Looters plunder Albania’s sunken treasures

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An amphora from the 4th century BC and found underwater in Butrint is displayed at Albania's National Archeological Museum in Tirana on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
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David Ruff, researcher of nautical archaeology, works onboard the Ina Virazon II vessel, used in an undewater research expedition headed by Institute of Nautical Archaeology of Texas, at the port of Sazan Island, Albania, on July 17, 2018. (AFP)
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An amphora from the 4th century BC and found underwater in Butrint is displayed at Albania's National Archeological Museum in Tirana on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
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Amphoras from the 4th century BC and found underwater in Butrint are displayed at Albania's National Archeological Museum in Tirana on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018

Looters plunder Albania’s sunken treasures

  • The market overall generates a global turnover of more than $4 billion (3.5 billion euros) a year, according to Auron Tare, who chairs UNESCO’s scientific and technical advisory body

VLORA, Albania: Albania’s long underexplored coastal waters have become a hotspot for treasure hunters scooping up ancient pottery, sunken ship parts and other shell-encrusted relics that have lain on the seabed for centuries.
The 450-kilometer (280-mile) coastline, which is lapped by the Adriatic and Ionian seas, was off-limits under the communist regime which ruled the Balkan state until 1990, with orders to shoot anyone caught diving without authorization.
But today its waters are open, luring archaeologists but also looters eager to plumb the new territory and sell their finds on the art and metals markets.
“Much of this wealth resting at the depth of 20-30 meters (66-99 feet) is easily accessible without any special equipment and has almost completely disappeared without a trace,” said Albanian archaeologist and art historian Neritan Ceka, among those calling for urgent measures to protect the underwater heritage.
While diving at the beginning of the 1980s — under communism, archaeologists and soldiers were permitted — he was one of the first to see for himself the seabed treasures, he said.
“I saw extraordinary richness, amphoras (terra-cotta jugs), pottery, archaeological objects which are no longer there today,” he added.
Teams of European and Albanian divers “have started to loot in a barbaric way,” he lamented.

Expeditions carried out since 2006 by the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation have found some 40 shipwrecks along Albania’s coastline, including vessels dating back to the 7th century BC and naval ships from World War I and II.
Hundreds of Roman-era amphoras — used to store wine, olive oil and other goods on trade vessels — are also clustered on the sea floor, covered in marine plants.
Experts say that without a full inventory, it is impossible to know how many of the artifacts have been plucked from the seabed and sold on the international art trafficking market.
The market overall generates a global turnover of more than $4 billion (3.5 billion euros) a year, according to Auron Tare, who chairs UNESCO’s scientific and technical advisory body on underwater cultural heritage.
“But what is certain: a treasure hunt below the seas can bring in big profits,” said Moikom Zeqo, an underwater archaeologist who helped discover a 2nd-century BC Roman ship carrying hundreds of amphoras.

The vases can be sold for up to 100 euros in Albania, where they are on display in some high-end restaurants, or auctioned for much greater sums in London and other art capitals.
Other prized discoveries have been ferried home by foreign divers and placed in various private museums around the world, such as the bell of an ill-fated Austro-Hungarian ship, the SS Linz, that sunk off Albania’s northwest coast with 1,000 passengers on board after striking a mine in March 1918.
“These objects (from the SS Linz), exhibited in a private museum in Austria, must be returned to Albania,” said Tare, who also heads the Albanian Center for Marine Research.
Divers are also going underwater to strip early 20th century warships for their high-quality steel.
Steel produced before any nuclear explosions happened in the world is especially lucrative, as it lacks any trace of radioactivity and can be used for sensitive medical devices and other scientific equipment.
“To skin the hull and remove it from the seabed, the looters use dynamite,” said Ilir Capuni, a researcher and professor at the University of New York Tirana.
He has seen the plunder firsthand.
Back in 2013, Capuni helped discover a Hungarian-Croat steamer, the Pozsony, that sunk off the coast of Durres in 1916 after striking a mine.
But four years later, “we found that there was almost nothing left of it,” said Capuni.
A similar fate has befallen the Italian medical ship Po, which was struck by a British torpedo in 1941 off the coast of southeastern Vlore. Benito Mussolini’s daughter Edda Ciano, who was aboard the ship as a nurse, survived.
Its algae-covered hull was miraculously intact when it was first discovered but has since been dismantled in places and emptied of valuable objects, such as the bell, compass, telegraph, lights and dishes.
Bought firsthand for 5,000 euros, some parts have been resold since to collectors for 20 times that amount, Capuni said.

