Can’t sleep at night? Worried about fake antiquities? Watch ‘The Mystery Conman‘, a Deutsche Welle TV programme. Watch it now.
Can’t sleep at night? Worried about fake antiquities? Watch ‘The Mystery Conman‘, a Deutsche Welle TV programme. Watch it now.
The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.
The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting . The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.
There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed . Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.
Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy
Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.
Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.
The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.
Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.
In the UK, the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill, which aims to ratify and implement the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols, is working its way through Parliament. Already, one shortcoming of the Convention reproduced in the new Bill has become apparent. The preventive measures regarding illegal trade of cultural objects from occupied territories do not apply to territories occupied by non-state actors. So although recent government support for the Bill was prompted by the illegal trade funding Daesh and other insurgency groups, the Bill offers nothing in response. That is surprising and disappointing, particularly when it is remembered that the 1999 Second Protocol was drafted with the post-WWII experience of civil wars very much in mind. Looking back to a much earlier time, the new Bill derives its meaning of the term ‘occupation’ from the 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land.
Another problem with the Bill, again reflecting a shortcoming of the Convention, is that it takes no account of the increasing prevalence of aerial bombardment as an instrument of war, particularly by the US and its various allies, including the UK. Since the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, there have been several bombing campaigns, aimed ostensibly at degrading economic infrastructure, eliminating weapons manufacturing capabilities and destroying defence installations, but perhaps too with the covert intention of fomenting civil unrest and anger against incumbent enemy regimes. Iraq, Serbia and most recently Syria have all been targeted. There has been widespread civilian suffering and deprivation, and it is not surprising in such circumstances when impoverished people turn to looting cultural sites as part of a coping response. And yet the Hague Convention does nothing to discourage it. Thus the economic sanctions and episodic bombing inflicted upon Iraq through the 1990s and early 2000s must take some responsibility for the widespread looting of cultural sites and museums around the country, which looks to have already peaked before the March 2003 Coalition ground invasion. The subsequent occupation lasted until the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004. Iraq had been party to the Hague Convention and its First Protocol since 1967, but the preventive measures available in the new Bill would apply only to material illegally traded out of Iraq during the relatively limited occupation window of March 2003 to June 2004. They would not apply to material exported illegally before (or after) that time. In practical terms, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to discriminate on the market between objects exported illegally during the bombing and those exported illegally during occupation.
In view of these two identified deficiencies of the Hague Convention and its two Protocols, both caused by the changing character of modern warfare, perhaps it is time for the international community to consider a Third Protocol, with more explicit attention paid to the twenty-first century realities of looting and illegal trade in times of civil and proxy conflict and aerial bombardment.
The Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill might not be the only piece of new legislation needed in UK. On 23 June, in a referendum held to decide future membership of the European Union (EU), the UK electorate voted narrowly in favour of leaving. The campaign leading up to the vote was characterized by dishonesty, denial and deception on both sides, and it left the government in disarray, riven through with recrimination and dissension and engaged in brutal combat over leadership. The constitutional implications of the referendum decision have still to be decided, but if the UK does leave the EU, there are two important pieces of EU legislation concerning the illegal trade in cultural objects that will need to be replaced by UK equivalents.
Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 of 18 December 2008 on the export of cultural goods provides licensing control at all EU borders for the export of cultural objects. This control needs to be maintained in some form, or else the UK will become a marketplace for objects illegally exported out of the EU. It might be a good opportunity to review export control more generally in the context of global trade, particularly given the shortcomings noted above of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill.
Council Directive 2014/60/EU of 15 May 2014 on the return of cultural goods makes provision between EU member states for the recovery and return of illegally traded cultural objects. It was enacted in UK law as SI 1926/2015 the Return of Cultural Objects (Amendment) Regulations 2015. If the Directive is about to disappear from the UK statute book, perhaps the time is ripe for another look at the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. The Unidroit Convention complements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (accepted by the UK in 2002) by introducing rules and procedures for the return of stolen and illegally traded cultural objects.
Paul Barford has just drawn our attention to TimeLine Auctions, and especially to the small print of their terms and conditions. I have been looking at the small print myself, and more besides.
