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Major Getty Paper Challenges Cultural Heritage Policies

January 4, 2018. The Case for Global Responsibility to Protect Heritage in Conflict

The first J. Paul Getty Occasional Paper in Public Policy is Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones, published December 2017.

While Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities is intended to “provide guidance about how best to pursue an international framework for the protection of cultural heritage in wars,” the 45 page paper should be required reading for everyone involved in cultural heritage from museum curators to archaeologists, diplomats and NGOs. The entire paper is available to download for free. What follows is a summary of its key points.

The authors, Thomas G. Weiss and Nina Connelly, cover much more than cultural cleansing and horrific crimes against human societies. The paper analyzes political and diplomatic history showing which policies to protect heritage have worked and which, much more often, have failed. The authors argue in favor of re-framing the international cultural policy debate, turning away from extreme nationalism and embracing broader concepts of global stewardship and international protection of heritage as a more workable approach to halting destruction in war and preserving mankind’s achievements for the future.

Destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, September 2015.

In “The Problem,” the first chapter, the authors describe how a humanist approach to protecting cultural heritage is similar to protecting human rights. They identify the responsibilities to protect human beings and to protect cultural heritage as inseparable and requiring similar policies and strategies: prevention of harm where possible, swift reaction to remedy harm when inflicted, and accepting the duty to rebuild social and physical structures going forward. “Air, water, and culture,” they say, “are essential for life.” (p6)

They argue that one perceived barrier to the protection of cultural heritage is essentially a false choice – the idea that there is a hierarchy of importance, or that the protection of people and the protection of heritage are non-complementary priorities.

The paper defines cultural destruction during a conflict in broader societal terms than international conventions have in the past. These cover (1) deliberate damage and destruction during war, including destruction as a form of “cultural erasure” or “cultural cleansing,” (2) collateral damage to cultural property inflicted in order to achieve a different goal (for example, to secure strategic resources, or to kill people hiding or barricaded in a monument, a justification used for recent Syrian bombings by its military), and (3) forced neglect, such as occurs when traditional populations are forced out of a region.

Weiss and Connelly examine the challenges to ending cultural destruction, both through “building on existing legal and normative tools” and through pursuing a “new policy norm.”

They begin with the three pillars of current international policy on cultural heritage set forth by the United Nations in 2005:

  • The primary responsibility of each nation for protection of the cultural heritage within its boundaries,
  • The international responsibility to fortify the states’ ability to protect heritage, and
  • The international responsibility to respond in cases of egregious state failure to act.

The authors question how policies that “protect” cultural heritage can be valid when the beneficiary of that policy is not the people, but the state, and when the enjoyment of cultural heritage is not equally granted to all the individuals under the authority of the state.

Weiss and Connelly identify state sovereignty – one of the pillars of current policy – as an obstacle to developing more effective policies to prevent harm to heritage. They note that the wanton destruction of cultural heritage in recent decades has not only been perpetrated by terrorist groups and other non-state actors, but also undertaken by government forces, as in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban and the current bombing of Yemen by the government of Saudi Arabia. Historically and today, the physical destruction of monuments has been part of government’s “effort to assert the new orthodoxy and erase history and culture” that is in opposition to their policies. (p8)

Fragment of a Funerary Stele, about 200 A.D., Limestone 52.1 × 36.7 × 17.9 cm (20 1/2 × 14 7/16 × 7 1/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Above: Ruins of the outer arcade in the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria. 2005 Wikimedia Commons.

The authors also consider the varying definitions of cultural property in international instruments. They discuss the fundamental difference between instruments that express cultural property’s universal value to all peoples (such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage) and instruments with a state-centric emphasis, in which the definition of cultural property is “contingent on a self-proclaimed designation by a state,“(p10) rather than considered a significant expression of human creativity and experiences. This state-oriented perspective dominates the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

“From our vantage point,” the authors write, “the 1970 approach prioritizes the accidents of geography and the shape of arbitrarily drawn borders and contemporary political configurations…over any intrinsic value of cultural heritage for humanity as a whole.” They note that, “as the world grows smaller and more connected through the forces of globalization, modern states claim exclusive ownership over shared cultural heritage. Cosmopolitan perspectives, or cultural internationalism, become politically incorrect as cultural nationalism comes to the fore.”

Furthermore, Weiss and Connelly argue that the concept of the “universality of the value of cultural heritage enshrined in the 1954 Hague Convention does more to advance contemporary international efforts to protect cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict than state-based conceptions of cultural property.”

They therefore chose a non-statist definition of cultural property for the purpose of this paper – one set forth by James Cuno – that ascribes a universal value and importance to specific objects: “movable and immovable artifacts and immovable structures of historical and cultural significance to humanity.”

Félix Bonfils (French, 1831 – 1885) Palmyre., about 1878, Albumen silver print 7.5 × 9.5 cm (2 15/16 × 3 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Chapter 2, “Mapping Protection, What’s Old and What’s ‘New,’” outlines the current protections for cultural property in international law and the penalties, such as they are, for violations. The authors note the absence of enforcement protocols allowing UN member states to respond to cultural destruction under any circumstances, particularly when wars are within a single country, or involve non-state actors who violate international conventions to which they are not signatories. What they see as “New” in international cultural property policy is the linking of destruction of cultural property to threats to international peace and security.

(It does concern this reader that while the authors cover international actions directed against looting and smuggling in this chapter, including the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2347, they fail to point out that many national and international legal measures, including Resolution 2347, have been based on highly inaccurate data. Nor do they ask why the now-debunked, exaggerated value of looting for terrorist financing – once said to be billions of dollars, now a few million – assumed so much importance in the international conversation on halting terrorism, while important sources of terrorist financing were barely discussed.)

The authors have noted the unwillingness of Russia and Egypt to sign on to broader protections. Both countries opposed the initial drafts of 2347 that proposed expanding the scope of current cultural heritage endangerment beyond Syria and Iraq, and to include provisions for the protection of cultural heritage internationally in the event of any armed conflict, and not only in the context of terrorism.

Weiss and Connelly politely but correctly question the ability of the large UNESCO bureaucracy to “lead effectively the operational charge to protect cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict,” noting that UNESCO’s “catering to member states” actually hinders the protection of cultural heritage during wars. To the authors’ question “Is UNESCO not, in fact, impotent when what effective protection of cultural heritage necessitates is not consistent with what some governments have decided?” the answer from any reasonable observer must be a resounding “Yes!”

In this reader’s eyes, the UNESCO bureaucracy has shown itself incapable of thinking beyond the statist model or reconsidering its blind adherence to the idea that all art must always stay in its country of origin. Intentionally or not, UNESCO has discouraged the creation of safe havens – even after UNESCO pettifogging and delay with regard to the establishment of a Swiss safe-haven for Afghan antiquities resulted in the destruction of the objects in the Kabul Museum by Taliban wielding sledgehammers. UNESCO’s administration may believe its own rhetoric about states being the best protectors of heritage, but some of its oldest members – China, for one – have been among the worst offenders against minority groups within their own borders.

