March 23, 2016

Do You Know Where Your Art Has Been? When the Licit Antiquities Trade Masks an Illicit Criminal Enterprise

Robin Symes, was once one of London's best-known and most successful dealers in antiquities. For 30 years, he and his partner Christo Michailidis were inseparable as two of the movers and shakers in the global antiques trade.  Collecting property in London, New York and Athens, and fancy cars as well as antiquities, the two procured ancient artefacts for, and wined and dined with, the rich and famous, including well-known antiquities collectors Leon Levy and his wife Shelby White.

Building one of the world's largest ancient art businesses, Symes and Michailidis pieces also became part of museum collections around the globe, including the J Paul Getty Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum.   At the height of their enterprise Italian authorities estimated that the pair's jointly-run ancient art business earned them an estimated 170 million euro but a series of missteps proved the dealers' undoing, literally and figuratively and in 2005 Symes served a very brief jail sentence for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3m Egyptian statue.

Art Dealer Robin Symes
In 2006 Symes was further implicated as being part of one of the most sophisticated illicit antiquities networks in the world in a bookThe Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums” by Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini.  The Medici Conspiracy outlined Symes' assets which included thirty-three known warehouses encompassing some 17,000 objects worth an estimated £125 million ($210 million) as well as his ties to traffickers in Europe's illicit antiquities trade. Each of the museums mentioned above were subsequently forced to relinquish looted objects that had been laundered illegally and which at one time had passed through networks connected with  Symes.

In addition to requests for museum repatriations, the Italian government has also gone after collectors who have purchased Symes-tainted art for their individual private collections.  In November 2006 they asked Syme's client and friend New York collector Shelby White to return more than 20 objects from the Levy-White collection looted from southern Italy. An avid collector and philanthropist, White had donated $20 million to financing for the Metropolitan's expanded wing of Greek and Roman art.   That same year she made a $200 million gift of cash and real estate to New York University via the Leon Levy Foundation to finance the University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

After 18 months of intense negotiations, White ceded ten classical antiquities to the Italian government from the Shelby White and Leon Levy private collection.  One of the ten objects was an attic red-figured calyx-krater depicting Herakles slaying Kyknos, signed by the celebrated fifth-century B.C. painter Euphronios.  This object had once been on extended loan to the Metropolitan Museum.  Discussed in Watson and Todeschini's book, (pages 128-32) and illustrated in J. Boardman's “The History of Greek Vases, (fig. 120), the calyx-krater vessel had been laundered through the hands of tainted antiquities dealers Giacomo Medici, Bob Hecht and Robin Symes before finally coming to rest within the White/Levy collection.  Polaroids held by the Italian government used in the investigation clearly show the object broken into pieces with dirt still clinging to the vase fragments.

Another returned Shelby White and Leon Levy object was a small bronze statue purchased through Symes for 1.2 million dollars in 1990.   The bronze had been displayed during the exhibition “Glories of the Past: Ancient Art From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection”, a presentation of over 200 objects from the couple's ancient art collection on view at the Metropolitan Museum.  Italian authorities traced this bronze to Symes via thirteen photographs seized through convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici.  The photos showed the statue also covered with dirt during the early stages of its trafficking from tombarolo to the collections of the wealthy.

But despite academic pressure regarding the many tainted pieces in their collection, Ms. White has steadfastly maintained that she and her husband, who died in 2003, purchased their artifacts in good faith and had no knowledge that objects within their collection included those which were clandestinely excavated and trafficked out of source countries.   

Given White's roll in the formation of ISAW, which on its website states is "a center for advanced scholarly research and graduate education, which aims to encourage particularly the study of the economic, religious, political and cultural connections between ancient civilizations" it seems unusual that a seasoned collector of White's caliber would not have understood the implications of an object's collection history prior to purchasing high-end antiquities, especially given the hefty price tags that accompanied many of the family's ancient art acquisitions.

But back to the dealer Symes himself. 

When prosecuted for some of his offences, Symes lied to the court and claimed that he had stored his antiquities in five warehouses.  It later transpired that he had secretly stashed items in more than 30 warehouses, peppered between London, New York and Switzerland, some of which the authorities are continuing to search for. One of these storage facilities was the subject of a closed door press conference in Rome on March 22, 2016.

