Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen initiated legal action in the High Court last month against University College London (UCL), to recover 654 incantation bowls. Dating from 400-700 AD, the bowls were used by Mesopotamian Jews to place on doorways for spiritual protection. Mr Schøyen’s collection was lent to the college in 1996, so that it could be studied by Professor Mark Geller (UCL Institute of Jewish Studies) and Professor Shaul Shaked (Hebrew University, Jerusalem).
Following claims that the incantation bowls had been looted from Iraq, UCL set up a committee of enquiry into their provenance two years ago, chaired by lawyer David Freeman (The Art Newspaper, June 2005, p7). Its other members were Cambridge archaeologist Lord Renfrew and Petrie Museum manager Sally MacDonald. Their report was submitted last July, and the findings were subsequently passed to the Metropolitan Police and Customs & Excise.
Although the UCL report remains confidential, it is critical of the college and is understood to conclude that all incantation bowls from identified sites have come from Iraq, with none being found in Jordan or Iran, as was earlier suggested. The report points out that there was relatively little looting of Iraqi archaeological sites until shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, when UN sanctions were introduced.
Last month the Schøyen Collection told The Art Newspaper that they had become “frustrated with the waste of time and money caused by a lengthy and inconclusive enquiry into their provenance” and for the failure to return the bowls. The spokesperson added that “the focus of inquiry seemed designed to deflect attention from the provenance of UCL’s own permanent collections, including the ethnographic collections”.
Following a series of “unsatisfactory” meetings with UCL, the Schøyen Collection has “now reluctantly come to the view that legal proceedings are the only way forward”. The college was unwilling to comment on the claim. The bowls are believed to remain in a UCL storeroom.