La Repubblica‘s Fabio Scuto (@scutof) has reported (in English and Italian) on the Apollo of Gaza, which may be sold illicitly in order to fund the activities of Hamas. (I learned of this via @keftiugal.) It raises quite a few serious issues – the ethics of selling antiquities to fund (state) activities, the ethics of buying antiquities to prevent their disappearance onto the black market, the practicalities of protecting the cultural heritage of an unrecognised state [and what has actually happened]…
The Apollo of Gaza
A fisherman called Mounir found a 2,500-year-old, 30-35kg, life-size statue of Apollo in Deir al Balah in the Gaza Strip. Mounir thought the statue might have been gold that, in ‘the desperate reality of Gaza‘, would have ‘multipl[ied] its value’. In fact, the statue was bronze, so Mounir thought it had ‘only… archaeological value’. However, it had market value too – of at least $20m. In every way a model ransom, because ‘no one [could] go around the Strip with a statue of the Hellenistic period in the trunk’ of their car, Mounir cut off one of Apollo’s fingers and showed it to connoisseurs to prove his possession of the treasure.
Selling antiquities to fund state(?) activities
Hamas heard about the find, arrested Mounir and confiscated the statue; but because Apollo is iconic and nude, he is un-Islamic and immodest, and therefore undisplayable. Unable to display the statue, unable to pay its own workers because it can no longer raise funds by smuggling or taxing the smuggling of goods (including antiquities) through the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt [since 80%+ of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza have been destroyed], Hamas has decided to sell the statue on the black market in order to fund its administration.
A ‘well[-]know[n] [i]nternational “mediator [dealer]“‘ is approaching buyers (including an unnamed ‘major American museum’) on behalf of Hamas. As Christopher Jones (@cwjones89) observed, ‘here’s an artifact ethics doozy: Can an American museum buy a bronze statue of Apollo from [US-categorised terrorist organisation] Hamas?’ It’s an especially interesting dilemma because Hamas is also an elected government with a civilian administration that provides social services such as healthcare and welfare.
Jones (probably correctly) expects that the statue will end up ‘on the illicit antiquities market since no one can send a US/EU designated terrorist org $20mil legally…. (Please note I’m not advocating paying Hamas for this statue. No statue is worth what Hamas would probably do with $20mil).’
In fact, about ‘90 percent‘ of Hamas’s spending is on ‘social, welfare, cultural and educational activities’, so it would probably spend any income from the Apollo on that. I would be wary of an international institution purchasing the statue because it would legitimate and incentivise antiquities dealing as a way of raising funds.
Beyond the inevitable consequent plunder, it would create an enormous moral hazard. Does the international community care more about statues lying in the Gaza Strip than people living in it? Is the international community extorting antiquities out of a community that it has denied a viable alternative economy (or even subsistence through aid)? If the economy of Gaza is crippled, and the administration of Gaza is crippled, and US/EU aid to Gaza is blocked, how should the people of Gaza generate an income or otherwise ensure access to their basic human rights?
Protecting and recovering the cultural property of an unrecognised state
Ignoring those issues, how should the people of Gaza protect or recover their cultural heritage from the illicit antiquities market? The Palestinian antiquities department is trying to rescue the statue for the partially-recognised State of Palestine. Yet, as noted by the Director-General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, even if the statue (re)surfaces on the international art market, it will be impossible to recover through law enforcement, because Palestine has ‘not yet been allowed’ to become a member of Interpol. Director-General Hamdan Taha implores,
The only way to save Gaza’s Apollo is to tell its story, to let its images circulate, so that nobody can say, “I didn’t know where it came from”.