Showing posts with label eBay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label eBay. Show all posts

October 5, 2016

Genuine (likely-fake) Ancient Roman Antiochia Syria Glass Vial Perfume Oil Unguent $299 on eBay

Tracking conflict antiquities and illicit antiquities sold via the internet is challenging, even for people who regularly try to monitor sites in their daily life or as part of ongoing research. Manual checks and automated link and keyword extraction crawlers can be useful for scraping data, but all too often it feels a bit like the arcade game whack-a-mole.  


Just when you think you might be on to a terrorist selling antiquities on eBay, surprise! You really have only found the non-terrorist-leaning dishonest individual with the same modus aperandi that you have already recorded ten times before, but now with a different user name.  

Take for example, this eBay auction which purports to be a Genuine Ancient Roman Iridescent Blown Glass Vial, what archaeologists call a piriform unguentaria. Ancient everyday vessels like these weren't intentionally iridescent.  They gained their rainbow'd look when the vessel became buried in soil.  Soil then leaches the alkali from the glass which, when corroded, can alter the glass object's surfaces to reflect light in such a way as to cause iridescence.

The eBay seller ancientgifts gives the following description for their item:

CLASSIFICATION: Ancient Roman Blown Glass Vial

ATTRIBUTION: Eastern Roman Empire (Syria), 1st Century A.D.

SIZE/MEASUREMENTS:
Height: 80 millimeters (3 1/4 inches)
Bowl Diameter: 11 millimeters (1/2 inch)
Neck Diameter: 8 millimeters (1/3 inch)
Top Lip Diameter: 16 millimeters (2/3 inch)

Weight: 5.99 grams

CONDITION: Very good, complete but likely repaired (professionally, probably by a conservator). Fairly uncommon style. Minor scratches and scuffs consistent with use and then burial in soil. Heavy layer of iridescence and soil deposits caused by prolonged burial in soil).

Surprisingly, this suggested "conservator-treated" piece still has soil clinging to it? Ancient objects that have surface deposits can contain important information on its use or provenance so IF the object actually passed through a conservator's hands, like the seller's object description implies, the potential significance of the soil deposits should have been evaluated and recorded, not merely left in place. Perhaps this teaser has been added to give the object the appearance of authenticity?

Not so surprisingly this genuine possibly-fake object comes without any provenance/collecting history.  This in spite of the fact that the object has one of this seller's typical 3 kilometer long descriptions which outlines the likely history of the object ad nauseam.  

But as eBay shoppers should know, provenance is difficult to produce when an object has recently been looted and equally hard to come by when a seemingly-authentic antiquity has no history at all because it isn't what it claims to be, or hasn't come from anywhere near where it has been suggested.

But who is the seller ancientgifts?

Looking through ancientgifts "ADDITIONAL TERMS OF SALE" takes you on a not so foxy fox hunt that I doubt any, but the most well-informed savvy collectors, who actually bother with conducting due diligence would ever bother with.  The first click links you to his Ancient Gifts website at http://www.ancientgifts.biz. This link in turn leads you to a twitter profile: @ancientgifts which then lists another URL for a website claiming to be the SUSU - Student Association for Archaeology and Anthropology on which is posted the following claim.

Click to Enlarge
When searching with Google "Southern Urals State University Students Association for the Advancement of Archaeological and Anthropological Studies" doesn't return any URLs pointing to a legitimate organisation affiliated with the Chelyabinsk, Russia university.

The WHO IS registry however does give us some leads as the Registrant Contact Information for both of the seller's URLs is:

Name: Chuck Ordego
Organization: Timeless Treasure
Address: 3051 Hales Passage
City: Lummi Island
State / Province: WA
Postal Code: 98262
Country: US
Phone: +1.3607589932

Note the "d" in the last name "Ordego".

A check of directory assistance shows that the telephone number and residential address affiliated with each site are registered to Charles Edward Ortego (notice the "t" and not the "d"), his wife Anna (sometimes written as Anya) Ponomareva  who also goes by the name Anna Ortego and possibly a third individual, his elderly or deceased grandfather Carl Stube. 

