Beth Ann Judas: How Many Hekats of Barley are These Worth?

Some Considerations on the AIA-St. Louis Society's Sale of Egyptian Artifacts

During the past several months, the Egyptological community has been rocked by sales of ancient Egyptian artifacts. My Facebook page seems to be an almost constant stream of  "I can't believe this!" in regards to the angry/sad/frustrated discussions regarding the sales of ancient artifacts (and, since I'm friends with both Old and New World archaeologists, there is a lot of this); and my Twitter feed is sometimes so overwhelming with items on looting and sales of artifacts that I have to turn to the Buzzfeed quizzes on "What Kind of Harry Potter Wizard Are You?" to mentally regroup. I'm going to be brutally honest. The following discussion is difficult. It's a subject fraught with contradictions and "feels," and all archaeologists, ancient historians, and ancient art historians have different views. I personally have no interest in purchasing any ancient objects, legal or otherwise, and I am, obviously, dead set against the sale of any illegally imported/exported objects. I'm not here to discuss individuals legally purchasing legally imported artifacts, but I am here to throw in my two cents regarding the AIA-St. Louis Society's sales of Egyptian objects as a trained archaeologist who works in both Egypt and Greece.

On or about September 10, 2014, the Egyptological community found out that the AIA-St. Louis Society (to visit their website: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/aia/) planned to auction a tomb group that was excavated during the 1913-1914 season by Englebach and Brunton at Harageh, Egypt.  The AIA-St. Louis Society received the Harageh tomb group from the excavators and the Egyptian government in 1914-1915. It was gifted to them, as a permanent loan, to thank the society for their monetary support of the excavation.  The expectation, by both the excavators and the Egyptian government, was that the Society would not only care for the items, but that they would also make them available for study by scholars and for viewing by the public.  The additional assumption was that the St. Louis Society would hand them over to a museum, university, or research institute, if they no longer wanted the responsibility of caring for the objects, so that the artifacts could remain in a safe environment and be available to the public and the academic community.

Tomb Group from Harageh, Egypt (Bonhams Lot 160): Sold to the MMA (NYC)
An Egyptian alabaster headrest from Harageh Sold to a Private Buyer (Bonhams Lot 162)

The St. Louis Society chose to ignore these expectations, which had been expressed one hundred years ago, and put the tomb group up for auction at Bonhams.  I'm sure that I was not alone in my reaction to that news.  After I over-reacted a bit and eventually calmed down a little, I managed to send a level-headed message to the Archaeological Institute of America via Facebook.  I received a message acknowledging my concern and assuring me that they were preparing an official statement. From both the private message I received and the public statement posted on their webpage [please see the links at the bottom of the page], it seems that they were just as surprised as the rest of us by the actions of their renegade Society.  

While the sale by the St. Louis Society was perfectly legal, it was disappointing. I’m baffled at how they could have thought this was in any way a good idea for an organization that is supposed to support, protect, and educate the public regarding ancient cultures, archaeology, and the protection of sites and artifacts. After the AIA contacted them and questioned their actions, the local society still seemed to believe their actions were (and are) appropriate.  Not only did they sell two sets of Egyptian artifacts this autumn, they continued to sell various other objects through Bonhams. The Society, especially as a representative of the AIA, should know better. They are not a private individual, family, or even a private, for-profit corporation. They are the public face of archaeology for the St. Louis community, and are expected to set an example for students, professionals and interested lay-people of archaeology and the ancient world.

If they felt that they could no longer keep the objects and needed guidance on the proper way to dispose of the artifacts they should have-at the least- contacted the AIA Governing Board or the Petrie Museum of the University College London (as the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) is now defunct) to see if either organization had good suggestions. The Society is not without proper resources.  As part of a larger organization, they have access to archaeologists, both Old and New World.  Additionally, the high profile case of the sale of the Northampton Sekhemka statue, which generated outrage among the Egyptological community earlier this year, should have sent a signal to the Society to find an alternate solution.  They cannot, in any way, claim ignorance.  As an outsider to the AI- St. Louis Society, it seems that they acted in a willfully ignorant manner by not approaching the proper channels-perhaps because they knew that they would be told they should not follow through on their auction sales.

They felt no compunction in selling off items that were placed into their care by the excavators and the Egyptian government.  This action knowingly and explicitly betrayed the expectations of the original excavators and the Egyptian government.  The society has been defiantly quiet on the reason behind the sale, aside from stating that it was too expensive to store the items.  They've attempted to justify the sale of the objects by stating that they will use the money for community outreach education, which, in my opinion, is highly ironic.

