Showing posts with label illicit trade in antiquities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit trade in antiquities. Show all posts

September 19, 2016

Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA addressing concerns about the trade in stolen antiquities

Google Earth View of Ports Franc
As Geneva officials at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to address previously raised concerns about the risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups, tighter controls have been implemented today on shipments which affect everyone in the art shipping industry that handle the shipment of antiquities to this free port. 

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new rule requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artefacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm of specialists hired by the über-warehouse.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  

The new check applies to all objects classified under HS Code 9705.   HS classifications are based on standardised international codes used in shipment data as a means of classifying specific types of goods.  Goods listed under this code are deemed to be "works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques, collections and collectors' pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest."

According to the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website, the first step of this procedure will be a documentation check made by KPMG, one of the Big Four global consultancy firms, (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) more famous for their financial audit, tax and advisory services. What this powerhouse finance firm's experience is as auditors of artwork provenance is not clear.  There is no mention of art services on the KPMG website. 

But moving along to what the shippers need to submit. 

To complete the new due diligence check, potential customers who wish to use the facility will be required to ship, a minimum of ten days prior to the intended shipment date, "all documents in your possession (invoices, lists, certificates, export licenses, passports, etc.) as well as a good quality photograph" for inspection.  The Ports Francs website doesn't specify what the photo should be of:  the object to be stored or a passport photo of the shipper.  

The Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website further states that "an Artloss register certificate is a big asset." 

While the Geneva freeport may see a certificate from an art loss database such as London-based Art Loss Register or Art Claim (another art loss database maintained by Art Recovery International) as the owner having done their individual due diligence these types of certificates are only helpful in cases where known objects are stolen from known collections.  Such paper assurances offer no proof that the proposed antiquity is of licit origin and are ineffective in diminishing the illicit trade in archaeological remains.   

Undocumented, looted antiquities without collection histories will never appear in art loss databases.  This has been underscored over and over again. Undocumented, looted antiquities appear most often at border crossings and all to frequently launder their way up and into the art market, popping up with embarrassing regularity in museum and private collections despite sometimes having accumulated probable paperwork that on first glance tacitly legitimises them along the way.

When suspicious, rather than relying on certificates, KPMG would be better served consulting with the WCO,  academics researching in the field of illicit antiquities and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).   ICOM's “Red Lists” offer detailed descriptions of objects the auditors should be suspicious of coming from countries that may currently be or have been at risk of looting. Trusting that an object is "clean" merely because it has a stack of papers tied to it will not deter trafficking.


In 2013 Connaissances des Arts, estimated that the Ports Francs free port held around 1.2 million artworks. Its huge warehouses offers 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet) of storage space.  In more visual terms, that's the equivalent of 22 soccer pitches.  

While the amendment to the Swiss Customs Act, approved by the Swiss parliament on Jan. 1, 2016, and this new ruling give new power to administrators, customs authorities and contractors to monitor and control the entry and exit of goods from its tax-advantaged art-and-collectible storage facility, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Four major free ports in Switzerland dominate the market in storing high value goods. Five free ports worldwide have bet their marketshare specialising in the storage of priceless art works. The oldest is Ports Francs in the La Praille neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland which was founded in 1850.  The others include the ultra chic Singapore Freeport which opened in 2010, the Monaco Freeport by S.E.G.E.M., in Fontvieille, just minutes away from the lucrative casinos of Monte-Carlo.

Le Freeport in Luxembourg opened its doors just two years ago, benefiting in part from the overflow of taxable goods once destined for Ports Francs in Geneva.  In the Far East the Beijing Freeport of Culture located adjacent to Beijing Capital Airport, and the much anticipated Shanghai Le Freeport West Bund, which is lated to open in 2017, both will allow the art market to store a substantial amount of art in mainland China.

In 2013, the European Fine Art Fair annual report, known in the field as the TEFAF Art Market Report cited an estimate which estimated that approximately $100 billion of art is stored in tax friendly free port facilities.  To be effective in deterring trafficking through these facilities, any inspections undertaken in free ports should be harmonised in all facilities across the globe. 

