Showing posts with label antiquities looting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antiquities looting. Show all posts

July 17, 2015

David Gill's column Context Matters reviews “From Palmyra to Mayfair: The Movement of Antiquities from Syria and Northern Iraq” in the Spring 2015 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

In David Gill's regular column "Context Matters", the archaeologist examines “From Palmyra to Mayfair: The Movement of Antiquities from Syria and Northern Iraq” in the Spring 2015 issue of The Journal of Art Crimeedited by Noah Charney (with Marc Balcells and Christos Tsirogiannis) and published by ARCA:
The present conflict in Syria and northern Iraq has brought the issue of antiquities to the attention of the international media. This is due, first, to the scale of the recent looting revealed by remote sensing, second, to the possibility that archaeological objects were being used to fund the conflict, and third, to the deliberate destruction of key monuments and museum objects in what can only be described as acts of "cultural barbarism". At the same time there are more pressing concerns about the plight of refugees from the conflict zones, and the deliberate targeting of religious minorities. 
Looting is not a new phenomenon to Syria. And there have been instances in recent years of objects linked to that region turning up on the antiquities market. In April 2009 six Roman limestone busts surfaced on the London market at Bonhams (April 29, 2009, lots 48-53). ...
David Gill is Professor of Archaeological Heritage and Head of the Division of Humanities at University Campus Suffolk. He was a Rome Scholar at the British School of rome and a Sir James Knott Fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was subsequently part of the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at Swansea University, Wales, UK. He has published widely on archaeological ethics with Christopher Chippindale. He has recently completed a history of British archaeological work in Greece prior to the First World War. 

Here's a link to ARCA's website about access to The Journal of Art Crime.

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 it's 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 that 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 it's 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 to us asking for leads.

The Syrian war is an exceptionally difficult story to cover due to the logistical barriers of the multi-sided and asymmetrical conflict, not to mention the public's insatiable desire for instantaneous news no matter the risk involved to the reporters.  More and more frequently journalists covering these conflicts are stringers; freelancer journalists paid by the article who work without the safety net (or insurance policies) 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 have anyone checking in on him or her to make sure what they are doing is safe. 

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 just not worth anyone's life in my opinion.   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 and need to understand what is happening better.  But as ethical professionals we should be asking our respective countries to spend more money on 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 surmized.  Sometimes we should ask ourselves if we really need to find the smoking gun, putting others at risk, to validate we understand 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 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 investigate and or 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 female 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 by modern artisans 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, it is probably reasonable to assume that antiquities are another type of commodity being traded here.

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 customs 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 BCE), 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

"10 Foreigners, including Tunisian Who 'lied to Police,' Detained near Turkey's Syria Border." Hurriyet Daily News, [Istanbul] 08 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. 

"Akaryakıt Kaçakçılığıyla Mücadele Hız Kesmeden Devam Ediyor" T.C. Gümrük Ve Ticaret Bakanlığı, 07 July 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. 
 
“Cuneiform Forgeries in the Museu Bíblic of Montserrat (Barcelona)”, en G. del Olmo, L. Feliu, A. Millet (eds.), Shapal tibnim mû illaku. Studies Presented to J. Sanmartín on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (Aula Orientalis Supplementa 22), Sabadell 2006, pp. 289-301 [co-author: I. Márquez Rowe]

"Gaziantep'te Kaçakçılık Olayları." Haberciniz. Haberciniz, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.   

Hooker, James T., ed. Reading the past: Ancient writing from cuneiform to the alphabet. Univ of California Press, 1990.

Hunter, Isabel. "Syria Conflict: The Illicit Art Trade That Is a Major Source of Income for Today's Terror Groups Is Nothing New." The Independent [London] 26 Apr. 2015, Sunday ed.: n. pag. The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

"Iraq National Museum - Sumerian Votive Plaque - 1." Iraq National Museum - Sumerian Votive Plaque. Iraqi National Museum, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
"Iraq National Museum - Sumerian Votive Plaque - 2." Iraq National Museum - Sumerian Votive Plaque. Iraqi National Museum, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

"Journalists Killed in 2014." Committee to Protect Journalists. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. 

