Dubious Provenance Pressure Grows for Museums to Return Stolen Objects

The German government wants to help rein in illicit excavations and trade in archeological objects with a tough new law. The move is expected to create pressure for some of country's most-famous museums, which contain numerous works of unknown provenance.

By Konstantin von Hammerstein

A marble cycladic female figurine is on display at Greece's National Archeological Museum on June 6 after its return to the country after nearly 40 years in Germany.

A marble cycladic female figurine is on display at Greece's National Archeological Museum on June 6 after its return to the country after nearly 40 years in Germany.

Hermann Parzinger is fond of telling the story of how, 15 years ago, he found himself staring down the barrel of a Kalashnikov in northern Pakistan. The archeologist had surprised a group of people trying to plunder a Buddhist temple. Parzinger and his colleagues beat a hasty retreat.

A short time later, in July 2001, he and a team of excavators from Russia and Germany uncovered a major stash of gold treasures from the Skythes, a nomadic equestrian people who lived on the Central Asian Steppe in Russia's Tyva Republic in Siberia some 2,700 years ago. After making their sensational discovery, the archeologists had to be provided with 24-hour armed security.

There aren't too many culture functionaries in Germany able to tell such stories. The president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is a martial arts expert with a black belt 2 dan ranking and has also won best in his age group in several Berlin Judo competitions. But behind the brawn, sometimes all it takes is a simple question to upset the 55-year-old pre-historian.

In this case, it's asking him when the world-famous museums his organization operates -- the State Museums including those on Berlin's UNESCO-listed Museum Island -- ceased purchasing archeological objects from abroad in the art trade?

Parzinger hesitates. He's been the head of one of the world's most important cultural institutions for long enough to realize immediately that he's tiptoeing a political minefield with whatever answer he provides.

Change 'Urgently Needed'

This week, Parzinger is co-hosting a major international conference in Berlin focusing on illegal excavations and the illicit trade in cultural property. The two-day conference at Germany's Foreign Ministry is expected to pave the way for a tightening of current laws on the protection of cultural objects. The German government itself has been highly critical of its most recent legislation, passed in 2007. In a report issued to parliament, the government recently stated that amendments are "urgently needed."

The government writes that although it has since become "common practice for museum not to purchase cultural objects of indeterminate provenance," the fact ist that "illegally excavated or illicitly exported cultural treasures are still being bought and sold." Like many other archeologists, Parzinger is calling for legal restrictions to be increased sharply in order to curb illegal trading of antique objects.

Parzinger than calls his legal counsel, but she's in a meeting. He asks her to come over anyway. When she arrives, he asks: Do we have purchases from the art trade?

"Yes," the lawyer says. The city's Antikensammlung, or Collection of Classical Antiquities, purchased 21 Apulian vases during the mid-1980s. Years later, both German and Italian investigators looked into the case. Members of Italy's federal military police, the Carabinieri, spent several days in the German capital auditing records and interviewing the director of the collection as a witness. In the end, they found no evidence of illegal excavations or exports from Italy.

The State Museums' legal counsel says the museums haven't purchase anything else. But Parzinger seems alarmed and orders the archeological museums he oversees to conduct internal reviews and report the findings to him.

Last Thursday, he followed up with SPIEGEL and told reporters the museums had continued purchasing objects until just a few years ago. Gifts were also accepted in cases in which the provenance wasn't always clear. There wasn't much and nothing spectacular -- antique vases, cuneiform writing, Mesopotamian cylinder seals, but nothing problematic.

Berlin Museums To Review Provenance

The museums have now been directed to review the provenance of all archeological objects that have entered into the collections since 1970. A representative of each museum has been appointed to conduct the review. Pazinger also promises "We will always be prepared to return things if it can be proven that they are of illegal origin."

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 and the photographs of destroyed cultural sites in civil war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa have prompted debates about the protection of these treasures throughout the West, including Germany. Dubious purchases had been made for years by Western museums, but the practice is now widely considered to be immoral.

The prevailing wisdom today is that illegal excavations and trade in archeological objects is destroying our world cultural heritage. And what is playing out before the eyes of the world in Iraq and Syria is no less than a disaster. Still, there is very little reliable data available about the scope and workings of the illegal trade.

Intelligence Gaps

In an internal "Intelligence Threat Study" distributed in July, the FBI in Washington listed 12 areas in the illicit antiquities trade for which there are "intelligence gaps." They include:

  • What is the overall value of the illicit antiquities trade in the US?

  • Where are the largest global networks in this trade?

  • How many and which US-based art dealers are trading in stolen or looted goods?

  • To what extent are US or foreign government workers involved in the illegal trade?

  • Are the networks specializing in the illicit antiquities trade also involved in other criminal activities?

  • How are the proceeds from illegal trade in the United States then transferred back to the networks in the countries of origin?

  • Who are the most active carriers and which countries do they come from? Are the carriers also involved in the drug trade, human trafficking or any other smuggling?

The FBI report states that American authorities have returned more than 7,000 archeological objects to 26 different countries since 2008. But that is likely only a fraction of the illegal objects currently being held in the US, the study notes.

There are no precise figures available on the global volume of illicit trade and those that do exist diverge widely. The FBI report states that some estimate the illegal trade to be worth $2 billion a year, but others say the actual figures are more comparable to trading in drugs or weapons.

Currently, the worst looting is happening in Syria and Iraq. The US State Department recently published high-resolution satellite photos of several excavation sites in Syria that provide clues as to the scope of the destruction taking place there. Within two years, the excavation holes at the Classical-period site Dura Europas had been transformed into a wasteland.

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spiegelfun 12/11/2014
It's interesting that the writer seems unaware of much of the backstory here. American museums have been pioneers in these changes in policy, perhaps because they are much more active in making purchases more recently than many European collections. This isn't new news in many parts of the world.
Wobeewib 12/13/2014
2. Looted Art
If you expect Putin to return Art looted by the Red Army to Germany, you may as well expect them to return Konigsberg and East Prussia.
hakanselvi07 01/03/2015
3. It is a matter of ethics
It is a bit late but still very nice news especially for second world countries or countries that might experience some troubles for a period of time. Turkey was one of those countries that has lost some of her prominent historical items during the the 1st WW and during her war of independence. Most of the items were either stolen by mainly western "archeologist" or were lent for maintenance but never returned. Hittite boğazköy sphinx was returned lately (2011) but there are still some other items which 'most' of the Turkish people can't see for generations since they have been displayed in German museums. -Pergamon Altar - Taken during 1868-1878 -Prayer niche of Beyhekim Mosque-Taken in 1907 -Some pieces from Troy -Taken during 1871-1890 Historical works are universal but they are more meaningful in their original place. (Sorry in advance for any possible mistakes since I'm not archaeologist)
Protest 01/07/2015
to hakanselvi07: [From Wikipedia] In 1878, the German engineer Carl Humann began official excavations on the acropolis of Pergamon, an effort that lasted until 1886. The excavation was undertaken in order to rescue the altar friezes and expose the foundation of the edifice. Later, other ancient structures on the acropolis were brought to light. Upon negotiating with the Turkish government (a participant in the excavation), it was agreed that all frieze fragments found at the time would become the property of the Berlin museums. --- So, there you have it. The Turkish government agreed to the export, and as such there is no legitimate claim for the Pergamon altar to be returned to Turkey. Moreover, since the Turks were responsible for the massive destruction of the Akropolis when they occupied Athens, I'm not sure that they have the necessary credentials to be considered as protectors of the world's historical treasures. Sorry, but those are the facts.
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