Celebrating despair

It is fifty years since UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to counter the illicit trade in cultural objects. The Art Newspaper reports a bizarre advertising campaign commissioned by UNESCO from the agency DDB Paris to support its celebration of UNESCO action against illicit trade since then. Titled The Real Price of Art, the campaign features (or featured – it has been taken down) a series of five montages presenting an “illicit antiquity” against a background of what is imagined to be a collector’s home, together with a text describing the sordid provenance of the antiquity in question. Unfortunately, it turns out the antiquities are not illicit. The images appear to have been lifted from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online database and are of objects that entered the Met’s collection legitimately many decades ago. This really is pathetic. There are people all over the world who have spent years or even decades documenting the illicit trade, often at their own personal expense, and their efforts have been completely ignored. How much money did UNESCO waste paying DDB Paris for this embarrassment? It would have been much better spent supporting people who are doing serious documentation.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the Art Newspaper also reports that UNESCO is quoting long discredited figures about the value of the illicit trade, stating that it is “estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year”. Whose estimates? UNESCO doesn’t say. Certainly not mine. I was co-author of a recent European Union report that debunked such outlandish figures (pages 78-96). UNESCO should be supporting good quality evidence-led research into the trade of a type that is sorely needed but in short supply, not wasting money on glitzy media presentations. And it should be reading the results of research when it does exist, not ignoring it.

In these populist days of fake news and alternative facts, scaremongering campaigns just don’t cut it. As the Art Newspaper reports demonstrate, they are badly counterproductive as they can be used to undermine more realistic assessments of the illicit trade and the damage it causes. Reliable documentation and research are key for effective policy and action.

And let us be clear, fifty years after the adoption of the UNESCO Convention the persistence of illicit trade is not a cause for celebration, it is a cause for reflection and despair.

New coins on the auction block (2): Arab-Byzantine gold

I have been looking at Arab-Byzantine gold coins. The term “Arab-Byzantine” is used to describe a series of gold and copper coin types issued in the former Byzantine territories of Syria after the Islamic conquests of the 630s but before the introduction of a properly Islamic coinage by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 696-697 AD. Although the terminology differs, three chronologically-successive coin types are recognised: (1) Pseudo-Byzantine (PB), (2) Umayyad Imperial Image (II), and (3) Standing Caliph. Most of the coins known today are copper, although some are gold. Gold coins are exceedingly rare and fetch correspondingly high prices when sold at auction.

Over the past 10 years, 12 previously unrecorded Pseudo-Byzantine and Imperial Image gold coins have appeared for auction. They are tabulated below. The prices are extraordinary, particularly for the Imperial Image coins. Arab-Byzantine gold coins were designed in imitation of contemporary Byzantine solidi, which typically sell at auction for prices under a thousand USD, orders of magnitude less than their Arab-Byzantine counterparts.

CoinAuction dateAuctionTypePrice (USD)
130 Nov 2010NGSA, 6, lot 285IINot known
225 Apr 2012Baldwin’s, Islamic 19, lot 7II177,283
226 Apr 2018Morton & Eden, 92, lot 12II184,406
322 Apr 2013Morton & Eden, 63, lot 6PB76,124
422 Apr 2013Morton & Eden, 63, lot 7PB60,899
59 May 2013Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 3999PB49,804
524 Nov 2014NGSA, 8, lot 226PBNot known
69 May 2013Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 4000II249,019
710 Sep 2015Album, 23, lot 68PB50,000
810 Jan 2017CNG, Triton XX, lot 1137PB42,500
822 Oct 2020Morton & Eden, 107, lot 1PBNot sold
914 Jan 2018Baldwin’s, New York 14, lot 21PB95,000
108 Jan 2019CNG, Triton XXII, lot 1226PB110,000
118 Jan 2019NYS, XLV, lot 314PB65,000
1218 Nov 2019NGSA, 12, lot 158PB50,461

Provenance information is scant. The catalogue entries for the second sale of coins offered twice usually reference the first sale, but nothing before that. The catalogue description for the Imperial Image coin sold by NGSA in November 2010 states that it was the first such coin to appear for auction in 24 years, confirming the rarity of Imperial Image coins and explaining the high price achieved by the NGSA coin and two similar ones in 2012 and 2013. So, no coins for 24 years, and then 3 in a space of 4 years with nothing said about provenance. The two Pseudo-Byzantine coins sold in the Baldwin’s May 2013 Islamic Auction were said to be from the Horus Collection, “formed over the past 35 years”, but nothing more. Perhaps the coins had been acquired decades ago, or perhaps only months before the sale. There is no way of knowing. In January 2000, the Imperial Image coin sold as lot 4000 at the May 2013 Baldwin’s sale was exhibited in Abu Dhabi as part of a large private collection of Islamic coins.

