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Looting of Baghdad treasures shines light on a 'dirty business'

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Byzantine frescos of Lysi, painted in Cyprus, kidnapped to Germany and now staring down from the ceiling of a museum chapel in Texas, testify by their travels that the world views much of its cultural legacy through a catalog of stolen property.

For nine centuries, the frescos hung unmolested on a small chapel in Cyprus before being cut from the ceiling by Turkish looters during the 1974 war. Ten years later, a Houston foundation, working with the Cypriot Orthodox Church, saved them and installed them in the museum chapel, where they are an example of the moral ambiguity of the antiquities trade.

As the hunt for looted Iraqi antiquities continues, the debate over how best, or even whether, to share the art and artifacts of nations has divided scientists and collectors, archaeologists and museums, in an acrimonious debate over ethics, property law and cultural politics.

"It's a dirty business, the antiquities trade," said Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, a scientific group that largely opposes the antiquities traffic. "They will say they only buy from reputable dealers. But where do they buy things from?"

Countered William Pearlstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents museums and collectors: "What the archaeologists have trouble understanding is that we have a regulated market. In their view, even the most careful collector is still aiding and abetting tomb robbers."

The intensifying bitterness of those divisions prevented the two sides from uniting in the days before the Iraq war, a time when each mounted separate and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to prevent the destruction of Iraq's treasures.

Ulterior motives?

While members of the American Council on Cultural Policy, a 2-year-old organization of dealers, collectors and museum curators, met with both the Department of State and the Pentagon to map out plans to prevent the destruction of Iraq's antiquities, the archaeological institute found itself on the outside. The two groups were unable to put together a joint statement.

"We wanted a statement that was more comprehensive and didn't just address the bombing," said Patty Gerstenblith, a DePaul University law professor who helped spearhead the institute's efforts.

The archaeologists were "asleep at the switch," complained Ashton Hawkins, former counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a founder of the cultural policy council.

In the end, the council's do-not-bomb list prevented destruction from the air, but neither Hawkins' group nor Gerstenblith's, was able to persuade commanders on the ground to station troops around the Iraqi museums or libraries that were stripped of treasures dating to 3000 B.C.

The State Department and Pentagon meetings with the cultural policy council gave rise to sometimes bizarre speculation about the government's motives. Newspapers in Scotland and England published stories broadly suggesting the collectors were somehow hoping the Bush administration would loosen export controls in the wake of the Iraq invasion and suggested the looting could have been an outcome of that.

Gerstenblith, a critic of the cultural policy council, said she saw no ulterior motives in the council's meetings with Pentagon and State.

"Their agenda is totally clean at these meetings," Gerstenblith said. "A lot of people sort of overstated what happened."

It was one of the few moments in which one side had kind words for the other.

Largely irrecoverable

To understand the views that divide the groups, the Church of Ayios Themonianos is an object lesson.

After looters cut the fresco from the ceiling of the 12th-century chapel, they hid the pieces in a Munich warehouse and put it on the black market for sale, piece-by-piece.

"The stuff was put up for ransom," said James Demetrion, director of the de Menil collection, a Houston art museum that bought the fresco, conceded ownership to the Cypriot Orthodox Church, and installed it in a specially made chapel in Texas.

To do a good deed, the foundation rewarded thieves.

"I don't think one would want to encourage ripping off places and holding things for ransom," Demetrion said. "This was a very unusual circumstance." The de Menil foundation and the Cypriot church must now, come 2012, renegotiate whether the frescos remain in Texas or go home to Cyprus.

The unsettling truth, say experts on both sides of the dispute over collecting, is that much of the world's cultural storehouse has been expropriated by either force of arms or business deals in which some questions were never asked.

"What do you think the Louvre is?" said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. "The ethical, moral imperative we feel now would have been absolutely foreign to Lord Elgin, absolutely foreign to Henry Clay Frick."

One hundred years ago, when Elgin was shipping priceless Greek marbles to London and Frick was gathering up masterpieces from Europe, the trade in the cultural legacies of other nations was free-wheeling. When up for sale, artworks and antiques often came without an explanation for their source. When sold, they were largely irrecoverable.

That effort to recover the antiquities, whether still in the ground or secreted in the attic of a smuggler awaiting his moment to slip it onto the black market, is at the root of the debate between archaeologists and collectors.

Disdain of collectors

Vikan is one of three members who resigned from President Bush's advisory council on cultural property to protest U.S. failure to stop the looting of Baghdad's museums and libraries.

Collectors have argued that the acquisition of antiquities for museums spreads cultures and ideas freely. Archaeologists worry that even legal collecting, regulated in the United States since 1983 through a series of agreements with various nations, simply encourages the kind of looting that ravaged Baghdad this month.

