Suddenly, it seems, the world’s cultural heritage is plagued
by coronavirus. It is everywhere. I am asked weekly about how the virus will
exacerbate archaeological looting. (How should I know? There is nothing evident
in my home office where I am quarantined and writing incisive blog commentary).
IGOs and NGOs are hosting seminars and lectures about the virus. Funding agencies
are announcing emergency grants and interventions. Meanwhile, what are perhaps
more serious threats to cultural heritage are being ignored.
The Syrian economy is in meltdown. The brutal civil war which has now been dragging on for nearly ten years has taken its economic toll and the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Lebanon has made things worse. Syria’s tottering and fragmenting economy is due to receive another blow today (17 June 2020) when the United States imposes sanctions under its Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. This act is ostensibly aimed at protecting Syrian civilians by destabilising the Assad regime and halting its violent attacks on human lives and human rights. The sanctions target Assad’s financial supporters outside Syria with a view to weakening his military and economic infrastructure. But as is usual with sanctions of this sort, ordinary people will suffer. The value of the Syrian pound has collapsed by 70 per cent since April, inflation is rampant, and the prices of food and other essentials are skyrocketing. Unprecedented protests have been reported in towns that up until now have been strongly supportive of Assad. It is a humanitarian disaster, but one that is unfolding behind the obscuring media veil of coronavirus.
As poverty deepens in Syria, the consequences for cultural
heritage are all too predictable – more looting and theft. Despite decades of
crisis-led policy interventions, with coronavirus being only the latest of a
long line, the international community has failed to control and reduce market
demand for antiquities and other cultural objects. Yet market demand is the
ultimate driver of looting and theft wherever, whenever and however it happens.
Instead of reducing demand, myopic policy initiatives continually aim at diminishing
market supply (by trying unsuccessfully to protect cultural heritage on-the-ground)
and jump from one “emergency” to the next. In fact, policy-makers seem to like “emergencies”.
Probably because it easier to grab political attention and secure funding for
short-term “emergency” actions than it is for long, drawn-out (though
eventually effective) measures aimed at reducing market demand. Policy is
failing because it is reactive, not proactive, and is tackling symptoms, not
causes. While policy-makers (and funders) are looking the other way at
coronavirus, Syrian heritage looks set to suffer further because of this failure.
Close to the heart of any successful antiquities trafficking
racket lurks a restorer/conservator, sometimes more than one. Restorers repair
and clean antiquities in such a way as to improve their appearance and
durability, and thus desirability. Removing dirt or other accretions from the
surface of an antiquity exposes its original finish and detail, while in the
process uncovering any evidence of past repairs or forged modifications. Such
work helps establish the identity, condition, authenticity and quality of a
piece, while improving its appearance and aesthetic appeal, all important
factors for determining value and setting price. But restoration work of this
type might also destroy evidence of looting or theft. It could involve fixing
together a recently broken object, perhaps a stolen one broken into pieces to
expedite transport or passage through customs. Thus while the ostensible
purpose of restoration is to stabilise and curate an antiquity, at the same
time it improves the value of an antiquity, promotes its saleability, and might
even remove evidence of theft or illegal trade.
Restorers do not often figure in criminal cases relating to antiquities trafficking. In December 2016, a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office against New York Asian Art dealer Nancy Wiener identified two unnamed restorers as ‘co-conspirators’, though no charges were pressed. It was timely then on 8 July 2019, when the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges relating to antiquities trafficking against Subhash Kapoor and seven alleged co-conspirators, including restorers Neil Perry Smith in the United Kingdom and Richard Salmon in New York. The complaint contains a wealth of information about the activities of these restorers, with Kapoor sending metal objects to Perry Smith and stone objects to Salmon, an indication perhaps of Kapoor’s estimation of their respective talents. Of course, a criminal charge isn’t in itself definitive proof of wrongdoing, and the named restorers remain innocent until proven guilty. But looking through the complaint at what is revealed about Salmon, for example, it is not hard to see why charges were levelled at him. Multiple invoices provide information about his services, which include such actions as ‘cleaning’, ‘picking out detail’, ‘bringing out the quality of the stone’, and ‘mounting’. All this sounds innocent enough, the normal bread-and-butter work of a restorer. But what about when he claimed payment for ‘picking out details with “ancient earth”’ and ‘touching out “new breaks”’? Why would he add ‘ancient earth’ to a piece, and was he not suspicious about the cause of ‘new breaks’, and breaks more generally?
