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Phoenix Ancient Art is currently offering for sale two previously unpublished Palmyran funerary reliefs, one depicting a noblewoman and child (no. 6767), the other a woman with her mother (no. 19103).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.