Chapter 2 of the paper concludes with a description of a new organization, ALIPH, founded by France and the UAE. ALIPH is working to create an international network of safe havens and will support “prevention training, implementation of emergency safeguarding plans, compiling inventories, [and] digitizing collections.” (p24) Many observers would agree that this kind of training will not only help to circumvent cultural heritage disasters, but will significantly disincentivize looting for profit, since a documented stolen object cannot be sold.

Chapter 3, “International Action to Protect Cultural Heritage: Key Debates,” examines the question of whether cultural heritage is important to all of us – or just to the people who live in the particular nation within whose contemporary boundaries art and artifacts were created.

The authors identify three major “political fault lines” that make it more difficult to establish a new international framework to protect cultural heritage. The first barrier is what they call the ‘sanctity’ of sovereignty. This absolutist perspective on sovereignty was questioned by Kofi Annan in the 1990s in the context of human rights abuses, when the then Secretary-General called on the United Nations to protect individual human beings rather than the governments who abuse them. Yet sovereignty is often equated with absolute control over cultural property, and the mantle of defender of cultural heritage is readily assumed by national governments.

This reader notes that there are many instances in which state governments which claim to protect their national heritage actually neglect archaeological resources and cultural institutions, using these claims primarily for political grandstanding or to cover domestic abuses of power.

Weiss and Connelly identify the second barrier to protecting cultural heritage as the rising power of non-state actors with whom the UN is reluctant to negotiate. Some nations see negotiation with these actors as tantamount to recognition. More often, the problem is that non-state actors cannot be held accountable except by military action, and military action is extremely difficult for the UN.

The authors find the third and most common problem is many nation states’ claims of absolute national ownership of cultural property and these states’ parallel denial of cultural property’s universal value and refutation of the global responsibility to protect it.

Chapter 3 discusses issues of ownership versus stewardship, nationalistic views versus cultural internationalism, and the political forces which have made nationalist approaches dominant over the last fifty years. These narrower approaches are compared to internationalist perspectives. The authors cite the position of the late John Henry Merryman as an alternative: “Rather than considering who has the strongest claim to an object, [Merryman] proposes three criteria to make a judgment about policy options: preservation, truth, and access. Which outcomes promote the best preservation of an object, the greatest scholarly utility, and the greatest degree of public and specialist access?”

This reader notes that in practical terms, national ownership claims, or claims that items were stolen from source countries, often cannot be resolved, because the circumstances and the legality of long ago transactions are unclear. Many museum and private acquisitions took place under different legal regimes, and artworks flooded to the West and North from countries where export laws, if they existed, existed only on paper and were not enforced. Source countries have delayed in making claims; some for 50-70 years or more. Other nations have claimed that although exports took place legally, they were lawful only under a legal system imposed by colonial oppressors, and therefore the export was immoral, if not illegal. Cultural property cases tend to be tried in the media, and the media is often ill-informed. None of this is conducive to finding fair and equitable solutions to restitution claims.

Despite these challenges, Weiss and Connelly suggest practical steps to overcome the barriers of 20th century nationalism, non-state and pariah actors, and move beyond blanket ownership claims. They focus on options involving stewardship and on developing working policies to protect cultural heritage.

Chapter 4, “The Politics of R2P,” outlines how R2P, the ‘responsibility-to-protect’ doctrine that allows international intervention to stop imminent war crimes or genocide, is also applicable to situations of destruction of cultural heritage.

The authors begin with a 2001 report discussing R2P by the Canada-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and follow the concept’s evolution as a diplomatic and policy norm, tracking it through numerous NGO efforts to protect civilians and calls on the UN to authorize the use of force to prevent and react to atrocities. The R2P doctrine encouraged the UN’s  2011 Resolution 197, which called for the immediate cessation of state violence against civilian populations in Libya.

Weiss and Connelly show how the three-pronged concept of R2P – to prevent harm, to react, and to rebuild – led the ICISS to advocate proactiveness in crises. “The real goal for prevention… is to exhaust measures to “make it absolutely unnecessary to employ directly coercive measures against the state concerned.” (ICISS Report page 23)

The ICISS “precautionary principles” outlined by the authors include ensuring that the purpose of international actions are truly humanitarian in nature, that action is taken only as a last resort, by using only proportional means, not overkill, and that negative consequences do not outweigh benefits.

The ‘react’ component extends from sanctions to international criminal justice actions, and ultimately to military intervention in cases of large scale loss of life, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Despite criticism of ICISS’ proposals from different sides, the authors say that its “original three responsibilities provide the most logical starting point to fashion a workable conceptual framework for the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflicts.”

Finally, Weiss and Connelly set forth a draft framework to guide international action that begins with education, the expansion of a network of safe havens, the application of existing anti-looting legislation inside threatened countries, and systematic cataloging of all cultural heritage. The authors discuss the applicability of military force and the nascent growth of the Italy-based Blue Helmets of Culture, but find more positive results through developing relationships with local populations and working with civil society organizations.

As a next step in framing a cultural property policy based on the pillars of R2P, the authors suggest the creation of an independent international body, which is discussed in Chapter 5, “Assembling a Commission?” This section discusses steps already taken by the UN, by various conferences focusing on cultural heritage, and UNESCO’s Emergency Task Force on Cultural Heritage.

(A serious question, only lightly touched on in the article, is whether these various international groupings will ever step beyond their deference to states’ goals rather than international ones, or get past the current, erroneous and distracting focus on alleged terrorist funding through looting of cultural property.)

The authors note that regional balance and diversity will be essential to developing solid cultural heritage policies, but note that source countries include the wealthiest and poorest nations in the world community.

This reader thinks that part of the challenge will be to learn from international constituencies not often heard in such international fora, such as art dealer organizations, auction houses, and other experts on art, and to include museum administrators from every region. It is also more useful to hear from boots-on-the-ground defenders of threatened heritage in countries in crises than government flunkies, and to include minority and indigenous voices from developing countries.

Weiss and Connelly say the moment seems propitious for developing an independent international commission, with an agenda covering issues from best practices on heritage protection to cataloging all objects, to facilitating International Criminal Court prosecutions for those who attack cultural heritage under international law. Prospective members of such an international body would do well to read Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones, as a start.

Félix Bonfils (French, 1831 – 1885) Palmyre., about 1878, Albumen silver print 7.5 × 9.5 cm (2 15/16 × 3 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


“I Must Have It!” Art, Crime and Value in Film

By Mariam Hale

January 4, 2018. First in a series on the representation of cultural property in popular culture.

