« L’art africain comme tout grand art, me dira-t-on, en tout cas plus que tout autre, et depuis si longtemps si ce n’est depuis toujours, est d’abord dans l’homme, dans l’émotion de l’homme transmise aux choses par l’homme et sa société.  C’est la raison pour laquelle on ne peut séparer le problème du sort de l’art africain du problème du sort de l’homme africain, c’est-à-dire en définitive du sort de l’Afrique elle-même »

read full text at http://www.museum-security.org/opoku_african_masks.htm

October 25th, 2010

Posted In: Dr. Kwame Opoku writings about looted cultural objects, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

Tim Johnson and Julie Sell | McClatchy Newspapers

BEIJING — China fumes over the foreign auction of its looted relics. Cambodia sputters over ancient temple pieces on sale on eBay. Egypt aches for its stolen treasures that are sitting in foreign museums, including the indescribably splendid bust of Nefertiti. Italy and Greece plead for the return of countless antiquities.

Countries with rich architectural heritages demand their patrimony back — and they are going to ever-greater lengths to get it.

Peru recently sued Yale University over thousands of Incan artifacts that were taken nearly a century ago from the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu. Italy is challenging foreign museums to prove that items in their showcases weren’t obtained from dealers working with looters, tomb robbers and shady middlemen.

Still others, such as China, appeal to global opinion. Last week, Beijing demanded that Christie’s auction house stop the sale of bronze rat and rabbit heads that were taken from a zodiac water clock at the emperor’s Summer Palace gardens, which were ransacked by British and French troops in 1860.

The auction went ahead, drawing a bid of about $40 million for both pieces. On Monday, an adviser to a Chinese fund for the repatriation of artifacts, Cai Mingchao, identified himself as the mystery bidder but said that he wouldn’t pay, and that he’d made the bid only to disrupt the auction.

Fellow Chinese hailed him, underscoring how highly charged the political controversy is over such lost antiquities, which most Chinese view as a humiliating symbolic reminder of China’s subjugation by foreign powers more than a century ago.

Museum curators, auction houses and even city fathers are on the defensive.

After all, the world’s most renowned museums are filled with relics obtained in an era when provenance was not an issue. And cities such as New York, London and Paris contain massive granite obelisks from Egypt that symbolize their status as global repositories of antiquities.

Greece has been hammering Britain for decades to return looted statues taken from the Parthenon that draw throngs each year to the British Museum. The sculptures were brought to London by Lord Thomas Elgin, the former British ambassador to Constantinople, more than 200 years ago, and are commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum says it has no intention of giving up the priceless pieces.

“We feel secure that our collection here is legally acquired,” said Hannah Boulton, a museum spokeswoman. She noted that the Elgin Marbles had been on display at the museum for nearly 200 years, and had been given to the institution by the British government.

“Anyone can visit,” she added, noting that the museum attempts to offer visitors “the whole world under one roof.”

The British Museum’s legal standing may be solid. International law hasn’t kept pace with shifting global views over whether antiquities should be returned to their places of origin — often less-developed countries — or kept in big museums with resources for care and display.

China claims that a million of its artifacts are scattered around the world in 200 museums in 47 countries. It asserts that all the artifacts should be repatriated.

“The Chinese attitude that every Chinese antiquity that is outside China must be returned is quite ambitious,” said David Gill, an expert in classical archaeology at Swansea University in Wales and the author of a blog, Looting Matters.

Lucille A. Roussin, who has a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology as well as a law degree and teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said there’s no dispute when Chinese officials say the bronze rat and rabbit heads that were auctioned by Christie’s last week in Paris disappeared in the ransacking of the emperor’s Garden of Perfect Brightness during the Second Opium War.

“Did they have a legal claim? No. Did they have a moral claim? Yes,” Roussin said. The items in question “were certainly looted. But they were looted at a time when there was no international law on this kind of looted object.”

Those arguments infuriate average Chinese. Even Hollywood film star Jackie Chan weighed in: “This behavior is shameful. . . . It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”

In recent years, an arms-trading branch of the People’s Liberation Army and wealthy individuals have sought to buy back China’s antiquities abroad — only to drive prices higher.

