Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cypriot antiquities law on looted artefacts and private collections

Recently, I have been discussing Cypriot antiquities law (on looted artefacts and private collections), here on Cultural Heritage in Conflict, and with archaeologist Paul Barford, and collector Peter Tompa.

Since I am working up the data from the publication of the Cypriote Antiquities in the Phylactou Collection, I thought its official presentation of antiquities policy would be a good introduction.

Now, I will only discuss British and Cypriot antiquities law(s); and I will only discuss the laws themselves, not archaeologists' and collectors' behaviour under them. Despite that, it is still a loser-length blog post, more for me to be able to cite than for readers to suffer.

The Antiquities Law of 1905

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a complete copy of the Antiquities Law of 1905 (or a comprehensive review of it).(1) It is not even on the Cypriot antiquities department's webpage for legislation (νομοθεσία).

As detailed in Kyriakos Tsiolakis's (1997 [1981]: 22-24) MEng thesis (PDF), under the British Empire's first, 1905 Antiquities Law in Cyprus,
  • when the British colonial administration or the semi-governmental Cyprus Museum found archaeological artefacts on public land,
    • the colonial administration/Cyprus Museum kept all finds;
  • when others found artefacts on public land,
    • the administration/museum kept two-thirds of the finds; and
    • the finders kept one-third; and
  • when others found artefacts on private land,
    • the administration/museum kept one-third of the finds,
    • the finders kept a third, and
    • the landowners kept a third.
When the law was introduced, there was an amnesty on existing collections of illicit antiquities. As noted in Alexis Ainsworth's (2008: 13) paper on [American] Import Restrictions on Coins, the 1905 law 'require[d] all private collectors to register their collections with the government'.

It is unclear whether private collectors had to keep place-and-date records, or whether they only had to keep "art historical" descriptions of their collections. Nonetheless, they had to register their collections with the government, so private collectors should have had government licences for their licit antiquities.

Yet the 1905 law did not effectively punish law-breakers, so antiquarians could continue to loot antiquities (or to buy looted antiquities, thus to fund their looting).

Illicit excavations' finds in public collections

Even antiquities from illicit excavations (like British Vice-Consul Robert Hamilton Lang's unlicensed excavations under Ottoman rule) would have had acquisition dates and find-spots; furthermore, there were "only" thousands of them (c.f. Goring, 1988: 9).

Exceptionally, U.S. Consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola's barely-licensed excavations, completely illegal digs, and illicit antiquities collecting, produced tens of thousands of artefacts (c.f. Swiny, 1991: 4-5); but again, many of them would have had records of dates and places.

Furthermore, Lang's, Cesnola's and others' illicit excavations' artefacts normally ended up in museums (like the British Museum, the (French) Louvre and the (American) Metropolitan). Obviously, they will be counted in any comprehensive survey; but the important point here is that they were not in private collections, or on the art market.

So, private collectors cannot seriously claim that a significant number of their antiquities came from historic chance finds, looting, or even illicit excavations before the 1905 amnesty (or the 1935 one).

The Antiquities Law of 31st December 1935

The former Director of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus, Vassos Karageorghis (2010: 9), stated that,
The Phylactou Collection... was formed at a time when private collectors could collect antiquities, something that was [still] allowed by the provisions of the Antiquities Law of 1935.
Under the 1935 Antiquities Law,
  • 'all antiquities lying undiscovered... in or upon any land shall be the property of the Government' (Article 3);
  • (accidental) finders of antiquities
    • had to report those chance finds to the mukhtar (local community leader), or to a museum curator, whereupon the finder and the government antiquities director would be given receipts (PDF; Article 4);
    • then either the Cypriot antiquities department would buy the antiquities, or the finder would have a receipt and could sell those government-licensed antiquities (Article 5);
  • government-licensed archaeologists
    • could excavate (Article 14; see also Article 15), and
    • had to publish any excavations (Article 16);
    • then they would be given about half of the finds of the excavations (Article 16), which they could sell; and
  • the Department of Antiquities
    • could sell its antiquities if they were 'not required' (Article 29).
So, there was (still) a (better) government-controlled supply of government-licensed antiquities to a legal antiquities market.