When seasoned officers from Italy's Art Policing division, the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale pried open forty-five large wooden shipping crates at a Port Franc freeport warehouse storage facility in Geneva in January 2016 they were shocked by the contents they found. Carefully inventoried, complete with dated newspaper wrappings, was enough ancient art to fill a museum: 5,300 objects spanning 1500 years of Italian archeology. 

In one singular warehouse, stashed away for 15 years, the British art dealer had squirrelled away an Ali Baba's cave-worthy hoard of Roman and Etruscan treasures.  Among the objects were two exceptional sixth century BCE Etruscan sarcophagi looted from Tuscania; one of a reclining young woman with pink painted eyes and another of an elderly man. The crates were also filled with bas-reliefs and a cache of fresco fragments, some of which are believed to have come from a painted from a temple of Cerveteri, perhaps from the Vigna Marini Vitalini.  Whoever packed the crates methodically catalogued each of the box's contents, pasting a photocopy of the images of the contents to the exterior of each shipping container. Many of the art shipping containers contained an impressive quantity of attic pottery, painted plates, marble busts and bronzes.

During the press conference at the Carabinieri TPC barracks in Trastevere Italy's Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism Dario Franceschini, Italian deputy prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo, superintendent for Southern Etruria Alfonsina Russo and the head of the Carabinieri TPC Division, praised the coordinated efforts of the Swiss and Italian investigators. General Commander of the Carabinieri TPC, Mariano Mossa estimated the value of the objects discovered in the warehouse to be worth nine million euros.  

Culture Minister Franceschini called the warehouse raid "one of the most important finds of recent decades".   Prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo stated that the objects were stolen in the seventies, in clandestine excavations in Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia as well as looted in Etruria. At some point in the looting campaign, the antiquities were smuggled into the Geneva freeport facility where they remained untouched and unopened.  Capaldo stated that they believe that the statues, tiles and sarcophagi were to be illegally exported and sold under false papers to collectors in Germany, Japan and other various collector countries.

Stefano Alessandrini, a consultant to Italy's State Prosecutor and Cultural Ministry and a lecturer during ARCA's postgraduate program who lectures for ARCA's Art Law and Illicit Trafficking course says that it is impossible to give a precise financial figure on the value of material stolen from Italy over the last half a century, ie. from the beginning of the 1970s.   Italian authorities believe that millions of objects have been illegally excavated and trafficked and some estimate the value of lost heritage due to antiquities looting to be as high as several billion euros.

Alessandrini emphasized that when reporters ask for financial figures to indicate art's value they do not take into consideration the “priceless” aspect of an object:  the loss of its historic information about the western world and the context in which the objects were found or how the tangible remains of antiquity gives us insightful information about ancient culture and civilisations. Alessandrini stated that only a small portion of the Italy’s looted art is ever located, and when it is, it is often only repatriated to Italy following lengthy litigation or extracted negotiations between the purchasers and the authorities in source countries.

Alessandrini stated "When looted works of ancient art end up in foreign museums or are sold by auction houses and antique dealers we have a good chance to identify and recover them because we have photographs.  But many of the antiquities are still hidden in caches of traffickers like this one or in the collections of unscrupulous collectors that haven't been displayed publicly."

It is believed that the return of the this cache of looted heritage will increase pressure on Great Britain to hand over another 700 disputed artefacts linked to the same collector that are currently being held by the liquidator for Mr Symes estate following his declared bankruptcy.  The UK cache of objects includes sculptures, jewellery and vases, most of which are believed by antiquities trafficking researchers to be Etruscan in origin and to have come predominantly from the Lazio and Tuscany regions of Italy.

In selecting antiquities, individual collectors and museums have choices. They can choose to focus exclusively on the historic, aesthetic and economic benefits of their acquisitions in formulating their collections or they can add ethical and moral criteria to their purchase considerations.  It's time for private collectors to conscientiously ask themselves

Who am I buying from?

Why does a dealer or group of dealers appear to have an unending supply of archaeological material?


Should I spend large sums of money purchasing objects that destroy, scatter or obliterate it as a source of historical information giving us insight into the past?


Will my purchase further more looting, theft, smuggling, or fraud?

Could the proceeds of my purchase be used for nefarious purposes such as financing terrorism, militant activity or organised crime?

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

A partial sampling of images of some of the objects from the January 2016 Symes Geneva freeport seizure are included below.  ARCA has maintained a complete photo inventory of all objects seized for research purposes.

