February 17, 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


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