Thursday, July 19, 2012

The MFA's new acquisition of Benin artifacts proving to be a tricky bitch already

If I was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which just received a gift of 34 rare Kingdom of Benin objects from the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, I would not have responded to the official request by Nigeria to have 32 of these artifacts repatriated with the veiled and tired excuse that they will reach a wider, more diverse audience in Boston than in Nigeria. I would not have tried to pacify them by describing how the collection will be installed in an exhibition that will discuss both the history of the individual objects as well as the history and culture of the Benin Kingdom. And I wouldn’t have capped it all off by throwing in the bonus of presenting the objects on the museum website and the hope that keeping the objects will “further opportunities for cultural exchange”.

Once again, the MFA is being, let’s just be frank, a tightfisted little bitch about the obviously looted objects in their collection. Let me break it down for you: In 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Benin king and destroy Benin City. Field commanders were instructed to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages and hang the king whenever and wherever he was captured. After the British secured the city, looting began in the monuments and palaces of high-ranking chiefs, as well as homes and religious buildings. 2,500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, and artworks were exported to England. These objects were later auctioned off in Paris and held by the British Museum in London. The objects now in the possession of the Boston MFA were privately owned by Mr. Robert Owen Lehman. This donation is a big deal for the museum because until this acquisition, it had only one Benin object in its 20-year-old African collection. There are now plans to build a permanent gallery for the Lehman Collection.

That is, if the Nigerian government fails in its effort to have the artifacts repatriated. The MFA refusing to repatriate these Benin artifacts is disappointing for a number of reasons: 1) refusing Nigeria their cultural property that was so heartlessly taken in the midst of the death and destruction of their people, even if it was over 100 years ago, is not great for post-colonial PR; 2) you’d think that after problems like the Weary Herakles debacle, the MFA would have learned; and 3) every time a museum gets so tightfisted, it puts us all two steps back from the ideal many hope to see one day: that instead of these catty repatriation lawsuits, we will instead enjoy the generous and willful exchange of collections between countries and museums, and spend less time being concerned with ownership and economic value and more time educating, preserving, and respecting. This ideal has been described by many in the museum, archaeological, and cultural heritage communities, but it has been frustratingly slow to manifest in real life. Conflicts such as the one between Nigeria and the MFA only keep us in the mud of the mid-20th century encyclopedic museum dream.

If the MFA was at all interested in joining the rest of us here in the 21st century, it might begin by repatriating the objects to Nigeria and hammering out a deal for exchanges between our countries. Then it might consider taking the initiative and acknowledging fishy or limited provenance in the history of all its objects, not just the ones on trial, and make a whole-hearted effort to discover their true origins. Then it might acknowledge that many of the objects in their collection may still hold significance for living cultures and be less stingy when those cultures come forward and ask for repatriations. Then it might do a much better job of educating its public about art crime, the modern commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and the past and present war time looting that scatters artifacts and attempts to destroy cultures and ideologies. But instead, it will continue to drag its feet and deny a formerly occupied country the right it has to its stolen heritage.

Don’t be that guy, MFA. Be brave.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Holes: Looting in Photos

Photo: Holly Pickett for the NYT
Having created and maintained this blog for a while in an effort to expose more college students to the illicit antiquities trade/cultural heritage issues in general, I can confidently tell you one thing about the whole process: it's damn tricky getting people to care sometimes. There are only so many times a young white person can insert "bitches be trippin'" into a rant about Jim Cuno or Timbuktu to get people's attention. I think, frankly, people don't care enough when I tell them thousands of looters are tearing up archaeological sites for merchandise every day because they don't know what that actually looks like, what it really means, or what it has to do with them.

So I decided to create an online photo collection of looting. Holes: Looting in Photos is an effort to bring together many images of looted archaeological sites and looted artifacts to more effectively present what our destroyed human past actually looks like. By displaying both the individual artifacts/sites alongside the repetition of countless holes, dug up bodies, and defaced stone, I hope to provide a different kind of resource for learning about looting, as well as a more meaningful comprehension of the overwhelming global scale. 