Copyright ARCA

Note the Newspaper date and packing materials of US Origin - Copyright ARCA

Roman Sarcophagus with added Christian elements - Copyright ARCA

Closeup of Antique Trade Gazette dating to August 1990, gives clue to date when crates were packed - Copyright ARCA

Vase and matching polaroid - Copyright ARCA

Shipping crates used by Symes as they appeared when opened by the Carabinieri TPV - Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Vase fragments with matching trafficker polaroid - Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Syme's external inventory pasted to the outside of each crate -  Copyright ARCA

March 17, 2016

Was the Verona Museum Theft Commissioned? Possibly

By Lynda Albertson

Surprising news continues to come out regarding the Thursday, November 19, 2015 theft from the Verona Civic Museum of Castelvecchio where thieves had made off with seventeen Italian and foreign artworks worth an estimated €10m-€15m including rare pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Bellini, Pisanello, Mategna, the Venetian artist Tintoretto and his son.

The Italian-Moldovan band, led by twin brothers Francesco and Pasquale Silvestri has been code named Operation Gemini after the two brothers found to be at the heart of the theft's organisation.

During a joint press conference conducted by the Squadra Mobile della Questura scaligera, the Servizio Centrale Operativo (Sco) of Italy's State Police and the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale,  the Public Prosecutor of Verona, Mario Giulio Schinaia stated With these arrests we have partially repaired an offence to the city of Verona, which, however, will only be rectified when the stolen" paintings will be recovered.” 

General Mariano Ignazio Mossa speaking on behalf of the Carabinieri TPC work in breaking the case indicated that his squad had been working in conjunction with local Verona law enforcement from the very beginning, arriving in the city from Rome on the morning after the dramatic theft.  He stated that the law enforcement groups had worked together jointly and continuously from that day forward, without leaving the city throughout the four month investigation. 

With some bitterness in his tone, the general told members of the press that the specialised task force had intentionally elected to work on the developing case silently.  This lips-are-sealed style of law enforcement is something sometimes criticised by the press, who clamour for the release of information from the moment a scandalous museum heist occurs.  

As a rule of thumb, the Carabinieri TPC has long been reticent about releasing much in the way of breaking news information when a major theft investigation is ongoing as the inopportune release of details sometimes serve as an impediment which can then compromise their ongoing investigation. Given the Italian art squad's successful history of recovery, the tactic has served them extremely well. 

General Mossa relayed that sometimes the media mistook the task force’s silence as a lack of attention to the severity of the theft, but in reality the decision preserved the integrity of their investigation and allowed officers to work efficiently to develop the inculpatory evidence necessary to arrest the two Italian brothers as well as Pasquale's Moldovan partner Svetlana Pkachuck.

Pkachuck is considered to be the link to the nine others from the the Republic of Moldova, five of whom were reported to be residing in nearby Brescia where the museum guard's getaway car was reported abandoned.  

Authorities have indicated that the investigation was a laborious one that involved prosecution wire taps into the band's activities and the painstaking review of some 4,000 hours of CCTV footage.   The biggest breakthrough came when the task force identified two Renaults driven by Moldovan members of the group.

Based upon wiretapped conversations authorities believe that three or four of the artworks stolen by the Italian-Moldovan band of thieves were stolen from the museum specifically for one individual. The rest appear to have been grabbed opportunistically, possibly to be sold later, after the commissioned transaction had concluded. 

“We need to wait, its too much of a big mess”  Pasquale Ricciardi Silvestri is said to have said during an intercepted wire tap. 

“They’re afraid, do you understand? We calm things down… what difference is : one month, two months, three months, four months ... what changes? We say nothing and do nothing.  That is fair. ” 

Some have speculated that the masterpieces may have been buried during the initial post-theft phase and then transported to Moldova. We hope to recover works of art abroad. Arresting those responsible is the first step. We are confident we will recover them, said an optimistic General Mossa.

For more details please see the press conference video below with the prosecutor Mario Giulio Schinaia of Verona, the director of the SCO - the Central Operations Service of the Police - Renato Cortese, General Mossa commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the commissioner Enzo Mangini and the provincial commander of the carabinieri Peter Oresta.

March 16, 2016

12 arrests/13 warrents in the Verona Museum Theft

Twelve accomplices, have been arrested in connection with the theft of 17 paintings worth an estimated €10m-€15m stolen on Thursday, November 19, 2015 from the Verona Civic Museum of Castelvecchio shortly before its 8 pm closing time.  At the time of the theft, thieves had made off with seventeen Italian and foreign artworks including rare pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Bellini, Pisanello, Mategna, the Venetian artist Tintoretto and his son.   

