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While investigating something over the winter break, I came upon a question, or should I say a conundrum. I had thought, or assumed, or believed that I had read somewhere, that when the Kingdom of Ryukyu fell and the royal family and their entourage all moved to Tokyo at the end of the 1870s, they had taken just about all their royal treasures with them. Robes, lacquerware platters, whathaveyou. The royal family, the Shô family, though stripped at that time of their kingdom and “royal” status, were incorporated into a new Japanese aristocracy on the European model, alongside many former daimyô (samurai lords) and the like; they were no longer royals, but they were by no means commoners, and so I assumed that they continued to live a relatively lavish lifestyle, and kept much of their treasures with them, in Tokyo. The royal palace back on Okinawa had been transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army garrison even before the royal family left, and by 1883, a British visitor to the island noted in his diary how gutted and abandoned the whole palace looked. So, if the palace was more or less empty, and if the Shô brought so much to Tokyo, how come we’re always hearing about so many Ryukyuan treasures having been lost in the Battle of Okinawa?

As I began to investigate this question, I began to come across some very interesting stories. As it turns out, yes, a great many treasures were brought to Tokyo, but a great many others remained in Okinawa, housed (at least in part) at the former residence of the Crown Prince, the now no longer extant Nakagusuku udun, or Nakagusuku palace,1 and cared for by a team of (in 1945) eight stewards. In 1945, as the battle loomed, the stewards hid a number of these objects in a drainage ditch just outside the palace, hoping to come back for them after the battle was over. When they returned, however, they found the treasures gone. I do not know how many objects were in that ditch, what they all were, or how many have been recovered, but I have in the last couple weeks learned a little about two of them.

A photo of the Nakagusuku palace by Kamakura Yoshitarô, taken sometime in the 1920s. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One was a copy of the Omoro sôshi, said to have been at that time the last extant copy2 of the earliest known Okinawan text, a collection of poems which like Japan’s Kojiki and Man’yôshû reveal hints about Okinawa’s history, making the Omoro sôshi at the same time Okinawa’s earliest history. It turned up shortly afterwards, when a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt (d. 1976) brought his war loot to Langdon Warner, curator at the Harvard Museums, to see if Warner could help identify them. Warner is himself a rather interesting figure – I’ve begun a humble bio of him on the Samurai Archives Wiki. He figured out what these documents were, and it is said that Sternfelt, upon hearing just how important they were, agreed to relinquish them. The Omoro sôshi was returned to Okinawa in 1953, as part of exchanges relating to the 100th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to the islands. A number of other objects taken from Okinawa at one time or another have also been returned in recent decades. A Buddhist temple bell from Okinawa’s Gokoku-ji, taken by Perry in 1853 and hung at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until its return in 1987 may be among the most famous; a bell taken from the temple of Daishôzen-ji and hung for many years at Virginia’s Military Institute was likewise returned to Okinawa in 1991. But, I was interested to learn, there are those who believe that Commander Sternfelt, or someone else, had also taken from that drainage ditch a royal crown. Known in Japanese as a hibenkan, this crown, made of strips of gold ornamented with jewels and affixed to a cloth headpiece pierced by a massive golden hairpin, was used in investiture ceremonies, in which representatives of the Chinese Emperor came to Okinawa and formally “invested” the king, formally recognizing him as King, on behalf of the Emperor of China. A second such crown, which had been taken by the family to Tokyo, is the only such crown known to be extant. Today housed at the Naha City Museum of History in Okinawa, it has been designated as a National Treasure, alongside a considerable number of other objects as a single group, the so-called Historical Documents of the Shô Family Kings of Ryûkyû (Ryûkyû kokuô shô ke kankei shiryô).

Above: The one known extant crown, on display at the Naha City Museum of History. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finding all of this terribly interesting, I began to poke through the New York Times archives, among other places, and came across an article on the website of the US consulate in Naha, which discusses much of these issues. Entitled “Provenance of Okinawan Artifacts in the United States,” it was written by Ms. TAKAYASU Fuji,3 who has also written an MA thesis on the subject, based on an extensive survey she conducted of collections of Okinawan objects in US museums. She catalogued 1,984 Okinawan objects in 37 US museums, including “569 ceramics, 501 written documents, 420 dyed fabrics, 289 pieces of lacquerware, 10 paintings, and 194 other pieces, including old coins.” I am not at all surprised to learn that these collections include so many ceramics, textiles, and lacquerwares – the kinds of works we see so often in exhibits or other discussions of Okinawan art. I am terribly curious, though, about the written documents, and especially the paintings. I would so love to see these objects someday, maybe even get to exhibit them myself, if/when I get to be a curator. I wonder how many more objects in private and museum collections across the country, and around the world, are not recognized as Ryukyuan, and are mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or just unknown unusual East Asian because, of course, we cannot reasonably expect all East Asia curators to have the sort of specialized expertise to recognize Okinawan works. Many may be lacquerwares, pottery, and the like, but what if there were some paintings, royal portraits even, or important historical documents, or even royal artifacts, just hiding in a museum collection somewhere, their true identity and significance unknown?