TimeLine Auctions holds regular auction sales of antiquities and ancient coins from around the world. Bidding can be done electronically on their own or associated websites, or in person on the day at their hall in London. They hold about four auctions a year, each of a few days duration. Most recently, 2,729 lots were auctioned over four days from 24 to 27 May.
The May auction included many small antiquities originally found in Iraq, Syria or a neighbouring country. As usual, it was not possible to make specific determinations, or to count how many were from Syria and how many were from Iraq. It seems obvious though that many of the objects offered in the category Western Asiatic Antiquities would have been found in one of those countries, and probably a good proportion too of those in Byzantine, Islamic, and even Roman, Greek and Christian. I took the time to look more closely at what is going on at TimeLine by tabulating information about lots offered in the Byzantine, Western Asiatic and Islamic categories (antiquities only, not coins).
Altogether in these three categories, 399 lots were offered and 191 lots (48%) were sold. Each lot could comprise one or more objects. The total sales revenue (including buyer’s premium) was £93,389, with a mean price of £489 per lot, a high price of £8,680 and a low price of £6. TimeLine charges a buyer’s premium of 24% and a seller’s commission of 18%, so that from the total of £93,389, the company would have taken £31,632. The breakdown by category is shown in the table below. Within individual categories, there was some variation. Thus within Western Asiatic, for example, 38 out of 47 (81%) cylinder seals sold, many of which must have been found in Iraq, though the equivalent figure for ceramic containers was only 2 out of 27 (7%).
Most lots were offered for auction with a provenance, though the ‘provenance’ rarely comprised more than a year or range of years, by which time the lot was said to have been in London, the UK, or wherever. Out of its country of origin at least. Most dates were from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The range is shown in the histogram below.
Thus most of the lots offered for sale did not have a provenance date placing them outside their country of origin when laws were first passed vesting ownership of newly found antiquities in the state: 1963 in Syria and 1936 in Iraq. The dates do seem to place most lots outside their country of origin before the August 1990 date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which embargoed trade with Iraq, and which was recognized in the UK retrospectively by the June 2003 Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 (SI 2000/1519).
Sometimes a name was provided in the provenance description. Thus 25 lots were said to be from the ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’. The Rihani collection is actually quite a well-known provenance. The collection (if it was indeed a collection) belonged to Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian citizen resident in Amman who died in 2001. He is said to have maintained several storage facilities in London. The Jordanian export licence (in Arabic) authorizing his export of material is dated 19 September 1988, but the English translation is dated 12 October 1992. So the actual export of material to which the licence applies might have been in 1988, but seems more likely to have happened in or after 1992, when the English version would have been available for viewing by customs officers not able to read Arabic. In any event, the issuing date of an export licence is not the same thing as a date of export. So a provenance ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’ is not quite as secure as it sounds. It might hide material from Iraq, for example, smuggled out of Iraq after the August 1990 date of UNSCR 661, and imported into the UK sometime later.
There is a lot more to be said about the Rihani provenance. The export licence legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries. Lots 1515 to 1518 in the May sale, for example, were described as ‘Western Asiatic Tell Brak eye idols’, with a footnote explaining that ‘Hundreds of these figurines were found in a monumental building known as the ‘Eye Temple’ in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria’. Eye idols such as these are listed on the ICOM Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. When the TimeLine examples moved out of Syria and into Jordan is not stated. Almost certainly before the February 2015 imposition of trade controls by UNSCR 2199, but there is nothing to say that it was not after 1963, the date of the Syrian vesting legislation. Clearly, a Jordanian export licence does not and cannot legitimize their earlier export from Syria, no matter when that was.