"Ortego" is the last name "Chuck" or "Charlie" or "Charles" uses, according to his mother's blog and various legal records related to a lawsuit he filed on behalf of a Lummi Island homeowners association he is registered with.    His wife, according to one of her two Facebook pages, is from Chelyabinsk, Russia which might explain the Russian University nonsense or the certificates of authenticity they are willing to provide from the likely-fictitious university student group. 

Mr. Stube appears to be Chuck's mother's father, and as she is in her late seventies, and the only evidence of his existence I could find was a fifty year old photo that would make him at least ninety. I personally doubt if he is still living.

In any case, I think we can say for certain that Charles E. Ortego, who lives at a residence located at 3051 Hales Passage, Lummi Island, Washington along with his Russian-born wife are the most likely humans behind the username ancientgifts and I don't want to make this post more tedious than it already is by listing all the sites where you can find a correlation. 

The auction duo seem to "seed" their online sales with low value often-overpriced authentic objects alongside fakes and a mixed bag of inexpensive gemstones that Ms. Ponomareva Ortega advertises on two Facebook profiles and her Instagram profile.  

The couple claim that much of the proceeds they make will go to "The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as some other worthy institutions in Europe connected with Anthropology and Archaeology."

Not surprisingly we weren't able to verify any donations to that esteemed institution.

Looking over past reports from suspicious archaeologists Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Paul Barford it appears that Ortego and/or his wife have been selling tourist-grade trinkets of sketchy origin under a variety of usernames for more than a decade.

Sometimes irreputable sellers on eBay create shill accounts to bid on their own auctions to drive up the prices and sometimes they change user names when they have been outed publicly for fraud, hoping that angry buyers or hostile competitors won't notice or won't pursue them. 

Past online auction names that have been attributed to the individual(s) selling under the current username ancientgifts include:

southern_urals_state_saaa
southern_urals_saaa, and
s_urals_state_university
timelesstreasure4u
thegiftoftime

But regardless of how many names the seller has used now or in the past, he has been successfully working the system for more than a decade.

This doesn't say much for eBay's investment in policing their own auction site, where profit opportunity is high and old rules for committing fraud no longer seem to be applied.  Or if they are, they are applied selectively and very rarely when it comes to chasing dealers flogging low value ancient art.

But if you have any information on other user names used by this particular ancient art dealer, please send them our way and we can update his list.

If you have found your way to the ARCA blog doing your own due diligence as a potential eBay buyer/collector, consider yourself duly warned.  Any successful con game depends on the greed and deception (especially self-deception) of BOTH the conner and the connee.

Purchasing ancient art via the murky waters of an online trading community the size of eBay, is the perfect toxic cocktail for the uninformed novice collector. The site has all the trappings of honest tradesmen plying their goods in the 21st century but still very little in the way of deterring or prosecuting criminals and conmen.

Welcome to the Wild Wild Web. 

By: Lynda Albertson

April 21, 2016

The Carabinieri TPC Sequester Stash of Archaeological Finds For Sale on the Internet

Italy's Syracuse branch of its specialised art squad, the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, has seized a cache of antiquities including rings, fibulas (brooches) earrings, pottery, oil lamps and more than 100 silver and bronze coins dating to the Greek and Roman period. 
Photo Credit - Carabinieri TPC - Ragusa Division

Tracking cCommerce online collector auctions, the Carabinieri's data researching officers notified authorities in Sicily and a search warrant was executed at the home of a 48 year old restaurant worker in Ragusa.  At the residence, in addition to the illegally excavated antiquities, officers found a small amount of hashish and marijuana, a metal detector and tools used for illegal clandestine excavations. Law enforcement authorities are now trying to determine which archaeological sites in Sicily may have been the likely find spots for the objects.

While it is not illegal to purchase a metal detector in Italy, there are strict rules on where and what you can metal detect.  There are also many historical and protected archaeological areas where metal detecting is forbidden altogether.  These include the antiquities rich zones of Calabria, Lazio, Tuscany, Val D'Aosta and not surprisingly, Sicily.  

