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.
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.
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).
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.
The forthcoming February TimeLine auction offers 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects. Only five have a provenance putting them out of Iraq before August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which placed trade sanctions on any goods exported from Iraq including cultural objects such as cuneiform tablets. The provenances of the remainder are chronologically indeterminate. UNSCR 661 was reaffirmed for cultural objects in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483, which in June 2003 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:
Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.
Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:
Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.
Thus, the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any object moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency. What about the TimeLine objects of indeterminate provenance date? Unless the company has more information about provenance which it has decided not to make public, it cannot be said with any certainty from what has been made public when the objects in question were moved out of Iraq. The uncertainty doesn’t seem to be deterring customers though. At time of writing, eight of the indeterminate objects had between them received 36 bids. The deterrent effect of the Sanctions Order is hardly appreciable.
The most interesting object in the sale is lot 0235, described as a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Not an Iraqi Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel, which would be a more accurate description, but a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Anyhow, that is not really the point. The point is the provenance:
Ex central London gallery; acquired August 1999 from a UK dealer; acquired by them from an Oxford academic, from a UK collection formed before 1992; this lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate number no. 10324-166483.
So, if the provenance is correct, the barrel is first known to have been in the UK by 1999 after acquisition by a UK dealer sometime before then. In other words, the barrel is said to have been in the UK by 1999 at the latest and who knows when at the earliest. There is nothing to establish that the barrel was in the UK before the 1990 date required by the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order.
The TimeLine object description doesn’t include a translation of the barrel’s inscription. This is strange, because normally the inscription on an object such as this one that has been in circulation for 20 years or more will have been translated. Perhaps it has, and just not published by TimeLine, though the company normally does include translations when they are available (see for example lot 0238 in the same sale). If in fact the inscription records Sin-iddinam dredging the Tigris, which seems likely, the barrel will be one of many that have appeared on the market or in private collections since 1990. Before that date, only three were known. In 2011, Andrew George listed 21 recently-appeared examples, suggesting a probable find spot of Larsa, Adab or Zabalam (George 2011: 99). The most likely explanation for the proliferation of these barrels is that they were looted and trafficked from Iraq during the 1990s, making it all the more important for TimeLine to secure a provenance dating back to before 1990.
But what about “acquired from an Oxford academic”? Who was the Oxford academic? I can tell you now it wasn’t me. There is always Dirk Obbink, of course, who arrived at Oxford in 1995. According to the allegations swirling about (Higgins 2020; Sabar 2020), by 2010 he was selling papyri to the Hobby Lobby corporation, including some said to have been stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society. After 2010, he was also active in two antiquities dealerships: Oxford Ancient and Castle Folio. So, if the provenance is to believed, the barrel was acquired from an Oxford academic by 1999 at the latest, at which time Obbink was in post but a few years before the first evidence of his involvement with antiquities trading. Was he already dabbling in the antiquities market in the late 1990s, and would Obbink, who is a papyrologist, have been interested in a cuneiform barrel? Perhaps not. Perhaps Obbink wasn’t the only mucky-fingered academic active in Oxford at the time. And remember, ‘Oxford academic’ doesn’t necessarily mean a University of Oxford academic. I know many academics living in Oxford who are not employed by the University of Oxford. Perhaps it was one of them.
George, Andrew (ed.), 2011. Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 17). Bethesda: CDL.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office criminal complaint against Subhash Kapoor contains some interesting tidbits about the use of antiquities purchases for tax evasion. In March 2005, Kapoor sold the twelfth-century bronze Standing Jina (allegedly illegally excavated) to a New York private collector and provided an invoice recording the sale for $64,442 plus $5,558.12 tax – a total of $70,000.12. According to a sales ledger seized by DHS-HSI agents, however, the actual price paid by the collector was $435,000, which at the time in New York would have attracted a sales tax payment of something like $37,410. A couple of years later, in March 2007, Kapoor issued an invoice recording the sale of the twelfth-century bronze statue of the child saint Sambander (allegedly stolen from the Siva Temple in Sripuranthan, Tamil Nadu) to the same collector for $125,000 plus $10,468.75 tax – a total of $135,468.75. Kapoor’s sales ledger shows the collector actually paid $775,000, which would have attracted $66,650 sales tax. Thus, working together, Kapoor and the collector seem to have defrauded the New York tax payer out of $88,033.
