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Artifact Profile: the Guennol Lioness

Before you read this post, you should know that I refer to myself as an “antiquities Communist,” meaning that I do not believe any private person has the right to own historical artifacts, capitalism be damned. Further, I believe that cases like the one below—aided by institutions such as Sotheby’s—are the lifeblood of the black market in antiquities; a market which, through the indirect application of imperialism, forces impoverished peoples to destroy their nation’s archaeological record so that those who have already benefited from their subjugation can continue to benefit through indirect means.

So that’s my bias. The issue that is being discussed here is not of museum ethics or international law; this issue is straight up ethical/philosophical.

The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise. Experts believe that the Lioness would have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.

In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.

In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it!

On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.

Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item—which has so much to say about such a vital point in human history—is not available to the public, and it is probable that it will not again be available for public viewing for a very long time.

So, while we can certainly talk about the extent to which Western museums can function as imperialist institutions, I would make the argument that these auction houses are the real enforcers of this form of imperialism; not the museums. Museums might do some imperialistic, unethical, and downright illegal things (as you have seen in previous posts), but at least the artifacts they are being unethical about remain accessible to the public.

I apologize for breaking so strongly with my promise to uphold objectivity in these artifact posts, I just feel very strongly about the topic of antiquities as things which can be purchased and owned by private individuals, and the imperialistic institutions which feed off of this market. Further, I understand that the world runs on capitalism and that this is no exception, I can, however, criticize this particular aspect of it as much as I want.

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Artifact Profile: the Bust of Nefertiti

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton (also known as Amenhotep IV). Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing*. After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece. This document fell into obscurity until 2009, when it was found by an art historian in the archives of the German Oriental Institute.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring had considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War. At that point, Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war until it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum (which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943).

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities. The Bust was moved around several times after this; in 1967, it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene in the situation. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

Other Artifact Profile posts may be found here.

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Artifact Profile: The Euphronios Krater

So far I’ve discussed two artifacts that are currently in the center of repatriation debates. So to change it up a bit, let’s talk about an artifact which was successfully repatriated: the Euphronios Krater.

A krater is a decorative bowl which the Ancient Greeks used to mix wine with water. Euphronius—an Athenian vase painted active in the late 6th, and early 5th century BCE—was a highly influential painter, and was instrumental in the transition from the Late Archaic style of vase art to the Early Classical style. Euphronios and about six other contemporary artists—known by art historians as the Pioneer Group—revolutionized the red figure vase painting technique (as seen pictured above).

There are 27 vases painted by Euphronius currently in existence, and the Euphronios Krater is the most renowned example of his work due to the brightness of its colors and the fact that it is completely intact. It is also remarkable in that it was signed by both Euphronios and the potter, Euxitheos.

In 1972, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. sold the Krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.2 million. Hecht claimed to have acquired the piece from a Lebanese dealer named Dikran Sarrafian, whose family had owned the piece since 1920.

Because he had documentation to verify this, the Met deemed his custody of the Krater to be legal under the standards put in place by UNESCO in 1970 (see below), and came to the conclusion that their purchase would then too be legal. The Italian government was immediately suspicious, as it suspected that the Krater had been acquired through an illegal excavation, but they could not prove anything at that point in time.

To be able to discuss this any further, we have to address the UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.

In highly simplified terms, the Convention set into law that any cultural object which had been stolen or illegally excavated after 1970 had to be returned to its country of origin. Every country which ratified the Convention had to follow these terms regardless of the year at which it was ratified. Italy ratified it in 1978, and the United States ratified it in 1983. You can read the full text of the Convention, including the set definition of “cultural property,” here.

The installation of this law caused museums, archives, and dealers to pay much more attention to the documentation of objects they wished to acquire into their collections. If they could not verify that the object had been acquired legally after 1970, or they could not verify the provenance of objects held in private hands before 1970, the repository would not accept the item. As you may imagine, this only resulted in the creation of very impressive forgeries of documents.