Notably, there was a paper trail: every accidental discovery would have had at least two sets of receipts, which recorded the place and date of the chance find; and every excavated artefact would have had at least one set of receipts and one scholarly publication.

There was a four-month amnesty for owners of existing (illegal) collections to register their collections with the government (Article 33). Otherwise,
  • anyone who, knowing or reasonably believing antiquities to be illegally excavated, 'purchase[d], remove[d] or otherwise deal[t] with' those not-demonstrably-legal antiquities
    • would have the antiquities confiscated, and
    • could be fined and/or imprisoned (Article 14, Paragraph 2);
  • government-licensed dealers
    • could sell legal antiquities (Article 26); and
  • (separately) government-licensed antiquities
    • could be exported (Article 27).

Naturally, a few receipts would have been lost somehow; but there is no way that most or all of the thousands of antiquities' receipts were lost.

Also, the second amnesty's antiquities, private collections from between 1905 and 1935, may still not have had place-and-date records, but they would still have had amnesty licences.

However, even by 1960, the total number of collections was 'insignificant' (Hadjisavvas, 2001: 135). So, the number of chance finds (or even looted antiquities) in private collections, without records, from before 1935 must be insignificant.

The amended Antiquities Law of 10th September 1964 (2)

Unfortunately, in my various copies of the 1935 Antiquities Law and its amendments, the date(s) of amendment(s) are sometimes unclear.

(So, an article may have been amended in both 1964 and 1973; but it can be impossible to tell how the article was amended when, or even whether that copy of the law only showed the law as it was after its most recent amendment, in 1996.)

Karageorghis (2010: 9) went on to say that,
After independence, however, this [1935 antiquities] law was amended and it is now virtually impossible for large private collections of antiquities to be formed.
Nonetheless, the amended law continued to allow the antiquities department (either to buy chance finds itself, or) to give 'permit[s to]... sell' (PDF) to chance finders (Article 4). So, even then, there was a legal source of antiquities to supply the market.

The secret policy of 1964

However, perversely, despite it being "virtually impossible", it was between 1964 and 1973 that 'many of the large private collections of antiquities were formed' (Karageorghis, 2007a: 102).

During the intercommunal conflict, there was a 'silent accord', a secret government policy precisely to allow private collectors to buy looted antiquities to prevent their illicit export (Karageorgis, 1999: 17).

The amended Antiquities Law of 8th June 1973

This time, there was a six-month amnesty to register private collections (Article 33), to legalise all of the looted antiquities from between 1964 and 1973; and it was calculated from the 1st of July, so it was actually nearly seven months.

(There was so much time, already-massive looting increased further during the amnesty (Hadjisavvas, 2001: 135).)

There were very few private antiquities collections before the silent accord of 1964; but by the 1973 amnesty there were 'more than 1250 new' ones (Hadjisavvas, 2001: 135); and as always, many more illegal collections remained unregistered.

(The rules were also tightened, so it was more difficult for possessors of undocumented antiquities to claim accidental losses of the paper trail: if "amnesty antiquities" were sold, not only the sellers but also the buyers had to notify the authorities.)

Cypriot antiquities law today

Still now, chance finders will be given 'licence[s] to possess' (and sell) those antiquities (if the antiquities department does not want them).


It is abundantly clear from this review of Cypriot legislation on excavating, finding, looting, collecting and dealing antiquities that there is a legal source for the antiquities market.

More importantly, it is abundantly clear that antiquities without find-spots and acquisition dates (and, indeed, find-methods) are very probably looted.

In light of all this evidence, what may be more surprising is how blatantly illegal collections of looted antiquities have continued to be legalised by the Republic of Cyprus Department of Antiquities.