By: Lynda Albertson

April 20, 2016

Highlights from the US Hearing Entitled “Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities by ISIS”

On April 19, 2016 the US House Financial Services Committee Task Force on Terrorism Financing held a one panel, two hour and fifteen minute long hearing entitled “Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities by ISIS” in the Rayburn House Office Building.

A 16 page introductory memorandum and witness biography can be found on the US House of Representatives Financial Services website here. 

During this hearing, testimony was given by: (in alphabetical, not speaking order)

• Dr. Amr Al-Azm, PhD, Associate Professor, Shawnee State University
• Mr. Robert M. Edsel, Chairman of the Board, Monuments Men Foundation
• Mr. Yaya J. Fanusie, Director of Analysis, Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance,
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
• Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, PhD, Distinguished Professor, DePaul University College of
Law
• Mr. Lawrence Shindell, Chairman, ARIS Title Insurance Corporation

A video recording of the entire hearing can be viewed below.



During the hearing witnesses described the unabated and systematic process of cultural heritage destruction in Iraq and Syria and antiquities looting in the region which has grown steadily given the regions' instability.  

Secretary of U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, Patty Gerstenblith, speaking in a personal capacity and for the Blue Shield organisation she represents, testified before the Financial Services Committee’s Task Force saying, in part

“Unfortunately the looting of archaeological sites is big business, often carried out on an organised industrialised scale and in response to market demand.  And many of these sites are unknown before they are looted.  

As cultural objects move from source, transit and destination countries different legal systems create obstacles to interdiction of objects and prosecution of crimes and they allow the laundering of title to these artefacts.  

The United States is the single largest market for art in the world, with forty-three percent of market share.  Because of the availability of the charitable tax deduction, the ability to import works of art and artefacts without payment of tariffs and because of artistic preference, the United States is the largest ultimate market for antiquities, particularly those from the Mediterranean and the Middle East."

A transcript of Dr. Gerstenblith's testimony can be read in its entirety here.

Key imagery from Dr. Amr Al-Azm's testimony can be viewed here.

A transcript of Mr. Robert Edsel's testimony can be read in its entirety here.

A transcript of Mr. Yaya Fanusie's testimony can be read in its entirety here.

A transcript of Dr. Lawrence Shindell's testimony can be read in its entirety here.


While key takeaways from this hearing conversations are distilled here ARCA strongly encourages its blog readership to take the time to listen to the entire hearing and examine the legal instruments evidence Dr. Gerstenblith underscores as being necessary.  

She reminds us that looting of archaeological sites imposes incalculable costs on society by destroying the original contexts of archaeological artifacts thereby impairing our ability to reconstruct and understand the historical record.  Her testimony reminds us that looters loot because they are motivated by profit and that the looting and illicit trafficking phenomenon we are seeing in Iraq, Syria and Libya are responses to the basic economic principle of supply and demand.   

The statements of all of the speakers remind us that while the market in antiquities has existed for centuries, its role in facilitating criminal enterprise on the scale that we are seeing in the Middle East is a terrifying one.  

Maamoun Abdelkarim of Syria’s DGAM inspecting the condition of delivered
artefacts transported from various parts of Syria to Damascus on Sept. 21, 2015.

Antiquities collectors must be educated to understand that the purchase of objects emerging on the open market without legitimate collection histories (i.e. provenance) are the likely product of conflict-based looting of archaeological sites, and contribute significantly to the destruction of the world's cultural heritage.  Buyers need to be made to realise that their buying power and their, until now, unharnessed demand for archaeological material, absent transparent ethical acquisition documentation, incentivises those facing economic hardship to participate in, or tacitly condone,  the looting that we are observing in countries of conflict.  

If collectors in market nations such as the United States and London refuse to buy undocumented artifacts, then the incentives for looting historic sites, which by proxy funds criminal enterprise and terrorism, diminish. 

