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!