Culture Without Context
Steinhardt phiale and other returns
Strong antiquities sales
Looting and China
Illicit antiquities in India
Protection and destruction of Afghanistan's
Stolen coin alert
Archaeologists vs looters
Red alert on West African antiquities
Controversial new gallery at Louvre
Illicit antiquities in Israel
Turkey to US smuggling
Sevso Treasure developments
phiale and other returns
- On 11 February US Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly officially returned the
Steinhardt phiale to the Italian government. The phiale has been the subject of
long legal battles in the US, but its return was made possible by the US Supreme Court's
refusal in January to hear an appeal against earlier court rulings (see: 'In The News' CWC
issues 2 &
5). It will now be exhibited briefly in Rome, before being put on
permanent display in a museum in Sicily.
- February: US Customs officials in Dallas returned to Italy human bones
believed to have been excavated from Palaeolithic sites in Savona and Imperia by Frederich
Hosmer Zambelli. The 'Zambelli Collection' was offered for sale on an Internet
site based in Texas by a Dallas archaeologist. After a year-long
investigation, following a request from the Italian Public Prosecutor's Office, the
Department of Justice and US Customs Service traced sales to private collectors in Texas,
Oklahoma and North Carolina and the artefacts were seized.
- 267 artefacts looted from the region of Puglia were returned by
France to Italy in December last year. The objects, including vases, amphorae,
platters and terracottas, were seized by French customs agents from an Italian crossing
the border from Luxembourg to France in 1981. By 1994, Italian police and
Interpol had tracked the hoard to a storeroom in the Louvre, and after
years of wrangling the items have finally been repatriated.
- A marble head of Nefertari, wife of Ramses II, was returned to Egypt in
January. It was amongst pieces brought to Britain by convicted smuggler Jonathan
Tokeley-Parry (see: 'In The News' CWC
1 & issue 4). The buyer, who has not been
identified, initially refused to return it on the grounds that it was a fake. Examination
by the British Museum proved that the sculpture was genuine, although it had been damaged
and disguised to look like a tourist souvenir by using stone dust drilled from
the core of the sculpture to make a new face. The original face may still remain under the
fake application. One further piece from the Tokeley-Parry hoard - a head of Pharoah
Amenhotep III, undamaged and unaltered - is still the subject of legal negotiations.
Following the success of the antiquities sales in New York in December 1999, The
Art Newspaper (January) reports that the city has emerged as probably the most
important centre for the antiquities trade. A survey of dealers, auction house specialists
and museum curators revealed:
- a steady increase in the number of clients spending more than $50,000 per year;
- that most collectors are professionals - physicians, attorneys, Wall Street traders or
- the emergence of new collectors from Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Latin America;
- that the stock market is driving the trade: the antiquities market is perceived as
- that museum initiatives and exhibitions help drive the market;
- that the illicit trade is considered a 'dying dinosaur issue' (Frederick Schultz)
although concerns over authenticity may explain relatively low prices;
- that interior designers are making increasing use of antiquities.
Meanwhile in Minerva magazine (Mar/Apr 2000), Jerome Eisenberg, commenting on
the substantial increase in antiquities sales over the last five years, suggested that
'the many diatribes against the antiquities trade' by archaeologists attempting to raise
public awareness of looting may in fact have encouraged new collectors to begin purchasing
antiquities. He noted that while there seems to be plenty of material on the market, one
of the biggest problems for auction houses is the scarcity of single-owner sales.
- 122 pieces of stolen bas-relief and sculpture have been returned
to Cambodia from Thailand. They include 117 fragments from the Khmer temple of Banteay
Chmar (see: 'In The News' CWC
issue 4 &
issue 5), and 5 from a July 1999 raid on galleries in the
River City antiques mall, Bangkok.
The items have already been exhibited at Thailand's National Museum in Bangkok and will
now go on display for two months at the National Museum in Phnom Penh as part of
Cambodia's campaign to raise public awareness about looting.
- Cambodian officials say a formal agreement with Thailand on
co-operation to halt cross-border smuggling is being worked on.
- Emergency restrictions imposed by the US Government on the import of a
range of Cambodian sculpture has, according to Rena Moulopoulos, the worldwide compliance
director for Sotheby's, led to a 'marked increase in questions from collectors and dealers
concerning these sculptures'.
Looting and China
- In January, He Shuzhong, a Chinese legal expert and international treaty negotiator for
China's State Cultural Relics Bureau, launched a WWW site to publicize
the scale of and damage caused by looting in China. The English language site (which
receives support from www.museum-security.org)
can be found at http://www.culturalheritagewatch.com.)
- The Chinese State Bureau of Cultural Relics is reported to have sent thirty
representatives on a month-long visit to heritage sites in Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and
Shaanxi to increase public awareness of the problems of heritage
protection and preservation.
