Ancient statues return to Lebanon as war on smuggling intensifies
Ancient statues return to Lebanon as war on smuggling intensifies
The five marble statues were among a haul of hundreds that Lebanese militiamen took from a storehouse in 1981, some of which are only now emerging onto the shadowy global arts market and even into the world’s greatest museums.
Three of the five sculptures unveiled at a ceremony in Beirut on Friday were spotted in New York’s Metropolitan Museum — where they were on loan from a private collector — by a curator who identified them using the Art Loss Register, an online database of stolen artefacts.
One of the people instrumental in getting them sent back to Lebanon was Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, an Iraq war veteran who led the investigation into looting at the national museum in Baghdad during the chaos of the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Outrage at looting there and in Syria, and fear that art trafficking was funding militant groups, has driven countries to work together to stop it, said Bogdanos, who was in Beirut on Friday for a ceremony to unveil the statues.
“It has resulted in greater attention, greater scrutiny and greater resources, all of which we desperately need in order to fight such an entrenched global network,” Bogdanos, whose office has recovered thousands of stolen antiquities in recent years, told Reuters at the ceremony at Beirut’s National Museum.
One of the other statues was identified last year by a gallery in Germany, which noticed it on the Art Loss Register. The fifth was seized in a container entering Lebanon’s port of Tripoli last month.
Archaeologists excavated all the statues in the 1960s and 1970s in Sidon at the Temple of Eshmoun, a god of healing.
They were carved between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, when Lebanon’s Phoenician civilization was ruled by the Persian empire but influenced by Greek art and culture.
One of the statues, a bull’s head, was from the capital of a pillar in the temple. The other statues, of youths and children, included one dedicated to the temple by fond relatives in thanks for the recovery from illness of their child.
“HERITAGE IS NOT FOR SALE"
They will be added to the Beirut museum’s display of Eshmoun sculptures, which include a complete capital with bull heads facing in each direction and marble statues of babies and children.
Only a handful of more than 500 Eshmoun statues pillaged from the storerooms of Byblos citadel in 1981 have been identified and returned to Lebanon.
“We will put every resource that we have to recover any piece wherever it is and whoever thinks it belongs to him. Our heritage is not for sale,” said Lebanon’s Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury.
Like these pieces, items smuggled from Iraq and Syria may stay hidden for decades before traffickers start selling them to collectors.
“It is rare that we would see anything on the market for 10 or 20 or even 30 years, because they do have the patience. They stockpile these pieces,” said Bogdanos.
The international nature of the trade makes it hard to trace them.
“If you would follow the pieces which we have here, there was a kind of ping-pong between Europe, America, Europe again ... it’s a globalization,” said Rolf Stucky, a Swiss archaeologist who registered many of the looted Eshmoun statues on Art Loss in the 1990s, allowing them to be identified now.
But countries now share information and help train authorities, both in the main markets for stolen artefacts and in the regions from which they come.
Lebanon itself has stopped many foreign pieces from being shipped through Beirut, said Ghattas. As a neighbor of Syria, it is a major route for items looted from there.
“In many respects (smugglers) didn’t have to be smart in their trafficking behavior simply because no countries were cooperating enough, were devoting enough resources to stop it,” said Bogdanos.
“That has all changed.”
Breaking big: Nadine Labaki’s star continues to rise
- Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
- “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks
DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”
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