comparative information on the Southeast Asian antiquities trade, specifically the looting and sale of metal artifacts from late prehistoric contexts. Although no equivalent rash of museum thefts in Southeast Asia has come to my attention, the information we provided would come in handy if a media release comparing the antiquities trade situations in Southern Africa (or across the continent) and Southeast Asia should be written in future. In my opinion, there is ample room for comparison.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Human Remains Repatriated to Namibia

This is a quick post to report on the successful repatriation case of 20 human skulls to Namibia, after more than a century of storage at the Charite teaching hospital in Berlin (see the photo above left for an example). Namibia, then known as German Southwest Africa, was the site of Germany's brief attempt at colonial rule of foreign lands; a chapter in its history which ended rather badly. These skulls were taken from those who died in German prison camps during a retaliatory campaign of genocide against the Harero (Herero) and Nama (Namaqua) tribes from 1904-1907. This "first genocide of the 20th century," according to the article, was in response to a Harero uprising in January 1904 over alleged theft of land, cattle and women which killed 123 newly settled German civilians. The skulls were kept in a medical hospital to inform later eugenics-themed "research" intended to lend scientific credibility to Nazi claims of racial superiority.

It is great news, then, that these skulls will finally be returned on October 4th, with a reburial memorial and traditional mortuary rights being held on the 5th in the capital, Windhoek. As Namibia's former ambassador to Germany noted in 2008 (quoted in the article), the return of the skulls is "a question of retaining our dignity." I couldn't agree more. As this additional article points out, this repatriation is the tip of the iceberg, with the Charite museum allegedly having at least 7,000 skulls in its collections, as well as a variety of other bones, and several other museums in Germany the same; acquired under equally dubious circumstances. In their year of remaining funding, it is my hope that the physical anthropologists and historians involved will be able to collaboratively identify the most likely origin events that brought these skulls to Germany and arrange for their repatriation, after making sure that all relevant data that can be collected from them is. The injustices of the past should always be acknowledged and remedied as much as possible, but in my opinion, this does not excuse collecting all relevant information.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The "tomb raiding" crisis in China continues.

As I gather my thoughts and photos together from Vietnam to soon begin a series of posts discussing the antiquities trade in Hanoi as I observed it last month, this interim post concerns the following article. It concerns the continuation and apparent escalation of organized, literal tomb raiding in several provinces around China, specifically highlighting the situation in Shaanxi province. Criminal gangs from several nearby provinces have descended on the province in droves, with local police having solved 250 cases of raiding/smuggling since 2009 alone.

However, it is clear from the article that this is a drop in the ocean of what's really going on. What was most disturbing, and obviously the most challenging for local and national archaeologists and non-corrupt officials to deal with, is the degree and extent to which these gangs form "alliances" with either local villagers or even local police. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to China, but the situation again indicates why the severity of looting in China is among the worst in Asia; similar to what's going on in Peru.

On the upside however, the article suggests that increased village patrols, police presence, and even the self-induced reformations of former gang members/leaders while in prison appears to be having some effect. Note as an example the case of Pan Baocheng, the 53yr old gang member from Henan. He started to loot out of greed, was caught, and saw the error of his ways in prison. Or, the case of Pan Liusuo (see photo above left), also from Henan, serving time in the Dafeng detention centre. Sometimes, if the stolen and smuggled antiquities are "high profile" enough (like the grave goods of Wu Huifei, sold in 2006 to US collectors, but later returned to the Shaanxi History Museum), they can be tracked down and repatriated. Perhaps a similar fate would have awaited the Baphuon lintel described in my last post (if authenticated), should it have been purchased and shipped? It is common knowledge, however, that such high profile pieces are a tiny fraction of the global trade.

The legal punishments mentioned in the article strike me as very fair (and I would never advocate the death penalty), but at the end of the day, the task remains to stop these crimes before they start. Like anywhere else, increased vigilance, education, transnational cooperation and (where possible) the fostering of greater responsibility on the "demand" side. However, it can't be stated enough: the only way to avoid complacence in the destruction of global heritage and the archaeological record and/or avoid scams, fakes and individual ties to additional criminal activities is to NOT PURCHASE ANTIQUITIES!

Thursday, September 1, 2011


A colleague recently sent me this opinion piece, published on the "living if" website. Brazenly entitled "taking home a piece of Angkor Wat," it describes in very open terms the process of shopping for antiquities in Bangkok, a place "where a person can get anything they want, for a price." At first glance, one might assume that this is an expose piece focused on the reality of the antiquities trade, and the real ethical and moral "dilemmas" contained therein. Sadly, this is not the case. The author instead seems to take pages straight out of Cuno's playbook in arguing the "aesthetic" point of view, perpetually seeking to justify the transborder sale of antiquities for beauty's sake. "Why should cultural relics stay in a place rather than cross borders and share their beauty with people who can't make it to their original location?," the author posits. The possibility of the international movement of carefully excavated and recorded artifacts as part of a museum exhibit on loan to a foreign institution doesn't even come up.

