Laundering phenomena in cultural goods trafficking

The laundering of cultural goods has become such a widespread and insidious phenomenon that it should be a separate discipline unto itself, if only to resolve certain jurisdictional problems. Indeed, cultural goods are often subject to real or fictitious manipulations aimed either at removing or hiding their true origin and provenance or obscuring their illicit exportation to a foreign territory. Both of these actions usually constitute the crime of laundering.

Laundering has recently been sanctioned in many legal systems as a form of criminal conduct, and in the near future these sanctions may receive wider application with respect to cultural property. This application will also be of more practical use to combat the offense of handling (from which laundering most certainly derives), because in many legal systems, the knowledge of the criminal provenance of the received good is required in order to prove the offense of handling. Therefore, it follows that “to turn a blind eye” is not always sufficient to assert a defendant’s criminal responsibility, on the basis of the title of the offense of handling. On the other hand, in order to charge the offense of laundering, it is often sufficient that the defendant have “reasonable grounds to suspect” the illegal provenance of the goods, and that he/she strives to conceal this provenance. Thus, the mens rea (intent) of the offenses in question (handling and laundering) may be different; but the required intent is easier to demonstrate in cases that involve laundering.

Moreover, while in many legal systems the offense of handling can exist only if this crime has a specific crime as its base offense[1]; on the contrary, laundering can be indicted insofar as it is proven that the provenance of the goods is illegal.[2]

Laundering is a useful crime to prosecute, both because, at both a global and European level, many legal instruments such as the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (see list of states party) and the 1990 Strasbourg Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime (see list of states party) offer a series of very strong powers, up to and including the confiscation of the property and/or profits[3]. In addition, due to the exact definition of what constitutes the offense of laundering, the cases in which this offense is perpetrated will be more and more frequent in the future.

In particular, the U.N. Convention’s provisions may prove useful if they are applied to the laundering operations that exist in the antiquities trade. As observed, where cultural property is looted in a source State, stolen, illegally exported abroad or imported using some of the techniques that are described below: the cultural artifact may be defined as property which constitutes the proceeds of a crime, and the Convention requires States Party to establish criminal offenses that penalize the intentional transfer of ownership or concealment of origin of such property (Article 6).[4] States Party are also required to establish measures to enable the seizure of such proceeds of crime, identify and trace property which may qualify as such proceeds (Article 12); respond to requests for confiscation by other State Parties (Article 13); and extradite suspected offenders (Article 16), even where the organized transnational character has not yet been completely established or the defendant has a marginal involvement into a criminal transnational organization. Moreover, according to this Convention, States Party should engage in the widest measures of mutual legal assistance (Article 18), consider conducting joint investigations (Article 19) and other measures of law enforcement cooperation (Article 27), and develop specialist training for law enforcement personnel (Article 29).

Antiquities laundering Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered
SAFE

It now behooves me to underline that, according to a shared experience, antiquities are often chosen by criminals in order to launder the proceeds of their crimes. In fact, there is increasing evidence that drugs barons and other offenders are able to launder their money by taking advantage of the ethical and legal twilight in which the international illicit trade in antiquities operates.[5]

Illicitly acquired cultural goods have even been used in a number of cases to obtain loans. When the loans are not repaid, the works of art end up in the vaults of the lending institution. Thus the objects are not only laundered; they lose their educational-cultural values as well.

In many cases, as Simon Mackenzie has observed, “the illicit market for antiquities operates hand in hand with a perfectly licit market. And traffickers in antiquities often find an established open and legal structure in market countries for selling those goods, which through chains of dealers and action houses operates very effectively to maximize the price which can be obtained for art and antiquities.”[6] This is in sharp contrast with the illicit trade in drugs, where the products for sale and market structures are almost always tainted with illegality. In other words, in the illicit drug trade, there is no need for a process of obscuring the drugs’ country of origin and no need to transform the goods’ ownership history, because the goods themselves are illegal on the supply side, on the demand side, and at every point in between. The same is not necessarily true for the illicit traffic in antiquities, which is handled in ways that are similar to the weapons’ trade, where lawful structures and transactions may be used to clothe illegal dealing. Obviously, as the co-mingling between illicit and licit markets becomes more sophisticated and intertwined, the more difficult will be the investigations that are necessary to prosecute these crimes.

Laundering, as a crime, should occur not only in the light of monetary circumstances, but also when the nature and/or the provenance of a cultural object of illicit acquisition are altered[7]. Let me explain this. Many of the triangulations by which cultural goods are physically transferred abroad[8] (exclusively for the purpose of hiding their true provenance), should be re-examined and condemned in view of the issue under discussion. That is: Laundering. Generally, such triangulations are carried out for the purpose of hiding the illegal provenance and relocating the artistic objects to a foreign jurisdiction, especially where the norms are more permissive, thus permitting the eventual marketing and sale of these objects in markets that offer the highest profits[9].

In fact, cultural goods are often exported to those countries which have not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (see list of states party)[10]. These countries are chosen precisely because, from that location, the goods can be transported again and resurface in States that have ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, with the obvious advantage that the cultural goods will not be subject to the controls and limitations in force in cases of import-export between two countries which have both signed these agreements[11].

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place.

Most countries, acting alone, cannot tackle all the triangulations. And according to the shared experience of those who have tackled this problem in recent years, it is pointless for market countries to impose restrictions if source countries and intermediary countries do not impose similar restrictions, because the market will simply shift from one location to another, and the problem will not be solved.

As Stefano Manacorda has suggested, a multi-national response must be implemented to prevent cultural goods in countries with a stringent export regime from being transported to more liberal regimes, where it is very easy to obtain the required licenses, with few formal checks in place[12].

As Neil Brodie has observed, “on occasion, the licensing system in nations such as the UK has been abused in a different way, when for instance exporters have submitted recently imported antiquities for Waverley judgment,”[13] [14]—in effect, submitting to a more stringent process, with the intention to acquire a false provenance (i.e., to locate the cultural items in Britain for more than 50 years).

In addition, these cultural goods are often illicitly exported to another country that is less interested in such items because of their different cultural significance. Indeed, in the importer country those cultural goods often don’t satisfy the artistic criteria as prescribed by its department of national heritage and the export licensing unit will not object to the granting of a license, which would not be granted by the country of provenance[15].

Obviously, all the licenses so obtained serve to bolster the provenance of cultural items that the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate exportation. In this respect, it has been stressed that government department concerned with export licenses or even tax concessions should check provenance of cultural goods which are submitted to them, therefore informing the country of origin whenever appropriate. While this does happen sometimes, this practice should be implemented internationally.

We must also point out that the laundering process adopted by criminals does not only include concealing or disguising the source, location or movement of cultural property. In fact, another particularly insidious form of conduct has unfortunately become widespread within this sector of criminality.

At times, illicitly excavated archeological objects, even when found intact, are deliberately fragmented, or, if found in fragments, are deliberately not restored. Such conduct, which might at first appear to be against the interests of those who commercialize archeological artifacts, is instead useful to criminals who operate in this field. The exportation is, in fact, easier, because a fragmented object can be hidden more easily; and in general, fragments do not attract attention at customs controls, because little value is attributed to them. Usually, customs officials are not experts and do not appreciate the importance of the artifact fragment, which can be underestimated even by experts[16].

Frequently the fragments are subdivided amongst the various participants of a criminal group. By so doing, the group achieves three results: They split the loot of the illicit activity, and they reinforce the ties that link the members of the conspiracy[17]. On top of that, paradoxically, the criminal organization earns greater profits in economic terms, thereby creating a strong and often extortionist bond with the buyers.

Thus, the purchaser becomes part of a dangerous system of sales of fragments, mostly of vases. Generally the vases are of the highest quality and destined to be recomposed, in part or entirely, within a matter of years. This practice reveals a studied and intentional sales policy on the part of mediators and traffickers, who put only a part of the vase on the market, thus increasing the price of each new fragment that appears, making the piece more complete. At times they are used as promotion for other sales.

The purchase of these fragments, (in tomb-robber’s jargon, the so-called “orphans”[18]) which are re-assembled to complete an object of which the principal part is already in someone’s possession, enables the seller to sell, and the purchaser to acquire, as much of the object as much possible.

In this scenario, the purchaser of such fragmented objects not only avoids suspicion, and resulting criticism that comes from acquiring an important object with an illicit provenance, the purchaser even appears to be meritorious, for contributing to the “rescue” of a cultural object that would otherwise be condemned to disappear. According to this often-repeated justification, such purchasers serve as “repositories of last resort”. But this scenario also involves risk. For one thing, when purchasing cultural artifacts in fragments, it is impossible to know the total price of the object until the final fragment that completes the piece changes hands, at which point the price may be very high indeed. And if the seller is apprehended and a fragment is discovered in the seller’s possession that matches other recently sold fragments, the buyer may be forced to return the still-incomplete item.

It is both obvious and significant that the purchasers of these fragmented objects are not immune to censure[19], since the acquisition of artifact fragments without clear provenance can only come from clandestine excavation. Indeed, the market for legitimate acquisitions offers artifacts that for the most part are complete, with accompanying certification and research.

A similar case of criminal conduct is that in which a stolen painting is cut up so as to create different and apparently distinct works of art. This happens when the dimensions of the painting are large, as for example, in the case of a triptych or an altarpiece.  When the object is composed of several lots, it is easier to sell and produces greater profits. In addition, the different compositions thus created, become an obstacle for the research of the goods, precisely because it is not easy to compare the objects that finally reappear, with photographs of the originals. And it is even more difficult if, as is usually the case, the object has been touched up and restored, thus obscuring the illicit provenance of each portion (experts are at times helped in their investigative research by posture and orientation, in appearance, faces, etc. of the figures depicted, and thereby get an indication of the dismembering of the object).