It should be noted that Italian Law 1939:1089 on the Custody of Artistic and Historic Objects published in the Official Gazette no. 184 on August 8, 1939 affords protection to all objects of historical or archaeological value, including coins. All objects discovered by excavation or fortuitously are the property of the Italian state.  They also must be reported to the heritage superintendency immediately.  Rewards may be offered by the state but only within a certain limited percentage of the finds' combined worth.  

The destruction of archaeological layers and the removal of objects by Nighthawkers, those who illegally search and remove artefacts using a metal detector, affects everyone.  Reckless treasuring hunting,  destroys our archaeological and historic understanding of a site, which in turn destroys the information and knowledge of our shared heritage, which should be available to all.

By.  Lynda Albertson

September 30, 2015

Highlights from “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage”


In an awareness raising initiative to highlight the ongoing upheaval and destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, the Metropolitan Museum and the US State Department jointly held an event yesterday titled, “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage” in New York City.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted one example of a looted and not destroyed antiquity that is known to have passed through the hands of ISIS operatives.  The object, a 9th century B.C.E: ivory plaque, decorated with a procession of Assyrian officials and foreign tributaries was excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud by a team from the British Museum in 1989.  The plaque was recovered by U.S. special operations forces during a tactical raid that killed a key ISIS commander, identified by his nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf, last May in al-Omar in eastern Syria.

This ancient object is known to have been looted from the Mosul Museum (Iraq) and underscores what many following illicit antiquities trafficking have already concluded, that the Islamic State not only destroys objects it find religiously offensive or useful for its public propaganda but also has been known to plunder antiquities for some level of financial gain or as war booty when opportunity knocks. 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Keller added that "newly declassified evidence" seized when American Delta Force commandos took out Abu Sayyaf and twelve other Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters included receipts collecting taxes from looters as well as written edicts that threatened punishment for those caught looting antiquities without formal Islamic State permission. 

While some of this information appears to be newly declassified, conflict antiquities archaeologist Dr. Sam Hardy released a lengthy analysis of the heritage hoard seized during the Abu Sayyaf raid when details of the cache were released by the State Department in July 2015.  That analysis has been available for two months and can be reviewed here.  

Robert A. Hartung, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Diplomatic Affairs announced a new initiative within their "Rewards for Justice" program,  an incentive established by the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, Public Law 98-533.   The program is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and announced yesterday that they are set to 


Hartuung emphasized that the Rewards for Justice incentive is not a buyback program, but reward for help in identifying and catching smugglers linked to ISIS.  At present this reward appears to be restricted solely to the Islamic State and does not appear to be not available for information leading to the disruption of the sale of illicit antiquities by other armed groups or other non political traffickers profiting from the absence of controls during the ongoing war.

Another panel discussion highlighted the work of the US government-sponsored organisation currently tasked with ground-based observations of cultural heritage incidents in Syria and Iraq. Michael Danti, from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who’s group has just been allocated a second tranche of federal funding totalling $900,000 in an extension to their previous $600,000 one-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State spoke on his organization's work continues to document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and portions of Iraq.   While useful in its own right, ASOR's federally-funded initiative often draws upon the research and analysis of other conflict antiquities researchers, some of whom consistently work below the funding radar, within this sector of expertise on a voluntary basis and without the benefit of funding from governmental or academic bodies. 

Wolfgang Weber, ‎Head of Global Regulatory Policy at eBay, spoke about the due diligence of the web-based auction powerhouse that handles 800 million online auctions a year.  Sales of illicit objects online are a known and ongoing problem where illicit antiquities are concerned and attempts to prevent such illegal activity via large auction sites such as eBay are a work in progress.  Judging from their ability to monitor other areas of illicit activity, many believe that eBay's efforts in policing their online marketplace have largely been ineffective or fallen short of desirable outcomes. 