Armed conflicts have long been called the “perfect storm” within which large-scale looting can take place, but not without collectors willing to look the other way. 

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO


April 11, 2016

Suspect Auction Items in Christie's Upcoming Antiquities Auction in New York

On March 30, 2016 in Paris, France UNESCO held a large multidisciplinary symposium examining the movement of cultural property in 2016.  As listed on the UNESCO website this event was facilitated to

bring together for the first time market stakeholders, including representatives of auction houses and online platforms, museum representatives, cultural heritage experts, specialized intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations as well as Member States, to take stock on the situation of the illicit trade in cultural heritage and identify areas to improve synergies and strengthen international cooperation to successfully overcome this worldwide issue.

Present were a long list of heritage trafficking experts, members of national delegations and law enforcement divisions concerned about illicit trafficking as well as professionals representing the licit antiquities art market. 

Catherine Chadelat, the president of the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires (CVV), the regulatory authority for voluntary sales operators of chattels by public auction in France, stressed the importance of cooperation and communication between those working for the art market and allied professionals dealing with illicit trafficking issues.  During her opening address, she stated that the CVV  "strongly encourages market actors to not only comply with applicable regulations but to go further and take on a personal ethical responsibility."

Cecilia Fletcher, Senior Director, Compliance and Business Integrity Counsel for Sotheby’s European operations underscored her auction house's ethical standards and due diligence obligations to conduct its business with the highest level of integrity and transparency.  She expressed Sotheby's willingness to work closely with law enforcement agencies and ministries of culture to resolve issues when suspect antiquities come up for auction.  Martin Wilson, co-head of legal for Christie’s International, echoed his colleague, Ms. Fletcher's, words underscoring Christie's own efforts in ensure due diligence where antiquities are concerned.

Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) told the audience, as he had previously in Berlin in 2014, that many art dealers and sellers have good knowledge of where their stock originates from, but acknowledged that consignors haven't always kept good paperwork to prove it.  Asking for a show of hands from the audience, Greeling asked if any of the UNESCO invitees had ever inherited an antique from a relative that came without its original collecting documentation.

When discussing collection histories as they relate to the current situation in the Middle East, Geerling added, complete with an accompanying powerpoint slide, that "during the past two years, IADAA has checked with every member to ask if anything from the troubled areas had been offered and they reported back not a single dodgy Syrian or Iraqi object had been offered to any of our members"  While this is encouraging, IADAA only accounts for 34 art market dealers so his sampling is restricted to a limited number of high profile dealers. 

Throughout the day these and other art market's panelists contended that their respective organisations are doing their best, and that no-one, as yet, has seen illicit material coming through their firms or associations as a result of the current conflicts in the Middle East.  Absent from their presentations were what procedures, if any, the art market leaders had in place to notify law enforcement authorities should they be approached by a dealer or collector with a suspect antiquity originating from any source country. This despite the fact that unprovenanced, looted, illicitly trafficked antiquities regularly turn up in legitimate auctions, having passed through the hands of well known suspect dealers and galleries.


Despite that, Christos Tsirogiannis and others working with Italy's state prosecutors routinely identify objects looted from Italy decades ago,  matching the pieces through law enforcement archive photos and documentation held by the Italian authorities in relation to cases involving known tombaroli and corrupt dealers.

Three of these identified suspect pieces are currently scheduled to go on the auction block tomorrow through Christie's New York City division.

The suspect objects in the April 12, 2016 auction are: 



Listed Collection History (Provenance)
Private Collection, U.S.
An American Private Collector; Antiquities, Sotheby's, New York, 17 December 1998, lot 182.
with Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, acquired from the above.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 2000.

Pre-Lot Text
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN COLLECTION'

From all the previous owners, only the Royal Athena Galleries has been publicly listed in the lot's details.  Royal Athena Galleries has previously acquired stolen antiquities from the Corinth Museum in Greece and antiquities stolen from Italian excavation warehouses.  These details and the fact that these earlier objects, identified as stolen, were later repatriated to Greece and Italy should have triggered some sort of increased diligence as to this current mosaic's journey from discovery to the art market. 

