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Antiquities & Archaeology

Collector gets tax break for donating cylinder seals to university

Archaeologists say the artefacts are likely to have been smuggled out of Iraq

New York

See an exhibition of Near Eastern objects in the US and the chances are Jonathan Rosen will have been involved with the show. Mr Rosen (49) is a collector of Near Eastern antiquities, perhaps the most important American collector of objects from that region, and a generous donor to museums and universities.

He was recently identified as the lender of eight unprovenanced works to the “Art of the first cities” exhibition recently shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He has donated cylinder seals to the Pierpont Morgan Library. Indeed, a curator employed by Mr Rosen to look after his personal collection is also in charge of the Morgan Library’s collection of seals, many of which were given by Mr Rosen.

Mr Rosen has donated works to the Yale Babylonian Collection and he has given a collection of 1,500 cuneiform tablets to the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York receiving a significant tax break for the gift. He is now said to be considering a further donation of objects from his collection.

Mr Rosen, a lawyer and officer of a real estate firm established by his family, has many detractors. Archaeologists say that dealers handling material smuggled out of Iraq offer their goods to Mr Rosen before taking them to other buyers. They stress that his cylinder seals and tablets came out of Iraq in the 1990s, when international sanctions and a weak economy led to increased looting and the liquidation of private collections there. One source recalled hearing Mr Rosen observe that the 1990s were a “Golden Age” for collecting Near Eastern antiquities.

Mr Rosen’s purchases first came under scrutiny in the early 1990s, when Atlantis Antiquities Ltd, a gallery in which he was a partner until the mid 1990s with the dealer Robert Hecht, offered a broken statue of Marsyas, originally from Turkey, for more than $500,000. According to a report in Archaeology magazine in 1995, the object was acquired by a Turkish dealer from a farmer for $7,400. Turkish officials identified the statue after it had been seen at the gallery and contacted Mr Rosen through their American lawyers. When he learned that the work had been looted, Mr Rosen donated it to a newly formed Turkish-American foundation and received a sizeable tax deduction, based, sources say, on the offering price at the gallery.

The significant tax deduction Mr Rosen received for giving the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University a collection of Sumerian tablets, which archaeologists believe to have been removed from Iraq illegally, has also raised concerns among archaeologists who fear that taxpayers are rewarding the looting of antiquities that Mr Rosen probably bought cheaply.

Cornell may not have been Mr Rosen’s first choice for those tablets, but it was the only place that would accept them; Yale University is said to have declined them, because they lacked provenance. Telephone calls to Yale for comment were not returned.

The tablets and cylinder seals, which are assumed to have come from Iraq, may present other problems for Mr Rosen. If they are suspected to have been removed from Iraq after 1990, when an executive embargo on Iraqi products went into effect, they can be seized by law enforcement even if there is no proof that Mr Rosen knew of their origin or intended to import them illegally.

“They could just walk in and take the pieces out of his apartment,” said one government official, who asked not to be identified. Mr Rosen’s lawyer, Harold M. Grunfeld, told officers that his client’s collection was assembled legally. Specialists in the field doubt that this is possible, but Mr Rosen has not been accused of any crime, nor are any objects in the collection known to be sought by any country. Jonathan Rosen did not respond to several requests for an interview.