From November 2006 to February 2007, the Standing Jina was on display in London at the Royal Academy’s ‘Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India’ exhibition. In the exhibition catalogue, its owner was described as a private collector (Guy et al. 2006: 140-141). Private tax evader would have been more appropriate.
Guy, John, Vidya Dehejia, John Eskenazi and Daud Ali, 2006. Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India. London: Royal Academy.
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.
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.
30 Nov 2010
NGSA, 6, lot 285
25 Apr 2012
Baldwin’s, Islamic 19, lot 7
26 Apr 2018
Morton & Eden, 92, lot 12
22 Apr 2013
Morton & Eden, 63, lot 6
22 Apr 2013
Morton & Eden, 63, lot 7
9 May 2013
Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 3999
24 Nov 2014
NGSA, 8, lot 226
9 May 2013
Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 4000
10 Sep 2015
Album, 23, lot 68
10 Jan 2017
CNG, Triton XX, lot 1137
22 Oct 2020
Morton & Eden, 107, lot 1
14 Jan 2018
Baldwin’s, New York 14, lot 21
8 Jan 2019
CNG, Triton XXII, lot 1226
8 Jan 2019
NYS, XLV, lot 314
18 Nov 2019
NGSA, 12, lot 158
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
I have just noticed that in June 2019 Cornell University’s Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Cuneiform Tablet Collection (CUNES Collection) was closed permanently. At the time of its closure, the collection was said to consist of approximately 10,000 cuneiform-inscribed objects. The announcement stated that “in the 20 years the cuneiform tablet collection was at Cornell, it was studied by dozens of scholars and has led to over 3 dozen books and articles, with more in press”. It didn’t say why the CUNES Collection was being closed.
The CUNES Collection was established in the early 2000s (or, if the announcement is accurate, in 1999) by a donation of possibly 1,500 cuneiform objects made by the collector Jonathan Rosen, with further donations in view (D’Arcy 2003). Many had been in the possession of Rosen since at least 1997 (Mayr 2007: ix; Owen 2007: vii), and Cornell’s acceptance of the tablets was dependent upon Rosen’s assurance of legal acquisition (Gottlieb and Meier 2003). Cornell used the donation to create the Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Ancient Near Eastern Studies Seminar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies under the curatorship of David I. Owen, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Its mission was to house the tablets and facilitate their study. Rosen financed the creation of research and technical support positions (Owen 2007: viii). The CUNES Collection continued to grow in size after its establishment, as shown in the table below from its website statements. By 2013, it was reported to comprise approximately 10,000 objects (Felch 2013), so it must have reached its 2019 size sometime between 2011 and 2013.
Number of objects
The CUNES Collection has been entered into the database of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). The CDLI database records 10,435 CUNES cuneiform objects, the overwhelming majority comprising clay tablets. Just under half that number (4,973) have been published. Of the remainder, 670 are marked as “unpublished assigned”, meaning that their study and publication is planned or ongoing, and 4,792 are marked as “unpublished unassigned”, meaning that there are no immediate plans for their publication.
The CDLI database provides “provenience” information for 4,061 objects, though the term “provenience” is used in relation to the name of an ancient settlement, not always its modern location. Many of the ancient settlements are known only from references in the cuneiform texts themselves and their actual locations remain a mystery. As this next table shows, 15 settlements are named as provenience. Most of them are believed to be situated within the boundaries of Iraq. One obvious exception is the Syrian site of Ebla.