In June, authorities passed a law classifying the shipwrecks as cultural monuments and requiring strict licensing for diving teams.
Police are also working with Interpol to trace and return stolen objects, said criminal police director Eduart Merkaj, although so far there have been no concrete results.
One dream shared by Albanian and foreign experts is to create an underwater museum, such as the one that exists in the Turkish city of Bodrum, that would protect the artifacts and draw tourists.
“The time has come to build an underwater museum, laboratories and a specialized center,” says Luan Perzhita, director of Albania’s Archaeological Institute.
But the high costs of such a project remain a barrier, with only 30,000 euros allotted in the state budget this year for archaeology.
“Albania has never had the luxury or awareness to understand the great importance that this wealth represents for the country’s history and for Mediterranean civilization,” said Tare.
Even though, he added, the waters still contain “more treasures that have not yet been discovered.”

Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

Updated 16 June 2019

Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

  • More Of was started by Sara Seif and Hania Seif partly to change society's attitude towards a career as an artist
  • While the company is still at an early stage, the two founders have no plans of slowing down

Art is for the soul what food is for the body. Yet it’s a fact that artists all over the world struggle to make a living out of their creations.

This is especially so in the Middle East, where it’s rare to find a family willing to support their child’s artistic endeavors, since more academic careers tend to take priority.

But two sisters in Egypt are aiming to change that particular mindset. Enter More Of, a startup focusing on the arts, helping those in relevant fields make a living out of it.

“It all started three years ago. My sister and I used to study theater and marketing, so we both had artistic and entrepreneurial sides,” said Sara Seif, co-founder and CEO of the startup.

“We were always surrounded by artists, and we always saw the struggle they faced, with so many talents out there and so little revenue. The artists can’t monetize their art, and it’s not because they’re not good. It’s because they don’t have the business skill set.”

Sara and Hania Seif want to introduce a entrepreneurial mentality into the world of art. (Supplied)

It wasn’t until Sara stumbled on an Injaz Egypt startup competition — just 12 hours before the deadline — that the idea started to take shape. She scrambled to put her ideas into words and called her sister and business partner Hania to help.

Invited to attend a pre-incubation program, where they learned how to turn their idea into a business model, they ended up winning the competition, receiving EGP 100,000 ($6,000) in seed funding, as well as a trip to Silicon Valley.

For More Of, there was a very specific problem they were trying to solve, said Sara: “There was this gap between the talents and the marketplaces; people didn’t know where or how to look for opportunities.”

The company works in two ways; the first is geared towards people who have creative end products.

“Creative artists have something you can actually buy, like wall paintings, fashion, jewelry, and so on. We offer them a talent management platform; we’re like a talent incubator for them,” Sara said. “What we do in this incubator is try to build capacities on the business side.”

They started doing so by conducting a series of workshops with topics including how to turn art into a business, sales for creative artists, and personal branding.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,” said fellow co-founder Hania, who serves as More Of’s chief creative officer.

The second area they are facilitating is the performing arts.

Sara elaborated: “We’re going to build an online platform for performing artists — theater, dance, and music — and it’s going to work like an online casting agency, where there’ll be a lot of opportunities posted for the artists.”

The two plan on making the platform free so that any artist could use it, but there will also be a premium option.

“Premium users will have an edge, where we’ll be their own consultants and manage their talent. We’ll basically be an agent for the artist,” Hania said.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,”

Hania Seif

While the startup is still at an early stage, they have no intention of slowing down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as possible, to create as many initiatives as possible, and pull all resources out there so that the artists and art community could come together and establish an ecosystem,” Sara said. “We see ourselves becoming the leading talent-management platform in the MENA region and then internationally.”

Their plans to expand on an international level mean they could potentially land local artists opportunities on the global stage.

“People want to reach talent in Egypt and they want figures to address, and we plan on becoming that figure,” Hania said.

Making money out of being an artist might have seemed like a long shot at some point, but with initiatives such as More Of, it is changing.

“It’s no longer a hopeless case for artists to turn their art into an everyday career,” Sara said.

Hania added: “We want to empower artists to do ‘more of’ what they love. And that’s how we (came up with) our name.”


•  This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region