Foreign scholars say the 1860 ransacking of the emperor’s Summer Palace gardens has taken on greater meaning as China grows stronger and more assertive.

“It was a barbaric and appalling act of cultural vandalism, no doubt about it. But it’s taken on a greater emblematic meaning with China’s sense of aggrieved nationalism,” said Geremie R. Barme, a Chinese scholar at Australian National University in Canberra.

Some countries, such as Cambodia, are barely able to halt the plunder of sites such as the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat. Others, such as Italy, have found success in negotiating directly with museums abroad, winning back well over 100 pieces in the past three years, including the stunning Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek terra cotta vase, that was held by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and returned early last year.

Rome has made headway in other cases. In late 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art offered to return 14 ancient treasures. And in 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return 40 pieces, including frescoes, marbles and bronzes, to Italy after a two-year dispute. In addition, the Getty agreed to adopt new acquisition policies for its collection.

Colin Renfrew, an archeologist and expert on illicit antiquities at Cambridge University in England, applauded the Getty’s actions and has contrasted its approach to disputed antiquities with those of other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He’s criticized both of those museums publicly for not returning disputed antiquities.

Many experts on art and antiquities, however, draw a clear distinction between pieces obtained long ago and more recent pieces going on the market. The British Museum, like many major institutions, adheres to a 1970 UNESCO protocol that was intended to thwart the theft of art and artifacts.

Under the protocol, “no respectable museum can respectably acquire an artifact that has come onto the market after 1970,” Renfrew said.

The protocol has led a number of repatriations. Last year, Syria returned relics to Iraq, France returned items to Burkina Faso, and Denmark repatriated relics to China. Both Italy and the Vatican returned parts of the looted Parthenon to Greece.

Last year, in the Ethiopian town of Axum, tens of thousands of jubilant people turned out for the unveiling of a treasured obelisk that was taken by Italian troops in 1937 but returned after lengthy negotiations between Rome and Addis Ababa.

Last month, the Iraq Museum of Antiquities opened its doors for the first time since the world watched in shock as much of the collection vanished in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Iraqi officials believe most of the valuable artifacts were cleared out by expert thieves who used the chaos as cover.

“The real damage to the museum . . . was done by professionals,” said Abdul Zahra al Talqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, which pushed for the re-opening of the museum.

He said that while more than 9,400 artifacts are still missing, the museum had gotten back another 6,000.

Some of Iraq’s most precious heritage remains abroad, looted in a different era, most notably Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, which sits in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

“We have important pieces in London, Paris, Berlin,” Talqani said. “We ask for them to be returned, but do not expect them ever to come home.”

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent in London. Matthew Schofield of the Kansas City Star contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

March 3rd, 2009

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

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March 3rd, 2009

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

Dear Sir, Mdme,My name is Arthur Brand, Dutch investigative journalist and writer.In this email I am going to reveal quite a serious scandal, involving Bulgarian head prosecutor Kamen Mihov, worlds leading art dealer Ali Abou’Taam, Bulgarian billionaire Vasil Bojkov, the French, Canadian and American ambassadors to Bulgaria, and Homeland Security.
A story about class-justice, bribery and fraud on the highest levels!

Here we go:

On 18.09.2008 worlds leading art dealer Ali Abou’Taam, resident of Switzerland, was arrested on Sofia airport, arriving on a plane from Paris.



Mr. Abou’Taam, of Lebanese origin and with a Canadian passport, was invited to Bulgaria by one of his biggest clients, Bulgarian billionaire Vasil Bojkov.


Mr. Abou’Taam was arrested because his name appeared on the Interpol’s red wanted-list due to a request of the Egyptian authorities, since the art dealer had been sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment because of trading in stolen art (Interpol File number: 25913/2007 Issued:25/5/07).

