About Leo McNamee

Leo McNamee earned a BA in Ancient History, Archaeology and French and a M.Phil in Classics from Trinity College.. He was invited to present a section of his thesis, entitled “Colonialism, Looting & Repatriation in Egypt & Peru”, at CRE XI (the 11th annual Current Research in Egyptology conference) at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. Among his other publications is “An Examination of the Iconographic Exchange between Egypt & the Aegean in the Bronze Age”, published in Trowel, University College Dublin’s student archaeology journal. He has conducted his own field research in both Cambodia and Egypt.

How the Illegal Trade of Afghan Antiquities is Funding Terrorism


Spotlight, a weekly presentation of investigative reports from around the world for Link Tv, reported recently on the European art trade. The selling of stolen or smuggled art in Europe has been a problem for as long as the trade has existed. However, the looting of archaeological sites in Afghanistan has now become a major concern. Spotlight reports that the exploitation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is helping to finance terrorism and the Taliban.

The report begins in The Royal Museum of Art & History in Brussels where crates of illicit antiquities are being kept – they had been impounded by customs. Items from looted sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including examples of Nal ceramic art and Buddhist art from the Indus plain, had found their way to Belgium. Artifacts from the 3rd millennium BC, the Islamite period and the Buddhist period, valuing hundreds of thousands of Euro, had all been confiscated. These pieces were allegedly headed for the large antiquities market in Brussels. Belgium is reported to be a centre for illicit antiquities due to its strategic location in Europe, easy access to wealthy dealers and most significantly pieces can be sold without documentation. According to Spotlight, artifacts from freshly looted sites with sand still visible on them can be seen for sale in a city where the EU’s headquarters is based.

Spotlight’s reporters made good use of hidden cameras during their research and one art dealer explains on camera how he knows that certain items have been looted, adding that “it is obvious if a piece comes from Afghanistan it is stolen”. Ancient artifacts quickly become little more than merchandise once they have been looted. Art dealers usually claim that items for sale are legal and have been bought from an old private collection. Another dealer emphasizes the disregard shown for what these artifacts could tell us. He says he does not care where an item comes from and he describes one example as originating in Northern Pakistan which in reality he admits came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.

Another individual admits his source to the reporter, “I have a friend in Afghanistan” he says, ” I trained him, he is an Afghan”. When asked about how they clear customs, he tells us that if it fits in a suitcase no one will stop you. He also tells us that the customs officials in Afghanistan can be bribed if you get caught. The next dealer secretly interviewed for camera tells us he used to go to Afghanistan himself but now his contacts come to him making it much easier- he no longer has to take the risk of being kidnapped. Things are not so easy for a French archaeology team working in the war torn country; the team has to carry weapons and the threat of land mines is a very real danger. Indeed, it is reported that many archaeological sites in Afghanistan look like they have been shelled due to the number of holes dug in the landscape by looters.

Most of the looters are local villagers who give varying reasons for being involved. Some say it is better than doing nothing at home while others tell us they have to put food on the table. Sometimes heavy rain has exposed pottery that has been buried in the soil and it is easily lifted out. One local villager shows the camera a 3,000 year old artifact he had found.

The wider problem of illicit antiquities dealers generally is underlined by one particular individual who would not disclose his sources. He argued, unconvincingly, that “there will come a time when Afghanistan is again rich and powerful and it will buy back its heritage”. This statement completely misses the point that important archaeological context is destroyed when a site is looted therefore limiting what a piece can tell us about the past. Unfortunately, stolen art does not appear to be a priority for the police or the legal system in Belgium or Holland. Spotlight speculates that powerful public figures and aristocracy are involved in the illegal art trade and so authorities cannot dig too deep.

The FBI and Interpol have linked the antiquities trade to terrorist organizations; 5 billion dollars of stolen antiquities is traded each year with a large proportion of this allegedly funding terrorists. For example, Mohamed Atta, who flew an aeroplane into the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, was known to have financed, or intended to finance, his operations by trading stolen Afghan art in Germany. It was revealed in 2005 by Der Spiegel (a German magazine) that Atta had visited an art professor in Germany in the early part of 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had reportedly brought with him numerous pieces of stolen art and wanted to know where he could sell it; his reason for wanting to sell the collection was that he intended to buy an aeroplane.

