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.

Was it worth it Richard?

Close to the heart of any successful antiquities trafficking racket lurks a restorer/conservator, sometimes more than one. Restorers repair and clean antiquities in such a way as to improve their appearance and durability, and thus desirability. Removing dirt or other accretions from the surface of an antiquity exposes its original finish and detail, while in the process uncovering any evidence of past repairs or forged modifications. Such work helps establish the identity, condition, authenticity and quality of a piece, while improving its appearance and aesthetic appeal, all important factors for determining value and setting price. But restoration work of this type might also destroy evidence of looting or theft. It could involve fixing together a recently broken object, perhaps a stolen one broken into pieces to expedite transport or passage through customs. Thus while the ostensible purpose of restoration is to stabilise and curate an antiquity, at the same time it improves the value of an antiquity, promotes its saleability, and might even remove evidence of theft or illegal trade.

Restorers do not often figure in criminal cases relating to antiquities trafficking. In December 2016, a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office against New York Asian Art dealer Nancy Wiener identified two unnamed restorers as ‘co-conspirators’, though no charges were pressed. It was timely then on 8 July 2019, when the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges relating to antiquities trafficking against Subhash Kapoor and seven alleged co-conspirators, including restorers Neil Perry Smith in the United Kingdom and Richard Salmon in New York. The complaint contains a wealth of information about the activities of these restorers, with Kapoor sending metal objects to Perry Smith and stone objects to Salmon, an indication perhaps of Kapoor’s estimation of their respective talents. Of course, a criminal charge isn’t in itself definitive proof of wrongdoing, and the named restorers remain innocent until proven guilty. But looking through the complaint at what is revealed about Salmon, for example, it is not hard to see why charges were levelled at him. Multiple invoices provide information about his services, which include such actions as ‘cleaning’, ‘picking out detail’, ‘bringing out the quality of the stone’, and ‘mounting’. All this sounds innocent enough, the normal bread-and-butter work of a restorer. But what about when he claimed payment for ‘picking out details with “ancient earth”’ and ‘touching out “new breaks”’? Why would he add ‘ancient earth’ to a piece, and was he not suspicious about the cause of ‘new breaks’, and breaks more generally?

In early 2006, for example, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in India and took possession in New York of a second-century BC sandstone Mahakoka Devata or Yakshi (Bharhut Pillar). The pillar had been stolen from the home of an Indian resident in July 2004 and appears to have been broken into four pieces for shipment to New York. Kapoor valued it at $15 million. On 2 May 2006, Salmon charged $11,500 for reassembling the four pieces by drilling and joining them with dowels, subsequently filling and disguising joins, including making up missing areas of the bottom, touching out scratches and bringing up the lustre of stone. On 5 January 2012 DHS-HSI agents seized the Pillar from New York storage.

In autumn 2006, Kapoor bought from Chet Ram Yadav in India and took possession in New York of nine objects stolen in August 2006 from the Vishnu Varaha Temple in Kari Talai, Madhya Pradesh, India. They included a pair of eleventh-century, sandstone celestial Apsaras (Pair of Apsaras), originally joined as one piece though separated and damaged by the time they reached New York. Kapoor valued them at $95,000 each. On 9 October 2006, Salmon charged $1,700 for making up missing sections, cleaning, touching out ‘new breaks’, picking out details and enhancing colour of the stone. But he repaired and prepared for sale each Apsara separately and failed to restore the original integrity (and thus appearance) of the piece. On 26 July 2012, the Apsaras were in storage in New York though their present whereabouts are unknown.

In repairing broken objects and more generally patching and cleaning, knowingly or not Salmon’s work might have been important for hiding evidence of theft and illegal trade and improving saleability, but in relative terms he does not appear to have been very well paid for his services. As can be seen from the table below, the money charged by Salmon for his work was very little compared to that made or expected to be made by Kapoor. Altogether, for 24 jobs on material valued by Kapoor at approximately $31 million, Salmon charged only $84,875, or 0.27 per cent of the material’s prospective retail value. Given the element of risk involved for Salmon, working as he was on suspect material, he seems not to have factored the risk into his pricing strategy. Perhaps he was unaware of the dubious provenance of the material he was working on. Perhaps it was simply because a sense of professional impunity encouraged him to minimise his risk assessment. Remembering that before Kapoor restorers had not figured in criminal indictments, perhaps Salmon simply thought that it would never happen to him. Well, it has now. Given that Salmon finds himself named on a criminal complaint, he might regret charging such relatively small sums of money. Perhaps other restorers are taking note and adjusting their prices accordingly.