Nevertheless, in order to avoid any collector's confusion over the implications of the problems in Cyprus, it is important to be clear: this disastrous policy was a product of the local community's desperate attempts to minimise the harm done by international art dealers' and antiquities collectors' direct and indirect funding of the looting of the island.

  1. I just might have a copy of the 1905 Antiquities Law in my files; but I have moved home recently, and my files are in storage elsewhere. Furthermore, I will soon be going abroad to work; so I have no chance of finding it in the near future.
  2. Obviously, the amended 1964 law of the Republic of Cyprus corrected or removed references to colonial institutions and practices.

Ainsworth, A. 2008: "Are Cypriot coins worth saving? The battle over import restrictions on coins." Paper presented at the 2008 Marie C. Malaro Symposium, Washington, D.C., USA. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~mstd/documents/AreCypriotCoinsWorthSaving.pdf

Goring, E. 1988: A mischievous pastime: Digging in Cyprus in the Nineteenth Century. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland.

Hadjisavvas, S. 2001: "The destruction of the archaeological heritage of Cyprus". In Brodie, N, Doole, J and Renfrew, C, (Eds.). Trade in illicit antiquities: The destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage, 133-139. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Available at: http://www.cyprus.gov.cy/moi/pio/pio.nsf/All/BA4D044F6081C750C2256DC90032C3EC?OpenDocument

Karageorghis, V. 1999: Ancient Cypriote art in the Severis Collection. Athens: Costakis and Leto Severis Foundation.

Karageorghis, V. 2007a: A lifetime in the archaeology of Cyprus: The memoirs of Vassos Karageorghis. Stockholm: Medelhavsmuseet.

Karageorghis, V. 2010: Cypriote antiquities in the Phylactou Collection. Nicosia: the A. G. Leventis Foundation and the Leventis Municipal Museum, Nicosia.

Swiny, S. 1991: "Foreword". Di Cesnola, L P, (Au.). Cyprus: Its ancient cities, tombs, and temples – a narrative of researches and excavations during ten years’ residence in that island, 1-6. Nicosia: Star Graphics.

Tsolakis, K A. 1997 [1981]: Valuation and administration of lands containing antiquities in Cyprus. New Brunswick: University of New Brunswick Press - MEng dissertation. Available at: http://dspace.hil.unb.ca:8080/bitstream/handle/1882/541/mq23841.pdf

[I have broken quotations' long paragraphs to make them easy-to-read in a blog post.]


  1. Hi there,

    I find your blog post very informative on the development of the Cypriot Antiquities Laws. I am currently writing my dissertation and part of it concerns the reception of these laws. I was wondering if you could point me to a copy of the original 1935 British colonial laws?


    1. They should be here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000666/066627eb.pdf

      Otherwise, if that doesn't work (and if I remember rightly), they're reproduced here:

      Karageorghis, V. 1985: "The Cyprus Department of Antiquities, 1935-1985". In Karageorghis, V, (Ed.). 1985: Archaeology in Cyprus, 1960-1985, 1-10. Nicosia: A. G. Leventis Foundation.

    2. And good luck with your dissertation!

  2. I recently started buying some antiquities from dealers and this is a big problem area. Virtually none of them have a provenance that says where they were dug up or when, though often the previous owner or even the one before that are named. I am not talking just about Cypriot Antiquities but any antiquities. Often dealers do not want to advertise their sources or sellers do not want to advertise the fact that they have valuable things in their houses or relatives of deceased owners don't understand the importance of provenance or don't find them. Even items with a Cyprus Museum export tag on them don't have any other provenance (I own one).
    What is the solution for the hundreds of thousands of antiquities out there? Many private collectors or their heirs donate or sell these items to the major Museums, so are we supposed to be more scrupulous than they are (ie buy nothing since almost everything is in this state?)
    I am very sorry that I am not signing this beyond D. Johnson, but I don't want burglars to know I have some of these things!

    1. Thank you so much for this comment (under any name), it highlights a key problem. If you'd like to talk privately, my gmail address is samarkeolog.

  3. What about artifacts and antiquities found in sea?