Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Concessions and Conflict over Cultural Property

Events of the past week have clearly illustrated two distinct issues of conflict and cultural property--conflict over ownership of antiquities and the destruction of monuments in political and armed conflict.
The week started with progress in resolving conflict over ownership of cultural heritage. An article in The New York Times indicated a trend towards voluntary repatriation of antiquities from museums in nations, such as the United States, to “source nations,” such as Italy and Greece. A few days later, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced higher standards for museums not only to document the history of ownership of objects in collections but also to justify, publicly, acquisition of objects that have incomplete records of provenance. While museums and source nations may have differing sentiments about the progress, the trend of voluntary repatriation and the announcement by the AAMD indicated increased cooperation between the two sides.
Getty Museum head of HadesThe week also started with France engaging militarily in Mali, which precipitated a poignant example of the challenges of protecting cultural heritage in political and armed conflict. Groups affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), such as Mujwa and Ansar Dine in northern Mali, had already been targeting religious monuments that violated a particular interpretation of Sharia law. While the Malian and French governments are bound by the 1954 Hague Convention, the Mujwa, Ansar Dine, and AQIM are not. In fact the destruction of a mosque and Sufi tombs in Timbuktu is a tactic in a  broader strategic objective of gaining control in the region.
The effect of destruction, in concept, extends beyond the borders of Mali in that the mosque and tombs are World Heritage Sites, but targeting of cultural material has more direct implications within Africa. The mayor of Timbuktu, Ousmane Halle, decried the torching of the library, Ahmed Baba Institute, by extremists, and the destruction of the library has consequences across the continent. Through a joint agreement with South Africa, the library was a site for “conservation, research, and promotion of African manuscripts.” Such targeting of cultural heritage sites is not an uncommon practice in conflicts with non-state actors as reflected in a recent firebombing of a mausoleum in Tunisia and destruction of religious sites in northern Syria after opposition forces had gained control.
Whether seen as progress or regression in issues of cultural heritage, the events reveal implications for the role of cultural property in international affairs. The progress in cooperation on repatriation and the setback in protection of cultural heritage in conflict both reflect the increasing political significance of cultural property.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Q&A: How to Save the Arts in Times of War

It seems possible that great strides can and will be made in the on-going endeavor to develop new and more effective methods for ensuring cultural security.  Dr. Laurie W. Rush (Ph.D., RPA, FAAR), Cultural Resource Manager for the U.S. Army, with her training programs to educate soldiers on cultural heritage protection, is one example. Corine Wegener, who served in the Army Reserve for 21 years and founded the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, is another.
A recent Q&A with Wegener posted by Leah Binkovitz of the Smithsonian Institution elaborates on just how we might save the arts in times of war. The 1954 Hague Convention plays a key role in international guidelines for handling cultural property during armed conflict.  However—as Wegener points out—how do you execute it in reality? “It says, avoid these cultural sites. Well, you can figure out a few because they’re on the World Heritage List but what about a contemporary museum building full of ancient collections, that’s not going to be on a World Heritage List? We don’t have a list like that, why do we expect these other countries to be able to provide that at a moment’s notice too?” Wegener discusses how she believes this is a goal towards which each country needs to work; in the meantime, however, there is often a scramble.
In such situations--when information is lacking or ambiguous and the government cannot or will not help--Wegener and her team go through the Blue Shield network. This includes utilizing the International Council of Museums and its contact lists to reach out to members within a country. The next stage is to reach out to colleagues in the United States who excavate in those countries and have access to a wealth of information, such as GIS coordinates for archaeological sites and site information for museums. Wegener elaborates on how the Smithsonian is a great resource because it has a great number of people who are doing research in a variety of countries and who have experience and contacts in those countries and can, possibly, reach out in more unofficial ways to gain information.  Wegener points out that people are often more willing to provide information “if they know that their identity is going to be protected and that it’s kind of as an aside to a friend.” It therefore is prudent to utilize a trusted network that provides information on a need-to-know basis.
Wegener employs a variety of methods to do her part in ensuring cultural security. In addition to navigating the complex web of resources and contacts to gain crucial information, Wegener also travels across the country training soldiers in cultural heritage preservation. Her education programme covers everything from material science to museum organization to international law, and includes tutorials and tours by Smithsonian curators. Such innovation and determination should serve as inspiration to others in the field of cultural security.
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cultural Security News (Jan. 20 - Jan. 26)