Object (as named in complaint) Kapoor valuation (v=valuation, s=actual selling price) Salmon charge Percentage object value
Monumental Buddha Head $4.5 million (v) $750 0.02
Herakles with sword $1.75 million (v) $3,300 0.19
Quranic Wall Tiles $485,000 (v+s) $24,850 5.12
Shakyamuni Buddha $2.5 million (v) $3,800 0.15
Bharhut Pillar $15 million (v) $11,500 0.08
Stone Ganesha $500,000 (v) $1,500 0.3
Torso of a Celestial Figure $75,000 (v) $2,600 3.47
Torso of a Devata $450,000 (v) $1,550 0.34
Dancing Ganesha $75,000 (v) $900 1.2
Salabhanjika $155,000 (v) $850 0.55
Pair of Apsaras $190,000 (v) $1,700 0.89
Divine Couple $75,000 (v) $950 1.27
Celestial Figure $75,000 (v) $2,250 3.0
Apsara with Lotus $75,000 (v) $750 1.0
Celestial Pulling Thorn $225,000 (v) $1,500 0.67
Kubera $1.5 million (v) $4,850 0.32
Linga $275,000 (s) $575 0.21
Pallava Shiva $650,000 (v) $2,150 0.33
Balasubrahmanya $225,000 (v) $2,150 0.96
Drum Pilaster $750,000 (v) $5,750 0.77
Worshippers Relief $585,000 (s) $2,000 0.34
Pratyangira $247,000 (s) $1,800 0.73
Ardhanari $225,000 (s) $1,950 0.87
Dwarapalas $495,000 (s) $4,900 0.99
Totals $31,082,000 $84,875  

Nevertheless, even if Salmon was underselling himself, he was clearly doing good business with Kapoor. The prices tabulated above are only for a small number of objects. The complaint contains details of 15 separate invoices over a nine-year period, tabulated below, each invoice itemising a larger number of objects than described in the complaint. Looking at the invoices, it is also clear that they represent only a part of the total work performed by Salmon for Kapoor in any one year. The 14 November 2003 invoice, for example, also presents unpaid claims dated back to 5 September and 15 September totalling $5,305, in addition to even older unsettled bill of $17,390, though presumably in November still for work conducted in 2003. The invoices for these claims are not available for inspection. So in 2003, Salmon must have charged Kapoor more than the $46,110 evident on invoices, perhaps much more. In 2006, the year for which there are most invoices, Salmon charged a minimum of $39,655. Still not a large sum of money for a New York-based business though.

Invoice date Bill  
12 June 2002 $3,700 +$8,435
16 September 2002 $12,540  
5 December 2002 $13,245 +$5,550
13 March 2003 $17,665  
14 November 2003 $5,750 + bills of 5 Sept and 15 Sept totalling $5,305, plus old bill $17,390
10 November 2004 $3,800  
7 September 2005 $11,050 +$6,070 owed
18 February 2006 $14,030 +$7,380 owed
2 May 2006 $11,500 +$11,060 owed
20 September 2006 $4,200 +$9,620 owed
9 October 2006 $9,925 +$13,820 owed
8 February 2007 $36,260 +$3,745 owed
9 March 2007 $8,250 +$39,750 owed
15 March 2008 $24,850  
21 April 2009 $43,350 +$11,300 owed

Restorers are crucial to the ongoing health of the antiquities market. Whether they know it or not, their work effectively launders trafficked antiquities and facilitates their entry into legitimate commerce. Having said that, most restorers do not work on trafficked or even suspect antiquities. Those that do must comprise only a handful, but that is all it takes, and they have in the past been able to believe themselves out of the reach of the law. The Kapoor complaint changes all that. It remains to be seen whether or not the charges will stick, but the very fact that restorers are named must send a chill warning through the profession. It is time for them to clean up their game. It just isn’t worth it. A more hostile environment for restorers will reduce their willingness to work with suspect material and should act to improve their due diligence. Upping their game in this way will make it much more difficult for dealers to bring trafficked antiquities to market. Even if the charges against Salmon don’t stick, by naming a pair of restorers, the complaint has highlighted a potential weakness of the antiquities trade and shown how to exploit it.

Fake news, phantom data and zombie statistics: just how much exactly is the antiquities trade worth?

I recently came across the text of a lecture delivered by International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) chairman Vincent Geerling in 2016. In it, there are comments about some previously published work of mine:

The most bizarre figures about the size of the illicit market are taken for granted and quoted by government officials without even thinking critically about their validity. What is worse, these false figures form the basis of draconian measures against ‘the trade’ and result in the misdirection of the limited resources of law enforcement agencies such as yourselves.

This ‘multibillion illegal trade’ with its ‘invisible mafia structures’ has to be halted, officials shout from the rooftops. The urgency is underlined by the alleged size of the illicit market: Claims of $2-3 billion followed by $6-8 billion have done the rounds, while the winner is der Spiegel, who in August 2015 claimed $7-15 billion, quoting UNESCO as the source for their fake figures in order to give them credibility.