The gist of the internal "debate" the author and his wife engage in in this article concerns the purchase of a piece of the Bayon temple from a Bangkok dealer. Questions of authenticity (deemed likely real, given their "research," but no way to guarantee it without asking Sotheby's "experts"), price (too expensive!), and shipping (look how easily we can fool US Customs...) all come up in the author's investigations. One might hope that their raising of these questions would lead them to realize how risky and ethically fraught the purchase of looted antiquities is (if the piece is even real), but instead, their actions are continually justified through the same tired arguments. You know the drill: Priceless artifacts are safer permanently in foreign museums or living rooms; "sharing" the "beauty" of artifacts (whether devoid of context or not?) helps otherwise apathetic Westerners care about "those" countries that have or are suffering political turmoil; private buyers (as well as foreign museums and institutions) are required to help preserve objects for the good of humanity, etc. These arguments sound no more or less like "sugar coated" cultural property internationalism...

The final line really got to me. "The lessons we learned in the process though, were worth it, without finding a piece we loved, doing the research, debating amongst ourselves, and deciding, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to think through the right, wrong and grey area of being a tomb raider." A tomb raider? Really?! The public misconception of archaeology that helps fuel the trade continues. Without deliberate outreach effort to counteract pieces like these, it will only get worse...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back in the 'Berra

I have made it back to Canberra after a successful, but rather hectic, final research trip to Hanoi. All in all, the data collection went well, and should definitely improve the final PhD produced. I also had a bit more time to investigate antiquities sellers in more 'remote' areas of Hanoi; the very area (around Nghi Tam St., West Lake District) in which I first documented a no-questions asked antiquities trade during my first trip (although you can bet I did ask questions where appropriate).

As expected, numerous stores were once again encountered in this area, of which I had time to look around, posing as a 'buyer off the street,' and talk to the owners of three. Unfortunately, I did not have time to seek out similar stores in Saigon. Maybe next time. I will blog about what I uncovered at each of these locations in time; what they were selling, for how much, what they had to say or not about how to ship items abroad, their usual clientele, or the general acknowledged legality or illegality of the enterprise. While I fully admit that my "sample size" is small, nothing that I learned caused me to view this information as atypical for the city. In my opinion, on-the-ground "check-ups" and documentation every once and awhile is very important. As an example of the primarily Iron Age Dong Son artifacts encountered in most stores, see the photo above left. Photo courtesy of the author, taken at the Chi Lan "souvenir shop and art gallery," Hang Bong St., Hanoi. More to come, so stay tuned.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Grim Discoveries...

Exploration of side streets and back alleys in search of those scattered shops that still openely sell genuine antiquities has been occurring at a decent pace, whenever I can squeeze it in between my "day job" and those times that it's not pouring down rain. My investigations see me posing as a potential "buyer"/tourist off the street, to see who shows me what, for how much etc. Of the three shops visited so far, one only offered clear and freely admitted replicas of prehistoric artifacts (Dong Son drums, for example), but genuine historic period ceramics and 18th-19th c. statuary. A second shop sells a wide variety of genuin historic period pieces (mostly Han-Ly/Tran Dynasties) with some admitted by the owner to derive from shipwrecks off the central coast, but deliberately avoids handling prehistoric objects.

The very first shop I entered, however, was the most open about their activities. Located in the heart of the central Old Quarter district by Hoan Kiem lake, the "Van Hoa Viet" (Viet Culture) shop displayes two to three glass cases full of genuine prehistoric-historic ceramics (Neolithic period to Han), as well as Dong Son spear heads, axe heads, bangles (with human remains!), bracelets, a few beads, and several late Palaeolithic ("Da But" period c. 6-5,000BP) shouldered adzes, crafted from a variety of stone. I asked about price while pretending to comparison shop. It seems that, at least at this store, antiquities are also able to be bargained down if one can manage it. At all such shops I've visited to date, I was told that "friends" (middlemen or genuine friends of the family or both?) would call them personally when new items were found, or else go from shop to shop to sell what they could. It is my opinion that those who deal openely in antiquities here are probably aware of local heritage laws (which dictate that nothing real over 100 years old is allowed out of the country), but ignore them anyway. This matter will be investigated further-with caution.

In my remaining time here, I will search out as many other shops as I can; both in Hanoi and in Saigon when there. I readily admit to a lingering language barrier between me and my informants, but I can only do my best. Further thoughts and findings, and many photos, to come. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Status Update

As I continue to run around in last minute preparation for one final PhD related research trip to Hanoi, this is to announce that I intend to blog at least occasionally while over there. As I'll be on the ground in what is both a source and, increasingly, a demand country for Southeast Asian antiquities (from prehistoric "field finds" like those in the photo at left, courtesy of the author, to historic period statuary, sculpture, shipwreck ceramics etc.), I will make it my goal to take a "status report" of the antiquities trading scene on the ground in Hanoi (and to a lesser extent, Saigon), to whatever extent I can. My very first post for SAFE detailed my observations on the local Hanoi antiquities trade c. early 2010. I am doubtful much has changed, but I will do my best to document and observe what I can.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" on the High Seas

It seems that, according to this article (also here), hundreds of artifacts from "dozens" of Spice Route-era shipwrecks (c. 1500-1800AD) off of the Tanjung Tuan coast, Malaysia, have been stolen by illicit underwater looters (here read 'salvagers') since the 1990s. What really struck me about these short articles, however, was that on the one hand, the Museum Authority was asked by the state government to gather more information for prosecutions, but on the other, the government itself tried to offer (bribe?) salvage companies to retrieve further artifacts, with the deal most likely to include the local retention of some finds, but the open sale of others (as the full-scale salvage of a single wreck was not the stated goal, unlike the controversial Javanese shipwreck whose artifacts might soon be displayed by the Smithsonian). What maritime excavation methodologies do any of the solicited companies employ? Any regards to context preservation? Nothing is stated.

