Showing posts with label illicit art and online transactions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit art and online transactions. Show all posts

July 24, 2020

Restitution in the time of COVID-19: A fertility statuette representing a mother goddess returns to Iraq


Modeled from clay and painted, this female figurine replete with voluptuous curves, and depicted naked and sitting with her arms folded under her breasts, in a pose suggestive of childbirth was discovered by officers working for the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, whose job it is to carry out surveillance of internet sales of suspect art.  

The tiny seated figurine, whose features clearly suggest fertility and the renewal of life, is typical of "mother goddess" figurines originating within the Neolithic culture of Halaf, named more than a century ago after one of the first sites where these types of figurines were found.  The people of the Halaf culture resided in the geographical regions later known as Northern or upper Mesopotamia.  Representations of these types of female figurines have been found as far west as Cilicia in Turkey, to the east along the border of Iran and Iraq, north as far as Lake Van in Turkey, and south as far as the Damascus basin in Syria. This one however made her way much farther.  She was found in fare away Udine, in northeastern Italy. 


Yesterday, in a formal handover ceremony in Rome at the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, the Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini,  alongside General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, acknowledged the importance of this figurine as representative of the known narrative of sixth-millennium Halaf social practices.  In returning this artifact to the Iraqi people, Franceschini, in his role at Italy's Ministro per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo — MiBACT underscored the ministry's commitment in the field of cultural diplomacy, and the TPC Carabinieri Command's role tracking down and recovering illegally exported heritage from other vulnerable source countries found within Italy's jurisdiction.

These seated Halaf figurines in general range in size from small to tiny, and like this one, are usually less than 10 centimeters tall.  Picking it gently up, the Iraqi ambassador to Rome, Safia Taleb Al-Souhail demonstrated that it would fit comfortably in the palm of someone's hand.  It's tiny size, just 9 X 3 cm along with her suggestive imagery have made portable Mesopotamian antiquities like this one extremely popular among traffickers. So much so that an image of one, almost identical, is printed on the ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, given that the original site where these types of figurines were discovered was at Tel Halaf in Syria.


In describing the circumstances of this artefact's discovery General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage stated that the Carabinieri TPC squad in Udine first identified the suspect auction in an online sale, and working with historians affiliated with the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage at the Università degli Studi di Udine determined that the statuette was an authentic artefact of the Halaf culture.  The Italian authorities, in turn, worked with their Iraqi counterparts to coordinate details for this object's eventual restitution.  How the antiquity was determined to be Iraqi in origin was not discussed.


Ambassador Al-Souhail stated that she appreciated the efforts made by the Italian authorities and the Carabinieri forces in combating organized crime which involve the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities.  She also commended Italy's commitment to activate a Memorandum of Understanding which the parties signed, between both countries in that regard and to Italy's commitment to international agreements and relevant Security Council resolutions.
For those that would like to delve into the locations where seated Halaf sculptures can be found we highly recommend this paper by Dr. Ellen Belcher. In it Dr. Belcher reminds us that:

Many figurines identifiable as Halaf types regularly appear in museum collections, on Internet auction sites, and in antiquities dealers' catalogs in most cases illegally smuggled into Western countries, they can make no contribution to this contextualized study. However it is hoped that this study may prove useful for localizing the ongoing looting of Halaf sites.

Belcher also mentions (page 374) in the aforementioned paper that by the fall of 2013, there were no more ongoing scientific excavations of Halaf sites in Turkey, Syria or Iraq, highlighting that ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq had left these historic sites unprotected from looting. 

By Lynda Albertson

January 8, 2020

27 individuals investigated in Italy involved in online transactions of illicit objects plus a curious research method for identifying illicit antiquities


Those who purchase illicit art works come in all walks of life.  Some buyers are medical professionals, some are lawyers, and some are wealthy entrepreneurs.  These are just a few of the profiles of the 27 individuals from Bari and Foggia under investigation following an operation carried out by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit in Bari.



Some of the objects recovered included:

140 archaeological finds datable from 300-400 B.C.E. 
200 fragments largely attributable to the area of ​​Magna Grecia 
30 ancient weapons including one supplied to the Bourbon army and another to the papal troops 
and a 16th century bronze cannon cast in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Yet, searching for those co-involved, did not just include the monitoring of commercial websites dedicated to the sale of ancient and historic objects.  During a six month long investigation, led by Major Giovanni Di Bella, Carabinieri TPC officers used an interesting and creative approach.  

While monitoring websites used for the buying and selling of art, officers from the TPC also turned their eyes to websites advertising tony residential property for sale in Italy. By studying real estate photos of the interiors of these properties, the carabinieri were able to identify houses that contain works of art, photographed in their pride of place locations, inside some of southern Italy's luxurious homes.

Giving it a try myself, within a few clicks I too, easily found photos depicting ancient art, displayed and photographed in plain view within residential settings while randomly checking advertisements for villas within the Rome market. Keeping in mind that a photo alone does not define an object's legitimacy or illegitimacy, these types of reviews can provide an interesting starting point for investigators.  

Image screengrab saved from a Rome property weblisting  
As a simple hypothetical illustration of the methodology, I identified a photo of the villa interior inside a 20-room estate for sale within the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica, along the main Roman road that started in 312 B.C.E.  This property dates to the 1800s, so the ancient objects photographed would most likely have been uncovered during the establishment of the structure and should therefore have a proper pedigree.  But how to know for sure?

A further search about the history of the property reveals that the house was built on the remains of an ancient basalt quarry which provided material for the Regina Viarum and was once owned by Carlo Ponti, an Italian film producer and husband of the actress Sophia Loren.  Sitting just 300 meters from the tomb of Cecilia Metella and a 10 minute drive away from the Colosseum, it isn't possible to understand which, if any, of the objects shown on the property listings are part of the original holdings of the property and which might have been purchased on the ancient art market by the filmmaking couple, or it's subsequent owner, Giorgio Greco.  If the 100 Roman artifacts and sculptures documented in this sale form the collection of the original property owner, they would/should have been duly reported to the Superintendency.

That said, tweezing out what is licit vs possibly licit is where the expertise of the Carabinieri is required and their novel approach to identifying ancient art perhaps purchased unawares by individuals who may or may not have failed to do their due diligence, is an interesting one.  One thing is for sure, monitoring photographs like these on real estate sites can give law enforcement a greater understanding of who has legitimate works of ancient art, and on occasion, as the Bari investigation demonstrates, may also provide leads in who is dealing in or purchasing illicit material.  This in turn can help lead law enforcement to dealers and middlemen suppliers transacting in illicit art.

Food for thought. A beautiful photo can mean different things to different people.