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Author Topic: Tycoon orders university to return his ?magic? artefacts  (Read 351 times)
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Baja Bush Pilot
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« on: March 23, 2007, 06:20:27 PM »

A buyer of antiquities is suing University College London for the return of a multi-million-pound collection of ancient artefacts he lent it a decade ago.

Martin Sch?yen, a Norwegian tycoon who has homes in London and Oslo, accuses the university of giving him ?spurious reasons? for failing to return 654 Aramaic incantation bowls that date from the 1st century. He loaned the bowls, which are inscribed with magical texts, for academic research purposes in 1996. But two years ago the strength of criticism from scholars about the bowls? provenance led the university to open an investigation. Lord Renfrew of Kaims-thorn, director of the McDon-ald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, joined an independent ethics committee headed by the lawyer David Freeman.

The committee?s report was delivered last summer, and although UCL has yet to publish it, the case will make other public institutions wary of handling unprovenanced antiquities.

While Mr Sch?yen?s claim that the bowls were exported legally from the Middle East is being challenged, the collection remains in store at UCL.

The angry owner is now taking legal action, insisting that access to the collection was provided to UCL ?only for research purposes?. He said in a statement: ?In recent months, the Sch?yen Collection has become frustrated with the waste of time and money caused by a lengthy and inconclusive inquiry into provenance and with the spurious reasons being given for not returning the bowls.?

He added: ?The Sch?yen Collection . . . has now reluctantly come to the view that legal proceedings are the only way forward.?

The Sch?yen Collection, based in London and Oslo, boasts more than 13,000 significant manuscripts and other artefacts of cultural importance spanning 5,000 years of history. Its jewels include fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Dunhuang Buddhist trove.

Atle Omland, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, noted that Mr Sch?yen apparently has a document stating that the bowls were exported legally from Jordan in 1988, even though they are suspected to have been taken unlawfully from Iraq after 1990.

He said: ?There seem to be serious doubts about his export licence, that [the document] is a fake . . . and that Iraq has the legal claim over them. Legally, Iraq are the owners if they were taken out after 1990, and they were taken out of Iraq.?

The bowls are believed to have been used by Mesopota-mian Jews to ward off evil spirits. Ancient Mesopotamia ? the cradle of civilisation as the birthplace of writing, codified law and astronomy ? is modern-day Iraq.

The university?s investigation was prompted by allegations against Mr Sch?yen in a documentary by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and David Hebditch, a British documentary maker.

The collector was unsuccessful when he appealed to Nor-way?s equivalent of the Press Complaints Commission to stop its screening.

When the bowls were lent to the university, there was no specific regulation governing the acceptance of cultural objects by the university. Professor Michael Worton, the Vice-Provost of UCL, declined to comment yesterday.



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« Reply #1 on: March 23, 2007, 09:23:24 PM »

Thank you for this Barry. I hope we are able to follow this one to it's conclusion.

"When the bowls were lent to the university, there was no specific regulation governing the acceptance of cultural objects by the university."

  I would think that the agreement between the two parties in 1996 would be the determining factor in deciding who is to posess the artifacts, since the rule change at the institution occurred after that. I imagine this could  impact the future and may be a deciding factor in private collectors loaning valuable artifacts to institutions, if it turns out badly for the plaintiff. On the other hand, if they were 'looted', that would be a different matter entirely.

- Bart

   The Sch?yen Collection crosses borders and unites cultures, religions and unique materials found nowhere else. The Collection, based in London and Oslo, contains over 13,000 significant manuscripts and other artefacts of major cultural importance and is an important part of the world?s heritage.

   There is no public collection that has the Sch?yen Collection?s unique array of manuscripts from all the greatest manuscript hoards, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Cairo Genizah of Hebrew MSS, The Oxyrhynchus hoard of classical papyri, The Dishna Biblical papyri, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic papyri, the Dunhuang hoard of Buddhist MSS, and many others. Nor is there one with such a variety, geographically, linguistically and textually, and of scripts and writing materials, covering so a great span of time ? 5,000 years of history.