The truth is that nobody knows the size of the illicit market. So IADAA asked Ivan Macquisten, a journalist, to find the primary source of the $2 billion.

He initially traced it back to a 2000 report by Brodie, Watson and Dooley, “Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material”, which quoted the figure and gave as its source an article in The Independent newspaper, ‘Great sale of the century’, by Geraldine Norman dating back to November 24, 1990. However, Ivan has now secured a copy of that article and it gives no figure at all. Brodie now publicly regrets ever quoting the (non-existent) figure, which may well be the source for the FBI’s figures.

So nobody knows the size of the illicit market, yet senior politicians in the United States continue to quote discredited figures in the hundreds of millions for the value of the trade in looted Syrian objects as justification for introducing news laws banning the import of even legitimate items and calling for further measures.

It looks like I am being blamed here for setting in motion claims that the antiquities trade is worth billions of dollars annually. But this is not what was actually said in Stealing History (2000; and the authors are Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson, not Brodie, Watson and Dooley), which on page 23 states:

Geraldine Norman has estimated that the illicit trade in antiquities, world-wide, may be as much as $2 billion a year; other estimates have ranged down to $150 million. As already pointed out, because the trade is clandestine, reliable data is hard to find.

What we were trying to do here was to set out a range of previously published value estimates, from high to low, with a view to coming up with something more accurate – presumably something in-between. We were not suggesting the illicit trade should be valued annually at $2 billion, or for that matter at $150 million. We were not trying to exaggerate the value of the trade. We were simply making the point that previously published estimates were subject to an alarming degree of variation and were inherently unreliable. After examining problems with various data sources and trying but largely failing to arrive at a more accurate figure, we concluded on page 25 that there was a need for ‘more reliable statistics to give usable information on the size of the trade’. Regrettably, twenty years later, the need for more reliable statistics remains acute and organisations such as the IADAA have done nothing to help. Given that we were criticising the unreliability of previously published estimates, I don’t regret that we quoted the figure of $2 billion, no more than I regret quoting the figure of $150 million. The whole point was to demonstrate the broad range of monetary estimates based on unpublished if not non-existent data. I do regret that many reporters and others since then have ignored the argument about absent data and unfounded statistics and continued to claim multi-billion-dollar sums without offering any supporting evidence. I believe Geerling and myself are in broad agreement on that point at least.

Geerling said the IADAA had asked Ivan Macquisten to find the primary source of the $2 billion claim, and that Macquisten had traced it back to me. I assume this is Macquisten writing on the Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA) website, where he identifies one original source as the:

2000 report by Jenny Dooley, Neil Brodie and Peter Watson of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, which references Independent article, Great sale of the century, by Geraldine Norman on November 24, 1990. The 2000 report also acknowledged the true value might be much less. Also thought to be the basis for FBI figure, according to Oxford Archaeologist Emma Cunliffe. However, the Norman article does not mention such a figure (ADA n.d.).

Dooley again? Come on guys, get it right, it was Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson. But I digress. Macquisten does recognise here that we understood the true value of the illicit trade was likely to be less than $2 billion, though he seems to have forgotten that qualification in a paper he has recently published entitled ‘Fake news and the antiquities trade’ (Macquisten 2019). From the title, you might imagine he was talking about IADAA or ADA trade statistics, of which more below. But no, he was tackling what he considers to be exaggerated value assessments and dismissing them as fake news. In particular, he was dissecting an impact assessment (IA) published by the European Commission (2017). Among other things, the IA states that:

According to studies, the total financial value of the illegal antiquities and art trade is larger than any other area of international crime except arms trafficking and narcotics and has been estimated at $3 to 6 billion yearly.

The IA references the ‘$3 to 6 billion yearly’ statistic to a paper written by Lisa Borodkin in 1995, who in turn referenced other sources. Macquisten chased those sources down and quite rightly dismissed them as inadequate. But then in his paper he went on to say this:

Also cited in the same set of footnotes in the IA is Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson’s 2000 report, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, which does quote a similar figure. On page 23, it states: “Geraldine Norman has estimated that the illicit trade in antiquities, world-wide, may be as much as $2 billion a year.” On page 60, under the relevant footnote, it gives the source as follows: Norman G., Great Sale of the Century. Independent, November 24, 1990. However, the Norman article mentions no figure whatsoever.