TimeLine might not have seen the relevant export licence, but I have. It authorizes the export of 2000 ‘pottery utensils’ and 50 ‘various stone pieces’ as shown in ‘attached pictures’. The attached pictures have never been made public, assuming they actually existed, so it is not possible to compare objects now said to have been in the Rihani collection with those authorized for export. The descriptions themselves are vague. What comprises ‘pottery utensils’ and ‘stone pieces’? Would eye idols have been considered as ‘utensils’? Maybe. Maybe not. But what of other types of object? Of the lots offered with the Rihani provenance, 14 were cylinder seals, many most likely from Iraq. The licence makes no mention of cylinder seals. Perhaps cylinder seals were included among the 50 ‘various stone pieces’? In the May sale, two other stone pieces were sold with a Rihani provenance. In its 2015 auctions, TimeLine sold a further nine cylinder seals and five other stone objects with a Rihani provenance. So over the past couple of years, TimeLine has sold 30 stone objects with a Rihani provenance. That would be 30 out of the original 50 stone objects licensed for export, assuming of course that cylinder seals should be included in that number, an assumption I personally find hard to make. In September 2015, TimeLine sold two bronze figures with a Rihani provenance. There is no mention of bronze objects on the export licence. To me, the name Rihani is more of a red flag than a provenance, a provenance of convenience perhaps, signalling buyer beware. It seems equally clear, however, that buyers are not always aware of that fact, or at least do not share my opinion.
Moving on from Rihani, how reliable are all the other provenance dates offered? Can they be trusted? How diligent is TimeLine in verifying them? Paul Barford advises us to look closely at the small print. And well he might. TimeLine is not breaking any law that I am aware of, but its business model certainly leaves something to be desired. This is what the small print says:
The Buyer is obligated to make all and any enquiries he wishes as to the accuracy and authenticity of any sale description and the principle of caveat emptor applies except where expressly excluded by operation of law. TimeLine does not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.
So, in actual fact, are the provenance dates pretty meaningless? TimeLine offers no guarantee or duty of care as regards provenance. Caveat emptor it says. Buyer beware. (Though buyers are still expected to pay the 24% buyer’s premium). Does TimeLine simply repeat what a seller tells it without any attempt at independent verification? It certainly seems that way. So how can we we trust that everything said to be in circulation before 1990 really was in circulation? And yet despite TimeLine’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards provenance (and, let us note, authenticity), the buyers continue to buy. Why is that?
In uncertain markets of this kind, customers look for reassurance and support to the advice and approval of independent experts, or at least to the sign of expert advice and approval. That is why there are endorsement logos lined up at the bottom of the TimeLine homepage: the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) (!), something in blue I can’t make out that looks like the Harwich Port Authority (unlikely, I know), and the Art Loss Register (ALR).
It is surprising to find the ALR’s logo there. The ALR is probably the world’s leading private sector stolen art search and recovery organisation. It maintains a large database of stolen art, and will for a fee search its database to check an art object’s legitimacy prior to sale or purchase, issuing a certificate stating the result of the search. Antiquities are tricky for the ALR though. There is no prior photographic documentation of most stolen or illegally traded antiquities, so they are not likely to appear on the ALR’s database. The ALR is aware of that fact, and makes clear on its certificates that they do not constitute a clean bill of health. Fair enough. But something different is happening here. The ALR logo by itself, without any qualification or reservation, presents an unconditional seal of approval to all material being offered at auction. Lots offered with provenance dates that do not establish legal export from country of origin? OK for the ALR. A sketchy and perhaps non-existent policy of due diligence as regards provenance verification? OK for the ALR. In fact, what the ALR is actually endorsing is TimeLine’s principle and practice of caveat emptor. Is that really what the world leader in stolen art recovery wants to be doing? Surely its founding rationale was to help eradicate such business practices.
TimeLine is not forcing people to buy antiquities at auction. The customers are choosing to buy them. Presumably, many of the customers are well meaning, and given the right information would choose not to buy objects of uncertain and therefore dubious provenance. If TimeLine labelled every lot honestly and accurately as ‘provenance unknown to us but possibly tainted’, would they sell as well? Intentionally or not, the ALR’s endorsement of TimeLine with its small print warning of caveat emptor is helping create a sales context that frustrates customer participation in a more transparent and ethically compliant market. The ALR should either persuade TimeLine to up its game or else stop the endorsement.
