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Flat Earthers and Hobby Lobby Iraqi Artifact Theft – 1 Background

July 7, 2017

The theft of Latin American archeological treasures continues a pace today. These items are recently recovered (January, 2017) Guatemalan Mayan “steeles,” as they are called, stolen from their archaeological site and sold to art dealers who then turn around and sell them to private collectors and museums

Two news items triggered an emotional reaction.

  • The first was NY Times story concerning Hobby Lobby. The company was found guilty in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York of having illegally acquired 5,500 items smuggled out of Iraq from that country’s National Museum of Antiquities.
  • The second was a rather curious article in The Denver Post about a small group of people who meet regularly in Ft. Collins – fifty miles north of Denver on the front range. This esteemed group meets in semi-secret, afraid of reprisals, they say. As the Post article notes: “They call themselves Flat Earthers. Because they believe Earth — the blue, majestic, spinning orb of life — is as flat as a table.” But is it, as the early Christian’s believed, the center of the universe, God’s perfect creation?

A little history for starters – the first of the stolen Guatemalan Mayan Temple and some commentaries on the Ghanaian-made file, ‘You Hide Me” in this entry. In the next one I’ll go into detail about Hobby Lobby’s venture into valuable Iraqi artifacts and the these more recent items in the news.

In fact there is a great tradition going back centuries of Europeans, Euro-Americans stealing the wealth, the cultural items of Third World, “indigenous” peoples. By the way, that is what most European and North American museums are about. Some of these items were purchased. Many were, in one way or another looted, the result of war booty, conquest, and the like. When they are displayed, which isn’t very often, it is mostly as trophies, while the overwhelming majority of the collections remain in hidden in boxes and cabinets in museum basements.

I have two favorite stories about cultural-item looting to share before getting into the Hobby Lobby theft of the Iraqi cultural artifacts.

The Guatemalan Temple That Wound Up In San Francisco

Some four decades ago I was in San Francisco area visiting a group of my old Peace Corps Tunisia (1966-1968) buddies who lived there at time – Dan Cetinich and Bob Stam in particular. Cetinich, who died in October, 2016, noted an exposition of a Guatemalan Mayan temple that was on display at a San Francisco museum. Off we went. Sure enough there was a fully restored Guatemalan Mayan temple on display. It was quite extraordinary with an intricate design patterns on both the outside and inside. As we left the exhibit, we wondered aloud about how it might have been that a Guatemalan Mayan temple had made its way to a San Francisco museum. Made of some kind of stone – it must have weighed tons. At a loss to answer our own question, our discussion, as it often did, moved on from Guatemalan Mayan temples to other long forgotten subjects – but knowing Dan Cetinich I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned to film, a subject on which he was a genuine expert.

Some time later – but not much – a couple of months at most, an article appeared in the New York Times – the same New York Times that both bought the cool aid about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and did the more recent story on the Hobby Lobby Iraqi artifact theft – explaining the dilemma of how a complete Guatemalan Mayan temple had found its way to a San Francisco. Praise the Lord! It had been stolen.

But how does one “steal” a multi-ton temple from the dense jungles of Guatemala?

Well with a little bit of luck, some technical expertise in using diamond edge saws that can slice anything, a rather powerful helicopter and a corrupted archaeologist willing to sell his soul and profession for some shekels, along with some scumbag art dealers (of which there are a few), it can be done. And was done. As I recall from the long-ago-read article, the temple thieves had worked out a pretty nifty plan. It would have made a decent adventure movie. The helicopter flew into the jungle, letting down the “technicians” with their diamond saw at the site of the temple. It continued to hover over the site. Once on the ground, “the boys” began systematically cutting up the temple into blocks – if I recall right – of about two foot square. Block by block, each block was then lifted off the ground by cable and then transferred to a cargo ship somewhere not too far off of the coast. How many trips to the site were necessary to haul off the whole temple I do not remember, but it took quite a while. But in less than 24 hours – there you go – a complete Guatemalan Mayan temple, in pieces mind you, was loaded on board.

But it was not re-assembled on the ship.

