Monday 3 January 2022

New York District Attorney: Not Going to be Just About Repatriation Any More?

Four days ago, Cyrus Vance left office as the 36th District Attorney of New York County, a position he'd held since 2010. He has now been succeeded by Alvin Bragg. It seems that not only will the antiquities unit continue under the new DA, but it will be being beefed up. They are already hiring another Antiquities Trafficking Analyst and they want that person to start right away. The 'Antiquities Trafficking Analyst' job advertisment is for a person with a bachelor's degree (in what is not specified) and Covid jabs. A 'background in cultural heritage is strongly preferred' and 'proficiency in a foreign language (particularly Italian, German or French) is preferred'. The latter suggests they are not so much concerned with "analysis" concerning antiquities from eastern Europe or the Arabic-speaking world. In fact what the job entails is:
"providing critical analytical support to the [antiquities trafficking] unit and DANY [...] gathering information via subpoenas, search warrants, and legal research to critically analyzing that information for use in criminal prosecution"...
The next bit is interesting:
...criminal prosecution against trafficking participants such as looters/thieves, smugglers, financiers, shippers, gallery owners, restorers, on-line sites, conservators, auction houses, museum curators, and other facilitators, whether individuals or corporations, that allow trafficking to exist.
And then we learn that:
Responsibilities include but are not limited to:
Utilizing all of the tools available to recover looted antiquities and prosecute the offenders.
Working with local, national, and international law-enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and members of the diplomatic corps.
Gathering and analyzing information from all sources, to include subpoenas, search warrants, and witnesses.
Working with prosecutors to ensure efficient processing and eventual repatriation of confiscated materials.
Conducting legal research on New York Criminal Law and international patrimony laws.
Note instead of saying "foreign patrimony laws" they say "international" patrimony laws. The one exists, the second does not.

At first sight "criminal prosecution against trafficking participants [...] that allow trafficking to exist" sounds really exciting. It suggests that now the Manhattan DA is going to go after: looters/thieves,
gallery owners,
on-line sites,
auction houses,
museum curators,
"and other facilitators",
all this, "whether individuals or corporations".
So, in other words precisely the whole group of people "that allow trafficking to exist" that until now they have in general NOT been going after. Foreign dealers who have allegedly handled material recently seized and repatriated are still at large (Edoardo Almagià, Ayman Ramadan), a New York dealer handling Asian material functioned quite openly from a central NY gallery right under their noses, but was only arrested when he went abroad and is now awaiting trial in India, not New York. The Manhattan DA did not get the foreign dealer living in Thailand that handled a lot of Cambodian antiquities. They did however manage to get a British conservator arrested and extradited to face allegations that he was involved with the handling of antiquities trafficked by both those dealers. It remains to be seen if a NY court in fact does have jurisdiction in the events alleged. The 2008 death during questioning of ceramics expert Roxanna Brown (not a New York DA case) is often swept under the carpet (and the case was dropped). Maybe the DA's office can tell us how many US "museum curators" they've detained for questioning.

Of course, what is important to remember here is that most of the time, the primary emphasis in the USA has been on "repatriation" of items already uproote, decontextualised and circulating in (or just about to enter) the US market. This in no way prevents looting, in no way fights smuggling, in no way prevents teh development and expansion of trafficking networks. It just papers over the cracks of a broken system and presents a facade of "caring about looting and antiquities theft". In reality it only cares about making things look good if somebody is caught. The Kapoor case here is very significant (see also the Sadigh case, and when action was taken).

The motivation of the activities of this department may therefore be questioned. A recent boastful NYT article about the "museum" of objects the DA was "caring for" was illustrated by a photo of various items in various states of preservation pulled out into the open air from the warehouse and stood in a courtyard for a photo op.
Credit...Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

That is potentially damaging to the objects, disrespectful towards the real owners waiting to get their cultural property back, and unwittingly reveals the appalling state of repair of the building these items are currently stored in (look at the window frames and dampness above the foundation offset). In reality these objects are being used for soft-power promotion (and here the DA's self-promotion) rather than any actual effort to cut out artefact looting and trafficking. 

There are 94 District Attorneys in the US. How many of them have an effective dedicated Artefacts Trafficking Team? Can somebody list them for us?

* "As far as criminal charges, the fate of the dealers involved wasn’t mentioned in the DA’s statement".

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