Muscarella, Oscar White. "Gudea or not Gudea in New York and Detroit: Ancient or modern?." Source: Notes in the History of Art (2005): 6-18.
Muscarella, Oscar White. The lie became great: the forgery of ancient Near Eastern cultures. Vol. 1. BRILL, 2000.

"National Union for Journalists - Rate for the Job: Words, per 1000 / News." - Updated 4/13/2015. National Union for Journalists - London, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.  

Ozerdem, Alpaslan. "Turkey Urgently Needs to Integrate Its Syrian Refugees." The Conversation. N.p., 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.  

"Professor Eleanor Robson." Academic Staff. University College London, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.  

"Relief Plaque with a Banquet Scene | Sumerian | Early Dynastic IIIa." Relief Plaque with a Banquet Scene. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Republic Of Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster And Emergency Management Presidency. "Syrian Refugees in Turkey, 2013." Syrian Refugees in Turkey, 2013 (n.d.): n. pag. AFAD TURKEY. Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Sollberger, Edmond. "The Cuneiform Collection in Geneva." Journal of Cuneiform Studies (1951): 18-20.

"Syrian Heritage Initiative." ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative. The American Schools of Oriental Research, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.  
Taha, Munir Y. "The Authenticity of a Sumerian Statue." Iraq 35.02 (1973): 151-153.

"Torbacılara Şafak Baskını." Torbacılara Şafak Baskını. Müdürlüğümüz Kaçakçılık Ve Organize Suçlarla Mücadele Şube Müdürlüğü, 06 Dec. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.   

"UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response." UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response. Ed. UNHCR. UNHCR, Government of Turkey, 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

"UN Jobs." Grant Manager - WV Response to Syria Refugee Crisis, Gaziantep, Turkey. http://unjobs.org/vacancies/1385418031847 United Nations, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. 

 Walker, Christopher BF. Cuneiform. Vol. 3. Univ of California Press, 1987.
 



April 2, 2015

Honolulu Museum of Art and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents Collaborate: A model for the Repatriation of Looted Art

By Lynda Albertson

In 2014 Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter, part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, contacted the Honolulu Museum of Art having determined that a 2000-year-old terra cotta rattle may have been looted and tied to the antiquities looting case against New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.  

Kapoor has long been suspected of being
at the heart of an international antiquities smuggling operation which allegedly has sold illicit artifacts, either directly to or through donors, to major museums around the world.  The effect of this one trafficking network has had long-reaching impact to collections at some of the worlds greatest art museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Australia, the Norton Simon Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and now the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Proactive in his approach Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost and his staff worked to identify seven suspect works of art from within the Hawaiian museum’s collection.  Five objects were purchased directly from Subhash Kapoor, one was given to the museum by the dealer as a gift, and the seventh piece was sold by Kapoor to a private investor who subsequently donated it to the museum's collection. 
In a taped video interview on KITV which can be found here Director Stephan Jost is heard to say They don't belong here. They're stolen,"  "On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we've had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don't belong here."
This quote from a museum head stands in stark contrast to recent remarks made by James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which operates the Getty Museum.  Cuno has made strong statements in both the New York Times and the quarterly magazine Foreign Affairs arguing that wholesale repatriation to source countries who cannot adequately protect their heritage is not in the best interest of the public as a whole.   In the FA article Cuno stated that "Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite."

In the New York Times article Mr. Cuno was interviewed to have said “Calamity can happen anywhere, but it is unlikely to happen everywhere at the same time,” “I say ‘distribute the risk,’ not ‘concentrate it.’ ” when referring to recent issues in areas impacted by Da'ish and other profiteering looters in countries plagued by civil unrest and war.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, told the New York Times journalists that given the extent of the conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq and northern Africa museums should take on a conservative stance on repatriation, stating  “I think this will put an end to the excess piety in favor of the repatriation model.”