During the art heist, one accomplice stayed with the cashier holding her at gunpoint while two others escorted the watchmen through the museum's exhibition rooms and for more than an hour, removed artworks from their fastenings. The thieves were then reported to have taken the guard's keys, using his automobile for a fast getaway.  

Yesterday, law enforcement announced a sensational breakthrough in the case.  In a joint investigation involving Verona's Police and the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale coordinated by Italian Deputy Public Prosecutor, Gennaro Ottaviano, 12 accomplices have been arrested.

The names of the arrested are:
Anatolie Burlac senior
Vasile Cheptene,
Vasile Mihailov Igor Creciun,
Adrian Damaschin
Denis Damaschin
Victor Potinga
Francesco Silvestri
Ricciardi Pasquale Silvestri
Svetlana Tkachuk
Natalia Tesmann.
Pavel Vasilachi,
Roman Tiganciuc Cornel Vasilita,
Vitalii Voznyi, 

Nine of those arrested were detained by authorities in neighbouring Moldova. Three accomplices were arrested in Verona. In what is developing to look like a classic insider job, one of the detainees, Francesco Silvestri, is the night security guard who had just started his shift at the Castelvecchio museum on the night of the robbery.

Silvesteri's testimony at the time of the incident was not convincing. According to Italy's open public records, he told authorities that armed bandits had entered the side door of the museum just before closing time, a few minutes prior to the time evening alarms are activated. He then elaborated that the thieves quickly captured and disarmed him.  For the next 80 minutes the thieves silently moved through the entire museum, cherry-picking select works.  Caught on the museum's CCTV, the footage recorded the thieves only speaking three words before taking Silvestri's car keys and making a clean getaway with his vehicle.

Silvestri was an employee of Securitalia, a firm that had been awarded the service contract to provide security and surveillance services to the museum.   The guard is believed to have intentionally left the keys of his car available for the thieves to use during the museum heist. Also implicated in the theft is Silvestri’s brother and his Moldovan girlfriend who appears to have been the point of connection between the Italians and the Moldavians criminals who orchestrated the theft.

Announcing the arrest, Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale released footage from the CCTV camera's taken inside the museum on the day of the theft.

While the arrests are significant, authorities have issued no statements as to if any of the missing artwork has been recovered.  When queried by Italian journalists Verona's mayor Flavio Tosi stated "We hope to recover all the paintings and that they are in good condition."

It should be noted that previous dramatic statements suggesting the involvement of Islamic militants  in the theft seem to have been nothing more than unfounded conjecture. 

March 14, 2016

Another War's Cultural Cleansing and Rebuilding: Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

By Guest Author, Helen Walasek

With the deliberate attacks on historic monuments, archaeological sites and religious structures from mosques to monasteries now being enacted across Syria and Iraq, we should not forget the premeditated assaults on cultural and religious heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war of the 1990s, one of the most reported aspects of the conflict. 

Twenty years have passed since the end of the bitter 1992–1995 Bosnian War and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In The Hague two of the principal architects of the conflict, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, and his military commander, Ratko Mladić, await judgement on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 

Among those charges are the intentional destruction of cultural and religious heritage, a central element of the aggressive campaigns of ethnic cleansing that sought to create mono-ethnic / mono-religious territories within Bosnia-Herzegovina where once there had been diversity and coexistence. The destruction (usually far from the front-lines) was one of the defining features of a conflict that shocked the world. 

Smoke pours from the Vijećnica, the National Library of Bosnia Herzegovina
in Sarajevo after the shelling on the night of  25-26 August 1992. The photograph was a
prosecution exhibit at the ICTY. © ICTY

While the devastation provoked global condemnation, particularly attacks on iconic structures in cosmopolitan urban settings like the National Library (known also as the Vijećnica) in Sarajevo and Mostar’s Old Bridge (Stari Most), it was in towns and villages across wide swathes of ethnically-cleansed countryside where the destruction was worst, particularly of Bosnia’s Ottoman and Islamic heritage. Here some of the country’s most beautiful historic mosques, like the domed sixteenth-century Aladža Mosque in Foča and the the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka were razed to the ground. 

Aladža Mosque See
Image Caption details
2a, 2b and 3 are found
at end ofthis article.