Number of objects
Adab (modern Bismaya)
Du-Enlila (location unknown)
Dūr-Abī-ēšuḫ (location unknown)
Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh)
Ešnunna (modern Tell Asmar)
Garšana (location unknown)
Girsu (modern Tello)
Irisaĝrig (location unknown)
Isin (modern Bahriyat)
KI.AN (location unknown)
Larsa (modern Tell as-Senkereh)
Nippur (modern Nuffar)
Puzriš-Dagan (modern Drehem)
Šuruppak (modern Fara)
Umma (modern Tell Jokha)
There is no record of how the objects reached Rosen or when they left Iraq. Assyriologists working on CUNES objects have occasionally claimed that they “derive from clandestine collections”, were “illicitly excavated”, or “come from illicit excavations”. I could give references but I am trying to spare scholarly blushes. David Owen is usually more circumspect, suggesting for example that the tablets have an unclear or suspect pedigree (Owen 2013a: 336). Sometimes he is less guarded, writing that the tablets “were evidently the product of clandestine excavations in Iraq sometime during the last [i.e. twentieth] century” (Owen and Mayr 2007: 1). Other knowledgeable Assyriologists have expressed their opinions that many of the CUNES objects were “looted after 1991” or “discovered through illicit excavations”. I cannot verify any of these allegations as I am not privy to any kind of provenance documentation. Other than the fact that the tablets were acquired from Jonathan Rosen, Cornell has consistently refused to release any information about their ownership histories. This active censorship of important evidence relating to the provenance and ultimately the legitimacy of the CUNES objects is surprising and regrettable in an academic context.
In 2001, US Customs in Newark intercepted and confiscated a shipment containing 302 cuneiform tablets en route to the Sumer Gallery of New York from Bin Jassim Transglobal of Dubai (Studevent-Hickman 2018). In 2010 the tablets were returned to the possession of Iraq. After study and publication (with the permission of the Director General of Iraqi Museums), 145 of the tablets were shown to be part of an Ur III (2100-2000 BC) archive belonging to a man named Aradmu, discovered at a presently unknown site somewhere in the vicinity of Nippur. These 145 tablets confiscated by US Customs comprise only one part of a larger archive, which includes a further 224 tablets in the CUNES Collection (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 4). Of the 197 CUNES Nippur objects registered on the CDLI database, only eight have been published, and a further 16 are marked “unpublished unassigned”, mainly dating to the Middle Babylonian (1400-1100 BC) period. The remaining 173 objects, all dating to the Ur III period, are marked “unpublished assigned”. Presumably they constitute the matching part of the Aradmu archive confiscated by US Customs in 2001.
The gradual increase in size of the CUNES Collection from the date of its establishment through to 2013 is evidence that Rosen continued to donate material over a prolonged period of 14 years. Perhaps he was making intermittent donations for his own financial reasons, or perhaps he was continuing to acquire material on the market and passing it on to Cornell. Behind the numbers, the evidence suggests that Rosen was indeed continuing to be active on the market. By 2013, the CUNES Collection had acquired at least 89 tablets from the site of Irisaĝrig (Owen 2013b: 3), and in 2020 the CDLI listed at least 92 Irisaĝrig tablets in its possession. Jordanian customs confiscated 167 Irisaĝrig tablets in 2003, but tablets from Irisaĝrig did not start appearing on the international market until 2004 (Viano 2019: 49; Molina 2013: 72). Thus, it seems likely that Rosen and then Cornell could only have acquired Irisaĝrig tablets sometime after 2003, at least four years after the establishment of the CUNES Collection. Owen himself has confirmed this fact, writing in 2013 that the Irisaĝrig tablets he was publishing had only appeared over the preceding eight years (Owen 2013a: 28).
Rosen’s initial donation to Cornell was said to be associated with a significant tax break (D’Arcy 2003). Customs documents obtained by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act dating to 2004 but reporting an investigation opened in 2001 recorded an import of 1,679 tablets valued in total at less than $50,000, which secured a $900,000 tax deduction when they were donated to Cornell (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 212-213). The name of the donor was redacted but subsequently revealed to be Rosen (Felch 2013). The investigation concluded that any allegations of wrongful import were unsubstantiated. Based on the evidence of the customs documents, a rough calculation suggests that Rosen purchased each tablet for $30 and donated it to Cornell for an appraised value of $536. Multiplying up, he could have bought the entire CUNES collection of 10,435 objects for about $313,000 and donated them to Cornell for a tax deduction worth $5.6 million. Writing about the Green family’s Hobby Lobby tax deduction schemes, Candida Moss and Joel Baden (2017: 24) state that “the magic ratio for the Greens was 1:3: for a given investment to be financially viable, they had to be able to write it off at three times the amount that they purchased it for”. If the figures suggested for his donations to Cornell are anywhere near correct, Rosen was working to a ratio of 1:18. Some of his profit was ploughed back into Cornell for research support, though presumably that too would be tax deductible.