Another expedient, used by criminals who operate in this field, is to touch up or otherwise disguise a cultural good over certain age and/or monetary limits, thus obscuring its national importance.  In this situation, when the dishonest dealer applies for an export license, the export adviser for the export licensing unit does not object to the granting of a license, because he or she does not believe that the cultural good satisfies one or more of the artistic and/or economic criteria as prescribed by the exporter country or by its department of national heritage.

Amenhotep III dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir
Archaeology Magazine
(Left) sculptured head of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III was dipped in clear plastic and painted to look like tourist souvenir (right) by Tokeley-Parry, and sold in 1993 for $1.2 million

In this regard, we can remember the Schultz’s case discussed before the Southern District Court of New York[20]. The facts of this case are quite interesting[21]. As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has noted, “Frederick Schultz, a New York dealer and president of an ancient art gallery, arranged to purchase smuggled antiquities from a British restorer by the name of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry who reportedly smuggled more than 3,000 antiquities out of Egypt during the early 1990’s. His method was to make the objects look like cheap reproductions by covering them in plastic and then applying gold leaf and black paint.”[22]

After the cultural objects cleared British customs, Tokeley-Parry restored and sold them on the international art market with Schultz’s help. Furthermore, the Tokeley-Parry/Schultz team created fake documentation for the objects in order to have them as originating from an old collection, called the Thomas Alcock Collection, dating from the 1920’s. Labels for the collection were dipped in tea to give them an aged appearance, and Tokeley-Parry also restored some of the items using a method popular in the 1920’s.

These are the facts, and according to U.S. experts the Schultz’s case is important because after this case there seems to be little doubt that ignoring or dismissing patrimony laws of foreign country has to be deemed reckless and information about where and when the object originated, knowledge of the scope, effective dates and enforcement history of applicable foreign patrimony laws are no longer optional but necessary to avoid U.S. federal criminal liability.

In the civil context, the Schultz case has additional implications. According to a shared opinion, “title to undocumented antiquities can be subject to challenge by countries of origin in civil cases brought in the United States basing ownership on patrimony laws: The burden on a source country will be to prove ownership via the patrimony law and removal of the State owned object across its border after the ownership vesting statute was enacted. No proof of guilty knowledge of the law will be required.”[23], [24]

Thus, as assessed, countries of origin will now have ample incentive to quickly pass or amend and effectively enforce patrimony laws to ensure that they will be recognized by U.S. courts. In fact, as the Schultz case indicates, the U.S. Court will not consider foreign ownership laws to be enforceable if the laws are judged to be void due to vagueness, i.e. confusing, unclear and ineffective[25].

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site”. In addition, the problem of tracing cultural items to the modern day borders of a source country for civil restitution (generally speaking, it is not sufficient to say that they are State-owned because they come, for instance, from the Mediterranean area) can be successfully overcome, says DeAngelis, “if bordering countries agree to cooperate on such recovery efforts and seek return of objects as joint plaintiff.”[26]

Summing up, in the Schultz case, the U.S. Court believes that, when necessary, their Courts can evaluate foreign patrimony laws to determine whether their language and enforcement indicate they are intended to assert true ownership of certain cultural property, and thus create a barrier to the importation of cultural goods owned by a foreign government: Because there is no reason that property stolen from a foreign country should be treated any differently from property stolen from a foreign museum or private home[27].

In other words, in the Schultz case the U.S. Court applied the same principles as established by Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hague, 449 U.S. 302 (1980) decision, which says “for a State’s substantive law to be selected in a constitutionally permissible manner, that State must have a significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts, creating State interests, such that choice of its law is neither arbitrary nor fundamentally unfair”. Obviously, the cultural heritage of a given nation involves contacts that are as strong and significant to the State of origin as required by this case law. Recently, these same principles have been asserted by the Supreme Court of Appeal of England and Wales in the case Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd.

Let’s take a moment to look at other types of laundering operations. One example involves the export of cultural goods, hiding their true context, by belonging to a collection[28]. In many jurisdictions, the export licensing unit will deny a license, regardless of the importance of a particular item, if the artifact is presented as having a relationship with other goods.

Another type of laundering occurs when a cultural item is fictitiously exported in place of a similar object for which export license was obtained. This activity is especially common with respect to serial goods, such as coins or prints.

Other times, to bolster the legitimate provenance of a cultural item which the criminals know full well to be of illegitimate acquisition, the owner may request notification from data banks, such as IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) in New York, or the ALR (Art Loss Register) in London, which document stolen works of art in their archives. Obviously, if an archaeological artifact is the fruit of clandestine excavations, the resulting research on its criminal provenance will be negative, since it can never have been registered as a stolen object. Even so, by obtaining an IFAR or ALR report, the dishonest dealer (including those who have been found to be in possession of photographs of the excavation[29]), can always show his/her buyer[30] the certificate. And should he/she be questioned, he will have the excuse and documents to sustain his good faith, since he/she had done all that was apparently “possible” to certify the licit provenance of the cultural object. In addition, the notification from data banks will report all the details given by the criminals and, as a result, the forged provenance of the artifact will appear to have been validated.

As Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis has observed, “source countries should be increasing their efforts to document antiquities within their borders, including those legally excavated, in private hands, and in public collections, so that every undocumented object removed after the enactment of the patrimony law may be identified by default to have been looted from an unexcavated site.”

Frequently, that same delinquency “introduces” a cultural good fictitiously into a private collection in order to confer upon it a legitimate provenance and thereby conceal its recent discovery in a clandestine excavation. This occurs especially with respect to serial goods (such as coins), or with collections that are not entirely documented. And one cannot forget that authentic artifacts can be substituted by fake ones, and that such collections can be quickly dismembered following the sale of the most valuable pieces. One should also not underestimate how large these collections can become during the very short time before the selling begins.

This form of laundering is the direct result of past museum policies. For instance, in 1996, shortly after the J. Paul Getty Museum passed a new policy, it acquired a large collection of more than 300 objects of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan origin from a private collector, and as Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis observed, “provenience for 90 percent of these objects was unknown. The documentation relied upon by the Getty was the museum’s own catalog from a loaned exhibition that it held a few years earlier.”[31]

As assessed, critics (and a penal prosecution in Italy) accused the Getty of manufacturing documentation to satisfy its own requirements for provenance and thereby tacitly condoning the flow of illegal antiquities[32].

However, in the penal context to maintain that the cultural goods themselves come from that collection, whereas they in fact never belonged to that universitas,[33] can in itself be considered and punished as an act of laundering.

Another safety measure that the dealer takes is that he/she loans the item to a museum, for a certain period of time. Once the loan period is over, the dealer can say that no claims have been raised by any third party during that time (the statute of limitation is usually very short because the item has been on public exhibition). This type of “ancient art laundering” was a successful practice among museums for many years, and criminals on purpose loaned the items in favour of less-known museums, before selling them to major museums.

To put an object up for auction for the purpose of selling it and repurchasing it through a front[34] or through a company of convenience is a fictitious act, aimed exclusively at “laundering” the object – the primary objective[35]- and thus attributing to it a value that is inherently false and arbitrary. Such conduct is particularly insidious, because it can alter the market value of an entire class of objects[36] (values of individual objects are often uncertain and are often determined by comparison with other works of equal cultural interest), or because, for acquisitions made on the “overt market”, the so called time limit (that is, the time one has to take action to claim the object) is very short.

In this respect, it must be stressed that the most important auctioneers currently have due diligence programs in place that should minimize the risk of selling looted art. As Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess have observed, “Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Austria’s Dorotheum have adopted such procedures, at least formally. But these firms remain the exception in the art market. Many smaller houses and private dealers, lacking either interest or resources, have yet to implement such checks on provenance. How to close the ‘due diligence gap’ remains an important question for art market professionals, governments and others, since many cultural items are not of high value and thus do not necessarily move through Sotheby’s, Christie’s or other premier auctioneers or dealers.”[37]

We must also stress that, at present, many of the codes of conduct concerning auction houses’ dealings require them to establish “to the best of their ability, that the objects they are dealing with or putting on sale are not stolen from excavations”. Obviously it is not possible to make good on this pledge: (a) when their sale catalogs provide no certain provenance, and only vague indications of ownership for many pieces; (b) when the items appear documented in Polaroids or other pictures depicting them just after excavation and, anyway, neither in scientific contexts nor referable to reputable collectors contexts; (c) when the same goods have never been ever studied, catalogued and inventoried by competent Authorities in their country of origin, which should be the case for objects discovered at authorized excavations, and (d) when their export has never been authorized by the Authorities of the country of origin (in this respect, the lack of suitable certification adds argument to their illicit trading).

Abiding by these codes of conduct, the dealers and/or auction house staff should be certain of the licit circulation and have no doubt about provenance: Indeed, according to their own ethical codes, these firms must have positive evidence of clear, genuine and licit provenance in order to vaunt good faith that is necessary to proper dealing. Yet this is frequently not taken into consideration by dealers and staff of many important and/or small auction’s houses. With proper international checks, the required information could be verified and “bad actors” prohibited and punished.

All the above leads us to conclude, without hesitation, that targeted regulation of the crime of laundering is indispensable, particularly when such criminal conduct trades in cultural goods, where laundering mechanisms and maneuvers are so numerous and the profit potential is so high, The establishment of an independent, international anti-laundering agency to monitor the art trade is a method that national and international law enforcement agencies would do well to consider.

Finally, as noted in the preparatory agenda proposing a model law for the protection cultural property to the UNIDROIT Governing Council, “many of the above mentioned laundering maneuvers and mechanisms take place thanks to the permeability of inter-state borders, to the greater fluidity of communications and to the emergence of new markets and purchasers.”[38] In other words, among the many costs and benefits of globalization and trade liberalization, we should count the global trade in cultural goods, i.e., an issue of ever increasing proportion.


