The continuing destruction of cultural heritage and archaeological sources through looting, trafficking, trading and collecting of ancient objects is widely condemned. The chain of procurement from looters to collectors has received increasing attention in the wake of contemporary conflicts. Researchers and academic institutions are important links in this chain, because they play a role in facilitating the trade in antiquities or can be key to impeding it. It is therefore relevant to explore their practical role and ethical responsibilities. However, due to the illicit nature of the trade and the dubious role of experts, insights are fragmented and disjointed.
This study focuses on the Norwegian Schøyen collection of antiquities and manuscripts, the actions of its collector Martin Schøyen, and his collaboration with scholars and academic institutions. The Schøyen case represents “demanding research… related to the fact that the main person does not collaborate. …[and problems] getting through the closed networks of collectors, smugglers and dealers” [1
] (p. 1). Still, parts of the case are well documented [1
] and give comprehensive insights into the modus operandi of collectors and researchers at the receiving end of unprovenanced [6
] objects and manuscripts. This article follows the case’s history, before focusing specifically on the actions and role of researchers and academic institutions, and the implications that engagement with illicit trade and collecting have for the academic communities. Starting with material acquired by Schøyen in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the mid-1990s, this article outlines the impact of a significant collector and trader. Spanning thirty years, the Schøyen case follows the overall market and trade development from traditional auctions and face-to-face deals, to online trades and commissions. The collector’s extensive, but opaque collaboration with experts, politicians and public servants is an important perquisite for his collecting, his attempts at publicly legitimizing his actions and to sell the collection. After piecing together what is publicly accessible, this article examines some of the political and ethical issues that arise from the collaboration that experts, public servants and institutions have had with Schøyen. The case is a comprehensive example of what Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in 2005 famously characterized as the cozy cabal of academics, dealers and collectors [7
]. Illicit trade promotes fakes and forgeries of objects and ownership history, entailing that the foundation for disciplines that use source materials without provenance information is tenuous. Researchers and institutions involved with illicit objects are readily confronted with a requisite for duplicity to mask the recent biography of objects that they study to retain access to the material. Perhaps starting as an omission of facts perceived as innocuous, academic involvement with this trade undermines researcher independence. This can corrupt the fundamental ethos of science: transparency, critical study and an ideal of truth. These issues arise in conjunction with the Schøyen case.
Research continuously demonstrates connections between collecting, trafficking, looting and the role of experts in enabling the antiquities trade [8
]. Scholars and academic institutions inadvertently or actively play pivotal roles in the trade of objects [10
]. They authenticate, date and determine origin, study content, publish and exhibit objects, and counsel collectors [22
]. These contributions are crucial to the working of the market, especially for endeavours to move objects from a criminal sector to an open market, as well for creating monetary appreciation on investments [9
] (p. 44).
The Schøyen case also represents a history of successes. Journalists and academics have painstakingly created an extensive knowledge base; public attention has increased; and looting, trade, appropriation of public funds and public disinformation have, to a degree, been obstructed. In Norway, the Schøyen case probably contributed to catalyse legislation through the country’s ratification of the 1970 convention [24
], and increased vigilance from authorities following its implementation. As looting is ultimately market-driven, a strategy to inhibit looting and trade is to deter the market in prosperous countries. To this end, the Schøyen case indicates that public involvement and knowledge of “what, how, who and why” in the trafficking and collecting business is key.
Martin Schøyen started collecting books in the 1950s, and since then he has acquired cultural objects and manuscripts, sometimes in competition with museums [25
]. Many of these objects have subsequently been studied and published by scholars and sold on for large sums. A recent example is sale 18152 at Christie’s on 10 July 2019. The scholarly interpretation and historical value ascribed to the pieces figure prominently in the auction catalogue. For example, lot 402 (An Old Babylonian Cuneiform Clay Tablet of the Ur-Isin King List) is listed with a bibliography of five scholarly publications from Schøyen collection researchers. The sale was titled The History of Western Script: Important Antiquities and Manuscripts from the Schøyen Collection
. Occasionally, Schøyen’s sales are also promoted in Norwegian media [26
The case of the Schøyen collection has unfolded since the 1990s. In addition to the scholars involved in publishing it, especially Schøyen’s previous head-of-research Jens Braarvig [27
], the collection’s most visible Norwegian supporters and partners have been the National Library of Norway and its former director (1994–2002), Bendik Rugaas. Now retired, Rugaas was a senior Labour politician, cabinet member (1996–1997), vice director of the Norwegian National UNESCO Committee (1992–1996), director of Norway’s Culture Council, European Council general director, and embassy councillor in Washington (2004–2006). Moreover, numerous individuals and institutions have been involved in acquisitions, research, facilitation, management and public promotion of Schøyen’s collection.
