Sympathy for the Art Collectors

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?


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses



    A recent press art­icle in the United Kingdom (Independent on Sunday, 7 October 2007), and sub­sequently shortened ver­sion car­ried by a major news agency (UPI, 7 October 2007), sug­ges­ted that the incant­a­tion bowls in the pos­ses­sion of the Schoyen Collection may have been ‘looted’. Any such asser­tion is wholly wrong and unsup­por­ted by evid­ence. The word ‘looted’ was used loosely with no ref­er­ence to archae­olo­gical practice.

    The ini­tial UK press cov­er­age was clear in con­firm­ing the Schoyen Collection’s title in law to the incant­a­tion bowls while the news agency item, a much shortened ver­sion of the Independent on Sunday art­icle, did not make this clear and car­ried other mis­lead­ing inaccuracies.

    These inac­curacies were sub­stan­tially cor­rec­ted in a sub­sequent news items (UPI, 11 October 2007). However, an unsup­port­able con­nec­tion is made between the export of the bowls and the Iraq UN Sanctions Order 2003, which was ret­ro­act­ive to 1990. The bowls were expor­ted from Jordan and not from Iraq and already in 1988. The con­nec­tion is there­fore irrelevant.

    The Schoyen Collection takes ser­i­ously any imputa­tion that it has in any way acted uneth­ic­ally at any time.

  1. March 19, 2008

    […] 19, 2008 by Alun It shouldn’t be news. I men­tioned the pos­sib­il­ity in 2005, and again late last year. When you buy unproven­anced antiquit­ies you don’t know who you’re buy­ing them […]