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A Syrian Victory at a Posh London Auction House?

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National Museum, Damascus

Over the past three years not many victories in Syria have been witnessed by this observer. Indeed some developments have even brought to mind Plutarch’s description of the Greek King Pyrrhus’ defeat of the Roman legions some while back. But an achievement by the Syrian government and its people on 4/3/14 in an auction house in London is neither Pyrrhic, nor of the ‘Another such victory and I am undone’ variety.

The case involves an ancient black basalt stele (a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes). The artifact is of the Assyrian king Adad-Nerari III, who ruled Syria 2,800 years ago. With a weight of 830 kg, it measures 137.5 cm high, by 75 cm wide by 27 cm in depth. Many Syrian and international antiquities specialists believe it was stolen from Syria in 2000 after standing for nearly three thousand years in the temple of the god Sulmanu, in the ancient city of Dur Katlimmu, now known as Tell Sheikh Hamad. The tell is situated near the historic Khabour River between Hasaka and Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, not far from Palmyra which this observer has visited recently.

Recently the object appeared in the possession of the British auction house, Bonhoms, a development that caused angst among archeologists in Syria and internationally. Exactly what happened next is a bit unclear, but the legal/political case was encapsulated in an urgent letter addressed to Dr. Maamooun Abkulkarem, the indefatigable Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Syria’s Ministry of Culture, from a correspondent in Berlin. The letter arrived at DGAM on March 23, 2014.

Dear Dr. Maamoun,

In the attachment I send you documentation on the stele of Tell Sheikh Hamad which is being offered for sale at Bonhams Auction house in London for April 3, 2014. According to my information UNESCO has already informed your government about this case. The only way to prohibit it from being sold is that your government responds to UNESCO, addresses Interpol, and request an investigation by the London police.

May I urge you Sir to inform your government quickly and act respectively before April 3!
Please note also this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVucfdFWTdc

Yours sincerely,

(Privacy of signer respected)

Dr. Maamoun and his dedicated Syrian nationalist team have been working nonstop (and some without pay for more than two years) to preserve, protect and plan for reconstruction of Syria’s, and by extension the world’s, cultural heritage. They and others are committed to stopping archeological theft, a phenomenon which has become more rampant since the current crisis erupted. The thefts have not been restricted solely to the rebel-held north or other areas not always under government control; they have also been a problem near Syria’s borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent Iraq, and in some cases, stolen treasures have also been smuggled out of Syria by aircraft.

Despite these crimes, the past few weeks have seen commendable cooperation between Lebanon and Syria leading to hundreds of Syrian antiquities being returned to Syria. On Syrian and Lebanese roads these days, soldiers at the frequent checkpoints not only look for explosives, wanted persons, and weapons, but they have orders at Syrian-Lebanon borders to search for more than 4000 stolen Syrian antiquities. A few hundred objects were returned to Syria this past year, and some are back on display in the garden of the National Museum in Damascus, where this observer photographed them.

Unfortunately there has been little, if any, help in stopping the flow of stolen Syrian antiquities into Jordan or Turkey, whose governments reportedly continue to turn a blind eye, ignoring their international obligations for reasons of politics and profit. In the case of Jordan, it has been widely alleged that King Abdullah’s government is condoning shipments of stolen Syrian artifacts, via Israeli drug and antiquities mafia operations. These international criminal enterprises then forward the global cultural treasures from Israeli ports and Tel Aviv airport to lucrative international markets—museums, auction houses, or private collectors in New York, London, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. With respect to Turkey, much of the 500 mile border is open to excavation teams sent in to strip Syria of her archeological treasures, again with widespread charges of Turkish government involvement.

The lower part of the stele of Adad-Nerari III is now at Bonhams auction house, where it was scheduled to be sold on 4/3/14, though initially the artifact came to public notice in 2000 at Christie’s auction house. The two houses are often competitors, but increasingly have become collaborators, as they witness a flood of stolen Syrian antiquities available to them and their clients. They and other auction houses, museums and dealers sometimes employ means to deceive prospective private purchasers, other museums, governments, and police agencies. One tactic is to obfuscate provenance and source of the particular Syrian antiquity.