The ‘set of footnotes’ referred to is on page 12 of the IA, with the particular footnote referencing page 16 of Stealing History in relation to the IA’s statement that there are ‘Links between the antiquities trade and drug, wildlife and arms trafficking’. Well, Stealing History does not actually mention wildlife or arms, but the real point here is that the IA is not referencing Stealing History in relation to its ‘$3 to 6 Billion yearly’ claim, so why did Macquisten mention it? Notice he drags up the Norman misattribution again. He is right, of course, the attribution is wrong. Mea culpa. But the misdirected attribution does not invalidate the substance of the argument Stealing History was making about phantom data and unverifiable statistics. He could easily have contacted me to check the facts, but found it easier or more convenient to keep talking about a misattribution. But back in 2000, when we were writing Stealing History, what exactly were the facts? Macquisten himself has identified the 1993 claim by Caroline Wakeford of the Art Loss Register that the worldwide market in stolen art was worth about $3 billion. She in turn was possibly quoting an estimate made around the same time by Scotland Yard that the annual value of stolen art worldwide was £3 billion (Palmer 1995: 3). Art is a broad category, probably including antiques and paintings, but a few years later, writing specifically about the illicit trade in cultural objects, Maria Kouroupas stated that ‘according to Interpol, it now ranks with drugs and arms as one of the three most serious illicit international trading activities, valued at approximately $4.5 billion annually’ (Kouroupas 1998). In 2005, Kate Fitz Gibbon continued pointing the finger at Interpol when she said:

Like many popular myths, the billion-dollar figure has been repeated so often that its origin is difficult to trace. So many citations claim to be based on an Interpol estimate produced in the late 1990s that Interpol has made the following statement: “We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media. In fact, it is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics.

So, for Fitz Gibbon at least, the billion-dollar figure had nothing to do with Stealing History.

The IA goes on to footnote Stealing History two more times. It references page 13 of Stealing History in support of the statement that:

Foreign demand for illicit cultural goods provides local impoverished populations with a supplement to their meagre income (so-called ‘subsistence digging’). The chain of supply starts with common thieves and tomb robbers in source countries, who often destroy the archaeological context and damage the objects themselves while excavating. For relatively small amounts of money, they sell the objects to professional dealers and middlemen, who transport the goods towards final destinations.

We actually did say something like that. But on page 14 the IA also footnotes Stealing History to support its claim that:

Multi-billion antiquities revenues are used by Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, to say nothing of more common drug smugglers dealing also in antiquities.

Al-Qaeda only came to general attention with the September 11 attacks in 2001, and I am not sure we had even heard of the organisation when we were writing Stealing History, we certainly didn’t mention it. Nor did we mention Hezbollah or the Taliban, nor did we imply that they were predating upon a multi-billion-dollar antiquities trade. Given the general debunking drift of his paper, I would have expected Macquisten to have taken down this misattribution and absolved us of any blame. But he didn’t. Why not? Instead we have only his observation about the erroneous Norman attribution in relation to an IA statement not actually referencing the Stealing History passage he is concerned about. To me, this looks like a piece of disingenuous argumentation, ostensibly aimed at making a factual criticism but in reality intended to discredit an authority (me). Mind you, having said all that, I agree with some of what Macquisten had to say. A state-of-the-art report prepared for the European Commission in 2017 should not have been inaccurately referencing publications that were 15 or 20 years old when more up-to-date material was available.

In his paper, Macquisten went on to discuss a BBC World Service radio programme broadcast in February 2019 entitled Zombie Statistics, in which he featured. Again though, on the programme, Macquisten stated publicly that we now admit we got the $2 billion figure wrong. We admit no such thing. It was not our figure to get wrong. (In passing, he made a bit of a zombie claim of his own, saying there is evidence of looted material from Syria and Iraq going to the Far East, but without saying what the evidence is. It would be useful for the evidence to be made public).

In his 2016 lecture, Geerling continued that:

We have no idea about the real size of the illicit market, but what we do know is the size of the legitimate market. IADAA carried out research on the size of the market of 2013; the combined sales figures of dealers and auction houses in the entire western world. The result is a reliable figure of €150–200 million.

Thirteen years earlier, the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) had estimated that there was a ‘world turnover of classical antiquities of perhaps £200–300 million’ (ADA 2000: 56). In 2005, I think using a different data set, Arielle Kozloff had arrived at a figure of around $100–200 million for the trade worldwide (Kozloff 2005: 187). The three studies are tabulated below.

Date Value Value (US dollars)
2000 £200–300 million 302–453 million
2005 $100–200 million 100–200 million
2013 €150–200 million 234 –312 million

So, we are expected to believe that the value of the antiquities trade diminished over the 13-year period 2000–2013? It doesn’t seem likely. The published figures are meaningless, usually based on phantom data that are never published or made available for independent verification. Nevertheless, looking at these figures now with fresh eyes, the reality of a $1–2 billion annual trade does begin to look more believable. They value the trade in what are generally called classical antiquities, from the ancient cultures of Europe, North Africa and West Asia, and exclude Internet sales. If equivalent figures were made available for the trades in American, African, Asian and Islamic antiquities, together with ancient coins and manuscripts, and Internet sales, they would quite likely tip the value of total trade over the $1 billion mark and perhaps even take it up towards $2 billion. And notice I said ‘trade’ here, not ‘illegal trade’.

