Thursday, 9 October 2014

Egyptian Artefacts Extra-legally Seized in Poland?

"Najpierw powinni udowodnić kobiecie
że kupiła nielegalnie a dopiero potem coś zabierać"
Kuba 111

Confiscated coffin fragment on display
Just to show that the US and UK are not the only places where cultural property idiocy abounds, in Poland too reports of a recent case in the news  suggests officials and archaeologists alike are equally lost ('Maska mumii sprzed trzech tysięcy lat znaleziona w... łódzkim mieszkaniu' TVN 1st October 2014; "bż", Zabytek sprzed trzech tysięcy lat, współczesne problemy śledczych. Co zrobić z maską mumii?' TVN24 Łódź, 08 Oct 2014). According to these reports, the Egyptian government got wind that some Polish collectors had a Late Period "mummy mask" for sale (actually the face block ripped off an anthropoid coffin, and I suspect it's later than that). They demanded the Polish authorities seize the object, even though it seems that there is no evidence the object is in the ownership of the Polish collector illegally. According to the article, the Polish prosecutor duly did what he was told and got a warrant and searched the owners' house, and the couple gave up the mask. Quite why is not explained. It is reported that they'd bought it for 25000 złotys six years ago from a New York auction house, it was legally exported and imported into Poland, there seems to be paperwork that they'd paid all the import duties etc. [UPDATE in reply to the recent comments of the black-hat morons and their equally vacant metal detectorist fanclub, this is quite a different case from the US CCPIA seizures from dealers importing objects bought from dodgy dealers where there is no such evidence, which is generally the reason for the seizures].

As somebody who's been involved in fighting precisely such cases, it is perfectly clear to all but the prosecutor in Łódż that there is currently absolutely no article in Polish antiquities law which refers to an object like this. There are absolutely no grounds whatsoever in Polish law on which to arbitrarily confiscate such an object, without demonstrating guilt of an offence - which, according to the current media coverage, seems not to have taken place.
Egipska prokuratura wszczęła śledztwo, które wykazało, że przedmiotem sprzedaży może być przedmiot pochodzący z czasów starożytnej cywilizacji egipskiej, który nie powinien był opuścić Republiki Arabskiej Egiptu – tłumaczy Krzysztof Kopania z łódzkiej prokuratury. Strona egipska wystąpiła do prokuratora generalnego w Polsce i poprosiła o pomoc prawną na podstawie umów międzynarodowych pomiędzy Polską a Egiptem, konwencję UNESCO o ochronie światowego dziedzictwa kulturowego i naturalnego i Konwencji Narodów Zjednoczonych przeciwko korupcji (z 2005 roku). 
I'd really like to see the justification for the latter. There is no justification for saying the "object should not have left the Arab Republic of Egypt" in the absence of any information on how and when it left. The law does not operate backwards in time. If there is verifiable evidence that the object left Egypt ten years ago, it would be possible to act on that information, but the article makes no mention of any such evidence. So let the prosecutor first define the facts of the matter and then seize the object, not the other way around. And until the facts of the matter are established, the object should obviously stay with its current owners in Poland. This is what collectors elsewhere are banging on about and here in Poland it saddens me to see all that being trodden underfoot.

Note, for the mask to be stolen property, the NY dealer who sold it would also have to be accused, the Łódź prosecutor has not even released the firm's name, let alone would it seem from the report that they have yet shown (beyond the unsupported insinuations from the Egyptian authorities) that they have in this case dealt in stolen property.

It is reported that the seized coffin fragment is currently being held in the Archaeological Museum in Łódź, the director Ryszard Grygiel, says it "will be handed back to the Egyptians soon". Ha! So much for legal process. Again, the legal basis for that is not given in the article - basically there would seem to be none. I wonder whether the Polish museum has a document in which the owner deposits the object with them. Otherwise, and in the absence of any charges or conviction, by what legal right would the museum hold somebody else's property? In the absence of any legitimating circumstances, can the owner sue the museum, a soft target here, for return of their property?

As is the case in many other countries, there is a case for a change in the law in Poland to allow the trade in illicit antiquities to be more effectively fought, and cases like this point the way to where changes need to be made and what should be required of both the antiquities trade and collectors to allow the market to be cleaned up, and the sooner that happens the better.

UPDATE 12th October 2014:

I would suggest that the howling hyenas in the US antiquities lobby might like to treat this case a little less superficially. Regardless of the question of Polish property law, I do not think they see the core issue of this case in its full international context yet. 

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.