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UCL establishes committee of enquiry into provenance of incantation bowls

20 February 2006

University College London (UCL) has established a committee of enquiry to investigate the provenance of a collection of 650 Mesopotamian Aramaic incantation bowls lent to the university by a private collector, following claims that the bowls were illegally exported from their country of origin.

The bowls date from around the 5th century CE and are mostly Jewish incantations buried under the floor of private houses to protect the inhabitants from harmful demons.  They are closely related in language and content to the Babylonian Talmud and Rabbinic literature of the period. UCL received the bowls for academic research and cataloguing in 1996. The committee is working to establish chronology of ownership and possession of the bowls from 1970 to the present, and will examine the legal, ethical and professional implications of the ownership of the bowls and to their reception on loan.

The committee will then go on to audit other relevant collections at UCL and recommend how the College should deal with future acquisitions of cultural objects.

The committee is chaired by Mr David Freeman, founder and senior partner (1952-1992) of DJ Freeman solicitors (now Kendal l Freeman). The other members are: Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, Disney Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and Fellow and Former Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University; and Ms Sally MacDonald, Deputy Director of UCL Museums and Collections, who has over 20 years' experience of working in museums, including seven years managing the Petrie Museum at UCL. It is expected to deliver its first report later this year.

Professor Michael Worton, UCL Vice Provost, said: "We have established this enquiry because we need to be absolutely clear about the provenance of these bowls, and to satisfy ourselves that they were not removed illegally from their country of origin. In addition, we aspire to provide a model for best practice in dealing with the complex cultural issues that can arise from such situations."

Notes for Editors

The Committee of Enquiry was established by the Provost of UCL under the chairmanship of Mr David Freeman with the following terms of reference.

1. To do all such acts and things as they consider necessary to ascertain the facts relevant to the acquisition of the Aramaic incantation bowls currently held by UCL on loan from Mr Martin Schoyen ('the bowls') and to prepare a chronology of ownership and possession of the bowls from 1970 to the present date.

2. To identify any further transactions and movements affecting the bowls from 1970 to the present date and any countries through which the bowls have passed.

3. To examine, in the light of the First and Second Terms of Reference: (a) any civil or criminal liability incurred by UCL by virtue of UCL's possession of the bowls, whether under the law of England and Wales or any other relevant system of law; and (b) the legal implications of any future course of conduct that might be contemplated by UCL in relation to the bowls.

4. To examine the ethical and professional considerations that arise from (a) [the material disclosed by the First, Second and Third Terms of Reference and (b) UCL's possession of the bowls, in the light of contemporary standards, guidelines, regulations and conventions.

5. To consider the evidence presented by a selective sample audit of relevant cultural objects and specimens entering UCL's Museums and Collections and Library Services since 1970.

6. To consider the measures that it would be appropriate for UCL to adopt in relation to the cultural objects and specimens referred to in Article 5, and other material held for study in UCL premises in order to comply with the civil and criminal law of England and Wales and of any other relevant system of law, and to act in an ethically responsible manner; and to make recommendations accordingly.

7. To consider the measures that it would be appropriate for UCL to adopt in relation to any future acquisition or receipt of cultural objects (whether by sale, gift, loan or in connection with the performance of an individual's work) in order to comply with the civil and criminal law of England and Wales and of any other relevant system of law, and to enable UCL to act in an ethically responsible manner; and to make recommendations accordingly.

8. To advise UCL via its Museums and Heritage Committee whether the recommendations presented by the Enquiry might constructively be used as a general basis for the collective evolution of common standards affecting the acquisition and tenure of cultural objects and specimens by other Universities, and to make recommendations for the further collective development of such standards if appropriate.

9. To advise UCL via its Museums and Heritage Committee as to the proper manner in which UCL might manifest ethical and professional leadership in this field.

Notes for Guidance

A. For the purposes of this Enquiry, a 'relevant cultural object within the possession or control of UCL' shall be one which

(a) is on the date of commencement of the enquiry situated within premises occupied or controlled by UCL; and

(b) has been

- sold to UCL; or

- given to UCL (whether by living persons or by will); or

- loaned to UCL (whether for a fixed or indefinite period);

- brought into UCL by an individual in connection with the

performance of that individual's work, while not formally

acquired by or loaned to UCL.

B. The commencement date of this Enquiry was 1st March 2005.

2. Anybody with relevant information or who wishes to contribute to the work of the enquiry should contact Sally MacDonald (email sally.macdonald@ucl.ac.uk , tel 020 7679 2825, mobile 0787 0311705)