In the Gianfranco Becchina archive Tsirogiannis identified a matching image of the mosaic via a leaflet created by Ariadne Galleries in New York.  The photocopied document presents the front window of the antiquities gallery, through which the same mosaic can be seen displayed on a wall. 

If Christie's has a commitment to transparency and due diligence in its antiquities auctions, as indicated in the UNESCO symposium, then why is it that they omitted the Ariadne Galleries connection in the offered lot's 'provenance' section?  

And why, if Royal Athena and Ariadne Galleries both have already been identified by Tsirogiannis in the past as having had tainted stock that at one time or another had passed through Becchina's network, weren't these two galleries a red flag to perhaps conduct a closer examination of the offered mosaic's origins?  

Tsirogiannis believes that this mosaic is likely from a country in northern Africa or the Near East. Christie's themselves mentions in their lot notes that there is a similar mosaic from Tunisia with the same subject in the permanent collection of the Bardo Museum.



Listed Collection History (Provenance)
Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 10 December 1987, lot 243.
with Royal-Athena Galleries, New York.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1988.

Pre-Lot Text
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF CHARLES BRICKBAUER, BALTIMORE

Royal Athena Galleries in New York are again mentioned in this lot's details. From the research of Watson and Todeschini, Tsirogiannis reminds us that Giacomo Medici was consigning and laundering illicit antiquities via Sotheby's auctions in London during the 1980s. Tsirogiannis has identified the same hydria in a print photograph from the Medici photo archive.  Curiously though, the dealer Medici is also excluded from the 'provenance' section of this lot's details.    


Listed Collection History (Provenance)
Private Collection, New York, Boston & Texas, acquired prior to 1995; thence by descent to the current owner.

Pre-Lot Text
THE PROPERTY OF A LADY'

Tsirogiannis has identified the same Roman janiform marble head from two images in the archive of the dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  Becchina, like Giacomo Medici, has not been included in the lot's 'provenance' section for tomorrow's auction.

Given that this is not the first suspect Roman janiform head smuggled out of Italy into the United States via Switzerland and identified from images in the Becchina archive, one would think that the auction house would consider this object in need of closer consideration before accepting it for consignment.

Which brings me back to UNESCO's meeting statement again and a lot of unanswered questions.

To bring together for the first time market stakeholders, including representatives of auction houses and online platforms, museum representatives, cultural heritage experts, specialized intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations as well as Member States, to take stock on the situation of the illicit trade in cultural heritage and identify areas to improve synergies and strengthen international cooperation to successfully overcome this worldwide issue.

Did Christie's contact/cooperate with the Carabinieri TPC on any of these objects in order to improve synergies and strengthen international cooperation?

What is Christie's criteria for accepting or rejecting an antiquity for consignment and do they have a policy in place for notifying authorities when illicit material is suspected?

And what is the auction house's operational policy and criteria for green-lighting an antiquity for auction when said object has previously passed through known dealer/gallery sources already identified as having handled illicit antiquities in the past?

and

Where is the cooperation and communication Catherine Chadelat spoke of between illicit antiquities researchers and the art market?

Where is the commitment to transparency mentioned by Cecilia Fletcher when only a partial listing of the collection history of an object is mentioned?

Who are the academic experts working with Christie’s that Martin Wilson mentioned in January? What recommendation do these researchers have for ensuring that illegally excavated objects,  i.e. those without a "findable" trace in any art crime database, are truly clean and not simply laundered through several buyers in a ruse to create a plausible collection history.

In closing, Tsirogiannis has notified Interpol, the Carabinieri, and the American authorities of his identifications. Here's hoping that the continued spotlight, however painful, will serve as a reminder that despite the presentations in Paris and the lack of suspect Syrian and Iraqi antiquities showing up in top-tier auctions, we still have a long way to go before the licit art market is cleaned up.