Cultural property is generally defined as artifacts, artworks, texts, or historic locations, important to a nation, a people, or to humanity as “cultural heritage.” In the modern world, places or objects designated as cultural property can serve many purposes. They attract tourists, educate the public, stimulate research, and inspire artists.

In cinema, on the other hand, archaeological sites and historic venues exist primarily to add interest to the background of a story. The courts of the Forbidden City or the canals of Venice make striking locations for chase scenes and gun fights, while major museums such as the Louvre or London’s National Gallery are suitable settings for romance or covert meetings.

James Bond and Q at the National Gallery, London, in Skyfall (2012). (Credit:

Occasionally the museum, historic site, or work of art does play a more central role in the plot of a film. Unfortunately, the qualities for which cultural property is treasured in the real world hardly seem to matter in cinema. Scripts rarely include any serious consideration of art’s aesthetic or historic value. According to the movies, artworks and antiquities exist to be stolen, fenced, utilized in arcane rituals, or blown up.

A consequence of cinema’s emphasis on the monetary value or mystic power of art and artifacts is a proportional erosion of the notion that art has real, intangible worth that can be neither quantified nor monetized, but which nevertheless renders it essential to human civilization and happiness.

The majority of films about things or places regarded as cultural property follow one of three basic storylines: the heist, the treasure hunt, or the righteous return. Later articles in this series will address both the ‘treasure hunt’ film genre, with its dramatization of the pursuit of archaeology or art history, and the ‘righteous return’ plotline, which has often been inspired by real-life restitutions to individual owners of art stolen by Nazis. This first article takes for its subject the heist film, and its implications for the public’s understanding of cultural property, art, and the law.

The art-heist has become a standard plot in cinema. Although they are less popular destinations than banks or casinos, museums have had their share of visits from charismatic thieves. Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) are just a few of the many films focusing on the museum, not as a venue for art appreciation and public education, but as a target for a burglary. The theme’s popularity endures; this year, Ocean’s Eight will follow a team of thieves as they attempt to steal a necklace during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala.

An art heist narrative is, at the most basic level, a story of an object moving in space, from one location (e.g. a museum) to another (the thief’s hideout). The difficulty, danger, and profitability of this transfer is what gives interest to the film. Almost invariably, the history, meaning, or beauty of the artwork in question is entirely irrelevant to the plot.

In art heist movies, the art functions as what Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” an object whose sole purpose is to be sought after by the movie’s characters. The MacGuffin drives the plot forward, but its particular properties (apart from its desirability) have no effect on the film’s events. The MacGuffin is interchangeable, its nature arbitrary. The irrelevance of the specific qualities of artworks to their importance in films may be reflective of a general lack of public interest in the fine distinctions between artifacts drawn by connoisseurs, collectors, and curators.

The Maltese Falcon, (1941) (Credit:

The example par excellence of the film MacGuffin is arguably the eponymous statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941), an object whose inexplicable desirability not only drives the film plot but mystifies the audience up until the end. We finally learn that the bird in question is a jewel-encrusted, golden sculpture dating to the 16th century. The importance of the Falcon as a historical artifact, or the idea that it might belong in a museum, never comes up. Curiously, neither does the Falcon’s monetary value explicitly motivate its pursuers; their motivations may be pecuniary, but are never spelled out as such: they want it because they want it.

The inexplicable yet imperative desire which impels Gutman and his coterie to pursue the Falcon drives the plots of many heist films.

In Topkapi, the target of the heist at the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, is a bejeweled dagger which exercises an almost hypnotic attraction for the master thief Elizabeth Lipp. She becomes obsessed with it the moment she sees it. Her passion for the dagger is, as she herself admits, “a strange thing… difficult to explain.” Nevertheless, she says, “It’s going to be mine.”

The 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is about the theft of a Monet painting carried out by multi-millionaire Thomas Crown, a crime whose motivations are as mysterious as its execution. The painting is, of course, unsaleable on the market, as one investigator observes:

“So who’s gonna risk prison to steal a Monet, just to not sell it?”

“A Monet lover,” is the reply, and that, as far as motive goes, is that.

The Thomas Crown Affair, Thomas Crown with Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk (Credit:

In How to Steal a Million, the wealthy American Davis Leland becomes obsessed with the “Cellini Venus,” a diminutive marble statuette. He first tries to persuade the owner’s daughter, Frenchwoman Simon Bonnet, to sell it to him. When she refuses, he proposes marriage, in a transparent attempt to get at the statue through her. Finally, after the statue has been stolen, he attempts to persuade his friend de Solnay, an art dealer, to help him get to it before the French police do.

And why does he go to these lengths? When de Solnay warns him that acquiring the statue after it has been stolen would mean “compounding a felony – offering to become a receiver of stolen goods,” Leland replies “I’m an art lover.”

Later, when he is finally offered the chance to buy the Venus from the thief, he is asked “You realize you might be paying a great deal of money for something you could never exhibit, acknowledge, or even display – not even in your house?”

“Yes,” Leland replies, “I know. I want it! I just want to take it out of the vault, all alone, just look at it now and then. Know that it’s mine, that I own it, that I can touch it.”

To love art, according to cinematic convention, is to be obsessed with it, to succumb to a sick covetousness which may drive the ‘art lover’ to any degree of devious, illegal, behavior. The objects of their adoration cannot be legally bought or sold, cannot even be publicly displayed; they are private idols, suitable only for secretive veneration in the dead of night. Possessions without purpose, economic value, or even social cachet, the coveted artworks in these films ultimately amount to so many dirty secrets.

Topkapi (1964) with Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Gilles Ségal, Jess Hahn.

In reality, of course, most art collectors are deeply concerned with the legal status of their art works. Today, an art collection without documentation is worthless for resale, and impossible to donate to a museum. Building a public legacy, receiving community accolades, and even getting a tax deduction are out of the question. Films do not show this side of collecting or the market; legitimate auctions are less exciting than midnight larceny, and the more nuanced motivations driving real art collectors are more time consuming to explain than obsession.

Although the heist film hero’s desperate impulse to possess the desired object is simple to articulate, it can be difficult for audiences to sympathize with. Rather than take the time to try to explain the protagonist’s passion to the audience, or to educate them into likewise appreciating the work of art, most screenplays utilize a simpler method of communicating an artwork’s value: money. More often than not in ‘heist’ films, a museum employee, security guard, or passing visitor will audibly comment on the artwork’s monetary value early in the film, ensuring that the audience knows that, however incomprehensible the hero’s obsession may be to them, there is some rational foundation for his or her actions.

Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in The Score (2001).