While the ultimate repatriation of the objects photographed here, taken by AP photographer and journalist Jennifer Sinco Kelleherbeing packed up for their departure from the Honolulu Museum of Art, are not headed to countries currently embroiled in civil war, the contrast between each of these museum director's stance on their collections is something worth underscoreing.

Should museums ethically stand behind the return of looted antiquities in their collections on a county conflict case by case basis as Mr. Cuno and Mr. Vikan believe?  

In on Op/Ed piece this week Franklin Lamb, author of "Syria's Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve" has said he has not seen widespread support for the delay of repatriation in cases in Syria.  He has stated that  "Syrian officials and scholars interviewed [by] me overwhelming reject this point of view as does the Syrian public. Some have noted that using the destructive frenzy by Islamic State extremists to lobby against repatriation seeks to justify discredited practices and reeks of neo-colonialism."

February 7, 2015

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

2015 has barely started and antiquities traffickers have begun making headlines in multiple countries.  In this three part series, ARCA will explore three current trafficking cases in detail to underscore that the ownership and commodification of the past continues. 

Part I - Operation Aureus - Bulgaria's Blues

On January 30th the State Agency for National Security (DANS) in Bulgaria reported that it had conducted two significant trafficking investigations into illegally circulated ancient and medieval objects and coins.  The two-month long probe started November 26, 2014 and ran until January 26, 2015 during which time DANS officers conducted thirty-six searches in eleven cities seizing a total of 2,289 objects protected by Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act.  The Act encompasses intangible and tangible immovable and movable heritage as an aggregate of cultural values which bear historical memory and national identity and have their own academic or cultural value.   SANS reported that they detained several individuals for their participation in an organized criminal group trafficking in antiquities but their names have not been currently been released to the public, citing the ongoing nature of the ongoing investigation.

Google Maps Looters

Google Maps Looters
From an ancient world perspective, Bulgaria has some of the richest archaeological sites in Europe.  From an economic perspective, regions such as Severozapaden, have some of the lowest-ranked economies in Bulgaria and the European Union.  That makes archaeologically rich areas, like Ratiaria, which is located on the Danube River, near the modern day city of Archar, in the Vidin District of Northwest Bulgaria particularly vulnerable.  With unemployment high and limited work possibilities since the fall of Communism, its not surprising that subsistence looters have treated the site as their own personal Automatic Antiquities Machine.  The territory has been so heavily looted in the past twenty years that even a Google Street View car managed to snap shots of a local looting crew while mapping area roads.

Working with shovels and metal detectors, looters generally make little, often passing their finds on to local middlemen dealers, like this one arrested in Ruptsi, Bulgaria in in 2011. Hiding in plane sight,  the business man was known among the locals and among treasure hunters as an active dealer in cultural goods in the region and was brazen enough to keep a storage of heavier items in his garden.

Where There are Looters there are Buyers and Not all Roads Lead to Rome

While the number of items seized in this 2015 Bulgarian investigation is distressingly large, the types of objects confiscated are all too familiar to art police who's investigative work revolves around combating heritage looting and smuggling.  To those who examine heritage trafficking in search of patterns there are also a few interesting points to consider.

The Bulgarian investigators seized everything from pottery and figurines, bronze and precious metal, jewellery of all types, ancient and medieval seals, religious crosses and icons, pieces of marble, and even Thracian weapons and horse-riding decorations. The objects have common denominators: they were, for the most part, easy to traffic because of their small size and they were the types of objects buyers willingly purchase, and with increasing frequency via online auction sites. 

Whether or not these items were destined for sites similar to eBay would be a hypothesis that hasn't be proven, but what we can underscore is that there is an ongoing supply market furnishing ancient objects for online transactions.  Platforms like eBay, with millions of auctions annually, are difficult for law enforcement to police, but easy sites for traffickers to navigate to connect with potential buyers internationally. The seller can be relatively anonymous and as their ratings are built on successful sales with satisfied customers, shady dealers can add or drop seller profiles to masquerade as being ethically legitimate.