The Egyptological community breathed a sigh of relief that the Harageh items (Bohams Lot 160) were withdrawn from the Bonhams auction on October 2. The tomb group was sold privately; and, fortunately, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased it.  This means that the objects will be put on display and be made available to researchers to study.  This was the best-case scenario. But what would have happened if the objects hadn't been purchased by a museum? The chance that they would have been bought by a private collector who had no interest in making the objects available for study was great. There is a great chance that the headrest (Bonhams Lot 162), which was the second lot that was auctioned, will be squirreled away in a private collection, not to be seen again for at least a generation or two-if we are lucky.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the AIA have both made statements. The Met addressed their legal purchase of the objects, while the AIA is currently addressing the situation regarding their wayward society. Initially, the AIA chastised the St. Louis Society and reminded both them and the public of the roles of the AIA societies: their duty to properly curate ancient artifacts placed in their care.  The AIA also addressed the issue at their Governing Board meeting on October 25, 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island. The Board recommended that the AIA either suspend the Society or disband it. (Or perhaps they will only remove the current governing board of the Society and bar them from future participation on the St Louis board of officers since the Society's officers seem to be making habitually poor decisions.)  The final decision will be made by the Council of the Institute at the general AIA meeting in January 2015 in New Orleans, LA. The AIA-St. Louis Society officers obviously lack any type of learning curve as they also sold Mesoamerican vessels via Bonhams while the AIA Governing Board was discussing their actions.  The saga, I suspect, is far from over at this point, and we shall probably have to wait until after the 2015 AIA Annual Meeting for a conclusion regarding the St. Louis Society’s status. I’m dreading to see what else will appear at Bonhams between now and the 2015 AIA Annual Meeting.

Sales, such as these, by museums and local governments send signals to private individuals that it is okay to engage in the blanket trade of ancient objects.  Additionally, they cause disappointment when they fail to act as appropriate caretakers, eroding the public's perception (and trust!) of the institutions as legitimate representatives. The sticky part is that the sale and purchase of legally exported/imported items is okay, yet, it is difficult to weed out the bona-fide legally purchased items from the objects that have questionable or fake provenances and sale histories.  Illegally exported/imported artifacts, which have travelled through black market contacts and have been looted or stolen from sites and museums, are exceptionally difficult to track.  Since there are a finite number of legal objects, there is a high demand for objects by private collectors.  This demand is often satisfied by probable illegal objects, which have questionable backgrounds.  The argument is that sales by high-profile institutions, such as the Northampton Council and the AIA-St. Louis Society, provide non-verbal approvals on antiquity sales, which may, more often than not, include illegally imported objects.  This is especially true in times of conflict where looting and the black market sale of artifacts may run rampant as they fund private individuals and organizations, such as IS. Archaeological societies and museums have a duty to not encourage the sale of these questionable and illegal antiquities, and they cannot act as if they are private individuals whose actions have no long-term consequences. This is why the actions of the AIA- St. Louis Society are so disappointing.

*Update: The AIA-St. Louis Society put two more lots up for auction on November 12; this time they were Mesoamerican artifacts. At this point, I feel like the AIA-St. Louis Society is attempting to get as much money from their antiquities before the AIA yanks their charter. Donna Yates has written two passionate blog posts regarding the Mesoamerican items. I know almost nothing about Mesoamerican archaeology, so I will leave it to her to discuss the below items much more eloquently than I ever could.

Zapotec Seated Figural Urn, Monte Alban IIIB, Late Classic, ca A.D. 550-950 (est £1,900-£3,100)
Mayan vase from Quiriqua in Honduras (est £3,800-£5,000)

**** UPDATE: January 10, 2015 AIA Council Meeting at the 2015 Annual Meetings****

Last night, thanks to the miracle of twitter, those of us unable able to attend the 2015 AIA-SCS Annual Meetings in New Orleans, LA, USA, were able to follow along with the proceedings regarding the AIA-St. Louis Society.  I followed two people (@jstpwalsh and@sylviadeskaj) and retweeted their live tweets. I was torn-part of me wanted desperately to be there (but that is always the result of my "why-didn't-I-go-to-the-Annual-Meetings-this-year"-itis, although it was heightened this year), but I am also very glad I wasn't there, as my blood pressure might have spiked so high that my head might have popped right off my body, which we can all agree would have been rather distracting during the meeting.  The live tweets were the next best thing, and so I re-tweeted them. From the tweets that I saw I remain unimpressed by the arguments from the AIA-STL Society President...and that is all I will say about that (as he seems very keen on litagation).

The Classics Librarian (@classicslib) also gathered together all of the tweets into one place, which is very helpful:

The new AJA editor included her views in her editor's letter in the January 2015 AJA issues, which is available via open access at academia.edu:

"A Letter from the Editor-in-Chief, American Journal of Archaeology": https://www.academia.edu/10035223/A_Letter_from_the_Editor-in-Chief_American_Journal_of_Archaeology

The council, after a long discussion, voted to rescind the AIA-St. Louis Society's charter IF the current board did not resign by February 1, 2015. Perhaps some felt this was too harsh, but I suspect the majority of the voters felt this was the best compromise. Otherwise the alternative was to strip the charter, which would have left the current AIA-STL members at large.  We also learned that at least two AIA-STL board members had resigned in protest at the sales. Personally, I would like some reassurance that the board members, who will be ejected by this agreement, will not attempt to return as future board members at some other date.  I would also like to see some of that money that resulted from the sales of the Egyptian objects put towards support of archaeological works in Egypt, but that is just my personal pipe-dream.

