When ancient objects are studied from recorded contexts, usually through scientific excavation, they are invaluable historical sources. In archaeological excavations, all classes of objects are systematically recorded and studied by specialists. Archaeology has evolved from its origins in treasure-hunting and the indiscriminate antiquarian accumulation of objects into a scientific discipline, which treats each object as an historical source, the usefulness of which often revolves around the find’s context. Despite archaeology’s place as an academic discipline, which makes little aesthetic distinction between the ability of different archaeological objects to inform us about ancient society, media coverage of looting activities, detrimental to archaeology, frequently revolve around ‘high art’ objects – large statues, signed Greek vases, etc.(1) News stories devoted to cultural property issues frequently reference some unique statue or vase returning from X or Y museum to its home-country or the theft of ‘high art’ objects from museums or archaeological sites. It is clear, however, that the majority of trafficking in illicitly excavated and exported antiquities revolves not around these ‘monumental’ aesthetic objects, but the minor arts: coins, brooches, buckles, small ceramic and metal vessels, glass, oil lamps, Byzantine crosses, etc. Objects such as these are easily available on the Internet and sold in large numbers on eBay (all sites), VCoins, and through other websites and auction houses. Curiously, advocacy efforts to educate the public about looting regarding these classes of objects are increasingly opposed by lobbies and special interest groups that cater to a dealer interest. Is there a difference between the trade in unprovenanced examples of ‘high art’ and that in unprovenanced examples of the minor arts?
According to recent news articles, five or six smugglers in Cyprus were arrested and their cache of antiquities, which they had allegedly intended to export illegally, was seized (for two versions of the news article see the International Herald Tribune and the Cyprus Mail). David Gill has already commented on this report in “Coins and Cyprus: action on the ground.” The first article in IHT stated: “The antiquities, confiscated in the southern town of Limassol, include gold leaves and rings, two mediaeval gold coins and a bronze cross.” It continued: “Police said the suspects were trying to sell the finds for €280,000 ($395,000).” If the smugglers were trying to sell the artifacts for such a sum, we can be confident that a complete inventory of the cache was not supplied. The CM article provides a bit more detail:
“Around 100 items were found at the Kato Polemidia house, ranging from the Paleolithic to the Byzantine period. Confiscated items include hundreds of gold coins, bronze coins, statues, gold, bronze and metal antique jewelry, bronze seals, sheets of gold and albums with pictures of archaeological finds. Approximately 40 more items were confiscated from the Ypsonas garage. An officer of the Antiquities Department is currently assessing the value of the finds. ‘The confiscated items are of great archaeological value: they are a treasure. Only part of this collection would have been sold for 280,000 euro,’ said Latropoulos. The sale would have occurred yesterday morning, but was prevented by the police raids and arrests.”
Much of this material is ‘common’ on the market; nevertheless, it is clear that such materials come from archaeological sites. Some have argued that fresh supplies of ancient coins that reach the market in response to widespread collector and dealer demand only come from empty fields, devoid of any associated archaeological remains. However, this is a great misconception, which I rebutted, citing published records of the systematic looting of archaeological sites for coins and other metal objects, in the SAFE feature: “Why Coins Matter.” Clearly, in the Cyprus case, the other ‘minor art’ objects recovered are the sort that come only from historical sites or ancient tombs.
In 2006, Greek authorities raided a villa on the island of Schinoussa occupied by the sister of Christos Mihailidis, former partner of London-based antiquities dealer Robyn Symes, whom Italian and Greek authorities suspect of being a major antiquities smuggler. The report stated: “The hundreds of relics discovered so far in and around the Papadimitriou villa include temple parts, statues and busts, ceramic vessels, coins and Byzantine-era icons.” Another article from the New York Times states: “Evidence retrieved in the raid indicated that many of the items had been bought at Christie’s or Sotheby’s between 2001 and 2005, although none had been declared to the Greek authorities before entering the country, as required by law.” Clearly, these smugglers made no distinction between trading in parts of a temple and selling coins – both are profitable on the market.
