Thursday 31 March 2016

Palmyra recaptured: restoration begins

Syrian troops recaptured Palmyra from the Islamic State last week, at the close of three weeks of intense fighting. The ancient city had been occupied by the jihadists since May 2015.

A Syrian Army soldier on patrol near the Great Colonnade in Palmyra
(Image: TASS / Barcroft Media)

Palmyra, known as the “pearl of the desert”, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the most important cultural centres of antiquity. At the crossroads of several civilisations, its art and architecture combines Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. The ancient city counts among its losses the 2,000 year-old Temple of Bel, the shrine of Baal Shamin, the Arch of Triumph dating from around 200AD, and its head of antiquities, Khaled al-Assaad, who was killed for refusing to reveal to the jihadists where valuable artefacts had been hidden for safekeeping. Some sites, such as the Roman amphitheatre, were preserved for use in the Islamic State’s public executions.

The Syrian Army also discovered that the IS had planted at least 150 mines scattered around the historic quarter and residential area of Palmyra, where many of the city's most famous ruins are, as they had retreated from the city.

Nonetheless, the mood was jubilant. President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as an "important achievement" and declared his intention to rebuild the city: "Palmyra was demolished more than once through the centuries ... and we will restore it anew so it will be a treasure of cultural heritage for the world."

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, told AFP: “We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape. 'We could have completely lost Palmyra. The joy I feel is indescribable”. Some news sources report that no greater damage was inflicted as the result of a secret talks between Islamic State and the Syrian authorities, who warned of the dangers of sparking a popular uprising with their activities.

Abdulkarim suggested that “if we have UNESCO's approval, we will need five years to restore the structures damaged or destroyed by IS”. Whilst doubt has been cast by one UN expert over how realistic this timeframe is, work has already begun. Russia intends to send explosives experts and robots to help remove the mines, and is working with UNESCO to send a mission of experts to assess the damage and begin the task of restoration. Abdulkarim has promised a blueprint for reconstruction by next month: “We will assess how much damage the stones suffered and we will re-use them in order to scientifically put back the temples…we have the plans and the images and we will rebuild the missing portions until the temples of Bel and Baalshamin are rebuilt.”

Saturday 20 February 2016

Sex Pistols' photographer threatens to sue Elizabeth Peyton for copyright infringement

Dennis Morris, renowned photographer and artist, well-known for his photographs of musicians and cultural icons such as Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols, is considering bringing a lawsuit against New York artist Elisabeth Peyton for her painting "John Lydon, Destroyed" – created in 1994, portraying John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten).

Elisabeth Peyton's John Lydon, Destroyed, 1994
According to Morris the painting is too similar to a photograph of the singer that he took in 1977, thereby infringing his copyright. Meanwhile, the painting was withdrawn from Sotheby's contemporary art sale on 11 February, at the consignor's request.  

Morris – who owns all copyright in all the photographs he took of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotton –previously filed a copyright infringement suit against Peyton in 2014 for the unauthorised use of his photographs in creating derivative artworks, which were reproduced on garments sold at Target stores.  In that case, Morris claimed that at least three of Peyton's works depicting the two Sex Pistols' members infringed his copyright in his photographs of Vicious and Lydon, which were published in the 1991 book "Never mind the B*ll*cks: A photographic Record of the Sex Pistols Tour."  

At that time, Peyton denied all allegations and claimed fair use. The case was settled out of court last year. I wonder if fair use could be deemed a valid defence in this new case of appropriation of art, considering the criteria outlined in the leading case Prince v Cariou. What do you think?

Thursday 18 February 2016

Experts call on UK government to sign the 1954 Hague Convention this year

Members of the House of Lords and leading cultural heritage experts are lobbying the UK government to ratify the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (the ‘Hague Convention’) in light of reports of extensive destruction and trafficking in cultural heritage property in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State. As the only Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council not to have signed, the government is being urged to deliver on its pledge last year to sign ‘at the first opportunity’ in a renewed campaign led by the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield
Hague Convention
The Hague Convention was the first international treaty aimed at protecting cultural heritage in the context of war and which highlighted the concept of common heritage. It was adopted in 1954 in response to the widespread damage and looting of cultural property during World War II. 
The Convention requires states parties to prepare during peacetime for the safeguarding of cultural property against the foreseeable effects of armed conflict, and to respect cultural property situated within their territory as well as in other states. This includes undertaking to prohibit any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of cultural property, and refraining from reprisals against such property. If occupying another state, states parties should support the competent national authorities in preserving its cultural property. 
The Convention also specifies a protective emblem to facilitate the identification of protected cultural property during armed conflict, known as the Blue Shield. A triple use of that sign designates exceptionally important cultural property under special protection. This led to the creation of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, which works to protect the world's cultural heritage threatened by wars and natural disasters and is described as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross.
The Blue Shield symbol near a staff entrance at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
(Photo: Corine Wegener/Getty Conservation Institute)

Ratification by the UK government 

The UK remains ‘arguably the most significant military power’ and the only one with extensive military involvements abroad not to have ratified the Hague Convention, according to the UK Blue Shield. Its fellow Permanent Members on the Security Council have already done so - Russia in 1957, China in 2000, France in 1957, and the US in 2009.

The UK government has appeared close to ratifying the Convention on many occasions since 1954, announcing its commitment in 2004 after the adoption of the Second Protocol in 1999 (which the UK was involved in negotiating) addressed their concerns over the Convention’s shortcomings. A draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill was even published in January 2008, but it progressed no further despite only minor modifications being required. The UK government again announced plans to ratify ‘at the first opportunity’ in June 2015, and in January 2016 the Minister of State for Culture Ed Vaizey declared the government’s ‘firm commitment’ to introduce new legislation enabling ratification of the Convention and its two Protocols ‘at the earliest opportunity’.

The government has tiptoed around committing to a firm deadline for signing the Convention, choosing instead to focus attention on ad hoc cultural heritage initiatives. At the end of last year it announced £30m of funding for the establishment of the Cultural Protection Fund, which is intended to fund a team of local experts to stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and begin the process of reconstructing and preserving cultural artefacts. The Army has declared its intention to recruit a team of ‘Monuments Men’ - specialists who will deploy to warzones alongside commanders to advise on how to locate, protect and save cultural riches in the area they are fighting.

However, with no real framework or commitment in place for protecting cultural heritage in wartime, the UK’s ‘dithering’ over the Hague Convention has been described as “pathetic – it leaves Britain looking shamefully inept”. In a House of Lords debate on 14 January reported by the Art Newspaper, Baroness Andrews stated that there is a ‘growing sense of urgency’ to sign the Convention following ‘grotesque failures in Iraq’ and ‘increasing barbarity in Syria’. With cross-party support - including from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the Department for Overseas Development; and the Ministry of Defence - it is hard to understand the UK government’s reluctance to ratify. If it is part of a blanket policy to avoid ratifying any of the UNESCO cultural heritage protection treaties - including the 1970 Convention on illicit trafficking, whose Secretariat has offered on several occasions to mediate in the UK's ongoing Parthenon marbles dispute with the Greek government - then it is looking like an increasingly difficult position to defend.

The UK Blue Shield urges supporters to write to their MP using the template which can be found here. More information on the UK Blue Shield’s campaign can be found at or by contacting Philip Deans at

Further information about the Hague Convention, its Protocols and the work of the International Committee of the Blue Shield can be found on the UNESCO website here.