The article implies that the most active salvage companies or private small enterprises already knew that the wrecks in question have been picked clean. As the time, effort and money involved to 'loot' underwater is far beyond "subsistence digging," the issue to me seems to be one of how to define "national treasure" in the case of high seas 'salvaging?' The people involved were locals of a specific ethnicity (Malay or Chinese-Malay in this case), and the artifacts removed came out of near-shore (i.e. not "international") waters. However, their shipwreck context indicates that such objects recovered from cargo holds were collected and transported far and wide in antiquity. If sold, would pieces such as the Chinese blue and white porcelain (see photo above left) go to a) local Malay dealers; b) non-Malay dealers from countries such as China, people who might see no problem profiting from the sale of "treasure" originally made within the former or current boarders of their country, or c) Western dealers and buyers seeking to cash in on possibly romanticized stories of arduous long distance trade voyages in the time of sail ships and pirates? Each of the parties mentioned above could stake a different claim on anything 'salvaged' from these wrecks, but at the end of the day, looting is still looting when insufficient care is given to archaeological context, no matter how it's dressed up or couched in nationalistic terms.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A quick detour...

I couldn't let this news story pass me by without commenting on it here. It appears that the Jordan River Bank site, on the northern edge of suburban Hobart, Tasmania, is to have a highway built above it, despite previous coverage, and local activists and academic and consultant archaeologists attesting to its extreme importance as a likely meeting place/lithic manufacturing centre from c. 42,000BP into historic times (see here as well). Despite reassurances from engineers that the site (a sandbank separate from the river's main course) will not be disturbed by construction, the incredible artifact density (potentially up to three million stone tools or flakes left over from manufacture, left behind on several "living floors" deposited over the millennia), and the fact that the site was only discovered last year, strongly suggests there is more to uncover there. The preliminary archaeological report provides a more technical assessment of the site's importance, for those interested.

At a price tag of $60 million AUD and two additional years suggested by local governmental authorities to be needed to survey a new route for the highway, it is doubtful that calls for preservation will be heeded in the end. At the very least, perhaps further excavation can be carried out to uncover/salvage as much of the site as possible. Obviously, this post does not pertain directly to looting, and there is no reason to suggest any prehistoric (as opposed to ethnographic) artifacts from the site or region have ended up on the market, but it's impossible to know if any local surface collecting has occurred. Hopefully this won't be the case if/when a construction crew descends on the site. I will return to the post series in progress soon, but as controversial, heritage relevant stories from this part of the world often get overlooked overseas, I felt it important to share.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" Pt. 2: Sybolic Loot?

A brief press release has come to my attention that strikes very close to home for me. In fact, it concerns the one and only "ancient relic" that currently serves as the official "symbol" of University House, where I currently live on the ANU campus (see photo above, courtesy of Bob Miller, The ANU). In fact, it features on all official University House brochures, letterheads, memos etc. Specifically, we now learn that the "2,500 yr old ancient Greek cup" now held by University House (of the Attic tradition) will be on display in the new "Spirit of Enquiry" exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, an exhibit designed to "explore the last 200 years of Australian science, education and ideas." All in all, a fine concept for an exhibit, I agree. However, this does not negate the fact that, in the case of objects like this cup, a looted antiquity is still being put on display.

I was interested to learn that Professor Dale Trendall, the first "Master" of University House (a prestigious position then and now) collected the cup while traveling in Europe in the 1950s. Does its acquisition and export before the UNESCO laws were put into place make it any more 'legit,' or any less looted (especially in a time when modern, context conscious archaeology barely existed anywhere)? Even if the cup is now most valued for its symbolic links to ANU and University House, and not so much because it's an especially rare example of Attic pottery (but I'm not a Classicist, so don't quote me on that), does this excuse either the University or the National Museum from acknowledging its likely illicit origins (again, despite the lack of appropriate legislation at the time)? I don't think so.

Prof. Trendall is credited with creating the largest catalog of Apulian and Attic ceramics to date, with painstaking stylistic and morphological analyses conducted to attempt to distinguish the various styles in use from the 5th-4th c. BCE, as well as the 'signature' characteristics of individual painters. However, the work that underpinned this effort also put Trendall in contact with numerous local and international dealers, including some future big names, such as Geddes, and spawned a rush of looting in Southern Italy and Sicily, especially during the 1980s (see e.g. Gill, 2010). Although Trendall could not arguably have anticipated this, and even if this particular Attic cup did not recently 'surface,' the fact remains that the use of this particular piece of "other people's treasure" to bolster the image of "refinement" that both University House and the ANU wish to convey to the world, does not go unnoticed. Even though repatriation is impossible (and has never been requested), would not an image of the Parthenon (for example) suffice? Unfortunately, in my opinion the Classics Museum (and dept.) here has at best a mixed track-record of acknowledging provenance where known, collection method, and/or the pre-1970s origins of what's on display. Let's hope the National Museum is more upfront. I will report on the matter when I've seen the display in person.

In this instance, then, we can draw parallels between the use of artifacts from Classical antiquity in "demand" nations in both hemispheres; as signifiers of a person's or institution's aesthetic and cultural sophistication via the display of "pieces" made by the same people who 'founded' "Western Civilization." A spurious argument wherever it's used. This post will lead into future discussion of how "other people's treasure" is used as a marketing ploy in private antiquities sales down here, whether "Classical" or not, but (as per my interest) retaining a Southeast Asia focus.