Mr. Abou’Taam arrived in Sofia on a regular flight from Paris. Though the Interpol Headquarters are located in Lyon, France, the French authorities didn’t do anything to arrest Mr. Abou’Taam. Au contraire, the authorities made special arrangements for the fugitive to enter and leave the French territory unhindered. But then again, it were the same French who gave the art dealer one of the most prestigious awards, just two years earlier. Strange, because already in 2006 the reputation of Mr. Abou’Taam was quite dubious…


Obviously, not every representative of the Bulgarian police had been informed of the ‘inviolability’ of this V.I.P. so Mr. Abou’Taam was arrested upon arrival, just as Interpol had requested. This came as a surprise and immediately everything was done by the authorities to restore the failure, breaking all the laws…

This is where the story about class-justice, bribery and fraud on the highest levels begins.

The French, Canadian and American ambassadors got involved. The Canadian because of Mr. Abou’Taam’s Canadian passport, the American because of the protection that Mr. Abou’Taam receives of Homeland Security. In 2006 Mr. Abou’Taam ‘helped’ Homeland Security to confiscate some looted Iraqi objects, according to some insiders fenced by Mr. Abou’Taam himself:

Bulgarian billionaire Vasil Bojkov, who invited Mr. Abou’Taam to Bulgaria, felt responsible for the arrest of his friend. So he called another friend, Bulgarian head prosecutor Kamen Mihov, one of the most powerful man of the country. Billionaire Vasil Bojkov and prosecutor Kamen Mihov are above the law so to speak so they decided to break both national and international laws to help Mr. Abou’Taam out of this situation. Kamen Mihov arranged within only one day (!!!) that Mr. Abou’Taam was secretly released out of prison, brought to the airport, passing the airport V.I.P-gate without (!!!) departure ID registration and boarding a private jet of Vasil Bojkov to leave for Switzerland. According to the flight departure database of the Border Police and the Interpol database Mr. Abou’Taam is still in Bulgaria till this very day…

Because some questions could arise about where Mr. Abou’Taam was hold in custody, Bulgarian head prosecutor Kamen Mihov created the story that Mr. Abou’Taam was placed under house arrest at the address of the family of his Bulgarian wife. So officially Mr. Abou’Taam is under house arrest in Bulgaria, waiting for extradition to Egypt, but in reality he is safe in Switzerland, thanks to corrupted officials. Class-justice, bribery and fraud on the highest levels. A complete insult to Interpol and the Egyptian Government!

To cover his tracks, head prosecutor Kamen Mihov arranged a fake and secret trial – long after Mr. Abou’Taam illegally had left the country – in which was decided that Bulgaria will not extradite Mr. Abou’Taam.

So justice can be bought in Bulgaria. As long as you have the money and the right friends, you are untouchable.

Sincerely yours,

Arthur Brand


January 20th, 2009

Posted In: comment, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers, Mailing list reports


Dear Museum Security Network subscribers,

Below you find information about the upcoming 2009 European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, The Netherlands.

TEFAF offers an opportunity for my annual reminder that The Netherlands still have not ratified the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property .

This far 116 countries ratified Unesco 1970, but not my country notwithstanding the fact that we have the most important art, antiques and antiquities fair of the world within our borders. Could it be that TEFAF is in The Netherlands conveniently protected by the fact that we have not ratified Unesco 1970?

In my view this fair is no cause for pride but a painful remembrance that our respective governments have not been able to ratify a globally accepted and very important convention.

Ton Cremers

TEFAF Antique Fair
As a visitor to TEFAF Maastricht you will be present at an outstanding event, one that offers the best choice of the very best in fine art
Friday, March 13, 2009
TEFAF is the world’s most influential annual art and antiques fair – and the next one is at the MECC (Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre) March 13 – 22, 2009.

Read more at:


January 6th, 2009

Posted In: International conventions

Peter Tompa: Brent R. Benjamin of Saint Louis Art Museum Named to CPAC Museum Seat

The White House has announced that Brent R. Benjamin of the Saint Louis Art Museum has been named to a seat on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to represent the interests of the museum community. Mr. Benjamin will be replacing Sandy Boyd of the University of Iowa. The White House Personnel Announcement can be found here:


Mr. Benjamin should be well acquainted with cultural property issues due to an ongoing dispute with Dr. Zahi Hawass, the publicity seeking Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, over a funerary mask of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka Nefer Nefer. See generally: http://www.egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=6781 and http://stlouis.art.museum/index.aspx?id=124&obj=144


October 13th, 2008

Posted In: comment, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

CPAC: New Appointment

Original blog with all links:

While most of us have been following the “credit crunch” and yesterday’s surprise vote in Washington (what the BBC has termed a “bail-out failure”), the White House announced a new member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC): Brent R. Benjamin, Director of the St Louis Art Museum (press release, September 29, 2008).