Skipping back to the issue of stolen, looted, artifacts for a moment, when President Clinton visited Okinawa in 2000 as part of the G-8 summit, it was hoped that some Ryukyuan object(s) might be able to be returned, as the Omoro sôshi was in 1953, as a display of friendship, reconciliation, and the like. In the end, no such arrangements were made, or at least not in time. However, we are told, eleven Ryukyuan royal treasures were added to the FBI’s official National Stolen Art File. I’m not sure exactly what search terms to use to find them all, or if all 11 remain on the list today, nearly 14 years later, but I was able to find two: the missing royal investiture crown which had been hidden in that drainage ditch in 1945, and an investiture robe which would have gone along with it.

Given such high-profile news stories, from Pres. Clinton adding objects to the FBI Stolen Art File, to the repatriation of the Omoro sôshi and Gokoku-ji and Daishôzen-ji temple bells, combined with various other sources of influence, it comes as no surprise that many people in Okinawa (and, I’d imagine, among the Okinawan community in Hawaii) imagine collections of Okinawan artifacts in the United States to derive chiefly from war booty. Takayasu’s research reveals, however, that the majority of these nearly 2,000 works in 37 museums were legally purchased either before or after the war, with roughly 400 obtained before World War II, 1200 during the extended US Occupation (1945-1972), and the remaining 400 or so acquired more recently. This is good news, of course, for those of us who wish to visit museums, work with museums, and/or work at museums with a relatively clear conscience. But, we must remember that much of what was taken from Okinawa during the war most likely never made it into any museum or other publicly visible collection, and instead remains hidden away in private homes and storage lockers. How many objects that might include, of what sort, and of what historical significance, remains unknown.

But, serious as the issue of missing, stolen, looted, or destroyed objects is, I find the stories themselves quite interesting and enjoyable, and am interested to learn more about the legal collections of Okinawan art in the United States – which objects exist, in which collections, and to hopefully eventually get to see some of them.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about these works and their stories, and I expect I will either come back and edit this post, or create new posts on the subject and I continue to read about it. But, for now, I suppose I shall just leave it here.

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1) Located just across the way from Shuri Castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku gusuku), located elsewhere on the island.
2) William Honan, “Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 13 July 1997. I find it hard to believe that this was the only surviving copy, since it was surely copied numerous times in both manuscript, and later in cyanotype or the like. But, perhaps this was the only extant original copy?
3) 高安藤 Normally, I don’t follow the practice of putting surnames in all caps like this, but after myself mistaking Fuji for being the surname and struggling to find anything more about this “Ms. Fuji” (when I should have been looking for Ms. Takayasu), I figure I might as well try to be a little clearer here.

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*Archaeologists believe they have discovered the ruins of The Curtain, a London theatre that saw the world premieres of Romeo & Juliet and Henry V. The Curtain is believed to have been the first purpose-built theatre in London, along with the creatively named The Theatre, founded the following year, in 1576, and uncovered in 2008. It’s very exciting that discoveries like these are still being made – that there are still things yet to find, and that we are finding them.

Today, of course, you can visit the rebuilt Globe Theatre, and see a show in a recreation of the way it might have been done in Shakespeare’s time. And it can be quite inexpensive, too. The one time I went to the Globe, it was a very new play about Abelard & Heloise, not a Shakespeare production, but nevertheless, the atmosphere/aesthetic was amazing, and it was only five quid. Probably the cheapest entertainment I had my entire time in London. Cheaper even than a sandwich, almost.

*Meanwhile, a survey has revealed that the Great Wall of China is about twice as long as previously believed. Previous understandings were based primarily on historical records, apparently, and now that actual measurements and investigations have been done of the actual sites, it has been determined that the wall’s many branches total over 20,000 km of length, more than double the 8,000 or so kilometers of the core section of wall (re)built during the Ming Dynasty. The wall is referred to in Chinese and in Japanese as 万里長城 – lit. “The Long Fortress of 10,000 li,” a li (or ‘ri’ in Japanese) being a traditional unit of distance; the length of a li has varied over time, but is today standardized as roughly half a kilometer. This would make the whole wall only 5,000 km long, if it were literally 10,000 li. But, of course, “ten thousand” is sort of a stand-in or euphemism for a really really great number, just as in the chant “banzai!” (万歳!), meaning that the Emperor, or the Empire, should live “ten thousand years!” In short, it’s ultimately irrelevant, what the actual length of a li is, and how many li long the wall is.