Cultural heritage flash points in Syria, Sri Lanka, Serbia - firebombing in Tunisia
In politics, in British Columbia, a controversy over the sale of Nuu-Chah-nulth sacred masks has inspired a change in law on the right to sell privately owned cultural property. An article in Newsweek extolled the new Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt. In Turkey, restoration of historic Murad I baths was halted over murals that did not match the originals.
In a crossover of politics, economics, and security, international sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear program have created economic hardship, which has made lower-priced art more attractive and thereby has created opportunities for local emerging artists.
In a crossover of politics and security, in Sri Lanka, renaming of ancient Buddhist sites causes a controversy. In Serbia, demolition of a monument to Albanian guerrillas in Presevo received relatively little international resistance. An Armenian perspective on Turkey’s assertive repatriation of antiquities perceives contradictions with Turkey’s domestic cultural policy that puts Armenian cultural heritage at risk. In Tunisia, a group of hooded people firebombed a mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Ourfelli.
In economics, in Asia, a proliferation art fairs from Hong Kong to Singapore has expanded the art market., and Art Stage Singapore creates a focus for local emerging artists. From Latin America to the Middle East, China, and Russia, reportedly a ‘Premier League’ of collectors, using venture-capital-like strategies, is pricing art out of range for middle-market collectors. Central Asian galleries have established a foothold in Dubai. In Vancouver, the sale of Renaissance sculptures revealed a significantly lower appraisal that brought tax credits for the original donation into question. On-line auctions are expected to expand the art market in 2013.
In a crossover of economics and security, in India, attrition will cause a shortage of archaeological experts by 2015 in the State of Tamil Nadu, and a reported lack awareness of cultural heritage throughout the nation puts art and architecture at risk.
In security, Giorgos Tsoukalis presented his latest book on antiquities smuggling. In Syria, reportedly attacks on religious sites occur even after the opposition has gained control in northern areas. An interview with Corine Wegener reveals efforts to train soldiers in awareness of cultural heritage. Syrian rebels received training on Geneva Conventions in Switzerland. Two art traffickers were sentenced after pleading guilty to the attempted sale of a stolen Matisse.
For similar news, visit Cultural Security News.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sanctions + local art market = cultural diplomacy

An expanding base of art collectors worldwide holds potential for cultural diplomacy, perhaps in the least expected places.
The head of Christie’s reaffirmed that the continued success of the art market will not depend on the “one percent” and that new collectors are making an important contribution. Correspondingly, reports of proliferation of art fairs in East and Southeast Asia, and galleries of Central Asian art opening in Dubai, suggest confidence in the economic potential of the art market. Further, as auction houses, such as Christie’s, increase the number of on-line auctions, the influence of the art market across cultures will increase as well. The perceived economic potential and international bidding turns the trans-cultural exchange of art into a market-driven type of cultural diplomacy.
Iran - Museum of Contemporary ArtAn article in The Guardian provided insight into an added twist in Iran. Sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program are causing prices of daily commodities to rise and consequently make art more of a luxury. In response, some gallery owners limit price increases to retain customers and thereby create an opportunity for more liberal emerging artists who have more modest expectations of earnings. Expats who are collectors also contribute to the dynamic. As foreign currencies grow stronger against the rial, expats can more readily afford to by art, and the works of more internationally minded emerging artists may appeal more than traditional artworks to the sensibilities of expats. So, sanctions may indirectly support local artists with ideals that are more compatible with foreign cultures.
In short, sanctions that are imposed in the interest of security not only cause the intended social unrest through economic hardship but also may cause shifts in political thought by enabling emerging artists who hold more liberal views.
What effect will sanctions against North Korea have on the local art market and cultural diplomacy?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cultural Security News (Jan. 13 - Jan. 19)