I have on file on my computer about a dozen or so scholarly papers presenting ethnographies of illegal or ‘subsistence’ digging of archaeological sites. Many of the authors preface their research findings with an observation that by looking at diggers rather than at collectors they are breaking with convention and offering a new and radical perspective. In reality, there is no such convention and they are doing no such thing. I do not have any ethnographies of up-market collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Kensington, or wherever. Rich and powerful collectors are accustomed to protecting their privacy and are well able to do so. They are lawyered-up. Poor diggers on the ground are not so privileged and are in consequence more open to investigation by scholars – and by police.
I also have on file on my computer (and backed-up elsewhere) a series of e-mails dating to 2000 that seemingly details the planning and organization of a smuggling operation intended to move material from Middle Eastern countries through London and on to a wealthy private collector in the US. The network included a curator of a major museum acting in an advisory capacity. One operation involved the illegal export from Syria of an assemblage of Byzantine silver.
In 2006, I decided to go public with this information and – foolishly as it turned out – contacted the US collector for comment. The reply when it arrived was from his lawyers threatening legal action. My publisher decided to drop the paper and I was none too keen myself to have the threat of a libel suit hanging over my head. So that was me – firmly silenced.
Still, going forward, who knows what might happen. I am currently revisiting this material and trying to work up a corroborating source. In the meantime, I will keep investigating diggers. Not because it is somehow radical or breaking with convention. It is not. It is simply the easier option.
My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis suggests two objects that were offered for sale in the 12 April Christie’s New York Antiquities auction had most likely passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealers.
Lot 36: A Greek black-glazed hydria, with an estimate of $8,000 – $12,000. The catalogue entry states that this hydria is from the collection of Charles Brickbauer of Baltimore, who bought it from Royal Athena Galleries of New York in 1988. Before that, it had been sold at Sotheby’s London on 10 December 1987 (lot 243). Christos discovered a photograph of the hydria among those seized from convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.
Lot 70: A Roman marble janiform Herm head, with an estimate of $40,000 – $60,000. The catalogue entry describes the head as the ‘property of a lady’, with a provenance ‘New York, Boston & Texas, acquired prior to 1995; thence by descent to the current owner’. Christos identified the head on a photograph seized from the convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.
Interpol, the Italian Carabinieri, and relevant US authorities have all been notified.
By coincidence, Mike Pitts has just published an article in the May-June issue of British Archaeology about other identifications made by Christos. The article draws attention to an on-line piece written by a Christie’s specialist which suggests that ‘The ideal provenance traces the movement of an object from the point of excavation, sometimes as early as the 16th century, to the present day’. That hardly ever happens, of course. As the British Archaeology article shows, most objects offered for sale at auction have a provenance that can be traced back to between 1970 and 2000 but no further.
The date of 2000 is an important one. It is an open secret that Christie’s and perhaps other auction houses have adopted 2000 as a provenance cut-off, and are offering for sale objects with a collecting or trading history that can be demonstrated to stretch back to sometime before that date, but with no attempt being made to reconstruct a complete provenance. The danger of adopting the 2000 cut-off is that Christie’s leaves itself vulnerable to accepting objects that have been traded by Medici, Becchina or others of their ilk. Perhaps the company believes that the appearance of a couple of questionable objects in an occasional sale causes very little financial or reputational harm and considers it an acceptable cost of doing business. If that is the case, it is a poor reflection on its idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’, whereby it claims to support ‘the honourable and legal market in ancient art’. Christos will be pleased to learn, however, that Christie’s does see his own work as indispensable for the creation of a ‘legal market’, when it says that ‘we positively welcome and encourage scrutiny of our catalogues by museums, archeologists, collectors, law enforcement and government agencies’. Christie’s will surely join me in saying ‘thank you Christos, for your continuing efforts in creating a legal market and cleaning up the antiquities trade’.
David Gill has asked whether Charles Brickbauer will be returning the hydria to Italy, while Lynda Albertson has discussed the identifications in the context of statements made by representatives of the art market at a recent UNESCO meeting.