Related to that, I'm glad to further report on a good example of an antiquities dealer in Britain doing the right thing by way of a looted Afghan statue! Good job! Thanks to The History Blog for covering it first. On the other hand, this article demonstrates that, in the complex world of knock-offs, duplicates, and genuine rare antiquities that is the Chinese antiquities trade, even local dealers can fool local buyers! How much does the desire for "other people's treasure" extend to collecting the antiquities of one's own national or ethnic past in this part of the world? Let the investigation continue!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" and Looting in the Philippines

This post will be the first in a series focusing on the topic of the collection of "other people's treasure" (or the alleged reclamation of "treasure" thought to affiliate with ones' own ethnic or national history) as an ongoing motive for looting and antiquities trading in the Southern Hemisphere. In this instance, I'm referring to a new case of looting that recently occurred (sometime last year, from what I understand from the article) at the sites of Maulohin Cave and Istar Cairn, on Imorigue island in New Ibajay town, Palawan province, Philippines. Dr. Victor Paz (in full disclosure, a colleague of mine) first reported this incident to get the National Museum of the Philippines involved in the investigation, noting that these 500 year old remains, with clear contextual affiliation with Metal Age ceramics and iron weapons, were "stolen by Japanese descendants of missing World War II soldiers."

Paz, acting in his capacity as a representative of the National Museum and member of the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project, convinced the Museum Director, one Cecilio Salcedo, to send additional experts to Palawan to work with local authorities to investigate what occurred, when, and the extent of the damage. Not surprisingly, but in my opinion rather suspiciously, the Japanese Embassy is refusing to comment and feigning ignorance.

Although reports of what occurred still seem unconfirmed, or based upon a few "known facts" and several interviews and "unconfirmed reports," it appears that in May last year, Japanese Nationals with local guides visited the sites and carefully "sorted and sacked" all the bones for removal, but guards stopped the removal before it could go ahead, and the remains were eventually turned over to the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project team who returned them to their original sites, with bilingual signs placed "in clear view" stating that these re-deposited remains were those of prehistoric ancestral Philippinos. Apparently, another sack of mostly material cultural items and shell was also produced, coming from a site no one on the excavation team recognized...suggesting that other nearby sites have also been hit. Dr. Paz, doing his part as a true advocate of archaeological education and anti-looting outreach in his country, has discussed looting issues with concern before, noting again (in light of this case) that "at the rate the looting is going, we will have nothing left for future generations of Filipinos to protect and learn from."

Despite this, the article suggests (if I read it right) that the remains have just recently been removed again, thus sparking the outrage and calls for thorough investigations discussed in the article. As Dr. Paz and others who've worked in the Philippines have personally informed me, many looting cases like the above relate to the story of "Yamashita's Treasure," the likely-mythological burial of immense quantities of gold and other spoils of war 'stolen' by the Japanese fleet from various locations around Southeast Asia and then hidden in caves, tunnels and booby-trapped enclosures throughout the Philippines. The legend has been thoroughly spread by local and American population culture sources (TV, books, video games etc.), but Philippino historian Ambeth Ocampo (among others) has observed that both foreign and Philippino "treasure hunters" have been looking for 50yrs, using every supposed map and bit of oral history testimony they can find, and have still recovered nothing substantial. Yet the dissemination of(ahem) "revisionist" history fueling the search continues apace (e.g. here).

So, here we have the theme of "other people's treasure" seen from two angles: Locals (especially, it seems, foreign nationals and rural villagers) exposed to such legends by foreign and local media and aware of the prices that gold etc. could fetch on the open market, continue to search, occasionally looting prehistoric sites in the process. On the other hand, the Japanese students and nationals allegedly connected to the initial (and perhaps subsequent) removal of bones and artifacts from archaeological context at Maulohin and Istar Cairn destroyed another piece of the Philippines' non-renewable archaeological heritage (i.e. "other people's treasure") to reclaim "ancestors" they erroneously believed to be theirs. The end result is the same. Although this example does not involve a clear intent to sell "other people's treasure" (i.e. human remains and artifacts) on the antiquities market, this motive deserves further investigation where actual looting with intent to sell is concerned.

Forthcoming posts in my first series built around a theme will deal with justifications and influences currently affecting the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade. Not just the import of antiquities from abroad into source countries (primarily Australia and New Zealand, but also Africa or South America where relevant), but also the trade in Aboriginal or Maori artifacts, remains, or pieces of historic "Australiana" and "Kiwiana" which might find markets amongst the new middle class in Asia. Of course, Southeast Asia remains a primary focus. Is the desire to own a tangible piece of the past of a country with a much longer written and/or unwritten history that yours enough of a reason to support the trade? How is the concept of "other people's treasure" used in antiquities marketing down here, or even the marketing of local prehistoric artifacts overseas (where observable)? Is the non-Indigenous collection of Indigenous artifacts still tied to "exoticization" of the "other?" Stay tuned for some semblance of an answer, hopefully with concrete examples to boot. Onwards!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Few News Items and an Announcement

The gist of this post is two part: A weekend "news dump" of relevant antiquities trading stories, and an announcement about the future direction of this blog.