Orthodox and Catholic churches and monasteries were assaulted, too. The magnificent neo-Baroque Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Mostar was dynamited to rubble, the Franciscan Monastery at Plehan shelled, then blown up by a truck carrying two tons of explosives.

However, early hypotheses of an equivalent and mutual destruction of religious and cultural heritage by all three principal warring parties in the conflict (breakaway nationalist Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian government – usually labelled ‘Muslim’) have not been supported by later assessments.  These identify Bosnian Serb forces and their allies (which controlled 70% of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina), and on a lesser scale Bosnian Croat forces, as the principal perpetrators of ethnic cleansing – and thus of the destruction of cultural and religious property. 

The Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One overarching aim was to attempt to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing and restore the country to its prewar diversity. To those drafting the treaty, addressing the devastation to Bosnia’s cultural heritage was considered so essential to the peace process that Annex 8 of the eleven annexes to the Dayton Agreement provided for the formation of a Commission to Preserve National Monuments – a unique feature in any peace agreement.

But the post-conflict restoration of important historic monuments, particularly of iconic sites, were to become settings for the often competing agendas of both international and domestic actors. Meanwhile, surviving refugees and displaced people returning to reconstruct their communities in the places from which they had been violently expelled worked to a different dynamic. Here post-conflict restoration became closely bound up with ‘restoring’ feelings of security, a psychological yet literal ‘rebuilding’ of communities, yet which also came to encompass ‘hard law’ issues as obstacles to the right to reconstruct were challenged through legal remedies. 

Residents of Banja Luka stare at the remains of the 16th century Ferhadija Mosque
eliberately dynamited by the Bosnian Serb authorities in May 1993, more than a
year after the Bosnian War began. There had been no fighting in Banja Luka.
© Estate of Aleksander Aco Ravlić

The case of post-conflict Bosnia shows how, regardless of the aims of the peace process and the framework of the Dayton Peace Agreement (and the reasons that lay behind the destruction of cultural and religious property), when it came to reconstruction, the international community focused its attention almost entirely on restoring iconic sites like the Old Bridge at Mostar, predictably linking ‘restoration’ and ‘reconciliation’. Meanwhile, while in another domain, with frequently no help from international actors, returning communities attempting to rebuild and restore focused rather on human rights and freedom of religion.

What happened in Bosnia was to become a seminal marker and a paradigm of intentional cultural property destruction, not only among heritage professionals, but across disciplines from the military to humanitarian aid organisations in the years following the end of the war as they struggled to find answers to the questions raised by the inability of the international community in all its varied embodiments to prevent the destruction and where its representatives were frequently left as passive onlookers. 

The destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina was to have a major impact in many spheres of heritage protection, not least the drafting and adoption of the Second Protocol to The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and was the prompt for the formation of the Blue Shield movement.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the court’s prosecutions led to groundbreaking judgements that crystallized a more definitive recognition in international humanitarian law that intentional destruction of cultural property was not only a war crime in itself, but a manifestation of persecution and – crucially – that destruction of a people’s cultural heritage was an aspect of genocide.

Typical uses for the levelled site of a destroyed mosque: as a parking lot and space
for communal garbage containers and small kiosks. This site of the now
reconstructed Krpića Mosque in Bijeljina in 2001. © Richard Carlton

Yet despite all this, the literature on the destruction of cultural and religious property in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its worldwide impact has been remarkably slight. An exception is the glut of publications on Mostar and the reconstruction of the Old Bridge – itself symptomatic of the focus of the international community post-conflict restoration efforts. 

Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage gives the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the destruction of the cultural heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1992–1995 war. A case study and source book on the first significant destruction of European cultural heritage during conflict since World War Two, it seeks to assess questions which have moved to the foreground with the inclusion of cultural heritage preservation and protection as an important aspect of international post-conflict and development aid.

Examining responses to the destruction (including from bodies like UNESCO and the Council of Europe), the book discusses what intervention the international community took (if any) to protect Bosnia’s heritage during the war, as well as surveying the post-conflict scene. Assessing implementation of Annex 8 of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the use of other legal remedies, it looks also at the treatment of war crimes involving cultural property at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 


With contributions by: 

Routledge (Ashgate), 17 April 2015, 
hardback, 430 pages, 
126 black and white illustrations and 1 map


Image Captions:
2.a The 16th century Aladža Mosque in Foča, one of the most important Ottoman monuments in South East Europe, pictured before its destruction in 1992.