Today, only a small portion of the 20,000 km of wall is intact, and the intact sections still face various threats from erosion, development, and the like.

*Speaking of China, the Palace Museum has apparently finished cataloguing its entire collection. I’m not sure too many museums can say the same.

*Finally for today, the author of Chasing Aphrodite, a book about museums & looted artifacts, is proposing beginning a crowdsourced website called WikiLoot.

The BBC reports that WikiLoot would serve as a database for looted artifacts, helping professionals and others keep an eye out for such objects, whether at auction, otherwise on the market, in private collections, or in museums. Anyone could contribute, allowing the database to grow, and stay up to date, very quickly and easily (in theory), allowing it to be very extensive, and thus very effective. It does look like Mr. Jason Flech, the brains behind Chasing Aphrodite and WikiLoot, has already anticipated the problems of allowing fully free public access to the site – he says that only “experts and researchers .. will have back-end access” to edit the material on the site, while the general public (read: anyone) will have access to look at and read the site.

On the surface, this sounds like it could be a great thing. Art police types, as well as museum professionals working to ensure the above-board provenance of their acquisitions and collections, have long used published volumes listing known stolen objects. In one anecdote I remember reading about, investigators raiding a dealer’s warehouse in Geneva found just such a book, open to a picture of a stolen table, the book sitting on that very table. Books such as these help museums make sure that objects they’re considering acquiring are above-board, and that objects they already own are legally possessed; and they help investigators reclaim objects from Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, where looted objects quite often do appear. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials use these books as well when stopping antiquities smugglers at customs at airports as well. Making such lists into an extensive, constantly-updating, online database seems the obvious next step, to bring this into the 21st century, expanding accessibility. Mr. Felch has even investigated the possibility of incorporating such a database into Google Googles, or some other sort of “computer vision” HUD, and has discussed the possibility with people at Google. Imagine walking around with Terminator-vision set to whether or not an object in front of you has good, legal provenance. What a tool!

But, as Arthur Houghton, former curator at the Getty Museum, warned during an event at Asia Society discussing the matter, having such a website publically accessible and widely known about could “flood … museums with people wanting to find out, Is this object looted or not? If it is unprovenanced, how do you know where it came from? And what should we all do about it?” In other words, it would only enhance people’s distrust of museums, and distaste for museums, inviting people to question the provenance of absolutely everything, undermining museum’s efforts to do things legally, and undermining their fragile image or reputation of doing things legally. I have, admittedly, myself, not yet watched the full discussion that took place at that Asia Society event, nor read too much other commentary on it, of which there is a fair bit out there, but I can certainly appreciate the concerns these museum people, collectors, and dealers raise. It’s not about doing illicit things and trying to ensure that it remains easy to do illicit things – quite to the contrary, I want to believe the best in people and to believe that for Mr. Houghton and others, it’s about doing licit (legal, above-board) things, and cultivating that the public is aware that museums, dealers, etc. are in fact committed to doing things ethically, legally. It’s about having a reputation for a dedication to upright ethical practices, and not threatening that reputation by inviting anyone and everyone to question the provenance of anything and everything in every museum.

If WikiLoot really took off, and if there did develop, in fact, this “flood” of public inquiry that Houghton worries about, that could put pressure on short-staffed, under-funded museums to have to do a ton of very intensive provenance research very quickly, and to replace gallery labels with more extensive descriptions of the proper provenance of each and every object. Or maybe that’s just an extreme case.

Because of the romantic, dramatic aspects of the world of black markets, looting, and illicit dealings, and because of the nationalistic feelings on the part of “source” cultures who have been looted from, it is inevitably a very dramatic, exciting, interesting topic. But it’s also a very serious one, for everyone involved, with very serious ramifications for museums, and for the art world as a whole. WikiLoot is not yet online, and the form it will take remains very much still in development (or so I gather); we shall see how this ends up developing.

All images in this post courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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It’s that time again. I have a ton of tabs open in my browser, of things I’d like to share with you, on a few different topics.


*Let’s start with the sad news that Prof. Karen Brazell passed away this past Wednesday. She was Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, and Director of GloPAC, the Global Performing Arts Consortium, an organization which maintains GloPAD (Global Performing Arts Database), an excellent resource for information on theatre and dance from Japan and around the world.

I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Brazell, but have quite enjoyed, and made much use of, her book Traditional Japanese Theater, an excellent anthology of Noh, bunraku, kyôgen, and kabuki plays in translation (in English), which I have made much use of.

You can read more about Dr. Brazell and her career at GloPAC’s official announcement on her passing.