   The Sch?yen Collection, the largest private manuscript collection created in the last 100 years, has been forced to commence legal proceedings against University College London ("UCL") to recover 654 Middle Eastern incantation bowls. These form part of the Sch?yen Collection?s permanent holdings. Access to the bowls was provided to UCL only for research purposes in the mid-1990s.

   In recent months, the Sch?yen Collection has become frustrated with the waste of time and money caused by a lengthy and inconclusive inquiry into their provenance. The Sch?yen Collection had been willing, initially, to collaborate in a programme of verification of the provenance of the incantation bowls. This line of inquiry, which started as long ago as 2004, had been seen by the Collection as part of a much wider process of bringing the British museums sector into line with global best practice.

   However, the Collection began to lose confidence in UCL?s conduct of its inquiries. Although the Schoyen Collection continued to give the University the benefit of the doubt for some time, following a series of unsatisfactory meetings and communications, it has now reluctantly come to the view that legal proceedings are the only way forward.

   The Sch?yen Collection strongly supports a tough regime for cultural protection. It makes every effort to comply with the law in every jurisdiction in which it operates. It is a private collection and asserts the value and importance of the ethical private collector in preserving the heritage of all mankind.

  The Schoyen Collection has arguably the largest collection of manuscripts to have been assembled in the 20th century, Among his 13,500 items spanning more than 5,000 years are treasures from:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Cairo Genizah of Hebrew MSS

The Oxyrhynchus hoard of classical papyri

The Dishna Biblical papyri

   Aramaic incantation bowls are of particular importance for the study of Eastern Aramaic and the dialect of the Babylonian Talmud, since they they are our largest corpus of epigraphic (as opposed to manuscript) Aramaic from the Talmudic and Geonic periods. Most of them date from the 5th-8th centuries CE.


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« Reply #2 on: March 24, 2007, 03:52:06 AM »

Bart, in English law, a contract to break the law has no validity.

If the artefacts are loot, or smuggled out of Iraq - i.e. held illegally, then the contract with the university is invalid and the university would have a duty to return them to their legal owner.

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« Reply #3 on: March 24, 2007, 01:02:55 PM »

Yes Solomon, that is true here in the US also, good point. It appears that neither side can prove their own claims, nor disprove the others' claims, so what will be used to make a determination? Even a consensus of expert opinion could be wrong, with the possibility of setting a bad precedent. It doesn't appear that Skoyen  has a history of illegal importation, or is known for trafficking in loot, from the little I have seen. 'Good faith' may not be a defense if the law was broken, but it may come into play in the courts decision. I hope we will be able to see how this one ends up.

- Bart

Learning is a treasure which accompanies its owner everywhere.
« Reply #4 on: March 24, 2007, 02:03:28 PM »

Incantation bowl from Mesopotamia, ca. seventh century. Usually buried in a building's foundation, magic bowls were designed to protect a house and its inhabitants from devils and evildoers. Opinion differs as to the actual ritual associated with these incantation bowls, but it is generally believed that they were thought to entrap and reject evil powers. As is common in these bowls, the Aramaic inscription here is written on the inside in concentric circles.


Reading the statement by Sch?yen, it appears to me to full of spin. Some examples:

The Sch?yen Collection strongly supports a tough regime for cultural protection.
Does it really? Then why resort to law when the regime gets "tough"?

It makes every effort to comply with the law in every jurisdiction in which it operates.
The present situation, the law case in particular, disproves this claim. It is not making "every effort". If it was, then it would be assisting the investigation, not taking the investigators to court.

However, the Collection began to lose confidence in UCL?s conduct of its inquiries.
This no longer seems credible. It seems more likely to me that they are afraid of what the investigation may find.

I also do not like all those pompous statements as to how important they are. Is this just PR, or an attempt to claim immunity because they see themselves as above the law?