The kicker in this whole project is that I would like it to be a sort of collaborative, crowd-sourced deal. There are many photographers, journalists, and archaeologists who document the looted sites they see; it would be amazing to bring them all together in one place as a kind of testimony to what is happening to our human past for a global market. 

I've created a Flickr group pool for submissions, and a Flickr site to house the collection. Additionally, there is a whole Tumblr  dedicated to showcasing the project, and photos will be pinned to Pinterest as well. It's all pretty raw right now, but hopefully that will change with you! If you have any photos of looted sites or artifacts, submit them! Remember to have the name of the photographer, a caption including where it's from, and website or source from where the photo came.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Guest post on the ARCA blog!

Scoot on over to the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art blog, where you can read my newest post on my super dreamy experience at the very exciting annual ARCA conference last month.

They are great peoples, and they want more excitable young people who are into this stuff. Cough cough. Do it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The New York Times is asking all the wrong questions.

David Dewey with his
unsellable Yuan dynasty
Today the New York Times published a very telling article on the various problems that collectors, museums, and auction houses are facing now that guidelines for provenance are much stricter than in decades past. It does a fairly good job of outlining the various sides of the argument and quoting some of the best known voices for each (Kate Fitz Gibbon, Ricardo J. Elia, Neil Brodie, Arthur Houghton, Lawrence Rothfield, and Julian Raby, among others), but as an article, it very solidly reflects the perspective of object-centric collectors.

The big argument going on is that there are a lot of artifacts in the hands of private collectors that can’t be donated or sold because they don’t have a valid trail of paperwork documenting their every owner. Recent scandals over museums accepting donations of looted objects from collectors, whether they knew they were looted or not, has encouraged museums to stand more firmly by the no-objects-looted-after-1970 date set by the UNESCO convention, and discouraged collectors from even trying to donate or sell objects they bought 15 or 20 years ago.

This is indeed a problem. No one can quite agree on what to do with all these artifacts that have limited or no provenance, won’t be accepted by most academics or museums, and can’t be sold through the major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Exhibiting them is often seen as condoning the trade, or at least demonstrating to looters and dealers that even though the deed is demonized, the exhibition justifies their actions. Not exhibiting them or letting them be sold, potentially to collectors that won’t share them with the public, also leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the concerned.

But even though this is a valid issue that does need to be considered, the better question that the New York Times should be asking is how the demand for the illicit antiquities trade should be approached and reevaluated. How do we get collectors to divert their money from the big, often illegal market to funding preservation, conservation, archaeology, and education instead? How do we replace the economic incentive for looting at the ground level with the economic incentive of building local museums, funding local archaeology, and finding sustainable ways to capitalize on local and regional heritage? How do we write and rewrite international and national policies so that they more effectively convict, punish, and prevent the white-collar criminals moving the trade in looted artifacts? This entire field is not so much an issue as it is a conflict, and as such the journalism reporting on this conflict has the responsibility to not just ask the post-war questions that affect only the pampered Western party. In my view, there are more important questions that need to be asked and answered before we begin to tackle the post-conflict issue of what to do with the “victim” artifacts.

Derek Fincham also has a great commentary on this article that points out the lack of emphasis on the major tax deductions that collectors get for donating to museums.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some updates

In the pages section of the blog, you'll notice some swank new updates to the information and resources offered that I finally got in today. First, there is now an "About the Issues" section which offers a really concise overview of the core issues of the illicit antiquities trade and a simple outline of its structure. Pretty easy to share with a friend who isn't in the know about this stuff and maybe wants to be. Second, there is finally an Internship Guide for cultural heritage/art crime internships. However, it's pretty rough so far, so if you know of any organizations or individuals that offer work experience with things related to art crime, cultural heritage issues, historic preservation/conservation, and museums studies that emphasize transparency, let me know! You can email me at