Imperial Image coin

Arab-Byzantine gold coins are generally considered to have circulated in the area of what is today Syria and the immediately adjacent territories of neighbouring countries. None of the coins sold since 2010 has a recorded find spot, and for Arab-Byzantine gold coins generally only one has any kind of information about where it was found. It is a Pseudo-Byzantine coin acquired by Paul Bedoukian in 1965 as part of the “Daphne” hoard of Byzantine gold solidi said to have been found 5 km from Antakya (ancient Antioch) in what is today the southern extremity of Turkey (Miles 1967: 208; Metcalf 1980). This hoard was acquired on the market, however, so its integrity and locational information are inherently unreliable.

Let us remember what was happening in Syria while these unprovenanced coins were being sold. Heavy looting of archaeological sites started being reported in 2012 after the onset of civil conflict in 2011, with some of the proceeds going to support armed groups. By late 2015 at the latest, it was widely known that there was an illegal trade in ancient coins out of Syria and that it was an important source of revenue for Salafist-jihadist groups such as Da’esh. Thus, the provenance of any coin seemingly fresh to the market after 2011 should have been open to serious scrutiny before being offered for sale. Perhaps the coins were all researched, but if they were it is a shame that nothing was ever published. So, just where exactly did these new coins originate? A collector’s coin cabinet in Switzerland or a looter’s hole in the ground in Syria? Again, there is no way of knowing. But the fact that the coins did sell without any satisfactory account of provenance suggests that the buyers just didn’t care, which is disconcerting.

Provenance aside, the auction prices offer some important insights into the potential profitability of the coin trade for Da’esh and other armed non-state actors. Let us imagine a hypothetical Arab-Byzantine coin found late 2015 by looters in Syria and worth something like 100,000 USD on the European market. The looters might not recognise the coin for what it is, but the local dealer most probably would and be aware of its potential value. Say the local dealer manages to sell it for 25,000 USD and then pays 20 per cent tax on the transaction to Da’esh. That would be 5,000 USD for a single coin. If the dealer manages to sell it for more, the tax take would increase accordingly. A few more similar coins and the numbers start to add up …

References

Metcalf, William E. 1980. Three seventh-century Byzantine gold hoards, Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society) 25: 87-108.

Miles, George C. 1967. The earliest Arab gold coinage, Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society) 13: 205-229.

The human cost

In September 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the acquisition of the gilded cartonnage coffin of the first-century BC Egyptian priest Nedjemankh. The coffin was said to have been officially exported from Egypt in 1971 and residing in a private collection since then. In February 2019, the Met announced it was returning the coffin to Egypt. An investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had shown the documented provenance supplied to the Met to be fake and established that the coffin had in fact been recently looted. The coffin was returned to the possession of Egypt on 25 September 2019 at a repatriation ceremony attended by representatives of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, US Homeland Security Investigations, and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The provenance published by the Metropolitan at the time of the acquisition stated that:

The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017.

The District Attorney’s Office revealed this provenance to be completely fraudulent. Its investigation established that the coffin had been looted from somewhere in the Minya region of Egypt, probably in October 2011, passing through the hands of dealers in Dubai and Germany before arriving with Parisian dealer Christophe Kunicki by 2016. One of the German dealers had prepared the forged documents of provenance. The Met subsequently paid Kunicki €3.5 million for the coffin.

Coffin on display in Egypt in 2019

It is sometimes claimed that the trade in antiquities such as the Nedjemankh coffin is a victimless crime, but the opposite is true, and there is often a tragic cost in human life. Between 2012 and 2017, for example, at least 25 people were reported to have died in Egypt while engaged in illegal digging, often under their own homes (AFP 2012; Ahram Online 2016; Ahram Online 2017a; Al-Masry Al-Youm 2015). One was an eleven-year-old boy (Ahram Online 2017b). On top of this, in 2016, two site guards were killed by unknown assailants during an attack on the archaeological site of Dayr al-Barsha in al-Minya governorate (Sutton 2016).

These deaths are caused by the desperate search for precious antiquities such as the gilded coffin, and blame must be placed at the feet of the unscrupulous merchants who trade in such objects and the collectors who buy them. Museums too, such as the Met, even when diligent, should be more acutely aware of the possibly fatally-tainted sources of their acquisitions. It is not simply a cultural property crime, it can quite easily be a matter of life and death. In July 2018, the Met put the coffin on display as the centrepiece of its exhibition “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin”. Writing up the exhibition and riffing on the gold fetishism of past and present fashionistas, Zachary Small suggested Nedjemankh’s might be “a gilded coffin to die for”. Let us hope that was not literally the case.