Often, the plot of the typical art heist film is truly indistinguishable from that of the bank robbery. A good example is the 2001 heist film The Score, in which the target, a jeweled French scepter, is treated as a placeholder for the money some unscrupulous future collector will shell out for it. A similar dynamic applies in Entrapment (1999), in which the hero-thieves have no interest in the artistic value of their targets. The two versions of The Thomas Crown Affair use the two kinds of theft interchangeably. The original, released in 1968, revolves around a master criminal who pulls off a bank robbery, while in the sequel, the anti-hero steals a Monet from the Met.

The classic art heist film How to Steal a Million (1966) places the profitability of art dealing (or theft) front and center. Not only the film’s title but the first scene (in which we observe an alleged Cezanne painting at auction) emphasize the vast sums to be earned in the art trade, licit or illicit.

In a twist on the usual narrative, most of the major artworks featured in the film, including the heist’s target, the “Cellini Venus,” are forgeries. Because the Venus is a fake, the reverence it inspires in characters ranging from a museum director to a pair of priests, comes across as farcical at best. Their mistaken belief in the fake’s authenticity highlights the snobbery of those who revere iconic artworks in real life, and undermines the notion that a love of art either instills or derives from some refined sensibility.

So much, then, for personal motivations. In the real world, however powerful art collectors may be, they are more often than not foiled in their efforts to acquire the works which they covet, not by advanced security systems or double-crossing cat burglars, but by export restrictions and increasingly constraining laws. Major collectors and museum trustees, like most folks, would make poor criminals; they use checks to buy things and they don’t shop on street corners. The supposed illegitimacy of the art trade set forth in the media, is largely a matter of critics (and prosecutors) attempting to apply newly-formulated legal standards to decades-old transactions that were considered legitimate at the time.

Nationalism, like connoisseurship, plays a very limited role in the heist film. A theft is a theft, and whether it violates personal mores or cultural property laws is immaterial to the thieves and to their pursuers. As Kasper Gutman says in The Maltese Falcon, “you might say it belonged to the King of Spain, but I don’t see how you can honestly grant anybody else clear title to it – except by right of possession.” The inalienability of ‘national treasures’ may be key to the present cultural property debate, but it rarely figures in the heist movie.

Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, How to Steal a Million (1966)

One exception to heist films’ silence on the nationalist aspects of cultural property is How to Steal A Million, in which a French museum curator tells Charles Bonnet, the owner of the so-called Cellini Venus, “I thank you on behalf of France itself for never letting this treasure leave the country.” The Venus is considered a French national treasure, although Cellini was an Italian artist who worked only briefly in France, and it is never implied that the statue was produced in the country or commissioned by a Frenchman.

Nevertheless, Bonnet’s having retained the sculpture is presented as an act of patriotism. In response to the curator’s praise, for having resisted “the offers you must have had,” Bonnet modestly replies, “One is, after all, always a Frenchman.”

How to Steal a Million dramatizes many aspects of the real art market: the sky-high prices paid for works by celebrated artists, the possessiveness felt by collectors, national governments, and mere admirers of artworks, and the agony of curators when they fail in their duty of care towards an object. Yet it treats all these matters as comical – the heartbroken museum director, the desperate American collector, and the enthusiastic crowds are all the dupes of an art forger. The film renders the entire high-end art world absurd; and in many ways it is right to do so.

However, art heist films do have their real-life counterparts. On January 3, 2018, two pieces of jewelry were stolen from an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The items were from the collection assembled by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani and now owned by the ruling family of Qatar. Though not themselves antique, the stolen items were on display as part of an exhibition of primarily 15th to 18th century Mughal jewelry from the Al Thani collection. The jewels are said to be worth millions of dollars, and the heist was allegedly accomplished in broad daylight by two thieves posing as visitors to the exhibition. It is hardly surprising that Italian reporters described the feat as “movie-worthy,” or that this catchy phrase has since appeared in the headlines of multiple articles on the theft.

Sheikh Hamid bin Abdullah Al Thani and Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot, 2014.

Unless the Venice thieves are jewelry fanatics, like the emerald-obsessed thief in Topkapi, the Al Thani pieces may be broken apart, and their gems sold off individually. The myth of the art-infatuated cat burglar, like that of the unscrupulous private collector who cares only for possessing the desired object, obscures the real fate of many stolen artworks, which are sold for a tiny fraction of their actual value, or even destroyed by the thieves, in an attempt to render documented works unrecognizable or escape arrest when police catch up with them.

Heist films continue to perpetuate the idea that art collecting is a rich man’s hobby or a fanatic’s unhealthy obsession, that stolen art can be easily fenced, and that robbing museums is a victimless crime, rather than an assault on a public institution. Heist movies are not necessarily bad films – many are extremely entertaining, dramatically compelling artworks in their own right – but they do not tell the whole story.

STOP Act Remains Threat to Longstanding Federal Policy

STOP Act Fails to Get Out of Committee in 2017 – Prognosis for 2018 Second Session of Congress is Uncertain

At the end of 2017, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee sent nine bills to the Senate floor for passage – all passed with Unanimous Consent. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, S. 1400, known as the STOP Act, was NOT among them. It appears that a number of Senators on the Indian Affairs Committee heeded the questions raised by ATADA, CCP, the Global Heritage Alliance, and other organizations. The groups variously raised concerns about the constitutionality of provisions forbidding trade in unspecified objects, the negative economic consequences for Southwestern states and the harm to museums and private collectors by making it federal policy to return all Native American objects to tribes.

The version of the STOP Act introduced in 2017 remains before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee through the second, 2018 session of the 115th Congress. There have been no changes to the bill since its introduction on June 21, 2017. (A 2016 bill of identical title but somewhat different intent was introduced in 2016 but died in committee at the end of the 114th Congress.)

Rachel Sahmie Nampeyo (Hopi Pueblo, Native American, born 1956). Jar, late 20th century. Clay, pigment, 4 1/2 x 9 in. (11.4 x 22.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Joan and Sanford Krotenberg, 2013.64.4. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum) Above: Navajo (Native American). Blanket, 1880-1890. Wool, dye, 54 5/16 x 66 15/16 in. (138 x 170 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in memory of Dr. Harlow Brooks, 43.201.190. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

A parallel bill is before the House, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, H.R. 3211, which has been before the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs and the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations since last August.

It is hoped that the issues covered in testimony and outlined below will continue to raise concerns about the STOP Act as written, and will engage the public in developing more positive public policies to protect tribal, economic, museum, and academic interests in 2018.

Senate Testimony on Private Property Protections for Collectors and Museums

To reprise the issues raised by the bill:

On November 8, 2017, three organizations representing the interests of collectors, the art trade, and museums gave written testimony to a hearing at the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2017, or STOP Act (S. 1400, HR 3211) would affect thousands of collectors of American Indian art, Indian artisans, and businesses throughout the Southwest.

ATADA, the Committee for Cultural Policy, and Global Heritage Alliance provided critical perspectives on the bill, which threatens the trade in Native American art, and will hamper museums in their efforts to protect and share Native art and culture. If passed, STOP would impose broad restrictions on the circulation of tribal art and fundamentally alter Congress’ past support for private and public collecting.

