Gray trade/white crime?

Jay Albanese, professor in the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, has just published a short letter asking ‘Organized Crime vs. White-collar Crime: Which is the Bigger Problem?’. He writes:

Organized crime and white-collar crime have the same objective, but only one of them dominates the public narrative. … We fear the former and complain only occasionally about the latter.

Too right. He wasn’t writing about the antiquities trade, but he might well have been. He points out that a great deal of legislative energy has been spent combatting transnational organised crime because of the fear of drug trafficking. It is easy to pass legislation aimed at controlling organised crime because of a consensual perception that offenders aren’t quite like us, they are “outsiders and predators”. But, he argues, white-collar crime is as profitable and as harmful as organised crime, if not more so. Instead of resorting to intimidation and coercion to protect their enterprise, white-collar criminals have ready recourse to the courts and legitimate legal processes. White-collar criminals are also financially and socially well-placed to lobby governments and to block or weaken any planned regulatory responses.

Here in antiquities land, most legislation treats the antiquities trade as transnational organised crime by aiming to interrupt supply chains rather than by tackling demand. Particularly since the depredations of Da’esh, terrorism is an ever-present fear. It helps frame perceptions of the trade as something threatening or undermining of ‘western’ society, the work of Kalashnikov toting blackbeards, not bespoke galleristas and their well-heeled clientele. But following the white-collar thread, we are all used now to seeing criminally-traded antiquities seized and forfeited while those involved in the marketing are left to walk free. We are resigned to the ever-present danger of legal action and other more covert forms of intimidation, which while they might not threaten our physical safety could certainly imperil our financial wellbeing. (Having said that, I can think of one colleague who was threatened with physical violence. It was very distressing but because of the bravery of the person involved it failed in its deterrent purpose). And we look on in despair when weakened regulatory instruments are passed with great fanfare but probably poor prospects. Why is regulation so ineffective? Why are policy makers falling down on the job? Is it because of white-collar interference? It goes without saying that policy making is only as good as the evidence base supporting it, and that evidence base is pretty shaky. A lot more research is needed. But the actual policy-making process too is need of more illumination. Policy making in this field is a poorly-understood phenomenon. Who gets to be involved and who doesn’t? Where are the back channels? Who is listened to and who isn’t? How is policy impact assessed? Is it assessed? Who does the assessing? (No doubt some unqualified private consultancy). Policy making is an arcane process and not one that is conducive to good law making and effective regulation. If we really want to reduce antiquities trafficking and looting, we need to design and implement policy aimed at diminishing demand through tackling white-collar crime – and we need to ask too why that is not happening.

Bad omens for Cornell?

In September 2019, US law enforcement agents seized the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is a cuneiform tablet whose text records part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. On 18 May 2020, the US Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York filed a civil action to forfeit the tablet, alleging it had originated in Iraq and entered the USA in contravention of US law. The forfeiture complaint makes for interesting reading. It claims that in March or April 2003, after first viewing the material prior to 2001, an unnamed US “Antiquities Dealer” bought a group of cuneiform tablets from the Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani in London. The “Antiquities Dealer” was accompanied by what the complaint terms a “Cuneiform Expert” (since suggested to be independent scholar Renee Kovacs). The Cuneiform Expert recognised that the tablets did not bear ordinary administrative texts but were instead “potentially of a literary nature”. The Antiquities Dealer paid $50,350 for the tablets, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet among them, and arranged shipment to the USA.

Once in the USA, the Cuneiform Expert arranged for Andrew George to study the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in 2005. His study was published in 2007 (George 2007). In his publication, George stated that the tablet was published with “the permission of the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous” (George 2007: 59). The owner was presumably the Antiquities Dealer. Importantly, George also noted that:

The tablet was reported to be part of a group of unpublished tablets that included omen and liturgical compositions, some mentioning Pešgaldaramaš (peš-gal-dàra-meš) and Ayadaragalamma (a-a-dàra-galam-ma), kings of the First Sealand Dynasty, and to share with them aspects of physical appearance and ductus. I was able to confirm this report from photographs of the tablets in question. In particular, the present piece closely resembles a tablet of lung omens dated to Pešgaldaramaš. Close resemblance is not an infallible criterion for attributing provenance, but it is enough to permit a provisional hypothesis that the tablet published here derives from the same source as the Sealand tablets (George 2007: 63).

