Friday, 20 January 2012

Buttock - Purveyor Arrested

This was one of the more bizarre "heritage" cases of 2011, but it is good to see that it was not just shrugged off. I explained the legal background in an earlier post, and it seems that I was not alone in thinking that what was happening was not right. Yesterday British police arrested somebody in Derbyshire alleging they were involved in the illegal removal of a fragment of a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein from Iraq. The suspect was not named but stated to be "66-year-old man", the press are suggesting that "the arrested man is connected to Derby-based war art relic company Trebletap".
He was held on suspicion of breaching the 2003 Iraq Sanctions Order, which bans the exportation of "illegally removed Iraqi cultural property," including items of archaeological, historical, cultural, or religious importance.
The arrested man has been released on bail pending further inquiries. The piece of the statue, and most newspaper articles do not fail to mention that it was from the "buttock" (some add "bronzed") of the person depicted, was about 0.6, tall and was removed from the statue by "a former soldier from Britain's elite SAS regiment, Nigel "Spud" Ely, 52, after he witnessed US Marines drag the statue down following the fall of the Iraqi leader". Ely had managed to extract the fragment from Iraq and imported it into Britain "and put it up for auction last year, although it failed to reach its reserve price of £250,000 ($390,000)".
Ely expressed shock at today's arrest, which is thought to be connected to a company trying to find a buyer for the souvenir, saying, "This is like having a chunk of the Berlin Wall - it's part of history but it's not cultural property." He said that US Marines gave it to him at a time when Baghdad was under US control, adding, "How can it be classed as cultural property when it was put up by the biggest tyrant since Attila the Hun?"
The "two wrongs make a right" claim, as we have ample opportunity to see, is a standard one of the cultural property takers worldwide. (I also think such rhetoric does poor justice to both Saddam and Attila, but that is by the by.) Certainly the US forces had no authority to "give" Mr Ely that object (and when it was taken, Baghdad was not yet formally "under US control"), Mr Ely did not have authorisation to export the item, and thus as illegally appropriated property, it presumably cannot legally be brought into or owned in the UK.

Guardian, 'Man arrested over importation of Saddam Hussein statue's buttock', Thursday 19 January 2012.

AFP, 'Man held over 'stolen' bronzed Saddam buttock', Herald Sun, January 20, 2012.

UPDATE 20.1.2012
Chuck Jones of ISAW - NYU has published the following information on the Iraq Crisis website:
Trebletap Ltd. is the organization founded by Nigel ’Spud’ Ely [to sell] the Saddam Hussein statue's buttock. [Their website] includes his "comment on the Iraqi demand for the return of Saddam's comment on the Iraqi demand for the return of Saddam's bum"

That text is a huge eye-opener into the mentality of the sort of person that joined George Bush's Smash-Baghdad escapade of 2003. Do also have a look at what "trebletap" means; these people are walking among us. Some of them even think they are "artists". The "War relics art" company are refusing to surrender the stolen piece:
As far as Trebletap is concerned, the arse is designated for sale [...] The time, effort and cost that have gone into Trebletap will not be used to pay the pension for The Minister of Culture and Tin Cans in Iraq. As a safeguard, Trebletap have hidden the piece[...]
and of course hoping to cash in on the publicity the dispute over their fragment of bronze slab is generating. The seller claims
as a result of what Spud has done, the value of this piece of scrap has escalated out of all control and depending on who you talk to, it is now worth between £250,000 and £1,000,000. However, this value results from the story, from Spud himself and from the positioning that turned a piece of scrap metal into a piece of Art. Indeed, it is the very first in the new concept now known as War Relic Art and by definition it automatically assumed an enormous increase in value.
The guy is seemingly a megalomaniac, of course it is by no means the first occasion when war trophies have been turned into "art". The value is only the price a buyer will pay, the object failed to reach its reserve price earlier, now it turns out that by international law it cannot be possessed legally, he will not be finding a buyer soon.