Outlook 2013 - Positive for the art market but Negative for cultural heritage
In politics, in the United States, government agencies and foundations made possible a gift of a collection of “digitized treasures” from the Library of Congress to Afghanistan. An article in CaixinOnline reported on China’s continued focus on cultural development. An abstract for presentation at the University of Religions and Denominations, Qom, Iran, contemplated the risk to meaning in translations of “names, titles, and concepts.” South Korean and Myanmar planned a monument for the victims of the attempt by North Korea to assassinate the president of South Korea in 1983. President Obama announced the appointment of Marta Araoz de la Torre as a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. Chinatowns in Japan plan for New Year celebrations for February.
'Gifts of the Sultans'In a crossover of politics and economics, cultural tours reportedly provide an exception that allows American collectors to travel to Cuba and, thereby, bring exposure to Cuban artists. Sudan announced plans for a “first international exhibition for tourism, travelling, shopping” for March. The dispute between Russia and New York-based Chassidic Jewish group, Chabad, over the Scheerson Collection of historic religious books took on new financial dimensions when a federal judge in Washington DC declared the Russian Government in contempt and imposed fines of $50,000 per day. On a positive note, French flags are selling out in Mali, but reportedly Chinese vendors are supplying the merchandise.
In a crossover of politics and security, an article from Tehran cited a report from the Arabi Press news website, which implicated the French and Turkish governments in collaborating with the Free Syrian Army in smuggling invaluable artifacts and mummies from the Tadmor region under the guise of protecting the cultural property. In Dahshour, Egypt, construction for new grave sites caused a controversy by putting an ancient necropolis at risk and potentially enabling looting of cultural artifacts. In the Balkans, Albanians denied a request by Serbia to remove a “monument to Albanian terrorists” in Presevo. A review of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, questioned the credibility of the director in claiming that “depiction is not endorsement” of torture.
In economics, an investment professional from the Liechtensteinische Landesbank in Dubai, gave a positive assessment of the global art market and commented on “new players” who bring wealth from emerging economies. An article in Reuters, reported on similar sentiments on the part of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and a second article quoted the head of Christie’s as agreeing on the significance of new buyers. The Financial Times also reported on Christie’s success in 2012. An article in reported on a summary by Artmark that described the extraordinary growth of the Romanian art market. An article in Jing Daily predicted positive developments for sustainable growth of the art market in China. Scholars continued to weigh in on the “complicit aesthetics” in contemporary art.
In a crossover of economics and security, reportedly, antiquities theft remains big business in Egypt.
In security, an article in the Yemen Times, reported on rampant looting of museums that the political instability and compromised security from the conflict between Al-Qaeda and the state enables. Threat to cultural heritage in Syria continued, and an article and video illustrated museums and archaeological sites that are at risk throughout the nation. A museum in Central Java experienced a theft of over 100 artworks by a master of Indonesian modern art. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, continued to appeal to military forces to protect cultural property in Mali by emphasizing the essential role of cultural heritage in sustainable peace and respect of human rights. On a positive note, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported on an initiative by the J. Paul Getty Museum to check the provenance of antiquities in the collection and publish the results in an online database.
For similar news, visit Cultural Security News.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mali, Syria, and Yemen: Cultural Heritage and International Security

The escalating conflict in Mali continues to threaten the security of cultural heritage sites. In response, Irina Bokova, the General Director of UNESCO, repeated calls for protection such as in April and December of last year. The calls have asserted that protection of cultural heritage holds relevance for international security and is “an essential part of all sustainable efforts to build peace and respect for human rights.” As with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, wanton destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu demonstrates a progressive targeting of cultural property in political violence.
Destruction, however, only represents one type of exploitation. Stories out of Tehran and Sana over the past week illustrate the roles that cultural property can play in regions of political and armed conflict. Specifically, a report accused the French government of opportunistically smuggling mummies from Syria, and a news story reported on looting and trafficking of antiquities in Yemen as a consequence of the conflict between Al-Qaeda and the government.
An article by FARS News Agency cited a report from the Arabi Press news website. The report implicated the French and Turkish governments in collaborating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to loot cultural artifacts from Syria. The report indicated that the FSA is smuggling invaluable mummies of the Tadmor region to Turkey under the guise of protecting the artifacts but that, in reality, the smuggling is part of plot for France to acquire the artifacts.
An article in the Yemen Times reported on poor security in museums throughout the country. A lack of cameras and inadequate tracking of objects through databases create opportunities for theft. The article quotes Mohammed Al-Sanabani, the head of the Antiquities General Authority, and Abdulkarim Al-Barakani, the Deputy Manager of Antiquities and Cultural Properties Protection, on the extent of the black market and trafficking through Sana’s airport as well as by sea and through neighboring nations.
Destruction of religious monuments in the midst of armed conflict with terrorist groups in Mali dramatically demonstrates the interrelation of protection of cultural heritage and international security. While less overt, accusations of smuggling of cultural patrimony has ramifications for the political credibility of France. Perhaps the report meant to cast suspicion on the motives of France in military engagement in Mali. Similarly, the rampant looting in Yemen does not seem to have apparent implications for international security, unless, of course, the traffic in cultural material might somehow provide funding for the insurgents.
The cases in Mali, Syria, and Yemen each represent a different dimension of the relationship between cultural heritage and security. In combination, the three cases emphasize that cultural property is no longer simply a victim of conflict and now plays a practical role in security.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cultural Security News (Jan. 06 - Jan. 12)