So, someone, presumably the Cuneiform Expert, had reported to George that the Gilgamesh tablet had been (or was still) part of a group including omen and liturgical tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty and supplied photographs of them. George then commented upon the presence in the group of a lung omens tablet dated to Pešgaldarameš.

Tablets attributable to the First Sealand Dynasty were unknown before 1999 when Stephanie Dalley started studying 474 administrative tablets in the Schøyen Collection, subsequently published in 2009 (Dalley 2009). Kovacs was associated with the Schøyen Collection until 2005, when she handed over responsibility for publishing the collection’s cuneiform holdings to George. George had first met Schøyen in 2001 (George 2009: xi). So, presumably, both Kovacs and George would have been aware of the Sealand tablets in the Schøyen Collection – George definitely was (George 2007: 63). By 2005, if Kovacs was the Cuneiform Expert, she would have been able to recognize the Sealand kings from their names and advise George accordingly, which is what he indicated in his 2007 paper.

In 2013, George went on to publish 10 omen tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty from an anonymous private collection (George 2013: tablet nos 22-29, 31-32). In his introduction, he stated that he had studied the tablets sometime between the years 2005 and 2012 and that:

Images of most of the tablets in the anonymous collection were made at the Rosen Seminar, Cornell University, and are published here by generous leave of David I. Owen, Curator of the Tablet Collections (George 2013: xi).

The texts have been made available on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) database.

CDLI omen texts published by George (2013)

The entry for George’s tablet no. 28 (CDLI P431306) is particularly interesting. It describes the text as:

Lung omens, middle lobe; 1st Sealand period script, dated by colophon to Pešgaldarameš.

So, another Sealand lung omens text dated to the reign of Pešgaldarameš. A startling coincidence, especially remembering that no First Sealand Dynasty texts at all were known before the late 1990s. The CDLI lists 77 Old Babylonian omen texts, but none in private collections and none dating to the First Sealand Dynasty except those published by George.

What does it mean? There are two possible explanations. The first is that in 2003 the US Antiquities Dealer bought a group of First Sealand Dynasty tablets including the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, some omen tablets, and particularly a lung omens tablet. He sold the omen tablets and they were lost from view. Meanwhile, an unknown private collector had acquired a different group of First Sealand Dynasty omen tablets, including another lung omens, which George was subsequently able to study and publish. Stranger things have happened, but the second and more parsimonious explanation is that the tablets bought by the Antiquities Dealer and the tablets studied by George were in fact the same ones. They were bought by the Antiquities Dealer in 2003, sold to a private collector, and sometime later studied and published by George. (In his 2007 publication, George does not mention the Pešgaldarameš colophon on the lung omens tablet, but then perhaps it hadn’t been visible on the photographs supplied to him).

CDLI entry for lung omens text

But there is more. When George published the tablets in 2013 he stated that they were with an anonymous private collector. Today, on the CDLI database, they are listed as the property of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Has the private collector sold or donated them to Cornell? Remembering that George acknowledged publishing the tablets with the permission of David Owen, who is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cornell, it seems a likely eventuality

To some extent, this is all speculation. I cannot prove that the tablets sold by Rihani to the Dealer in 2003 are the ones published by George in 2013 or that they are now in the possession of Cornell. I don’t know for sure. Cornell might though.


Dalley, Stephanie. 2009. Babylonian Tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.

George, Andrew. 2007. The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: An unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš epic, Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 101: 59-80.

George, Andrew. 2009. Babylonian Literary Texts in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.   George, Andrew. 2013. Babylonian Divinatory Texts Chiefly in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.