Lost secrets of Rihani

It is frequently speculated that there are large stores of looted antiquities and other cultural objects maintained in various Middle Eastern countries, with their owners waiting for the market to cool down before selling them on. But although these stores are often talked about, none has been revealed, until perhaps now.

In November 2014, the Yesterday TV channel aired The Lost Secrets of Petra in series two of its Forbidden History strand. The presenter discussed the assembly in Jordan of large collections of undeclared objects, which he said were destined for onwards sale in Europe or the United States. He visited the Rihani family collection in Amman, where there was a tremendous quantity of material on view. The collection was stored in several rooms, and although it seemingly comprised mainly Jordanian material, there were recognisable pieces from Egypt and probably Iraq, including the incantation bowl pictured below. I have reproduced several still images taken from the programme without comment. I think they speak for themselves. As I have noted before, objects said to be from the Rihani collection are often offered for sale in the United Kingdom. Whether they really are from the Rihani collection is a matter for speculation.

It is well worthwhile watching this programme next time it is screened, or searching it out on-line.

Nice work if you can get it

Howard Swains has just published a useful piece on Robin Symes containing informative commentary by my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis. Symes was a major international antiquities dealer through the 1980s and 1990s. With Italian and Greek police hot on his trail, he was driven into bankruptcy in 2003 and after serving a short prison sentence for contempt of court in 2005 he disappeared from view. His present whereabouts remain unknown. Swains tells Symes’s story in all its sordid detail and it is well worth a read.

Just by chance, Symes figures in another news article covering the Lebanese claim for the return of a fourth-century BC marble bull’s head from the possession of US collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes. In 1981, armed Christian militia stole the bulls head from storage in Byblos – it is a conflict antiquity. By 1996, the head was in the possession of Symes, who sold it to the Beierwaltes for $1.2 million. This sale makes Symes a purveyor of conflict antiquities.

Before his disappearance, Symes claimed to possess 17,000 objects in 29 warehouses, most of them antiquities, with a total value of $250 million [1]. It remains to be seen how many conflict antiquities are included in this total. In 2016, Roman, Etruscan and Greek South Italian antiquities from one of his storage facilities in Geneva were returned to Italy. His remaining stock is in the hands of liquidators, but its composition, value and fate remain subjects for speculation. Greek and Italian investigators suspect part and perhaps many of the objects were illegally acquired and would like full access in order to study them further and recover anything that might be stolen property. But his antiquities are being sold without such study taking place.

Until now, the location of Symes’s residual stock has been something of a mystery. Swains points out that in 2015 Companies House made the reports of Symes’s liquidators available on-line for public viewing, and interesting viewing they make too. Each year, major payments from the USD($) account are being made to a New York based storage company with a warehouse in Brooklyn. Perhaps Homeland Security Investigations would like to take a look. Similarly large payments from the GBP(£) account are being made to a separate company for storage in west London.

As Swains notes, the Companies House reports also record the ongoing unpublicised sale of unvetted material (including, presumably, some conflict antiquities) to UK dealers. He reports the concern of Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri that the sales are being conducted to recover tax for the UK government, but the reality is if anything more shameful. As the intermittent sale of material drags on year after year, any proceeds are being eaten up by storage and insurance costs and legal and other sundry fees and expenses. Everyone is making money it seems except for the creditors. No one seems worried about the probable existence of stolen or conflict antiquities. Nice work if you can get it – and if your moral compass is pointing firmly astern.

Reference

  1. Watson, Peter, 2006. Convicted dealers: what we can learn, in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, edited by Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, at 94.

Incident at Bodrum Airport

On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.

Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.

Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.

Capacity degrading

There is a lot of public money being spent these days on capacity building projects designed to help protect cultural heritage in the Middle East. I am not too convinced personally that professional training of this type translates well into cultural heritage protection, but at least some people in the area are benefiting from opportunities that were not previously available, so I can’t complain too much. What I do want to complain about is the opposite of capacity building, what I propose to call ‘capacity degrading’. What is capacity degrading? I intend it to mean reducing a national fund of professional expertise or competence in such a way as to diminish the public good – the opposite of capacity building in fact.

