From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.


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A windfall for the cultural looters

1 May 2003

“Ho, ho! Just what we need: Kim Beazley. Just when most of the world and half of the Australia population, especially the Labor-voting half, is outraged about the US of A, a bunch of dingbats want to bring back a fat, bellicose, pro-Zionist Christian conservative; a man who’s relentlessly sensitive to the wishes of his US masters. Bomber Beazley -- another deputy sheriff. What a jerk.”

As she spoke, Joadja almost crushed the wine glass she was polishing.

“And they say he has a heart problem too”, I ventured, shaking the rain off my tail. It had been pouring for days but a particularly heavy torrent had descended as I scurried across Werrong lane to the Brushtail Café.

I slumped in my favourite chair by the window and ordered a long black and the vegetarian breakfast special. It had been a long night without sleep, tidying up an urgent investigation into the American Council for Cultural Policy and its founder, the former vice president and legal expert for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ashton Hawkins.

Since the US invasion forces stood aside while Iraq’s cultural treasures were plundered, there has been some mention, in the world’s media, of this shadowy lobby group for of art dealers, wealthy collectors, “art lawyers” and museum directors but little was clear, except that it was formed in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and quickly gained an audience with George W Bush himself where they argued that after the war, Iraq’s “retentionist” cultural policy should be swept aside to enable the export of cultural treasures. According to arts insiders, Hawkins’ group includes collectors and lawyers with a questionable record of collecting artefacts, including stuff looted by the Nazis.

On the surface Mr Hawkins was just a nice New York liberal, a cultural identity, an urbane out gay, a close friend of Jackie Onassis who owned a waterfront house in New York and a holiday home on the Greek Island of Patmos, but as I dug deeper it became clear that he was a real piece of work.

Before the invasion kicked-off, Hawkins was savvy enough to create a political alibi. In November 2002, together with one Maxwell L Anderson, the president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors he penned for the Washington Post a most responsible plea to the US Government, asking the Pentagon to identify and spare the cultural treasures of Iraq in the event of invasion. They spoke out against “looting of any kind”.

But Hawkins can do otherwise as well. When he retired from the Met in 2000, he joined the law firm of Gersten, Savage & Kaplowitz where he represents at least five institutions and a host of wealthy collectors. He’s also been running a small private crusade to “redress the balance” between the “rights” of the owners of stolen art treasures and the rights of innocent buyers. No prizes for guessing in which direction Hawkins thinks the balance should be restored.

And then there was the small matter of the Met’s own record of what many consider to be looting in the years when Hawkins was the Met’s VP and legal guru. The standout item here is the museum’s relationship with the shady art dealer Bob Hecht, from whom, in 1984, the Met purchased the fabulous Morgantina silver, a collection of 15 Third Century BC Hellenistic artefacts unearthed somewhere in central Sicily, for $US 2.74m.

It turned out that the silver came from a professional graverobber, wonderfully named Giusseppe Mascara, who confessed to the crime. The Italian police built an excellent case of cultural theft, but the Met refused to discuss how it got the gear and blandly asserted that Mascara’s testimony couldn’t be trusted because he was, after all, a crim. Ever since, the Met has resisted Italy’s demand for restitution.

The Morgantina case wasn’t the first time the Met had got itself in the spotlight. In 1972 it bought a 2,500 year-old painted Greek vase, the Euphronios Krater from Hecht. The Italian government claimed it was looted from an Italian archaeological site but Hecht said he’d got it from a Lebanese dealer who’d owned it for decades. Eventually the Italians dropped the charges against Hecht, but the Met’s then director, Thomas Hoving, who authorised purchase of the vase, later concluded that the Italians had been right all along. Of course, the Krater is still in the Met.

Now the big dealers and their wealthy clients are gearing up for the Iraq windfall. The Yanks invaded Iraq without an official plan to protect cultural treasures, the museums and libraries were comprehensively looted and evidence of provenance burned. Looking on, one US officer referred to it as “the new income redistribution program”. He meant the redistribution of wealth from the public sector to the private, of course, which is in line with the neoconservative philosophy underpinning the new American imperialism.

None of this bodes well for the restitution to the Iraqi people of what artefacts might be left after the trashing of the museums. If the Italians, with excellent evidence, can’t get their stuff back from a “reputable” museum like the Met, what chance do the Iraqis have, when most of the stuff will find its way into secretive private collections? Ashton Hawkins has publicly maintained that dealers should be free to buy from “local people at local prices”. It looks like the wave of the future.

Nick’s informants: David Darcy (Art Online), Bryan Pfaffenberger, Jason Edward Kaufman (The Art Newspaper), Patrick Martin (World Socialist Web Site), Walter V Robinson (Boston Globe), Geoffrey Fleishman (Inquirer).