By:  Lynda Albertson



April 28, 2015

Gaziantep, Land of Antiquities and a Whole Lot More

By Lynda Albertson

On Sunday, April 26th The Independent ran a news piece titled "Syria conflict: The illicit art trade that is a major source of income for today's terror groups is nothing new." The meaty article, by Freelance Contributor Isabel Hunter, describes the events that unfolded as she posed as an agent for an antiquities buyer during a meeting with Syrians who were purported to be middlemen selling antiquities on the outskirts of Gaziantep.

Gaziantep (Antep) is a bustling Turkish city with 1.8 million inhabitants.  Sometimes referred to as "Little Aleppo" or “Aleppo in Exile” the city has become home to many Syrians who once lived in Aleppo province but who have been forced to flee as a result of the ongoing civil war.

Now in its fourth year, Syria's multi-sided conflict has claimed more than 150,000 lives and displaced two-fifths of the country's population.  It is estimated now that 3 million Syrians have fled their homeland since the start of war and UNHCR has stated that 1.7 million Syrian refugees now live within Turkey's borders.  

30,000 of these refugees have relocated to five camps just outside Gaziantep.  A municipal official who was interviewed in January of this year estimated that the overall number of refugees in Gaziantep state alone is a staggering 400,000 people so its not surprising that “Hani” and his colleague are trying to eek out a meager living in any way they can, including trafficking.

Located just 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, Gaziantep has long been an established trade route between Syria's Aleppo province.  Historically Aleppo and Antep were both part of Ottoman province of Haleb, a longstanding trade corridor along the Silk Road.  Before war broke out, it took two hours to drive the 100 kilometers from Aleppo to Gaziantep, making it a frequent destination for Syrian travelers. Former resident's of Aleppo I spoke with this week said that to drive from Aleppo to Gaziantep now could take a full day, possibly even two depending on which roads were taken and which security checkpoints you needed to pass through or wanted to avoid. 

A bustling hub at the center of the Middle East’s biggest conflict, Gaziantep is a stopping off point for all manner of folk.  Insurgent fighters trying to get to Syria, refugees, foreign-aid workers, journalists, fixers and the ever opportunistic traffickers —all there in one way or another as the result of the Syrian conundrum.

Gaziantep Marijuana Bust December 2012
Traffickers in the past though have focused on commodities  easier to shift than antiquities.  In December 2012 Gaziantep Police Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Branch seized 83 kilos of cannabis and arrested twelve people engaged in drug trafficking.  

In July 2014 Gaziantep Customs Enforcement teams confiscated 14,200 liters of diesel in one raid alone as smugglers began turning to the illegal fuel trade as the next hot commodity. In September 2014 Istanbul's Security Directorate Combating Smuggling and Organized Crime Branch arrested another eight traffickers for moving
Gaziantep Cigarette Trafficking 2012
9600 liters of fuel and 8500 of cartons of contraband cigarettes

Heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, fuel, mobile phones, pistachios, tea, and weapons — these are just a few of the fenced commodities trained Turkish law enforcement officers have seized in their fight against organized crime since the start of the Syrian conflict. I underscore the plethora of trafficked goods because I think its important.

Criminologists have long discussed transnational crime and the interface between legal and illegal actors broadening their activities into areas of antiquities trafficking and forgery.  But before I get into how the square holed, perforated Sumerian votive plaque in the Independent's article underscores this, I'd like to say that those in the cultural heritage protection field would be wise to discourage this type of investigative reporting when journalists come asking for leads.

The Syrian war is an exceptionally difficult story to cover due to the logistical barriers of the multi-sided conflict and the public's insatiable desire for instantaneous news.  More and more frequently journalists covering these conflicts are stringers; freelancers paid by the article who work without the safety net of the news outlets they report for.  These types of reporters don't have an editor standing in the wings saying, "walk away from it" when a story is too risky or when the line between being a legitimate journalist and an intelligence operative gets blurred.