To date, the involved parties have not provided comprehensive or consistent accounts of their activities. This has resulted in a twenty-year cat-and-mouse game of deflections, public misinformation, and circumvention, countered by investigative journalism and research. Discrepancies in various participants’ assertions and publications were important indications of undisclosed issues. Suspicions that there were significant issues concerning Schøyen and his collaborators were fueled by persistent questions by concerned academics [8
], research by investigative journalists [31
], leaks from Schøyen’s supplier Bruce Ferrini to art trader and police informant Michel van Rijn [1
], claims made by governments (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Iraq), and a University College London (UCL) investigation in Britain [41
] - initially withheld from the public, but published through WikiLeaks [17
]. To keep track of the flow of material at the time, Atle Omland managed (until 2005) a web-based bibliography of documents [42
]. An indispensable source to the Schøyen case is the two-part documentary Skriftsamleren
(The manuscript collector) by the Norwegian broadcaster Norsk rikskringkasting
]. Further information became public through documents submitted by Schøyen’s attorneys [44
] and NRK [1
] to the Norwegian Press Complaints Board (Pressens faglige utvalg
) in conjunction with their handling of Schøyen’s complaints [4
]. Ironically, the combination of Schøyen’s erratic attempts at deflecting criticism along with his lawyers attempts to argue technical details and threats of lawsuits [36
] has corroborated Schøyen’s involvement with illicit trade, lack of transparency and inconsistency.
Critics of Schøyen and his partners were initially mildly questioning [28
] but with the unfolding of stories, events and the conduct of those involved, an appreciation of the seriousness of the events evolved [2
]. The body of data coming out of the Schøyen controversy is enormous and often confusing, and we suspect that significant parts of Schøyen’s transactions and networks remain obscure. The publicly accessible information, however, supports a uniquely informative account.
9. Summing Up and Conclusions
This study is initially about a collector who has been indifferent to provenance when acquiring through dealers. Based on the evidence as it now stands, he also seems to have one way or another been involved with networks of smugglers and looters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with dealers who provided objects from Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and beyond, and that authorities in these countries have claimed are illicitly sourced. A number of objects have since been shown to be fakes. In all probability, his purchases have supported criminal networks, engendered the destruction of sites, contexts, and objects, the splitting of manuscripts and dispersal of material. To deflect critical questions, gain public acceptance and access public resources, Schøyen created the fiction of a rescue operation. When challenged, he mostly remained silent or engaged third parties (Braarvig, Rugaas, lawyers and other supporters) who helped “spin” his collection. The next facet of this narrative is the researchers who have been actively involved with authenticating, studying, and publishing material, and enabled Schøyen’s dissemination of his hoaxes and fundamentally Orientalist narrative in defense of his acquisition. Beyond the effect of whitewashing Schøyen and his collection, the academic involvement, of individual scholars as well as public institutions, have probably secured and increased the monetary value of his collection.
The institutions stored objects, supported research, ran databases, provided analyses, published material, and supported Schøyen and his partners. When dubious practices became public, the general institutional policy has apparently been to turn a blind eye. Still, in time many institutions chose to end active and visible support for Schøyen, though none of the involved institutions have investigated what Schøyen has done, how their resources were used or the actions of their employees. The lack of institutional responses entails that Schøyen has continued collecting and exhibiting, and institutions like MF and UiO have continued to host Schøyen’s research, his research group has continued to publish through Hermes and the National Library has approved export licenses with no indications of having conducted any substantial provenance inquiries. Through publication and permits, the whitewashing and promotion of Schøyen and his collection continues up to today.
If academic institutions and individuals generally have been unwilling to confront the case and implement policies of transparency and ethical conduct, the public attention the case received has had significant impact. Scholars in the fields of archaeology and criminology, energetic journalists and some media organisations have brought information to the fore.