In November 2013, Rosen’s attorney was reported as saying that Rosen had always intended that the tablets should reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research (Felch 2013). But it seems that Cornell was planning on returning the CUNES objects to Iraq (Felch 2013). At about the same time, David Owen wrote in apparent contradiction of Rosen’s attorney that the plan had always been for the tablets to be returned (he used the word donated) to Iraq once they had been conserved and published (Owen 2013: 352). Not surprising really. Once Rosen had extracted what money he could from the tax system and Owen and his colleagues had extracted the historical information of the texts, why would Cornell want to pay in perpetuity for the curation and conservation of the tablets? Better to give them back to Iraq and let the Iraqi taxpayer pay. But where is the justice in that? The return of the tablets alone, shorn as they are of their monetary and informational values, cannot compensate Iraq for the losses caused by their removal (Brodie 2020). Surely the beneficiaries should be prepared to share some of their profits with Iraq, which is after all the ultimate loser in this dubious business. If Cornell really is planning to return the tablets, at the very least it should make a financial contribution towards the long-term costs of storage once the tablets are back in Iraq. But what would be an appropriate sum of money?
Negotiations are currently under way between Hobby Lobby and Iraq over the return of 6,500 cuneiform objects (MOTB 2020; Brodie 2020). In a welcome precedent, part of the plan is for Hobby Lobby to provide financial support for the ongoing study and conservation of cultural objects, rumoured to be in the region of $15 million (Moss 2020). How exactly that money might be spent is yet to be determined. My own opinion is that it should be used to establish a trust fund for the future financial support of Iraqi cuneiform scholarship. But the point is that for 6,500 tablets, Hobby Lobby has judged appropriate recompense for losses suffered by Iraq to be $15 million, or about $2,300 for each tablet. Applying the same valuation to the 10,435 CUNES tablets, it would imply that Cornell might choose to pay Iraq $24 million. That is a lot of money. Perhaps Rosen might want to help out.
Brodie, Neil. 2020. Restorative justice? Questions arising out of the Hobby Lobby return of cuneiform tablets to Iraq, Revista Memória em Rede 12: 87-109.
D’Arcy, David. 2003. Collector gets tax break for donating cylinder seals to university, Art Newspaper, no. 139, September: 5.
Felch, Jason. 2013. Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq, Los Angeles Times, 3 November.
Gottlieb, Martin and Barry Meier. 2003. Ancient art at Met raises old ethical questions, New York Times, 2 August.
Mayr, Rudolf. 2007. Acknowledgements, in David I. Owen and Rudolf H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), ix-x. Bethesda: CDL Press.
Molina, Manuel. 2013. On the location of Irisaĝrig, in Steven Garfinkle and Manuel Molina(eds), From the 21st Century BC to the 21st Century AD, 59-88. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Moss, Candida. 2020. Is Iraq getting screwed in a looted treasures deal with Hobby Lobby? Daily Beast, 27 August
Moss, Candida and Joel Baden. 2017. Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
MOTB. 2020. Statement on past acquisitions, Museum of the Bible, press release, 26 March.
Owen, David. 2007. Acknowledgments, in D.I. Owen and R.H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), vii-ix. Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David. 2013a. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 1: Commentary and Indexes, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David. 2013b. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 2: Catalogues and Texts, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr. 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3). Bethesda: CDL Press.
Studevent-Hickman, Benjamin. 2018. Sumerian Texts from Ancient Iraq: From Ur III to 9/11. Atlanta: Lockwood Press.
Viano, Maurizio. 2019. On the location of Irisaĝrig once again, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71, 35-52
While I have been looking at cuneiform tablets offered for sale by TimeLine Auctions, it seems the British Museum has been looking at other Iraqi artefacts. It was reported on Sunday that part of an Early Dynastic III (Sumerian) votive wall plaque is to be returned to Iraq. One of the BM’s curators recognised the plaque when it appeared in the catalogue of the May 2019 TimeLine sale and notified the Metropolitan Police. TimeLine then relinquished possession to the police. The plaque is believed to have been looted, though no corroborating evidence has been published. Perhaps it was handed over because of deficient provenance. The catalogue entry stated that the plaque belonged to a private collection formed in the 1990s. TimeLine said the collector had acquired it some years ago in Germany. So, it sounds as though there was nothing to show that the plaque had been out of Iraq before 6 August 1990, as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483, implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8 of the Iraq Sanctions Order requires that “Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable”. Perhaps that is why TimeLine gave it up. Worth noting though that the Iraq Sanctions Order doesn’t say a person must only cause the transfer of an object when a constable shows up on their doorstep, but perhaps I am being pedantic. All the same, it shows pretty poor due diligence on the part of TimeLine. The plaque passed the Art Loss Register check of course.