In many cases stringers are the first with breaking news in conflicts either by risk or by happenstance.  Their goal, like that of any good reporter, is purely to bring home the story no one else has.  The difference though is that a freelance reporter might be paid £200 for a 1,000-word article and most likely doesn't even have insurance. 

Gaziantep Gun Seizure March 2015
When reporters contact ARCA asking if we can put them in touch with sketchy antiquities dealers, I tell them no.  Reporting from war zones and delving into the world of organized crime is a dicey proposition. Scoops may sell papers or create page clicks, but the journalists who win Pulitzer Prizes are rare.  Finding the dealer that is fencing Syria's and Iraq's  heritage for the sake of a story is not worth anyone's life.   A published exposée might rattle a trafficker, jeopardize the journalist, or interfere with ongoing criminal investigations, including those with heavier implications that just the world's cultural patrimony. 

I underscore this because I know there is a lot at stake as we try to draw clearer lines between terrorism, organized crime and heritage looting.   I know the topic is an important one and I know we want to know more.  But as ethical professionals we should be asking our respective countries to spend more money in law enforcement and in documenting the world's heritage better, not tacitly condoning investigative journalism in the hopes that a reporter's shocking revelation will illuminate a point we have already concluded.  Sometimes we should ask ourselves if we really need to find the smoking gun to solve this problem.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists were confirmed killed doing their job in 2014. The vast majority of these dead journalists were working in, or covering issues in conflict areas. Some were killed intentionally, despite the fact that under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of conflict and that harming or killing them is a war crime.

If governments need proof that antiquities are tied to crime and terrorism, they should be asking law enforcement professionals directly what their educated opinion is and dedicating appropriate resources to address the problem, not sit on the fence because statistical analysts haven't been able to provide numerical data that translates easily into the financial numbers politicians prefer.

My fear when articles like the one in the Independent are published is that we use limited examples to make larger inferences about who is moving what and for whom instead of just examining the singular case itself and what data that case alone specifically tells us.   The first question I would ask myself is why these traders were eager to show their wares to an unknown foreigner?

In doing due diligence, Isabel Hunter shared the images she obtained with a number of US academics who confirmed to The Independent that they believed the Sumerian plaque to be genuine.   Not having the details of their assessments,  I asked Ms. Hunter if I could have a copy of her larger format images as the online version used in the article had been optimized for internet viewing and made the inscription almost impossible to see.

Sumerian Relief Plaque with a Banquet Scene, Metropolitan Museum of Art
I passed the images Ms. Hunter shared with me among several researchers who helpfully pointed out that there are several so-called "banquet" votive plaques in existence and that they have been found in both northern and southern Mesopotamia, some of them with square-perforated holes, including a banquet scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two plaques at the Iraqi National Museum, here and here, as well as another one of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, represented as the bird-god Anzu (or Im-dugud), a lion-headed eagle located at the Louvre.

A Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, representing bird-god Anzu, the Louvre,   Paris
But what was off on the Independant's plaque featuring Anzu was its inscription.  I spoke with Professor Eleanor Robson of University College London whose research focuses on the social and political contexts of knowledge production in the cuneiform culture of ancient Iraq.  Without publishing the details of our conversation, so as not to be of benefit of future antiquities forgers,  Dr. Robson pointed out irregularities within the inscription, which, in her academic opinion, meant the piece was not authentic, or at a minimum had been altered.  She also added that while it's theoretically possible that the text could have been added a few centuries after the artefact was made she doubted it.*

Not to discount the possibility of a later-day alteration, I forwarded Dr. Robson's thoughts back to the journalist who put me in touch with Michael Danti, a co-director of The Syrian Heritage Initiative (SHI), supported by the US Department of State and the American School of Oriental Research.  Danti had helped Ms. Hunter identify experts to determine if the piece she was shown was authentic.  Danti advised me that he had shared the Gaziantep images with Dr. Richard Zettler, Dr. Jean Evans, Dr. Robert Biggs, and Dr. John Russell who all were of the opinion that the plaque was authentic and that he would share Dr. Robson's findings with the others for clarification.  It is my hope that by sharing thoughts on authentication with one another we can better understand the motivations of this particular seller as well as to determine if this is indeed an authentic looted Iraq plaque or a passing forgery.