*The Gothamist reported yesterday on the a new “travel agency” that has opened in Brooklyn. The Bureau of Unknown Destinations will, for a price, organize a mystery journey for you (within a few hours by train from NYC) to an unknown destination. As the Gothamist (or the Bureau itself?) describes it:

You’ll be presented with a free round trip ticket for a train adventure (along with a notebook and a small, somewhat absurd, task). Begin your day by tearing open a sealed envelope and revealing the mystery of where you will find yourself by noon. Set forth, free of decisions, into the great (or perhaps, in this case, the small) unknown. Test your sense of destiny. Have lunch someplace new.

Sounds wonderfully artsy and maybe just slightly hipster, but in a good way. Seems like the kind of thing some of the professors in the Art Department here at my university would get a real kick out of. I’d be happy to give it a try when I get back to NY…

Though, how cool would it be to get to buy a mystery trip (all expenses paid) to, for example, somewhere in Europe? Assuming it’s not too expensive, I’d love to find myself in Dublin, Prague, Munich, Amsterdam, Leiden, Copenhagen, Nottingham, Edinburgh, York, Caerdydd, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Padua, Athens, Tallin, Krakow, Warsaw, Paris or Oslo, sent off on an adventure to a city I might not ever get around to going out of my way to visit otherwise. But, then, I guess that’s a whole different thing.


*In archaeology / art world news, the charges against Robert Hecht (above), an American art dealer accused of extensive involvement in the black market of stolen antiquities, have been dropped in Italian court, as the statute of limitations has, apparently, expired.

Looking through my past posts, it looks like I’ve never actually posted about this before, but Google “Robert Hecht”, “Marion True“, or “Giacomo Medici,” or even better, pick up the book “The Medici Conspiracy.” The book reads like a crime thriller, tracing the adventures of Italian Art Squad carabinieri and US authorities in tracking down a string of evidence leading them to some of the biggest black market antiquities dealers active today, and eventually launching a raid on Medici’s warehouse in Geneva’s “Freeport,” loaded with looted antiquities and extensive documentation on his network of looters, buyers, dealers, etc., a network which included Getty Museum curator Marion True, and art dealer Robert Hecht, perhaps most (in)famous for his involvement in the acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of the Euphronios krater, which has now been returned to Italy.

I am, of course, not the only blogger writing about this development. Chasing Aphrodite is one of a number of blogs more specifically devoted to (and expert on) the subject of antiquities looting which is reporting on the end of Hecht’s trial.

(Incidentally, another excellent book, not directly talking about Hecht or Medici, if I recall, but on a very similar topic, and with equally thrilling narratives, is Stealing History. In it, Roger Atwood shares amazing stories, from crazy stings in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike to catch people smuggling ancient Peruvian gold to discussions of the market in stone Buddhist sculptures literally chainsawed off of monuments in Cambodia.)


*Meanwhile, in the exciting but far less scandalous/controversial world of Japanese archaeology, a few fragments of pottery have been found in Mie prefecture bearing fragments of the famous Iroha poem which contains each kana (syllabic characters such as いろは in contrast to kanji characters such as 伊呂波) exactly once.

See the original Asahi Shimbun article, in Japanese, and in English.

The fragments are believed to date to the 11th or 12th century, and are said to now be the oldest known extant example of hiragana writing the iroha poem being written in hiragana. Frankly, I find this a bit hard to believe, given that it’s been dated to the late Heian period, a period today known for its vibrant traditions of poetry, etc. Considering all the numerous examples of poetry and other writings we have from the Heian period, could it really be possible that this late Heian pottery is the earliest extant example of hiragana writing? If they said it dated to the Asuka or Nara periods (6th-8th centuries), it would seem much more amazing and believable on first impression (kneejerk reaction). But, then, what the hell do I know? If the experts say this is how it is, then, apparently, this is how it is. An important find.

Much thanks to Joseph Ryan of the Ancient Japan blog for pointing out that had I not been so lazy, and had actually read the Japanese, I would have realized/noticed that this new find is not the oldest known extant example of hiragana writing, but only the oldest known extant example of the iroha in hiragana.


*The Asahi has also reported on the discovery of a possible residence of Emperor Shômu in Shiga prefecture. Shômu (r. 724-749) is best known for having established a system of provincial temples, and commissioning the Great Buddha of Tôdai-ji, which remains today the largest bronze Buddha in the country, housed within the largest wooden building in the world. The construction of Tôdai-ji, and especially of the Buddha, was an incredible undertaking, involving a major proportion of the total resources of the Yamato State (i.e. Japan), and a major symbol to the rest of the Buddhist world of Japan’s devotion.