Let us look at Hobby Lobby again. I came across a comment published in 2014 by someone in a position to know that the Hobby Lobby collection contains an ‘enormous collection’ of cuneiform tablets, an observation that chimes well with Hobby Lobby’s own claim to possess ‘One of the largest collections of cuneiform tablets in North America’. So even after the US Customs seizures and returns Hobby Lobby will still retain a large holding of cuneiform tablets that are destined to be studied and published by members of the Green Scholars Initiative. The Green Scholars Initiative comprises ‘Scholars from 60 participating colleges, universities and seminaries around the globe’, but there is no evidence that any of them are Iraqi scholars from Iraqi universities. Similarly, we can look at the Cuneiform Library at Cornell University that holds approximately 10,000 cuneiform tablets formerly in the possession of Jonathan and Jeanette Rosen. This material is being studied and published with commendable alacrity, but again without the visible participation of any Iraqi scholars or universities.

No satisfactory account has ever been offered as to the source of all these tablets. They are widely believed to have been moved illegally out of Iraq in the years following 1990, and are now unavailable to Iraqi scholarship. Furthermore, they are being used to further the careers in Europe and North America of the next generation of cuneiform specialists, none of whom are Iraqi. So Iraq has suffered a double loss, first of the tablets themselves, and then of the intellectual or cultural capital that the tablets engender. Hopefully the next generation of Iraqi specialists is being trained elsewhere. I don’t know. Otherwise, going forward, Iraqi universities might struggle to re-establish themselves as international centres of excellence in the field of cuneiform studies, which is after all the study of Iraq’s history. There will be a long-term loss to the cultural and intellectual life of Iraq, a diminishment of the same public good that capacity building projects are intended to enhance. Thus while projects such as the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, run in collaboration with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, are busy building capacity, other institutions are just as busily degrading it. Governments and their taxpayers might be excused for asking why their capacity building efforts are being undermined in this way.

 

Hobby Lobby forfeits more than its reputation (1)

Social and mainstream media are alight with speculation and anger after the release last week of an agreement between the US District Court Eastern District of New York and Hobby Lobby in answer to a complaint filed against Hobby Lobby by the Court. In short, the Court alleged that Hobby Lobby had acquired 3,450 archaeological artifacts probably from Iraq that had violated US customs regulations upon entry into the US. In the agreement, Hobby Lobby undertook to pay a $3 million forfeiture, relinquish claims to and possession of 3,599 artifacts, and implement a new antiquities policy to govern its collections. As always, Rick St. Hilaire provides a succinct summary of the case. Hobby Lobby is a US retail chain owned by the Green family. In 2009, the family established the Green Collection of objects related to biblical history and has funded the foundation and construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC which will open later this year. Joel Baden and Candida Moss published a good overview in the January/February 2016 issue of the Atlantic.

Many commentators have complained that what looks to have been a large smuggling bust by US Customs was followed up with a civil complaint and fine but no criminal charges. The complaint is interesting in itself as it details the complex and evasive manoeuvres necessary to smuggle Iraqi artifacts into the US, and the roles played by a large and diverse cast of actors. Over this and the next post, I will describe the main substance of the complaint and agreement and consider some of their implications.

The inspection

According to the complaint, on 15 July 2010 the Hobby Lobby President and an individual identified as a Hobby Lobby ‘Consultant’ inspected 5,548 artifacts for prospective purchase at an undisclosed location in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The artifacts comprised cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals most likely from Iraq. Also present at the meeting were two Israeli dealers (ID1 and ID2) and a UAE dealer (UAED). In August 2010 the Hobby Lobby Consultant met again with ID1 and ID2, this time in Israel, and on 23 August reported back to the President and the President’s ‘Executive Assistant’. He had been told the artifacts were the property of a third Israeli dealer (ID3) and were part of ID3’s family collection. The collection had been stored in Washington DC before being moved to the UAE for the July inspection. The Consultant advised the President that the asking price was $2,091,000 but that the material would most likely have an appraised value of $11,820,000. On 30 August 2010, ID1 supplied written confirmation of provenance from ID3 for 5,313 of the artifacts. It states that ID3’s father had legally acquired them in the 1960s from local markets and that the collection had been moved to the US for safe storage in the 1970s. (The alleged US custodian subsequently denied ever having possessed the material).

The purchase

While these negotiations were proceeding, on 9 August 2010, at the invitation of Hobby Lobby ‘In-house Counsel’, an invited legal ‘Expert’ made a presentation on relevant aspects of cultural property law to the President, In-house Counsel and Consultant. This presentation was followed up on 19 October 2010 when at the In-house Counsel’s request the outside Expert provided a memorandum detailing the risks associated with acquiring Iraqi cultural property and advising rigorous due diligence. This memorandum was received by the In-house Counsel but not shared with the President, Consultant or any other responsible officer.

