Cultural protector advises DOD on historic sites in fight with Islamic State
By JESSICA REYNOLDS | Chicago Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 16, 2015
CHICAGO — Patty Gerstenblith was working as a research associate at the Cincinnati Art Museum in the late 1970s when a cumbersome project and an ownership dispute over a statue got her interested in the law.
After an art scholar discovered there were large quantities of fake historical artifacts housed in American museums, Gerstenblith was tasked with determining which pieces of a collection of Luristan bronzes at Cincinnati’s museum were authentic — or not. This required knowing every object’s history, or provenance.
“I realized, after a while, that all of the examples of these types of objects had only been bought on the market,” she said. “None of them had actually been excavated.”
This meant she couldn’t trace them back to their “findspots” and thus, it was impossible to distinguish which were real. The ordeal led Gerstenblith to wonder about the recovery of ancient objects, how they are traded from country to country and how they are acquired by collectors.
The other issue involved half of a statue owned by the museum from Petra, a historic city in southwestern Jordan. The corresponding half was still in Jordan, whose government wanted the museum’s half back. This got Gerstenblith thinking: Was this stolen property? And how could you decide — under U.S. law, Jordanian law, international law? If it was determined to be stolen, should the museum give it back? (As of now, the pieces have been temporarily reunited through loans.)
More than 30 years later, Gerstenblith, 64, is considered a pioneer in the field that seeks to answer these types of questions. As a distinguished research professor of law at DePaul University and director of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law, she trains budding lawyers who want to pursue this practice area, which was relatively nonexistent decades ago. With a doctorate from Harvard University in fine arts and anthropology (with concentrations in ancient art and Old World archaeology, respectively), and a law degree from Northwestern University, she has found a way to merge her love of the classics and her passion to protect them.
Gerstenblith is the founding president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and, in 2011, was appointed by President Barack Obama as chair of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the government on the protection of antiquities. She is married with three grown children and lives in north suburban Wilmette.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you become interested in the classics?
My older brother used to read me myths as bedtime stories. Growing up in Brooklyn, I used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art all the time. They have a fantastic classical art exhibit. I actually chose my college (Bryn Mawr College) because it had a famous classics professor who had translated Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
You went on many archaeological digs before switching to law. Which site was the most memorable?
One summer I went on an excavation in Israel and found a skeleton. Digging it up was challenging because I had to use a dental pick and a toothbrush to uncover all the remains. I always focused on the Bronze Age, roughly 3,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C., so I never found anything spectacular. No writing, no gold.
What did you like about studying the Bronze Age?
There’s much less writing that remains with us today from this period. You’re more dependent on the archaeology to determine what the people were like. With the classical period, such as Greece and Rome, there’s tons of literature we have preserved that serves as a guide to the relics. As you go further back in time, it’s much more of a puzzle.
What does cultural heritage law entail?
It’s everything of artistic, cultural, religious or historical significance. I tend to focus on the tangible, but there’s a separate area of intangible, which would include stories, for example. I was fortunate because the field grew up around me and gave me a way of combining my archaeology and historical background with the law.
Talk about your work with the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee.
We advise on agreements with other countries to restrict the import of undocumented — basically looted — archaeological material. (She can’t talk about what goes on in the committee because it is confidential.) Another issue I’m working on now is protecting cultural property during armed conflict, which is a huge issue given what’s going on in Syria and Iraq.
How can cultural property be protected during wartime?
There’s a group called the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, of which I’m an officer. We work with the U.S. Department of Defense on training troops to protect these sites. At the moment, we’re creating no-strike lists, which are lists of cultural sites and their geospatial coordinates. We submit these lists to Defense, and they plug them into their targeting information so that these locations won’t be hit, say, if ISIS (also known as Islamic State) fighters set up near an archaeological site or a museum and the U.S. wants to bomb them. The military will run through these lists before acting. If it turns out they would need to damage the site, they would need to go up the chain of command.
Is there evidence terrorist groups know about this policy and seek out these sites because they consider them safe havens?
I think they realize it. In the summer, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq, and there is an extremely important archaeological site near there called Nineveh. ISIS claims they have put explosives around its walls, so if the U.S. tries to recover this ancient city with the help of the Iraqi army, they have threatened to blow it up. They are aware of the cultural significance of these artifacts and realize Westerners care.
Do you believe ISIS is looting historic sites and selling off the goods?
Based on satellite imagery, we know these sites are being looted massively. We have fairly good information coming out on the ground in Syria, saying ISIS is either selling the stolen items or they are allowing people to sell it and take a cut.
Did you see the movie “The Monuments Men,” about the Allied effort to save culturally important items from Nazi destruction?
I saw it, and as a film and as history, I don’t think it was very successful. But it was good that the film — and, in particular, George Clooney’s participation in it — brought popular attention to a very important subject.
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