2.b Site of the Aladža Mosque in 1996. Both photographs were used as prosecution evidence of war crimes at the ICTY. © ICTY

3. Satellite images of the Aladža Mosque, Foča, taken in October 1991 where its minaret and dome can be clearly seen and the same site in August 1992 showing a rubble strewn space where the mosque had once stood. The pictures were used as prosecution evidence in war crimes trials at the ICTY. © ICTY


1] Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts, Annex IV The policy of ethnic cleansing. S/1994/674/Add.2 (Vol. I), 28 December 1994, Introduction; Sanitized [   ] Version of Ethnic Cleansing Paper, dated 5 January 1995. See also Ethnic Cleansing and Atrocities in Bosnia, Statement by CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence John Gannon, Joint SSCI SFRC Open Hearing, 9 August 1995, and numerous ICTY prosecutions While Bosnian government forces did commit grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, these assessments found that they had no policy of ethnic cleansing and did not engage in such operations.

March 11, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016 - ,,,, 1 comment

Palmyra - An example of when traffic whoring and page view metrics are more important than accuracy

In the last 72 hours I have spent a frustratingly amount of time playing Whac-A-Mole to bad reporting from a number of professional journalistic sites and individuals who rightly want to draw the world's attention to the ongoing battle of Palmyra, but who wrongly choose to do so using less than thorough reporting techniques. 

On March 9th, Twitter user @rt0ur (Russian Tour) posted an image that didn't explicitly list itself as new, but which showed comparison images to some of the destruction wrought on the ancient site of Palmyra.   A snapshot of both the text and image used in this tweet can be seen to the right.  

As concerned individuals search for recent news via social media on the state of Palmyra's heritage and Tadmor this seemingly "new" imagery cascaded into a series of rapid retweets from users following the conflict who assumed the imagery was new.  Unbeknownst to many who saw the tweet and reposted, the image was originally published last summer on August 9, 2015 in Issue 11 of Dabiq (Arabic: دابق ), the online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for propaganda and recruitment.  

Sometimes reposting an image, assuming that it is "new", is an honest mistake.  

It is unrealistic to expect the passive consumer or the generalist journalist mining information on social media to ghoulishly scroll through, screen-catch, store and then recognise every image ever published by ISIS via the deep web or video sites.   But the dishing-up of old news repackaged as "new" news serves to highlight how the world's news is spread with rapid velocity over social media. It also underlines how easy it is for news to become distorted unintentionally or in some cases intentionally by individuals or organisations with Twitter and Facebook accounts. 

It also draws attention to how audiences that assume a more active role in providing analysed content; those who participate actively in developing "breaking news" or expert analysis reports on the state of heritage through social media, need to exercise due diligence in their researching.

“The fact that a tweet by a journalist is restricted to 140 characters does not mean that journalistic ethics can be ditched.” London Journalist, David Brewer 

Across the world people are trying to make sense of the horrendous situation in Syria, focusing on Palmyra in particular and wondering what, if anything, anyone can do to help.  Sometimes the only thing individuals feel they can do is spread the word on what's happening.  Unfortunately some web-based journalists and social media users think that having an engaged audience is also something worth manipulating, using journalistic shock and awe tactics to encourage more viewer traffic or increase followers. 

Using web platforms and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, that feed upon audience interaction via retweets and repostings, followers and retweeters sometime end up serving as echo chambers, for those that choose to manipulate content.  Without integrity, social media journalism becomes easy to manipulate and users reposting inaccurate or tainted information can unknowingly support a specific opinion or agenda, driving web traffic towards unethically behaving news sources.

Propagating one's own viewpoint or opinion isn't inherently bad. Opinions do matter, and voicing them is a good thing, but encouraging followers to read published content by distorting factual accuracy is akin to "traffic whoring". 

In the biz, some of the less taste-worthy news agencies actually assign staff to “traffic-whoring duty.”  But the lure of offering up posts that content providers know will garner more page clicks and attract more followers can lead web journalists to intentionally distort reality.

Content providers often subscribe to a carrot and stick formula of SEO-rich headlines plus key words sprinkled with enticing visual imagery known to appeal to their intended market audience.  But these ingredients are only part of the recipe of good web-based journalism.  The formula can be harnessed, and used ethically or manipulated and used dishonestly.

Sometimes reposting an image is abject manipulation.