Continued repatriation, destruction, and rising prices
In politics, a repatriation case of treasures from Cyprus raises the question of compensation for the returned cultural patrimony even in the case of smuggled objects. Nigeria called for the return of Benin Bronzes that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently received as a donation and claimed to meet legal standards. Controversy continued over the authenticity of a 4th century papyrus fragment, which reportedly provides evidence that Jesus was married.
In a crossover of politics and economics, developers in South Korea voiced frustration not only over regulations to halt construction for the sake of protecting cultural property but also over requirements to pay for the cost of excavation.
AleppoIn a crossover of politics and security, in India, a trend in construction of Hindu structures near Muslims shrines carries the risk of reprisals. The Toledo Museum of Art returned a smuggled 6th century B.C. vase to Italy following an extensive investigation by U.S. ICE and HSI. The Getty Museum returned a terracotta head of the Greek god Hades to Sicily. In Syria, the continued destruction of cultural heritage sites incited questions of the cost of democracy.
In economics, readers weighed in on The New York Times discussion about the perceived value of art in light of skyrocketing prices in the market. Despite rising prices, questions arose over “promises” that Damien Hirst’s works would not decline in value in the aftermath of Hirst’s split from Larry Gagosian. Meanwhile, sales of works by Andy Warhol in 2012 surpassed those of Pablo Picasso. A report by Skate’s qualified the rising prices as being concentrated in, and skewed by, the 5000 most expensive artworks. A comparison of the price for contemporary art and Old Masters further qualified art-market statistics. Overall, however, the art market performed surprisingly well in comparison to general economic conditions in 2012.
In security, a painting by Henri Matisse was recovered in Essex and returned to the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. In Norway, 23 rare Chinese artifacts were stolen from the Bergens Industrial Arts Museum.
For similar news, visit Cultural Security News.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Update on Mali: French Troops Intervene

Mali’s plea for aid was finally answered:  last Friday, French troops intervened.  Journalists Adam Nossiter and Eric Schmitt from The New York Times report that French forces engaged in a concentrated battle with the Ansar Dine militants who have controlled Timbuktu and much of northern Mali since the coup d’├ętat last March.  According to French President Francois Hollande, “French forces brought their support…to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements….The terrorists should know that France will always be there.”  The French assault has changed the dynamic of conflict.
In contrast, Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine, states, “Some planes came and bombed some civilians.  A woman was killed.  It’s a well-known scenario.  There wasn’t even combat.  Planes bombed a mosque.  That’s all.”  What seems to be a heroic effort by the West to restore peace and security can be alternately interpreted as foreign imperialist support for “a bunch of murderers.”  And here lies the crux in cultural—and world—security. 
Intervention in Mali by Western troops brings with it numerous implications.  For months it has been debated if, when, and how foreign nations should challenge the Islamist seizure of northern Mali, including the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu.  For right now, General Carter F. Ham, the top American military commander in Africa, states that the Pentagon is now discussing the various options to support the French efforts in Mali.  The Pentagon, however, is not considering sending American troops.  The “if, when, and how” is likely to remain a point of contention in the implementation of foreign policy.
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on
Learn about the framework for Cultural Intelligence.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

23 Artifacts Stolen in 90 Seconds

Last Saturday (January 5th) 23 rare Chinese artifacts were stolen from the Bergens Industrial Arts Museum in Norway.  The art heist lasted 90 seconds.
According to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Erlend Hoyersten, director of the city’s group of art museums, believes that the thieves new exactly what they were after.  The thieves’ “shopping list” included objects in porcelain, jade, bronze, and paper.  It is speculated that the thieves were hired by clients who collect such rare Chinese artifacts.  Following the heist, the museum published on its website a series of photographs of the stolen artworks.
It is apparent that even within museums, security measures do not always adequately protect our cultural heritage.  A Q&A, between a Norwegian national newspaper and The Secret History of Art’s Noah Charney, examines the art heist in greater depth and brings forth essential considerations.  The Bergens Industrial Arts Museum underwent another heist—during which 53 Chinese artifacts were stolen—two years prior.  The theft last Saturday bears shocking resemblance to the museum’s previous heist, as well as to two other heists that occurred in England last year. 
The similarities suggest that the same criminal group may be involved.  The repeated targeting of Chinese artifacts leads us to question the incentive(s):  Was this done for monetary gain? Art market trends indicate that there is a high demand for Chinese artifacts within a specific niche of collectors.  Were these objects targeted because of the specific Chinese rules and laws regulating theft, which differ from those in the West and allow stolen artworks to more easily enter the market?  Or was this heist prompted by cultural pride? That stealing these artifacts was, in fact, an act of liberation from Western collections.  Perhaps the heist was incited by a combination of these facets.
It took only 90 seconds for the thieves to abscond with 23 rare artifacts.  As the financial and political clout of cultural property grows, ever increasing security measure must be cultivated and ensured.
For a Q&A on the theft with The Secret History of Art, see:
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on
Learn about the framework for Cultural Intelligence.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cultural Security News (Dec. 30 - Jan. 05)