The Asahi article (in Japanese) includes a short video of aerial footage of the site recently uncovered in the city of Kôka (甲賀市) in Shiga prefecture, along with photos of the site, and artists’ renderings of what the buildings may have originally looked like. The remains of pillars sunk into the ground, along with other archaeological evidence, indicate a pair of buildings with the distinctive form of Nara period imperial residences; it is believed this may be the Shigaraki Palace, a set of residences constructed by Emperor Shômu, where his predecessor and aunt Empress Genshô (r. 715-724) would have resided as well.

The two newly discovered structures were found near the center of a much larger archaeological site, in an area of about 500 square meters which local experts have been surveying since September 2010. It lies directly to the north of a previously uncovered chôdô (朝堂, “[Imperial] Court Hall”), an 8th century Imperial Court governmental administrative building. Twenty-eight postholes, each about 1.3-1.5 meters in diameter, have been found, running in a grid six postholes long from north to south. As a result, experts have suggested that the original buildings were roughly 24.9 meters wide and 14.8 meters long.

Similar buildings were found to the west in 2001-02. Since those were not located to the north of the administrative buildings, they were not believed to be Imperial residences; however, these newly discovered structures are believed to be just that.

Image Credits:
*Cover of “Traditional Japanese Theater” from Amazon.jp.
*Photo of rails somewhere in upstate New York taken myself
*Photo of Robert Hecht from ChasingAphrodite.com – if you’d like me to take it down, just say the word.
*Photo of iroha pottery taken by Inoue Shôta of the Asahi Shimbun.
*Photo of Shigaraki-no-miya palace site taken by Yagi Takaharu.
*My thanks to Japanese copyright law, which considers the use of photos to be a “citation” or a “quote”, and not an intellectual property violation.

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I have been falling behind a bit on posting… In particular, the Chinese contemporary art exhibit “Fresh Ink,” which I saw in Boston a few weeks ago, needs to get posted about. I also saw “The Sound of One Hand,” an exhibit of Zen paintings and calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku, at Japan Society in NY yesterday, and watched a most fascinating and emotional documentary entitled “The Rape of Europa,” about the systematic plunder of Europe’s art by the Nazis, and Allied efforts to recover those stolen artworks and to protect Europe’s architectural and historical monuments while effectively fighting the Nazis.

Here’s the trailer. I promise the actual film is more dramatic, more engaging, more moving than this.

I barely even know where to start. I had known, as I think most would, that the Nazis did steal artworks, especially from private Jewish citizens. And I had known that Hitler had delusions of grandeur about erecting monuments in his own honor, and moving, re-moving, or renaming or repurposing the monuments of Europe to his own glory. The Eiffel Tower in particular sticks out in my mind as something he was eager to capture, and I know he intended or desired to move Nelson’s Column – if he were to have taken London – to Berlin to stand as a symbol of his victory.

But I never really appreciated or understood the scale of the Nazis’ looting. It was not just about the property of individual Jewish collectors, nor about certain specific monuments. The Nazis set their sights on seizing just about all the great treasures of European art history. I was stunned to learn that even before beginning to invade any foreign countries, Hitler had already drawn up a list of the works he intended to steal when he did begin to take over Europe.

At Hitler’s direction, according to his taste, the Nazis began to gather and form what might have been the greatest art collection Europe has ever seen. Well, the greatest collection of certain periods and types of art. They destroyed those works they deemed degenerate – including Slavic art, and anything Hitler himself judged to be too modernist, too abstract, such as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. And they intended to keep, either in personal collections such as that of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring or in the grand Führermuseum in Linz (Hitler’s hometown in Austria) which was never built, just about everything else.

The massively famous works they got their hands on are far too numerous to bother naming, including pieces by DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer… I was quite impressed that the documentary did not focus especially on one work or another – programs often do this to simplify the story for the viewer, and to make it more emotional, at the cost, in my opinion, of making it seem less scholarly, less serious, less professional. A few of the works which were highlighted, however, just to give you a sense, including a “Portrait of a Young Man” by Raphael (right) which remains missing, a DaVinci portrait of “A Lady with an Ermine” which we have all seen, on book covers, or somewhere, which I never knew, never suspected, had been stolen from a museum in Cracow.

The owner of the works – it was a small museum of a private collection – moved them to his country estate, in an attempt to secret them away from the Nazis. He placed them in his cellar, and bricked up the wall around them. Unfortunately, German soldiers got to them, stealing a number of golden objects and other things of more obvious value, and, apparently, leaving the priceless paintings there. The DaVinci was found with a bootprint on it.

