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 …


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.

Cornell cuneiform

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.

Website dateNumber of objects
December 2009c. 6,500
October 2011c. 9,000
November 2015c. 10,000

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.

SiteNumber of objects
Adab (modern Bismaya)1,168
Du-Enlila (location unknown)1
Dūr-Abī-ēšuḫ (location unknown)349
Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh)1
Ešnunna (modern Tell Asmar)1
Garšana (location unknown)1,485
Girsu (modern Tello)4
Irisaĝrig (location unknown)92
Isin (modern Bahriyat)9
KI.AN (location unknown)4
Larsa (modern Tell as-Senkereh)4
Nippur (modern Nuffar)197
Puzriš-Dagan (modern Drehem)14
Šuruppak (modern Fara)19
Umma (modern Tell Jokha)713

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

A Sumerian problem?

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.

New coins on the auction block

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:

 Auction dateAuctionPrice (EUR)
121 October 2014
5 April 2015
Nomos, Auction 9, lot 320
Pecunem, Auction 30, lot 610
Not sold
210 December 2014Rauch, Auction 96, lot 6473500
39 March 2015Gorny, Auction 228, lot 7563800
413 March 2015
27 June 2015
Kunker, Auction 262, lot 8474
Roma, E-sale 18, lot 1210
Not sold
522 March 2015Roma, Auction IX, lot 9056892
627 September 2015Roma, Auction X, lot 9316532

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”.

Dumbarton Oaks BZC.2015.003

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.

Byzantine coins and the price of gold

In his report Antiquities Trafficking in Syria Olivier Moos made the interesting and important observation that dealers on the ground inside Syria might buy looted coins and other precious metal antiquities according to their bullion value and not their projected sales value on the international market (Moos 2020: 11, 29). Until now, quoted on-the-ground prices for looted antiquities inside Syria have usually been considered suspect because they appear unrealistically high. But if prices for coins are indeed linked to their bullion value, then bullion value provides an objective measure of price inside Syria that can be used in conjunction with published prices on the retail end-market to investigate the pricing structure of the coin trade.

Reverse of solidus attributed to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius recently sold on Catawiki

A good coin to start with is the Roman-Byzantine gold solidus. The solidus was introduced by the Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD) and for centuries afterwards it was produced with high purity gold (98 per cent) and a consistent weight of 4.5 grams. Debasement started in the eighth century and became marked from the tenth century onwards (Grierson 1999; Morrison 2002). Hundreds of solidi (at least) are known to have been found in Syria through legitimate excavations and hundreds if not thousands more must have been found through looting. Solidi would lose weight through wear during circulation, but for some basic exploratory calculations it can be assumed that in bullion terms today a solidus minted before 700 AD is a lump of pure gold and would be priced according to weight by dealers inside Syria. From 2012–2013, gold was trading on the international market for about 50–55 USD per gram, dropping during 2014–2019 to about 40 USD per gram. Thus in 2012–2013, a newly-looted solidus weighing 4.5 grams could have been sold for 236 USD, dropping to 180 USD from 2014–2019.

Outside Syria, over the period 2011–2020 three US/UK numismatic companies between them sold 3,883 fourth-to-seventh-century solidi for an average (mean) price of 1,082 per cent of their bullion value (1). This average figure was inflated by the sale of some exceptional high-priced coins. The highest price achieved was 62,625 per cent of bullion value (140,000 USD) for a coin minted in Ravenna of a type not likely to be found in Syria. The highest price paid for a coin minted in Constantinople of a type that could be found in Syria was 43,563 per cent of bullion value (65,000 USD). The median price of the sold solidi was lower at 323 per cent of bullion value. In other words, a looted coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria in 2018 would most likely have been sold in the UK or USA for about 646 USD, but on average, because of the high price of rare coins, for every coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria the UK or US company would have made 2,164 USD. Thus the pricing structure of the coin trade is dependent upon end-market companies with the knowledge necessary to recognise high value coins and access to similarly knowledgeable customers with the means to pay for them. The price of gold might form a floor beneath which coin prices cannot drop, but rarity is a more important determinant of end-market price. Presumably dealers inside Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries are able to sell coins for more than bullion value or else it would be easier to sell them for melting and recycling. Judging by the numbers of coins in circulation, that doesn’t happen. Dealers inside Syria may well be able to recognise rare and potentially expensive coins themselves, but without access to wealthy end-market customers they will be unable to capitalise upon their expertise.