Peter Tompa has commented on the appointment and has noted:
Mr. Benjamin should be well acquainted with cultural property issues due to an ongoing dispute with Dr. Zahi Hawass, the publicity seeking Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, over a funerary mask of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka Nefer Nefer.
I disagree with Tompa. Benjamin does not appear to understand the “due diligence” process when it comes to this particular mask (see my earlier comments). Was this mask removed from the store at Saqqara? What is the certified documentation to show that the object had been in the hands of various European dealers and collectors?

Announcing Benjamin’s appointment yesterday looks like a case of “burying bad news”. Benjamin’s appointment can only be seen as controversial. Does the Bush administration mean to send out a signal that it does not care about claims on cultural property in North American museums?

Original blog with all links

October 13th, 2008

Posted In: comment, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

More options Oct 13, 4:36 pm

Brent Benjamin Appointed to CPAC
(cross-posted with relevant links at
Dr. Derek Fincham

The White House announced back in September that President Bush will
nominate Brent R. Benjamin to serve on the Cultural Property Advisory
Committee for three years. David Gill commented on the appointment, as
did Wayne Sayles. Earlier in July, Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles
attorney was nominated as well, though his appointment attracted
little notice.

Ton Cremers, an administrator on the invaluable Museum Security
Network argues this was an “outrageous” appointment. The reason for
the concern is this antiquity, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask which I
discussed at length last year.

It was stolen from a storehouse in Saqqara sometime between its
excavation in an archaeological dig in 1952, and its acquisition by
the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. It may be worth examining this
acquisition in more detail. The best summary of the dispute I have
found is this 2006 article in the Riverfront Times.

As always, the antiquities trade presents a number of questions. Was
Benjamin at the museum in 1998 when it acquired this object? No, he
came a year after the mask was acquired. Do his actions with respect
to this mask disqualify him automatically from serving on the
committee? I’m not sure they do. Does this ongoing dispute between
Egypt and the St. Louis Art Museum automatically disqualify Benjamin
from serving on the committee? Not according to President Bush, but
did the Museum really have clean hands when they acquired the mask?
The answer I think is not really.

They purchased it from Hichaam Aboutaam, who has been linked with
looted antiquities. The work had been displayed at a Museum in Geneva
when the SLAM was considering purchasing the work. However, the museum
sent Mohammed Saleh, a retired director of the Cairo Museum a letter

“[We have] been offered a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty and I was
wondering if you know of any parallels to this object. I have never
seen anything quite like it with a reddish copper-like face probably
owing to the oxidation of the gold surface. It is currently on
exhibition in the Egyptian exhibition at the Museum of Art and History
in Geneva. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on any parallels
you might know of this piece and hope that I might have the
opportunity to speak with you in several weeks by telephone about this

Saleh of course was not perhaps the best person in Egypt to contact
about the mask. Shouldn’t someone on the Supreme Council on
Antiquities have been better positioned to handle this request?
Unfortunately this is the shady kind of enquiry which can pass for
thorough provenance research in the antiquities trade. I think its
likely perhaps that the SLAM was not too eager to look to deeply into
the history of this object, for fear they would be unable to acquire
it. The museum was told by the seller that the mask was seen at an
antiquities dealer in 1952, and it remained in the ubiquitous “Swiss
Collection” for the next 40 years. An expert hired by the museum,
Peter Lacovara, reasoned that the mask was probably awarded to the
excavator after the 1952 excavation. This would account for its
appearance at a market in Brussels soon after, though refuting that
fact is nearly impossible at this point.

Egypt has a tenable claim perhaps, but this is a close case. I’m not
aware of the specific steps Egypt has taken in response. They have
seemingly argued that the mask was stolen at some point from an
antiquities storehouse. Now, its their cultural heritage and they’re
free to do with it what they please, but Egypt can be criticized on
two accounts. First, is it really the best idea to have a unique piece
like this mask just sitting in a warehouse for fifty years? Second,
had Egypt documented its collection and its holdings more completely,
they would have had a much stronger legal and ethical claim.