It was not just private collectors and dealers – such as the Paris-based Jewish art dealer Andre Seligmann – who were stolen from. As the German invasion of France began, the Louvre rushed to pack up many of its treasures, to evacuate them from the city to castles (chateaus) in the countryside where it was hoped they would be safe. One of the more amazing notes in the film was the brief description of a woman by the name of Rose Valland (right), a low-ranking museum staffer, meek in appearance and attracting no attention, who never let on that she understood German, and who secretly maintained a diary of every artwork the Nazis stole from Paris (or at least from that one museum, I guess), who/where it was stolen from, and where it was taken off to. Towards the end of the war, when the Allies were seeking to restore, that is to say, restitute, these stolen works to their original owners, her journal became invaluable.

Towards the end of the war, the US military designated a number of art experts among their ranks to become “Monuments Men,” guiding the military in identifying historical sites that needed to be avoided as a city was bombed or attacked, and in seeking out artworks the Nazis had stolen. (If only we had something like that today, in Iraq and Afghanistan…) The Soviets had their own “Trophy Hunter” units, which regained much Russian art stolen by the Nazis, but also took much genuinely German art back to Russia, a massive plundering in itself – many of these works remain today in Russian collections, and Russian museums and cultural ministries refuse to return the objects. But, returning to the point, I found it fascinating to learn a bit more about how certain historical sites were and were not damaged or destroyed in the course of the war. Rome was nearly entirely spared, thanks in part to the US determination to preserve the city, and in part to the Nazi retreat further north, sparing the city from a ground battle, or bombing raids, for control of it. A bombing raid of Florence’s railyards was described in the film as one of the most precision attacks of the whole of WWII, destroying the target while sparing Florence’s ancient and magnificent architecture; during the battle for the city, wooden boxes, sandbags, and various other methods were used in attempts to protect the immovable treasures of Florence – public sculpture, architectural features, and the like, incl. Michelangelo’s David, which is a hell of a lot bigger than I imagined it being. These efforts were largely successful, but sadly, after stealing thousands of works of art out of the Uffizi and other museums of Florence, when they were pushed out of the city, as they withdrew, the Nazis blew up several of Florence’s bridges – including one designed by Michelangelo – as they did in a number of other places as well, vindictively destroying priceless European (or world) heritage as they retreated.

The Allies bombed the head monastery of the Benedictine Order at Monte Cassino, thinking it to be occupied by German soldiers and to be essential to breaking the German line. As it turned out, the soldiers were around the monastery, not in it, and the only ones killed were monks and civilians. In Pisa, the Leaning Tower and its accompanying cathedral suffered only minimal damage in the war, but the Camposanto, a medieval mausoleum less popularly-known but academically recognized as of superior significance, suffered terribly from Allied bombing (as seen in a photo from 1944, right). While the frescoes of the Camposanto were, thankfully, not lost entirely, the fact that conservation efforts continue today may provide something of a hint as to the extent of the damage.

I would love to see a film on the same subject, and in the same mode, addressing art plundering and the damage done to historical sites in the East. I imagine there must be documentaries addressing how Kyoto and Nara were spared bombing just as 70+ cities in Japan were not, but if such documentaries exist, I am unaware of them. What artworks did the Japanese steal, and how much has been given back? What historical sites – castles, palaces, temples – in China, Korea, SE Asia, and elsewhere, were destroyed? I have seen references, in passing, in journal articles to the idea that Japan intended to gather together art treasures from all its colonies (read: conquered lands, from China to Burma), but as “The Rape of Europa” hammers home, nothing in history comes even close to what the Nazis attempted and perpetrated. Literally millions of works of art, including hundreds or thousands of works by some of the most famous artists in European history, snatched away, and much of it still today either missing, or otherwise still in the hands of museums or collectors other than those from whom they were stolen.

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts was all too happy to cooperate and come out looking like the good guys when they were informed that a painting in their collection had been stolen by the Nazis from Andre Seligmann, a premier art dealer in pre-war Paris. A rather emotional scene in the documentary shows Seligmann’s daughter officially receiving the painting from the museum.

A woman in Austria finally in 2005 or so won her decades-long battle with the Austrian government for ownership of a number of works by Gustav Klimt, including a portrait of her aunt, which, while not “The Kiss,” is surely among the most famous of Klimt’s works. The aunt had specified in her will, before she died in 1923, that upon her husband’s death the painting should be donated to the Austrian National Gallery. But that was before the government, in concert with the Nazis, stole the works from her husband, prior to his death. From the way the documentary tells it, it seems fairly obvious that the terms of the will, or at the very least the spirit of the aunt’s intentions, were null and void with the dramatic political shift and the corresponding events. But, for decades after the war, the Austrian government insisted it had rightful ownership. …

The Monument Men found immense stores of stolen artworks in German castles, and deep in salt mines, as well as in rural villages, and elsewhere. Once Germany fell, and Victory was declared in Europe, collection points were established – one in Nazi Party HQ in Munich – where discovered works would be brought by Allied forces, to be catalogued, conserved or restored, accounted for, and shipped out to their proper owners, in however many cases such a thing could be done. One of the most upsetting and emotional parts of the film for me was seeing how, after returning thousands of paintings, sculptures, and other works of “fine art” to museums in France, Italy, and elsewhere, the collections points were left with piles of Torah scrolls, silver Torah crowns, golden menorahs, and other religious objects whose owners did not survive. One of the WWII veterans interviewed explained that for him, going through Neuschwanstein castle, and seeing all the artworks and other belongings – furniture, silverware, etc. – stolen from Jewish families, was a profoundly meaningful and impactful aspect of the Holocaust. Though little-discussed today, this art plundering side of things, one can easily see how rooms upon rooms upon rooms of the formerly treasured belongings of Jewish families has just the same emotional impact, the same implications and associations, as a pile of shoes, or of suitcases. I nearly lost it myself, looking at these piles of Torah scrolls, in such roughed up condition, lying there on the floor, or jumbled up on shelves.

Many of these were eventually donated to Jewish Museums and Libraries, and individual congregations, around the world.

There is of course much more one could say about this documentary. It was chock-full of fascinating narratives and shocking, intriguing tidbits, and on more than one occasion I found myself going off on tangents thinking about discursive and practical questions that I perceived… What does one do with a train station such as Paris Austerlitz that was used as a major logistical hub by the Nazis, where the greatest artistic and historical treasures of your national heritage were shipped away, not to mention where tens or hundreds of thousands of your countrymen were packed into trains and shipped off to their deaths? Our hoity-toity graduate school theory classes would teach us that the discursive implications of continuing to use the site as an active train station are just too… too strong, too inappropriate. But, practically speaking, to move the station, when it is in such a prime logistically logical and efficient place to begin with – not to mention the actual physical monetary cost of destroying it and rebuilding the rail network – is just not necessarily feasible. Likewise, I got to thinking about the painting in the Utah Museum. If I discovered tomorrow that a small US museum had a painting that had belonged to my grandparents (who were, by the way, Holocaust survivors), what would I do? Of course I would want to feel that I, that is to say, my family, owned the work once again, that it had been restored to our possession. I would want to see the work, to engage with it, to possess it, and to feel that connection to my family’s past, and to the idea of right having been done, the Nazis’ schemes having been foiled. But after that, what would I do with it? Hang it up in my sitting room where no one but myself, friends, family, and invited guests would see this marvel by Rembrandt? Pass it on to my son, and then to his son, and then to his son? To what end, really? I am tempted almost to think that I would take back official title and deed to the painting, and place it on permanent loan to the museum, a gesture of thanks for having been so cooperative and eager to return it. After all, while I may feel differently if it were in fact me, as it is, from my distanced perspective, I kind of feel bad for the curators, for the museum, for the museum’s visitors, and for the museum’s bottom line, to see such a valuable and beautiful object leave the collection, no matter the reason. Maria Altmann, after regaining the Klimt portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-bauer, sold it at auction for a record US$135 million, the most ever paid for a painting ever, and attracted a considerable amount of criticism and controversy for it.

In any case, I strongly recommend this film, and if anyone might recommend any other documentaries about the art world, especially about looting and plunder, art heists and recovery of stolen works, I would be most eager to hear about them.

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Looting and destruction of Iraqi archaeological sites has been going on for years. Saddam Hussein’s government did a lot to damage sites, building reconstructions right on top of the research-valuable archaeological remains, and did plenty of other horrible and heinous things, but also did a lot to stave off looting, through, basically, iron fisted law enforcement. The Americans then rolled in seven years ago, eliminated Saddam and basically invited the looters in. Despite pleading from the American archaeological scholarly community, and a well-drawn out plan for defending the country’s archaeological sites, not enough was done. Looters attacked and destroyed sites for material gain, and it went so far as to have a US military base built atop (or nearly atop) Babylon, tank treads and the spreading of asphalt and lord knows what else doing irreparable damage to the site.

About two and a half years ago, Iraq’s leading archaeologist declared that professional looters were no longer targeting sites in Iraq. Religious leaders had (finally) declared fatwas against those who would do damage to their own cultural heritage in this manner, and, I suppose, for all I know, the looting stopped.

Today, the New York Times offers a series of articles and videos about continuing conservation efforts at some of Iraq’s most major sites, along with efforts to attract more tourism. I know I won’t be going to Iraq any time soon myself, but…

*After Ravages of Time and War, Triage to Save Babylon

*A Tour of Iraq’s Ancient Sites – including short videos about Babylon, and the Tomb of Ezekiel.