- A tenth-century Chinese marble wall panel, offered for sale at Christie's
New York in the 21 March auction (sale estimate $400,000 to $500,000), has been
impounded by US authorities. The lawsuit identifies the piece as one of the carved relief
wall sculptures stolen from the tomb of Wang Chuhzi, in Hebei Province
which was looted in 1994. During the raid ten panels were ripped from the walls of the
tomb, which was excavated by archaeologists the following year when two more painted
marble reliefs were removed. The Art Newspaper (May) suggests that it is
extraordinary that Christie's stated in their sale catalogue that the carving appeared to
be very closely related to the panels from that very tomb, yet did not check with
Chinese authorities whether it was one of the looted pieces. Christie's is
co-operating fully with US Customs investigations, and the consigner M & C
Gallery, in Hong Kong, may appeal if they choose.
- A large stone head of Bodhisattva, in the controversial collection of
the Miho Museum, Japan (see: 'In The News' CWC
issue 2), has been identified as stolen from Boxing County,
China. Cultural Heritage Watch claimed that a picture of the sculpture had been published
in an archaeological report in Wenwu magazine in 1983. The Miho Museum's
Swiss-based lawyer, Mario Roberty, said that the discovery was a shock to his museum
clients since they had exercised 'careful due diligence' by checking that
it did not appear on any available data base. It had been acquired from Eskenazi
Oriental Art, London, in 1996 who had acquired it in good faith from another
London art dealer. Roberty added that, although under no legal obligation (Japan
has not ratified the UNESCO or Unidroit conventions) the Miho Museum would arrange
for sculpture to be repatriated
- February: Three men were executed for stealing 15 Tang Dynasty
murals from a museum in Liquan, Shaanxi province, between 1992
and 1994. Three accomplices (including the wife of one), who gave them keys to the museums
were given lesser sentences. The murals, from the tomb of Wei Guifei, an emperor's
concubine, were sold on in Guangzhou near Hong Kong and two have since
- 54 boxes containing more than 100 ancient porcelain artefacts were
impounded from a boat at Tianjin. A Korean man, who was setting sail for
Korea with the pieces was arrested.
- Four suspects were reportedly arrested in Liaoning Province trying to
sell a pair of bronzes to undercover policemen for about US$100,000. Other Eastern Zhou
period bronzes were found in the suspects' homes.
- Farmers are reported to have pulled down the 2nd to 9th storeys of a 13-metre-tall
pagoda in Shanxi Province in an attempt to steal the Ming dynasty walls
and Buddhist statues.
After eight years scholars have restored and partly deciphered a very rare example of Etruscan
writing on a bronze tablet, but need to know the tablet's true provenance and
context in order to understand it fully. Known as the Tabula Cortonensis,
it was found in 1992 by carpenter Giovanni Ghiottini, allegedly on a building site at Cortona,
on the Umbrian-Tuscan border. But police believe Ghiottini may not have found it where he
claims, and that he may have tried to sell it. If the object's true history were known,
scholars might even be able to locate a crucial, but mysteriously missing piece of
Illicit antiquities in India
In January, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence agents seized illicit antiquities from
a Singapore-bound container ship at Chennai docks.
Documents showed the shipment should consist of 600 bags of rice. In fact, there were only
50, and the rest of the cargo was contraband including the antiquities, deer horn antlers
and sandalwood. Three people have been arrested, one being the manager of a Chennai-based
and destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage
- A museum, partially funded by the Swiss government and backed by UNESCO, has been
established in Bubendorf, Switzerland to care for cultural
material looted from Afghanistan. Its curator, Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, says that
the project has the full backing of the Taliban and Northern Alliance governments in
Afghanistan. Some archaeological material, including the Airekhaunum bronzes
has already been sent by sources in the Northern Alliance and some 3000 other pieces are
expected to arrive from north and south Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe, when the museum
building is ready. Private collectors and government officials have promised artefacts.
The museum is seen as a temporary safe house for the collection; when the
situation permits, a joint agreement between the Afghan and Swiss authorities will return
the objects to Afghanistan.
- The Art Newspaper (June) reports eye-witness damage to archaeological sites in
- the destruction of the Ghandharan site of Tepe Shutur and the
museum in Hadd in the late 1980s with objects being sold to Pakistani dealers;
- aerial bombing and then looting of the early Sasanid stupa and monastic complex at Guldara;
- the systematic stripping of Ai Khanum, the famous site excavated by
French archaeologists, again for sale in Pakistan.