Interestingly, a British Museum curator was quoted as saying “We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked. But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality”. Confirmation if any is needed that the bulk of the antiquities trade now comprises low-value objects – the bulk of the visible trade coming through the UK at least. But it also seems to imply that action is only thought necessary for high-value pieces such as the Sumerian plaque. A problematical policy if true.
In 2014, a previously unknown type of Byzantine hexagram appeared on the market. Hexagrams are silver coins introduced in 615 AD by the emperor Heraclius and continued to be struck through into the 680s towards the end of the reign of his great-grandson Constantine IV (668-685) (Grierson 1999: 13). Dating to the reign of Constans II (641-668), these newly recognised hexagrams carry a bust of Constans II on the obverse and three standing figures of his sons Tiberius, Constantine IV and Heraclius on the reverse. By the end of 2015, six examples had appeared, which could be divided stylistically into fine and crude groups (Woods 2015). No new examples have appeared since then. The six known examples are listed on the Sixbid Coin Collector’s Archive:
21 October 2014 5 April 2015
Nomos, Auction 9, lot 320 Pecunem, Auction 30, lot 610
Not sold 4250
10 December 2014
Rauch, Auction 96, lot 647
9 March 2015
Gorny, Auction 228, lot 756
13 March 2015 27 June 2015
Kunker, Auction 262, lot 8474 Roma, E-sale 18, lot 1210
Not sold 4212
22 March 2015
Roma, Auction IX, lot 905
27 September 2015
Roma, Auction X, lot 931
The description provided for the first one of these coins to be offered for sale in October 2014 at Nomos stated that it was “Of the greatest rarity, one of apparently two known examples, and unpublished” and that it was “uncleaned as found”. Two months later in December 2014, Rauch stated the coin it was offering was the third known copy. And so it went on:
Roma, 22 March 2015: “The fourth known example of this interesting type”.
Roma, 27 June 2015: “The fifth known example of this interesting type”.
Roma, 27 September 2015: “the sixth and finest known example of the type”.
The coin sold at the March 2015 Roma sale was bought by Dumbarton Oaks (BZC.2015.003). On its website, it describes the coin as the “Fourth specimen known of this type, which is missing from reference books”.
It has been argued that because the coins all appeared on the market at the same time they may have come from a single hoard (Woods 2015: 174, note 10). Although no hexagrams of this type are known to have been found in modern-day Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries, historical sources support the further argument that they were in circulation there (Woods 2015: 180). Thus in all probability they were found there.
Clearly, the buyers and sellers were all aware that the coins were new to the market. Their descriptions said as much. Whether or not they suspected a Syrian origin is not possible to say, but they should have done. Let’s remember what was happening back then. In September 2013, ICOM released its Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, which highlighted Achaemenid to Ottoman period coins. On 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, head of the Da’esh Diwan al Rikaz (Ministry of Natural Resources and Minerals, including its Antiquities Division), where they recovered ancient coins from Syria and Iraq and there were electronic images of more gold coins and jewellery on his computer. In November 2015, Yaya J. Fanusie and Alexander Joffe published a report on Daesh’s antiquities trafficking, claiming that “Coins and other metal objects have emerged as particularly attractive items for IS”. So, by late 2015 at the very 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. And legislators were paying attention. In December 2013, European Union (EU) Council Regulation no. 1332/2013 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects illegally removed from Syria on or after 9 May 2011. In February 2015, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects removed illegally from Syria after 15 March 2011.