Who is their preferred buyer?  

The individual who is willing to purchase heritage objects from anonymous suppliers.  The novice collector or aficionado who is not worried about owning objects which might turn out to be fake or might not have a pristine collection history that explains the context of the item, where it has originated from or who has been its custodian up until the point of sale.  For the purpose of this article ARCA has highlighted three current online auctions with similar Bulgarian items to those seized during the Aureus investigation.

Auction I lists a purported 9th century BC Ancient Bronze Thracian Fibula. The object was being offered by a seller in Bulgaria but listed nothing in the way of collection history as was absent in most of the auctions we viewed.  Provenance isn't something auction participants seem to require in order to consider an item attractive for purchase.

Auction II claims to be of a rare iron Thracian battle weapon, CIRCA IV-Ic. B.C. This  auctioneer is reportedly UK-based, applying a layer of legitimacy, but the item's auction detail states the object will be shipped to the buyer "from Eastern Europe".  Again there is no collection history and the buyer is far removed from the trafficker.
Auction III lists an object on sale described as an Ancient Thracian Honrseman Bronze Figure. This auction item has purportedly travelled a long way and is now being sold by a Canadian antique trader, again without benefit of a collection history indicating how it made its way to North America. The seller does not appear to be a novice, and states he has been in the trading business since 1970.

Interesting Observations

During the Bulgarian DANS investigation law enforcement officers also seized metal detectors and specific geophysical detecting instruments used to determination of the exact position and depth of objects while still in the ground thus showing that these devices are not used exclusively by law-abiding recreationists willing to abide by established laws.

Like with Italy's Gianfranco Becchina case, officers confiscated binders with multiple photos, auction house catalogs and invoices indicating that the scale of items being sold was a fluid enterprise level operation and not a casual one-off sale. 

Landscapes of looted terrain in Bulgaria have a similar moonscape pattern to those we have seen repeatedly in satellite imagery in Syria and Iraq.  This should be highlighted as proof that large-scale antiquities looting is not solely a funding source for criminal groups such as ISIS in conflict zones but also a source for revenue streams in economically challenging areas with a high rate of under or unemployement.  In this Google Street View image one can see an example of the looting pits that cover large swaths of Bulgaria terrain as well as a brazen group of looters working in broad daylight as an organized team.
 
In addition to searching workshops, DANS agents undertook an evaluation of Bulgaria's largest private museum in search of irregularities. The businessman who owns this vast collection was listed in law enforcement press releases using his initials, "VB".   Bulgarian press have indicated that the initials represent millionaire Vasil Bozhkov who is known to have a vast collection of Roman, Greek and Thracian works of art and who's coin collection is listed as one of the most extensive in the country. Bozhkov is also the founder of The Thrace Foundation an organization active in heritage-based events.

Previously, in January 2009, Petar Kostadinov published an article reporting that Vassil Bozhkov and Bulgarian prosecutor Kamen Mihov were alleged to have been involved in government-level corruption  plot devised to prevent the extradition of international art dealer Ali Abou’Taam to Egypt on antiquities trafficking charges.

The allegations presented in the newspaper article cited an email published by Dutch private art investigator Arthur Brand to the Museum Security Network mailing-list.  A representative of Phoenix Ancient Art replied to David Gill's Looting Matters blog with this letter relating to the detention of Ali Aboutaam in Sofia.  No mention of Mr. Bozhkov's relationship with the art dealer was made.

Eight months later, a diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Sofia, dated September 11, 2009, released first via WikiLeaks and later republished by the Sofia News Agency Novelite indicated that Bozhkov has been long suspected of having ties to organized crime.