It would be easy for trade organisations such as the ADA and IADAA to disprove multi-billion-dollar claims simply by publishing their own data sets and making them available for public scrutiny. All this reference chasing and debunking should not be necessary. But they have consistently failed to do so and have continued instead to engage in tilting at straw men. Remember, it is now 20 years since Stealing History was published, ample time for the trade to have conducted and published a systematic financial survey, especially if they are so concerned about the continuing dissemination of exaggerated value estimates. The IADAA (2013) has published a summary breakdown of its overall figure, which is a start, though it still falls far short of a full data description which is what is required.

Stealing History did not invent the claim that the antiquities trade should be valued at billions of dollars worldwide. In fact, it was trying to expose the uncertainty of those claims a decade or more before Geerling or Macquisten got in on the act and it should be credited accordingly. Trade organisations spend a lot of time trying to discredit the work of people such as myself, but never manage to offer anything concrete in return to support their arguments. Until that does happen, sceptics such as myself must be excused for regarding their efforts as little more than fake news in return.


ADA, 2000. Memorandum submitted by the Antiquities Dealers Association, in Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade, Volume II, Minutes of Evidence. London: Stationery Office, 56-66.

ADA, n.d. Headline figures and misleading statistics relating to antiquities and the Syrian crisis, ADA website.

IADAA, 2013. Summary of the IADAA research about the worldwide legitimate antiquities market in 2013. Cultural Property News website.

Borodkin, Lisa, 1995. The economics of antiquities looting and a proposed legal alternative, Columbia Law Review 95: 377-417.

Brodie, Neil, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson, 2000. Stealing History. Cambridge: McDonald Institute.

Geerling, Vincent, 2016. Collecting ancient art, an old tradition under attack, Cultural Property News website.

European Commission 2017. Commission Staff Working Document, Impact Assessment Accompanying the Document Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Import of Cultural Goods.

Fitz Gibbon, Kate, 2005. Editor’s note: the illicit trade – fact or fiction?, in Kate Fitz Gibbon (ed.), Who Owns the Past? New Brunswick: Rutgers, 179-182.

Kouroupas, Maria P., 1998. Illicit trade in cultural objects, Conservation Perspectives, 13(1).

Kozloff, Arielle, 2005. The antiquities market: when, what, where, who, why … and how much?, in Kate Fitz Gibbon (ed.), Who Owns the Past? New Brunswick: Rutgers, 183-190.

Macquisten, Ivan, 2019. Fake news and the antiquities trade, Cahn’s Quarterly 2, 4-6.

Palmer, Norman, 1995. Recovering stolen art, in Kathryn Walker Tubb (ed.), Antiquities Trade or Betrayed. London: Archetype, 1-37.

The 1995 Unidroit Convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects – a Brexit bonus?

A few weeks ago, it was widely reported that Greece would seek the return of the Parthenon Marbles as part of any Brexit agreement (e.g. Barnes 2020). As with most news concerning Brexit, these reports were transparently fake, arising from a sentence in a leaked EU document stating that ‘the Parties should, consistently with Union rules, address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’ (Hickley 2020). This sentence is a clear reference to the UK’s Brexit-related withdrawal from the requirements of EU Directive 2014/60 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a member state. Countries such as Italy and Greece are understandably concerned that the UK withdrawal will help open up the UK market to stolen antiquities and other cultural objects. One obvious solution would be for the UK and EU member states that have not already done so to sign up to the 1995 Unidroit Convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, thereby bringing all countries together within a common legal framework. Italy and Greece are already parties to the Unidroit Convention, though not all EU countries are, and the UK could take the lead in pushing for this solution. So come on Dominic Cummings, if you are reading this blog (and you should be), start thinking about creating a Brexit bonus for the world’s cultural heritage.


Barnes, Joe, 2020. Brexit FURY: Are you SERIOUS?! Barnier’s Elgin Marbles demand leaves team Boris fuming. Daily Express, 19 February.

Hickley, Catherine, 2020. Leaked draft of EU paper stirs Parthenon Marbles dispute. Art Newspaper, 19 February.