[1] For instance, the English legal system acknowledges the offense of handling only if the provisions of the Theft Act are infringed.

[2] Both laundering and handling require that a crime be committed before receiving the goods. But the base or predicate offense (i.e., the crime committed prior) can vary. For example, in order to commit the crime of handling, the goods must come from theft (predicate offense); but in order to commit the crime of laundering, the predicate or base offense can involve any one of variety of crimes. One thing that laundering and handling have in common: both crimes are committed only when a person deals with goods that are the proceeds of other crimes.

[3]Often the cultural object is the profit of other crimes. In fact, they may, for instance, come from illegal excavation, clandestine exportation and so on.

[5] See the introduction by Stefano Manacorda to “Organized Crime in Art and Antiquities, edited by Stefano Manacorda. Selected papers and contributions from the International Conference on “Organized crime in art and antiquities” Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy — 12-14 December 2008″ See also “The Eleventh United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Bangkok, 18-25 April 2005: report prepared by the Secretariat (United Nations publication, Sales No.E.05.IV.7),” chap.1, resolution 1; endorsed by the General Assembly in its Resolution 60/177 of 16th December 2005. 

[7] In this regard, many countries seem to punish every laundering manoeuvre.

[8] I have been investigating a case in which a statue of an Artemis was first exported from Italy towards Japan; then this same statue resurfaced in Switzerland where a very well-known dealer sent this archaeological item to the U.S. market. Asked to return the object, the Swiss dealer was so bold that he/she firstly surrendered a fake, but in the end he/she contributed to return the object.

[9] Up until recently, customary routes for Italian cultural goods have been Italy-Switzerland, Switzerland-London and London-U.S.-Japan-Australia or elsewhere.   

[10] As in the past Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

[11] The red flag theory discussed in the Michael H. Steinardt case, before the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. See the facts, procedural history and decision of the United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold 991 F. Supp. 222 of November 11, 1997; decision upheld and reasoning substantially affirmed (184 F. 3d 131 -2nd Cir. 1999) by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The defendant in-rem in this case, the “antique platter of gold,” was a circa 400 BC libation bowl of Sicilian origin known as a phiale mesomphalos. In its decision, the U.S. Court stressed that concealment or misrepresentation is material if it has a natural tendency to influence or was capable of influencing the decision of the decision-making body to which it was addressed. In other words, “a false statement is material if it has the potential significantly to affect the integrity of operation of the importation process as a whole, and neither actual causation nor harm to the government need to be demonstrated. For a trier of fact to determine whether a statement can significantly affect the importation process, it need ask only whether a reasonable customs official would consider the statements to be significant to the exercise of his/her official duties”. For instance, the designation of Switzerland as the phiale’s country of origin and the listing of its value of $ 250,000 were objectively false and relevant. 

[12] As Stefano Manacorda has observed, “the diversity of penalties applied between authorities and jurisdictions can lead to ‘forum shopping’ among the most cunning criminals, who adopt strategies to avoid prosecution and administrative entanglements in those States and jurisdictions known for the severity of their penal responses.” See Stefano Manacorda, “Criminal Law Protection of Cultural Heritage: An International Perspective,” in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell, page 23.

[13] See “The Licensing of Archaeological Material for Export from the United Kingdom,” a memorandum submitted by Dr. Neil Brodie to the UK Parliament, 16 May 2000.

[14] A Waverley judgment is named after Viscount Waverley, who served as Chairman of a 1950 Committee that was appointed to consider and advise on export policy. As result of the Waverley Report published in 1952, two separate categories of material are recognised by the licensing system: Material which has been in the UK for over 50 years and material imported within that time. Thus, according to UK experts, a distinction is drawn between what is considered to be part of the national heritage (material in Britain for more than 50 years) and what is considered to be traded material (in Britain for less than 50 years). The operation of the licensing system pays great attention to the first category. Indeed, the system is designed specifically to protect the national heritage so that many objects will be reviewed individually. Vice versa, for the second category, the traded material, the requirements are less stringent and licenses are granted more or less automatically. A commentator has observed that the system functions to protect the heritage of the United Kingdom while at the same time allowing the British economy to benefit from marketing the heritage of others.     

[15] During my investigations I also ascertained that criminals import into another country a fake work of art they want to pass as genuine. In these cases criminals are relying on the inexperience of the persons deputed to the checks, as their field of expertise is often only on national works of art.

[16] According to a shared experience, customs officers are estimated to lack professional training in art history, being often unable to identify an ancient artifact and, particularly, to indicate the limit of the legal age of artifacts, as compared to an obviously precarious artistic value. On the contrary, criminals are fully aware of the cultural good values in their possession, and during a search done in Paris in the apartment of a famous dealer I have found a fragment well wrapped in a little leather bag, purpose-built for this fragment.

[17] I and my experts have been able at tracing the criminal links of a conspiracy thanks to the documents collected, and through the fragments and their sub-division amongst the various participants.

[18] The main part or core of an archaeological good (the “mother”) is elsewhere and the fragments are orphans of it. In the past this jargon has been so common that during my investigation I had the chance to see that this same expression had been used in a letter written by a famous U.S. museum curator to a colleague of him/her. He/she claimed that, having firstly acquired a part of a kilix, he/she was the only one entitled to buy all the other orphans (fragments) that were about to appear on the market. 

[19] Once, a curator of a museum said to me and I quote verbatim: “… It is true that I come to realize that we were blackmailed, I mean people knew they had a fragment, and that was an extremely unpleasant part”. However, the curator could have broken his or her ties with criminality denouncing the illicit affairs. In this regard, “… no effort should be spared to avoid giving in to ransom demands, so as to discourage the theft or illegal appropriation of movable cultural property carried out for that purpose. The persons or institutions concerned should consider ways and means of making this policy known” (see, the UNESCO Recommendation adopted in Paris on 28 November 1978).  

[20] See, U.S. v. Frederick Schultz, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit 333 F. 3d 393; 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 12834.

[21] However, the facts of this case are not unusual. In fact, I have recently ascertained that two paintings of a famous Maestro had been covered with a yellowish patina, in order to deceive the Officials for the Italian export licensing unit.

[23] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, pages 6 and 7.

[24] In Ratzlaf v. United States (510 U.S. 135, 149, 126 L. Ed. 2d 615, 114 S. Ct. 655, 1994) the U.S. Court relied on the venerable principle that ignorance of the law is no defence to a criminal charge. 

[25] See, the case of Government of Peru v. Benjamin Johnson. In this case, as said, the Court suggested that Peru’s statutes could be interpreted to be export restrictions, not assertions of title.

[26] Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 7

[27] As assessed by presiding U.S. district judge Jed S. Rakoff in his ruling of the Schultz’s case: “If an American conspired to steal the Liberty Bell and sell it to a foreign collector of artifacts, there is no question he could be prosecuted … the same is true when … a United States resident conspires to steal Egypt’s antiquities”.   

[28] If a cultural good is presented at the export control hiding such a provenance (for instance, from a collection), and then this good is found in another country, there are some who do not see this object as being illicitly traded, and restrictions such as non-alienability or trust have often not been enforced in a foreign jurisdiction.   

[29] Once, I seized some frescos and their photos which show two walls of a room pertaining to a rich Roman villa of the Vesuvian areas, of Pompei or Herculaneum, or of those sites which disappeared with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. According to the opinion of my experts, they were undoubtedly photographed during a phase of the clandestine dig. That we are looking at an illegal dig is obvious from an examination of the photos which show the conditions of the dig itself: The site of an archaeological excavation carried out by specialist technicians has very different characteristics from those shown in the photographs in question, in which the removal of the earth to free the frescoes is being conducted without any scientific criterion whatsoever, but instead with the one and only aim of being able to remove the paintings as quickly as possible. The photographs themselves also show beyond doubt that we are dealing with a room of a Vesuvian villa; the typology of the frescoes themselves is indisputably Campanian, but also because the pile of earth mixed with lapillae (clearly visible in the photos) is exclusively typical of the Vesuvian areas. Accordingly, the request to the Art Loss Register with regard to the frescoes in question was fictitiously submitted by the dealers; since these came from an illegal dig (circumstance of which all the players were well aware thanks to the photographs), they could never have been amongst listed stolen art works.

[30] Often museums, especially if one considers their past policies.

[31] See Ildiko Pogany DeAngelis, ibid, page 15. 

[32] As observed, at the end, the Getty Museum suffered not only a moral loss, but a financial one, even if the objects had not been totally purchased but partially donated, due to the costs expended to acquire, curate, conserve, and maintain objects in its collection.

[33] Universitas, meaning “a collection of goods.

[34] As assessed, traders often try to take lower risks and they do not buy the item from the liaison dealer but they take it on consignment.         

[35] During my investigations I have found a little page in the premises of a well-known dealer I searched. It reads: “The amphora we bought at auction is not ours!” (the word “ours” was underlined).

[36] The high market value of looted art can induce the criminality to do their “best” in order to excavate more and more archaeological items. In this regard, the museum curators have been the purchasers who often paid more, either because sometimes they split with dealers the illicit gain; or because they had to pay the silence of dishonest dealers; or because the laundering operations called more and more intermediaries into the affairs, thus increasing the prices.

[37] See Thomas Kline and L. Eden Burgess, “Art Market,” in The 2010 Yearbook of Cultural Property Law, page 120.

[38] See “Item No. 9 on the agenda: Triennial Work Programme 2009-2011; Proposal for a Model Law on the Protection of Cultural Property (submitted by the Secretariat)” at the 88th session of the UNIDROIT Governing Council in Rome, 2-23 April 2009, page 6.


Edited by Paul Kunkel, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone.

Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop

On the 12th November, I attended a very special workshop, held at the stunning Stamford Plaza hotel in Brisbane, Australia. Hosted by both CEPS (Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security) and the ASMF (Australian Security Medals Foundation), it brought together a number of regional and international experts from academia, law enforcement, INTERPOL, police forces, and private security businesses.

With the aim of “exploring a range of issues relating to the nature and extent of illicit trade/intellectual property crime and law enforcement,” this post will summarize proceedings and, most importantly, explore connections between these areas of criminological practice and the seemingly “tangential” study of the antiquities trade. As was emphasized by the first presenter (Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix, AZ police), we are all part of the same over-arching “shadow economy.”

The workshop opened with what was, to me, a very fitting analogy. Mr. Rod Cowan, of the private security firm SecurityIsYourBusiness, began by poignantly revealing that he had stage 4 cancer! Why? Well, because as he himself has been experiencing, with diligence, treatment, and intervention, one can bolster their immune system to defeat, or at least keep in check, a ‘sickness’ even that severe.

By extension, he related that at an INTERPOL conference on organized crime/security last year, he just so happened to be the only Australian in the room, and when a map highlighting which countries had the most recent cases/highest rates of theft, Australia didn’t even appear.

“Either this means that Australia is doing everything right….or that people aren’t paying nearly enough attention.”

The take home message here, worth sharing, was that those of us gathered in the room (security specialists, academics, lawyers, criminologists, INTERPOL legal reps, former undercover agents, etc.) should see ourselves as “society’s immune system,” there to monitor and expose the illicit “shadow economies” that are costing many industries untold amounts of money, as well as jeopardizing the world’s cultural and biological heritage. Although the focus of the workshop was the Australian region, the lessons and information shared have worldwide applications.

shadow economy, Phoenix PD Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix Police Department, discussing the “shadow economy in counterfeit goods.

To begin with, Srgt. David Lake of the Phoenix PD gave an informative talk on what he called ‘economics based policing’, and how the aforementioned “shadow economy” affects us all. Regardless of the type of illicit activity being encountered, it was stressed that we must find new ways to respond as fast as perpetrators (if ever possible…), and react before violence and massive increases in ill-gotten gains reveal themselves as “symptoms.” Giving examples from the US/Mexico border, he detailed how cartels are moving into the counterfeit goods racket (organized commercial crime), with profits as much as 600% greater than the already staggering amounts gained from narco-trafficking.

If the legitimate economy holds that the customer is always right, then the task of all criminal syndicates from the demand end is to divert them (us) into participating in this “shadow economy.” What was so illuminating to me is that his talk, and others, brought the perspectives of once/former business owners and police to mind.

What does the shadow economy comprise of? Everything from untaxed labor to kickbacks, counterfeits, IP theft, fraud, e-crime, drugs, illegal gambling, the sex trade, and of course wildlife and antiquities.

As a store owner turned cop, he allegedly understood all about the logistics required to move products in bulk onto the licit market, and thus made it abundantly clear that criminals who could, for example, move 18,000 stolen lobsters in 12 hours in the US, or collectively rob 3.5 trains/day in Mexico, would already have markets identified.  Thus, it is crucial, he emphasized, that we “stop it at the marketplace,” as “once it’s out of legitimate supply, we’ve lost…”

People decide to traffic in stolen goods for a number of reasons, primarily involving feeling overly regulated or taxed by the rules of the licit market. In Australia, according to Srgt. Lake, the shadow economy now exceeds 15%, and is substantially greater in the US, Mexico, parts of Europe, etc. Apparently, if all counterfeit production was stopped globally, the economies of 60 countries (!) would collapse. From the law enforcement side, better understanding and monitoring “market re-entry points” at local and global scales is vital.

Mr. Philip Flogel, of NSW Fair Trading continued discussions around themes of the effects of the “shadow economy” on the legitimate economy and consumer safety, by initially discussing the synthetic drug market and that, even though all such products are currently banned under fair trade laws and the number of cases in hard-hit towns like Newcastle are down, forensic toxicologists can barely keep up with identification. Other examples of more local scams and crimes that exploit consumer demand via the creation of false markets include a recent rash of “driveway repair” scams in the US and elsewhere, internet fraud (suggestion to antiquities trade scholars: if a dealer ONLY has online purchase available, take special notice), and of course, counterfeit clothing.

As Mr. Flogel, and the next speaker, Mr. Ken Taylor (Trademark Investigation Services), profits from counterfeit brand-name clothing appear to be skyrocketing in Australia and beyond, despite numerous laws in place, and much media attention when raids are conducted on market stalls. The hiring of private security companies to investigate such cases has markedly increased over the last few years, in part due to Australian legislation that allows anything with a declared value of $1,000 or less automatically gets through Customs with no GST (unless the package is visibly dripping blood or ticking, perhaps…). In the case of counterfeit clothing, make-up, etc., storage space needs for goods seized can be substantial, and (alas) cases can take years to reach trial. Both speakers on this topic stressed that much more cooperation is needed between investigators, security firms, and law enforcement on all scales.

Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009. Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009.

Following on from this, Ms. Julie Ayling, from RegNet, at the ANU, gave an interesting talk on what’s called “TEC,” or Transnational Environmental Crime. This can involve everything from illicit polluting, timber trafficking, illegal fishing, and of course the wildlife trade; with a combined estimate of $31 billion/yr (?) Hard to know, really…

Like counterfeiting or the antiquities trade, TEC also represents a “poly-crime,” i.e. run by organized and well-financed criminal networks who also dabble in other trades (e.g. Irish groups robbing rhino horns from museums, dealing drugs, doing driveway repaving scams, etc.).

As was pointed out, TEC is an “economic” crime as well, given how difficult it has been to prevent poaching from the supply end, lingering corruption issues, and the losses to “source” countries that suffer diminished chances for wildlife tourism. Parallels between this and potential lost cultural heritage/archaeology tourism revenues in countries affected by the antiquities trade are readily apparent.

The final speaker during the morning session was Dr. Rick Brown, of the Australian Institute of Criminology. His talk provided a very unique perspective; presenting the findings of qualitative and quantitative research investigating small stolen goods markets “at street level” using qualitative and quantitative data solicited from 3-4,000 detainees for drug offences in four cities. The most important information to come from this data, in my opinion, are that we must not underestimate the role of informal networks and dealers themselves when it comes to moving small-scale portable goods (whether that be antiquities or burgled computers).

Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology: Don’t underestimate the role of informal networks!

In this study, locally available drugs in each city allegedly decreased over time, but results suggested that users who steal were having to steal more and convert more to cash within their own informal networks to afford their habit.

Here, demand reduction in one area (drugs) does not necessarily mean less crime or effective outreach.

This seems to be mirrored in the antiquities trade, where increased apprehension and confiscation of larger pieces has begun to translate into greater due diligence performed by all market actors, but the trade in smaller items along more informal networks remains confounding.

The final three speakers of the day consisted of Prof. Duncan Chappell (Faculty of Law, University of Sydney), Ms. Rosella Mangion (INTERPOL legal rep), and Sir Ronnie Flanagan (former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, now advisee to British American Tobacco over the illicit cigarette trade). Prof. Chappell’s talk was more or less what he and I presented at the Protection of Cultural Property in Asia conference in February this year. As our research into Australian and Southeast Asian antiquities markets continues, we can increasingly argue that market reduction is a sound approach. Of course, market reduction in the absence of (questionably effective) sanctions will make no further progress without further outreach.

Ms. Mangion further clarified the role of INTERPOL in the fight against illicit traffic of all kinds, noting especially that a trafficking charge must be an offence in both the source and demand country involved, but that it is up to us (since INTERPOL is not a police force) to “think like prosecutors” while investigations occur.

Given that all aspects of the diverse “shadow economy” involves both actors and facilitators, and that treaties in place currently are all either criminal law, trade-specific, or country-specific in focus, it was argued that greater operational cooperation was needed to watch for “unexplained wealth” (especially given poorly regulated on-line dealing).

Efforts to better ID, trace, freeze and confiscate the proceeds gained by all illicit trades will rob them of their power. This was driven home in Sir Flanagan’s talk about the international illicit tobacco trade, operating on a HUGE scale. Allegedly, we’re talking billions of dollars, millions of illicit cigarettes/shipment, multiple Western markets (including Australia) from sources in Asia, and marked increases in violence. It was all encapsulated in the story of a Loyalist crime lord (rose to prominence during the Troubles) who in recent years was posing as an unemployed laborer collecting welfare, but in reality was organizing “hits,” living large, etc. Nearly untouchable and untraceable, until connections to the cigarette racket allowed authorities to follow the money and seize assets.

At the end of the day, we were all divided into groups to discuss and then give feedback on a few key thematic questions/priorities; a way to pool our combined experiences and look for common ground in light of new info. Questions such as: How can investigators and academics better leverage the private sector (i.e. security industry)? What do the police/government agents want more of? How can the private sector better engage in outreach? What aspects of the shadow economy does the private sector see changing in future? How so? It all relates back to what Mr. Rowan and Mr. Lake pointed out; if we are to be society’s immune system, we must be strong and well informed enough to stay ahead of the symptoms!

One obvious requirement is more production and routine use of visual guides (e.g. ICOM Red Lists) for not only more source countries in the antiquities trade, but also species smuggling, and even counterfeit products. With the skills of counterfeiters, forgers and smugglers getting so advanced and high-tech, the “arms race” (if you will) is still far too lopsided. We were also of the opinion that fostering of subject matter experts outside of the investigative/law enforcement community is vital; especially if those experts (e.g. academic archaeologists, biologists, museologists, etc.) are given permission to tap into their colleagues’ expertise.As I suggested when I spoke, if we’re up against such complex poly-crime networks, then we have to fight fire with fire and create much wider networks of individuals able to identify, investigate and monitor.