Weber's presence on the panel underscores that the internet is being harnessed to provide valuable tools for traffickers, who exploit weaknesses in online marketplaces, making the illicit trafficking of cultural property faster, easier and ever more difficult for authorities to fight.

During his presentation Weber stated that his team's task is to identify illegal items & remove them from the online marketplace but he added that eBay does not have the capacity to check individual items, only their sales conduit.  This means that the auction site's contribution to stopping illegal sales is limited to preventing sellers from listing items of concern or in some cases removing listings before a sale can be made.  

eBay relies heavily on key word searches and external reports by individuals who inform the company when an object has been identified which is of dubious origin or legality.  Private citizens and researchers connected to small NGOs are hampered from stopping the online trafficking of items as they can only flag up what’s known to be illegal or looks that way to eBay. Those monitoring the online auction site cannot procure hard evidence by buying the actual contraband as they would then be in violation of national and international laws and treaties themselves. 

Lev Kubiak, ICE Assistant Director for International Operations spoke on US Immigration and Customs Enforcements roll in cultural property, art and antiquities investigations highlighting their 
"Operation Mummy’s Curse,” a five-year investigation carried out by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that targeting an international criminal network that illegally smuggled and imported more than 7,000 cultural items from around the world and resulted in at least two convictions. 

Sharon Cott, Senior Vice President, Secretary & General Counsel at the Metropolitan Museum, spoke in support of AAMD member museums who apply ethical principles to safeguard against purchasing blood antiquities and to the roll of museums should play as safe havens for objects during times of unrest. 

Dr. Markus Hilgert, a professor of ancient Near-Eastern studies and Director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum im Pergamonmuseum - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin spoke about his newly funded trans-disciplinary research project on the illicit trade, ILLICID, with partners in customs and law enforcement, the German Federal Foreign Office, Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, German Commission for UNESCO and ICOM. The ILLICID project is financed via the German Federal Ministry for Education.

Hilgert stressed the need to identify and develop criminological methods for in-depth analysis of illicit trafficking, stressing the need for more information on object types, turnover, networks, and various modus operandi.  He further underscored the need to adequately assess the various dimensions of money laundering and terrorist financing that may be being derived from heritage trafficking.  In conclusion he emphasized that trafficking is the number one threat to the world's cultural patrimony - more than destruction. 

ARCA would like to thank all those who were present in the room and who live-tweeted the conference and took detailed notes allowing those of us in Europe to listen in, even if it was way past our bedtimes.

A list of those folks who lent a hand are:
@cwjones89
@vagabondslog
@keridouglas
@AWOL_tweets
@mokersel
@adreinhard
@mokersel
@HeritageAtState
@ChasingAphrodit
@metmuseum
@jstpwalsh
@LarryCoben
@InventorLogan

There was a lot of ground covered and more still that needs to be covered.

by Lynda Albertson

February 18, 2015

Sir, how much is that (2nd Century B.C.E.) Vase in the Window? Part II

Antiquities traffickers continue to make headlines in multiple countries in 2015.  In this three part series, ARCA explores current art trafficking cases to underscore that the ownership and commodification of the past continues. 

Part II - The Dodgy Dealer and Conflict Antiquities - Buyer Beware

Tuesday, investigative reporter Simon Cox's "File on Four" program on BBC Radio 4 featured a radio segment titled "Islamic State: Looting for Terror".  A synopsis of the episode on antiquities looting in its written form, and with accompanying video excerpts, is available on the BBC News Magazine website here. The full audio of the radio program is available in MP3 format here.

The program illustrated, with present-day examples, how illicit antiquities trafficking  sells cultural heritage objects that are often poorly protected, difficult to identify, and easy to transport across international boundaries, especially during conflicts due to the flow of refugees.  The radio broadcast featured interviews with both London and Middle East experts, one of whom, Dr. David Gill of Looting Matters, validated that conflict antiquities do make their way into the UK art market and from there on to collectors.