I also question the provenance of some of the early manuscripts.

Lastly, I would not see the end of this enquiry as a guaranteed statement of the truth in this matter. Things are what they are regardless of a judgement.


Looting at Gilgit. (Photo courtesy of NRK.)

TV review: NRK (Norway), Skriftsamleren [The Manuscript Collector]
Staffan Lund?n
Museion Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
Gothenburg University

On 7 September and 14 September 2004, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) aired the documentary Skriftsamleren [The Manuscript Collector], a well-researched and hard-hitting investigation into the collecting activities of the Norwegian multi-millionaire Martin Sch?yen.1 The documentary, produced by Ola Flyum and David Hebditch, with Pakistan researcher Sohail Qureshi, offered to a wide audience a clear-cut example of how the looting and destruction of archaeological heritage is ultimately financed by wealthy collectors and legitimized by naive scholars.
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« Reply #5 on: March 24, 2007, 05:17:45 PM »


 Your link  Skriftsamleren certainly expands the situation immensely.

   There is no question as to the spin of the Skoyen Collection's public statements. For Skoyen to file in court to prevent the airing of the documentary is indeed a black mark against him, no spin can whitewash that attempt. Skoyen is obviously a prevaricator and a knowing trafficker in looted antiquities.

   The whole business of these antiquities has an odor that taints all involved. Even the statement you quoted from the documentary is spin, a very generous categorization of one of the involved factions. I fail to see how such actions below can be called naive by any stretch of the imagination.

   I don't know what the answer to the whole problem is. I doubt it will ever change as long as there are large profits to be made in it. No one is without blame here.

   It doesn't appear that the current laws are enforced, few seem to get charged with offenses, and the sentences seem to be light for those convicted of violations. The law enforcement equation seems to be mentioned least of all when the whole scenario is publicized. What good are the laws if they aren't enforced? They obviously do not deter the looting to any great extent, and as long as there is money to be made, it appears that the slight risk of prosecution is willingly taken on as part of doing business.

   I don't see that outlawing private collections is the answer either, but it may come to that. Somehow the money needs to be taken out of the equation, but I doubt that will ever happen.

- Bart

   "Already in 1999, Hunter and other scholars had asked UCL about the legal status of the bowls, but UCL had declined to investigate them. When the NRK investigators started to make enquiries, UCL appeared unhelpful. In an interview, a UCL spokesman confirmed that UCL had held some bowls for ?academic purposes? but that the bowls had been returned to their owner. "

   "However, this turned out not to be true, and the investigators discovered that the bowls were still in storage at UCL. (They were promised a look at the bowls, but the offer was later withdrawn, because, it was claimed, the keys to the store could not be found). In a second interview, the UCL spokesman revealed that he had discovered the bowls were still at UCL. He added that UCL?s legal advisors had said it would be inappropriate to hand them back until the putative owner could provide written evidence of title."

   "It may be noted also that the scholars publishing the bowls in the Sch?yen collection acknowledge that many bowls are illegally on the market. In a recent article, Mark Geller, referring to the situation in Iraq, states: ?Within the past decade, hundreds of Aramaic incantation bowls have appeared on the antiquities market, collected from archaeological sites.? He also writes that: ?Antiquities which were recently exported from their country of origin, such as Iraq, cannot be bought, sold, handled, or studied.?8 In the NRK programme, the investigators filmed a lecture at UCL by Mark Geller and Dan Levene on the inscriptions on the magic bowls in the collection of Martin Sch?yen.9 Erica Hunter asked from the audience about the provenance of the bowls. Levene replied that most of them were unprovenanced."

"To the viewers one of the most surprising revelations of the NRK programme probably was the extent of scholarly involvement there is in the trade. The point was made that when scholars and academic institutions enter into different forms of collaboration with collectors, and start to research and publish unprovenanced objects ? in effect, they legitimize them. Therefore the programme questioned why respectable scholars, such as Jens Braarvig, Mark Geller, Dan Levene, Shaul Shaked and others, would publish objects in the Sch?yen collection despite their questionable origin.