Two systems of looting are highlighted: bottom up, where locals sell
finds to syndicates of middlemen, who sell on to dealers; or top down,
where collectors put in requests to the dealers, who notify syndicates, who then brief
locals about demand for specific objects. The middlemen apparently have research libraries
and sometimes 'hire' sites from landowners. There is also evidence that objects stolen
from sites in the North are increasingly being smuggled through Tashkent and
Uzbekistan to Afghan contacts in Russia, and the Russian mafia.Protection and
destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
The British Numismatic Trade Association in Britain has warned that an undeclared
British hoard of third-century ad Roman coins has surfaced on the market in London
and New York. It is thought to consist of between 6000 and 16,000 coins
and include rare examples from the reign of Laelian (ad 268). Although a Continental
provenance may have been invented, the Antiques Trade Gazette (11 Mar. 2000) has
pointed out that dealing in these pieces would still constitute an offence under the Treasure
Act and, if they were illegally removed from private land, under the
The archaeological community has been divided over Professor Karen Vitelli's
decision to accept money from the White-Levy archaeological publications
foundation and then criticize her funders for collecting antiquities. Vitelli
received a $40,000 grant from the foundation, which serves the admirable purpose of
enabling archaeologists to publish 'dead digs'. In the introduction to her volume on the
Franchthi cave she thanked Leon Levy and Shelby White, who are prominent collectors, but
also encouraged them to see the damage caused by collecting undocumented antiquities.
More evidence from around the world of the race between archaeologists and looters:
- A Roman villa has been discovered near Bosctrecase, Campania following
illegal digging there. Among artefacts confiscated from the looters were a carved marble
altar, a bronze candelabra, glass vases and a seal which apparently bears the name of the
- The Iraqi Museum has rushed excavation teams to three little-known Sumerian
sites in southern Iraq following reports of looting. By February the
archaeologists had recovered more than 5000 artefacts, including rare
cylinder seals and inscribed cuneiform tablets, which will help reconstruct another page
of Mesopotamian history. Looters are believed to have intensified their activities
in southern Iraq, despite heavy penalties.
- It is estimated that Italian archaeologists have excavated 80 tombs in the area of the
ancient town of Crustumerium since 1987, while tomabaroli have looted more than
- During 1999 the Italian carabinieri recovered 27,000 archaeological pieces, more
than twice as many as in 1998.
Red alert on
West African antiquities
||ICOM (International Council of Museums), with support from the Prince
Claus Fund for Culture and Development and the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has
published a dossier of information about eight categories of African archaeological
objects under particularly serious threat from looting today. This Red List should prove
useful for museums, art dealers, and police and customs officials and will be widely
distributed as part of a campaign to raise awareness of African archaeological heritage.
More information is available at http://www.icom.org/redlist/
Controversial new gallery at Louvre
The Louvre has been criticized by ICOM and archaeologists for opening
a new £18 million extension to display art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas on
the grounds that some of the exhibits could have been looted. Highlights
in the new gallery include two newly-purchased Nok terracottas, whose
export from Nigeria has been illegal since 1943.
In January ICOM signed a memorandum of understanding with the World
Customs Organization (WCO) to co-operate in the fight against the illicit traffic
in cultural property. A further agreement was signed with INTERPOL in
April. These agreements will strengthen co-operation between the three
organizations both officially and in practical terms, and joint projects
should soon be underway, including preparation of tools for raising awareness, setting up
training programmes for customs officers, and distribution to customs and police officials
of ICOM information on illicit traffic.
The National Institute of Culture, Peru is to sell reproductions of
ancient Peruvian artefacts at Lima airport in an attempt to stem the flow
of illicit antiquities via tourists.
The UK government Select Committee on Culture has begun its
investigation into 'Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade', and has
already heard evidence on behalf of archaeologists, dealers, and the police. The Committee
is expected to report its findings in July.
May: Sheikh Taj E-Din Hilaly, leader of Australia's Muslim community,
has returned home from Egypt. In January the Mufti was sentenced by an
Egyptian court to one year's hard labour for allegedly conspiring with a smuggling
ring responsible for illegal digs and murder (see: In The News' CWC issues
4 & 5). A subsequent appeal found the judgment invalid, and on his return to Australia
the Mufti announced that he was confident he would be cleared by further court
hearings in October.
Police in Madrid have arrested a museum worker following a tip off
that he intended to sell stolen material on the black market. The
warehouse supervisor from the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia allegedly stole 4000
items, including Phoenician coins and Etruscan vases, while he was responsible
for overseeing the museum's store during the 1990s.
January: Greek police announced the arrest of two Greek men - Anastasios Karaholios and
Iannis Loris - in connection with the 1990 robbery from Corinth Archaeological Museum
during which 271 antiquities and money were stolen (see:
In The News' CWC issue
5). Guns, drugs and other antiquities were found in Karaholios' home. His father and
brother are also being sought and are believed to be in South America. Most of the
antiquities from the Corinth raid were discovered in Miami, apparently with the help of
one Christos Mavrikis, who had been in prison for carrying out illegal wire tappings for
Konstantinos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece in the early 1990s (who had himself
built up an enormous collection of mainly Minoan artefacts which he bought from peasants
and on the antiquities market, and has since donated to the Greek State). Six other items
from the Corinth robbery, five of which were offered through Christie's New York and sold
to two collectors, have now been recovered.