Solidus advertised on Telegram in 2018

Moos illustrated 25 Byzantine solidi that had been advertised on Telegram on 21 November 2018 (Moos 2020: 25). Gold that day was trading for 39 USD per gram, so inside Syria each coin would have been sold for approximately 176 USD, a total of 4,400 USD. The coins are only illustrated in reverse, but they look to be seventh century in date, from the reigns of the Byzantine emperors Phocas (602–610 AD), Heraclius (610–641 AD) and Constans II (641–668 AD). Over the period 2018–2019, the three UK/US companies sold 193 solidi attributed to these three emperors, for an average (mean) price of 496 USD and a median price 358 USD. A coin very similar to one illustrated by Moos, possibly the same coin, was sold recently on Catawiki as a solidus of Heraclius with Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas for 455 EUR, say 500 USD (shown above). The Telegram account was used by members in Idlib Governorate in territory controlled by the Salafist group Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS). HTS has imposed a 20 per cent tax on antiquities sales and is believed to monitor the Telegram account to ensure that tax is paid (Moos 2020: 7). Thus the seller of the solidi would have needed to pay 880 USD tax. It is possible that coins might be sold inside Syria for more than their bullion value, with their bullion value being declared to HTS for tax purposes (Moos 2020: 11). Nevertheless, prices on the ground would still need to reflect gold prices.  

Fluctuating gold price (goldprice.org)

At the present time, gold is selling for more than 60 USD per gram, so a solidus that in November 2018 might have been sold inside Syria for 176 USD could today be sold for 270 USD. For the hoard of 25 solidi, that would be 2,350 USD more. This marked increase in prices inside Syria might be enough to persuade some previously undecided people that it is worth their while to go out searching for gold coins to sell. High gold prices have not previously been considered an incentive for looting, but it is possible that they are just that.

1) Percentage bullion value = ((Price of solidus at sale/weight in grams of solidus)/Price per gram of gold on same day as sale)*100.


Moos, Olivier. 2020. Antiquities Trafficking in Syria. Religioscope.

Ongoing trade in cuneiform tablets

TimeLine Auctions has been doing a brisk trade in Iraqi cuneiform tablets this year. In its February sale, it offered and sold 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects for a total of £38,088 at an average price of £2,721. In its June sale, it offered 20 objects, selling 18 for a total of £36,810 at an average price of £2,045. A further 10 objects are offered in its forthcoming September sale. The tablets generally are of singular interest and look to be derived from one or more private collections. Provenance descriptions are vague as usual, usually anonymous, though often providing a date range to indicate the approximate timing of an object’s arrival in a private collection outside Iraq. The dating breakdown for 43 objects is as follows:

Provenance datingNumber of objects
Late 1980s–early 1990s24
Before 19922
Before 20001
No date7

Provenances can be invented and fabricated, but taking these TimeLine provenance dates at face value, only two objects can be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661. UNSCR 661 placed a trade embargo upon Iraqi goods, including cultural objects, and the embargo on cultural objects is still in force. It was reaffirmed in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483. Article 7 of UNSCR 1483 specifically states that the trade in Iraqi cultural objects would be prohibited when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed’ from Iraq since the adoption of UNSCR 661. On 14 June 2003, UNSCR 1483 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 objects moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The TimeLine tablets that cannot definitively be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990 (all but two) were quite obviously not surrendered to law enforcement, presumably because it was impossible to prove that they actually did move out of Iraq after that date (which isn’t to say that they didn’t). Thus unless TimeLine has documentation with more precise dating information that it has decided not to share, the provenance dates provided for most objects straddle the 6 August 1990 threshold and are useless for determining the legitimacy of a piece according to UK law. Perhaps the objects concerned did all leave Iraq before 6 August 1990 – there is no way of knowing.