On January 14, 2015 the US ambassador to Bulgaria Marcie B. Ries and Bulgaria’s Culture Minister Petar Stoyanovich signed a memorandum of understanding at the National History Museum in Boyana on the outskirts of Sofia.  This US/Bulgarian MOU calls for the protection of cultural heritage and is designed to prevent the illicit trade of Bulgarian cultural heritage items into the United states and to allow the return of said items to Bulgaria of any such item confiscated. 

ARCA will continue to follow this case as details on the investigation are released.

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA











(Photos: dans.bg)
References Used in this Article

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https://frognews.bg/news_85185/DANS-pogna-V-B-proveriavat-antichnata-mu-kolektsiia/

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Colonia+Ulpia+Ratiaria/@43.5557251,24.675708,9z

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http://lootingmatters.blogspot.it/2009/01/sofia-detention-comment-from-phoenix.html

http://m.novinite.com/articles/162960/Bulgaria+Busts+Int%27l+Antiquities+Trafficking+Ring

http://www.novinite.com/articles/130391/WikiLeaks%3A+US+CDA+Report+on+Top+Bulgarian+Criminals#sthash.1qrWNiES.dpuf

http://www.museum-security.org/2009/01/bulgarian-prosecutor-kamen-mihov-and-bulgarian-millionaire-and-art-collector-vassil-bozhkov-were-alleged-to-have-been-involved-in-an-elaborate-scheme-to-let-international-art-dealer-ali-aboutaam-esc/

http://www.museum-security.org/2009/01/press-release-the-continuing-story-about-art-dealer-ali-abou%E2%80%99taam-can-justice-be-bought-in-bulgaria/

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/264380100_Pegman_caught_looters_in_the_act!_How_digital_media_can_help_raising_awareness_of_looting_and_destruction_of_archaeological_sites._The_example_of_Ratiaria._The_European_Archaeologist._Issue_41_Summer_2014_25-27

http://sofiaecho.com/2009/01/21/666138_bulgarian-prosecutor-art-collector-conspired-to-free-controversial-art-dealer-journalist-alleges

http://sofiaglobe.com/2015/01/30/bulgaria-busts-international-antiquities-trafficking-ring/

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/archaeology-in-crisis-bulgaria-plagued-by-grave-robbers-a-524976.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBay

December 5, 2014

Opinion: More Questions Than Solutions from the Auction Houses

By Lynda Albertson

Following the successful identification and the subsequent withdrawal of the Sardinian idol, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and Research Assistant with the Trafficking Culture Project has forwarded ARCA four additional images of antiquities that match photos from the Symes-Michaelides archive.  

Tsirogiannis and Italian heritage professionals have been working diligently for years to make sense of a lengthy catalog photo and forensic documentation, that paint a vivid picture of the complexity of the network of dealers, middlemen, and tombaroli involved in the looting and smuggling of antiquities.

These four identified objects match auction items that are to be included in two December sales events; one held by Christie's New York scheduled for December 11, 2014 and another with Sotheby's New York to be held the following day.

Christies LOT 51: AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG, estimated at $150,000 -$250,000


 




The object appears in the same condition in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.









Christies LOT 95: AN ATTIC RED-FIGURED COLUMN KRATER, estimated at $60,000 -$90,000





The object is depicted in the same condition in the images that have been confiscated by the American authorities from the antiquities dealer David Swingler, among hundreds of antiquities which were repatriated to Italy after it was found that they were smuggled. Swingler's name is not included in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.


The object appears in the auction catalog with its surface cleaned, unlike its appearance in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by auction house.






Sotheby's: LOT 6: An Egyptian Diorite Figure of a Priest of the Temple of Mut, late 25th/early 26th Dynasty, circa 670-610 B.C., estimated at $400,000 - 600,000






The object appears in the same condition in the Symes-Michaelides archive.  The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.








Note: These suspect objects have been brought to the attention of authorities in the United States, Italy and Egypt.