To that end, it is not unusual forgeries to be mixed in, knowingly and unknowingly with authentic antiquities as academics and professional dealer associations can testify. They even have a term for intentional mixing, a practice known in the trade as "seeding".  It is also not unusual for forgeries and counterfeits of Assyro-Babylonian antiquities to deceive the eyes of specialists as some may specialize in iconography while others specialize in ancient texts. 

As soon as the explorations at Nimrod and Hatra attracted the public’s attention, forgeries began and its commonplace to find small objects, such as forged inscriptions, in the art market and markets throughout the middle east, especially where there is a tourist trade.  Most individuals, cannot read ancient languages and are simply looking to buy something which is aesthetically pleasing.  Plaques and tablets with wedge-shaped cuneiform script are also easier for forgers to execute with some precision, copying what they chisel character by character from photographs or books.

Since the early ’90s there’s been a notable supply of both real and forged cuneiform artifacts in the international antiquities art markets, some pilfered from archaeological sites, others lifted straight out of regional Iraqi museums, and still others gently handcrafted for the unsuspecting buyer.

In favor of the object's possible authenticity is the fact that the Turkish cities of Antakya, Gaziantep, Mardin, and Urfa have each been previously identified as cities where antiquities looted from Syria’s and Iraq can be found, including objects taken from Apamea and Dura-Europos, sites which also sustained looting while under governmental control, underscoring that opportunistic looting is not just restricted to terrorist organizations. Given that other items are fairly easy to fence in this zone, its probably reasonable to assume that antiquities are just another type of commodity to be traded.

But aside from the lettering incised in the tablet I also wonder whether or not the de-dolomitization (the way the surface of the stone has aged) is artificial.  If academics cannot even agree on if something is authentic vs. faked imagine how difficult this job would be for border authorities in stemming the flow of undocumented antiquities.  Looted antiquities pass through busy ports hidden among legitimate merchandise, or through porous borders in refugee bundles or intentionally packaged and mislabeled as reproductions only to revert back to being authentic when sold on the art market.   

With or without ISIS, fakes and illicit antiquities will continue to enter the art market wherever there is a willing buyer. Finding one dealer who will show a journalist his hidden treasure won't be a deterrent.  Artwork from the Early Dynastic Period (mid third-millennium BC), a time when stone was the common medium, gives both looters and opportunistic forgers a lot of material to work with. 

* Researchers interested in reviewing these assessments can write to us privately to share opinions.


References Used in This Article

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December 27, 2014

Viktorija Zupancic and Bojan Dobovšek publish on "Criminality Related to Cultural Heritage - Analysis of Interviews" in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
   ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

In the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Art CrimeViktorija Zupancic and Bojan Dobovšek publish on "Criminality Related to Cultural Heritage - Analysis of Interviews".  Here's the abstract:
The purpose of this paper is to define the existence of crime against cultural heritage and determine whether this type of criminality is on the rise around the world. By carrying out guided interviews with experts in this field, the authors wished to define guidelines for the fight against this type of criminality. By studying the available literature, the authors found that crime against cultural heritage is on the rise. Economically and socially less-developed countries, from which most antiquities originate, are most susceptible to this type of criminality. Such countries of origin include particularly the countries of South America and the Middle East, while the Western part of the globe is mainly market-oriented and represents the final destination of smuggled antiquities. This paper also aims to determine the adequacy and appropriateness of legal acts governing the protection of cultural heritage and the fight against this type of criminality. Problems are mainly related to the implementation and enforcement of such legal provisions and related sanctions in practice.
Viktorija Zupančič is a student at the Faculty of Criminal Justice and Security of University of Maribor, Slovenia. Bojan Dobovšek is Associate Professor and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Criminal Justice and Security, University of Maribor, Slovenia.

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