Watching the shadow economy...all together now? Watching the shadow economy…all together now?

Finally, another obvious conclusion to come from the day’s proceedings was the need for more effective outreach in all areas of illicit trade prevention. I know, I know…easier said than done. And yet, I feel that the need still exists in many areas of the shadow economy to transition from a situation of licit markets hijacked or flooded by illicit goods and/or dealer’s communities with voluntary codes of ethics (propped up by a lingering no-questions-asked trade) to one in which increased awareness by buyers and sellers makes the dealer community more willing to self-police, thus lessening the work of investigative journalists and law enforcement.

Although those scant few of us working on illicit trades outside the purview of drugs and IP might have felt a bit tangential considering the rest of the delegates, I remain honoured to have participated, and do feel that everyone learned from everyone else. As always, the test now is to see how much lasting collaboration comes from it. However, I feel confident that workshops such as this help to ensure that Australia and its region continue to improve on what we’re doing right, and certainly not be ignored on the world stage for much longer.

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes

Conclusion

There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.
Courtesy news.com.au.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

A view from “The Past For Sale?: The Economic Entanglements of Cultural Heritage”

For three days in May 2013, a diverse group of urban planners, economists, anthropologists, and others joined together to discuss matters of economics and cultural heritage—its market value(s) and their social implications. The University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Heritage and Society hosted the conference “The Past For Sale? The Economic Entanglements of Cultural Heritage” on 15–17 May 2013. This event is especially meaningful at the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum and the founding of SAFE. The following summary focuses on topics most related to SAFE and is based on my own observations and those papers that I was able to attend.

One of the three major themes of the conference, aligning exactly with SAFE’s purpose and mission, was “Archaeological Looting, the Antiquities Market, and Its Costs.” At least four sessions and one of the plenary addresses, Neil Brodie’s “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price,” were directly related to this theme. Numerous papers in the other two themes—“Tourism” and “Urban Revitalization”—touched on issues of looting or antiquities markets. Across these broad themes, presenters tackled many SAFE-related issues, including looters and market sources, regulations and policy development, and analyses of specific antiquities markets.

Neil Brodie at UMass Amherst Neil Brodie delivers a plenary address on the antiquities market at UMass Amherst
Marni Walter

Several papers aimed to shed light on the “looters” or market sources. Cristiana Panella of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium, described the social organization of digging in Mali within a larger economic system. Farmer/diggers participate in a diverse set of cash activities involving cotton farming, clandestine digging, and other contraband, yet their situation is more nuanced than the stereotypes promoted by media and Mali elite. Similarly, Peri Johnson working in the Ottoman lands of Turkey examined the interrelations of archaeologists and both small- and large-scale looters. While small-scale looters are often local (and disenfranchised) people, outsiders do most of the large-scale looting, further cutting off the local inhabitants from their own lands and resources. One contribution to the poster session addressed similar issues: Giacomo M. Tabita analyzed “the criminal phenomenon of ‘Archaeo-Mafia’ and its social costs on the local communities in Italy.” These are just a few examples of the many groups around the world who find themselves disenfranchised from and/or compelled to exploit any number of resources in their own region.

Other presenters work toward reducing damages to sites and cultural materials through site management practices, including controlling tourists’ means of access. One example was the use of digital technologies at Jetavana Monastery presented by Ashley de Vos. Here, a comprehensive research program informed a virtual reality site animation program, which is used in locations throughout the site to add to the visitors’ experience in places that are closed for protection.

Another example, and one that crosscuts several major issues, is Nelly Robles Garcia and Jack Corbett’s presentation on Oaxaca, Mexico and the major archaeology work in the community of Santa Maria Atzompa, on the outskirts of the Monte Albán World Heritage site. The site was faced with encroachment, commercial exploitation, and other threats, as many groups of stakeholders battled for access to various resources. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) developed frameworks for the competing interests, while also limiting threats to Monte Albán. One result of the work is the success story of the creation and recent opening of the new Community Museum, which brings economic and cultural benefits to the people of Santa Maria Atzompa while also giving them new incentives to help care for the Monte Albán protected zone.

{caption}Donna Yates compares regulations of fossil and archaeological materials during "The Past For Sale?"{/caption}{credit}Marni Walter{/credit}Presenters also gave a lot of attention to the regulations and policies that govern antiquities and treatment of heritage resources. Donna Yates and Ross A. Elgin compared and analyzed the regulation (and commercialization) of palaeontological and archaeological materials, pondering whether or not it is advantageous to lump these two types of remains, natural and cultural, together for purposes of regulation. Questions of management and treatment of natural and cultural heritage also come up frequently in discussions about UNESCO World Heritage sites, so analyses of the similar and different needs of these two types of heritage (often combined) are very pertinent to many of the issues addressed in this conference, including heritage markets. Lawrence Rothfield looked “Beyond the antiquities market” in analyzing the economics of looting and looting prevention, arguing that we must pay attention to external market factors to seek policy solutions that make the antiquities market pay for the costs its activities impose. Senta German and Fiona Rose-Greenland discussed the concept of WikiLoot, assessing the pros and cons of this crowdsourcing model in the regulation of the antiquities market.

In the session on Markets in Cultural Heritage Objects, each paper focused on a particular set (or market) of historical or archaeological materials. Presentations featured the markets for World War II artifacts, mosaics from Turkey, the high-end auction market for Pre-Columbian antiquities, and early Bronze Age pots from the Dead Sea plain in Jordan. The session also included a philosophical discussion about the moral limits of markets, and similarities of some cultural heritage markets with “noxious” markets. These papers each drew attention to the variety of ways in which cultural materials are exchanged, whether illegally or legally.

Many World War II artifacts are bought and sold at large conventions, where story-telling and deal-making abound, but facts and documentation are often scarce. The convention-goers do not appear to mind that situation now, but with fewer war veterans among us to tell the stories, both the historical and commercial value of these artifacts will rise. I’ll bet that future generations will feel a pang of regret for the casual attitude toward documentation. Scarcity of documentation also remains an issue in high-end antiquities auctions, where “provenance” or “place of origin” is (with sometimes curiously high frequency) stated as a country with which the United States does not have a Memorandum of Understanding. This point appeared to be demonstrated with data from high-end auctions of Pre-Columbian antiquities from 2000–2010 in a paper by Sasha Renninger, Brian Daniels, and Richard Leventhal.

Morag Kersel, in her discussion about antiquities from Jordan, showed two different sides of markets in Bronze Age pots. New marketing approaches and a legal antiquities market in Israel coincide with rampant looting at some Holy Land sites. But we also saw a positive example of a sale by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan of assemblages of Bronze Age pots to various educational institutions. The sales included certain requirements for proper display and treatment of the complete assemblages. Following these arrangements, the institutions have since maintained longstanding support of excavations in Jordan.

Neil Brodie at UMass Amherst
Marni Walter

SAFE Beacon Award winner Neil Brodie covered many aspects of the high-end antiquities markets in his plenary address titled “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price.” At the outset, he called the antiquities market a “gray” market: one in which the illicit and licit sales often are commingled, and an item’s legal status depends on its documentation and source country, rather than on the object itself. This situation is a source of many of the problems involved in this market. Law enforcement officers have a very difficult job in determining whether an item is being illicitly transported or purchased. The same can be true for dealers, buyers, and others involved (often to their advantage).

This murkiness in the market, especially for the purposes of high-end auction houses and museums, centers on the concept of provenance. Buying on financial speculation can be risky, and if export documents are shown to be fake (as in the well known case of the Sevso Treasure), the items become unsaleable. Similarly, many museums have had to repatriate antiquities proven to have been stolen and/or illegally exported from the country of origin.

If an item has a clear, solid provenance, it usually fetches a higher price at auction. If “experts” have evaluated or studied the item, providing identification, attributions, or “authentication” (adding embedded “cultural capital” as Brodie describes), this can also raise the monetary value. To me as an archaeologist, this situation seems backward. Why do the actors in this part of the “gray” market rip items out of the ground, then work hard after the fact to fabricate a phony provenance and uncertain attributions? If their antiquities came from archaeological excavations through legal means, they’d not only have a clear “provenance,” but thorough archaeological context, knowledge about the artifact’s place in its ancient society, and overall a much more interesting story to tell. (An example of this type of approach was seen in Morag Kersel’s paper, mentioned above.) Wouldn’t that increase its value more than an insincere “guarantee of authenticity”?

The problems with this gray market continue when we consider additional dilemmas: are scholars encouraging shady market practices when they research or publish about antiquities in the gray market? Or worse, if they use items for research that were stolen during military conflicts (such as from Iraq or Syria), are they somehow contributing to insurgencies or more traditional “black” markets? When buying antiquities, are museum curators consulting their network of suppliers, or are they indulging in conspiracy?

Such questions have vexed the antiquities markets for decades or longer, and Neil Brodie’s address was not intended to answer all of them—but his research and the work of many others in the field continues to shed light on the complex antiquities gray market. Responding to a question from the audience, Brodie said (probably correctly) that individual or small-scale looting, such as individual tourists buying a couple looted artifacts for souvenirs, likely does not add up to much of the overall illicit antiquities market. I suspect that is true, but one small archaeological site destroyed by looting might have been a large portion of one community’s archaeological heritage. And that in my opinion is a very high cost.

It is hoped that the combined research efforts of those working in economics, tourism, heritage management, and related fields, might help to develop new practices resulting in favorable economic development alongside responsible treatment of cultural heritage resources of all types.

Trying to "put Humpty Dumpty back together again"

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

This post, originally published by SAFE on July 25, 2011, is reposted here as the exhibition is now on view through Jan. 6 2012 at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.