More than  four decades have passed since the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Despite greater public awareness of the problems posed by looting, suspect antiquities are still finding their way into auction houses through methods embedded within the licit antiquities trade.  By whitening a tainted object's illicit background through legitimate or contrived collection histories, laundered objects, be they from Italy, Egypt, Iraq or Syria, will continue to find their way into the glassy catalogs of licit objects being sold on the art market.

Unless tighter sanctions are imposed by governments or unless the art market itself voluntarily polices itself better, at the behest of culturally aware collectors or the general public, the problem will continue.  Predatory and subsistence looters will continue to supply the demand for materials needed and by proxy encourage the parasitical relationship between them, the middlemen suppliers and the auction houses.

November 27, 2014

Christie's Auction House Withdraws Sardinian Marble Female Idol from Upcoming New York City Sale

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor and Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

Last week Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis pointed to a Sardinian marble female idol that Christie's planned to sell in New York City on December 11, 2014 -- an image of the idol had been identified previously in the Medici archive (see ARCA post here).  Further information on the background of this object's less than optimal collection history was later posted on Professor David Gill's blog Looting Matters and on Nord Wennerstrom's website Nord on Art

In protest of this sale Italian Camera Deputy Unidos Mauro Pili from the Regione of Sardinia wrote to Italy's ministro dei Beni culturali Dario Franceschini, Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Esteri Gentiloni and to the US Ambassador of the United States to Italy, John Phillips demanding that immediate action be taken to stop the sale and to return the stolen goods to Sardinia.

Shortly thereafter, archaeologists in and around Italy formed a virtual protest group via social media provider Facebook also demanding the objects return.  This and other local interest action groups attracted more than 1000 followers. 

A few short minutes ago Deputy Unidos Mauro Pili released the following message. 
Poco fa la casa d'aste Christie's ha bloccato la vendita della Dea Madre ritirando dall'asta dell'11 dicembre prossimo il pezzo pregiatissimo della civiltà nuragica della Sardegna. Si tratta di un risultato importantissimo che segna un punto decisivo nella lotta ai furti d'opere archeologiche della Sardegna. Ora occorre andare sino in fondo per far restituire il maltolto alla Sardegna. Questo dimostra che la mobilitazione dell'opinione pubblica, dei media, e delle azioni parlamentari è utile ad accendere i riflettori su queste vergogne e bloccare queste vere proprie rapine al patrimonio della civiltà dei sardi.
The message indicates that Christie's has blocked the sale of the Mother Goddess, withdrawing it from its December 11th auction.  Deputy Pili further added that the blocking of this sale is a major achievement that marks a decisive point in the fight against theft of archaeological works of Sardinia.

A check of the Christie's New York auction side indicates the object has been removed from the online catalog for the upcoming sale proving that pressure at the state and local level can and does apply sufficient pressure to auction houses to lead them to do the right thing.  


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.

June 30, 2014

His Highness Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong presented "The Duryodhana, the Balarama and the Bhima: a Cambodian perspective on the return of three pre-Angkorian sandstone statues from Prasat Chen at the Koh Ker temple complex" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference

These photos were provided by M. Bertrand Porte, French
School for Asian Arts (EFEO), who is the head of the
restoration workshop of the National Museum in
Phnom Penh.
His Highness Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong of Cambodia presented "The Duryodhana, the Balarama and the Bhima: a Cambodian perspective on the return of three pre-Angkorian sandstone statues from Prasat Chen at the Koh Ker temple complex" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference.

After apologizing for his accented English (he explained that he usually delivers his talks in French or Italian), he showed a video of archaeologist and cultural property lawyer Tess Davis who for the last decade has documented the plunder of Cambodia's ancient temples and worked for the return of the country's looted antiquities.