On 8 December 2010 the President and ID2 signed a purchase agreement whereby Hobby Lobby agreed to pay $1,600,000 for the artifacts on offer. The associated invoice named ID3 as the seller and stated (falsely) that the artifacts originated in Israel. The President authorised wire transfers of the purchase money to seven personal bank accounts associated with five different people. The payees included ID1, ID2, UAED and two other individuals, but not ID3. Two days after the wire transfers, on 10 December, ID2 asked the President to amend the purchase agreement by replacing ID2 with ID3 as seller. The President complied on 15 December.

The first shipments

UAED starting shipping material through international post in November 2010. None of the shipping labels listed the origin or value of package contents. The shipments were as follows:

Date Description

Number of objects

23 November 2010 Ceramic tiles 13 or 23
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
19 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 13-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18
20 December 2010 Tiles (sample) 12-18

Shipments were processed through JFK in New York. Each package was addressed to the President and/or the ‘Executive Assistant’ at Hobby Lobby or one of its affiliates, Mardel, Inc or Crafts, Etc!. The different addresses were used at the request of UAED. The complaint states that such practice is normal for smuggling cultural property so as not to attract the attention of customs agents.

The seized shipments

On 19 January 2011 US Customs and Border Protection seized five FedEx packages despatched by UAED that had been detained at Memphis, Tennessee. Together they contained 223 cuneiform tablets and 300 clay bullae. Three more FedEx packages had previously passed through Memphis and been received by Hobby Lobby. The seized packages were all described as ‘hand made clay tiles’ with Turkey listed as country of origin:

Date Receiving address Contents Declared value Actual purchase price
3 January 2011 Mardel 50 cuneiform tablets $250 $14,020
4 January 2011 Hobby Lobby 300 clay bullae $300 $84,120
4 January 2011 Crafts, Etc! 54 cuneiform tablets $285 $15,142
5 January 2011 Mardel 60 cuneiform tablets $300 $16,824
5 January 2011 Crafts, Etc! 50 cuneiform tablets $300 $16,544

The forfeiture complaint alleges the shipper knowingly falsified customs declarations as to value, description and country of origin.

The forfeiture agreement

On 16 May 2011 Hobby Lobby petitioned for the return of the seized material, submitting in support the provenance statement from ID3 claiming ownership of 5,513 artifacts and a further provenance statement from UAED (dated 1 May 2011) claiming ownership of 527 artifacts – the artifacts that had been seized. On 7 September 2011 Hobby Lobby further petitioned that the separate wire transfers were made to different people so that the original owners were paid directly (in apparent contradiction of the ownership claim made in the ID3 provenance statement).

In September 2011, months after the January seizures, Hobby Lobby received 1,000 clay bullae shipped by ID1 in Israel using international express post. The shipping label accurately described their contents but falsely stated country of origin to be Israel. (If these bullae were amongst those inspected in the UAE in July 2010, they must subsequently have been shipped back to Israel).

On the 5 July 2017 the US District Court Eastern District of New York filed the forfeiture complaint against ‘Approximately four hundred fifty (450) ancient cuneiform tablets; and approximately three thousand (3,000) ancient clay bullae’. The following day (6 July), the court filed the settlement agreement. Rick St. Hilaire has both documents on his blog. The main talking points of the settlement agreement are that:

  • Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of 3,000 bullae and 450 cuneiform tablets, together with a further 144 cylinder seals;
  • Hobby Lobby agrees forfeiture of $3 million;
  • Hobby Lobby agrees to implement an internal antiquities policy to govern its collection and future acquisitions of cultural property in compliance with either the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological material and Ancient Art (2013) or its Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural significance from Countries in Crisis. The policy also provides for training of responsible personnel (including a qualified customs broker) in customs regulations and procedures and the legal and ethical requirements of acquiring cultural property.

Continued in next post …

 

Hobby Lobby forfeits more than its reputation (2)

A criminal conspiracy?

Many commentators are angry that no criminal charges have yet been brought against any of the actors involved in the Hobby Lobby case. But it seems a fair question to ask ‘what was the crime?’. The assumption is that the material in question was moved out of Iraq illegally, an act that in the US would most likely constitute theft. The situation in Israel or the UAE, which are other possible jurisdictions, is not clear. (Not clear to me at least). In any event, there is no evidence contained in the complaint to prove illegal export after 1936, the year Iraq took all undiscovered artifacts into state ownership.