Heart of confusion? EU Regulation 2019/880 on the import of cultural goods and the fight against terrorism

On 12 March 2019, the European Parliament adopted EU Regulation 2019/880 on the import of cultural goods, which is intended to control the import of cultural objects into the European Union (EP 2019). The European Commission first announced the proposed Regulation on 13 July 2017, as part of the EU’s 2016 action plan to ‘strengthen the fight against the financing of terrorism’ (EC 2017a). The focus on terrorist financing was made clear in the press release:

Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said: ‘Money is oxygen to terrorist organisations such as Daesh. We are taking action to cut off each of their sources of financing. This includes the trade of cultural goods, as terrorists derive funding from the looting of archaeological sites and the illegal sale of cultural objects. By preventing them from entering the EU, we can help dry up this source of income’.

The press release went on to state that:

At the moment, the EU applies prohibitions on goods from Iraq and Syria but there is no general EU framework for the import of cultural goods. Current rules can be exploited by unscrupulous exporters and importers who can use the profits to fund illegal activities such as terrorism.

Background information presented with the press release also highlighted the problem of terrorist financing and emphasised it would be the intention of the new Regulation to reduce such financing by stopping the import of looted and trafficked cultural objects into the EU (EC 2017b):

Recent reports have also shown that valuable artworks, sculptures and archaeological artefacts are being sold and imported into the EU from certain non-EU countries, with those profits potentially used to finance terrorist activities. For example, two Syrian friezes that may have been intended for criminal gain were seized at Roissy airport, France last year.

The European Commission is now responding to numerous calls for action from the other EU institutions and national governments by proposing measures to counter the illicit trafficking of cultural goods from non-EU countries more effectively. The proposal adopted today is also foreseen in the Commission Action Plan for strengthening the fight against terrorist financing that was presented in December 2016 and aims to disrupt the sources of revenue used by terrorist organisations by targeting their capacity to raise funds.

Paragraph 1 of the Regulation’s preamble explains its purpose in responding to terrorism:

In light of the Council Conclusions of 12 February 2016 on the fight against the financing of terrorism, the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council of 2 February 2016 on an Action Plan for strengthening the fight against terrorist financing and Directive (EU) 2017/541 of the European Parliament and of the Council, common rules on trade with third countries should be adopted so as to ensure the effective protection against illicit trade in cultural goods and against their loss or destruction, the preservation of humanity’s cultural heritage and the prevention of terrorist financing and money laundering through the sale of pillaged cultural goods to buyers in the Union.

Article 1(1) of the Regulation confirms:

This Regulation sets out the conditions for the introduction of cultural goods and the conditions and procedures for the import of cultural goods for the purpose of safeguarding humanity’s cultural heritage and preventing the illicit trade in cultural goods, in particular where such illicit trade could contribute to terrorist financing.

Thus in its intention and substance the 2019 Regulation is explicitly conceived as an instrument to combat the trade of cultural objects for financing terrorism. Unfortunately, it looks to have fallen short of that goal, largely because of the anachronistic and now flawed categorisation of cultural property which it inherited from the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Paragraph 7 of the Regulation’s preamble states that:

Many third countries and most Member States are familiar with the definitions used in the Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property signed in Paris on 14 November 1970 (‘the 1970 Unesco Convention’) to which a significant number of Member States are a party, and in the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects signed in Rome on 24 June 1995. For that reason the definitions used in this Regulation are based on those definitions.

Thus the Regulation adopted the 49-year-old 1970 UNESCO categorisation of cultural property for reasons of ‘familiarity’, rather than design a new, more technically precise system of categories – one more suited perhaps to the Regulation’s intended purpose of tackling terrorist financing. The categories of cultural objects subject to control by the Regulation are set out in its Annex, which follows the 1970 UNESCO Convention in making the distinction between (c) ‘products of archaeological excavations’, and (e) ‘antiquities, such as coins and engraved seals’. This distinction is important because legislatively these two categories are treated differently from one another.

Article 4 of the Regulation applies to ‘products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries on land or underwater’ and ‘elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered’ (including liturgical items and statues), all more than 250 years old. An importer must apply for an import license, subject to certain reservations providing proof of licit export of material from the country of origin. The importer should supply relevant supporting documentation, such as export licenses etc.

Article 5 applies to all other cultural objects, including ‘antiquities, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals’, more than 200 years old. It requires only that the importer submit to customs a signed statement (affidavit) certifying that subject to certain reservations the material was legally exported from the country of origin, accompanied by a standardised document describing the object in detail to enable ‘risk control’.

In other words, while Article 4 controls the import of archaeological products by means of a licensing system, Article 5 only documents the import of antiquities. Furthermore, while Article 4 applies to archaeological products of any value, Article 5 only applies to antiquities valued at more than 18,000 Euros per item. In effect, because of this monetary threshold, virtually all ‘antiquities’ are excluded from any requirement to document through importer statement.

