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Antiquities & Archaeology

UCL damned over handling of looted Aramaic antiquities

A report which concluded that ancient bowls on loan from a Norwegian collector “must have been illegally excavated in Iraq” has not been made public

Lord Renfrew is highly critical of University College London’s (UCL) handling of the loan of Aramaic incantation bowls borrowed from Oslo collector Martin Schøyen. “I am shocked that UCL should enter an agreement to hand over these suspect antiquities without publicly disclosing the findings of the committee of inquiry which they themselves set up to investigate the provenance of the bowls,” Lord Renfrew told us.

He says that their three-person inquiry “heard and accepted evidence that the 654 bowls must have been illegally excavated in Iraq”, and the grounds for this conclusion are “fully set out in the report”. UCL did not publish their report, and “these are matters of public concern, and they should not be withheld”.

On 26 June UCL announced that it had reached an out-of-court settlement with Mr Schøyen, stating that the college “has no basis for concluding that title is vested other than in the Schøyen Collection”. The college has now returned the bowls and paid a sum of money “in respect of its possession of them” (for background see The Art Newspaper, June 2005, p7 and July-August 2007, p9).

Lord Renfrew and the other two members of the inquiry committee met UCL officials on 19 July to discuss the situation, following the out-of-court settlement. He describes their response as “evasive”, and says that the college had failed to introduce the inquiry’s 94-page report as a formal document in the law case initiated by Mr Schøyen, “which they could have done under privilege”.

Lord Renfrew believes that the failure to publish the inquiry’s report or to have introduced it as a formal document in the court proceedings amounts to “concealment and the erection of a wall of secrecy”. He concludes: “I feel that as a body in receipt of public funds, UCL owes the public an explanation over these suspect antiquities.”

UCL told The Art Newspaper that it is unable to make a substantive comment, since this was a condition of the agreement with Mr Schøyen. Nevertheless, a spokesman said that the college “took and acted upon legal advice all the way through the process”. He added that “there was no need perceived by our lawyers for the whole report to be included in the proceedings”.

Mr Schøyen is also unable to comment. However, in a statement on the bowls earlier this year, the Schøyen Collection pointed out that it “strongly supports a tough regime for cultural protection”, and “makes every effort to comply with the law in every jurisdiction in which it operates”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'University damned over handling of antiquities…'