Having said that, three objects do look particularly suspect. The first is lot 259 sold for £16,000 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a rare Jemdet Nasr pictographic tablet that according to its provenance was published in 2016 by Salvatore F. Monaco as no. 131 in Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections. Monaco commented that the texts published therein had been taken from photographs of tablets sold on the Internet that:

all come from Illicit excavations, which, although carried out by looters since the middle of the nineteenth century, had recently attained, as a consequence of the political situation, an unprecedented level of growth (Monaco 2016: 1).

The second is lot 242 sold for £2,800 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a New Babylonian foundation brick from Larsa carrying an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. Nearly a decade ago now, I drew attention to similar bricks appearing on the market, showing how they had been cut down from their original size, presumably to facilitate transport (Brodie 2011: 125-126). Since then, I have been sporadically monitoring the market and I have now logged more than 30 examples of similar cut-down bricks. Although some have unconfirmed provenance dates stretching back to the 1960s, none was documented publicly before 2003 and the suspicion persists that these bricks were all looted from Larsa in the early 2000s.

Finally, there is lot 175 in the forthcoming September 2020 sale, which is a large Ur III administrative tablet attributed to Adad-tillati of the site of Garšana. There is no date included in the provenance description. Garšana is notorious as a site looted sometime during the 1990s and the source of a large archive of Adad-tillati tablets, most of which are in the possession of Cornell University (Owen and Mayr 2007; Molina 2020: 325-327).

The sale of these three objects calls into question TimeLine’s due diligence. If I can discover suspicious uncertainties about their provenance, anyone can. Does TimeLine simply take the consignor’s word at face value, or does it conduct its own provenance research or validation? Apparently, it leaves responsibility (and any culpability) with the (anonymous) consignor. In its extremely small print terms and conditions, TimeLine has this to say:

TimeLine do not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.

No guarantee or duty of care regarding provenance. Caveat emptor. The small print continues:

in submitting any Lot for sale, the Seller warrants and represents to TimeLine the matters set out in the Property Acceptance/Receipt and Seller’s statement of provenance.

That is the summary of TimeLine’s due diligence: requesting the consignor to sign off on provenance. TimeLine is protecting itself but not the buyer.

Contrast TimeLine’s policy of absent due diligence to the more proactive one advocated by the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in its code of conduct:

Members undertake to carry out Due Diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.

Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.

The ADA subscribes to the tenets of the Hague Convention and will pay particular attention to items that may have originated from conflict zones.

In these instances further documentation should be sought from the seller demonstrating they have been in circulation outside the conflict zone prior to conflict.

The ADA is also governed by the following: Objects originating from Syria are subject to restrictions as required by (EU) Council Regulation No. 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 amending (EU) Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria. The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 prohibits the importation or exportation of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.

Thus for objects from Iraq, the ADA requires its members to seek ‘further documentation’ supporting an object’s legitimacy, not simply to secure a warranty. TimeLine is not a member of the ADA and so is not in contravention of the ADA’s code. TimeLine is a member of the Association of International Dealers (AIAD), which states in its own more limited code of conduct:

4. PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

8. The Member agrees not knowingly to deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).

According to its small print terms and conditions, TimeLine interprets ‘reasonably achievable’ as meaning nothing at all. And if it isn’t actively looking for evidence of illegal trading it will not find it and cannot knowingly deal in cultural objects that have left Iraq since 6 August 1990, even if they have. This looks a lot like wilful avoidance of disagreeable and commercially damaging evidence of wrongdoing. It casts doubt upon the integrity of TimeLine, and because it is in full accord with the AIAD code of conduct, upon the AIAD itself.

Prominently displayed on the TimeLine website is the logo of the Art Loss Register (ALR). I have complained previously about the ALR badging TimeLine, and the logo now qualifies that:

All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database.