Or he could try finding a cultural property lawyer of the calibre of Bailey and Ehernberg PLC's Peter Tompa. He sees no legal impediment to owning this piece ('Chasing Saddam's Butt). Apparently this lawyer considers that the fragment of statue is legally owned because it was "given to him by US Marines following the fall of Baghdad". Well, as far as I can see, Baghdad has not "fallen" and has an Iraqi government who say they did not "give" the statue to Mr Ely. He also questions whether such an item can be cultural property
The veteran has it right: Describing the furore surrounding the buttock as farcical, Ely questioned how a piece of metal from a statue put up by a dictator could be classified as national cultural property.[...] "American Marines gave it to me and at that time Baghdad was under American control," he added. "There wasn't even an Iraqi government and I have since turned it into a piece of war relic art. "This is like having a chunk of the Berlin Wall – it's part of history but it's not cultural property."
So, maybe Mr Ely can provide a document issued by the Americans in control on the date he took the fragment, confirming transfer of ownership. I wonder what Mr Tompa would consider as an adequate definition of cultural property to cover such cases. Are the rail spikes from Auschwitz (to take a recent case) cultural property, or up free for grabs to anyone who fancies taking a couple as souvenirs? Bloodstained fragments of the World Trade Centre recovered from the landfill and sold on eBay? That smuggled aeroplane.

I think we should hear from the commanding officer of the body of troops responsible for the area in question and which "gave" permission for an onlooker to remove this items from the country. Most of us in the civilised world agree to abide by the principles embodied in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. At the time of the looting in Baghdad of course the US had not got around to ratifying this convention, they only managed to do that in March 2009.

In order to further boost publicity, I see "Spud" Ely now has on his website a poll "Vote on whether we should send Saddam's bum back to Iraq". We see that 85.4% of the visitors to the firm's website (70 voters) oppose the option "send it back" but support the option "keep it" (to sell). I wonder how many of them are British servicemen or ex-servicemen with their own stash of "liberated" property from the Iraq - or other - escapade which they hope one day to cash in on?

Frankly, whether it's called "cultural property" or not, theft is theft, whether or not you're an ex-soldier and whether or not some American soldier in a foreign country says you can have it. Suggest two wrongs make a right if you like, but theft is theft. Whether Peter Tompa recognises it or not, theft is theft. Call a bit of shrapnel on a stick "art" if you like, but theft is theft.

UPDATE 13.03.12:
The Antiques Trade Gazette now has a piece on this for those who still do not get it ('Whitehall issues sanctions warning following Saddam ‘statue’ sale', 05 March 2012):
The government has issued a warning to the art and antiques industry over the sale of war trophies after a piece of a Saddam Hussein statue appeared at auction. Those in breach could face up to seven years in jail. Statutory Instrument 2003 No.1519 UNITED NATIONS The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 restricts the trade in such cultural goods because UN sanctions are still in force "as a continuation of efforts contributing to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq", says the ministry of culture.

"Please note it is your responsibility to ensure that your activities do not breach these sanctions," it advises the industry through the British Art Market Federation. "If you wish to deal in Iraqi cultural property you are advised to look at the UKTI, BIS and HM Treasury websites. If there is any uncertainty you are advised to seek independent legal advice to ensure you do not breach sanctions. It is a criminal offence to breach these sanctions and carries a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment and/or a fine." [...] Auctioneers and dealers are also regulated by the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which makes it an offence for any person to dishonestly deal in a cultural object that is tainted (within the meaning of the 2003 Act), knowing or believing that the object is tainted. The offence set out in the Act complements the UK's obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the UK ratified in 2002.
The Iraqi Embassy in London had complained when the piece of Saddam Hussein statue was consigned by Jim Thorpe (director of Trebletap) to Hanson's auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire. The incident has raised the question as to who actually owns the piece.
His business partner, Nigel Ely, a former SAS soldier [...] is said to have been issued with a notice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, telling him not to alter or dispose of the item until the investigation is completed. In the meantime, Mr Thorpe faced arrest and questioning under suspicion of having breached the UN sanctions.

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