The acquisition might also be in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 661, adopted on 6 August 1990, in force in the US since then and implemented more specifically for cultural property on 30 April 2008 as the Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq. Under these trade controls, only objects that can be documented as having left Iraq prior to 6 August 1990 can be legally imported. Unless proven false, the statement of provenance supplied by ID3 acts to supply such documentation.

The role of ID3 in the transaction is interesting. This person supplied the document claiming ownership of 5,313 artifacts that had been in the family collection since the 1960s. If the artifacts are ever shown to have been stolen from Iraq, ID3 would be in the position of having admitted possession of stolen property and supplying a false statement in defence of that possession. Yet ID3 was not a direct recipient of any of the money wire-transferred by Hobby Lobby. Who is ID3? An identifiable person? Is whoever it is a convenient front for other dealers, paid by them to face prosecution if evidence of criminal wrongdoing ever does come to light? But what if ID3 never was in possession of stolen property? What is the offence then? Has ID3 now disappeared, leaving a phoney paper trail in his (or her) wake?

Hobby Lobby wire-transferred money to ID1, ID2, UAED and two other unnamed individuals. Assuming for the moment that the purchased material was stolen and trafficked from Iraq sometime during the 1990s or 2000s, which seems most likely, these five people must be the principal actors in what was an organised criminal conspiracy, moving stolen property through a complicated operation of smoke and mirrors, with at least one paid scapegoat, warehousing facilities, access to material moving out of Iraq, and thus presumably from other countries too.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has established that during the years 2002-2012 artifacts from throughout the Middle East were being smuggled through the UAE via London or another European country to Israel, where they could be sold legally as non-Israeli cultural property and receive a valid Israeli export licence. The IAA successfully lobbied for a change in Israeli customs law enacted in 2012 that now requires all imported cultural objects to be accompanied by legitimate export documentation from the appropriate country of origin. The IAA believes this new law has ended the trade through the UAE to Israel. The conspiracy documented here between two Israeli dealers, a UAE dealer, and two other unnamed individuals looks to have been part of this larger operation, with the material shipped directly to the US instead of through London to Israel. The IAA’s knowledge of this operation suggests it would have relevant information about the various actors, but not that any offence would have been committed inside Israel itself. Perhaps the relevant jurisdiction for a criminal prosecution would be the UAE, provided the present whereabouts of the potential offenders are known, which again is not certain. Perhaps a joint investigation between Israel, Iraq, the UAE and the US would result in some convictions, but such collaboration seems highly unlikely in the present political circumstances. In other words, the likely perpetrators of any criminal acts involved in acquiring and selling Iraqi artifacts to Hobby Lobby seem safely immune from any law enforcement response.

Individual innocence but collective guilt?

What about Hobby Lobby? If the acquired artifacts could be shown to have been stolen from Iraq (which again I emphasise has not yet happened), would the President or any other officer or employee of Hobby Lobby be guilty of receiving stolen property? From what is known, the answer is likely no. As a hypothetical, two things look to insulate the President from any knowledge or understanding that the acquired material was stolen. First, there is the provenance document from ID3, which documents the material outside of Iraq since the 1960s or earlier and also demonstrates at least a minimum exercise of due diligence on the part of Hobby Lobby. Second, there was the unexplained and perhaps even derelict decision of the In-house Counsel not to communicate to the President the warnings of the outside legal Expert. Perhaps the President should have been more active in investigating provenance himself. The judge in the Frederick Schultz case ruled that conscious avoidance of knowledge is no defence, but that ruling was made with regard to Schultz, who was an experienced and knowledgeable antiquities dealer. In 2010 the Hobby Lobby President was anything but an experienced antiquities dealer, and it would be easier to construe any inaction on his part as arising out of a naïve reliance upon the expertise of those around him rather than as conscious avoidance of knowledge.