In any event, nobody looks really good in this dispute. Not the
museum, the Phoenix gallery, nor Egypt. But I’m not sure Benjamin, by
merely refusing to return the mask outright to Egypt has disqualified
himself from serving on the CPAC, which it should be mentioned is
comprised of individuals from all the disparate heritage interest
groups, including archaeologists. Also, the CPAC has never refused a
request made by a nation of origin.

Dr. Derek Fincham

October 13th, 2008

Posted In: comment, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

Benjamin Brent knows that the Egyptian mask in the SLAM is a stolen mask and refuses to return it. Who sold this mask to the SLAM: dubious art dealer Ali Aboutaam (presently convicted in Egypt; there is an international warrent for his arrest!)

It cannot be true that BRENT BENJAMINwill be appointed as member of the CULTURAL PROPERTY ADVISORY COMMITTEE. Doing so the USA will defame itself internationally. Is this the answer the USA is giving to the problem of illicit trafficking: http://culturalheritage.state.gov/sindex.html

Ton Cremers

—–Original Message—–
From: Ton Cremers [mailto:museum-security@museum-security.org]
Sent: Saturday, October 11, 2008 6:16 PM
To: ‘museum-security-network@googlegroups.com’
Cc: ‘culprop@state.gov’

The White House has announced that President George W. Bush intends to appoint St. Louis Art Museum director Brent R. Benjamin as a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee.

The committee is composed of 11 people, including museum professionals; experts in archaeology, anthropology and ethnology; experts in international sales of cultural property; and members of the general public. Two members are designated from the museum world.

The committee advises the president on issues related to cultural property as outlined in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. Benjamin’s term will run through April 25, 2011. (David Bonetti)


One can hardly believe that this is true!

Ton Cremers

Contact information of the CPAC:

Cultural Heritage Center
U.S. Department of State (ECA/P/C)
301 4th St., SW, Room 334
Washington, DC 20547

Telephone: (202) 453-8800
Fax: (202) 453-8803
Email: culprop@state.gov

October 11th, 2008

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

* Huge comic book collection stolen from Bellevue home

* Bill Reid heist. Report: Museum guards fell for ruse

* Break-in and loss of Bill Reid works hasn’t disqualified institution from
prestigious Canadian Heritage designation, department says…

* book review. Losing our marbles?

* Iraq issues cards of stolen artifacts and passes them to Interpol

* Beware of museum directors writing ethical guidelines (Museums Adopt New Antiquities Guidelines)

* insider theft, Erlangen-Nürnberg: Bewährungsstrafe für dreistes Diebes-Duo –

* France. Une équipe de cambrioleurs bien avisée a fait main basse sur des tableaux des périodes fauves et néo-impressionnistes, chez des particuliers . –

* The Art Newspaper: Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?

* PITTSBURGH – Carnegie Museum of Art: guard caught defacing painting because he didn’t like it

* Book review by Tom Flynn: Fiat Cuno (Who Owns Antiquity?)


Museum Security Network / Museum Security Consultancy

June 6th, 2008

Posted In: Art Theft General, insider theft, International conventions, Interpol, looting and illegal art traffickers, Mailing list reports, Museum thefts



* New Zealand. A caregiver stole a valuable painting from his disabled
employer and sold it on the Internet using the pensioner’s computer.

* Exhibition at Cantor Center features masterpieces spared from Hurricane

* Reward offered in theft of St. Charles sculpture

* U.K. Church stunned as thieves take Renaissance painting messages

* French police recover four paintings stolen in August 2007 from the Museum
of Fine Arts in Nice by masked gunmen

* Position: Control Room Operator – Amon Carter Museum

* France: quatre tableaux de maîtres volés ont été retrouvés messages

* UK. Man charged over Lowry art theft

* Stricter Guidelines for Acquiring Antiquities

* Der Rechtsanwalt, der die Rückgabe der 1994 geraubten millionenschweren
Gemälde von William Turner und Caspar David Friedrich organisierte, fürchtet
noch heute die Todesdrohung der Drahtzieher

* Man receives 8 months for stealing metal art

* NEW YORK- After a year and a half of discussions, the Association of Art
Museum Directors has announced new guidelines for collecting antiquities

* France. Recuperados un Monet, un Sisley y dos Bruegel robados en Niza en 2007

* Work on restoring a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian monument is set to be completed by the end of June, it has been revealed.

