Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site):
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon):
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see:
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

A vessel from Iran in Washington DC: Digging Artifacts and modern Archives at the Smithsonian

Many Greetings from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC!

Living in DC, there is an active archaeology program on the early history within the beltway with many exciting discoveries. What is visible for the hundreds of thousands who visit the Smithsonian every year for free, though, are artifacts from the past and present of many cultures around the world. Over the decades, the Smithsonian was also actively involved in scientific excavations (Think Shanidar in Iraq in the 1950s! Think Tell Jemmeh! in the 1970s! Think the fantastic Archaeology Conservation Program!), and while being studied and researched upon, artifacts from around the world are on display to promote an understanding of responsibilties and shared cultural heritage.

In December 2010, I became Assistant Curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, the Freer|Sackler Gallery. Two weeks ago, we opened a small installation on Iron-Age ceramics from the area south of the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran. As a curatorial intern in the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department, Sarah Johnson, co-author of this entry, who worked herself on an excavation in Syria in 2010, has helped to prepare the installation, and is currently doing research on the museum’s collections. This little blurb on a well preserved vessel from Iran currently not on display (S1998.326), gives an idea on only one aspect of what we can do in a museum, and reminds us upon one aspect of archaeology, minutely and more detailed record keeping and publishing.

It is both ironic and fitting that a photograph, we only recently rediscovered in the archives of archaeologist and early Iran explorer Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) sheds light on vessel S1998.326. Thanks to an early fine pencil label “Tepe Giyan” written on the back of the photograph, the jar can now placed with certainty to the site of Tepe Giyan, a large archaeological mound in Northwestern Iran near the modern city of Nahavand.

The jar had  entered the museum in 1998. It was purchased by Victor and Takako Hauge in a shop at a Bazaar in Tehran between 1962 and 1965.  Interestingly, Herzfeld came by his first Tepe Giyan ceramics in nearly the same way.  In his own words: “In 1926 I found, in a shop at Hamadan … two little vases … They had a prehistoric air, but the dealer did not know whence they came.  Mere chance, a year later, led to the discovery of their provenance—Tepe Giyan near Nihawand—whence some more pieces were brought to me.”  Just as Herzfeld used older excavation records to identify his vases, “mere chance” led us  to discover this photograph of a vessel, acquired by the Hauges, in Herzfeld’s records a few weeks ago.  The vessel and its connection to Herzfeld underline the important connection between archaeology, objects and archives in a museum setting. The gap in provenance for this vessel resulted from the separation of the vessel from the excavation photographs and a paucity of published materials on Herzfeld’s own work at Tepe Giyan and at other prehistoric sites.

The site of Tepe Giyan presented challenges from the start of excavations there.  Herzfeld first became interested in the site after finds from Tepe Giyan appeared in the market. The French held a monopoly over excavations in Iran from 1895 to 1927, but in 1928 motivated by rampant looting occurring there, Herzfeld began hurried excavations at Tepe Giyan. In 1930, he mentions that excavations (he does not provide the name of the excavators, so one must assume it was local archaeologists) have left only one third of the hill standing. This article in 1930 remained his only published material on Tepe Giyan until the 1930s when he suggested in the preface of Archaeological History of Iran that he would complete a three volume work on prehistoric art in Iran.  This work never appeared largely because of political reasons.  In the 1930s, Herzfeld was increasingly shunned by his German colleagues due to the rise of Nazism, and as a result, he lost much of his German funding.  His section on prehistoric art in Iran in the Ancient East (1941) remains his most comprehensive contribution to the study of Tepe Giyan and prehistoric ceramics.  His emphasis on his exhaustive editing of the prehistoric section in the introduction to this book suggests that he had more to say on prehistoric Iran, which was unfortunately never published.  Fortunately, the site was excavated in the early 1930s by a French team lead by Georges Contenau (1877-1964) and Roman Ghirshman (1895-1979), who later received a Freer Gold Medal for his accomplishments in Iranian archaeology. Most of what we know today about the early excavations at Tepe Giyan stems from the published excavation records of Contenau and Ghirshman.

While we can now place S1998.326 at the Tepe Giyan site, one of the many questions we may not able to answer is how the vessel get to the Tehran Bazaar of the 1960s.  Herzfeld often photographed and documented objects not from his own excavations so it is possible that he saw this object in Tehran or at a market of a neighboring town to the site.  Evidence that he sold many of the seals found at Tepe Giyan and other prehistoric sites to a dealer in New York suggests the possibility that Herzfeld himself may have sold the jar.  Difficult to fathom today, archaeologists often played the role of both the collector and the scholar in the early 20th century. The rediscovery of a single photograph is sometimes a testament to the benefits of the recording of artifacts in minute detail.