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“Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do”*…

US Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, lead investigator in finding looted treasures from the Baghdad Archeological Museum, directs a presentation to the press in Baghdad, 16 May 2003. Bogdanos now heads the New York District Attorney’s antiquities theft task force.

On the trail of looted antiquities…

The best photos to come out of the Met Gala every year are always the ones where you feel like a voyeur. It’s a weird combination of intimacy, celebrity, modernity, and antiquity that’s hard to replicate and harder, I think, to ignore. A shot of Kim Kardashian leaning against an Egyptian coffin at the 2018 Met Gala by Landon Nordeman exposes his subject in a flash of light—though perhaps not the subject anyone expected.

Out of the thousands upon thousands who saw the shot, one happened to be more interested in the gold coffin than Kim’s (heavenly) body in gold Versace. He had looted the coffin seven years earlier but was never paid for his spoils. And it was now sitting in the Met. Angry and in possession of receipts, he fired off an anonymous email to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to tip them off about the buxom gold figure in the photo next to the Kardashian. 

A year later, the DA’s Office proudly announced that after being stolen during the revolution in 2011, the coffin of Nedjemankh was finally returning home to Egypt. Scorned criminals, ancient art, and the social event of the season—you can’t make this shit up

But aside from that star-studded sabotage, the coffin of Nedjemankh isn’t actually an outlier. And neither is the other antiquities scandal still surrounding Kim K (she purchased an allegedly looted ancient Roman sculpture with Kanye back in 2016). 

Stolen antiquities end up in museums, galleries, and private collections surprisingly often. It happens like this: Looters dig up artifacts, smuggle them to dealers, who then bounce them from port to port. Eventually, someone higher up the chain sells these artifacts to museums like the Met and wealthy collectors like Kim who are all too willing to overlook those pesky legal details.

And usually, they stay there, because most jurisdictions just aren’t interested in going after antiquities theft. But most jurisdictions don’t have an ADA like Matthew Bogdanos.

Bogdanos has been working with antiquities since 2003, when he led a mission to recover the thousands of antiquities lost after the sacking of the National Museum of Iraq. On the heels of a National Humanities Medal for his work in Iraq, Bogdanos returned to Manhattan in order to head the city’s first antiquities theft task force. It would take another 12 years of Bogdanos tackling antiquities theft largely on his own before the city established an official unit. Since its official inception, under Cyrus Vance, and now under new DA Alvin Bragg, the team has helped return something like 2,000 antiquities to their countries of origin.

Besides Bogdanos, who’s still regularly staffed on homicide cases, the small, tenacious team relies on the wide-ranging skills of three other assistant DAs, five specialists in art and archeology, two detectives, and a handful of Homeland Security agents. If you can’t find them in their office downtown, you can probably assume they’re knocking on the ornate doors of the Upper East Side. To paraphrase the man behind the raids, underneath the genteel patina of the upper-class art world is a solid core of criminal activity. The seized art actually occupies so much space that the DA’s storage facilities have been dubbed Manhattan’s best antiquities museum

Read on as Bogdanos guides Hannah Barbosa Cesnik (@HBCesnik) through his murky milieu: “Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force,” in Anne Helen Petersen‘s (@annehelen) wonderful newsletter, Culture Study.

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Wide Window

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As we pursue provenance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1873 that Jesse James and his gang staged the first train robbery (the world’s first robbery of a moving train), a mile and a half west of Adair, Iowa… the site of which is now commemorated as a county park.

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“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course.”*…

Unveiling the Mona Lisa after World War II

The remarkable tale of the Louvre’s successful efforts to protect its treasures from Nazi looting…

… With due respect to the Monuments Men (and unsung Monuments Women), before the Allies arrived to rescue many of Europe’s priceless works of art, French civil servants, students, and workmen did it themselves, saving most of the Louvre’s entire collection. The hero of the story, Jacques Jaujard, director of France’s National Museums, has gone down in history as “the man who saved the Louvre” — also the title of an award-winning French documentary (see trailer below). Mental Floss provides context for Jaujard’s heroism:

After Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938, Jaujard… lost whatever small hope he had that war might be avoided. He knew Britain’s policy of appeasement wasn’t going to keep the Nazi wolf from the door, and an invasion of France was sure to bring destruction of cultural treasures via bombings, looting, and wholesale theft. So, together with the Louvre’s curator of paintings René Huyghe, Jaujard crafted a secret plan to evacuate almost all of the Louvre’s art, which included 3600 paintings alone.