While supporting respect for tribal patrimony, restoring communally owned, inalienable objects to tribes, and protecting archaeological sites from looting, the three organizations argued that the STOP Act will not achieve these goals. The Act is harmful to both tribes and Southwestern states and unconstitutionally fails to give notice of what would be illegal to export.

Although the legislation was triggered by French auctions of tribal artifacts, no proponent of STOP has shown how it would change the operation of French law. France is currently a market center for international tribal art from nations in Africa, Asia, and South America that already have export laws. Paris annually hosts the largest tribal art fair and market in the world, the Parcours des Mondes.

How Would a Person Know When They Were Breaking the Law?

Apache (Native American). Shield or Tipi Ornament. Hide Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, X1126.46. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Lack of notice to US citizens of what would violate the law and trigger a 10-year penalty was a key issue for Senate Committee members. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Hoeven of North Dakota asked – if information on what is sacred and inalienable is secret, how would a person know when they were breaking the law? Proponents of STOP failed to give an answer.

Acoma Governor Kurt Riley’s testimony to the Senate Committee acknowledged that the law would forbid the export of undisclosed items stating: “The types of cultural items the Pueblo is attempting to protect are difficult to fully describe and publicly identify,” but later asserted NAGPRA makes clear what is covered. (NAGPRA does not actually identify what is inalienable or what is sacred, and after 27 years, there is still no standard for museums to follow under NAGPRA.) Governor Riley also stated that if in doubt, collectors could contact tribes. However, many, including Acoma, do not release information on what is sacred, or which items are inalienable from the community.

Key Issues

The three organizations raised the following concerns with the STOP Act:

  • The STOP Act is redundant. “Trafficking” in violation of NAGPRA or ARPA is unlawful, and 18 U.S.C. § 554 already prohibits export from the United States of any object contrary to any law or regulation of the United States.
  • The STOP Act discourages ALL Indian art sales, including contemporary jewelry, ceramics, etc. It states that it is official U.S. government policy to return ALL “items affiliated with a Native American culture.”
  • The STOP Act fails to explicitly place the burden of proof on the federal government, giving Customs broad discretion which in the past has led to due process abuses.
  • The STOP Act imposes 10 years’ jail time for violations of less than $1 value.
  • The STOP Act could destroy the value of Americans’ private property, threatening the collections of America’s museums and the commercial viability of businesses and Native American artisans.
  • The STOP Act federalizes ATADA’s Voluntary Returns Program, discouraging participation, and creating a “Trojan Horse” bureaucracy, including Department of Justice and Homeland Security.
  • ATADA’s Voluntary Returns Program is a better, more effective model, and has returned dozens of important ceremonial items already in its first year.

The STOP Act Seeks Return of All Objects to Tribes and Would Remove Protections for Private and Public Collections

Navajo (Native American). 6-Strand Necklace, ca. 1920s. Coral, silver, turquoise, cloth, 15 1/2 in. (39.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Marjorie Ruth Wagner, 71.57.1. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

The plain language of STOP makes it federal policy to encourage voluntary return of all “items affiliated with a Native American culture” to their origin tribes. Such a federal policy would severely damage the entire legitimate trade in Native American art: from legally excavated or sold historic objects to commercially produced jewelry, pottery, and textiles made by tribal artists.

Furthermore, the STOP Act would undermine Congress’ intent to preserve private collections under ARPA. As the Committee for Cultural Policy noted, ARPA’s purpose is also to: “foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individuals having collections of archaeological resources and data which were obtained before October 31, 1979.” (16 U.S.C. § 470aa(b))

The federalized ‘voluntary’ returns program amounts to a clean sweep of the nation’s collections of tribal art, deterring buyers from purchasing objects, private collectors from donating their art to museums, and public museums from adding to or even retaining their current holdings.

STOP is Bad for Regional Economies

She-we-na (Zuni Pueblo) (Native American). Ashiwi Polychrome Water Jar, 1700-1750. Pottery, slip, 11 1/4 x 13 1/4 x 13 1/4 in. (28.6 x 33.7 x 33.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1903, Museum Collection Fund, 03.325.4739. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Many Southwestern US states rely upon cultural tourism, just as many of the tribes do; almost ten percent of New Mexico’s economy and employment derives from cultural tourism, much of it focused on the state’s Native culture and history. The STOP Act threatens to end this significant component of American life.

Success from Community Education and an Independent Voluntary Returns Program

In the last year alone, ATADA’s successful voluntary, non-governmental returns program has arranged the return of dozens of sacred objects to tribes. ATADA urged the Senate Committee to encourage voluntary returns by directly involving tribal offices and enabling donors to take deductions for gifts.

Is STOP Unconstitutional?

A law that prohibits export of certain items must define what those items are, or be found constitutionally deficient. The 567 tribes in the United States are not homogeneous in their cultural perspectives. What may be profoundly sacred to one tribe may be a utilitarian object to another. Furthermore, many tribal representatives hold that the nature of sacred objects must be kept secret even within tribes. Only tribal religious or cultural authorities are considered qualified to determine the status of a particular object.

Global Heritage Alliance said the STOP Act will encourage Customs to shift the burden of proof on to the exporter to demonstrate that the property was lawfully removed from federal or Indian lands. Under STOP, the government would require owners to prove their objects were not ‘stolen,’ which is no easy matter when objects have circulated for decades among many hands.

ATADA, CCP and GHA agreed that if the STOP Act is passed, it should be revised to eliminate constitutional abuses, return only what truly needs returning, and continue existing federal policy that protects museum, private collections and the public interest.

Hopi Pueblo (Native American). Kachina Doll (Paiakyamu), late 19th century. Wood, pigment, 11 x 3 1/2 x 3 3/16 in. (27.9 x 8.9 x 8.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1904, Museum Collection Fund, 04.297.5525. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Catalonia Seeks Independence: Spain Orders Art Returned

December 29, 2017.  As Spain Divides, Removal of Religious Relics is Tied to Demand for Autonomy

The first orders issued by the central government of Spain after suspending the pro-independence government of Catalonia required a Catalonian museum to send artworks to neighboring Aragon. The orders were the first made after a decision by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to implement a never-before utilized Article 155 in Spain’s constitution to overturn the election of Catalonian independents to a majority in Catalonia’s regional parliament. The order brought 500 demonstrators to the Lleida Museum in the early morning hours to protest, chanting, “Hands up! This is a robbery,” as government officers hauled the artworks away to neighboring Aragon.

According to Gareth Harris, writing in The Art Newspaper on December 11, 2017, in an interview with local press earlier in 2017, Catalonia’s cultural minister, Santi Vila, said, “Aragonese authorities have a great interest in recovering pieces in Catalan museums, but have no desire to recover other objects from Sijena that are, for instance, in the Prado in Madrid. Why? For political reasons.”