1. The first article (here) concerns the seizure of 163 archaeological artifacts and antiques confiscated by the Jamshoro police department (Hyderabad, India) and evaluated by the Sindh Culture Department. These items include antique rifles, coins from several nations, Kashmiri papier mache artwork, swords, and shell statues. A rare "Ayuda Muddhra' statue of the Buddha (with provenance given only as "Far East"), as well as an "Italian" shell sculpture, were among the loot. Disturbingly, one of the suspects apprehended was known to have been a museum guard at the Ranikot Fort museum. The items seized have already been handed over to the Culture Department. Where to after that? Not sure....

2. The next article (here) also concerns artifact seizures in India, with the reported arrest of five individuals in connection with attempted smuggling of four rare "Panchaloha" idols (statues). The raid targeted Max New Bean Bag Shop in Jayanagar, Bangalore, and it is alleged that some of the statues weighed as much as 2.9k! Mobile phones and bikes were also seized. For some reason, only the youngest of the four suspects (a 20 year old man identified as Anand from Harohalli) charges are mentioned in the article. What happened to the other individuals?

3. The third and final piece (here) ventures more into the political/PR side of looting and heritage management. It came to my attention via Museum Security Network (as did those above), but was originally a blog post on the well written, but more contemporary art/antiques focused "artknows" blog (maintained by one Tom Flynn). An auction occurred in the town of Dorchester, UK, on the 19th May, run by the more provincial Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury and Duke's of Dorchester auction houses, to sell off 19th c. Qing Dynasty artifacts known to have been looted from the Summer Palace, Beijing, at that time. Controversy arose not only in regards to the exceptionally high prices some pieces fetched, but also that a number of high-profile buyers were Taiwanese, while at the same time, a contingent of Chinese dealers and delegates contested the sale of these cultural heritage items. A Taiwanese bidder (with clients) suggested that Taiwanese attempts to purchase this material was not "politically motivated," but rather "a chance to buy high quality material with an imperial provenance at very reasonable prices."

The article stresses that the sale of "Asian art" (likely including more ancient antiquities) in England is seemingly now more confined to these "provincial" auction houses, as opposed to high profile auctioneers and galleries in London, due to both the quality of the material and attestations by primarily Asian buyers that "real expertise" is now to be found in the sticks. What of concerns for provenance, collection history etc.? I get the sense that, as with Asian art sales in New York, and antiquities sales everywhere, when the historic/archaeological record becomes vague in regards to provenance, so does the concern of your average purchaser.

P.S. And Now for Something Completely Different: In the near future, dear readers, the tone of this blog will change. To date, I have focused more on gallery/dealer/high profile case exposes and reporting the gist, and my perspectives on, current news items concerning the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade. However, I would like to go further, into explorations of what underpins the trade down here. Questions such as:

How does it differ from Northern Hemisphere (read Europe and the US) activities? How is collecting of "other people's treasure" justified? What further background on dealer's associations needs down here needs to be aired (i.e. the AAADA)? Local coverage of cases of overseas, and even local, prehistoric and historic period looting, and where it lacks? How autonomous is the Southern Hemisphere trade in Classical/European antiquities (e.g. some of the galleries I originally covered in my first posts)? What role do major Southern Hemisphere demand countries (i.e. Oz and NZ) play in the global trade? What is the market for fakes in the Southern Hemisphere, and what's being faked the most? Where are they produced (only China and Hong Kong, for example?). The misuses/uses of heritage and heritage objects (loosely defined) in mass media/popular culture in regional countries...on coins, stamps, phonecards etc? The list goes on and an (and, in the interest of disclosure, I thank my colleague Paul Barford for these suggestions).

With that said, you are more than free to help me on this quest. If you come across local news items, auctions, on-line sales, new galleries that make you suspicious etc., feel free to get in touch with me. As I'm only one person, I'd also be amenable to the possibility of guest bloggers once we discuss what you'd talk about. Thanks for your attention to date. Let's see what the future holds!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Another Repatriation Case

It appears there has been another successful thwarting of human remains smuggling from Southeast Asia to the West, according to an article that has come to my attention today (courtesy of Museum Security Network). Additional coverage is here. ICE and Homeland Security authorities in New York investigated the suspicious origins of a package shipped from Bali, Indonesia (declared customs value of $5!), found to contain five carved and decorated "head-hunting" trophy skulls, believed to ethnographically originate with one of the many Dayak tribes in Borneo (Kalimantan). The skulls are believed to have been collected sometime during the 18th-19th centuries, although it is highly unlikely that any specific written records would tie these particular skulls to a specific location or time period; instead, appraisers would be required to rely on decorative motif analysis.

Because the total price exceeded $20,000 after a local appraiser "evaluated" what are acknowledged by the authorities, rightly in my opinion, to be priceless human remains, Customs could stop shipment at port in New Jersey. Amidst the usual speeches by officials of both nations, consultants etc. when repatriations are made, I find it unfortunate that these specifically Dayak ethnological artifacts (read stolen ancestral remains/heirlooms) were glossed as the "heritage of the Indonesian people" in this article. I have yet to find any information on whether or not community officials or leaders from one or more Dayak villages (i.e. longhouses) were on hand to witness the repatriation or claim the remains? I suspect not... The article merely suggests that they will be conserved in Indonesia...somewhere.

No information is given on the original shipper or intended destination, so perhaps that is still under investigation as part of prosecutory efforts. From what I can gather, this has yet to receive any independent press in Indonesia itself (the skull returned on the 16th May). Unfortunately, gallery webpages like this (the source of the photo above left) strongly suggest that a market for human remains still exists, with or without the participation of "independent," individual below-boards dealers on e-commerce sites like eBay. At least the above represents one more apprehension and, hopefully, ensures the conservation of these skulls for both future study and perhaps even eventual return to the appropriate community(s).