On the day Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nonaggression Pact, August 25, 1939, Jaujard closed the Louvre for “repairs” for three days while staff, “students from the École du Louvre, and workers from the Grands Magazines du Louvre department store took paintings out of their frames… and moved statues and other objects from their displays with wooden crates.”

The statues included the three ton Winged Nike of Samothrace (see a photo of its move here), the Egyptian Old Kingdom Seated Scribe, and the Venus de Milo. All of these, like the other works of art, would be moved to chateaus in the countryside for safe keeping. On August 28, “hundreds of trucks organized into convoys carried 1000 crates of ancient and 268 crates of paintings and more” into the Loire Valley.

Included in that haul of treasures was the Mona Lisa, placed in a custom case, cushioned with velvet. Where other works received labels of yellow, green, and red dots according to their level of importance, the Mona Lisa was marked with three red dots — the only work to receive such high priority. It was transported by ambulance, gently strapped to a stretcher. After leaving the museum, the painting would be moved five times, “including to Loire Valley castles and a quiet abbey.” The Nazis would loot much of what was left in the Louvre, and force it to re-open in 1940 with most of its galleries starkly empty. But the Mona Lisa — at the top of Hitler’s list of artworks to expropriate — remained safe, as did many thousands more artworks Jaujard believed were the “heritage of all humanity”…

How France Hid the Mona Lisa & Other Louvre Masterpieces During World War II, from @openculture.

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we say thanks for safekeeping, we might send Romantic birthday greetings to a painter whose works were among those saved by the Louvre; he was born on this date in 1798. Breaking with the neoclassical tendencies of contemporaries (like his rival Ingres), Delacroix took his inspiration from Reubens and the Venetian Renaissance, emerging from the outset of his career as a leader of the French Romantic movement. Together with Ingres, Delacroix is considered one of the last old Masters of painting, and one of the few who was ever photographed (see below).

Also a fine lithographer, Delacroix illustrated various works of Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and Goethe.

Eugène Delacroix, c. 1857 (portrait by Nadar; source)

“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse”*…

Ethan Zuckerman on the history of enthusiastically working to make a dystopian vision real…

In a booth at Ted’s Fish Fry, in Troy, New York, my friend Daniel Beck and I sketched out our plans for the metaverse. It was November 1994, just as the graphical web was becoming a thing, and we thought that the 3-D web could be just a few tweaks down the road. In our version of the metaverse, a server would track the identity of objects and their location in virtual space, but you’d render the objects locally, loaded to your hard drive off of a CD-ROM. It made a certain sense: Most users were on sub-56k modems, and AOL was shipping out enough CD-ROMs to pave Los Angeles each week.

To be very clear, Daniel and I were in no way being original. We were hoping to re-create the vision that Neal Stephenson had outlined in his 1992 book, Snow Crash. We were both (barely) self-conscious enough to understand that Snow Crash took place in a dystopia, and that Stephenson was positing a beautiful virtual world because the outside world had become so shitty that no one wanted to live in it. But we were young and naive and believed that our metaverse would rock. (Stephenson, of course, wasn’t being entirely original either. His vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s. Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.)

Daniel and I got a chance to actually build our metaverse about six months later, after we both joined Tripod as graphic designers and “webkeepers.” This was well before Tripod became a competitor to GeoCities, offering free webpages to all. (It was also before I accidentally invented pop-up ads. Sorry again about that.) Instead, we were a lifestyle magazine for recent graduates, providing smart, edgy, but practical content—“tools for life”—while hawking mutual funds to 20-somethings. When that business model didn’t take off (can’t imagine why), the half-dozen folks in the “tech cave” revived the metaverse idea…

We sold our CEO on the idea by telling him that the MOO could be a simulation of life in the big city postcollege, bringing onto the site new users who wanted to experience New York City while still in Ann Arbor or State College. And remember, this was 1995: The photos we used to represent this metaverse of ours were taken on chemical film! Which we then developed at a photo-processing lab! And then scanned on a flatbed scanner!

The MOO was really cool, in theory. Most people weren’t building HTML-enabled multiplayer spaces in 1995. It got us our first round of venture-capital funding, demonstrating to our investors that we weren’t just kids translating mutual-fund propaganda into HTML. We were technology innovators. We were building things no one had ever seen before.