People such as myself who favour an evidence-based approach to public policy are being criticized for our belief that some reports of Daesh profiting from the antiquities trade are exaggerated and unhelpful. People who should know better accuse us of downgrading the Daesh threat, and when they cannot produce any evidence to contradict us, they resort instead to innuendo. Even if we are right, they say, and the claims being made are indeed exaggerated, the antiquities trade is still funding terrorism. The implication is that by arguing against what we believe are unfounded claims, we are suggesting that the antiquities trade is not funding terrorism, that no action should be taken, and that in consequence we are somehow aligning ourselves with Daesh. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In view of this innuendo, I thought I should make my position crystal clear. Yes, Daesh is profiting from the antiquities trade, it is wrong, and it should be stopped. Equally, other terrorist groups are profiting too. It is equally wrong, and should also be stopped. But the exaggerated reports of Daesh profiting direct policy attention towards Daesh and away from other terrorist groups, leaving them free to profit and continue their campaigns of violence.
Look at the Taliban, for example. Nancy Hatch Dupree first reported in 1998 that the Taliban governor of Badghis Province was exacting a 20 per cent tax on all looted antiquities . In 2009, I pulled together a short account of what was then known about the antiquities trade funding crime and terrorism in Afghanistan . In 2010, Gretchen Peters reported that the Taliban-associated Haqqani Network was extorting money from Afghan antiquities traders resident in the UAE . The Haqqani Network also taxes trade passing through its territory, much in the manner of Daesh, and it would be surprising if it is not taxing the antiquities trade. Yet I have looked in vain for any whisper of a suggestion that action should be taken to prevent the Taliban profiting from the antiquities trade. And that is the problem. Unfounded and probably exaggerated claims of Daesh profiting draw attention away from the more generally pervasive problem of terrorist funding. Daesh is not the first terrorist organization to draw income from the antiquities trade, it is not the only organization to do so, and unless we adopt a more realistic approach to policy formation and implement some appropriate actions, it will not be the last one to do so. To wipe out terrorist funding, we need more reliable evidence and less innuendo.
A colleague has drawn my attention to correspondence relating to the Koh Ker statue seized from Sotheby’s in 2011 and returned to the ownership of Cambodia in 2013. A letter dated 11 September 2013 reveals that the US Government obtained the original documentation of the statue’s 1975 sale at Spink from Christie’s. This letter seems to confirm – as I speculated two days ago – that Christie’s does indeed hold the original records of Spink’s Asian sales. Given Christie’s expressed concern about the lack of publicly-available documentation for helping the art market ‘vet antiquities’, it is surely an opportune moment for the company to help improve the situation by publishing the Spink archive, preferably on-line in collaboration with an appropriate organization or institution.
Meanwhile, Asia Week New York gathers pace with more seizures. On 15 March, HSI agents seized a Gandharan Bodhisattva head thought to have been looted in Pakistan that was ‘destined for an East Coast auction house’. The next day they seized an eighth-century Afghan statue from a Manhattan gallery.
Asia Week New York has kicked off in good style. On 11 March, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents seized two objects from Christie’s New York auction house. The objects, lots 61 and 62 of the scheduled 15 March sale of ‘The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern’, are believed to have been smuggled out of India.
The seizures were made as part of Operation Hidden Idol, an ongoing investigation into the business of former New York dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently under arrest and on trial in India. The ICE release does not specifically say that the seized objects passed through the hands of Kapoor, but the New York Times reports that they were recognized from images recovered during a raid on Kapoor’s New York premises in 2012.
The ICE press release states that lot 61 appears to have been sold sometime between 2006-2007 by Oliver Forge to London–based Brandon [sic] Lynch Ltd. Oliver Forge and Brendon Lynch are joint proprietors of art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd. Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s London in 1997 when the company stopped its London sales of antiquities after allegations of malpractice made by Peter Watson in his book Sotheby’s: Inside Story. Thus the implication is that the objects were smuggled out of India to Kapoor, and that one of them passed through the hands of Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd, before being acquired by the Lahiri Collection and consigned for sale at Christie’s.