An example of unethical reporting is when a news agency or social media account holder intentionally creates a false illusion of reality, complete with dramatic photo or video, packaging their creation as "breaking news".  Such was the case yesterday when a video was posted on Twitter by @ruptly (Ruptly), a video news subsidiary of RT (originally Russia Today), the Russian government-funded television network.  

At first glance, viewers were led to believe that they were looking at new video footage, likely obtained through boots-on-the-ground soldiers advancing to retake Palmyra.   In reality and ironically, it is a video from May 20, 2015, the day that insurgents swept into Palmyra's military air base, prison, intelligence headquarters and the city's ancient sites.

The original video was posted by Ruptly to Liveleak on May 20, 2015.  The "breaking news" version on March 10, 2016 showed a different opening image and spliced out the government backed soldiers engaging with Daesh militants as they fought near the ancient ruins.

When I pointed this out to Ruptly, they silently withdrew the video late yesterday without further explanation or acknowledgment of their fast switch.   But not before the extracted video had been retweeted several times. 

The same type of sensationalist, false reporting was propagated by Breaking News, @BRnewsKING though their report yesterday centered on multiple airplane strikes at Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle (Palmyra Castle).

Again branded by heritage activists as "new" news, the report was picked up and then analysed by geopolitical analyst and microblogger @markito0171 who spent time pinpointing aircraft. 

It is one thing to accidentally misrepresent current affairs, propagating someone else's error in assumption.  It is another thing to intentionally amplify incidents, turning the imagery into page view chasing gutter journalism thereby manipulating the chain of historical events.  When the latter happens content providers create a reverberation, often in a partisan manner, that only serves to further polarise parties to a already complicated asymmetrical conflict. 

I encourage news organisations, journalists, analysts and citizen activists reporting on the Syrian conflict to slow down on retweeting, to be more transparent about, and more attentive to, the way in which reporting has an impact across the conflict heritage ecosystem. Viral journalism is great, but only if we police ourselves and demand factual accuracy from our sources.

Ethical journalists should strive for honesty and be courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.  Good journalism seeks the truth and reports it, even when the truth isn't necessarily something we are happy about. 

Good journalists also take responsibility for the accuracy of what they report and verify information as best as is possible before releasing it to the public. When errors are made or situations misinterpreted, journalists should be accountable and transparent to their errors, acknowledging mistakes and correcting them prominently. 

Lastly I believe that journalists should live by the creed:

Being the first to report should never compromise the truth.  

Op Ed by:  Lynda Albertson, CEO ARCA
@sauterne (Ergo Sum)


March 6, 2016

A Morbid Fascination: Should Human Remains Still be on Display?

By Aubrey Catrone, 2015 ARCA alumna 

“‘Stolen from death.’ The Casts. The Photography.” main exhibit, panoramic view, Image Credit: Countdown Blog
For centuries, civilizations have been built around religion. And, with religion comes burial rituals. Yet, it is these rituals that intimate humans, as a species, are perpetually haunted by the uncertainty of what comes after death. Burial rituals spanning the mummification of the Ancient Egyptians to the funeral rights of modern day Catholics reveal a belief in afterlife for which the deceased must be prepared. However, human remains themselves serve as a reminder of the brevity of individual lives. They represent the only tangible knowledge of the afterlife: decomposition. Perhaps it is this mystery that fuels our interest in the physical remnants of life.

Hordes of tourists pour into the city of Pompeii each year to explore not only a lost city but also the havoc wreaked by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It is this inexplicable lure to death and destruction that elucidates a disconcerting aspect of humanity. My sojourn to the archaeological site, during the Summer of 2015, revealed patrons unperturbed by advertisements for their special exhibit, “‘Stolen from death.’ The casts. The photography.” Throughout the park, larger than life posters depicted the writhing bodies of those who died in the eruption of 79 AD. In their palpable anticipation to reach the “main event,” I witnessed tourists captivated by the plaster casts found throughout the ruins of the UNESCO site. They jeered and pointed at the bodies strewn about haphazardly or encased in glass as if taunting a circus freak show. There was no reprieve from the glorification of suffering when wandering through the city. 

“Stolen from Death’s" main exhibit was housed within a temporary, wooden pyramid constructed in the community’s amphitheater. Patrons, corralled by metal railings leading directly inside, were forced to enter the structure. Recessed into the floor, visitors walked around nearly twenty casts. The centerpiece: a family huddled together in fear. The parents and two children clung to each other, forever frozen awaiting their horrific fate. And, while most of the facial expressions of their contemporaries were muddled by the materials in which they have been preserved, if one looked closely enough, a few found their way through time. Their pain and fear are etched into eternity. Visitors could not tear themselves away, enthralled by the history of destruction set before them. 

