September 23, 2016

“Decorative Panels for the Garden” Since when has garden furniture been the code word for antiquities?




The cargo was shipped labeled as “pierres d'ornement pour décoration de jardin” (ornamental stonework for garden decoration) and arrived on March 10, 2016 in transit from Lebanon to Thailand via Paris Charles de Gaulle/Roissy Airport (French: Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle, IATA: CDG, ICAO: LFPG).  Attracting the attention of customs authorities, the crate was inspected based on data originating from the ICS (Import Control System) that came into force in the European Union at the end of 2010.

The ICS is an eSecurity Declaration Management System used for the importation of goods into the European Union customs territory. Designed in part to deal with the massive volume of cargo that passes through the EU annually, the new regulation requires that a certain number of data elements be sent to the EU customs office at the first port of entry, by a specific deadline, in this case, at least 4 hours before the long haul transiting cargo was scheduled to arrive at the first airport in the territory.  

In most cases this type of prearrival information is transmitted by the sender before the shipment has even left the country of export. Upon receipt of the Entry Summary Declaration message, what is known as the cargo's ENS, the customs office at the port of arrival can then elect to order a shipment pulled where it will undergo a security-related risk analysis.  

When the ENS arrived for the innocuously labeled garden decorations, the identifying data supplied, plus the shipping crates weight (108 kilos), and the cargo's shipper and recipient raised questions.   To be thorough, customs authorities earmarked the container for a cross-check.  

While examining its contents, search officers did not find ordinary household decorations mass produced for a garden, instead they found what appeared to be two original bas-reliefs intricately dotted with grape clusters and birds with no export license from any country of origin.  Called in for consultation, the Department of Antiquities at the Musée du Louvre believe that the carved stone reliefs are authentic and likely dating from between the 14th and the 16th century CE, possibly originating from the middle Euphrates valley, (North Western Syria). *NOTE: This assessment still needs further scientific and validating research.  


Some Import-Export information to chew on...

✈ The Charles de Gaulle, Roissy airport, north of Paris, is the first customs border of France. 

✈ Some 65 million passengers transit through CdG annually. 

✈ In terms of air cargo, just over 50 million metric tonnes of freight are shipped around the globe annually.  

✈ In 2015 a whopping 1,890,829 of those tonnes passed through CdG making it the number two European airport for freight, after Frankfurt.

✈ Art and antiquities valued above a certain threshold exported or imported from one country to another require export licenses

✈ More than 31,500 scheduled international flights depart Lebanon annually, destined for 54 airports in 41 countries.

✈ While legal instruments in place vary from country to country, cultural goods that reach or exceed specific age or monetary value threshold require an individual licence for export, whether on a permanent or temporary loan basis.

✈ Both national ownership laws and export controls are put in place as a restraint on the free circulation of artworks through the market and are promulgated in response to the sale of objects or dismemberment of ancient monuments and sites simply to satisfy market demand.

✈ Ancient artifacts, taken in violation of national ownership laws are stolen property in market nations, as well as in the country of origin.

✈ This is not the first time that smugglers have intentionally mislabeled an illicit ancient object as a contemporary outdoor accoutrement to circumvent the legal instruments. In a case involving the now imfamous Subhash Kapoor, a shipper was expecting the arrival of a shipment containing seven crates manifested as a single “Marble Garden Table Set.”  The consulate believed these crates contained stolen Indian antiquities. This merchandise was allegedly imported by Kapoor.

Kind of makes you wonder how many antiquities/garden sets there are floating around the world over our heads smuggled in or out under the radar.


Some examples of French customs seizures involving cultural objects (though by all means not an inclusive list)

🏺 In March 2006, more than 6,000 artefacts looted from archaeological sites in Niger and seized by French customs officials in 2004 and 2005 were given back to their country of origin.

🏺 In January 2007 customs seized nine suspicious-looking packages marked "hand­crafted objects" from Bamako,  the capital of Mali.  Inside they found more than 650 ancient objects, including ax heads, bracelets, flint stones and stone rings, excavated from a Neolithic settlement in Ménaka (Eastern Mali)

🏺 In 2008, French customs officials seized crates arriving from Togo stamped "craftwork" which contained artefacts. ICOM approached a specialist to appraise the objects, one of which was revealed through thermoluminescence testing to be a genuine Nok statuette from Nigeria. 

🏺 In January 2013 France returned five ancient terracotta sculptures to Nigeria smuggled out of the country in 2010.

🏺 In 2014 France returned 250 Egyptian antiquities dating back to the Roman dominion over Egypt (circa 30-641 BCE) and the Coptic Christian era were seized from the luggage of travellers arriving in Paris in March and November of 2010.

If these are the launderers, then who are the buyers?  

Buying and selling ancient art requires a prudent purchaser, one willing to research the provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of an object they intend to own and to evaluate the available information in the context of the current legal framework.  

When details of an object's past are omitted, by the seller, by an antiquities dealer or by an auction house, either intentionally or accidentally, and a buyer knowingly turns a blind eye, they are just as complicit in facilitating the illicit market and the destruction of cultural heritage.  In the 21st century churning trafficked antiquities through the legitimate marketplace, buying and selling intentionally mislabeled pretty things while still conveniently clinging to the negligent “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is inexcusable. 

By Lynda Albertson

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