The evidence for the date of removal from Syria of the stele of Adad-Nerari III is not flimsy. The report of 19th century archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam admits that he was not able to find it during his investigations in 1879. He reported that the upper part, which he sent to the British Museum, had been removed by local villagers from the area of a “venerated grave on top of the mound,” so that its pagan presence would not defile the grave. Rassam, quite correctly as it turned out, believed that the lower part of the King’s statue was still buried on top of the mound near the grave but the gentleman died before he could return to excavate it.

Both Bonhams and Christies sale notices state that the lower part of the stele was in the possession of the seller’s father by the 1960′s. This was a patently false representation by both houses.

For the 2014 Bonham’s sale, provenance is listed as “Private collection, Geneva, Switzerland, given as a gift from father to son in the 1960s.” This is also false, and neither auction house provided any documentation for the ownership history. In point of fact, the stele is not mentioned in any publication prior to its listing by Christies in 2000. The complete publication, by A. K. Grayson, of the royal inscriptions of King Adad-Nerari III appeared in 1996, and all Grayson does is list the upper (British Museum) part of the stele. He makes no mention of the lower part. Publications in this series include every known inscription of each Syrian king.

This observer submits that if any scholar had seen the stele prior to 1996, it would have been listed in the 1996 publication. Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that an inscription of this importance would not have become known to scholars, since it is well known even among the general public that owners of inscribed monuments, especially ones of this value and size, quite naturally seek scholarly opinions about their property.

Moreover, probative and material evidence in found in a report from the current director of excavations at Tell Sheikh Hamad, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Kühne, of the Freie Universität, Berlin. Dr. Huhne has directed survey and excavations at the site of Tell Sheikh Hamad in cooperation with DGAM since 1978. According to the professor, his is the only excavation at this site that has been authorized by the Syrian government. On 25 September 1999, Prof. Kühne sent a report to DGAM stating that some unknown person excavated illegally on top of the mound, near the venerated grave, during the night of 14 September 1999. Prof. Kühne provided photos of the looter excavations and he opined that the looter pit is just large enough to have contained the lower part of the stele. Prof. Kühne notes that the German mission was not excavating on the mound in 1999, and in fact had not worked there since 1988.

Last but not least, the location of the 1999 looter pits on top of the mound is precisely where Rassam, back in the 19th century, wrote that the lower part was buried. The first announcement of the existence of the stele, as noted above, was at the 2000 Christie’s sale—less than a year after the reported looting incident at Tell Sheikh Hamad!

This observer submits that there is adequate Syrian law and international law and British law on the books, if applied, to makes things a bit tough legally for the auction houses of Bonhom and Christie and many others. Their lawyers apparently agree. It’s as though the Assyrian King might yet exact some sort of revenge on them from his grave. Or wherever the gentleman might be these days given local lore from the Tell Sheikh Hamad area.

Public awareness was raised with respect to this archeological criminal case by the people and government of Syria and others, and an international campaign mobilizing public opinion has ensued. The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of the Syrian Ministry of Culture urged their colleagues at the Syrian Ministry of Interior, the Syrian Department of Criminal Security, and Interpol to “work to stop the sale of the piece and return it to Syria.” As reported by Nadine Kaanan, the Saade Institute created a video entitled “Stop the theft and sale of Syrian antiquities,” in which it urges that “all necessary legal measures be taken to return this important monument to Syria when security conditions permit.” The institute said it had decided to raise its voice to “preserve our countries’ artifacts and the story of human history, and also out of respect for the laws of the United Nations and for the sake of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.”

Long story made short, King Adad-Nerari III’s rare stele, prominently displayed in Bonhams auction house-with more than a few museums and investors interested in buying it, suddenly was stamped in Bonhoms to be sold catalog: “Withdrawn.” Some in attendance were not happy, and Bonhams administrative office is ‘holding consultations’ this week in light of expected public and trade journal reactions. Bonhams had planned to net around 1.3 million USD had the sale taken place.

Protecting the memory of King Adad-Nerari and preserving his place in the world’s cultural heritage may appear a modest victory given the nearly unimaginable suffering imposed daily on the people of the proud Syrian Arab Republic. But what happened to stop one auction house—from selling one stolen Syrian antiquity—was made possible by the people of Syria and others of good will who greatly value our Global Cultural Heritage. Hopefully, as international public awareness continues to increase about this aspect of the conflict in Syria, this case will enter the law books; maybe also it will result in legal statues and, consequently, a major advance toward preserving our Global Cultural Heritage.

May the people of Syria achieve many more such victories while ending this painful chapter in this ten millennia old Cradle of Civilization.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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