Showing posts with label archaeological artifacts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label archaeological artifacts. Show all posts

April 22, 2014

Looted Artifacts from Peru: A story of grave robbing from the 1970s

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

The story of how a woman in the 70s supported her traveling in South America by smuggling pre-Columbian artifacts is presented in True Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More (InFACT Books, 2013) edited by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine.

Joyce Marcel describes herself in "Grave Robber: A Love Story" as a woman in her early 30s in the 1970s on an adventure in Ecuador that involved "a bit of grave robbing":
I'm not too proud of that now, but in 1976, I didn't believe in ghosts or national treasure. I just wanted to keep traveling. I bought pre-Columbian ceramics, textiles, jewelry and artifacts from a secret village tucked away in the Atacama Desert, far outside of Lima, Peru; I wrapped the stuff in newspaper and bought it to the United States. I kept everything but the ceramics, which I dropped off at Sotheby's Parke-Bernet in New York. Back then, they didn't care about ghosts or national treasures, either. They auctioned off everything I gave them and sent the checks to me in Lima, and I'd be back on the road again.
Ms. Marcel tells of meeting someone who "knew his way around South America because he'd been thrown out of the Peace Corps for smuggling" who had a "perfect scam" that involved a town in the Peruvian desert, mummies from the Chancay civilization, and selling artifacts to an art dealer he'd met in a bar in San Francisco, and how she dealt with her paranoia about smuggling:
At that point, I formulated "Joyce's Law": After you've decided to do something illegal or weird, give up on the worrying. No matter what nightmares you imagine, reality will be different. And anyway, it's out of your control. At the border, nothing happened -- except that the immigration man said, "I won't let you through; you're too pretty. I want you to stay with me."
According to Ms. Marcel, for five years she followed a routine of trading American goods to locals in this Peruvian village until "the United States suddenly recognized Peru's national treasures act" [and] "in 1980, instead of being passed through U.S. customs by bored inspectors, I was stopped." She writes:
My baggage was searched, and I was taken into a small room and given a harsh lesson about the harm I was doing by robbing a country of its archaeological treasures. I was such a small-time operator that they let me go with my last shipment intact. Later, when the big exporters came through, they were busted and their shipments confiscated. And when the really big operators arrived, customs not only confiscated their shipments but went to their homes and took their personal collections.
For a broader view on looting in South America, you may read Karl E. Meyer's The Plundered Past : The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art (Antheneum 1977) recommended by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis for his ARCA 2014 course on "Unravelling The Hidden Market of Illicit Antiquities: Lessons from Greece and Italy".

December 30, 2013

Postcard from Turkey: The Archaeological Museum at Uşak, The Lydian Hoard and Two Hippocampuses

by Aaron Haines

I rubbed my sleep-deprived eyes and stared across the abandoned parking lot at the rusty minivan that was supposedly my “shuttle” into town. It was six in the morning and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon of Uşak, a small city in the center of western Turkey. Most bus companies don’t travel to Uşak and the few that do only offer one or two bus rides from Istanbul each day. I had left Istanbul the previous night at eight and spent the next ten hours on a bus in order to see Uşak’s most famous possession: the Lydian Hoard. I walked up to the minivan, squeezed onto the front bench, and told the driver I needed to go the archaeology museum. The rest of the passengers stared me as if wondering what a young American backpacker was doing so far from any of Turkey’s usual tourist destinations. We soon reached the city center and the driver told me in Turkish that the museum was just down the street.

Photo by A. Haines
The museum did not open for another couple of hours so I took my time observing the building’s exterior. It was a small building situated on an awkward triangular corner plot of land where two streets merged. It was surrounded by a low wrought iron fence that was about three to four feet in height. The building’s small yard was littered with archaeological artifacts from various civilizations and time periods; Byzantine, Hittite, Roman, and others. The placement of these objects was haphazard, but it was clear every square inch of the yard could be surveyed by the small army of security cameras that pointed in every direction. Also, none of the objects were small enough to be lifted by hand and would have required either machinery or several people to move them. There was an abundance of exterior lighting indicating that the museum and archaeological artifacts could be sufficiently monitored at night. The museum was an older building, but fulfilled its intended purpose. The windows were single paned and old, but all well protected by the iron bars covering them. Despite the early hour, I noticed a man standing inside the museum watching me, indicating that a security guard was present at the museum both day and night.

At eight when the museum opened, I stepped inside and was greeted by the security guard. I pulled out my wallet to purchase a ticket, but the guard was already leaving his desk and leading me into the museum’s only gallery. I expected him to then return to his desk while I toured the small collection, but instead he simply followed me around. I got the feeling that not many people came into the museum. The lighting and presentation of the museum’s collection were excellent and there were many text panels explaining the significance of the objects as well as where they had been found in the surrounding countryside.

Photo of Lydian Hoard by A. Haines
I was eager to see the Lydian Hoard and quickly found it in a room in the very back of the gallery. The pieces of the collection were displayed on simple but elegant cloth with good lighting. The hippocampus still occupied its own display case, but the text panel gave no indication that the original had been stolen or that the current piece on display was a copy of the original. I noticed that the previous simple lock had been replaced by a lock, seal, and slip of paper. On this slip of paper were the signatures of four different archaeologists indicating that each had verified that the work was the legitimate original.