So, all these cuneiform tablets (Western Asiatic lots) will have been searched against the ALR database. This is necessary but not sufficient provenance research. ALR certificates state that they do not provide a clean bill of health for antiquities, merely that searched antiquities have not been reported stolen. For looted antiquities, clandestinely excavated, that can never be the case. For cuneiform tablets of the type being discussed here, a search is practically worthless. it obviously failed to uncover anything untoward about the three suspect objects I have highlighted. So the prominent placement of the ALR logo, while technically and legally correct, might give the impression to a naïve customer that the provenance of an object being offered for sale has been well researched, which is not in fact the case. The logo provides the appearance but not the substance of appropriate due diligence. It does more to protect TimeLine’s reputation than it does to ensure its commercial probity. It remains the case that the ALR needs to reconsider its association with a company openly failing to conduct its own provenance research and placing itself outside generally accepted standards of professional practice as advertised by the ADA.  

If any or all of the cuneiform tablets offered by TimeLine were taken from Iraq after 6 August 1990, which seems possible if not likely, it demonstrates how after a period of time spent languishing in anonymous private collections they can be sold openly without fear of any police or legal action. The objects are in effect ‘gray’, as in Mackenzie and Yates’ second sense of the term. Three are very dark gray indeed – almost black.


Brodie, Neil, 2011. Academic involvement in the market in Iraqi antiquities, in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell. New York: Springer, 117-133.

Molina, Manuel, 2020. The looting of Ur III tablets after the Gulf Wars, in Dealing with Antiquity: Past, Present & Future, edited by Walter Sommerfeld. Münster: Ugarit, 323-352.

Monaco Salvatore F., 2016. Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 31). Bethesda: CDL.

Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr, 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 3). Bethesda: CDL.

Gray graphics madness

I am a sucker for a good graphic, and the recent Rand report into illicit antiquities has a bunch of good ones, in particular a quadrant plot used for exploring the structure of the antiquities market (Rand 2020: figures S.1, 4.10, 4.11, 4.12, 4.13). This graphic offers a means of looking at market structures generally, using axes of visibility (covert to overt) and legality (legal to illegal) to construct a conceptual transaction space. Two of the quadrants (covert-legal and open-illegal) are considered to demarcate gray market space, with the antiquities market placed firmly towards the overt end of the visibility axis and straddling the divide between legal and illegal on the legality axis (Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Rand 2020: figure 4.1)

Once I had managed to overcome my initial excitement at seeing the graphic, I became concerned about how it portrays the gray market. The idea of a ‘gray’ trade or market was introduced into criminological discussions of antiquities trading about 15 years ago. There was some confusion about the concept until it was systematized by Simon Mackenzie and Donna Yates (2019), who identified three possible usages:

  1. Mixed streams of supply. Legally-obtained and illegally-obtained antiquities sold on the open market cannot be distinguished because of undisclosed provenance. An antiquity with an undisclosed provenance is regarded as gray, possibly on the market legally (white) or illegally (black).
  2. Changing status of individual objects passing through trafficking networks. An illegally-obtained antiquity can be cleaned through time and space as it moves through jurisdictions up the trading chain for sale on the open market. So although its sale is technically legal, the antiquity might still be considered illicit, having been subject to an illegal transaction at some point in its trading history. Legally white but ethically black – gray.
  3. Neutralization and the graying of the moral psychological processes of engagement. Actors justify or neutralize their engagements with illegally-obtained antiquities by appealing to a greater common good. Thus their engagement can be considered somewhere between good and bad – gray.  

The Rand report recognizes Mackenzie & Yates (1) when it says:

Although illicit drugs, for example, are primarily sold on the black market because of their near universal illegality and strong law enforcement action against them, illicit antiquities can be advertised and sold through more-visible channels because it is often difficult to prove an individual item’s illegality (Rand 2020: xiii).

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t use this definition for defining its own gray market quadrants, deciding instead that:

… illegal items are sold relatively openly and, conversely, legal transactions may be conducted in private. These two cases are classified as gray market transactions (Rand 2020: 63).

While Mackenzie and Yates focused upon the status of the object (1 & 2) or actor (3), the Rand report has looked instead at market circumstances:

  1. Illegal transactions conducted overtly
  2. Legal transactions conducted covertly

Thus the Rand report has defined and portrayed the ‘gray market’ differently to most established usage in the literature dealing with the antiquities trade. This is not necessarily a problem, as the report’s definition might better suit its own purposes, but it does threaten to cause confusion if the graphic is used unwittingly by others to depict what is usually understood to be the gray antiquities market, when it does nothing of the sort (and doesn’t claim to). Having said that, it is not clear to me anyway why the two quadrants are marked gray. Their grayness does not feature in the associated analyses of market structure and appears superfluous.

