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.
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.

Foto: © Yorgos Karahalis / Reuters/ REUTERS

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.

Where Are the Artifacts Disappearing To?

Three weeks ago, a group of experts met in Paris at the invitation of the International Council of Museums in order to exchange information about what is happening in the region. But the experts had difficulty providing reliable knowledge at the secret meeting. "The region is a black hole" in terms of knowledge, said one participant.

Still, it is obvious that major looting is taking place in Syria and northern Iraq. It is also known that Lebanese and Turkish authorities have intercepted many objects at the border in recent months. Turkish officials have reportedly filled several warehouses with seized antiquities. A number of objects have also been discovered at markets in Turkey and Lebanon.

But the lion's share of the stolen objects are simply disappearing. Art dealers claim that they aren't being offered much by way of goods from the Middle East right now and the authorities also haven't registered any major influx of antique objects. So what is happening to the stolen objects?

It is plausible that they will be kept in storage out of public sight over the next 10 to 15 years and will slowly start appearing on international art markets with forged papers just as soon as the current debate over illicit goods dies down. Another possibility is that wealthy collectors in the Arab region or in the Far East are currently expanding their collections.

Experts are certain about one thing. The objects will reemerge at some point in the future -- as has always happened in the past.

Provenance Dubious in Top International Collections

In 2000, British archeologists Christopher Chippindale and David Gill conducted the only comprehensive study of its type ever when they systematically reviewed the reliability of the claimed provenance in the catalogs of seven important international collections of antiquities.

The findings were shocking. Of the 1,396 objects reviewed, 75 percent had no documented provenance. Over 500 of the antiquities didn't have any kind of "object history," meaning they allegedly appeared for the first time in those public exhibitions -- a clear indication they were the product of illegal excavations.

Chippindale and Gill also took pains to review whether the provenance details provided were the same as those provided for the same objects in earlier exhibitions. Here, too, their findings were sobering. Often, objects whose discovery location had been "unknown" in previous exhibitions, had suddenly been assigned to a concrete origin -- another indication that its provenance was likely forged.

Ever since the release of the startling study, archeologists have spoken of "Chippindale's law." "No matter how badly you have assessed the situation, the reality is always worse," says one expert.

Dealing Fast and Easy in World Heritage

Many art dealers claim to have good knowledge of where their objects come from, they're just lacking the right papers. "Do you still have the receipt for every piece furniture that your parents gave to you," asks Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). The Dutchman operates his own business in Amsterdam and is also a private collector. No, he says with disarming openness, he only has one object for which he can say precisely where it was excavated. But he says he does know the history of ownership of his antiques.

What does appear to be clear is that there are few "white" objects being traded, meaning those for which both the site of discovery and previous ownership can be proven. There are also "black" objects, which are known to have been stolen from a collection or museum. But the majority of objects are "gray" because there is uncertainty about their provenance. "Art dealers like to say that gray is white because it clearly isn't black," explains archeologist Luca Giuliani, rector of Berlin's interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Study. "And we archeologists say that gray is actually black because it isn't clear that it's white."

In 1970, UNESCO passed a convention against illicit trade in cultural property, but Germany took 37 years before it ratified the treaty and implemented it in national law. Pressure from abroad hasn't made a difference either. The legal hurdles in the law have been put so high that no a single illegal object has been restored to its proper owner as a result of the regulation.

Growing Awareness

Government officials now want to change that. Monika Grütters, the chief cultural affairs official in Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, is currently preparing a new law that could go into effect at the beginning of 2016 if passed. The legislation stipulates that the only objects that can be bought and sold are those for which the country of origin has already issued. Rules for returning disputed cultural property are also to be eased.

The new law has the potential to create considerable pressure for Parzinger and many of his colleagues. Germany may only have ratified the UNESCO treaty in 2007, but 1970 is considered by the international community to be the line in the sand date.

Those who purchased objects since then without really knowing the provenance will not have violated the law under the new rules, but they will have a moral problem on their hands. One of the world's most famous archeological collections, the British Museum's Near East objects, consequently ceased purchasing works at the end of the 1960s for which the provenance is unclear.

Awareness of the problem is slowly starting to grow in Germany. In recent years, management of many public collections has been taken over by a new generation of museum managers. They are now faced with reviewing the controversial legacies amassed by their predecessors, who continued buying objects on the art market until just a few years ago.

Hermann Parzinger, president of Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says: "We will always be prepared to return things if it can be proven that they are of illegal origin."

Hermann Parzinger, president of Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says: "We will always be prepared to return things if it can be proven that they are of illegal origin."

Foto: Jörg Carstensen/ dpa

The Badisches Landesmuseum, a state collection, in Karlsruhe, has been the subject of criticism for decades now because of its buying policies. But this summer it returned two Cycladic objects to Greece, bringing an end of what had been an endless dispute between the two parties. The abstract antique statues from the Greek island have been popular with collectors for decades now and are exclusively the products of illegal excavations.

"Often, the passion for collecting and the voracity of curators leads to a situation in which they become complicit in the illegal trade," says Eckart Köhne, who is both director of the museum and president of the German Museums Association. "In archeology, one can't just assume innocence if that person is buying an object that reportedly comes from an anonymous Swiss collection."

Köhne argues that museums need to own up to their responsibility and do as much as they can to research the origins of their antique objects in the same way that many museums in Germany have approached art looted by the Nazis. At the very least, Chancellery culture official Grütters wants to force government-owned collections to provide greater transparency. "I have requested that the museums include a progress report on the status of provenance research in each annual report," she says.

Mehr lesen über

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren