There’s an odd story on the Independent’s website today. It seems University College, London may have been housing hundreds of artefacts illegally exported from Iraq. It’s controversial not because of UCL’s acquisition of the pots, but for their reaction after it was suggested that these may be illicit materials.
The artefacts are devil bowls dating from the 6th to 8th centuries AD. The idea is that you put an incantation on them and then tip them upside down to trap an evil spirit. These were loaned by the Norwegian philanthropist Martin Schøyen who bought them in good faith from a Jordanian dealer who swore blind that they’d been in his family’s possession for generations. However not everyone was convinced by the story so UCL set up a committee to investigate where these bowls came from. Schøyen, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, sued for the return of the bowls. The committee, it is said, concluded that they were probably looted from Iraq. Until then this had been unknown to UCL and there’s no evidence that Martin Schøyen had even the faintest inkling that they were looted either.
The Independent story makes it very clear that it was an open and shut case, Schøyen had title to the bowls for seven years, there’s no suggestion that he looted the bowls nor that he was aware that they were looted. The bowls are his. What is causing the fuss is that the Investigating Committee’s report has been withheld as part of an out of court settlement. It’s all puzzling as it would be helpful to know how these pots were able to be fenced without arousing the suspicions of an upstanding citizen. It’s a strong argument for tougher regulation for the antiquities trade as it would be terrible if it could be proven again that someone else has taken advantage of Schøyen’s trust.
If you’re wondering what they look like, a quick search on on ebay reveals that you can buy them for around $600 from the Malter Galleries. You can see photos on their site. Again there’s no evidence these are knowingly looted from Iraq. In fact you can’t be certain where they come from at all apart from the Near East. Is that enough to make them a safe purchase?