In a PBS report by Jeffrey Brown which aired on July 11, 2011, Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, said that during the 19th century when Chinese sculptures, created as religious icons, were first introduced to the West and became fine art. This created a demand from dealers, who then sold the objects to collectors and museums around the world, before laws were in place to prohibit such practice. This led to rampant looting of Buddhist caves and ancient sites.

One such site is Xiangtangshan (響堂山), the sixth-century group of caves, carved into the mountains in northern China. Although the limestone caves are still visited by worshipers as temples, they are now emptied of their original contents by looters to feed the international market demand.

Now, the exhibition “Echoes of the Past,” which originated from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has gathered together these objects that are now scattered around the world. Working with colleagues in China, experts have used virtual rendering to put back the sculptures in the caves where they originally belonged. Using “old-fashioned connoisseurship” and digitization which records very fine details correctly, it is now possible to “physically prove that a piece had been removed from the site.”

Why not recreate the cave and send everything back to China? According to Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Wilson says, “the Chinese…haven’t made such a request.” Wilson also thinks that by allowing us to “see these elements back in place” the digital caves would offer an alternative to repatriation.

What do you think? The exhibition will travel to Dallas and San Diego next. The Sackler web site offers more information about the project and “Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage.”

Photo: Jason Salavon and Travis Saul

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.

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Experts lend opinions to the discussion of unprovenanced antiquities

The New York Times reported on Tuesday, July 10 about the growing tension over new guidelines “making it more difficult for collectors of antiquities to donate, or sell, the cultural treasures that fill their homes, display cases and storage units.” As museums and auction houses react to recent measures taken by the U.S. to stem the illicit antiquities trade, they are increasingly reluctant to acquire items with no documented provenance prior to 1970, the benchmark year the international community adopted in the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Neil Brodie Neil Brodie

Many collectors claim they are being treated unfairly and are increasingly depicted “as the beneficiaries of a villainous trade.” However, SAFE Beacon Award winner and former Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, Neil Brodie, dismisses these claims saying, “Collectors know that without provenance it is impossible to know whether an object was first acquired by illegal or destructive means.” Dr. Brodie is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow and was instrumental in the formation of a new team that will study the illegal trade in antiquities. The team was recently awarded a £1m grant by the European Research Council.

Larry Rothfield, SAFE blog contributor and founder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, pointed out that lack of provenance is not necessarily the only reason these items cannot be sold. Their historical or aesthetic value can affect their sale for any number of reasons. “Even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition,” he said, “most of them would not be acquired anyway.”

The article further poses that the price of protecting the world’s cultural heritage may very well be that some items without provenance will remain in the hands of collectors who may be unable to sell or donate their treasures.

Larry Rothfield Larry Rothfield

SAFE appreciates our supporters for lending their voices to our anti-looting mission in so many ways. Read more articles by Larry on the SAFE blog.

What do you think? Should the US relax its guidelines and laws on provenance or is it more important to keep tightening the noose around the illicit antiquities trade? Is there a solution that allows objects to be donated to museums without encouraging looting and black market trade in the process? Join the discussion by commenting below or contacting us at info@savingantiquities.org.

Not just Egypt’s loss…

Egypt’s rich and ancient history has been standing for over 5000 years, as evidenced by the great pyramids.  Who would suspect that it could ever be threatened?  In actuality, looters have been picking away at the antiquities of Egypt for thousands of years, like ocean waves lapping at the base of an intricate sand castle.  Recently, however, there has been a disconcerting uptick in this attack on our world’s shared culture.

Political unrest in Egypt has set the stage for loss of control over the land’s artifacts.  According to U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Carol Redmount, who has been excavating and examining sites in Egypt for over 20 years, the increased looting of these archaeological sites began when former President Mubarak was forced to leave the country in early 2011 and has not slowed in the year and a half since.

During the regime change, many police, military personnel, and local guards were re-deployed to deal with the intense rioting.  Some even walked off the job.  Consequently cultural sites, precious artifacts, museums, and tombs were left unprotected.  In June 2012, Dr. Redmount invited NBC News Richard Engel to ride with her through Al-Heba, a town 180 miles south of Cairo where she has been working, so that he could see for himself the extent of this wanton destruction.  Here, at one tomb site, the entire hillside had been dug up in hundreds of places by looters.  On the ground were randomly discarded mummified bodies that had been unearthed in the race for anticipated treasures.

Temple of Luxor
Microsoft.com Stock Photos
The Temple of Luxor

South of Cairo is not the only area where this is transpiring.  Thieves have even looted areas around the Great Pyramids in Giza and the Luxor temples, reports Major-General Abdel-Rahim Hassan, commander of the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department.

In May 2012, Egyptian police arrested two men for digging a 10-meter deep hole under their homes, which were just behind the temple of Khnum in the southern town of Esna, There police found hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ancient clay pots.  Had these artifacts been removed and sold illegally, both Egypt and the world community would have lost another irreplaceable piece of its history.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has reported 5697 cases of illegal digging since the anti-Mubarak uprising began shortly into 2011.  This is a shocking 100 times more than the previous year.  During this time, illegal trading in antiquities has mushroomed to 1467 cases.  According to the AP, these are only the cases that the Interior Ministry was able to track down.

With so little manpower to staunch the flow of antiquities out of Egypt, this situation continues to grow worse.   Amid political turmoil, a recent disputed election, and police and military personnel preoccupied elsewhere, what can be done to protect and preserve the ancient Egyptian culture?

Egypt’s loss is our loss because Egypt’s history is an integral part of our global history.  We need to act.  As SAFE continues to expand its influence and be joined by archaeological activists and patrons, we will work to support local government organizations like the Interior Ministry and the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department to stem this illegal activity and to provide security for Egypt’s antiquities. Join our cause on Facebook and Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage.

“Retentionist” or just doing the right thing?

According to KVAL.com article “Stolen Italian antiquities recovered from Oregon home” Phillip Pirages, the book dealer whose manuscript pages were forfeited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “was very impressed with how serious the (Italian) government was about reclaiming these[.]”

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa first century, showing a depiction of an old and young satyr, is one of several cultural artifacts taken from Italy that are being returned to Italy, seen during a repatriation ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2012. The objects were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Italy's Carabinieri.

Indeed, Italy is not alone in its determination to reclaim its cultural patrimony. In recent years, many culturally rich “source” countries are quite serious as well in their call for repatriation. While dealers, collectors, and other stakeholders— such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property— may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by some 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end. Criticism of source countries as “retentionist”; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit “hobbyist” collectors and “world museums” to stock their galleries with “artistic creations that transcend national boundaries” are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

“Once we established that they were stolen, he voluntarily agreed to surrender them,” said ICE special agent Melissa Cooley. “He didn’t fight the forfeiture.”

Citing cooperation, the book dealer will not be charged. Perhaps Pirages has the right idea: doing the right thing is never wrong.

Captain Gunter’s "loot": Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction

The sale of a 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694.00) at London auction house Woolley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 “Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin, October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King’s Dragoon Guards.”This engraving not only increased the box’s value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.

All is Fair in Loot and War?

Whether we regard items such as the Captain Gunter box as “stolen,” “plundered,” “contraband,” “spoils of war,” “ransacked,” “pillaged,” or as Gunter appropriately chose “looted,” the taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself. Art Law: Cases and Materials perhaps says it best:

This historical sketch [referring to Roman activities] emphasizes the problem that can arise when the army of one nation occupies another. Historically, the world community did very little to protect national patrimony from plunder and destruction. Conquering armies believed they possessed the right to despoil a apparently defeated enemy. What about the interest of future generations in their nation’s cultural property? Should they be deprived of their national artistic heritage merely because their country was defeated in battle? The protection of national patrimony from plunder has ramifications beyond the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. (Leonard D. DuBoff, Sherri Burr, Michael D. Murray, Art Law: Cases and Materials, 2004, 32).

The looting of the Summer Palace on October 18th and 19th, 1860 is considered by many as one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history. The Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, occurred in two stages between 1839 and 1860 after trade relations broke down between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. During the war, British forces razed historic Chinese sites and looted Chinese “souvenirs.”

Interesting enough, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace occurred under the orders of the British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin responsible for the “preservation” of the metopes, friezes, and pedimental sculptures of the Acropolis, now in the British Museum. The destruction of the Summer Palace, a brash act of pyromania, led to the death of hundreds of eunuchs trapped inside the compound and the “pillaging” of some 1.5 million relics. This signaled the end of the Opium War. In October 2010, China lamented the 150 year anniversary of the Opium War and the burning of the Summer Palace.

Captain Gunter’s inscribed box is only one of the many items that he “looted” from the Summer Palace. On May 19th, 2011, Duke’s Auctioneers of Dorchester Captain Gunter’s descendants sold eleven pieces from the Summer Palace, including a 18th Century Qianlong period yellow jade pendant with a carved dragon for £478,000. In the auction catalogue, Duke’s identified the pieces as “acquired” from the Summer Palace, rather than the more controversial term “looted.” The Gunter family still holds possession of an extensive collection of artifacts– ivory chopsticks, jade boxes, jade chimes, bowls, and a jadeite belt hook estimated to be worth over £2 million. Guy Schwinge, an expert from Duke’s, recounts his visit to the Gunter estate in May 2011. He stated in The Daily Mail:

When I arrived at the house and was shown into the sitting room, I was not sure what I was going to see. We discussed the market for Chinese works of art over a cup of coffee and the results we had achieve at our recent Melplash Court sale, which included many Chinese works. The family then began to pull the most stunning pieces of jade from the back of a display cabinet in the corner of the room. I was stunned by the quality and number of pieces of jade that emerged from the cabinet. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. (The Daily Mail, May 4, 2011).

The future of these items is still not known.