The provenances provided in the Christie’s catalogue are for lot 61 ‘Acquired in London by 1999’ and for lot 62 ‘Acquired from Spink & Son, Ltd., London by 1999’. So both pieces are claimed to have been in London prior to 1999, with one and perhaps both acquired from Spink. Did Kapoor have dealings with Spink? It seems not. The press release states that ‘HSI special agents were able to determine that both of these artifacts had come from a specific smuggler and supplier of illicit cultural property in India’. Is Spink a false provenance? Maybe so. The ICE release goes on to state that ‘HSI special agents have tracked many false provenances and this has been one of the pillars of Operation Hidden Idol’. If Spink is a false provenance, it would be interesting to know how Christie’s attempted to verify it during their due diligence procedure.
The London-based company Spink & Son often turns up in the provenance listings of Asian objects. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Spink was a clearinghouse for Asian antiquities, once described as a ‘department store’ type of a dealer , offering a retail experience for customers to browse and buy. Some at least of the material sold through Spink was of dubious provenance, including the Koh Ker athlete offered for sale at Sotheby’s in March 2011 with a provenance of ‘Spink & Son 1975’, which was returned to the ownership of Cambodia in 2013. But Spink never published comprehensive, illustrated catalogues of the type offered by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, so that now it is difficult to ascertain whether or not an object was ever sold at Spink. Perhaps there are internal records of transactions, but if so, their location is not publicly known.
Christie’s bought Spink & Son in 1993, and ended Spink’s Asian sales in February 2000 before selling off what remained of the company in 2002. Today, Spink no longer sells Asian material. So, if any records of Spink’s Asian sales still exist, Christie’s must hold them. Perhaps Christie’s was able to verify the Spink provenance of lot 62 internally using these records, though it has issued no statement to that effect. A Christie’s spokesperson did, however, complain that evidence known to HSI agents is not available to support the company’s due diligence procedures. She was quoted as saying that the absence of publicly available records is ‘one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities’. Quite so. That is something we can all agree upon. Perhaps to help remedy the situation Christie’s would like to make publicly available what records it retains of Spink’s Asian sales, and if it does not possess such records, explain where they are or why they no longer exist. Surely a resource of such importance for reconstructing and verifying provenance would not be shredded for reasons of space or economy – unless of course commercial companies are not as keen to ‘vet antiquities’ as they claim to be.
Jason Felch now has more information availble on his blog Chasing Aphrodite.
‘What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade?’ asks Christina Ruiz in the Art Newspaper, reporting that ‘Experts at London symposium warn against misinformation and lack of evidence’. About time too. Together with a small number of like-minded colleagues (they know who they are), I have spent the past 18 months trying to argue that same point, though to little avail. As I have written elsewhere, editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too. It has been hard to secure a hearing for more evidence-based and less sensationalist accounts of the problem.
The inflated claims of the importance of the antiquities trade to Daesh financing seem to have originated in a July 2014 Guardian article, which was widely understood to have reported that Daesh had made $36 million from antiquities trading in one area of Syria. That particular reading of the article has never been confirmed, but it triggered a series of sensationalising claims about the importance of the trade to Daesh. Egged on by some professional experts who should have known better, the media was quick to pick up and run with the story. By February 2015, one headline was reporting somewhat improbably on ‘The ISIS smugglers making up to $1million per item selling ancient antiquities looted from the rubble of Syria’, and in May 2015 it was unreliably reported to the UN that Daesh was earning ‘as much as $100 million annually from antiquities trading’.
But the real news is not misinformation about Daesh’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. That is old if unpopular news. The real news is that – hopefully – a new sense of reality is grabbing hold of news reporting. Perhaps in time it will prompt us to reflect upon what went before, and ask if the sensationalised claims made about Daesh and the antiquities trade played some part in encouraging the violent and declarative destructions of archaeological heritage that followed. Back in late 2013, before most people outside of Iraq had heard of Daesh, or ISIS for that matter, a forward-thinking member of the Iraqi culture ministry warned me of what was happening in western Iraq, and that the situation there was spinning out of control. How right he was. He also spoke of the threat Daesh posed to cultural heritage and believed that loud but ineffective denunciations would only encourage them to commit further acts of plunder and destruction. He counselled cool heads and calm response. ‘Good luck with that’, I might have replied. What we got instead was a cacophony of moral outrage, sometimes verging on hysteria, but very little constructive action.