   Although not explicitly stated in the programme, it also provided a didactic example of how scholars who publish such objects become dependent upon the goodwill of the collector and how this dependency influences scholarly judgement. Braarvig, responsible for publishing the Sch?yen collection, stated in the programme that if there were illicit objects in the collection, he would disclose the fact. Yet, as mentioned above, he had neglected to make known information that would have contradicted the official story of a rescue operation from the Taliban. From the interview it was also clear that Braarvig did not question Sch?yen?s legal or moral rights to own (or sell) the objects in his collection.

   This shows one additional motivation for collectors to give scholars the privilege to publish their collections: by doing so they gain steady allies ? with all the credentials that come with academic titles ? who are willing to stand up and defend their right to collect and to possess."

   "One of the most interesting parts of the programme dealt with how Buddhist manuscripts came into vogue among the collectors ? and it was implied that in this respect too scholars had become pawns in the games of the market-makers. The investigators managed to interview a London-based smuggler, who said that when the manuscripts started to come on to the market in 1993 and 1994, there was hardly any demand for them. The situation changed when the British Library acquired a number of manuscripts. When announcing the acquisition, the manuscripts were hailed as a sensational discovery and comparable in significance to the Dead Sea scrolls.

   The programme interviewed Graham Shaw, who is responsible for the Asian collections at the British Library, and who said that the manuscripts were first brought to the Library ?for advice on conservation?. This sounds like an innocent motive for bringing texts to a library, but in the programme it was suggested that the real reason for making this material known to the British Library was more sinister. It may have been a marketing strategy, based on the calculation that an acquisition by such a prestigious institution would stimulate the market.

   Regardless of whether the British Library was deliberately manipulated or not, the news of its acquisition aroused the interest of collectors.12 Among the collectors who were now eager to acquire this kind of material was Martin Sch?yen, who in 1996 made his first purchase of Buddhist manuscript fragments from Sam Fogg. By 1998 he had bought 10,000 manuscript fragments."

   "When the NRK interviewer suggested to Shaw on screen that the British Library, by its act of acquisition, had stimulated the market and started off a looting campaign, Shaw did not seem very happy. He said he refused to answer such a ?totally unfair question?, stood up, took off the microphone, and walked off.

   The programme did not give further details on how the manuscripts were acquired by the British Library, but an article in The Art Newspaper reported that the scrolls had been sold by Robert Senior, a coin dealer who is currently based in Somerset. The purchase price has never been disclosed, but it has been suggested that the texts were purchased and donated to the library by Neil Kreitman, a specialist in Gandharan art and son of the late Hyman Kreitman, chairman of Tesco supermarkets."

   "According to this article, the manuscripts are believed to have been looted near Hadda in Afghanistan in 1992.13 Another article reports that the purchase price was ?a five-figure sum?.14 The British Library defended its acquisition by arguing that the manuscripts were in need of urgent conservation work and that the Library wanted to make them ?available to the international scholarly community?. "

   "Clearly there is a moral dilemma when material of great scholarly value but with uncertain provenance is offered on the market.15 Any scholar may instinctively feel an urge to rescue the material by acquiring it, especially if it comes from a war-torn country where there are no functioning institutions able to take care of it. Yet, in the case of the manuscripts acquired by the British Library, the alleged price throws some doubt on the notion that the British Library saved them. Does not the five-figure price suggest that there were other prospective saviours available and that the Library was in competition with them? Why did the British Library have to compete with them? Which collector, willing to pay a five-figure sum, would have refused to make the material available to scholars? Collectors do not hide away their collections. Collectors want their collections to be studied as it enhances their own social status, as well the collection?s economic value."

Learning is a treasure which accompanies its owner everywhere.
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