Prompted by this gray mood to look more closely at the graphic, I began to think there are some deeper problems. It shows the antiquities market straddling the line between legal and illegal, though firmly placed on the overt side of the plot. While it is true that many antiquities are offered for sale openly, either at traditional bricks-and-mortar establishments such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s or on electronic platforms such as eBay, many more transactions, legal or illegal and often high-value, occur privately – in other words covertly. So, for an accurate representation of the antiquities market, the defining circle would need to be expanded outwards into the covert side of the plot (Figure 2). That would have the disadvantage of suggesting visually but inaccurately that the antiquities trade is much larger than the drugs trade, which is clearly not the case, and something the Rand report is rightly concerned not to imply. 

Figure 2

Rand figure 4.11 (Figure 1 here) is used to argue that antiquities are not sold on the Darknet because they are not generally sold covertly on the black market. Unfortunately, they are. They are routinely transacted covertly and illegally. The 2010 Hobby Lobby private (covert) purchase in the United Arab Emirates of looted Iraqi antiquities offers just one example. There are many more. Most of the source trade in countries of origin is covert and illegal. It is true that antiquities are not traded on the Darknet, but it is not because they are not traded covertly and illegally as the graphic suggests.

Perhaps I am being unfair. In its introduction, explaining Figure S1, the report states:

We first conceptualized the antiquities market in relation to other illicit markets by considering it in terms of two characteristics: the openness versus secrecy of the transactions and their relative legality or illegality. Viewed in these terms, the differences between the illicit antiquities trade and drug or weapon trafficking is more clearly evident (Rand 2020: xiii).

This introductory explanation gives the clear impression that the graphic is meant to describe the antiquities market in its entirety, which is what I initially thought. Later, however, when the graphic is used to analyse market structure, as in Figure 1 here, the report states it is a “structural analysis of online markets”, presumably not including the bricks-and-mortar trade. Almost by definition, antiquities sold online are sold overtly, and perhaps there is no need to sell them covertly, as the report states (page xx). But that doesn’t mean that no antiquities are sold covertly. But looking more closely still, there is also confusion over what market exactly the graphic is meant to be depicting – source or destination? In countries such as Syria and Iraq, antiquities sales are illegal and mostly covert. Even when antiquities are offered for sale on platforms such as Facebook, it is in closed groups open only to vetted access and further limited by the use of a local language (in this case Arabic), and as the report notes (page xx) actual transactions take place covertly, often using encrypted messenger apps such as WhatsApp. An alternative characterisation would place this source market in the covert-illegal quadrant (Figure 3).

Figure 3

On the destination market, Facebook isn’t a major platform for marketing antiquities. As the report states, ‘auctions and online storefronts dominate’, where illegally-obtained antiquities can be sold on the open market. On the graphic, this market would be placed in the overt-illegal quadrant (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The point to be made here is that when travelling from source to destination, antiquities transition across quadrants because of the gray trade, in the sense of Mackenzie & Yates (1), whereby provenances are suppressed and invented so that antiquities are not identifiably illegal by the time they appear on the open market (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Another cause of initial confusion for me was how ‘legality’ could be a continuous variable – surely it is a binary variable: a transaction can be legal or illegal, but not ‘just about legal’, or ‘tending to the illegal’ etc. But having sourced the graphic back as far as 2006 to a paper by H. Brinton Milward and Jörg Raab (2006: 335, figure 1; reproduced here as Figure 6), I think I understand it better. Their idea was to characterise dark and bright networks in terms of their overall legality and visibility, and the Rand report seems to be doing likewise for markets instead of networks, or markets conceived as networks.

Figure 6 (Milward and Raab 2006: 335, figure 1)

That observation does raise an interesting question, however. Could the transaction space be used to plot objects instead of networks? Could it be used to plot the progress of a single antiquity, thereby showing in detail how the gray trade operates? On Figure 7, I have plotted the known biography of the Gilgamesh Dream tablet using six real and one hypothetical transactions.