But rather than recount the program's content, which on its own deftly underscores that the illicit market in conflict antiquities is alive and producing devastating results for source countries like Syria and Iraq, this article focuses on the buyer's side of the market and explores the attitudes of complacent dealers who too often treat the furor over smuggled antiquities as a bothersome nuisance that interferes with their ability to make  living.

In the world of crime, morals follow money.

Not wanting to enter into the ongoing oppositional debate with antiquities dealers or collectors, I decided to spend some time listening to the folks involved in the trade as they talked with one another about collecting and the collecting market. Too often heritage protection advocates get pigeon-holed as the noisy minority of academic archaeologists who oppose acquisition of unprovenanced ancient art.  My goal was to be anything but noisy, and to merely observe.

Publicly, pro-collector blogs frequently argue that nationalistic retention laws for antiquities neither preserve sites nor objects, nor do they benefit the larger interests of civilization and mankind.  But what do collectors and dealers have to say to one another about their own responsibility to preserve site?  And how do they truly feel when it comes to merchandise that enters the art market as a result of the illicit antiquities trade?

To get a better understanding I started by reading through the websites of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and the Association of Dealers & Collectors of Ancient & Ethnographic Arts.  Both the IADAA and the ADCAEA's mission statements advocate for the responsible and legal trading and collecting of antiquities. 

  • promote awareness and understanding of ancient and ethnographic art collecting through open communication with members and the public.
  • support the preservation and protection of cultural objects around the globe through responsible and legal trading and collecting.
  • educate and inform members on policies and laws that affects the international movement of cultural property.
  • advocate and support the establishment of clear, transparent and fair laws governing acquisition, ownership and commercial disposal of artifacts.
  • promote a Code of Conduct that underscores the professionalism of our members through responsible and ethical practice.
  • advocate the establishment of a comprehensive digital database register within the USA to secure appropriate title to art and artifacts for museums, dealers and collectors and restore legitimacy and value to objects registered.
Good objectives to strive for even if I found their December 29, 2014 blog post a lot more threatened and defensive as this opening paragraph shows.
As a result, several American museums have been coerced into giving objects to foreign governments that have claimed them as their rightful property purely for political purposes.  American collectors and art dealers as well have been forced to repeatedly defend themselves against all manner of claims by foreign governments for countless pieces of art work that have been dispersed around the globe.  Increasingly, Americans have had to defend themselves in costly litigation against foreign governments who use American lawyers, US Customs, and Homeland Security, and the Press to pursue spurious claims against US citizens.  At the same time these foreign nations do very little to protect their archaeological resources or stem the tide of illicit excavation on their own soil.  The old paradigm of “antiquities collecting equals destruction of cultural heritage and therefore must be abolished” is naive at best and slanderous at worst.
To understand the reason for this defensiveness among dealers and collectors I thought it worthwhile to listen to them chat amongst themselves in non-official capacities, perhaps learning about what drew them individually to the field rather than assume I understood how dealers and collectors truly feel by looking at their safety-in-numbers mission statements.  Wording for large public statements often makes for adversarial lines in the heritage protection sand.   

I joined several collecting groups in hopes of better understanding "their side of the story".  Clearly heritage protection professionals and dealers and collectors should be able to solve their differences if if there is goodwill on all sides.

But is there?

One of the first comments I came across discussed Muslim militants threatening ancient sites in Iraq and Syria.  One dealer staunchly stated over email...
The lesson is clear here. The best overall strategy to preserve mankind's shared global heritage is NOT to keep it all concentrated in the original source countries, but rather to widely distribute it around the world.
"Widely distributed" having the added benefit of also generating revenue for dealers and a source of joy for the buyer.  Each doing their part to salvage history away from the ongoing conflict. But was their viewpoint a noble one?   The rest of the email is listed below for the reader to decide...

Hopefully they will loot and sell them first rather than destroying them! But then we dealers would probably be charged with funding terrorism by our wonderful politically correct governments.
Further in the same conversational thread another mid-level dealer replied...
I have bought many ! objects of ' fetishes and gods' from Moslem Runners who have no problems selling these pieces; nor do I have in buying then.
apparently referring to the secular nature of some Muslim looters and smugglers who don't necessarily subscribe to the religious ideology of Isis, Isil or Da'ish when selecting antiquities for trafficking.