What about those around him? The failure of In-house Counsel to communicate the warnings of the outside Expert remains inexplicable and not much more can be said about it, although he or she never took possession of any material. The role of the Consultant is more interesting though. The Consultant was being paid by Hobby Lobby for his or her expertise, and Hobby Lobby might legitimately expect that expertise to include knowledge of the legal requirements of acquiring Iraqi cultural property and the necessary due diligence when making such an acquisition. The Consultant of course was not acquiring the material for himself, simply offering what turned out to be bad advice, bad advice that ultimately cost Hobby Lobby $3 million. It will be interesting to see whether Hobby Lobby tries through civil action to recover some of that money from the Consultant. But the emerging picture of the Hobby Lobby acquisition is one of individual decisions building towards a collective or institutional decision to acquire what still might prove to be stolen material. It has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated white-collar operation aimed at separating dishonest action from intent, but might instead just be the work of a bunch of bumblers. In this case, it does look to have been the work of a bunch of bumblers – innocent bumblers. Going forward, the agreement quite rightly stipulates the need for a training-backed acquisitions policy. One not so obvious consequence of this stipulation is that the bumblers defence will no longer apply.

Should we be thinking about tax?

Rick St. Hilaire emphasises that the $3 million forfeiture is exactly what it says it is – a forfeiture and not a fine. Forfeitable proceeds generated by the customs violations. Rick cannot identify the source of those proceeds, but talk of proceeds does inevitably turn the mind to thoughts of tax. Commenting on the agreement, a spokesperson for the Museum of the Bible denied the museum had anything to do with the case, thereby drawing attention to what might be a significant material separation between the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible. The Green Collection was established in 2009 and by 2010 was said to be using Hobby Lobby money for acquisitions, a fact confirmed in the July complaint being discussed here. Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation. The Museum of the Bible was established as a non-profit in 2010. It claims on its website to hold thousands of objects under agreement with the Green Collection, though does not ay on what terms. So, the question almost asks itself: what exactly is the nature of the agreement under which the non-profit museum holds material from the for-profit corporation. Could there possibly be a tax consideration in there for Hobby Lobby, and is that what is reflected in the $3 million forfeiture? Rick is certainly thinking that way.

A final thought

Finally, it is worth reflecting on Hobby Lobby’s commitment to implementing an antiquities policy in accordance with the AAMD’s Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art. Guideline III(G) requires that a museum should:

promptly publish acquisitions of archaeological materials and ancient art, in electronic form, including an image of the Work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance, thus making this information readily available to all interested parties.

Guideline III(H) requires for objects acquired without a documented pre-1970 provenance that a museum must:

post on the AAMD object registry an image of the Work (or representative images in the case of groups of objects) and its provenance as well as an explanation of why the acquisition of the Work is consistent with Section F above.

The Green Collection used to claim to possess ‘One of the largest collections of cuneiform tablets in North America’, ‘An array of biblical, classical, and documentary texts on papyrus including several previously unpublished New Testament fragments’, and ‘The second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, all of which are unpublished’. That is a lot of material with potentially dubious provenances. Will the AAMD registry be up to the task, or will Hobby Lobby be forced to construct its own registry? We must wait and see.

 

 

 

 

Christie’s says: ‘Bigger is generally better’!

What determines the price of an antiquity? Its quality, measured by its artistic or art historical importance, or its provenance? And if it is provenance, is it the prestige and reputation of a previous owner that adds most to price, or evidence that the antiquity has been in circulation long enough to have passed a legal or ethical threshold of acceptable ownership? Recent received wisdom is that antiquities with a provenance stretching back to before 1970 command a price premium, 1970 being the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The idea of a pre-1970 price premium has gained traction since 2008, when the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted 1970 as a provenance threshold for determining the acceptability of an acquisition. Going forward, collectors wanting to gift or bequest antiquities to museums would need to be careful about this 1970 threshold, and make their purchasing decisions accordingly. Over time, this accumulating customer preference for a pre-1970 provenance would promote a market in well-provenanced antiquities and suppress the market in recently stolen and illegally-traded ones, something I have called autoregulation. Or at least, that is how the argument goes. Reliable statistics making the case for provenance one way or another are hard to come by.

What do art market professionals themselves have to say on the subject? During the run-up to its 25 April 2017 New York Antiquities sale, Christie’s specialist Laetitia Delaloye offered her thoughts on what determines the price of an antiquity. First and foremost, she said, it is a matter of size – ‘As a rule, larger pieces in good condition will sell for the highest prices, while smaller pieces are more likely to survive and are therefore more common on the market’. Then, obviously perhaps, she also highlighted the importance of condition – the extent to which a piece has been repaired or restored. A signed piece is always good too. For provenance, she believes it is the name or reputation of previous owners that is likely to add ‘significant value’ to a piece, and she did not mention any legal or ethical advantages of a pre-1970 provenance, or any positive effect such a provenance might exert upon price.