Photo of documented lock by A. Haines
The museum guard was still shadowing me so I decided to strike up a conversation with him. He did not speak much English so we conversed in Turkish. He explained to me that a guard was at the museum twenty four hours a day and that there was video surveillance of the entire building and the surrounding yard of antiquities. When I asked him how many patrons visited the museum, he told me that during the summer, they averaged about one hundred every day. This surprised since Uşak is a smaller city and quite far from any major tourist attractions. I asked again about the museum attendance and he repeated that they indeed averaged around one hundred patrons a day during the summer time. He explained that during the winter, attendance drops due to the decrease in tourism. He went on to explain that the city was currently constructing a new museum that is supposed to be completed next year. The new three story building will have much more storage and administration space as well as an upgraded security system.

Copy of  hippocampus in Uşak (A. Haines) 
We returned to the subject of the Lydian Hoard and after I asked a couple of questions about the hippocampus, he stopped and stared at me for a couple of seconds. He then asked if I wanted to know something and leaned in to quietly tell me that the original work had been stolen. I feigned surprise and he motioned for me to walk back over to the display case. He then told me the story about the hippocampus and confided in me that the brooch in the case was actually a fake. Thanks to Sharon Waxman’s 2008 book Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (Times Books), I already knew this, but I doubted that most patrons to the museum did. There was no explanation of it in the text panels or in any of the other materials on display. Most patrons assumed that they were viewing the original.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Ankara, the capitol of Turkey, just a couple of days later and saw the same hippocampus on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. My immediate thought was that I had now seen two copies of the same stolen work.

Recovered hippocampus temporarily
housed in Ankara (Photo by A. Haines)
I approached two security guards chatting nearby and explained to them that I had just seen this same work in Uşak. They replied that I had seen a copy in Uşak and that the object in Ankara was the original brooch. I asked them how this could be since the work had been stolen and they explained that it had been recently recovered. Supposedly it was only on temporary display in Ankara and will be moved to Uşak next year when the new Uşak museum is complete.

Aaron Haines is a senior majoring in art history at Brigham Young University and traveled to Turkey this summer using grant moneys from the BYU Office of Research and Creative Activities to observe the security of four archaeology museums. He visited the archaeology museums in Uşak, Boğazkale, Ankara, and Istanbul each of which houses artifacts that have been recently repatriated by Turkey from other countries. Aaron has a special interest in cultural property law and preservation as it applies to Italy and Turkey and speaks Italian and some Turkish. He recently returned from an internship at the American Embassy in Rome and is currently interning with the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center.

November 22, 2013

Museum of the History of the Olympic Games: Seven men sentenced in Patras for theft

The ARCAblog asked Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, who accepted an award at ARCA's Conference last June, for Greek accounts of the conviction of seven men for the robbery of the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games. Dr. Tsirogiannis recommended this link: Anthi Koutsoubou at News 247 and provided a correct translation:
The conviction of seven people, accused of robbery in the museum of Ancient Olympia in February 2012, was decided by a three-member Criminal Court in Patras on Wednesday, November 20. More specifically,  five of the seven who faced charges [each one of them faced different charges] of robbery, theft of antiquities,  attempted sale of stolen antiquities and attempted murder, were jailed. The man who had entered the museum and grabbed the artifacts received 17 years imprisonment, two were sentenced to six years and two others to seven years. Two Bulgarian defendants, were also found guilty, but were given 2 years suspended sentence and were released. 
The ARCAblog asked Dr. Tsirogiannis if this crime was related to any organized crime.
"I think that it was proved that the hit at the museum was an amateurs' job, as it was the way they tried to sell the gold ring [to undercover police in a hotel in Patras]. Although seven of them (two Bulgarians got two years each, suspended), the group can hardly be named as "organised". It seems that they took advantage of the extremely poor guarding of the museum, for financial reasons. Plus, they were heading to a different museum, the main Archaological Museum of Olympia, aiming to steal ancient gold wreaths and a collection of stamps, but were mistaken and hit another museum nearby, a smaller one! How "organised" is that?"
In February, Elinda Labropoulou for CNN reported on the theft and described the Museum of the History of the Olympics as a smaller building located near the main Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

The mastermind of the theft had intended to sell the gold ring for 1.5 million but the price fell to 300,000 euros. 

From this article (translated here from Greek to English): The gold signet ring dating back to the period of the 16th century BC was the most valuable object of the stolen loot. The ring belonged to a ruler of Anthia and was found in the famous royal tomb "Chang 4" at "Rachi" ara in Antheia Greek Kalamata. The ring shows two male athletes about to participate in an event bull-leaping. The ring had been loaned by the Archaeological Museum of Messenia. In the investigation, scientists of the Division of Criminal Investigation sought information on the DNA of two thieves. Security cameras recorded images from the theft, showing inexperienced looters, furiously grabbing at anything of value.

Dr. Tsirogiannis added in an email:
From the very beginning, immediately after the theft, I pointed out that it would be difficult for the thieves to sell these antiquities because they were very well recorded (, another clue that the thieves did not belong to an "organised" group. Some did not agree with this view at the time ( Paul is a good friend), but the arrest of the thieves, the way it took place, the interrogation and the discovery of all the objects, proved my point.
For another source, MSN distributed the article Agence France-Press, "Seven Sentenced over Olympia Robbery in Greece".