The Taliban are reportedly funded by the sale of heroin and illicit antiquities and this is what gives them the resources to continue a war. One local villager describes how the Taliban would come and dig tunnels into tombs. The locals did not know what they had found but the Taliban had stayed digging for over a month. They then went house to house confiscating what the villagers had previously found. Sites such as these were looted over and over again by locals once the Taliban had left (see above photograph; taken from Spotlight).

Local Afghan dealers photograph their merchandise and send them to potential buyers to generate interest. Pilots and government officials are allegedly bribed and illicit antiquities are smuggled together with heroin. Customs officials in Brussels do not have the expertise to recognize looted items and have to call embassy officials if they find something suspicious; airport security can not be expected to recognize all world art. One dealer tells the report that shipping an illegal artifact can cost 500-800 Euro in bribes but this is all included in the selling price. The UNESCO treaty of 1970 was meant to make it more difficult to sell looted pieces but it is proving very hard to establish that a phantom dealer who died 30 years ago and whose collection is now for sale did not actually ever exist. It is reportedly still business as usual in many countries that ratified the treaty long ago.

The Penn Museum & Robert Hecht Jr.

Tom Avril, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports this month on 24 pieces of gold from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The items in question, including ear rings, neck laces and brooches, were purchased over 40 years ago by the museum from a Philadelphia antiquities dealer; they were not accompanied by any documentation of their origin and it seemed likely the gold had been looted.
The Penn Museum was founded in 1887 and most of its collection was acquired through archaeological expeditions. In 1966 George Allen, of Hesperia Art, approached the museum with an opportunity to purchase a collection of gold that he said was most likely from ancient Troy. The items were similar in style to gold found by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, in Turkey, at a site he believed to be Homer’s Troy. However, this collection had disappeared during WW II. The Penn Museum agreed to buy the treasures despite having misgivings; Penn curator Rodney Young acknowledged that the items had probably been looted. The items went on display in the museum with no information about them available until 1993, when Schliemann’s collection suddenly resurfaced. Russian officials announced that the gold was in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow; it had been taken from Germany by the Soviet army as war booty.
This announcement renewed interest in the Penn Museum’s Trojan gold. Ernst Pernicka and Hermann Born set about examining both collections to determine where the gold had been mined and whether the two collections belonged together.
Meanwhile, C. Brian Rose, a curator at the Penn, searched the museum’s archives for more information about the golds purchase. George Allen was the antiquities dealer who had sold the museum the gold but he died in 1998. His son remembered that he had an associate named Hecht. Robert E. Hecht Jr. is an antiquities dealer who has been periodically, though never convicted, of selling looted artifacts. He is now 90 years of age and on trial in Rome on charges related to looting. Hecht confirmed that he was the source of the Penn’s Trojan gold; he had purchased the collection from another dealer, George Zakos, who is now dead. Hecht said he did not know if the items had been looted or where they came from.
The analysis of the Penn Museum’s and Schliemann’s gold revealed that both collections did in fact come from the same source. Moreover, a spec of soil on one of the Penn’s pieces revealed it had been buried somewhere under Trojan influence (Turkey, Greece or southeast Europe). Science had provided us with new information despite the fact that the gold had not been properly excavated. This emphasizes how much more could of been learnt if the archaeological context had been in tact.
This story is interesting as it claims the gold collection bought by the Penn Museum came from Robert E. Hecht Jr., a suspected dealer of illicit antiquities. Did the Penn know that the artifacts came from Hecht and that he was believed to have dealt with looted items? Hecht claimed that he had no idea if the gold purchased by the Penn had been illegally excavated. He also claimed the lack of documentation did not deprive the artifacts of important context adding that “the main thing is the beauty of the thing…the Venus de Milo, whether it came from the east side or the west side of the island, doesn’t really change its appeal to the modern world, I think”.
In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, under pressure from Italian authorities, was forced to return an item it had purchased from Hecht in 1972; a painted vessel known as the Euphronios krater. Evidence had been found that it had been looted from a tomb in Italy and through another dealer’s hands before Hecht’s.
Nonetheless, it is important to note the historical context of this purchase by the Penn Museum. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 had not yet been drafted. Indeed, the Penn Museum was the first museum to announce in 1970 that it would no longer acquire undocumented objects, arguing that such acquisitions encouraged the “wholesale destruction of archaeological sites”. Did the Penn Museum sense trouble after dealing with Hecht? Was the museum trying to do the right thing? Or did the Penn realise that displaying artifacts with no genuine provenance would tarnish the museum’s reputation ?
Post your thoughts below…