A snap regional election in Catalonia on December 21 called by Prime Minister Rajoy failed to deliver for either the Conservative or Socialist parties, traditional opponents which had both argued against independence and for maintaining the Spanish constitution. Instead, pro-independence parties held a slight parliamentary majority after the December vote generated an unprecedented 82% turnout. This left independents in essentially the same position as after an October 1, 2017 referendum and November declaration of independence. They had a narrow mandate for independence, but no means of putting it into effect.

Police charge protesters in Barcelona, January 10, 2017. Catalan independence referendum, 2017, Photo by Robert Bonet [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (], via Wikimedia Commons. Above: Display outside the Lleida Museum, credit Lleida Museum.

After the October vote, Rajoy had invoked Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution for the first time, fired the entire regional government and suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy. Spain’s central government also took control of Catalonia’s radio and television, police, and finances. But in the December snap election in which Spain hoped to gain support for a united Spain, Catalonian voters reinstated pro-independence government leaders, who had to campaign from prison and exile.

However, Rajoy’s political strategy to combat Catalonian separatists continues to work primarily through the courts, employing claims of corruption, rebellion and sedition against independents. While a future political scenario could involve a three-way government of independence-leaning parties – even if the reelected officials can take their seats, there no guarantee that they will be able to agree on more substantive economic issues.

Meantime, Carles Puigdemont, the head of the largest vote-getter, the PDeCAT Party, is in exile in Brussels, fighting an international warrant. He faces arrest if he returns to take up his post as President. Spanish courts have indicted and imprisoned many other civil-society leaders. (On November 19, Spain’s Attorney General, José Manuel Maza, who headed the prosecution, died suddenly of a liver infection, but the prosecutions have continued without delay.) On December 30, Puigdemont demanded that the newly-elected Catalan government reinstate him and all other elected officials.

Photo credit: Rosa Matas,

According to Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín, writing in The Nation, pro- and anti-independence Catalonian political parties share similar but ill-defined positions on economic and employment issues, such as curtailing individual salary supplements and other aspects of what is viewed as a too-generous welfare state. The issue of Catalan autonomy, however uncertain the results may be, is galvanizing the population. It is not surprising that what might be deemed a purely symbolic question of where certain religious artifacts will rest has become the focus of controversy, demonstrations, and violent clashes between police and pro-independence activists.

The Diocesan and Comarcal Lleida Museum (Lleida Museum for short) is owned by the Lleida city council, the Lleida Roman Catholic Diocese, and the Generalitat de Catalunya which includes the Parliament, the President, and the Executive Council of Catalonia. The museum is not old; it was re-organized in 1997 to hold collections of Roman, Islamic, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art. Certain objects in the museum originated in the neighboring region of Aragon, in a diocese separated from the Lleida diocese only in 1995. Courts in Aragon have recognized ownership of the objects by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Barbastro-Monzón; they have been claimed by Aragonese institutions since the 1995 division that sent some to Catalonian institutions and others to the Prado.

The projected removal of the artifacts quickly generated outrage among members of the secessionist movement. On December 11, written orders were taken to the Lleida Museum to remove forty-four objects, including beautifully painted wooden coffins, sculptures and paintings sold to Catalonia by the nuns of the 12th century Monastery of Santa María de Sigena in Aragon. The authorities in Aragon have claimed that the nuns did not have authority to sell the objects when they were removed from the monastery in the 1970s. The nuns relocated to a nunnery in Barcelona, and the government of Catalonia purchased the artworks for $70,000 in 1986. Thirteen years later, they were brought to the newly-organized Lleida Museum. Another 50 artworks from Sijena – also now claimed by Aragon – went to the Museum Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona.

Protesters in Catalonia have said that the removal of the artworks from the museum was an act of reprisal by the central government. The claims for the artworks had earlier been part of the campaign discussion surrounding Catalonian independence. Although the ownership of the objects has been disputed for years, a judge in a long-running court case in Aragon sent a request for repatriation to the Spanish cultural minister within weeks of the federal government’s dissolution of the Catalan regional government, and the request was immediately granted. The Lleida Museum used social media to condemn the central government’s actions at a time when Catalonia’s government had been dissolved and was therefore unable to respond.

When officers of Spain’s Civil Guard arrived at the museum, they cordoned off the building, which was then quickly surrounded by about 500 protesters objecting to the removal. As museum authorities sent messages asking police not to charge peaceful protesters and create a riot, the artworks were boxed up, placed in a truck, and driven away under heavy guard.

Industry, Indians and Archaeologists Battle Over Chaco Canyon

December 29, 2017.  Federal Leases Will Determine Future of Ancient Puebloan Lands

Twenty miles of difficult dirt road separates visitors from UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This is not the biggest barrier, though, to public access to the Chaco civilization.  Not far outside the park’s 53.09 square miles, the federal government has leased 843 acres of federal lands to oil, gas, and mineral interests for $3 Million, and another proposed sale in March 2018 includes lands less than 10 miles from the park. Critics fear that oil and gas money may become the controlling factor in managing these ancient lands.

Ancient Civilization at Chaco

The designated Chaco Culture Historical Park was at the center of a vast civilization – a part of Ancestral Puebloan culture – that existed for over 300 years in what is now the US Southwest. Chaco Canyon holds the remains of grand kivas and great houses – Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, Peñasco Blanco and others. It is one of the most significant cultural sites in the United States.  The Hopi, Zuni, Navaho and Pueblo peoples of the Four Corners region (Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona) all claim ancestral and spiritual ties to Chaco and its connected communities.

Chaco was also part of an extensive trade network as evidenced by archaeological finds of cacao and macaws from Mesoamerica, marine shells from the Pacific coast, as well as raw and crafted copper from western Mexico, all of which have been found in the Ancestral Puebloan lands. For example, researchers have discovered cacao residue in the pottery at many sites and a sash made of red macaw feathers that was found in the Abajo Mountains, near Blanding, in what is now a part of the contested Bears Ears National Monument.

An interior view of Wijiji, a ruin at the southern end of Chaco Canyon. By Troy Cline (Ancient Observatories: Multimedia Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Although pueblo peoples are said to have a connection to the region that spans thousands of years, Chaco Canyon itself flourished between 850CE and 1200CE. The park’s website states, “By 1050, Chaco had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to more than 150 great houses throughout the region.” It has been estimated that in the contested Bears Ears National Monument, part of the Ancestral Puebloan lands, there are over 100,000 archeological sites, many connected to Chacoan civilization.

An estimated 30,000 Chacoan peoples left their communities within a very short period of time, in what has been called one of  “the greatest vanishing acts in human history”. The exodus was most likely due to a long-term drought. The Chaco communities became countless ruins scattered throughout the Four Corners Region. Most have never been inventoried, fewer still have been excavated and researched.