Since 2002, when one of the present authors co-authored a mildly critical article [28
] we have witnessed the unfolding of a case bordering on the bizarre. Doubts have arisen at every stage, and we have expected the involved to provide information that we had overlooked and adjust the patterns that arose. This has never happened. Instead, when the involved have inadvertently or been compelled to provided factual substance, the end product has not only confirmed assumptions about fabricated rescue stories, omissions and dubious transactions, they have usually indicated that matters were more serious than initially perceived. The question arises: Is the analysis in this article accurate? There are probably blind spots and inaccuracies, but our experience is that the case of Schøyen and his partners is more serious than indicated above. Given their dubious activities, their very public promotion of Schøyen, the collection and the research group, their attempts to solicit substantial public funds and their use of public facilities, the primary responsibility for a coherent, public and transparent
account is Schøyen’s, Braarvig’s, the other researchers and institutions involved with Schøyen. Given the serious nature of the case, institutions like University of Oslo, National Library, The Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society (MF) and The National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities
(NESH) should initiate independent and transparent inquiry into their role and involvement in the Schøyen case.
The case has political and ethical implications. The stereotype Orientalism deeply embedded in the narratives, tropes, and justifications played out in support of Schøyen’s acquisitions not only serve to derail critique and flatter potential supporters, it is archaic and bad science, and at odds with the premises of humanistic research. Beyond the dishonesty involved, it is questionable if an ethically acceptable level of researcher autonomy has been maintained. Has Schøyen had too much leverage over the researchers?
Ethics are grounded in variable rationales, e.g. consequentialist (outcome) or deontological (intrinsic quality) [176
], however transparency, critical thought, social engagement, ideals of truth and academic independence are still fundamentally important. Negligent provenance assessments and lacking transparency are hardly defensible from any ethical perspective, except the idea that the rights of researchers eclipse all other concerns. A more pragmatic concern is that fraudulent practices undermine the legitimacy of humanistic study.
Beyond an ideal of accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, the humanities should have a role and a mandate that extends immediate instrumental ends or “pure” academic practice. These include the promotion of critical thought, the transcendence of local loyalties and an approach to the society and its problems as “a citizen of the world”, as suggested by Martha Nussbaum [177
] (p. 7). Ideally, these are fundamental to the structuring of practices, and a raison d’être
, for the humanities and arts. In regard to this ethos, we believe that academic communities often fall short of this mandate. According to a recent report on ethics and integrity in research in Norway, a little over 40% of the respondents said that they had little or no knowledge of how to report a case of ethical misconduct [178
] (p. 9). It appears that many struggle to respond adequately to ethical (and other) crises in their research. NRK journalist Flyum [38
] (p. 2) maintained that in the Schøyen case, he experienced an “academic etiquette” of closed ranks in issues critically involving the academic community. Sheikh [80
] (p. 83) has observed that there is an ideal that criticism is reserved for “closed forums”. For anyone who has experienced a heated academic debate on an esoteric subject, these contentions seem strange. However, Flyum and Sheikh’s experiences indicate that critically and explicitly discussing academia itself, its practices and universal human aspects remains difficult. When the institutions involved and the academic communities, like NESH, exclude or evade critical scrutiny of “their own” academic communities and practices, they too fail the intellectual and social project of the humanities that Nussbaum outlines.
The report (and present guidelines) from NESH seems to privilege “freedom of research” (or more accurately, “the researcher”?) over other social or ethical values [173
]. Still, it is long recognised that there are ethical boundaries in and for research. However, in the Schøyen case, NESH’s argument seems more expedient than principled, and represents a contradiction in terms. The dependencies between Schøyen and researchers has a priori undermined researcher autonomy. Still, it is recognised (e.g. through bodies like NESH) that the tensions between freedom and boundaries should be managed by academia itself. To be in a position to meet the challenge Nussbaum sets out for the humanities, the principle of autonomy is essential. The Schøyen case involves money, prestige, research materials and networks of the privileged. The case and the institutional responses from the National Library, University of Oslo, School of Theology, Religion and Society-MF and NESH begs the question of whether academia has the competence and determination to handle responsibilities of autonomy. Issues of autonomy and self-monitoring are particularly relevant in recognition of academia as a competitive arena where the currency is publishing, referencing, and access to funding. It also begs the question of whether museums and academic institutions have the ethical competence and resolve to handle partnerships with wealthy and powerful non-academic parties and avoid entanglement in webs of dependence leading to the promotion of traditional and unfortunate political, ideological or financial agendas. All these issues arise in the wake of the Schøyen case.
The authors of this article are archaeologists. For archaeology, context is essential as a source of knowledge, a clue to the history of the materials we study and an ethical concern. We would contend that the future is at stake for manuscript studies based on unprovenanced materials. By promoting dubiously sourced material, it encourages an industry of looting, forgery and fakes. As the cases of both the Buddhist manuscripts and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Schøyen collection demonstrate, this industry caters to collectors’ political, religious, academic and financial agendas.