$64 billion art market and repatriation of dinosaur fossils
In politics, a prediction of correction to globalization has implications for the increased importance of culture as a medium for foreign relations. In China, the “antiquities chief” stepped down with reservations about the process for reviewing historic sites. In Albania, citizens petitioned against the demolition of a memorial to the former dictator Enver Hoxha. In Austria, screening of museums for Nazi plunder continues.
Image: Tarbosaurus bataar skeletonIn economics, preliminary reports on the international market for fine art in 2012 indicated auction totals of $10 billion and an overall volume of more than $60 billion. The Czech art market also had high turnover in 2012. A letter to The New York Times called for a dialogue on the art market bubble. Auction houses expect a continued strong market for fine art with the sale of Renaissance works, while ventures in the online art market face the challenge of viable business models. Azerbaijan announced plans for a railway that will revive the historic Silk Road.
In security, Brunei will chair Asean and will address “social-cultural security.” In Pakistan, the Antiquities Act requires updating in that looting threatens unexcavated archaeological sites. In Australia, the burning of famous ghost gum trees carried suspicion of arson. In New York a man pleaded guilty to trafficking in dinosaur fossils from Mongolia, which will repatriate the artifacts. In South Dakota, profitability of prehistoric artifacts induces looting. In Santa Monica, California police charged six suspects in a multimillion-dollar theft that included famous artworks, such as by Jasper Johns.
For similar news, visit Cultural Security News.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Nigeria: Benin Bronzes, Nok terracotta statues, and Otobong Nkanga

Nigeria has experience in the politics and security of cultural property and the economic potential of contemporary art. With a history of looting from colonialism through the Cold War era and into the present, Nigeria faces a range of political and security issues which hold risk and opportunity. From the Nok terracotta statues to Benin Bronzes to contemporary art, how might Nigeria best leverage cultural patrimony and art to political and economic advantage?
Benin brass plaque 01.jpgThe British Empire removed the Benin Bronzes during a punitive expedition at the end of the 19th century, and Nok terracotta statues remain a target of theft to the present. Each type of cultural property represents a different period of history and a different aspect of present-days issues of cultural security. The Benin Bronzes, cast in the 15th and 16th centuries, are “newer” than Nok statues, which can date to 500 BC. The nature of the removal of the Benin Bronzes has political implications in the present, while the continued theft of Nok artifacts creates a security issue.
The nation of Nigeria has been successful in repatriating Benin Bronzes, but pieces still reside abroad such as in museums in England and Germany. The political controversy surrounding the remaining pieces resembles the case of the Elgin Marbles between Greece and Great Britain. Nok statues, on the other hand, are stolen and trafficked in the present. In July 2012, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) seized a cache of statues at JFK airport in New York. HSI acted off of a tip from French customs officials, who had tracked the statues from Nigeria.
The Benin Bronzes that remain in foreign museums create a political opportunity for Nigeria to leverage UNESCO conventions for the protection of cultural property and to benefit from precedent of repatriation of cultural patrimony (e.g. Italy vs. The Getty). The continued threat of theft and looting of Nok statues creates an opportunity for Nigerian customs and law enforcement agencies to collaborate with foreign counterparts. The resulting partnerships have broader implications for security with the intersection of trafficking in antiquities and other illicit markets such as narcotics and weapons.
The licit export of artworks also holds potential for Nigeria in the form of economic development. The Tate Modern in London recently started a two-year program that will feature African artists. The display of works by Otobong Nkanga provides an opportunity for Nigeria to demonstrate emerging talent. Coordinated exhibitions, such as The Progress of Love between the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in  St Louis, Missouri, and The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas enable an expanding global market for contemporary art to gain perspective on creative talent across continents.