Archaeologists largely object to the antiquities trade because, in their view, it disturbs important sites, makes it hard to understand the context of a culture, and, as demand heats up, encourages outright looting and robbery that destroy important artifacts and make it impossible to understand the culture in which looted objects were created.

"When you see things outside their historical context, you can't do much except date them and appreciate their beauty," said Samuel Paley, a professor of classics at State University of New York's Buffalo campus.

"I would say, our law, as it relates to culture, really has a great deal of left-leaning. In other countries, there is no such disdain of institutional as well as private collectors by academia," said Torkom Demirjian, whose Manhattan shop, Ariadne, deals in Mesopotamian antiquities.

Anger between the two sides can run deep.

"How about hatred? We respect them, they hate us," said William Pearlstein, a lawyer who represents collectors and museums.

"What would happen if we stopped talking to them? What would happen if we stopped giving them information about the objects in their cases? That would be my personal gut reaction," Paley said.

"That springs from this wonderful arrogance that academics have," Vikan said. "There's a lot of anger. The piety is really just quite amazing to me sometimes."

Rift in the art world

Those two poles on the cultural globe emerged through centuries of changes in law, ethics and the standards of science. They happened at the same time a demand for antiquities grew, fueled by the interests of wealthy and usually educated collectors.

One example is Jay Kislak, a Florida banking millionaire whose enthusiasm for pre-Columbian artifacts from Central America resulted in one of the premier collections in the world.

"We are mostly in books and manuscripts and maps and documents," Kislak said. "We are deeply involved in documents related to the early history of America."

His foundation offers research grants to scholars, usually to study materials in his collection. His gallery is open Monday through Friday, and Kislak, a major donor to Republican causes, is slated to take a spot on the same presidential advisory committee Vikan quit in protest.

But a less-touted example of a collector and dealer is Frederick Schultz.

Schultz was a New York specialist in Egyptian and Middle Eastern antiquities who, as president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, testified frequently before the President's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, arguing against further restrictions on the trade in antiquities and art during the Clinton administration.

What committee members did not know at the time was that Schultz, according to later testimony at his trial, was receiving artifacts looted from archaeological sites outside Cairo, then sent to London by a British smuggler named Jonathan Tokeley-Parry.

Tokeley-Parry, testifying for the federal government, said he and Schultz created a false "provenance" -- a history of ownership -- for the items. On some occasions, he said, they dipped forged labels for the items into tea and then baked them to make them look old.

Schultz's prosecution helped to define the rift in the art world when archaeologists and collectors took opposing positions on the point of law under which Schultz was prosecuted.

Making the right noises

The Archaeological Institute of America filed a friend of the court brief urging U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff to rule that the National Stolen Property Act applied in Schultz's case.

Under that act, the items Schultz received could be classified as stolen because they were taken out of Egypt in violation of a 1983 U.S. law that declared all newly discovered artifacts national property.

Schultz's own trade group, through lawyers who included Pearlstein, urged the court to grant Schultz a new trial, saying Rakoff should not have applied a 1979 ruling that allowed the stolen property act to be used in such cases where all that had been shown was that Schultz had handled objects that had been illegally exported from Egypt.

The appeal is pending and Schultz, reached at his New York home, declined comment.

The fake provenances created for the objects Schultz received could be a road map for investigators charged with keeping Iraqi war booty off the market.

To pass any items off as legitimate, they would need to have been taken out of Mesopotamia before the 1983 law under which the United States recognized Iraq's claim to all artifacts on its soil as national property.

"You may see a lot of 'old collections' -- collections that predate the Iraq law," Waldbaum said.

Demirjian doesn't expect anything to come to the United States.

"Nobody will ever touch any of these pieces with a 10-foot pole," he said.

Demirjian has been burned by stolen antiquities, purchased openly at public auction.

"At one point, we owned a very beautiful mosaic with an image of Gorgon," he said. "Several months later, we received an inquiry from U.S. Customs that a Greek museum had been broken into, and this mosaic was stolen, among many other pieces."

A potential new conflict between scientist and collector is now shaping up in the archaeological institute's proposal to create a database of all items now owned by museums and collectors -- a "baseline" by which governments can be tipped off when looted Iraqi antiquities appear on the market.

Many collectors are disinclined to publicly declare what they own, sometimes from fear of being robbed.

"It becomes very difficult to tell which objects have legitimate backgrounds and which don't," the institute's Gerstenblith said.

"Right now, a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, we wouldn't touch this stuff,' " Waldbaum said. "They're making all the right noises."


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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