T1. Sometime before 2001, the tablet was looted in Iraq and bought in Jordan covertly by a dealer who must have recognised it to have been on the market illegally.

T2. In 2003, a US dealer visited London and bought the tablet covertly from the Jordanian dealer. The US dealer must also have recognised the tablet to have been obtained illegally, or at least strongly suspected it to be the case, as he invented a fake provenance in the shape of a letter stating that the tablet had been sold in San Francisco in 1981.

T3. In 2007, the US dealer sold the tablet covertly to another US dealer, along with the newly invented provenance to show that it was ‘clean’. At that point, the tablet was grayed, with its true, illegal provenance suppressed – an example of Mackenzie & Yates (1).

T4. Later in 2007, still in the United States, the second US dealer offered the tablet for sale overtly in a sales catalogue, accompanied by the new provenance.

T5. In 2014, the then owner of the tablet sold it to Hobby Lobby through a private (covert) sale arranged by Christie’s auction house in London. Depending upon what had happened to the tablet between 2007 and 2014, and what jurisdictions it had passed through, it might have been on the market in London legally, through with a fraudulent provenance – an example of Mackenzie & Yates (2). That remains to be determined in court, and that is the problem of the gray market. It is difficult if not impossible to ascertain the exact legal status of an object offered for sale.

T6. Hobby Lobby put the tablet on display in the Museum of the Bible, but subsequently recognising that it had probably been taken illegally from Iraq, agreed to return it.

? T7. In the unlikely event that Iraq decides to sell the tablet, the transaction would be open and legal.

Figure 7

This object biography shows how the illegally-obtained tablet was grayed through the invention of a fake provenance and also possibly by its (hypothetical) movement through jurisdictions and the passage of time. Time is a crucial element here. As time passes, and illegal actions diminish into the distancing past, gray antiquities slowly fade to white.

Figure 8

Another problem with the original graphic is that it doesn’t take adequate account of provenance. Provenance is a defining feature of the antiquities trade in a way that it isn’t for the drugs trade, as the Gilgamesh Dream tablet biography shows. Unfortunately, provenance adds another variable that cannot be included in the two-dimensional transaction space. But if the space is constructed differently using visibility and provenance as its defining axes, binary legality can then be indicated using symbol colour. In Figure 8, I have indicated illegal objects with a known provenance as black, legal objects with a known provenance as white, and objects of undisclosed provenance as gray. Gray objects are transacted covertly and overtly. White (legal) objects are also transacted covertly (privately) and overtly. Black objects, that is to say objects known to be on the market illegally, can only be sold covertly (unless by someone with a prison-wish). These might seem trivial observations, but they demonstrate a fundamental truth of the antiquities trade, which is that it is not possible to talk about a black market, at least not in this transaction space. The market can be invisible, in that legal (white) or illegal (black) antiquities can be sold covertly; or gray in the sense of Mackenzie & Yates (1) in that legal and illegal antiquities can be sold (overtly and covertly) with an undisclosed or false provenance; or white, in that legal (white) antiquities can be sold overtly. The policy challenge is to force a white market by improving provenance provision, as shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9

Although I was initially excited by the Rand graphic, I found much to disagree with, yet disagreement in itself has been a stimulating exercise. The Rand report has done us all a great service by suggesting how such simple graphics might be used profitably to explore the structure of the antiquities market and its structural relations with other markets. I look forward to seeing more.

(Notice I didn’t call this post ‘fifty shades of gray’. I am better than that).


Mackenzie, Simon and Donna Yates (2016). What is grey about the ‘grey market’ in antiquities, in J. Beckert and M. Dewey (eds), The Architecture of Illegal Markets: Towards an Economic Sociology of Illegality in the Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milward, H. Brinton and Jörg Raab (2006). Dark networks as organizational problems: elements of a theory, International Public Management Journal 9: 333-360.

Rand (2020). Sargent, Matthew, James V. Marrone, Alexandra Evans, Bilyana Lilly, Erik Nemeth, Stephen Dalzell, Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open-source Data. Santa Monica: Rand.

Syria: Rendered by Caesar

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.