Delaloye’s post was prefacing the sale on 25 April of a collection Greek figure-decorated pottery from a ‘Manhattan Private Collection’, which included 15 Attic black-figure vessels. Lot 202, a hydria, had an impeccable provenance that could be traced back to the collection of Reverend John Hamilton-Gray and Elizabeth Caroline Hamilton-Gray, which was sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in 1888. It passed next through the possession of the Pitt Rivers family before moving through Geneva to join the Manhattan collector. Lot 206, a trefoil oinochoe, also had a long provenance, first seen at Drouot in 1903 and featured in several publications since then. Alongside these two pieces with a published provenance that could be traced back to before 1910, lot 207 had been first published in 1962, six vessels had been first published later than 1970, and six had not been published at all.

This first chart plots the maximum dimension of each vessel sold (measured in centimetres) against its realised price (in USD). In graphic confirmation of Delaloye’s belief that ‘bigger is generally better’, there is a strong correlation between size and price. The three largest vessels achieved the three highest prices, and not one had a provenance that could be traced back to before 1970. Size is without doubt the primary determinant of price. On the other hand, there is a suggestion that within their size class the well-provenanced lots 202 and 206 performed better than their more poorly-provenanced fellows. Thus there is evidence here that when corrected for size, so that like is compared to like, a long provenance does indeed carry a price premium. By itself, however, this would not be enough to exert a decisive influence on the market. Auction houses would be keen to sell the highest-price vessels possible, and so would discriminate in favour of size, not provenance.  The Manhattan collector acquired four vessels (lots 205, 207, 215 and 216) from Nicolas Koutoulakis in the 1980s. Koutoulakis has been described as the ‘dean of all antiquities dealers active in the Arab world and beyond’ [1]. He figured centrally on the organigram seized by the Italian Carabinieri in 1995 and his name has been associated with the histories of several illegally-traded antiquities. The discussion of due diligence in article 4(4) of the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects recommends among other things that ‘regard shall be had to all the circumstances of the acquisition, including the character of the parties’. Thus any names of suspect dealers appearing in the provenance of an object should raise red flags, and discourage its purchase, though that does not seem to have happened here. The prices realised by the Koutoulakis vessels were in accordance with their size. They offer further evidence that a questionable provenance does not unduly discourage purchase nor does it have a serious negative impact on price.

[1] Krosney, Herbert, 2006. The Lost Gospel. Washington DC: National Geographic, at page 66.

 

Sotheby’s carries on where it left off?

In 1997, Sotheby’s stopped holding regular antiquities sales in London. The final sale was held in November 1997. Sotheby’s announced its decision had been prompted by the declining profitability of its London operation when compared New York, but it was widely believed the decision owed more to allegations that Sotheby’s was selling trafficked material. Last year, Sotheby’s looks to have revived its London antiquities sales, an indication if any is needed of the increasing importance of London as an antiquities marketplace. This year the company has scheduled for 12 June its sale of ‘Ancient Marbles: Classical Sculpture and Works of Art’.

The ever vigilant Christos Tsirogiannis has discovered in the confiscated archive of Italian dealer Gianfranco Becchina images and documentation that seemingly relate to lot 8 in the forthcoming sale, described as ‘An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele, circa 350-340 BC’. Sotheby’s provides the following provenance:

John Hewett, Bog Farm, Kent, 1960s; New York art market, acquired from the above on 3 November 1980; American private collection; American family trust (Sotheby’s New York, 10 December 2008, lot 28), acquired by the present owner at the above sale.

The stele was also offered at Christie’s London, 24 October 2013, lot 32, but did not sell. John Hewett was a leading antiquities dealer in post-war London, friendly with Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s and advisor to the Sainsbury Collection. He was also friends with collector George Ortiz.

From his research, Christos believes the stele was most likely discovered in Greece, and that it was in Becchina’s possession from 1977 until 1990, when it was sold to George Ortiz, who died in October 2013.

It is noticeable that the name of Gianfranco Becchina, who has been tried in Italy on charges relating to antiquities trafficking, does not appear in the Sotheby’s provenance. Did Sotheby’s choose not to include him, or did they not know about his previous possession of the piece? Either way, there are problems. The proposed sale of the stele calls into question Sotheby’s policies as regards acceptable provenance and appropriate publication of provenance, or else its due diligence procedures when researching provenance.