The Prince told the audience:
In Cambodia the preservation of the archeological patrimony has become one of the main topics discussed among members of the local intelligensia, but it is a recent phenomenon and it occurs mostly in western-influenced environments. The will of the Royal Governement is to educate in the most accessible way, to make people understand how sacred and holy these artcrafts are in our patrimony as Cambodians, and moreover, as survivors of a genocide, during which art and culture were cancelled. Sculpture schools, archeological trainings and preservation technique lessons are improving in quality and quantity all over the Kingdom. Little by little, more and more people are being educated to the duty to preserve and defend our cultural patrimony. Nevertheless, the wounds of war, poverty and the powerful groups sponsoring lootings and international art traffic are still prevailing and as long as there will be such a taste for Khmer Antiques, we will not be able to eradicate this sadly human lust for money.
Here's a link to Tess Davis' project at Trafficking Culture and another link to an article, "Temple Looting in Cambodia: Anatomy of a Statue Trafficking Network", co-written with Simon Mackenzie and published in the British Journal of Criminology.

His Highness Prince Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong, was born in Phnom Penh in 1970; has been living mainly in Italy, in Rome, since 1997. Educated in France, holds a Master of Arts in Contemporary British Literature; founded in 1992 the Institute of the Royal Household of Cambodia with Professor Jacques Népote (CNRS). Recognised specialist of the history and the culture of Cambodia, has published books and articles regarding the social structures of Cambodia and the genealogy of the Khmer Royal Family. After a career as sales officer in various multinational private companies such as IBM and ACCOR, has collaborated as a Programme Officer and Consultant for many years with the United Nations (WFP, FAO & IFAD) and private sector with interests in Southeast Asia; has been for many years representative of the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism for Italy. You may follow him at his blog here: "Ravivaddhana Sisowath: Never Complain, Never Explain".

April 17, 2014

Cyprus: Antiquities bust in Aphrodite’s city

Hoard found in Mr. X's house (Photo from Alithia Online)
by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas

On Thursday, February 27th, a 58-year old Cypriot man (Mr X) was arrested in Cyprus for illegal possession of ancient artefacts. The Paphos CID detectives, acting on a tip, raided Mr X’s house in Peyia where they found [1]: 58 amphorae, 20 golden artefacts and six bayonets from the Hellenistic period (323-31BC).  These items were confiscated, along with five firearms dating to the early 20th century, a Russian AK-47, a metal detector, coins, jewellery, gold chalices and €9.411 in cash. Mr. X could not provide convincing explanations as to the provenance of any of the objects.[2] The Department of Antiquities is inspecting the artefacts collected as evidence from Mr X's house in anticipation of his trial before the Paphos District Court.

Another view of Mr. X's stash
According to Cypriot Antiquity Law, any antiquity that remains undiscovered as of 1935 is the property of the Government. Antiquities accidentally discovered by unlicensed persons (whether found on their land or not) must be delivered to the mukhtar or other authorised persons, such as the police or a museum. To be in compliance for the law, Mr. X would have had to acquire the item before 1935 and have registered it with the Director of Antiquities by 1 January 1974.[3] In practice today, chance finders are often granted a license to possess (and sell) antiquities so long as the Department of Antiquities does not want them. Following Mr X's arrest on suspicion of illegal possession of antiquities, it is not clear whether or not he approached such authorities, whether he knew or reasonably believed the antiquities to be illicitly excavated, or whether he may have dug them up himself. If this is the case, the court will most likely confiscate the artefacts and deliver them to the Director of Antiquities. Mr X could face imprisonment up to three years and/or a fine.

Blank form to operate metal detector
Any person in possession of a metal detector must complete and submit a form to the Director of Antiquities (a blank copy of the said form can be found to the right.) If an individual is successful in obtaining this license, they can only metal-detect in areas specified by the Minister by a notice in the Republic’s Official Gazette. There have been no recent notices designating metal-detecting areas. If Mr X is found to not possess the requisite metal-detector license he could be found liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years and/or to a fine not exceeding €30.000.