The Problem With Fake Antiquities

It was recently reported that looting of archaeological sites in parts of Peru had declined due to an increase in the production of cheap fakes. I suggested in a previous post that Peruvian archaeology had found an unusual alley in online auction, sites such as eBay, because local thieves could make more money manufacturing cheap fakes than they could by looting unexcavated sites. However, the production of fakes should not be encouraged as a means to prevent the looting and destruction of cultural heritage. Fakes confuse real history and people are misled. The Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition “Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today” (which is running until April 4, 2010) underlines this point. For example, forgeries of Egyptian antiquities often deceive individuals who do not know what to look for; eager buyers frequently do not have the proper education. Fake Egyptian statues and reliefs, such as that pictured (above left), have flooded the illicit antiquities market. The sandstone on this forgery is tinted with a reddish pigment to give the appearance of old age. The artist has also depicted the crown of Upper Egypt incorrectly – it is supposed to cover the nape of the pharaoh’s neck. Moreover, the carving of the facial features is very rough leading the Royal Ontario Museum to describe it as a “crude and contrived representation”. This example highlights how information is confused when it is manufactured.

The urn pictured (above right) is from Mexico and is also a fake. It is possible to decipher that this is not authentic by its style; thermoluminescence dating is not required. An examination of the motifs shows this to be a fake. The Royal Ontario Museum tells us that “a forger might copy the feathers from one genuine item, the tunic from another and the pedestal from yet another. Though each part seems authentic, the forgers combined them together in ways that don’t make artistic sense”. Fakes of this kind can create a great deal of confusion by mixing styles from different eras or locations.

Finally, it should be noted that while the production of fakes can sometimes discourage local thieves from looting, it does nothing to educate people of the damage caused by looting nor does it reduce the demand for authentic artifacts. As long as collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for authentic antiquities there will always be looters available to steal the most sought after items. Furthermore, an influx of fakes to the market makes it more difficult for border controls to prevent the smuggling of illicit antiquities. An exhibition, “The Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries“, opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 23 January 2010 and runs until 7 Febuary. In this display the Metropolitan Police Service’s Art and Antiquities Unit will showcase some of the investigation methods involved in detecting and and preventing the crime of art forgery.

Ebay & Looting

Peruvian archaeology has found an unusual ally in the battle against looting in the internet and websites such as eBay. This is according to Charles Stanish, a UCLA archaeologist, writing in the June 2009 issue of Archaeology. Stanish has excavated for 25 years at fragile archaeological sites in Peru. It was feared that online auction sites would increase looting as the looter could sell directly to the buyer eliminating costly middlemen. In fact, online auction websites have actually helped reduce looting as the average looter or craftsman can now make more money selling cheap fakes online rather than spend weeks digging for the real thing and running the risk of not finding anything. It is less costly to transport a fake and the risk of arrest is removed. Moreover, workshops churning out cheap fakes and replicas can also produce elaborately detailed fakes which can be so authentic even experts are deceived. Locals can use original ancient moulds, often found during excavations but of no real value themselves, to create exact replicas using clay from original sources and local minerals to make paint for decorating the pottery. The only way to know for sure if a piece is genuine is through thermo-luminescence dating which calculates when the pottery has been fired. But this is expensive for the buyer and many sellers will not offer refunds on pottery that has undergone “destructive” analysis. Ten years ago the ratio of real to fake Peruvian artefacts for sale online was roughly 50:50. It is now thought that only 5% of items are authentic, 30% are fakes and the rest are too difficult to judge from online photographs. This turnaround emphasises how paradoxically online auction sites have helped to combat the trade in illicit antiquities. Also, its not just Peruvian fakes that are flooding the illicit antiquities online market; Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian and Mexican workshops are also producing fakes at a frenetic pace.

To read my thoughts on fakes, please read my follow up article.

Reference: http://www.archaeology.org/0905/etc/insider.html