There is strong evidence in Syria of criminals and terrorists targeting what in the Regulation are termed ‘antiquities’ in the form ancient coins and jewellery. On 16 May, 2015, when US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, head of the ISIL Diwan al Rikaz (Ministry of Natural Resources and Minerals, including its Antiquities Division), many of the antiquities recovered from his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, together with electronic images of gold coins and jewellery on his computer (US 2016). Ethnographic reporting from Idlib Governorate in Syria has highlighted how metal-detectors are used searching for coins and other small objects (Brodie and Sabrine 2018), while the importance of coins is also reflected in reports of seizures in Turkey (Myers and Kulish 2016). The ATHAR investigation into the use of Facebook for trafficking cultural objects emphasises that ‘coins represented the most frequently offered artifact in posts’ (Al-Azm and Paul 2019: 37, 38 figures 43-46). Thus what evidence there is for the use of cultural objects in terrorist financing points towards the particular importance of ancient coins, which are not subject to the Article 4 licensing requirement of the regulation and mostly too low-value to be subject to the statement requirement of Article 5. The door is left wide open for the undocumented import and sale of ancient coins and other antiquities that might finance terrorism –expressly counter to the intention of the Regulation.

Other than the familiarity of the 1970 UNESCO categorisation, why ‘antiquities more than one hundred years old’ should be treated differently to ‘products of archaeological excavations’ is not explained in the Regulation (or in the 1970 UNESCO Convention), even though antiquities are commonly understood to be ancient archaeological objects. The distinction between archaeological products and antiquities is there already in Article 1 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, perhaps because at the time the 1970 Convention was being drafted, the term ‘antiquity’ was being used in some national laws to denote an old rather than an ancient object (O’Keefe 2017: 125). A better term today might be ‘antique’. But the specific inclusion of coins in the category antiquities encourages or at least enables an interpretation that ancient coins should be considered separately from products of archaeological excavations.

The monetary threshold imposed by the Regulation on ‘antiquities, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals’ seems to carry over the distinction between important and, by extension, unimportant objects that was established in Article 1 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The idea that some cultural property is more important than other cultural property encourages a view that objects of aesthetic or other cultural (and thus monetary) value are more deserving of protection than objects that in themselves are of less aesthetic or cultural value. It is only a short step then to deciding that important objects are more deserving of trade control than unimportant objects. But privileging the ‘primacy of the object’ in this way overlooks or ignores the damage caused to cultural heritage by the large-scale clandestine excavation of small objects such as coins and jewellery, which can be massively destructive, as satellite images of Syrian archaeological sites suggest. When traded in large enough numbers, and they are, they can generate substantial income for criminals and terrorists.

Thus, it is questionable to what extent a legal instrument intending to protect cultural heritage in situ should distinguish between important and unimportant objects, as seems to be the case in the Regulation with its system of control for archaeological products but only documentation (at best) for antiquities. This is a serious problem if, as seems probable, coins and other small objects included in the category antiquities are a primary source of terrorist financing. By failing to exert control over their import into the EU the Regulation has failed in its expressed purpose of combatting terrorist financing.

The reasons for this failure are not hard to discern. First, the Regulation was drafted in light of a very poor evidence base. It was conceived in reaction to public concern about the activities of Da’esh in Syria and Iraq and particularly by widespread reports of Daesh’s control and profiting from the trade in cultural objects. Yet it remains the case that there has been no good quality or reliable research conducted into the problem of the trade in cultural objects funding terrorism, and in the absence of such research the legislators probably had to rely upon unreliable and sensationalist media reporting, with its misleading reports of ‘treasures’ and ‘artworks’ – little more than guesswork in fact. Second, it is questionable to what extent in 2019 the 1970 UNESCO categorisation is fit for purpose. Familiarity is all very well, but the categorisation is now fifty years old and as the Regulation shows it can cripple more forward-looking international legislation. In fact, it might not be too much to claim that unless it is changed or even abandoned it will come to constitute a debilitating ‘heart of confusion’ for any future laws aiming to control the trade in archaeological products/antiquities.


Al-Azm, Amr and Katie Paul, 2019. Facebook’s Black Market in Antiquities. Trafficking, Terrorism and War Crimes. Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project.

Brodie, Neil and Isber Sabrine, 2018. The illegal excavation and trade of Syrian cultural objects: a view from the ground. Journal of Field Archaeology 43, 74–84.

EC 2017a. Security Union: Cracking down on the illegal import of cultural goods used to finance terrorism. Press release 13 July.

EC 2017b. Questions and Answers on the illegal import of cultural goods used to finance terrorism. Press release 13 July.

EP 2019. Regulation on the Import of Cultural Goods.

Myers, Steven Lee and Nicholas Kulish, 2016. “‘Broken system’ allows ISIS to profit from looted antiquities”, New York Times, January 9.