On a different note, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art the day after Christmas, and, on my normal pilgrimmage through the Egyptian galleries, I kept an eye out for the Harageh objects. I didn't see them, but I did notice that one of the smaller Middle Kingdom galleries was closed. Hopefully, that gallery will be the new home to the tomb group.

Links to various articles:

Archaeological Institute of American (AIA) (September 11, 2014) "AIA Statement on Recent Auction Activity"

Naunton, C and A. Stevenson. (September 29, 2014) "Joint Statement from the Egypt Exploration Society and the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology on The Loss of Antiquities from Public Collections by the Egypt Exploration Society's Director, Dr. Chris Naunton and Dr. Alice Stevenson, UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology "

Shaw, G. (October 1, 2014) “St Louis archaeological society puts its Egyptian treasure up for auction” The Art Newspaper

Bonhams (October 2, 2014) "Treasure of Harageh: An Important Egyptian Tomb Group from Harageh Lot 160"

Bonhams (October 2, 2014) "An Egyptian Alabaster-Travertine Headrest Lot 162"
*Note: This object was not purchased by the Metropolitan Musem of Art.

(October 6, 2014) "Bonhams sells 4,000 year old Egyptian 'Treasure of Harageh' to the Metropolitan Museum"

AIA  (October 8, 2014) "AIA Statement on the Recent Sale of Artifacts by the St. Louis Society"

Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 8, 2014) Metropolitan Museum Acquires Important Group of Egyptian Vessels and Ornaments Excavated in 1913-14 at Haraga

AIA (October 27, 2014 ) "AIA Governance Board Statement"

Links to discussions regarding the MesoAmerican artifacts sold by AIA- St. Louis:

Yates, D. (October 27, 2014) “Archaeological Institute of America St. Louis Society selling Meosamerican antiquities at auction” (Anonymous Swiss Collector)

(October 28, 2014) “Archaeological Society in St. Louis Places Ancient Artifacts on the Auction Block” Popular Archaeology

Barford, P. (October 28, 2014) "US Archaeologists Selling Finds: AIA in St. Louis Places MORE Ancient Artefacts on the Auction Block "

Shaw,G. (November 6, 2014) “St Louis society attempts second sale of antiquities” The Art Newspaper

Yates, D. (November 13, 2014) “Ethically questionable AIA St Louis Maya vessel sells for well over 2x estimate at Bonhams”

Northampton Sekhemka Statue information: There is a surfeit of information on the Sekhemka Statue. These are just a few of the articles that demonstrate the distress that this sale caused in the Egyptological community.

Bailey, M.  (October 30, 2014 ) “English council pays price for controversial sale of museum object” The Art Newspaper

Select BBC news stories regarding the Sekhmka statue and the Northampton Council:

(July 8, 2014) "Egyptian bid to stop Northampton's ancient statue sale"

(July 10, 2014) "Egyptian statue Sekhemka sells for nearly £16m"  

(September 12, 2012) "Northampton council backs £2m Egyptian statue sale"

(October 1, 2014) "Sekhemka statue sale: Northampton Council 'violated trust'"

(November 4, 2014) "Sekhemka statue: HLF rejects Northampton Council grant bid"

About Me:

Beth Ann received her B.A. in Anthropology (with a concentration in Archaeology) and a secondary focus in Classical Studies at Ripon College, and her M.A. in Classical Archaeology at Florida State University. She holds her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her focus at UPENN was on Egypt (Middle and New Kingdoms) and Bronze Age Greece. Beth Ann’s main focus lies in the study of interconnections between Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and the Bronze Age Aegean which resulted in her dissertation, “Late Bronze Age Aegean Ceramics in the Nile Valley: An Analysis of Idea and Practice in the Archaeological Record."  She is currently researching the Keftiu (Bronze Age Aegeans) in New Kingdom Egypt.

Her fate was sealed as an archaeologist after her first excavation in Atacama Desert, Chile, and an almost nose-to-nose meeting with a wild guanaco (who was just as shocked as she was). She also excavated at FSU's Cetamura del Chianti in Tuscany, Italy. Beth Ann has several seasons of field experience in Egypt and eastern Crete. More recently, she was a member of the Cornell Halai and East Lokris Project (CHELP) in Greece, for which she was the registrar and storeroom manager. She has taught several classes on the history, archaeology, and art of ancient Egypt and Greece, Greco-Roman mythology, and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. She serves in a leadership role in a local archaeological society, whose opinions may not reflect the those of the writer. She can be found at twitter as @keftiugal