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A SAFE Haven

Just a reminder to my readers to please support the efforts of SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) in whatever way you can. The antiquities trade is a global crisis, and SAFE remains one of the only full-time organizations dedicated to education and outreach around the world; doing their (our) best to demonstrate and communicate that looting and the antiquities trade are deleterious wherever they occur. Furthermore, by now several other regionally-specific antiquities trade/heritage conservation focused blogs or organizations, including this one, connect to SAFE, and we all must stand in solidarity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Statue Thievery Spreads to Bangladesh

Just a quick post on a new incident of statue and idol thefts and attempted smuggling, this time out of Bangladesh, according to a recent article in the Daily Star (here). All involved were arrested in Bangladesh's main airport in Dhaka after being busted by customs before they could board flights to Bangkok. According to the articles, many of the confiscated statues were made of touchstone, metal or terracotta and depicted Hindu motifs. Amazingly, it appears that the guilty individuals were attempting to transport these bulky items in their luggage, although it's not clear if "luggage" in this case would actually refer to shipping crates.

A related article published in the Financial Express (another apparently prominent newspaper out of Bangladesh) came to my attention (once again) through Museum Security Network, and details that events of this nature have an active recent history in the country. It now seems that museums, and even archaeological sites exposed through planned excavation or development projects, are being deliberately targeted. Despite the somewhat strident tone of nationalistic rhetoric (in my opinion), the article makes a fair point that no nation should have to sit by and watch its heritage sites crumble, its archaeological sites be threatened by poorly planned development, and its movable cultural heritage be siphoned off, due to both local corruption and international avarice. Perhaps India, Nepal and Bangladesh can now work together on increasing enforcement and improving legislation to restrict cross-border trade in what is now apparently a subcontinent-wide problem. At the very least this should reduce the numbers of South Asian antiquities available to unscrupulous dealers and collectors overseas.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Not only the environment at risk...

A recent news article published by Africa Review (out of Kenya), once again coming to my attention through Museum Security Network, clearly implies that not only natural resource/habitat destruction and forced human migration can result from seemingly rushed 'development,' but that it undiscovered archaeological sites might also be at risk. The project in question is the Ambatovy mine (targeting nickel and cobalt sources in the east of the island; slated to be the world's largest nickel mine by 2013), a joint venture with Canadian, Korean and Japanese partners (see photo above left).

Operational since earlier this year, it has already come under some criticism, according to the article, for clearing thousands of hectares of forest and displacing 'traditional' villages, due to the 220km long pipeline laid to connect the mine to treatment plants on the coast. This pipeline, adn the disturbance created to install it, occurred very close to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, according to the article. This is despite the apparent implementation of "conservation programs" to offset habitat losses, trumpeted by the Sherrit International Corporation, the mine's primary financial backers. However, the main point of the article is to publicize an international meeting that recently took place at the Malagasy Academy (in Antananarivo) to discuss the apparently 4,851 archaeological objects, ranging from ceramic to bone to "tumblers" to plastic (?), discovered during construction of mining facilities.

Unfortunately, the article gives no information as to context, level of previous disturbance or amount of archaeological material on the surface. The description provided makes it seem to me that the 'site' destroyed might even be a late historic-modern midden (trash mound). If any genuinely prehistoric or historic sites have been, or will be, uncovered during future mining expansion, the publicly available Ambatovy "code of conduct" should prevent the willful destruction of sites or sale of artifacts, if enforced. What more comes of this, how increased public exposure affects or reshapes operational procedures in the future, and how many new archaeological sites are even present in the area to discover...all appear to be unknowns. Thorough and up to date archaeological survey and excavation work around Madagascar has been growing in recent years, despite episodes of unrest and the continuous need to negotiate with/around development and conservation projects (here, here, and here for examples). What this history means for any future excavations, salvage or otherwise, in relation to Ambatovy, is unclear. Once again, time will tell...

Friday, April 1, 2011

On to Bangkok?

In the same vein as the numerous recent examples of Hindu statues and idols I've posted about (e.g. here), two recent news articles suggest that a waive of Buddhist statue thefts have been occurring throughout Thailand (here and here). Apparently, dogs and alarm bells guarding many of these temples were not sufficient to prevent the thefts, which feed into a wide-spread network of illegal smuggling and sale. Fortunately, however, authorities have been on the ball, moving quickly to apprehend the perpetrators of the most recent reported theft (the Luang Phor Chiang Saen Buddha image, stolen from Wat Makok Simaram, Muang district). Their efforts netted two suspects and recovered 50 previously unaccounted for stolen items. Furthermore, the thieves confessed to eight other robberies since 2009, all targeting Buddha statues and temple paraphernalia. What is unfortunate is that the article reports that 36 registered statues have been stolen between 1996 and 2011, but only three have been retrieved. 531 unregistered statues (from smaller temples or rural villages?) have also been stolen, with only five recovered. Although in the case of the Chiang Saen statue, its final recipient and destination were within Thailand, it is unknown and unmentioned how many other stolen statues have found their way onto the international market. Although the villagers tried everything "metaphysical" within their power to ensure the statue's return, from 'merit-making' at the temple, to "cursing the robbers," in the end, the swift action of police came through. Let's hope this most recent arrest heralds increased vigilance and resources devoted to guarding these temples at all hours and recovering as much of what's already been stolen as possible.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Repatriation of...wait for it...Chinese artifacts!