Unfortunately, there is still a degree of “business as usual” for Schøyen. Schøyen resumed purchase of dubious goods, i.e. unprovenanced and presumably fake Dead Sea Scrolls from 2003 until at least 2010 [179
]. He also exports and sells manuscript fragments, sometimes provided with a legal document from the National Library. Researchers are still publishing Schøyen’s collection through Hermes Publishing, provenance accounts are still missing, and they ignore NESH’s vague recommendations. Schøyen’s networks in academia and among some politicians are still a factor. Notably, PHI—run by Braarvig and part owner of Hermes Publishing—has been welcomed into collaboration with MF and thus allotted public funding.
On the other hand, the Schøyen case has generated a focus on ethical standards in and around ancient studies and perhaps a heightened appreciation of academic integrity and societal responsibility. Researchers, journalists and managers increasingly pursue information about illicit trade, looting and the politics of cultural heritage. The Schøyen case seems to have been a catalyst for Norway’s ratification of the 1970 UNESCO-convention. There is an increased awareness of national responsibilities to deal with trans-national antiquities trafficking, and a need for international collaboration to counter illicit trade [180
], as well as accountability and transparency in public institutions.
In practical terms, the attempt to sell the Schøyen collection to the Norwegian government and deposit it in the National Library ground to a halt. Institutions like the Centre for Advanced Studies, the University Library in Oslo and in time the National Library ended their collaboration with Schøyen. Ole Flyum maintains that as long as Schøyen continued to collect (as late as 2004), looting continued in Gilgit, but by 2005 “the market was almost completely dead because Schøyen and others no longer purchased these manuscripts” [38
]. Schøyen himself claimed that NRK’s programme and the ensuing public concern had significant negative effect on its market value [124
]. Likewise, a dealer in London complained that the focus on the material from Iraq inhibited the market for incantation bowls. “By the time that both of them [Schøyen and Moussaieff] had stopped buying, there were enough problems with magic bowls that nobody would buy them anyway” [52
]. In 2005 and 2007, Schøyen was forced to return some materials looted in Pakistan and from the National Museum in Kabul. When exporting objects for sale from Norway, Schøyen is now obliged to apply for export permits. This provides a degree of transparency and a potential for monitoring his dealings, though if managed in a lax fashion potentially helps him whitewash material.
The role of digitisation is a recurring discussion in the politics of heritage, especially concerning repatriation [181
]. The attempts at justifying research on and dissemination of the Schøyen collection by attempting a de-coupling of digital records and images from the objects and their history was a pronounced element in the National Library’s engagement with Schøyen. Digital dissemination by a public institution has much the same effect that paper publishing has, i.e. as a sales promotion and legitimisation of a dubious collection. The attempt at arguing that digital dissemination absolves institutions like the National Library of fundamental responsibilities, were new in a Norwegian context, but was rapidly criticised.
Looting and trade in antiquities has long been known to lead to the destruction of archaeological sites and sources of knowledge, it deprives regions and countries of their heritage and is part and parcel of crime networks involved with arms, drugs, and human trafficking. Still, the receiving end, the art markets and collecting institutions, have historically enjoyed a high degree of cultural legitimacy. This destruction is concealed behind the cultivated image of wealthy collectors. The whole trade is dependent on experts and institutions. For us, it is obvious that academic involvement in illicit trade corrupts the fundamental ethos of the humanities. It is therefore untenable that researchers and institution remain indifferent to these issues and maintain that access to and publishing of research materials eclipses all other concerns.
Alison Wylie [176
] (p. 6) has suggested that “(…) moral or ethical issues arise when taken-for-granted conventions of practice are disrupted, when a rupture occurs, as sociologists sometimes describe it, that makes it impossible to go on as you’ve been used to doing, or when you confront a situation where it just is not clear what you should do.” Academia and the humanities are challenged to understand their own history, social context and responsibility, as well as commit to appropriate practices, also when they run counter to the expedient interests of academic communities. Not to acknowledge social context and ethical issues certainly entails being criticised of abating crime, furthering the rights of the privileged and circumventing multiple responsibilities. It also threatens the legitimacy and autonomy of the humanities, potentially condemning them to irrelevance. Of course, the case of Schøyen and his partners is just one case—but it is a serious case.