Special exhibition centerpiece, Image Credit Jess Kamphuis.

The manner in which the deceased were arranged throughout the site raises a number of ethical questions. In the case of Pompeii, the very process of creating the casts provides archeologists with another clue into the life of Pompeii during 79 AD; yet, it must be examined in relation to the current international policies regarding the exhibition of human remains. 

According to The Guardian article from October 2010, entitled Museums avoid displaying human remains ‘out of respect,’” “Museums are increasingly getting cold feet about exhibiting human bodies and body parts - despite surveys showing the public is fascinated and quite untroubled by such displays.” This assertion is primarily rooted in the 2009 English Heritage survey, entitled “Research Into Issues Surrounding Human Remains,” which sought to gain a greater understanding of popular opinions. The article also contends that pagan groups, such as Pagans for Archaeology and Honouring the Ancient Deadare largely responsible for advocating the proper treatment of human remains. In response to such advocation, museums and institutions have been known to amend their exhibits as well as repatriate remains, in an attempt to satiate the cultural needs of the deceased. However, if taken to the extreme, it could ultimately hinder research and scientific study. As museums, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, continue to reevaluate their policies, the general public persists in their morbid fascination with the dead. 

The aforementioned survey seeks to understand the phenomena of our fascination with the dead. Of the 864 British citizens surveyed, ages eighteen and older, 91% of participants believe human remains should be displayed. The same 91% also agree that remains should be retained by museums for research purposes. However, these numbers begin to vary when the age of the remains is brought into question. Polling reveals participant approval decreases when the deceased can be “identified by name” or if their direct descendants are still living. Perhaps it is the age of the remains that dictates the current policies regarding their presentation to the public. This is further illustrated by the Museums Association’s page, “Ethical Debate: Human Remains.” While acknowledging that there is little published regarding visitor opinions, they draw from data that suggests visitors are comfortable with seeing properly preserved human remains. For, the Museum Association also confirms visitor comfort directly correlates to the age of the remains on display. The younger they are, the more likely one would have to grapple with the idea of living descendants as well as cultural traditions for burial and finding peace that have been overlooked.

Pompeii’s special exhibit, temporary pyramid, Image Credit: lablog

This trend towards restricting the exhibition of younger remains is particularly exemplified by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). According to the NMAI’s website, they believe “that the respectful treatment and disposition of human remains is a basic human right.” The institution is committed to returning all remains to “their lineal descendants, regardless of geography and sociopolitical borders.” At the same time, the British Museum’s July 2013 “Human Remains Policy” requires the museum to justify the retention of remains that have living relatives or hail from an existing cultural community. However, the British Museum policy also enumerates the “benefits of retaining human remains.” Through the study and display of the long dead, we are afforded a glimpse into how other societies interpreted death. We are offered the opportunity to compare their rituals to our own. Also, if the remains have been physically modified, they may provide context to other artifacts within the Collection.

Ultimately, human remains have the power to advance the understanding and study of past cultures, particularly when held by museums and other cultural institutions. However, at what price does man’s morbid fascination come? The entire civilization of Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There are no identifiable, direct descendants. No one is left to advocate that their cultural beliefs be upheld. Rather, their anonymous and collective pain is immortalized in the plaster casts molded from the holes in which they died. Does mere anonymity signify that we have less of a moral obligation to those whose names have been lost to time? If this is the case, then I hope my name lives long enough to prevent me from becoming just another set of bones encased in glass, laid bare for the world to see. 

Sources Cited:

British Museum. “British Museum Policy: Human Remains in the Collection.” Accessed January 31, 2016.

British Museum. “Human remains policy.” Accessed January 31, 2016.

English Heritage. “Research into Issues Surrounding Human Remains.” June 2009. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Honouring the Ancient Dead. Accessed February 1, 2016.

Kennedy, Maev. “Museums avoid displaying human remains ‘out of respect.’” The Guardian, October 25, 2010. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Museums Association. “Ethical Debate: Human Remains.” Accessed January 30, 2016.

Museums Association. “Human remains in museums.” Accessed January 30, 2016.

National Museum of the American Indian. “Repatriation.” Accessed January 29, 2016.

Pagans for Archaeology. Accessed January 30, 2016.