* Bill Reid heist. Fake phone call fooled UBC security in museum heist, police sources say

* Swiss Art Theft Triggers Sharp Demand For Art Insurance messages

* Baltimore. Steel Sculpture Stolen

* U.K. Police have seized Renaissance artworks, £16 million cash, expensive
jewellery and a gun after an unprecedented raid on concrete vaults holding 7,000 safety deposit boxes.

* Antique shop owner accused of buying stolen property makes first court appearance

* 8-foot statue of Jesus stolen off cross at Detroit church. DETROIT — Church of the Messiah members repaired copper pipes damaged by thieves and replaced
aluminum gutters stolen over the past few months.

* A man has been charged over the theft of a collection of Lowry paintings worth up to £1m from an art collector’s home in Greater Manchester.

* Huge comic book collection stolen from Bellevue home

June 5th, 2008

Posted In: Church theft, International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers, Mailing list reports, Museum thefts


Mr Cuno takes the gloves off

James Cuno (left: all links and photos: http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com/), director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has never been backward in coming forward over cultural heritage issues and it’s all grist to the mill. But his article in the online Yale Global (Who Owns the Past?), deserves a response. I assume it’s a précis of some of the ideas in his latest book, Who Owns Antiquity?, which I haven’t yet read.

Having argued yesterday for a more constructive and civilised dialogue over these issues (here), I’ll try and keep the tone as parliamentary as possible, but it’s irritating how those arguing against a more equitable approach to cultural heritage impute overriding political motives to those who express alarm at its increasing desecration and dispersal. The real political agenda, in fact, comes from the other side.

In his Yale piece, Mr Cuno states, “Most nation states have cultural property laws that restrict the international movement in archaeological artifacts found within their borders.”

Why do most nation states have those laws? Might they be a response to what they have seen unfolding in Iraq, for example, where reckless American neo-imperialism has exponentially exacerbated the desecration of that country’s cultural heritage? Yes, Mesopotamian antiquities might be the birthright of humanity in general, but ought we to deny their value to the Iraqi people? And where is most of it ending up? In the hands of wealthy collectors who value private over public ownership. (On which subject, see this article from the New York Times posted on Ton Cremers’s Museum Security Network, relating to a collector on the board of Mr Cuno’s own museum.)

“Antiquity belongs to all of humanity” says Cuno. I’m afraid until we can rein in America’s tendency to exercise its ambition and power beyond its borders we need these cultural property laws, however frail they might occasionally seem.

“Government serves the interest of those in power,” writes Cuno. “Once in power, with control over territory, governments breed loyalty among their citizens, often by promoting a particular identity and history. National culture – language and religion, patterns of behavior, dress and artistic production – is at once the means and manifestation of such beliefs, identity and loyalty, and serves to reinforce governments in power.”

Yes, and there’s no better expression of this than the US government and its cognate — American national culture. Loyalty among its citizens is beyond question, even when its government is in contravention of international law, as in Iraq.

“Governments can use antiquities – artifacts of cultures no longer extant and in every way different from the culture of the modern nation – to serve the government’s purpose,” argues Cuno. The Parthenon Marbles are relics of an ancient culture from which modern democracy originates. The Greeks are understandably proud of that. The British, however, do use them as an expression of political power and nationalism. Moreover, I would argue that often the “extinct cultures” to which Cuno refers cannot properly be described as extinct while important objects survive as material testimony to a set of ancient cultural ideas and practices that are themselves worth preserving. Material culture reminds us of our social duties and moral obligations, which are often as local as they are universal.

At the core of Cuno’s argument against what he derisively stereotypes as “retentionist cultural property laws” (as if there were no diversity in the nature and purpose of cultural heritage struggles) is “their basis in nationalist-identity politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world’s culture as common legacy.”