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I first learned about the looting of archaeological sites some years ago, at an author talk at Back Pages Books, a wonderful little bookshop in Waltham MA, run by a friend and college classmate of mine. The author was Roger Atwood; the book “Stealing History.” Atwood focuses primarily upon travesties committed in Peru, but he discusses as well the looting of sites in Iraq, something that could have been easily prevented, and which has caused incalculable damage.

Penalties for such behavior under Saddam Hussein were severe. Hussein used the region’s rich history and ancient cultural importance to fuel nationalism and shore up his power; actions taken against the national heritage were likened to treason. Knowing this, and knowing the chaos that would break out once Saddam was toppled, a major US association representing archaeologists not only appealed to the US government and military to take steps to protect major archaeological sites in Iraq, but actually detailed a plan as to precisely which sites needed to be protected. The military all but ignored the archaeologists, allowing ancient sites including Ur and Nimrud, which could hold keys to understanding the origins of Western civilization, to become overrun with looters, people with so little respect for themselves, their nation, their heritage, that they would sell and destroy anything to make a buck. The US military allowed the looting of the Iraq Museum to occur, and, if I have my story straight, some individual soldiers (acting independently, of course) may have even taken part. And, a military base was built right atop the ancient city of Babylon, tank treads tearing through ancient pottery and stone, bulldozers and other construction equipment utterly destroying elements of the site. We will never be able to know what was lost, in terms of what we could have learned from what was destroyed.

I am of course angry with the looters themselves; after all, it has long been my philosophy to blame the criminals themselves, and not the circumstances which created them. However, without removing any blame whatsoever from the looters, who are perfectly aware of what they are doing, and why it is wrong, and who exercise their free will in doing it anyway, I find it abhorrent to think that the US military, we heralds of freedom, we liberators, we all-around Good Guys, should have fucked this up so royally. If we were not already the Bad Guys in the eyes of much of the world because of this Iraq invasion, this really ought to tip the scales. Archaeology, and the history which can be learned from it, is everyone’s heritage, especially in a place like Mesopotamia, and everyone in all the Western world should be appalled by this.

There have been books on the subject, written from many points of view – including at least one by a soldier, a first-hand look at the events surrounding the Iraq Museum lootings – and countless news articles. I have, admittedly, not followed them too closely.

So, imagine my surprise and my pleasure to read in The Art Newspaper (linked from Archaeology Magazine’s online news column) that Iraq’s top archaeologist says looting of sites is over. Much damage has been done, but some number of artifacts have been recovered, the art world all around the world is on high alert, and, if this source is to be believed, the problem has been all but cut off, at its source.

A victory for history, for archaeology, and for world heritage.

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I came across a reference in my 50-year-old Okinawan history book to a sacred Buddhist temple bell, cast in 1465 by the order of the king. It was inscribed, “May the sound of this bell shatter illusory dreams, perfect the souls of mankind, and enable the King and his subjects to live so virtuously that barbarians will find no occasion to invade the Kingdom.” Truly, a national treasure, a very sacred and important object, both culturally/religiously, and historically. Unfortunately, inscriptions on bells do little to stave off invasion, and Okinawa suffered just that, and subordinate status to several nations over the course of its history. A very similar bell, forged in the same year, and with similar importance and sacredness, was stolen by the invaders, and set up at their military academy, essentially a war trophy. But who were these barbarians, who would invade and destroy so much culture, so much history, killing thousands of civilians, and stealing national treasures as war trophies? It wasn’t the Mongols. Nor the Chinese. Nor the Japanese. No, it was the Americans.

I thought we were the good guys. I thought we didn’t do this kind of thing. I thought that’s what separated “us” from “them”. Maybe I read too many comic books. Maybe there are no good guys in this world. Such flagrant disrespect for the history and culture of another people… you can blame it on the racism, the values, the attitudes of a past age (i.e. 1940s America is not the America of today) but in light of the vast destruction of irreplaceable priceless world heritage in Iraq in the last five years or so, I would say nothing’s changed. War trophies!? Are you serious? Who are we, the Romans? The Mongols? Are we keeping heads or ears or noses as well, to count which warrior was the most valiant in claiming the most heads of our enemies?

This bell was thankfully returned to Okinawa in 1991, 46 years after it was stolen. The inscribed bell described above, and in my history book, was brought back to the US by Commodore Perry a century prior, whether as a gift or as a war trophy I do not know, but displayed at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, removed entirely from its Buddhist, royal, and Okinawan contexts, and rung at the most unsacred and plebian of occasions – the victory of the Navy over the Army in football games. This one was returned in 1987; I visited this temple when I was in Okinawa, not knowing the story of the bell…

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