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Featured Blog(s): Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector and Grotesque Stone Idols

Two of my fave blogs lately are Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector and Grotesque Stone Idols, both written by my friend and future colleague, Dr. Donna Yates. I am not just plugging Donna's blogs because she has been the number 1 diva in the club getting me through the super stressful process of flat hunting in a foreign country from across an ocean. Though that might be 20% of it. The other 80% has to do with how much I've been enjoying and learning from her blogs over the last few weeks. Donna recently got her PhD from Cambridge University in illicit antiquities research-related things, and is now one of the four happy souls leading the ERC-funded study on the trafficking of cultural property at the University of Glasgow. Her work is focused on South American antiquities and archaeology, and over the last few weeks her blogs have been published with exciting regularity on all manner of things from the origins of the word "huaquero" (the Spanish word for looter" to Peruvian-archaeology founder Julio C. Tello to the uh-oh search terms people are using when they stumble across her blog.

Donna's perspective as an academic is really interesting (to me, anyway) because she trained in the archaeology side of things, but leans more toward the heritage/policy camp. The mix of the two results in presenting the historical and present social contexts of these issues in a cocktail of old and new that can't help but reframe your perspective on certain issues. What really makes these blogs fun for me is the fact that Donna uses them to share things she herself has been researching, as opposed to them being a news source with your typical re-hashing of opinion. Additionally, her approach to outreach and education is consciously non-preachy in the hopes of educating those interested in buying artifacts, instead of alienating them through the more aggressive rhetoric that others have adopted. (This attitude is hard to perfect when emotions run so high in this field.) And bonus, it's fun to read. It can often be easy for knowledgable bloggers to fall into a pit of didactic dryness when they're on a roll, but Donna's posts are always a great blend of excited gushing and genuinely interesting information that make them an easy read. Especially in sea of blogs that, though useful and well-written and super interesting, mostly report the major bummers currently going on. No bummers here, man. Just really great blogging.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

This guy has licked every Anglican cathedral in England

I feel a little guilty that I'm not blogging about Timbuktu or looted-coin-collecting bad boy Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, but am instead clamoring to tell you all about this guy that licked every Anglican cathedral in England on a bet. AND HE'S NOT DONE. In January 2011,  Lawrence Edmonds was challenged by his friend Adam to lick every Anglican cathedral in the United Kingdom. If he doesn't, he'll have to streak outside of York Minster. If he does, Adam will have to streak outside of York Minster. Initially, our cathedral licking hero was given five years to complete this task, which was then pared down to June 16th, 2012. Well. He has licked all 42 Anglican cathedrals in England and was given a six month extension to do the other 20 in the rest of the UK. He was even featured in The Sun and mentioned in the House of Lords. And you can read all about it and see all the licking glory on the official blog, Facebook, and on Twitter.

Edmonds, 26, an English Heritage worker, is careful to mention in his About page that he means no disrespect toward the Anglican Church and its followers, but hopes that his blog will help to promote the cathedrals of the UK, "many of which are currently suffering financially and need thousands of pounds a day just to keep their doors open." I don't think this is what any of us would have considered as a viable option in promoting some of the more expensive and endangered architecture of the UK, but I have to slow clap this guy and his friend for stumbling across it. Here's hoping that the spirit/form of it might catch on with other individuals and forms of architecture.

Now hoping I'll run into this cathedral-licking renegade around some of Glasgow's Anglican structures this fall.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What a good study looks like

We all knew from the start that the University of Glasgow study on the global trafficking of cultural property was going to be a big deal. But these folks are really outdoing themselves by keeping the public updated (to a certain extent) through their new social media. You can now follow the study, which is being led by Neil Brodie, Simon Mackenzie, Donna Yates, and Suzie Thomas, through their Facebook and Twitter pages. It seems a website will be following soon! It would be so interesting if more studies approached social media as a tool for educating the wider public and keeping people up to date in a sort of live-feed way on the process of their research.

Beyond excited to get to work with these people this year.