In early 2006, for example, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in
India and took possession in New York of a second-century BC sandstone Mahakoka
Devata or Yakshi (Bharhut Pillar).
The pillar had been stolen from the home of an Indian resident in July 2004 and
appears to have been broken into four pieces for shipment to New York. Kapoor
valued it at $15 million. On 2 May 2006, Salmon charged $11,500 for
reassembling the four pieces by drilling and joining them with dowels,
subsequently filling and disguising joins, including making up missing areas of
the bottom, touching out scratches and bringing up the lustre of stone. On 5
January 2012 DHS-HSI agents seized the Pillar from New York storage.
In autumn 2006, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in India and took
possession in New York of nine objects stolen in August 2006 from the Vishnu
Varaha Temple in Kari Talai, Madhya Pradesh, India. They included a pair of
eleventh-century, sandstone celestial Apsaras (Pair of Apsaras), originally joined as one piece though separated
and damaged by the time they reached New York. Kapoor valued them at $95,000
each. On 9 October 2006, Salmon charged $1,700 for making up missing sections,
cleaning, touching out ‘new breaks’, picking out details and enhancing colour
of the stone. But he repaired and prepared for sale each Apsara separately and
failed to restore the original integrity (and thus appearance) of the piece. On
26 July 2012, the Apsaras were in storage in New York though their present
whereabouts are unknown.
In repairing broken objects and more generally patching and
cleaning, knowingly or not Salmon’s work might have been important for hiding
evidence of theft and illegal trade and improving saleability, but in relative
terms he does not appear to have been very well paid for his services. As can
be seen from the table below, the money charged by Salmon for his work was very
little compared to that made or expected to be made by Kapoor. Altogether, for
24 jobs on material valued by Kapoor at approximately $31 million, Salmon
charged only $84,875, or 0.27 per cent of the material’s prospective retail
value. Given the element of risk involved for Salmon, working as he was on
suspect material, he seems not to have factored the risk into his pricing
strategy. Perhaps he was unaware of the dubious provenance of the material he
was working on. Perhaps it was simply because a sense of professional impunity
encouraged him to minimise his risk assessment. Remembering that before Kapoor
restorers had not figured in criminal indictments, perhaps Salmon simply
thought that it would never happen to him. Well, it has now. Given that Salmon finds
himself named on a criminal complaint, he might regret charging such relatively
small sums of money. Perhaps other restorers are taking note and adjusting
their prices accordingly.
Nevertheless, even if Salmon was underselling himself, he was clearly
doing good business with Kapoor. The prices tabulated above are only for a
small number of objects. The complaint contains details of 15 separate invoices
over a nine-year period, tabulated below, each invoice itemising a larger
number of objects than described in the complaint. Looking at the invoices, it
is also clear that they represent only a part of the total work performed by
Salmon for Kapoor in any one year. The 14 November 2003 invoice, for example,
also presents unpaid claims dated back to 5 September and 15 September totalling
$5,305, in addition to even older unsettled bill of $17,390, though presumably
in November still for work conducted in 2003. The invoices for these claims are
not available for inspection. So in 2003, Salmon must have charged Kapoor more
than the $46,110 evident on invoices, perhaps much more. In 2006, the year for
which there are most invoices, Salmon charged a minimum of $39,655. Still not a
large sum of money for a New York-based business though.
12 June 2002
16 September 2002
5 December 2002
13 March 2003
14 November 2003
+ bills of 5 Sept and 15 Sept totalling $5,305, plus old bill
10 November 2004
7 September 2005
18 February 2006
2 May 2006
20 September 2006
9 October 2006
8 February 2007
9 March 2007
15 March 2008
21 April 2009
Restorers are crucial to the ongoing health of the antiquities market.
Whether they know it or not, their work effectively launders trafficked
antiquities and facilitates their entry into legitimate commerce. Having said
that, most restorers do not work on trafficked or even suspect antiquities.
Those that do must comprise only a handful, but that is all it takes, and they
have in the past been able to believe themselves out of the reach of the law.
The Kapoor complaint changes all that. It remains to be seen whether or not the
charges will stick, but the very fact that restorers are named must send a
chill warning through the profession. It is time for them to clean up their
game. It just isn’t worth it. A more hostile environment for restorers will
reduce their willingness to work with suspect material and should act to
improve their due diligence. Upping their game in this way will make it much
more difficult for dealers to bring trafficked antiquities to market. Even if the
charges against Salmon don’t stick, by naming a pair of restorers, the
complaint has highlighted a potential weakness of the antiquities trade and shown
how to exploit it.