That was done after the ship had transferred the temple, block by block, to a San Francisco art dealer who then sold it to the museum. Such an operation cost several million dollars to execute. Needless to say the museum purchasing the temple paid even more. After the story appeared in the Times, the art dealer claimed he (or was it she?) had no idea that the purchased Guatemalan Mayan temple was stolen property. Nor did it seem that museum, hungry for its very own Guatemalan Mayan temple to complete its collection of other stolen items, ever inquired as to how the temple had made its way to San Francisco from Guatemala. The art dealer and the museum “apologized” for “the oversight” and agreed to return the temple to Guatemala …if the Guatemalan government paid for shipping.

The theft of the cultural heritage of Latin America continues unabated. Here are a few stories of more recent plunder. Here and here.

A Benin Bronze

You Hide Me: A Movie About The Basement of the British Museum

Some thirty years ago, for my teaching at the time, I acquired a film from a small independent filmmaker entitled “You Hide Me.”  Over the course of the 35 mm film which ran a half hour, the director takes viewers on a rather curious, and seemingly uninteresting tour: it is a tour of the basement of the British Museum in London. As I recall, when I left teaching at what was then called Metropolitan State College of Denver – since elevated to the title of Metropolitan State University – I gave the film to the head of the African Studies program there at time, Dr. Ali Akbar Thobani. It was too valuable to just toss. I have no idea what became of it. In the past, I tried finding it through either a “Google” or “Amazon” search to no avail, but a more recent search uncovered the work of the director, Ni Kwate Owoo, a Ghanaian African director. The Wikipedia entry on the subject makes mention of the film. Here is the relevant quote:

His documentary film You Hide Me is considered the first from English-speaking independent Africa. Controversial in subject matter, it was shot in 1970 in England (where he was part of the Cinema Action film collective)[4] and “is an exposé of the theft and concealment of ancient and rare African Art hidden in plastic bags and wooden boxes in the basement of the British Museum“,[5] with Owoo making a case for the artworks being returned to their place of origin.[6] He has been quoted as saying: “My film was banned in Ghana in 1971 and was rejected by Ghana Television at the time for being Anti-British: it was the result of this banning which was reported and given prominent publicity by West Africa Magazine in 1971 that gave the film its world-wide acclaim and controversy (…). This film when it was released on celluloid was widely distributed around the world.”[5

I’ve left the footnotes in tact for those interested.

Yes, that is the film to which I am referring.

In any case, a little about the plot, the message. A West African film student (at the time) meets a friend, also African, a kind of janitor-curator, who works in the basement of the British Museum. As I recall, the basement of that museum consists of more than ten square miles of artifacts. The janitor-curator had to clean and keep in good condition a part of that collection that included a rather large collection of African art items, most of which were confiscated by British military expeditions as they defeated and forced into submission different African tribal chiefs. The finest art work – and there was plenty of it – was confiscated, and like our above-mentioned Guatemalan Mayan temple, and then sent to the British Museum where it was stored in the basement, the overwhelming majority of it never displayed.

True enough it had all been carefully cataloged and preserved and sealed in plastic coverings. The items were not destroyed or mishandled as if they were being preserved for some future use.

In “You Hide Me”, Ni Kwate Owoo goes through the basement of the British Museum and is shown some of the finer items from the West African collection, which he films. I still remember  seeing – it’s been more than 35 years – magnificent “Benin bronzes” as well as other complex, very, skillfully crafted objects that he is shown as the plastic covers are carefully removed from the different items. One after another after another. Owoo concluded that there was a reason that this treasure trove of African art objects was being carefully preserved in the museum basement, and not on display. But what could it have been? Why confiscate all this art in the first place, if its resting place would become a museum basement. It doesn’t seem to make sense at first. But given historical perspective, there is a certain logic here.

Concerning the Benin bronze sculptures: as blogger Dr.Tiffany Jenkins accurately and bluntly notes:

‘… in 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain. That dispute was, in turn, part of the wider 19th-century struggle between the European powers as they competed to carve up the riches of the African continent. Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy the city, with one eye-witness describing how the British troops turned their newly manufactured Maxim machine guns on the local defenders, who fell from the trees ‘like nuts’.