In my discussion with an individual from Department of Antiquities, finding looted antiquities in Cypriot houses, particularly in more remote areas of the island, is very common. The day Mr. X was arrested, gun shots were heard in Peristerona.[4] Two days later, four men -- two with gunshots wounds -- were arrested and the incident was attributed to an attempt to settle a score between rival gangs. According to a person working in the Department of Antiquities, upon inspection of one of the men's houses, illicitly excavated antiquities were found. No newspaper published this event and I only came to know about it from a discussion with the unnamed individual working in the Department of Antiquities.[5]

Are all these busts related to one another? Is each individual smuggling their contraband abroad and selling it themselves on the grey market[6] or is there a 'Medici/Becchina' figure who is facilitating the sale of antiquities? In 2010, police caught a cartel of ten smugglers that were attempting to sell 4,000-year old urns, silver coins and figurines, worth an estimate of €11 million (approximately $15 million)[7]. Could their associates still be in 'business'? How large and how far does this ring of organised crime[8] extend in Cyprus?

[1] "Stolen Relics Arrest." InCyprus.com. Philenews. 28 Feb. 2014.
[3] There is a lot of criticism of this 1973 amendment to the Antiquities Law. The illicit trade in antiquities flourished in Cyprus in the 1960s. The Department of Antiquities tried to control it by imposing the six-month registration period (the amendment in June 1973 allowed collectors until 31 December 1973 to register their collections). This however had the adverse effect of intensifying looting and illicit trade - private collectors became greedy and wanted to acquire as many artefacts as possible so as they could register them by the deadline. More than 1250 new private collections appeared during this period, many of which purchased artefacts directly from looters. (See Hardy, Sam A. "Cypriot Antiquities Law on Looted Artefacts and Private Collections." Web log post. Human Rights Archaeology: Cultural Heritage in Conflict., 11 Jan. 2011.) 
[4] Psillides, Constantinos. "New Arrest in Case of Peristerona Shoot-out." 
[5] The Director of Antiquities (who is responsible for press releases) failed to respond to my telephone calls or e-mails in regards to this article. 
[6] Illicit antiquities are frequently sold on the open market. McKenzie argues that, because the trade in antiquities is legal, it turns the issue from black and white to an ambiguous shade of grey. See Mackenzie, Simon, 'The Market as Criminal and Criminals in the Market: Reducing Opportunities for Organised Crime in the International Antiquities Market'. 
[8] Vulnerabilities in the antiquities trade have presented the opportunity to make a profit through organised crime. Art. 2(a) of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime 2000 defines organised crime as being: “[a] structured group of three or more persons... acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences... to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.” The following subsections go on to define 'serious crimes' and 'structured group', but it is evident that the group arrested in 2010 fits the UN definition. Although there are various definitions for organised crime, the UN's definition is broader than say that of the FBI's to include crimes such as antiquities, which are not necessarily motivated by money; they also do not need to be in a formal organisation but must have committed criminal not civil offences.

References:


Cyprus Antiquities Law.

"Cyprus Antiquities Smuggling Ring Broken up." BBC News. BBC, 25 Jan. 2010.

Brief Telephone Discussion with an unnamed individual working in the Department of Antiquities. 

Hardy, Sam A. "Cypriot Antiquities Law on Looted Artefacts and Private Collections." Web log post. Human Rights Archaeology: Cultural Heritage in Conflict., 11 Jan. 2011. Web. 

Mackenzie, Simon. 2011: 'The Market as Criminal and Criminals in the Market: Reducing Opportunities for Organised Crime in the International Antiquities Market'. in: S. Manacorda and D. Chappell, (eds) Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property. New York: Springer, New York; 69 - 86.

Psillides, Constantinos. "New Arrest in Case of Peristerona Shoot-out." Cyprus Mail. N.p., 15 Mar. 2014.

"Stolen Relics Arrest." InCyprus.com. Philenews. 28 Feb. 2014.

"Αυτό δεν ήταν σπίτι αλλά…μουσείο." Alithia Online. Aλήθεια, 28 Feb. 2014. Web.