But here’s the thing: The MOO was garbage. On a good day, I could give a demo that made it look smooth, slick, and fun to use. But our CEO couldn’t. And that was a problem. It wasn’t his fault. The MOO was buggy and quirky and demanded that you think of the world as a set of six-sided cubes made up of webpages. Our boss pulled the plug on the project, telling us, “I know it’s the future, but if I can’t use it, I can’t sell it to investors.”

I watched other metaverses rise and fall. An Icelandic firm, OZ Virtual, introduced a metaverse with 3-D avatars in sexy streetwear dancing on an infinite dance floor, which felt like the future for a few days. OZ Virtual used VRML, a format for specifying 3-D objects in an HTML-like language that was all the rage for a few months in 1996. Netscape supported it via a plug-in, and Blaxxun built a 3-D chat space. Don’t remember these moments of web history? Neither does the web, for the most part. Wikipedia’s thorough, but not comprehensive, timeline of virtual environments misses our MOO, the Icelandic dance club, and half a dozen other early virtual experiments. (By the way: “Blaxxun”? That’s another Stephenson reference, to Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created Stephenson’s fictional metaverse. Very creative, guys.)

And then there was Second Life. When Linden Lab launched this metaverse in 2003, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm where otherwise serious entities, such as businesses and universities, bought and built out their own islands in Linden’s proprietary world. (Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now the Berkman Klein Center, had its own island.) The learning curve to build objects in Second Life was steep, the universe was populated haphazardly, and the Second Life client demanded a very fast computer and a very patient user…

So, after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to “Meta.” In his heavily produced keynote video for Facebook Reality Labs, Zuckerberg starts by acknowledging that this is a bizarre time for the company to be launching a new product line—Facebook is under more scrutiny than ever for its ill effects on individuals and societies, and for the company’s utter unwillingness to address these issues.

But why bother with that mess? Or, as Zuckerberg put it: “Now, I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be. So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Allow me to translate: Fuck you, haters.

Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity! And one of my friends is a robot! You could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago…

The metaverse Zuckerberg shows off [is] promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front. Even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.

But that’s not the problem with Zuckerberg’s metaverse. The problem is that it’s boring. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better. Two old men chat over a chessboard, one in Barcelona, one in New York, much as they did on Minitel in the 1980s. There’s virtual Ping-Pong and surfing, you know, like on a Wii. You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day.

Zuckerberg isn’t building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. There’s not an original thought in his video, including the business model. Thirty-eight minutes in, Zuckerberg gets serious, talking about how humbling the past few years have been for him and his business. Remember, he’s not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image. No, he’s humbled by how hard it is to fight against Apple and Google.

Faced with the question of whether Facebook’s core products are eroding the foundations of a democratic society, Zuckerberg takes on a more pressing problem: Apple’s 30 percent cut on digital goods sold in its App Store. Never fear, though: With a Facebook ecosystem, Facebook developer tools, and Facebook marketplaces, the custom skin you buy in one video game will be wearable in another video game, just like Mark’s black T-shirt. Just as long as that video game is in Facebook’s metaverse. (Meta’s metaverse? Meta’s verse?) And if you want Mark’s actual digital shirt, it will almost certainly be available as an NFT, which the launch video promises will be supported. Did I mention how dystopian this all is?

Facebook can claim originality in at least one thing. Its combination of scale and irresponsibility has unleashed a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix. If Facebook has learned anything from 17 years of avoiding mediating those conflicts, it’s not apparent from the vision for the metaverse, where the power of human connection is celebrated as uncritically as it was before Macedonian fake-news brokers worked to sway the 2016 election…

Neal Stephenson’s metaverse has been a lasting creation because it’s fictional. It doesn’t have to solve all the intricate problems of content moderation and extremism and interpersonal interaction to raise questions about what virtual worlds can give us and what our real world lacks. Today’s metaverse creators are missing the point, just like I missed the point back at Ted’s Fish Fry in 1994. The metaverse isn’t about building perfect virtual escape hatches—it’s about holding a mirror to our own broken, shared world. Facebook’s promised metaverse is about distracting us from the world it’s helped break.

It was terrible then, and it’s terrible now: “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago,” from @EthanZ.

For a nuanced (and provocatively-“optimistic”) look at what a metaverse like Facebook’s could yield if in fact it worked (and then morphed), see Corey J. Whites‘s (@cjwhite) Repo Virtual.

And as (and for the reasons) noted in an earlier post, see “The Metaverse Is Bad,” from Ian Bogost (@ibogost)

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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As we think twice, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had actually found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

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