The “looting” that took place at the Summer Palace is not an isolated incident. In fact, the Chinese Cultural Relics Foundation predicts that over ten million cultural objects were “plundered” from China between 1840 and 1949. The 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace looting, coupled with China’s growing wealth and status has ignited a strong and unified movement to return Chinese antiquities to their homeland.

The Chinese Art Market

However, instead of going to public museums, most Chinese antiquities enter private collections, displayed as a sign of wealth and power, not patriotism. Andrew Jabobs, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in 2009:  

At its core, such mixed signals [of the Chinese search for relics] are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization of imperial powers? Or, is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade dependent economy? (The New York Times, “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums,” December 17, 2009).  

The China Daily, agreed that the motives of China’s wealthy class to purchase of antiquities is questionable. They wrote, Although patriotism is playing a part in this hunting to recapture looted treasures, experts say that majority of buyers are in fact more interested in the investment potential of ancient works–and the glamour (Cheng Yingqi, The China Daily, December 15, 2010).

The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings (Scott Rayburn, “China Antique Sales Raise Record Sums”, The China Daily, May 23, 2011). The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually. After the October 2011 sale of “looted objects” from the Summer Palace, Tom Flynn, author of the blog ArtKnows, stated:

Recent auctions in the UK–even those held in the British Provinces–have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel– and indeed how high they are prepared to bid–to secure Imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete (Art Knows, October 27, 2011).

In recent years, major auctions houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have opened locations in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong– each enjoying enormous success. For example, a 2010 auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong specializing in Asian art totaled a record $447 million (Giles Turner, “Buying Frenzy for Chinese Art,” Financial News, May 12, 2011).

Government Regulation

The sale of artifacts “looted” from the Summer Palace is complicated by China’s export laws and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States. China’s Ministry of Culture issued “Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Import and Export of Art” on July 17, 2009. Article 5 of the provision states: “Art works are prohibited from being imported or exported if they contain content which:  

(1) violates the basic principles of the Constitution of China;

(2) endangers the unification of the country, national sovereignty or territorial integrity;

(3) divulges state secrets, endangers state security, honor or interests;

(4) incites ethnic hatred, discrimination, or harms ethnic unity or habits and customs;

(5) propagates or publicizes cults or superstitions;

(6) disrupts social order or stability;

(7) advocates or publicizes obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, horror, or instigates crime;

(8) libels, slanders or harms the legal interests of others;

(9) deliberately tampers with history or severely distorts history;

(10) harms public morals or ethnic cultural traditions; or

(11) other content prohibited by laws, regulations and rules.” (Nancy M. Murphy, “Provisions on the Managements of the Import and Export of Art,” July 17, 2009).

These provisions, in summary, give the government complete control over any and all works of art which enter or exit the country. These rules can be broadly interpreted and make it almost impossible to export Chinese antiquities from the country. The provisions also have created an underground trade, or black market, for Chinese antiquities.

Furthermore, the United States entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with China on January 14th, 2009, “acting pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, to which both countries are party; and desiring to reduce the incentives for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the rich cultural heritage of China.” (United States, Department of State). For this reason, the trade in Chinese antiquities, particularly items that are newly discovered or have no established provenance, has shifted from the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. For more information on the China MOU visit  SAFE’s web site here and SAFECORNER’s coverage at “Bilateral Agreements at Work,” “Trying to put ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again,” and “Cultural Heritage in Danger: Reacting to the New York Times.”

Yuanmingyuan Park, which houses the remaining Summer Palace relics, recently called upon foreign museums to return the “looted” relics. According to the United Kingdom’s The Daily Telegraph, the main target of this action was the British Museum (Peter Foster, “China to Study British Museum for Looted Artefacts,” The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2009). Experts, however, are doubtful that items will ever be returned from international museums. Instead, some argue that the government’s public campaign is an attempt to encourage private collectors in China to return or donate the antiquities to the Yuanmingyuan Park. In November 2011, the Yuanmingyuan Park called for a boycott of auctions selling “looted” relics. This, along with the founding of several non-governmental organizations such as the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, has led to aggressive action to retrieve the 1.5 million relics “stolen” from the Summer Palace (“China Experts to Search Abroad for Looted Relics,” France 24, October 19, 2009).


Questionable Auction House Sales

The art world was stunned on March 7, 2009 by what is now being called the “Yves Saint Laurent Fiasco.” The Times’ Richard Morris reported: “The fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the art world” (The Times, March 7, 2009). At an Asian sale at Christie’s Paris a pair of bronze animal heads, once of a set of twelve that made up a water clock at the Summer Palace, achieved a hammer price of £28 million. The bidder, Cai Mingchao, a once trusted Christie’s client, promptly refused to pay. In a statement he said his intentions were to “draw attention to this sale of looted treasure…. There is an indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artifacts that were looted from the country” (The Times, March 7, 2009).

Christie’s options included: (1) sue for the payment, drawing attention to the fact that they are selling known “looted” goods; or (2) attempt to re-auction the heads to buyers now aware of the questionable provenance and potential for a title claim. Both options would damage Christie’s image, respectability, reliability, and result in extreme legal fees. The bronze animal heads were returned to the consignor. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Christie’s may receive some form of payment. Cai Mingchao was, therefore, successful in his statement about “looted” goods. This episode served as a wake-up call. As a result, auction houses in the United Kingdom now require pre-registration applications, financial references, guarantees, and deposits at least three days before Asian art sales. Such measures limit the possible economic losses for auction houses. Yet, these pre-registration requirements they do not prevent the loss of reliability and reputation that are key to the auction business.

This brings us back to Captain Gunter’s gold box.  Was the risk of auctioning an obviously “looted” item worth Woolley and Willis’ premium return on $764,694? Granted, the Gunter family currently has possession, but who truly owns such “looted” items? Where should they go, what should happen to them? These are questions not only relevant to the Captain Gunter case, but to the all the artifacts “stolen” or “looted” from the Summer Palace.

Photos Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis, The Daily Mail, and The Times.

Should genuine ancient archaeological materials such as coins and pottery shards be repurposed and sold as jewelry?

“Should genuine ancient archaeological materials such as coins and pottery shards be repurposed and sold as jewelry?” reads the poll currently displayed in the right hand margin. Until yesterday there were 20 votes for no, 2 for yes. Then on the US ancient coin collector’s forum “Moneta-L” this post appeared yesterday:

Safecorner — the anti-collecting organization has a new poll (anonymous – one click): “Should genuine ancient archaeological materials such as coins and
pottery shards be repurposed and sold as jewelry?” So far, only 31 people have responded. How sad! Why not head over to:http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/ and register your vote. It will be fun ;-)

The poll results have now taken on a wholly different character with the inflow of new readers as a consequence.

SAFECorner is of course NOT “anti-collecting”, but some of us might feel that turning numismatic research material into wearable geegaws certainly IS.

In their public pronouncements, US collectors of dug-up ancient coins steadfastly claim to be researchers and numismatic scholars (and thus – they argue – introducing import controls on the US market is in some way damaging their scholarship). Their apparent united support for turning archaeological evidence into ornamental geegaws and cocktail party conversation pieces expressed in their participation in our poll certainly seems to cast doubt on that claim to pure scholarship. Another reason why coin collectors might think this a good idea is wearing them as jewellery is a good way to escape detection when bringing such items across international borders. As dealer Dave Welsh reminds us, wearable coin jewellery can be used to smuggle coins.

For some rather tacky examples of the sort of thing we are talking about, see those listed in my blog post on the topic.

By the way, the question is “should” and the coin collectors from Moneta-L are giving the answer “yes, they should“. Is that the voice of this discipline called “numismatics”? Is this what the American Numismatic Association and affiliated bodies would say?

Still, if it gets coin collectors over onto a heritage protection website and perhaps provokes some of them into reading a little of what is here, the poll cannot be a bad thing.
.

Oscar Muscarella’s "mixed…mostly negative" review: "Archaeologists and Acquisitionists"

Oscar Muscarella, the outspoken critic of the antiquities trade and the plunder of cultural heritage reviews The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities: Professional, Legal, and Ethical Perspectives, a collection of eight published papers presented at a symposium held at the University of Notre Dame on February 24, 2007, organized by Robin F. Rhodes and Charles R. Loving. The review, entitled “Archaeologists and Acquisitionists,” was published in International Journal of the Classical Tradition, September 2011. We are pleased to share the review with our readers, particularly members of the public, whose exposure to this kind of discussion remains limited. Each of the volume’s contributions from the following is reviewed:

- James Cuno (former President and Director, Art Institute of Chicago and current president and CEO, the J. Paul Getty Trust)

- Malcolm M. Bell III (Professor, Greek Art and Archaeology, University of Virginia)

- Patty Gerstenblith (Professor of Law, DePaul University)

- Kimberly Rorschach (Director, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University)

- Stefano Vassallo (Head Archaeologist, Service of the Cultural Heritage and Environment of Palermo)

- Mary Ellen O’Connell (Professor of Law, Notre Dame)

- Nancy Bookidis (archeologist, Corinth excavations, Greece)

- C. Brian Rose (Professor of Archaeology and Curator-in-Charge, the Mediterranean Section of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania)

Good Guy or Bad Guy?

A European art and antiquities collector recently opened a museum of his collection in France. His action to share the collection with the public is perhaps more admirable than hoarding it all in a private home. But it is the “compulsive collecting” in the first place that causes so many problems, and this article in particular glorifies his “philanthropy” while neglecting any realities about how these antiquities were brought to the market and acquired.

Threats to Egypt’s cultural heritage: How will we respond?

The many accounts of looting and destruction in Egypt in the last few days have been alarming and at times, confusing. Reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and who caused the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting. What are rumors? What are facts?