I’m sorry, you can’t have this both ways. American foreign policy under a Republican administration (coterminous, it seems, with the recent critical rise in the temperature of many cultural heritage issues) could not be more grounded in nationalist-identity politics. The imposition of ‘democracy’ on nations beyond America’s own borders has become an instrument of American nationalist-identity politics and we’re now living with the dire consequences of that in terms of global instability.

We are witnessing Iraq and surrounding region descend into a Dantean hell of internecine tribal warfare, but for Mr Cuno it is cultural property laws that are to blame for “reinforcing the dangerous tendency to divide the world into irreconcilable sectarian or tribal entities.” Au contraire, it is American foreign policy that has done most to undermine “the nature of culture as an overlapping, dynamic force for uniting rather than dividing humankind.”

Over the decades in which they’ve been in place, as Mr Cuno rightly observes, the looting of archaeological sites has continued, indeed in the eyes of many archaeologists it has increased. “This happens just as the world is increasingly divided along nationalist, sectarian lines,” he maintains. Clearly his teleological compass has lost its needle. The increase in looting can be ascribed in no small measure to the geopolitical faultlines that have opened up since the start of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Cuno’s dismissal of UNESCO as an organisation grounded in nation-state politics and respect for nationalism is more than a little reminiscent of the scorn poured on UN resolutions against the Iraq war (UNESCO is indeed the UN’s cultural body and thank heavens for that).

He also refers to the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (right: links and photos: http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com/) as evidence of what he sees as UNESCO’s emasculated function in cultural heritage protection and then has the temerity to blame UNESCO for failing to protect the Iraq Museum following the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign. At least UNESCO initiated a dialogue with the Taliban in an attempt to dissuade them before the destruction began, which is more than can be said for Rumsfeld’s finger-puppets in Baghdad, who watched as the museum burned.

The UNESCO Convention has not failed. But no amount of international conventions and agreements can overcome the obstacle represented by bellicose developed economies imposing their will on weaker nations, which has become a signal factor in the rise of cultural heritage desecration.

Mr Cuno, like many leading museum directors, is currently suffering from post-colonial tristesse — that melancholy condition which descends with the realisation that the great universal museum collections over which they preside are no longer able to maintain the upward growth curve that began during the imperial era. Get over it.

We must now look forward to a more equitable distribution of material culture. It is the American neoliberal psyche that needs to move beyond its “pervasive misunderstanding, even intolerance of other cultures.”

A proper understanding of that sense which Mr Cuno refers to, that “ancient and living cultures belong to all of us,” will only really set in when European and North American museum directors cease believing in their eternal and divinely-endowed role as custodians of global cultural heritage.

And finally, to mirror James Cuno’s closing rhetorical flourish, the real argument over the Parthenon Marbles, to take just one example, is indeed between those who value antiquity — archaeologists and others who yearn to see the Marbles reunited in their rightful home in Athens — and the nationalist ends to which they are manipulated in London.

Yes, we can indeed do better.

(James Cuno photo credit: antiquesandthearts.com)

POSTED BY TOM FLYNN AT 4:01 AM 0 COMMENTS LINKS TO THIS POST: http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com/




April 22nd, 2008

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers, Mailing list reports, news comments / discussions, Unesco Struggle Against Illicit Trade


November 23, 2007 – 12:42 PM Red alert goes out for stolen treasures Swiss and Peruvian experts have presented a “red list” of Peru’s cultural heritage that is particularly at risk from looting and illegal art traffickers.They hope to draw people’s attention to the “irreparable loss” for the country and for the rest of the world of the disappearance of artefacts that make up part of the South American country’s rich cultural heritage. (more…)

November 24th, 2007

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers

November 23, 2007 – 12:42 PM Red alert goes out for stolen treasures Swiss and Peruvian experts have presented a “red list” of Peru’s cultural heritage that is particularly at risk from looting and illegal art traffickers.They hope to draw people’s attention to the “irreparable loss” for the country and for the rest of the world of the disappearance of artefacts that make up part of the South American country’s rich cultural heritage. (more…)

November 24th, 2007

Posted In: International conventions, looting and illegal art traffickers