Which brings us back to the Euphronios Krater. Despite the Italian government’s continued belief that the Krater had been illegally excavated, the Met would not discuss the issue until 2001. Between 2001 and 2005 it came to light that Hecht had not purchased the piece from Dikran Sarrafian, but had knowingly purchased it from a network of illegal excavators headed by Italian art dealer Gaicomo Medici. The Krater has been illegally excavated from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, and smuggled out of the country by Hecht shortly thereafter.

Hecht is currently standing trial on allegations of trafficking illicit antiquities, and Medici’s court hearings began in 2005. In 2006, after all of this had come to light, talks between the Met and the Italian government started up again, and in January of 2008, the Krater was returned to Italian soil.

Honestly, this stuff would make a much better movie than like….most of the movies out there. (I am so witty). 

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Artifact Profile: The Elgin Marbles

I know I said that the next Artifacts Profile post would be about the bust of Nefertiti, but I lied; I feel like discussing the Elgin Marbles right now.

The Elgin Marbles are the sculptures housed in the British Museum which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to have them repatriated to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680’s that it was actually damaged. At that point in time, it was being used as an ammunition dump, and in 1687, as the Parthenon went under Venetian fire, the ammunition which was stored within ignited and exploded, damaging both the structure and its sculptures.

Over the next century, many began to express concern over the condition of the Parthenon, and some began contemplate going over the Ottoman government’s head to protect the structure. This is where Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin comes in.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for antiquities of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.  

Elgin, busy with his ambassadorial duties, appointed a team led by his private secretary Philip Hunt to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and to remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government via decree to carry out said activities; the Italian translations of the decree may still be found, however, the English and Turkish versions have been lost.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at a time in which such imperialistic actions were the norm; clearly the act of sawing sculptures off of the Parthenon was over the line. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

However, it is unlikely that either the Greek Cultural Minister or pro-repatriation advocates could have anticipated how hard Greece would be hit by the global recession. The Greek economy was hit so hard that the government has been unable to fund existing museums and archaeological sites. The situation has become so dire that the National Archaeological Museum has been forced to close nearly half of its galleries.

Many, including those in favor of repatriation, have expressed the concern that, if the marbles were to be repatriated, the Greek government would be unable to sufficiently house, preserve, and secure the marbles. In light of this, it is unlikely that discussions of repatriation will be able to continue until Greece is able to fund the preservation and protection of the museums and archaeological sites it does have.

A profile of the Rosetta Stone may be found here.

(If you are wondering where the hell I have been for the past week and a half, I have been a. researching Peronism and Argentine history in order to intelligently write a post requested ages ago, b. re-researching this post, and c. having hardcore writer’s block. Post requests are always welcome; my writer’s block would deeply appreciate it)

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Artifact Profile: the Rosetta Stone

For those who are new to this blog, you may find the background to this post right here. That will explain what I’m doing, and why I’m writing this as more of a journalist than a history blogger.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ancient Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE.

The decree is inscribed in three languages: Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, and there were no plans to use it as anything but a building material, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt.

The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.

“If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity,” said Zahi Hawass, the chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

He repeated the request two years later. In 2005 the British Museum presented Egypt with a full size replica of a stele, however, by November of that year Hawass was suggesting a three month loan of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, with the eventual goal of repatriation.

The British Museum, not trusting that the Stone would be returned after the three month time period, declined this proposal. Hawass is currently trying to convince the British Museum to loan it to Egypt for three months in time for the opening in the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza.

The British Museum has expressed concerns over the security of the Rosetta Stone in transit if it were to be put on loan in an Egyptian Museum, as, in the past, objects have been damaged or stolen in transit.

They also worry that it would set a precedent which, in their view, would negatively affect the collections of other major museums. In fact, in 2002, thirty of the world’s leading museums issued a collective statement on this topic.

“Objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era. Museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation,” said these museums in the aforementioned statement.

