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What Can We Learn from the Fox in the Henhouse: A look at the Martin Schøyen Collection, Cultural Property Law, and the Cozy Cabal

Melissa Metzgar


  • Martin Schøyen's potential breaches of five international cultural property laws, including Iraqi Antiquities Laws and UN resolutions, raise legal concerns. 
  • Norway's limited cultural property laws contrast with more robust regulations in the US, where collectors can face prosecution under various acts. 
  • Schøyen's case exposes flaws in international heritage law enforcement and highlights the ethical dilemmas surrounding collections with murky provenance. 
What Can We Learn from the Fox in the Henhouse: A look at the Martin Schøyen Collection, Cultural Property Law, and the Cozy Cabal
Anastasiia Shavshyna via Getty Images
“Something rotten in academic Norway” - C. Prescott and J. M. Rasmussen

On August 24, 2021, Norwegian police seized 83 objects from Martin Schøyen’s private residence with the help of the Iraqi Embassy and the Norwegian Ministry of Culture. Including 82 cuneiform objects and one incantation bowl. These 83 antiquities are only a fraction of the total believed to be in Schøyen’s possession, with rumors placing an additional 763 incantation bowls and cuneiform objects in his UK residence, alongside more than 20,450 manuscripts, coins, and antiquities reported on his collection’s website.

Schøyen, an 84-year-old, second-generation antiquities collector, multi-millionaire, and former academic affiliate of Norway’s University of Oslo, frames his extensive collection as a safe haven for cultural property.

Over the last twenty years, however, investigators and researchers have revealed the vast scale of consequences stemming from him assembling such a collection. These include, but are not limited to, destruction of the archaeological record; looting and smuggling; affiliation with criminal networks; promoting and encouraging terrorism; money laundering; and loss of cultural knowledge.

A 249-page seizure report by the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo details the multifaceted ways that Schøyen’s object management opposes ethical archaeological practices, ranging from baking cuneiform tablets in the oven, to traceable connections to traffickers like Ghassan Rihani. Issued in March 2022, the assessment carefully examines the provenience and prove- nance of the 83 objects alongside technical inspections and exhaustive research, concluding that over 85% of the objects were removed from Iraq, and the remaining came from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Türkiye. With Schøyen failing to produce valid documentation of legal export and verifiable provenance in all instances, the Museum recommended the objects be repatriated.

This recommendation comes on the consensus that Schøyen has potentially violated five international cultural property laws:

  • British occupation military Communiqué number 2 (22 March 1917)
  • Iraqi Antiquities Laws of 1924 and 1936
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 661 (6 August 1990, reaffirmed 2003)
  • UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970)

Cultural Property Law

Aside from the 1970 UNESCO Convention, Norway currently has limited cultural property laws protecting international heritage. Indeed, Dr. Christopher Prescott and J. M. Rasmussen (2020) note how in 2003, the Norwegian Government highlighted its own failure to ratify the 1970 Convention to argue they could not legally interfere when Afghanistan called for Schøyen to return objects in 2002. Prescott (2020) also suggests this incident might have been fuel for Norway’s eventual ratification of the 1970 Convention in 2007, despite the “lack of insight, conflict of interest, avoidance of confrontation and lack of credible information from [the institutions, government officials, and academics] involved” with the case.

Compare this to United States law. Had he been based in the United States, Schøyen would potentially also be subject to prosecution under the National Stolen Property Act; the 2016 Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act; and the International Cultural Property Agreements from the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. In a similar case in 2021, the U.S. seized 180 objects from collector Michael Steinhardt before issuing a fine, implementing a purchase ban, and restituting the antiquities. Aside from object seizures, it is unclear whether Schøyen has faced any such legal or financial repercussions. On 03 September 2021 Schøyen’s website deemed the seizures “totally unwarranted,” noting that Article 97 of the Norwegian Constitution prevents the retroactive application of law, or in this case, the 1970 UNESCO Convention and related cultural property legislation.

The Cozy Cabal

Fellow scholars and heritage professionals, like Prescott and Rasmussen, have described Schøyen as a fox in the henhouse of academia for decades, emphasizing this case in Norway as one of the added dangers that come alongside the loose, and sometimes lacking, enforcement of international heritage laws. Prescott (2020) outlines how even with Norway’s 2007 ratification of the 1970 Convention, Schøyen has been obtaining vague export permits from the Norwegian National Library for years--seemingly benefitting as recently as 2019 from the new measures.

Alongside the implications on cultural property law, the illegality of one collection has grave implications for the ethical integrity and cultural accuracy of collections around the world. Over decades, Schøyen, like other collectors, has generated traceable ties to notable institutions and individuals through donations, socioeconomic status, and art market transactions. The majority of seized antiquities have since been repatriated from his collection, nonetheless, Schøyen still represents a vital cog in the cozy cabal. As of February 2024, the Metropolitan Museum of Art lists seven manuscripts in their collection with Schøyen as one of the first lines of provenance. The British Museum website lists two objects donated by Schøyen, both not on display. Between 2019-20, Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology published three books through Penn State University Press on the early Babylonian manuscripts in Schøyen’s col- lection, analyzed by the University of Ox- ford, the University of London, and the University of Rome.

By conserving and publishing objects with- out legal or verifiable provenance, collectors, institutions, and academics, like Schøyen, simultaneously begin to construct provenance and economic market value while erasing valuable contextual evidence surrounding excavation and transport. In many cases, these actors argue they are saving objects from erasure, just as Schøyen previously publicized his so-called rescue of manuscripts from the Taliban. As noted by scholar Neil Brodie (2011), these actors are seemingly unconcerned about their purchases potentially supporting illegal operations, or their erroneous provenances obstructing public understanding and police operations. This is especially alarming when considering these individuals and institutions are representatives of fields centered around ethical practices, and whose voices carry authoritative social weight.


While analyzing the Schøyen case lies well outside the scope of this article, it echoes vital questions and considerations for identifying potential means forward into more ethical collecting and effective legal action. Poking endlessly at provenance, with this case one has to wonder how guilty are you by association? Where are the social and legal repercussions for manipulating and perpetuating false provenances? How can we reframe transparency to be the goal rather than the enemy?