One recalls a similar situation in 2003 when the Iraq Museum was looted, and the number of objects became a source of confusion. Matthew Bogdanos’s article in The American Journal of ArchaeologyThe Casualties of War: The Truth About the Iraq Museum” (and the 2005 book Thieves of Baghdad) recounts that situation in great detail, and goes a long way to dispel early misconceptions.

As with the Iraq situation, we will probably not know all the facts for some time. But while information about the exact scope of the destruction – and who did what – is still being assessed, what we do know for certain is that one of the world’s richest and oldest cultural heritages is at risk. One artifact looted or destroyed is one too many.

We also know this: Egyptian antiquities can fetch huge sums. In December, 2010 alone, 13 artifacts reportedly sold at Sotheby’s for a total of $9,789,500.

So how will we respond?

A number of organizations have issued a statement that includes a “call on United States and European law enforcement agencies to be on the alert over the next several months for the possible appearance of looted Egyptian antiquities at their borders.” SAFE believes that we should also alert dealers, collectors, conservators, auction houses, museums, antique galleries. Any artifacts looted from Egypt during this tumultuous time will presumably end up on the antiquities market outside the country.

Will the trade exercise restraint or curtail its appetite for Egyptian collectibles during this time? Will it perform special due diligence? We hope it will.

"Value of Amateurs" and Heritage Protection

An ACCG-sponsored PR Newswire press release proclaims that the: ‘Value of Amateurs Is Evident as Financial Woes Cripple Heritage Preservation‘. While there is no doubt that the volunteer sector has never been more active and welcome in heritage preservation initiatives than today, there are dangers inherent in states relying more explicitly upon it (see Heritage Action’s ‘Opposing certain heritage threats now “unaffordable”‘ about the situation in the UK).

Sadly the coin-dealing author of the text under discussion takes the subject “preservation of the heritage” to be a narrow artefact-centred issue. What, however, is of more general concern is the broader issue of protection of sites and monuments from erosion and destruction. Among the agents of that destruction is the looting of those sites and monuments that produces the loose objects that US collectors and dealers do not want to see in the hands of the countries from which they were taken because they allegedly are “unable or unwilling to preserve their heritage”, citing things like the recent damage caused to buildings in Pompeii by exposure to the weather.

While it is obvious to us all that it is far easier to provide a roof over a handful of coins than the excavated area of half an entire town, ancient coin dealer Sayles evidently wishes to see them as equivalents. There seems however to be a regrettable a confusion here between those amateurs who volunteer to work on conservation projects all over the world, or who as amateur archaeologists carry out and publish their own work, or in groups take part in larger scale projects and help with the inventorying of sites and monuments for the public record (for example the work of amateur groups here, here , here and here ), and the group to whom Sayles evdently refers. He means antiquity collectors, the individuals who out of acquisitive greed and the urge to possess purchase, often no questions asked, dugup ancient artefacts. There should be no confusion between the two. Collectors of dugup antiquities like so many postage stamps in an album are no more “amateur archaeologists” than collectors of costume Barbie dolls are ethnographers, or wild bird-egg snatchers are ornithologists, or poached elephant ivory merchants ecologists.

Mr Sayles presumably would argue that by including them in their collections, the Louvre was only trying to “preserve” the relief fragments ripped out of Theban Tomb 15, I doubt though that many would accept that the situation is as simple as that, especially seen from the point of view of what that site (tomb) now looks like. That a Memphis temple has problems with groundwater is neither here nor there as to whether they and other looted artefacts should not go back.

There are many ways amateurs and volunteers can help preserve the heritage, joining SAFE is one of them, buying looted and smuggled artefacts and hoarding them at home is not.

SAFE Beacon Awards 2010


The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) Beacon Award is given to those who stand out in their fight against illicit antiquities trade. On Oct. 29, over 100 people attended an event awarding it to four individuals at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The awards were given to Senior Special Agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement James McAndrew, Attorney Robert Goldman, Federal Prosecutor David Hall and retired FBI agent Robert Wittman for their part in the investigations and prosecutions in cases involving stolen art and cultural objects. For brief details of these see here.

The four unsung heroes shared their experiences of the difficulties and talked about the importance of saving antiquities at a reception after the award ceremony.

“Stolen and looted art trade sums up to almost $6 billion,” McAndrew said. And stressed that the lucrative crime does not exist by itself. “In many cases, the money is used to finance terrorism activities.” Wittman, who created the FBI’s Art Crime Team, has recovered more than 850 artworks and antiquities. His achievements have brought significant attention to the art crime field. The lack of public support and awareness, however, is crippling the battle against illicit antiquities trade, he said. “New York City is a mega center for the arts,” Wittman said, “but recently they have been slashing the agents in this field of work.” To successfully prosecute an art crime suspect, Hall said a prosecutor needs to show proof that the suspect knew of the illegality of the stolen artifact. “The only way to prove that is with the help of undercover agents and tipsters,” Hall said. It is up to the public to push the government to invest more and play a more active role in saving these valuable antiquities.

Congratulations to all four and those who work with them to combat the traffic in illicitly obtained cultural property. SAFE, a nonprofit organization, has been hosting the Beacon Awards since 2006 as a way to recognize and raise awareness about the severe cultural loss caused by the illicit antiquities trade.

See also: SAFE Beacon Awards Highlight Importance of Preventing Antiquities Theft

Photo: Do Hoon Bae

Kwame Opoku reflects on Cairo Conference on cultural heritage

We thank Dr. Opoku and the Museum Secruity Network for making these insightful REFLECTIONS ON THE CAIRO CONFERENCE ON RESTITUTION: ENCOURAGING BEGINNING available to us. The article contains very useful notes and references as well.

The April 7-8 Cairo Conference hosted by Zahi Hawass and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities can be viewed on New Tang Dynasty Television.

David Gill said on Looting Matters “While it is important to air concerns over cultural property that left the countries of origin some years ago, there is an important issue relating to continuing looting.”

SAFE respects the rights of sovereign nations to cultural property within their national boundaries. But we should be mindful of the fact that information lost from plunder of sites can never be repatriated.

A small victory?

A couple days ago, I posted an expose about that proportion of the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade currently passing through the hands of BC Galleries. They have apparently removed from their catalogs the Iron Age bangles containing human arm bones mentioned in my last post, but still feature other highly suspect artifacts, such as this immense Dong Son drum, this late Iron Age bracelet, or this prehistoric Thai shell necklace, the rarity and condition of which points to their previous use as grave goods, or, in the case of the drum, something requiring concentrated effort to unearth, clean, and ship once perhaps ‘accidentally’ discovered. What I wish to share now, however, is another small, but significant, victory; an example of what positive media pressure can do to “interrupt” the vicious cycle of the antiquities trade…at least where some of the most morally and ethically objectionable pieces are concerned.

Today, a colleague of mine (J. Lewis) brought a short news article to my attention. This piece reports that Drs. Lynley Wallis and Claire Smith (presidents of the Australian Archaeological Association and the World Archaeological Congress, respectively) formally called upon eBay to remove from sale two lots of advertised “Dong Son” Iron Age “votive bronze armlets” with sections of ulna and radius (forearm bones) still remaining within the grave soil cemented inside them (see above left). Citing “concern about the cultural origins of the items for sale, as well as the affront to human dignity resulting from the sale of human body parts,” (in other words, direct violation of Item 1 of the Vermillion Accord on Human Remains, adopted by the WAC in 1989) the subsequent press release occurred on April 2nd, and as of today (April 7th), the items have been pulled down (here and here).

These items were first made available through a specifically established ‘eBay Store,’ ran as a subsidiary of eBay Australia. “The Unique Things Store” exists to “sell quality items supplied by reliable dealers and galleries, that are members of Antique and Antiquities associations.” While it should be stated for the record that this e-Store, like BC Galleries, does not just deal in antiquities of dubious provenance, it becomes apparent with even minimal effort that the archaeological artifacts for sale are highly suspect. This gallery is also listed as a member and/or distribution partner of AADA, CINOA, and Sotheby’s (affiliations which I suspect greatly assist remotely located Southern Hemisphere dealers get access to artifacts from non-geographically proximate regions). With the advent of global distribution networks made possible by the Internet, smaller, down-market galleries and dealers can amass collections, slash prices, and still reach clients. To me, this represents the newer face of the antiquities trade worldwide…increasingly out of the more ‘elite’ auction houses, and into the public sphere. I support this assertion with the following statement, viewable by customers on every catalog entry page (for example, this c. 450BC Phoenician coin): “Many of these items are priceless fragments of history and would sell for many times their listed prices at large auction houses so be quick.

To put their customers at ease, however, they state upfront that everything has been examined by “experts,” and that a C.O.A. (Certificate of Authenticity) can be provided upon request. Once again, the “authenticity” of a ‘surfaced’ item for sale, in the mind of the dealer and most probable buyers, trumps any ethical concerns over the origins of that item! Refunds can be had at any time if a buyer later discovers a forgery (here I’m guessing that the burden of proof upon the buyer will be quite intense), and a mailing list is provided for satisfied customers to receive updates on new offers.

Importantly, in small letters at the bottom of the web page formerly advertising the armlet with human bones inside (and appearing on the catalog entry page of every item for sale), is the following statement: “I also sell products via other methods and may remove my listing if (sic) my item and use the (those?) options if the item does not have bids, so if you are interested bid now or you may miss out” (click on the bronze armlet photo above to be redirected to that page). This strongly suggests to me that, even if perceived lack of interest (or, in the case of the above mentioned armlets, public pressure) prompts the website maintainer to remove an item from bidding, this does not mean it is removed from circulation. What will the ultimate fate of these macabre “antiquities” be? In my opinion, only time and further monitoring will tell.