The British Museum—which presents itself as a museum for the world—has also stated that, in order to fulfill the museum’s stated purpose, its collection as it stands must remain intact. It also stated that it would consider the loan request.

Next up: the Bust of Nefertiti

Artifact issues post number 1

The first thing I should say before I make any of the other artifacts posts (background is here for new readers) is that I disapprove of private ownership of ANY sort of artifact or culturally/historically important manuscript or collection of manuscripts.

From the Valmadonna Trust Library to the Guennol Lioness, priceless artifacts or heritage collections are frequently auctioned off (or almost auctioned off) to bidders who think that, because they are fortunate enough to have the millions of dollars required to make bids on such items, they are entitled to the sole ownership of such things.

Now, I get how capitalism works; I live in the real world and I am not going to pretend that capitalism doesn’t run things (the issue of “should” is a totally separate can of worms). However, when it comes to the issue of private ownership of historical/heritage material, I often seriously consider abandoning my career goals to lobby against private ownership; and I hate lobbies.

I am firmly in the position that no private person has the right to exclusive ownership of historical/heritage materials UNLESS those materials were created by family members and passed down from generation to generation. Otherwise, those materials belong in a library, archive, or museum which is open to the public; I don’t care which library, archive or museum or where that establishment is located, as long as they are in one. And I am pretty rigid about that.

This is not a historical post, but I think it is necessary for you to understand where I stand on ownership issues before I make my other posts about this bsnss.

Of course, many people across the world depend on the black market in antiquities for their livelihood. This post is in no way directed at those people; I certainly do not think that public access to antiquities et al is more important than peoples’ abilities to feed and clothe themselves. That is a very different issue, and I’ll make further remarks about that at a later time.

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simplykeight asked:
Sorry, I know this isn't a question but I would love it if you could write some posts about repatriation. I love the topic and currently writing a thesis on it. I love hearing different points of views on the topic.

I will definitely be doing posts profiling individual pieces which are currently in the center of repatriation disputes/controversies.

As for my personal views on the subject…well, I am very wary about posting my political opinions about anything on this blog (or anywhere on the internet, for that matter). However, I will say that in nearly every situation I have encountered, it seems to come down to the unfortunate choice between enforcing imperialism and denying various group’s rights to cultural patrimony, or risking the possible loss and/or destruction of an irreplaceable artifact and piece of the historical record.

If you’re like me, someone who is very concerned with issues relating to social justice, yet who is intensely (emotionally) invested in the continued preservation of the historical record, then it is an incredibly difficult decision and pretty much HAS to be taken on an artifact-by-artifact basis.

In the profiles, I will do my best to find and present the points of view of politicians, activists, historians, art historians, curators, archivists, preservation specialists, and the like.

Hey everyone. I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing a few posts about issues relating to artifacts (ownership, classification, etc) for a while now. However, I realize that before I make those posts, I will need to address the issue of repatriation.

Repatriation is an incredibly complex issue and it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about it. If you’re interested, I can make a series of posts—in addition to the ones I already have planned—in which I profile various artifacts which are currently at the center of repatriation disputes. The posts would address the artifact’s context within history, the circumstances of its removal, the legal issues surrounding the removal, its status in its current museum, issues regarding the museum/region it would be repatriated to, etc.

Those posts would just be profiles; I would not include my own personal views on the matter and it would be up to you to form your own conclusions. I have training in journalism as well as history, so for posts about political issues—which, for the record, it is generally my policy to avoid discussing on this blog—I would be firmly in journalist mode; I would just be giving you the facts.

So, let me know if you’d be interested in those profiles. You can use the reply function if it’s available to you, the comment section I installed, the email address in the sidebar, the reblog feature, or the ask box to let me know. If you’re not interested, I’ll just stick with the posts I originally had planned.

Thanks everyone! (Also, hello and welcome to my new followers! I hope you enjoy my blog.)

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posted 3 years ago and tagged as history museums artifacts repatriation politics