In 2005 in Egypt, one smuggling ring is known to have illegally exported around 57,000 objects from the country. These individuals dealt in all classes of objects; the article states:
“Officials estimated the smuggling gang exported some 57,000 pieces worth about $55m, including human and animal mummies, coins, statues and wooden sarcophagi. The authorities intercepted some of the antiquities at Cairo airport, but others were smuggled all over the world, including some that were found in Australia for sale on the internet. They have been returned to Egypt.”
It is curious that some (whose professions are outside of archaeology and field archaeology) have tried to argue a special case that coins should not be considered archaeologically significant objects, despite the fact they come from the same places as other objects: historically significant sites with associated archaeological remains (see “Why Coins Matter”). Are not these caches further evidence that looters are not just detecting in empty fields for coins but are also systematically looting tombs and other archaeological and historical sites for material, taking everything that will fetch money on the market?
In the SAFE feature, I commented on the significant problem of looting in Balkan countries, which supplies much of the fresh material on the coin market. Yesterday, I read an article, on the MSN list, discussing the problem of looting in Romania and efforts to recover looted material. Apparently, ‘minor objects’ such as coins and jewelry are not exempt from being repatriated when their illicit export can be traced:
“Selon une statistique de l’IGP, en 2006, environ 17 000 biens archéologiques
étaient recherchés hors des frontières de Roumanie, la plupart étant des
pièces de monnaies : des pièces romaines en argent (12 000 pièces), des
pièces d’or de Chersonèse taurique (2 440 pièces) et des monnaies d’or de
Lysimarque (2 700 pièces).”
And for our readers who do not read French, here is my rough translation:
“According to statistics of the IGP [L’Inspection général de la Police roumaine], in 2006, around 17,000 archaeological goods were recovered from outside the borders of Romania, most were coins: Roman silver coins (12,000 pieces), gold coins from Tauric Chersonese [essentially the Crimea] (2,440 pieces) and gold coins of Lysimachos (2,700 pieces).”
The well-known case of the dekadrachm hoard, illicitly excavated and exported from Turkey, illustrates that foreign governments have a legal basis to sue for their return, when they can track the sale of illicitly excavated and exported material.
The Medici Conspiracy tells the story of Giacomo Medici’s distribution and exportation of illicitly excavated antiquities (primarily ‘high art’ objects) and how authorities used his own records to track down the loot. Although ‘high art’ gets more press and museums with indiscriminate acquisition policies frequently pay the price, the minor arts of antiquity are equally important to our knowledge of past societies – especially when they can be studied from recorded excavated contexts – and they are, and have been, liable to litigation should their illicit sale be traced.
As the market in ‘minor antiquities’ flourishes and continues to grow, there can be no doubt we will likely witness future court battles involving the plunder of the minor arts. Should the records of some smuggler or some unscrupulous dealer be seized by law enforcement in the future, the sale of some coins and other small objects could potentially be traced and be subject to possible litigation. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting collector may well pay the financial price. There is a multitude of evidence demonstrating that such objects are entering the market in very large quantities, supplied by organized rings of smugglers and looters. Is it enough that a dealer can say “I acquired this legally, in good faith, but I can’t tell you anything about the previous owner or where I got it – I have to protect my sources!” Should this be enough to assure the collector that the object was not recently looted? Is this due diligence? (for due diligence see: David Gill’s “Cultural Property Advice” and also keyword ‘due diligence).’
(1.) Ironically, many contemporary collectors and art galleries regard Greek painted vases as ‘high art’ objects, but there is a scholarly debate concerning how highly Greek painted vases were regarded by the Greeks themselves. In general, see: Vickers, M. and D. Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. (Oxford); and also: Vickers, M. 1985. “Artful Crafts: the Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 15; Vickers, M., O. Impey, and J. Allan. 1986. Silver to Ceramic. (Oxford); Vickers, M. 1986. “Silver, Copper and Ceramics in Ancient Athens,” in M. Vickers (ed.) Pots and Pans (Oxford). These works, and others, suggest that Greek painted vases imitated more valuable gold, silver, and other metal vessels, which would have been more routinely used by aristocratic classes and that painted vases were a more economical substitute.