Another quick offering here, as a follow up to my February 19th post. Turns out that the artifacts mentioned in that post (the seizure reported in Paramus, NJ, daily newspaper) have joined others confiscated in Alaska and New Mexico in being officially repatriated to China this past Friday, according to a new article released yesterday. A country wide operation dubbed "Operation Great Wall," netted two Northern Wei dynasty terra cotta horses, a Ming dynasty stone frieze and a Song dynasty Bodhisattva head; all priceless pieces of China's movable cultural heritage (although given their size, arranging for their clandestine shipping would most likely have proven difficult). An example can be seen in the photo above left. A bilateral agreement (an M.O.U.) was signed between Beijing and Washington in 2009, yet there is still much work to be done to prevent antiquities from leaving China in the first place, let alone reaching their intended destination. As with all examples of successful repatriation reported in the media, they unfortunately represent only the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, a job well done!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Recent News of Interest...

This is a quick post about a few recent news items of interest which once again have come to my attention through Museum Security Network. It is in advance of a post on the SAFECorner blog which will detail my own personal participation in the "hand back ceremony" for several looted Iron Age bronze artifacts, many still containing human remains, that occurred two days ago at the Cambodian Ambassador's residence here in Canberra, Australia. Lead-in information can be found here, and in this blog post by a friend and co-attendee of the ceremony, Mr. Noel Hidalgo-Tan, also of the ANU. More to come on this!

The first article of interest appeared in the New York Times March 10th edition, and details how the members of three separate archaeological organizations (unnamed in the article) have written to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to express concern over its planned hosting of an exhibition centred around the artifacts recovered from a 9th century shipwreck of an Arab dhow, sunk in the Java Sea, but "salvaged" by a German company called Seabed Exploration GbR, according to the article. The critics attest that, due to this company's alleged faulty methods, valuable information was lost in the 'salvage,' as opposed to what can be gained through more controlled excavation, even in a challenging underwater environment. Issues surrounding methodology and ethics in shipwreck archaeology are not new concerns. Furthermore, the article attests that most of these artifacts were sold to a private company in Singapore for $32 million, and the exhibit just happens to now be on display in the ArtScience Museum there. A panel meeting to discuss the archaeological community's concerns is scheduled to occur in advance of a final decision to display the exhibit.

The next article concerns the repatriation of the skeletal remains of 138 Indigenous people, likely from Torres Straight Islanders, although only 19 individuals have been thoroughly provenanced to "one of the Torres Straight Islands," according to the article. The rest are believed to derive from either the Torres Straight, southern Papua New Guinea or northern Cape York Australia. The exact details of the 'testing' done to confirm this prior to repatriation is not stated, but from the range of possible points of geographic origin, I would assume that minute samples of tooth enamel have been tested for isotopic 'signatures' of the elements strontium and/or oxygen; a by-now common means of 'sourcing' skeletal remains, although not without controversy.

From ethnographic accounts, none of the remains are posited to be more than 200 years old, and most were collected from caves, although a few "trophy skulls" are part of the assemblage. I personally feel that good points were raised on both sides as to why repatriation should eventually occur, but also why and how new developments in archaeological and bioarchaeological science (my field, after all) can continue to shed light on ancient remains. The state of mutual cooperation and agreement reached in this case is arguably the best possible outcome, but one that still occurs far too infrequently when debating repatriation cases. All parties involved should be commended on reaching such an equitable decision!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chinese antiquities bust in Jersey

One of my earlier blog posts in June last year highlighted the growing trade in Dynastic period antiquities from China, and the various means by which they go from ground to gallery, fuelled by pop-culture and public misconception of the archaeological process. In that vein, a recent example of another smuggling attempt is worth mentioning here. According to an article in the Paramus Post (a daily newspaper out of Paramus, New Jersey), Customs and Homeland Security officers and investigators have seized five large-scale artifacts, including two sandstone Buddhas, two terracotta horse/rider sculptures, and a Bodhisattva head sculpture, roughly dating from the Northern Qi, Northern Wei and Song Dynasties (see example photo above left).

A final location(s) for the pieces is not mentioned; perhaps the relevant receipts/import-export forms were missing. Again according to the article, these artifacts could have fetched $250,000 together on the open market, but this is only an estimate. It is fortunate that this shipment was stopped at customs, but not surprising given the size of the artifacts involved. Unfortunately, for every large piece of sculpture or statuary that is recovered and repatriated, an untold quantity of smaller artifacts will reach their final private or gallery destinations, and China still has numerous difficulties stemming internal looting, controlling forgery and illicit auction houses, and conducting construction work with appropriate attention to at-risk archaeological/heritage sites, as this 2005 article suggests. Still, all involved in the above-mentioned apprehension should be given our heartiest congratulations. Constant vigilance!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Idol Hands...

A quick update on the ongoing, subcontinent-wide phenomena of idol theft/smuggling occurring throughout India, and perhaps Nepal: Two additional men were arrested in the 'Civil Lines' area of Allahabad last Wednesday night, on their way to deliver another stolen 'ashtadhatu' idol to a client in Mumbai, where they would then have received more than Rms. 20 million ($400,000USD)! According to police inspector R.B. Singh, the specific idol in question was of the goddess 'Durga,' and was stolen from a temple in Gujarat, although which specific temple is not mentioned. The report suggests that the two arrested individuals were well-established in the regional idol-smuggling world, with clients in many states and perhaps Nepal as well. All of the above fits established patterns, but I wouldn't be surprised if even more prominent "middle-men" are eventually arrested. The very fact that so many above-ground, publicly used temples are being robbed region wide, in addition to other, archaeological antiquities on the market from India, is a disturbing trend...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Idols for Sale...