Illicit antiquities in Israel
An increasing number of stories of illicit antiquities from Israel follow
archaeologists' warnings of a marked rise in thefts from archaeological sites to feed
demand for Millennium souvenirs (see: In The News CWC issue 5):
- Two men were each sentenced to one year in jail for
damaging the Second Temple period site of Raboa searching for coins and
antiquities. They were caught red-handed with a metal detector, knives and digging
equipment. Head of the Antiquities Authority, Armin Ganor, said the sentence may help
deter another six gangs of looters believed to be operating in the Judean
- March: following a four-year investigation by the Prevention of Theft of Antiquities
unit, a rare Roman sculpture was confiscated from a dealer's shop on the
Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, where it was on sale for $2000. The bust, unusually carved from
basalt, was stolen from a tomb in a declared but unexcavated ancient site in Northern
Israel and probably depicts the woman buried therein.
Importantly, the case has provided the proof for methods used to launder
illicit antiquities in Israel. As has long been suspected, merchants are
recording stolen and freshly dug-up antiquities as imports or purchases from other
collectors, which allows them to be put on the market and sold. In this case, the bust was
dug up by a local in the Golan Heights, then sold to middlemen, and then to an Israeli
dealer who forged documents to indicate that he had imported it from Venezuela. It was
then sold to the final dealer in the chain, who is not under suspicion, but the
Antiquities Authority have insisted that the others will be tried, and hope that the case
will lead to better supervision and control of the licensing of antiquities dealers.
- In March an unemployed artist from Jerusalem was arrested for allegedly stealing three
antiquities from three separate areas of the Israel Museum at
different times. They were a jug from Tel Arad, a stela from Hazor and a chalice from Ein
Hatzeva. He admitted to stealing other pieces including Roman coins, glass vases, Roman
lattices and oil lamps from various archaeological sites. Authorities admitted that he was
not a typical antiquities robber since he wanted the pieces in his home, rather than to
- Meanwhile, in January, Zahi Zweig, a third-year archaeology student who
had brought attention to the dumping of archaeological material during building works, was
charged with stealing antiquities and causing damage to archaeological
sites. Objects from a number of sites were found in his home, and have now been returned.
The Antiquities Authority stated that they do not want archaeologists to think that they
have immunity or alibis for taking antiquities.
In February, Joel Malter, a gallery owner from Encino,
California pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport 133 artefacts stolen
from ancient tombs in Turkey. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000
fine. The wide variety of objects dated from the ninth century bc to twelfth century ad
and were worth only $5000 on the US market. They were recovered in Oklahoma City
after a complicated chain of events, involving Malter taking possession of the smuggled
antiquities when they reached the US, then giving them to a friend after a dispute with a
contact in Turkey, then buying them back from federal authorities. Five people in
Turkey have also been convicted in connection with the case; one worked at the
Incirlik Air Base, and was considered the main player, another was a major in the
reserve US Air Force. During the course of the investigations it was established
that Malter had dealt in illicit antiquities before.
Frederick Husseini, the new head of the Directorate-General of Antiquities in Lebanon
says he has submitted a file on alleged looting of antiquities by Israelis during the war
years, demanding that stolen antiquities be returned.
Art smuggler, Michel van Rijn, has claimed that he worked with Scotland Yard to help
set up a failed sting which was to lead the Yard, Swiss police and the Hungarian
government to the missing pieces of the Sevso Treasure, via a Zurich dealer, Anton Tkalec.
The Sunday Times (20 Feb 2000) reports that there is now convincing evidence
that the Treasure was discovered at Szabadbattyan, Hungary, by a young local, Joszef
Sumegh, who was found hanged in mysterious circumstances in 1980. The paper also revealed
that the value of the out-of-court settlement awarded to the Marquess of Northampton by
his former solicitors Allen & Overy in connection with the case (see
In The News CWC
issue 4) was a whopping £24 million.
- ABC News
- The Antiques Trade Gazette
- Archaeology magazine
- The Art Newspaper
- Associated Press
- The Bergen Record
- Biblical Archaeology Review
- Daily Telegraph
- International Herald Tribune
- The Jerusalem Post
- Lebanese Daily Star
- Los Angeles Times
- Nando Media
- The Observer
- The Sunday Times
- Sydney Morning Herald
- The Times
- US Customs Service
- The Washington Post
We are always pleased to receive relevant press clippings and news items.
First posted September 2000; Page
design updated September 2006