…The city of Benin had been the head of a medieval African kingdom, founded in the tenth century, while the bronzes were made between the 13th and the 17th centuries, during two artistic golden ages…After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold them off, and around 900 ended up in the world’s greatest museums, including the British Museum, which has one of the largest sets.

More than 900 Benin bronzes were thus confiscated, most of which wound up in the basement of the British Museum. One of them, however, a bronze rooster, found a home in the dining hall of Jesus College at Cambridge University  until aware students pressured the university to remove it because it was stolen property that celebrates Britain’s colonial past.

Returning to “You Hide Me,” Owoo notes that the way that items are displayed in the British Museum – and in many other museums in North America and Europe – reflect racist notions of culture popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that place “civilization” – by which is meant European civilization – at the top of a cultural evolutionary pyramid. A notch below European civilization are the great Asian (Chinese, Indian, Persian) cultures and below them the farming societies of the Middle East (and elsewhere), Africa and Latin America. At the bottom of the scale, the hunting and gathering peoples. The top of the so-called hierarchy, celebrating, boasting if you like, the “achievements” of “the finest” human creativity has to offer are those “Europeans” who also are described as “white”. As one adds “brown” and “black-skinned” peoples, their achievements are less appreciated, if not downright denigrated.

As a key element of the racial profiling which is an integral party of this cultural evolutionary pyramid,  and to insure that “the facts fit the theory” and not visa versa, the British (and the French, Spanish and the Portuguese) engaged in cultural purges, which by the way, according to the United Nations Convention on Genocideis considered genocide. Article 2 of that convention reads:

…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroyin whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is that Part “c” which includes attacking or trying to destroy culture which applies.

In any event there is a whole sordid history of “denying culture” that is an integral part of the colonial experience. The Spanish obliterated the Mayan texts, the Portuguese made the study of the archaeology by Angolans, Mozambicans illegal, the French belittled Islam, the Arabic language in Algeria and the British confiscated the great west African works of art. It was intentional.  It was made to make the victimized, colonized people think that in fact they have no history, no great art, and to enhance the profoundly racist, but sadly effective psychological lie that colonized, non-white peoples are inferior. The colonized come to believe in their own inferiority, a powerful weapon of control. The logic continues along these lines: if one comes to believe in one’s own inferiority and the superiority of “the other”  the colonized grudgingly accept their condition. It is a mean trick, and one that the British were employing by hiding great works of African art in a museum basement.

But it gets worse. There is a line from a Malvina Reynolds song. I’ve been singing it these past eight months or so:

So you think you’ve hit bottom? Oh no! There’s a bottom below.

Once the great movement of African independence came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many African nations began to ask and then demand the return of their stolen cultural heritage. Very little of it, a paltry amount, has been returned. If the content was returned to their rightful owners, some of the world’s most prestigious museums would go belly up, nothing less. They wouldn’t have that much to exhibit! However, now African cultural items are bargained away for trading privileges. For the right to exploit the natural resources of different African countries, European governments (and the corporations they represent) are willing to bargain for the release of a small portion of African cultural heritage – and then make a big deal about it, suggesting it is a magnanimous offer in their national media. European (and other) corporations might be ripping off African minerals and other resources at a furious rate, but they’ve returned a few stolen and confiscated cultural gems…while keeping the vast story for leveraging further privileges.

It’s all a dirty game and it’s been going on for decades.

But something even cruder is also taking place and on nothing short of a massive scale – the looting, outright theft of archaeological sites the world over for profit. Items are then sold mostly in rich countries to collectors. More on this in the next part of this series.


Earth Flatteners and Hobby Lobby Iraqi Artifact Theft, Part Two

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thymios Carabas permalink
    July 15, 2017 11:29 am

    Very interesting, not unexpected considering who we’re dealing with. I’m surprised there’s no mention of the Elgin Marbles and other works. The Greeks who spent centuries under the Turks and decades as a British protectorate aren’t considered worthy of getting the marbles back. Where would the British Museum be without them? Of course, Greeks lost their standing among civilized nations centuries ago.


  1. Earth Flatteners and Hobby-Lobby Iraqi Artifact Theft – 2. Hobby-Lobby Fined $3 million and Forced to Return 5,500 Stolen Iraqi Artifacts | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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