Rich in Oil, Gas and Minerals

The lands surrounding Chaco Culture are rich in energy and mineral resources.  For decades the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has sold leases for oil and gas development in lands beyond boundaries of the national park. According to the Farmington Daily Times, the BLM Farmington Field Office stated that the San Juan Basin has 23,350 active oil and gas wells, more than 16,000 of which are on federally-managed land.

In 2017 the BLM auctioned oil and gas leases on 843 acres of land around Chaco to an undisclosed buyer for $3 million. A proposed sale in March of 2018 is said to also contain leases close to Chaco Canyon, some less than 10 miles away. The BLM has promised to prohibit drilling within a 10-mile radius around Chaco, but it appears that the BLM is backing off from that commitment with the new leases. Opponents say that even a 10-mile buffer would not sufficiently protect the cultural heritage within the park, and would potentially allow destruction of hundreds of sites that lie undiscovered outside of it.

Oil, gas and uranium interests such as the American Petroleum Institute say such leases are needed to protect U.S. national interests by reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. They see domestic energy production as one way to reduce our reliance on foreign oil.  Half of the royalties from oil, gas, mineral and uranium production on federal land go to the states where the production takes place – in this case the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico – thus creating economic incentives for legislators and officials to back development.

Opponents of the leases say that heavy equipment, the development of the extraction infrastructure, wastewater disposal required for mining and drilling all can cause vibrations through the surrounding earth, and even earthquakes, that could knock down the walls of the ancient structures or crush and disrupt unexcavated sites, altering the archeological record and destroying sites sacred to the Native American tribes of the area. The recent increase in earthquakes along the Colorado/New Mexico border has been largely linked to the wastewater disposal from oil and gas production.

Tougher Obama-administration regulations on fracking were rescinded at the end of 2017 on Federal and Indian Lands; raising the possibility of even greater damage to archeological structures.

The leasing process through the BLM takes into account cultural and environmental concerns; the BLM is required to meet its responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act, Historic Sites Act, the Antiquities Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. These, and other federal laws require that the BLM partner with the tribes and consult on how the leases will impact tribal communities.

However the tribes contend that this advice is frequently not heeded. Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, recently told the Durango Herald, “It’s an amazing contradiction to me. (The BLM) say they are getting input into the process from the local people, but at the same time, they seem to be proceeding with the sale, regardless of what comments they generate.” Environmental agencies and groups have raised similar complaints. Some see the purposed lease sale in March 2018 as “a rush to exploit natural resources on federal land.”

Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo: National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons.

Extraction could reduce tourism.

Destruction of ruins and restrictions on access to public lands from oil, gas and mineral production could have a huge impact on the tourism that supports the economies of the Four Corners area. Tourism is about 10% of New Mexico’s economy, and most of that is linked to Native American history and culture – Chaco Culture National Historic Park alone has 250,000 visitors a year.

According to an article by Laura Parker, in National Geographic, tourism is an $8 billion industry in Utah and the state’s biggest “export.” Arizona and Colorado also realize significant revenues from cultural tourism.

The buildings, equipment and drilling rigs associated with gas and oil exploitation could also create light pollution. Chaco Canyon is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the U.S. National Park Service – the fourth site to earn this designation.  Tourists (and students in the field of astronomy) come to New Mexico and Arizona to study and appreciate the night sky. Drilling and mining sites and equipment working close to the park could also reduce the visibility of the nighttime sky.

Native American sacred sites are at risk.

A number of Native American groups have stated that their connection to the natural landscape is part of their cultural and spiritual history, and is slowly eroding with each new oil or gas well placed on traditional lands.  The surrounding tribes of the Four Corners region, the Hopi, Zuni, Navaho and Pueblo peoples, all have ancestral relationships with Chaco Culture and the surrounding region. The lands that were sacred to their ancestors continue to be sacred today. Many sites are still used for ceremonial purposes

As the Chaco Culture National Historical Park website states, “The distinctive architecture of the Chaco civilization was “often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Lines of sight between the great houses allowed communication. Sophisticated astronomical markers, communication features, water control devices, and formal earthen mounds surrounded them. The buildings were placed within a landscape surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for their descendants.”

The architectural and astronomical features of the Chaco region are said to have created the framework for a system of governance that determined how people related to and interacted with each other, when crops were planted, when ceremonies were conducted and even how trade was conducted.

Native American activists say that disruptions to the surrounding landscape, through mining, drilling and fracking, change the relationship of the Native Americans to the land and their cultural and spiritual history by altering and destroying the land features upon which the Chacoan peoples based their systems. In 2017 The National Congress of American Indians has voiced its opposition to further drilling in the Chaco area.

Archaeological interests are sidelined.

The development of drilling and mining in the region, and the diminishment of national monuments meant to protect areas of cultural significance – such as the 100,000 ruins said to be within the original Bears Ears National Monument – has archeologists concerned that important pieces to the archeological record will be lost to history.

How the Chacoan architectural astronomical societal system functioned within the context of the features of the surrounding land, is one of the puzzles that archeologists have been working on for decades.  Although certain pieces of the puzzle may exist in the oral traditions of the surrounding tribes, these may not be made public, leaving archeologists and researchers to work from the archeological record to develop a picture of Chaco cultural life.

A well-known example of ongoing research around an astronomical marker is the Sun Dagger site, on Fajada Butte, within the park’s boundaries.  During the summer and winter solstice, “daggers” of sunlight appeared on a spiral chiseled in the rock wall behind three stone slabs. The significance of the site is unknown to archeologists, but it is theorized the site was some sort of shrine to the sun.

Of concern to both archeologists and the tribes of the Four Corners region is the potential for looting and negligent destruction in unprotected land. For archeologists, the unrecorded removal of objects from their historical context alters the archeological record, creating challenges to understanding ancient civilizations such as Chaco.

The tribes have a different perspective: they see the unrecorded removal of objects by either archaeologists or mineral development as disrupting their historical and current spiritual connections to the sites, altering their history and destroying current ceremonial use. While the art dealer organization ATADA has put rules in place requiring due diligence that would keep looted materials off the market – anything found on federal land is illegal to sell – oil and gas companies are not as focused on preserving cultural resources and ensuring that important tribal interests are protected.

Opponents question whether expanding oil, gas, and uranium extraction make economic sense.

Some say that while the current administration may want to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of energy, oil and uranium development may not be the most economical approach.  In New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez’s State of the State address at the beginning of 2017 noted,  “In just a year and a half, oil prices dropped 71 percent. That hit us hard. In our highest energy-producing counties, gross receipts tax revenue plummeted. At the same time, GRT rose in every other county … We lost over 11,000 oil and gas jobs.” Governor Martinez’ statement reflects the result of the collapse of oil and gas prices since their peak in 2014.