The Rihani ‘provenance’

In May 2016, I wrote about objects with a Rihani provenance being sold by TimeLine Auctions of London. I have now had time to look more closely at other Rihani objects sold at past TimeLine sales, and the results are unsettling, though hardly surprising.

Ghassan Rihani was a Jordanian citizen and resident who died in 2001. At some point in time, he exported a large collection of antiquities to his daughter who was then resident in London. The official Jordanian authorisation for this export, written in Arabic, is dated 19 September 1988, though the English translation is dated 12 October 1992, so it is thought likely that the export took place sometime after the date of the English translation. As I wrote last May, this export authorisation ‘legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries’, though the Rihani provenance is routinely applied to objects that most likely originated in Iraq, Syria or other neighbouring countries. At best in such cases, it would provide a terminus ante quem – a date before which an object was out of its country of origin. For Iraq, it would post-date United Nations Security Council Resolution of 6 August 1990 which prohibited the trade of illegally-exported Iraqi objects. Thus a Rihani provenance, even if genuine, does not necessarily legitimise an object.

As can be seen, the Jordanian document 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 authorized for export with those now sold in London with a Rihani provenance. From its own records, over the past few years TimeLine has offered for sale 84 objects with a Rihani provenance, including 34 stone cylinder seals, a further 18 stone objects, 6 small metal figurines, 17 pots, and an assortment of other small ceramic objects. So that is a total of 52 stone objects and 6 metal objects. More cylinder seals and metal objects have been sold by Artemission and Ancient and Oriental. The Jordanian authorisation makes no mention of metal objects, and so when the Rihani provenance is attached to a metal object it is demonstrably false. The cylinder seals are problematical too. Yes, they are made of stone, but it is strange that cylinder seals are not specified on the authorisation. In any case, even if it is assumed that every single stone object of the 50 authorised for export was a cylinder seal, it still leaves more than two cylinder seals with a fictitious provenance. In reality, it is probably the case that the Rihani provenance for most if not all of the cylinder seals is false, attached to disguise the sale of material that has most likely been moved illegally out of Iraq or perhaps Syria.

TimeLine itself is not inventing these provenances, nor is it accepting any responsibility for them. As I pointed out last time, its terms and conditions of business include the following small-print statement:

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 the Rihani provenances are being attached to objects before being offered by Timeline, but by whom and at which point in the trading chain? Attaching a false provenance to an illegally-exported object constitutes fraud, an offence which as the Metropolitan Police have shown us is easier to prosecute than theft.

Rihani might be the least of TimeLine’s problems. In its 21 February 2017 sale my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis identified three objects which had passed through the hands of known traffickers, all described with the same provenance as ‘Property of a London gentleman; acquired from a major Mayfair gallery; acquired on the London art market before 2000’. Christos sourced two of the objects to Robin Symes and one to Giacomo Medici.

I pointed last May to the 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), the Harwich Port Authority, and the Art Loss Register (ALR). These days, the CBI and the Harwich Port Authority have been replaced by Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. The AIAD is still there. Among other things, the AIAD’s code of conduct specifies that:

2) The Member agrees to conduct his business at all times with due regard to all pertinent current legislation and with utmost good faith. The Member further agrees to establish the identity of the vendor, that the vendor has legal title to the material and (where applicable) that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws.

4) PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

Timeline’s description on the AIAD website is:

TimeLine Originals offers a selection of genuine ancient coins and antiquities as collectibles and works of art. We supply all periods of ancient coins, antiquities, related accessories and books. We are one of Britain’s leading web-based coin and ancient art galleries. All items are fully researched, guaranteed genuine and sold with an illustrated certificate of authenticity. Absolute discretion and confidentiality assured.

So what is the truth of the matter? Are all objects ‘fully researched’ by TimeLine, as the AIAD description claims, or does in fact TimeLine undertake ‘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’, as its own terms and conditions state. Are all objects ‘guaranteed genuine’ as the AIAD would lead us to believe, or does TimeLine ‘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’. This contradictory information is confusing, more so given that TimeLine’s director is also a director of AIAD, so you would think he would be able to get his story straight. It is a mess.