Perhaps in jest, or perhaps by way of introduction, another dealer wrote a How-to email on how to smuggle antiquities from Egypt saying...
 Hello to you all.

I would like to share with you my thought regarding how a piece you end up buying in auction like Bonhams or Christie's is actually looted.

- A poor farmer in Egypt finds it while plowing his land.

- He is scared to report it considering the hell he will go through, confiscating his land , ending up in jail , family dying from hunger etc... so he sells it to the local dealer in the village

- Local dealer sells it to the middle man in Cairo

- Middle man sells it to the big boss in Cairo.

- Big boss smuggles it to an Arabian gulf country, e.g. Qatar, Dubai (UAE), Bahrain

- Piece then shipped to a stupid European country , e.g. Portugal.  sorry, stupid meaning = level of customs awareness

- Then an invoice is made from a dealer in another European country e.g. Belgium, to this Portuguese dealer for the piece, of course nobody checks, it's an EU transaction, no tax , no customs.

- Based on the Belgian invoice, the Portuguese dealer make an export license to U.S.A from ministry of culture, piece origin from Belgium, this totally cancels the fact that the piece came from the Arabian gulf.

- Item received in the U.S, no trouble, legal ,

- Item sold in auction  + old European collection, legally entered to U.S , customs paid.
Do ethics even enter into collector-dealer purchase discussions?  For some yes, but too frequently no.

In listening to collectors' observations I found that not all were black sheep.  While some over-sharing group members aired their profession's dirty laundry, others called for restraint in purchasing and recommended that dealers and collectors stick to objects with verifiable collecting histories.  Some dealers and collectors reached out to one another to help determine if a piece had value, was original or knew someone in the business who might have information on the object's past in the antiquities marketplace.   At face value their motive appears to be less driven by ethics and more by the desire to preserve value for money on object purchases and investments. Objects with sketchy pasts are still money spent in purchase but make for risky investments.

Some dealers and collectors outed dealers known to have sold fakes or to have had problems with previous law violations like Mousa Khouli who also goes by the name Morris.  Dealers reminded new members of the group that Khouli had sold through  Windsor Antiquities as well as Palmyra Heritage, and through eBay as palmyraheritagemorriskhouligallery.

Several group members pointed out pieces that they found problematic on Khouli current auction events such as this listing for an Ancient Roman Egyptian Painted stucco Mummy Mask c.1st century AD and this Palmyran Limestone Head Ca. 3rd-5th century A.D.  I myself notice he trades in Syrian coins, ancient glass and mummy cartonnage.

Khouli is not new to the art and antiquities profession.  He moved to New York City with his family from Syria in 1992 and opened a gallery specializing in the ancient world in New York City in 1995. His father had a gallery in Damascus for 35 Years, and he learned the business from his grandfather who also worked in the art and antiquities collecting field.  When prosecuted in 2012 he was already a seasoned and substantial seller in the New York market.

But Khouli eventually pled guilty to smuggling ancient Egyptian treasure and to making a false statement to law enforcement authorities.  He was sentenced to six months home confinement, one year probation, and 200 hours of community service, along with a criminal monetary assessment of $200.  Today he continues in the business he knows, the buying and selling of history. 

The response by his peers for his misdeeds?....   
Everyone's at it, he just happened to get caught.
Interestingly, like with the How To Smuggle recipe the earlier dealer described, Khouli's smuggled objects were imported via Dubai.

Maybe the one thing heritage workers and the collection community should agree on is that the "white" (clean) art collecting trade is dirtied when black market antiquities are circulated via suspect dealers and purchasers. Singular source countries, acting alone, cannot tackle all of the triangulations between looter, smuggler, dealer and buyer without the active support of neighboring countries, law enforcement and the art collecting community themselves.