In an article by Juliet Eilprin, in The Washington Post, “Uranium firm urged Trump officials to shrink Bears Ears National Monument,” she notes that, “The price of uranium has recently hovered between $20 and $25 per pound. To justify mining activity, it needs to approach $40 to $50. Michael Heim, a securities research analyst at Noble Capital Markets, said that the current amount “is not a sustainable price” for firms such as Energy Fuels Resources (a uranium exploration and mining corporation based in Colorado). Given today’s price, Heim said, “the idea of creating more areas to mine wouldn’t have much impact.””

In some ways, Native American communities are moving toward new energies faster than state governments. In light of the abundant sunshine and wind in the Four Corners area, Navajo Nation, President, Russell Begage, signed an executive order in September 2017 implementing plans for a clean energy economy that would include wind and solar as a large part of the Navajo Nation’s goal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. For many, this is the preferred approach. Protection and development of the cultural resources of the ancient Chacoan civilization, and utilizing energy from the sun that inspired this civilization, may be a better economic strategy than oil, gas and uranium development in the Four Corners region.

Contributed by Bonnie Povolny.

Britain’s Treasure Act Celebrates 20-Year Anniversary

December 21, 2017.  81,914 Archeological Finds Recorded;  1,303,504 Objects Listed on the PAS Database.

The annual reports of the Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act  for 2016 were released at the British Museum in London in early December 2017. This year’s highlights include a record 1,120 Treasure finds, a plethora of Bronze Age objects including rare arm rings, a late period coin hoard, and a rare copper-alloy anvil. The 2016 annual report also included a revision of the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which began just one year after the Treasure Act, is managed by the British Museum and the National Museum Wales, in conjunction with 119 national and local partners within England and Wales. It is a highly successful government program that makes illegal digging unattractive by financially rewarding finders who report discoveries immediately to government archaeologists. Professional archaeologists take over the excavations, and all objects are documented on an accessible database. The government has the opportunity to acquire found objects at fair market value. If the government is not interested, after documentation and analysis, the finder may keep the objects or sell them on the open market. This transparent partnership between metal detectorists, and amateur and professional archaeologists has become the world’s most successful method of preserving and recording archaeological finds.

Winfarthing pendant fittings. Above: Winfarthing grave, Copyright Tom Lucking, source British Museum.

The PAS system is the world’s first countrywide proactive mechanism for recording finds from any source, including accidental discoveries, finds by metal detectorists and by amateur archeologists. Every find is digitally recorded and made publicly available on the PAS online database, creating a valuable educational and research resource. The 2016 annual report states, “To date, PAS data has been used in 599 research projects, including 25 pieces of large-scale research and 125 PhDs.”

The Treasure Act 1996 is the legal basis for PAS. It established the legal obligation of finders of potential Treasure to report their finds to the local coroner. Finders are rewarded at full market value if their finds are acquired by a local or national museum. Many finders waive their right to a reward.

“Of the 14,000 Treasure finds over the past 20 years, 40% are now in museum collections which can be enjoyed by local communities and the wider public.” reported the British Museum.

Metal detectorists have found close to 88% of PAS finds and 96% of Treasure finds in England and Wales.  The PAS report states that these detectorists aid archeologists by detecting finds in areas “vulnerable to agricultural and environmental damage, and bringing to light sites otherwise at risk.”

PAS created the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales in 2006 to guide detectorists in the responsible finding and reporting of objects.

This year they revised the code for metal detectoring and are looking for new ways to encourage detectorists in responsible finding. As stated in the annual report, “the Group, as part of the PAS Strategy 2020, is now looking how best to acknowledge the work of finders who follow best practice and demonstrate an archaeologically minded approach to metal-detecting.”

That “99% of PAS finds were recorded to the nearest 100m, the minimum requirement for findspot information for Historic Environment Records,” speaks to how seriously metal detectorists take their responsibility.

PAS 2016 by the numbers:

  • 81,914 finds were recorded; a total of 1,303,504 objects listed on the PAS database ( to date.
  • Almost 88% of finds were discovered by metal-detectorists.
  • 90% of finds were found on cultivated land, where they are susceptible to plough damage and artificial and natural corrosion.
  • 99% of PAS finds were recorded to the nearest 100m (a 6-figure NGR), the minimum requirement for findspot information for Historic Environment Records.
  • New sites discovered through finds recorded by the PAS include a rural Roman farmstead in Shropshire, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in East Yorkshire, and a medieval kiln in Cumbria.
  • Currently 740 researchers have full access to PAS data, and there are 10,633 registered users in total.
  • To date, PAS data has been used in 599 research projects, including 25 pieces of large-scale research and 125 PhDs.
  • 326,502 unique visitors visited the PAS websites and database, making 652,079 visits and 5,777,326 page requests.
  • Publications associated with the work of the PAS include reports in Britannia, Medieval Archaeology and Post-Medieval Archaeology.
  • Over 524 outreach events took place, including talks, finds days and exhibitions. These were attended by at least 32,569 adults and 2,699 children in museums across the country.
  • Finds Liaison Officers had regular contact with 114 metal detecting clubs, attending 502 club meetings.

The Treasure Act 1996 in 2016 by the numbers:

  • 1,120 Treasure cases were reported, the largest number ever in a single year. It is hoped that many of these will be acquired by museums for public benefit.
  • 96% of Treasure finds were found by metal-detectorists.
  • Important new finds include five gold Iron Age torcs from Leekfrith, Staffordshire (2016 T1037), an Anglo-Saxon pendant from Binbrook, Lincolnshire (2016 T212) and 914 gold sovereigns found in a piano in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire (2016 T969).

98 parties waived their right to a reward in 57 Treasure cases reported in 2015; this figure is likely to increase as cases are completed. Donations from finders included Bronze Age basket ornaments from Whitchurch, Hampshire (2015 T72), a medieval piedfort from Kenninhall, Norfolk (2015 T108), and a 17th-century vervel from Wiveton, Norfolk (2015 T629).

The PAS system in Britain led the Netherlands to study implementing a similar scheme in 2016, to be known as PAN, Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands.

(See also CCP’s report on the 2015 PAS and Treasure annual report: Stunning Bronze Age Golden Torc and Roman Villa Highlight PAS Reports)

DUR-C3E4FE Copper-alloy diploma from Lanchester, County Durham, granting Roman citizenship to a Briton who served in the Roman navy. PAS Report.

NLM-DD07EF Discoid pendant from Burton upon Stather, North Lincolnshire. PAS Report.

PUBLIC-364487 Shown on this lead-alloy pilgrim’s badge from London is the martyrdom of St Thomas (Becket) of Canterbury. Such badges would have been brought by pilgrims to St Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury, and touched on holy relics.