11.18.2014

Lara Croft and the Missing Loot

I'm not Lara Croft. Yes I know some of the people involved in creating her, and yes there are some superficial similarities. For example, my step-father had a butler, but I'm sure there are other archaeologists raised with butlers ;-)

The one thing I do have in common with her is that I fight quite hard to try to find stolen and looted antiquities and have them returned to the country they came from.

In the past I've said "someone" identified this mosaic as almost certainly coming from a set in Edessa in Turkey, others of which had been excavated then stolen. This one was not officially excavated, so never reported stolen. That "someone" was me.

I emailed Maxwell L. Anderson of the Dallas Museum and the Turkish Ministry of Culture at the same time with my worries about the mosaic, and the brilliant Dr Anderson had emailed the Turks even before they had checked their messages offering to sort out the mess.

This Orpheus mosaic with a Syriac inscription was looted directly from the site and never reported stolen, but circumstantial evidence led the Dallas Museum to contact the Turkish Embassy with their worries - all other known mosaics of this type come from Edessa in Turkey, the site was excavated only in 1979, and a number of other mosaics of Orpheus were reported stolen in 1981 (see here), etc.




And it turned out that, despite the Dallas mosaic having been published in an academic article, Dallas Museum was right to be concerned by the issues I raised about the mosaic.

After doing more research, the Turkish Ministry of Culture was able to find images of it in situ taken by the looters:


Dr Maxwell L. Anderson of Dallas Museum should be praised, not only for approaching the Turks when he was made aware of issues with the museum's mosaic but also for setting up the AAMD Object Registry where museums list archaeological items they acquire so source countries can check they were not looted. If all museum directors were like him, life would be so much better.

The mosaic had been sold in the past at Christie's. Christie's often tend to get criticised for some antiquities that pass through them, but I would also like to say that they have gone out of their way to help whenever I've asked them to, and without breaking client confidentiality the head of their legal team and I had a long conversation about this.

A lot of groups and people claiming to fight looting have used this returned mosaic on their web sites, implying they were responsible or using it to help with their fundraising. This is the first time I have explained the story. The Turks were very happy, and when I went to Istanbul the city was covered in large posters celebrating the exhibition:


A head several people were involved in getting returned to Libya is this one. Hafed Walda told me he was having difficulties with a head he said had been stolen from Sabratha, but wouldn't give me any details - in retrospect I guess there were other people trying and failing to sort it out, as I later learnt from Christie's that many allegations had been made, but neither the Libyans nor Scotland Yard had provided them with any proof.

I pushed Hafed for the details of which head in the auction, and he eventually told me. I tried the little girl running the department, and when that didn't work I had a conversation with a lady at Christie's legal department who understood exactly what my issues were, and sorted it out. A lot of people involved themselves with this return, and many of them were incompetent, but it was easily resolved and took a total of maybe 60 minutes' conversation between me and Christie's.


I try to give as much credit to others as I can, but really they don't deserve it in this case.

These are all old cases, but I am sure people can understand why I can't talk about ongoing investigations and projects. I don't publish articles either in academic journals or in newspapers about this sort of work as I don't want looters to be able to understand the methods I use, or they will change theirs. If looters understand how I work, they will change their methods and it will be harder to catch them - that's why although I have published academic articles and presented research at conference, I can't do so with looting.