Yesterday's Cambodia, is today's Syria and tomorrow's Ukraine, as the grey market of antiquities shifts from one vulnerable nation or one conflict zone to another.

by Lynda Albertson

November 23, 2014

Essay: Do you think art collectors might be tempted to buy Syrian antiquities (looted or otherwise?). We say resoundingly, yes.

By Lynda Albertson

On November 22, 2014 the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) published two striking photos of three confiscated artifacts removed from the Taibul Tomb in the Southeast Necropolis at Palmrya.  Taibul (TYBL in his native Palmyrene) was a rich Palmyran merchant who commissioned a tomb for himself and his family in 113 CE in a necropolis five kilometres southeast of Palmyra.

The tombs in this ancient graveyard are subterranean.  To the untrained eye, the zone where Taibul's tomb and others are located originally looked like just another tract of stony Syrian desert. But with the combined work of Syrian and Japanese archaeologists who documented the site between 2001 and 2005 we have learned much about Palmyrene funerary practices, couches, sepulchres and loculi.   

Unfortunately, the finely-sculpted figures of
men and women where of interest not only to archaeologists and historians documenting the site but more recently also to tomb raiders. But were these thieves savvy enough to understand what will sell on the antiquities art market or were they simply opportunists, taking advantage of what they could easily access?  

Are funerary busts of interest to collectors?

And are they willing to pay large sums for them?

A quick search on the internet would lead one to believe so.  In a few clicks I found one relief listed on eBay through Aphrodite Ancient Art LLC with little identifying where the object originated from.  The auction page states only that it was part of an “Early American private collection, 1960’s”.  eBay lists this one for a steal.  Its auction price is an eye-popping $13,500. 
Aphrodite eBay Auction Item

In 2011 an uglier Syrian limestone relief also went on auction.  Listed as Lot 69 in Sotheby’s June 8, 2011 auction, the object's provenance was listed as Sarkis and Haddad, Beirut, early 1970s.  Despite its humbler appearance, it still managed to find a buyer and fetched a modest sum of $8,125.

Going back to the Aphrodite website, I found a second, Syrian funerary relief of two brothers.  This one listed the object as coming from Palmyra with a provenance of having been purchased from Sotheby's New York in June 2011.  Buy it while it still lasts and collectors can get two funerary figures for a whopping $22,500.

Given the fragility of the Palmyra tombs and the many heritage sites damaged, at risk, or already looted as a result of the Syrian conflict, I wonder if it would be wiser if the experts shifted their focus away from statistical analysis to something more concrete.  Instead of trying to quantifying how much money ISIS/ISIL may, or may not, be making off of blood antiquities perhaps we should be stressing that more attention and funding is needed to trace who the individual traffickers are, both upstream and down.  If we do, Syria's cultural heritage might have a less grim outcome.   As for journalists in search of catchy headlines; vandalized tombs make just as dramatic a statement as vague value estimates and they can be substantiated with actual witnesses and imagery confirmation.

Aphrodite Website Auction Item
Given the gargantuan task of protecting antiquities in the midst of a civil war,  I think its pretty remarkable that DGAM had photo images matched so quickly to identify these pieces and to inform the public of their findings.  And while I am not prepared to go out on a brittle limb and assume any of these reliefs on sale or recently sold have dirty provenance, I do think their presence in the fine arts marketplace makes a pretty strong case that Syrian heritage objects are of interest to collectors.  The fact that they garner hefty sums further underscores that we have only seen the tip of the Syrian antiquities iceberg. 

Petty subsistence looters may fence objects for paltry amounts, middlemen fighters may take their cut, and end traffickers may make a bundle selling to auction houses and galleries, but all this useless faffing about of trying to put an unquantifiable dollar sign on how much its making which opponent in this war is doing nothing to stop the flow whatsoever.

In the end percentages are less relevant than simply understanding that collection-worthy pieces like these seen at auction or those stripped from Palmrya will surely find their way into the world's antiquities art market.  Maybe not immediately, but with the lack of market transparency and self policing, surely in the future.

Traffickers are patient.  So are collectors.