A recent article brought to my attention via the Museum Security Network provides an update on the ongoing idol/antiquities thefts still occurring throughout India. A Times of India story is now reporting that many of the so-called 'ashtadhatu' (eight metals) idols, the genuine article stolen from temples in many states throughout the country (see photo at left, taken from www.hindu-blog.com), can now be increasingly found for sale at many places of tourist renown (e.g. Agra, Varanasi, Allahabad, etc.). In fact, according to the article, 18 ashtadhatu idols have been stolen from three temples over the past two weeks alone (pre-dating Jan. 10th), in three ongoing cases!

As recently as last year (May, June, and September), several independent groups of criminals were arrested near the Nepalese border, part of a trend frequently noted by members of both the SOG (Special Operations Group: police) and STF (Special Task Forces: detectives); namely, that of India or Nepal based middlemen and criminal syndicates arranging for transport of the stolen idols and antiquities into Nepal for later transport to the international market. Apparently, states and regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Kashinagar and Kanpur have been especially hard hit, but it seems reasonable to expect that every state sharing a border with Nepal has seen smuggling events. Now, however, it appears that the stolen antiquities are increasingly sold through local channels in tourist hotspots such as those mentioned above, according to Arvind Chaturvedi, of the Special Task Force.

Although such thefts are in clear violation of the Indian Penal Code (sections 414 and 411), and the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, the high prices involved still drive many to take the risks. Thus, only increased monitoring of porous international borders, bolstered customs agency staff, and increased night patrols of vulnerable temples (and open archaeological sites in general, I might add) will 'arrest' this problem. Unfortunately, it seems that communication problems between local priests, the police and investigating authorities is hampering this effort. Although one senior police official is on record in the article for 'vehemently denying' that his region (the Kanpur region) has become a 'hub of antique idol smuggling,' based solely on the occasional apprehension of smugglers heading for the border or to meet clients in urban areas, if the Special Task Force detectives are noting such a marked uptick in the number of arrests and cases, this is arguably still cause for concern.

Another issue raised by an unnamed customs official is the problem of within-country circulation of antiquities from north to south (and presumably vise versa) for "re-use" in different Hindu temples than those they came from. "During one of my trips to South India, many valuable sculptures, coins, manuscripts, statues, paintings, and ornaments from across the nation were freely available there in art markets," the article reports. One would hope that the purchasers of such items for religious purposes would question whether or not they were initially stolen! I will keep following developments in this situation as I encounter them, but here's hoping that the increased monitoring attested to in the article will be accompanied by at least some additional funding for local authorities to keep doing their jobs, as well as increased awareness by potential overseas purchasers that that intriguing, 'exotic,' idol for sale at the local night market, on eBay, or at an upscale gallery, just might not come from "an old family collection."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Repatriation Down Under

In the spirit of a recent post over on the SAFECorner blog, regarding the repatriation of Native American remains under NAGPRA laws, now 20years on, I would like to take this opportunity to share a repatriation story from my adopted "home," Australia. This story conserns the return and reburial of two adult skeletons, ceremonially wrapped in bark cloth and buried according to the still-living mortuary customs of the Bundjalung people, whose Country lies near Lismore, New South Wales, after being stored for 200 years at the Leiden University Medical Centre in Holland.

Originally spirited out of Australia for "research purposes" by the famed botanist Joseph Banks, they were seemingly quickly forgotten about until an effort was made to identify and track them down as part of Australia's "National Repatriation Program," overseen by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Ethnographers from the National Museum of Australia, here in Canberra, as well as the Dutch ambassador (left nameless in this article), helped to assure their smooth transfer to the National Museum, and then Southern Cross University (near Lismore) upon their return to Australia, while two Bundjalung community elders (Gwenn Hickling and John Morrissey) traveled to Leiden to oversee the first stage of the repatriation. What is especially touching to me is the immense pride that several younger members of the community felt knowing these 'old people' have now returned. This even included the singing of a Welcome song by Goonellabah Public School students in the local language, part of continuing efforts at cultural and linguistic preservation/revival. Good on them!

It is not specified as to how much, if any, the remains were anthropologically or osteologically studied and recorded before repatriation occurred, nor what exact criteria was used to determine that the Bundjalung community are the closest living descendants. Like much of coastal temparate/tropical Australia, the Lismore/Richmond Rivers area would've been home to numerous small, linguistically distinct groups at the time of European contact. This, to me, demostrates that 100% certain, 1:1 examples of archaeological/ethnohistoric remains being matched to one particular ethnic group is still problematic across much of Autralia, as it is in America, Canada, and anywhere else that Western contact saw the forced movement and mixing of peoples. Indeed, there are even claims, primarily made by the descendants of European settlers, that the peoples known as Arakwal and Bundjalung "don't exist," but the validity of this is hotly contested. However, it is possible that supporting documentation/"labeling" by Banks himself might have been curated along with the remains and associatied mortuary artifacts. Nevertheless, this is an event that should be celebrated by all, given the solace it has so obviously provided. As Elder Bertha Kapeen stated, "It's very significant for Aboriginal people everywhere, not just here."