If as numismatic opinion suggests these new coins really were found in Syria, what were they doing being sold in Europe in apparent contravention of EU Regulation no. 1332/2013? Did anybody report the coins to the police? It appears not. When faced with unevidenced claims that unprovenanced antiquities are illicit in some way, dealers are always quick to claim they must be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is a good sound bite, but unfortunately very far from the mark. They would have us believe that the legitimacy of an unprovenanced antiquity is subject to the same burden of proof as the guilt of a person. But it is not. Civil disputes over ownership are decided on the balance of probabilities, not upon demonstration of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Applying this standard, the appearance of a small hoard of previously unattested silver coins of a type known to have been circulating in Syria or its neighbouring countries at a time when there was also known to be active large scale looting and trafficking of ancient coins out of Syria might suggest, on balance, that the coins really were from Syria. Not that this probable conclusion concerned their buyers and sellers.
Mind you, they might have good reason for their apparent unconcern. EU Regulation 1332/2013 states that it applies to “Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI”. Unfortunately, Annex XI does not specifically list ancient coins, except as category 13(b) “Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. But close inspection of Annex XI reveals the listing to be problematical. Category 13, based upon Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) 9705.00 lists:
13(a) Collections and specimens from zoological, botanical, mineralogical or anatomical collections;
13(b) Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest.
The same listings appear as Category 13 in Annex 1 of the 2008 EU Council Regulation no. 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods. So, while Category 13(a) of these annexes includes “collections and specimens”, Category 13(b) includes only “collections”. These definitions are at variance with the WCO listings of 9705.00, which include “Collections and collectors’ pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. As the WCO developed the list, it is presumably the authoritative version. Thus, while the WCO explicitly includes “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”, the EC Regulations don’t. It might be a drafting error. But it might also lead reasonable people to believe that the omission is deliberate, and that neither Regulation 1332/2013 nor Regulation 116/2009 is intended to apply to “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”. In other words, the trade of individual coins is not subject to legal control.
Or maybe it is. In both Regulations, the term “collections” in Category 13(b) is qualified by the following footnote:
As defined by the Court of Justice in its judgment in Case 252/84 as follows: “Collectors’ pieces within the meaning of heading No 97.05 of the Common Customs Tariff are articles which possess the requisite characteristics for inclusion in a collection, that is to say, articles which are relatively rare, are not normally used for their original purpose, are the subject of special transactions outside the normal trade in similar utility articles and are of high value”.
In defining “collectors’ pieces”, the footnote implies that Category 13(b) should indeed include “collectors’ pieces”, so perhaps their omission is more by accident than by design. But the footnote raises further unfortunate ambiguities. What exactly does it mean by “relatively rare” and “high value”? Neither Regulation offers any guidance. The hexagrams are obviously rare. There are only six of them known. But what about value? The Sixbid Archive registers 182 Byzantine hexagrams sold between 2011 and 2019 for 61,888 EUR in total at an average (mean) price of 340 EUR and a median price of 181 EUR. The cheapest was 45 EUR and the most expensive was 3,752 EUR. So, for a hexagram, the new type might be considered high value, though not when compared to other coins, contemporary gold solidi, for example. And the prices achieved at auction in Europe would be higher than those declared on import documents. But more guidance is offered by the March 2019 EU Regulation 2019/880 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods. This Regulation establishes in its Annex that it applies to “antiquities, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals”, but seemingly judging rarity by value, it applies only to objects valued at more than 18,000 EUR. That is a far higher price than anything achieved by these new (or any) hexagrams.
So, the import and trade of these previously unknown Constans II hexagrams would appear to be in accord with the letter if not the spirit of the law. They were probably found in Syria, but possibly not. Their trade may be subject to legal control, but almost certainly not. If the purpose of regulatory instruments is to control illicit trade, they need to be much clearer about just what it is exactly they are trying to control. The law needs tightening, to say the least. And in the absence of legal clarity, there is no point trying to raise awareness about the harmful consequences of the trade in ancient coins, and particularly coins from Syria where evidence suggests that the trade is profiting Salafist-jihadist groups. There is no point either in making appeals for more ethical business practices when the perception will be that the appeals are asking legitimate businesses to go above and beyond what is strictly required of them by law. With profits at stake, that will not happen.
Grierson, Philip, 1999. Byzantine Coinage. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.
Woods, David, 2015. Muʽāwiyah, Constans II and coins without crosses, Israel Numismatic Research 10: 169-182.