It is disappointing to find the ALR still openly endorsing TimeLine. Openly endorsing a clearly stated policy of caveat emptor, the sale of poorly-researched material with demonstrably fraudulent use of the Rihani provenance, and the sale of material that has passed through the hands on known traffickers. By allowing its logo to be openly displayed on the TimeLine website, the ALR creates for the nervous customer a mistaken reassurance that everything is above board, when in fact it is a mess. By continuing to associate itself with a mess, the ALR will increasingly come to look like a mess itself.

Licensed for sale?

Phoenix Ancient Art is currently offering for sale two previously unpublished Palmyran funerary reliefs, one depicting a noblewoman and child (no. 6767), the other a woman with her mother (no. 19103). Each relief has the provenance ‘Ex-private collection, Lebanon, collected in the 1960’s’. Nothing is offered to verify this provenance, but if true it gives both pieces a clean bill of health as regards United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199, which prohibits the trade of cultural objects that left Syria after 15 March 2011. Questions of title might arise from the date of export from Syria, which established state ownership of cultural objects in October 1963, but that was a long time ago and presumably since then the ownership trails of the reliefs have been confounded by one or more good faith transactions so that now their private ownership is secure.

Unusually, for one piece, the noblewoman and child (no. 6767), Phoenix has made available pdfs of some relevant provenance documents. They comprise a UK export licence dated July 1997, a translation of the relief’s inscription dated July 2000, an Art Loss Register certificate dated December 2004, and an e-mail from UNESCO dated June 2015 confirming that sale of the relief would not be in contravention of UNSCR 2199. Thus the earliest verified date of the relief’s presence outside Syria is provided by the July 1997 UK export licence, and nothing is offered to support its presence in Lebanon in the 1960s. But leaving Lebanon to one side, the interesting thing about the documentation is what it tells us about the history of trafficking out of Syria and the failure of regulatory measures to exert any kind of control.

The July 1997 UK export licence was issued in compliance with Council Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 of 9 December 1992. But close inspection shows the licence to be a flimsy piece of evidence, as there is nothing to associate it definitively with the relief. The licence describes a ‘Palmyran stone bust of a woman 2nd century AD’, which may or may not be the noblewoman and child, and the descriptive fields provided for object identification have been left blank. Now I am not an expert in customs law, but is an incomplete licence a valid one? Not the fault of Phoenix of course, and in any case the other documents are enough to prove that the noblewoman and child was out of Syria before 2011. The licence does, however, call into question the rigour of the UK licensing authority (which back then was the Department of National Heritage, now Department of Culture, Media and Sport), and perhaps also raises questions about the UK’s concern to fulfil the material intention rather than simply satisfy the appearance of export control.

The presence of the two previously unknown reliefs on the market shows that Palmyra was suffering from theft and trafficking before the outbreak of conflict in 2011, maybe as long ago as the 1960s. The Phoenix reliefs are not alone. In December 2016, Swiss authorities announced the seizure of several objects in Geneva Freeport, including two Palmyra reliefs. The material was said to have reached Switzerland from Qatar sometime between 2009 and 2010. The Art Newspaper reported that a criminal investigation into their import had closed with no convictions. No information was revealed about the identities of the Swiss importer or Qatari exporter. (There is nothing to connect this case with Phoenix Ancient Art).

The provenance documents accompanying the noblewoman and child also throw disturbing light upon the utility of UNSCR 2199 – asking is it fit for purpose? UNSCR 2199 was passed on 12 February 2015, condemning ‘unambiguously the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria’, and prohibiting cross-border trade in objects removed from Syria since 15 March 2011 (the date generally recognised to have marked the start of the civil uprising in Syria that ultimately led to war). This threshold date of March 2011 ignores the fact that Syrian ownership of cultural objects found on its territory was established by its Legislative Decree #222 (the ‘Antiquities Law’) of 26 October 1963. It is anybody’s guess why UNSCR 2199 did not adopt that earlier 1963 date as the appropriate threshold for prohibition, but worries about the unsettling effect of retroactivity upon material already outside Syria and in private ownership cannot be the answer as the specified 2011 date is retroactive in itself. Whatever the reason, UNSCR 2199 cannot be called upon to control the trade of objects that left Syria before October 2011. More worrying is that UNSCR 2199 might actually be used to ‘launder’ objects taken out of Syria between 23 October 1963 and 15 March 2011 by creating the mistaken impression among market participants that such objects are legally in circulation, when in fact lawful ownership would depend upon transactional and jurisdictional histories and would probably need to be established on a case by case basis for each piece.