History of the Guennol Lioness

The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise in the Ancient Near East. Experts believe that the Lioness may have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.

In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.

In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it.

On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.

Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item is not available to the public.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

The Euphronios Krater, UNESCO, and Illegal Excavations

A krater is a decorative bowl the Ancient Greeks used to mix wine with water. Euphronius—an Athenian vase painter active in the late 6th, and early 5th century BCE—was a highly influential painter, and was instrumental in the transition from the Late Archaic style of vase art to the Early Classical style. Euphronios and about six other contemporary artists—known by art historians as the Pioneer Group—revolutionized the red figure vase painting technique (as seen pictured above).

There are 27 vases painted by Euphronius currently in existence, and the Euphronios Krater is the most renowned example of his work due to the brightness of its colors and the fact that it is completely intact. It is also remarkable in that it was signed by both Euphronios and the potter, Euxitheos.

In 1972, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. sold the Krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.2 million. Hecht claimed to have acquired the piece from a Lebanese dealer named Dikran Sarrafian, whose family had owned the piece since 1920.

Because he had documentation to verify this, the Met deemed his custody of the Krater legal under the standards put in place by UNESCO in 1970 (see below), and concluded that their purchase too would be legal. The Italian government was immediately suspicious, as it suspected that the Krater had been acquired through an illegal excavation, but they could not prove anything at that point in time.

The UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, in highly simplified terms, set into law that any cultural object which had been stolen or illegally excavated after 1970 had to be returned to its country of origin. Every country which ratified the Convention had to follow these terms regardless of the year at which it was ratified. Italy ratified it in 1978, and the United States ratified it in 1983. You can read the full text of the Convention, including the set definition of “cultural property,” here.

The installation of this law caused museums, archives, and dealers to pay much better attention to the documentation of objects they wished to acquire into their collections. If they could not verify that the object had been acquired legally after 1970, or they could not verify the provenance of objects held in private hands before 1970, the repository would not accept the item. As you may imagine, this only resulted in the creation of very impressive forgeries of documents.

Which brings us back to the Euphronios Krater. Despite the Italian government’s continued belief that the Krater had been illegally excavated, the Met would not discuss the issue until 2001. Between 2001 and 2005 it came to light that Hecht had not purchased the piece from Dikran Sarrafian, but had knowingly purchased it from a network of illegal excavators headed by Italian art dealer Gaicomo Medici. The Krater has been illegally excavated from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, and smuggled out of the country by Hecht shortly thereafter.

Hecht is currently standing trial on allegations of trafficking illicit antiquities, and Medici’s court hearings began in 2005. In 2006, after all of this had come to light, talks between the Met and the Italian government started up again, and in January of 2008, the Krater was returned to Italian soil.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.