O’Keefe, Patrick, 2017. Protecting Cultural Objects: Before and After 1970. Leicester: Institute of Art and Law.

US 2016. United States of America v. One gold ring with carved gemstone, an asset of ISIL, discovered on electronic media of Abu Sayyaf, President of ISIL Antiquities Department; one gold coin featuring Antoninus Pius, an asset of ISIL, discovered on electronic media of Abu Sayyaf, President of ISIL Antiquities Department; one gold coin featuring Emperor Hadrian Augustus Caesar, an asset of ISIL, discovered on electronic media of Abu Sayyaf, President Of ISIL Antiquities Department; one carved Neo-Assyrian stone stela, an asset of ISIL, discovered on electronic media of Abu Sayyaf, President of ISIL Antiquities Department, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 2016 (1:16-cv-02442), December 15.

Was it worth it Subhash?

In October 2011, New York-based Asian Art dealer Subhash Kapoor was arrested in Germany and in July 2012 extradited to India where he awaits trial facing criminal charges related to the theft and trafficking of antiquities. At the time of his arrest, Kapoor was proprietor of the sales gallery Art of the Past in New York City, dealing in cultural objects from a range of South and Southeast Asian countries.

Starting in January 2012, the Department of Homeland Security-Homeland Security Investigations (DHS-HSI) followed up Kapoor’s arrest with a series of raids on his New York sales and storage premises, seizing business records and a large number of antiquities thought to have been stolen and trafficked. By April 2015, DHS-HSI had recovered 2,622 antiquities with a total appraised value of $107.6 million (Mashberg 2015). On 8 July 2019, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges related to antiquities trafficking against Kapoor and seven alleged co-conspirators. The complaint describes a series of offences starting at least by August 1986 with the incorporation of Art of the Past and continuing until 2016. It alleges Kapoor traded thousands of stolen antiquities with a total value exceeding $145 million.

Based on documentation and other evidence recovered during the DHS-HSI investigations, the meticulously detailed complaint contains a wealth of information relating to Kapoor’s activities, which is primarily reproduced in support of the charges brought against him, but which also casts light on the operation of his business and the antiquities trade more generally. One immediate point of interest is the evidence of price mark-ups between what Kapoor paid for an object (cost price) and what he sold it for (selling price). Leaving aside prices recorded on customs forms, which might be fraudulent, the DHS-HSI was able to gain more reliable evidence of mark-ups from Kapoor’s correspondence with his suppliers, sometimes supplemented by informant testimony.

To start with, the complaint provides prices for the purchase and sale by Kapoor of three objects. The complaint also provides Kapoor’s valuations of objects not sold by the time of the DHS-HSI raids. Comparison of the actual selling prices of the three sold objects with Kapoor’s pre-sale valuations of them allows an assessment to be made of the accuracy of Kapoor’s valuations. The valuations can then be used as proxy selling prices for several other unsold pieces and allow the calculation of four further potential mark-ups.

In early 2002, Kapoor bought from the Indo-Nepal Art Centre in Mumbai, India a third-century limestone relief depicting worshippers of Buddha (Worshippers Relief) stolen from the Chadavaram Stupa, Andhra Pradesh, India. He valued it at approximately $550,000. In 2005, Kapoor sold the relief to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) for $585,000. In September 2016, the NGA returned it to India (NGA 2016; Arlt and Folan 2018). A fax from the Indian vendor records that Kapoor paid $70,000 for the relief, meaning a mark-up from cost price to selling price of 736 per cent and a potential mark-up for Kapoor’s valuation of 686 per cent.

In late 2002, Kapoor bought from the Indo-Nepal Art Centre in Mumbai, India two objects stolen from the Vriddhagiriswarar Temple in Vriddhachalam, Tamil Nadu, India. The first was a twelfth-century granite sculpture of the goddess Pratyangira, which he valued at approximately $250,000. In July 2005, Kapoor sold the Pratyangira to the NGA for $247,000. In September 2016, the NGA returned it to India (NGA 2016). The second was a tenth-century granite sculpture of Shiva as Ardhanarishsvara (Ardhanari), which Kapoor valued at $250,000. In June 2004, he sold the Ardhanari to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) for $225,000. In September 2014, the AGNSW returned it to India. A fax from the Indian vendor records that Kapoor paid 11,00,000 rupees ($22,634) for both pieces together, meaning a mark-up from cost price to selling price of 1,985 per cent and a potential mark-up for Kapoor’s valuation of 2,109 per cent.

The magnitude of these price mark-ups is extraordinary, averaging out at 1,569 per cent. There is also reasonably good agreement between Kapoor’s valuation of the objects and the price he ultimately secured when selling them. Thus Kapoor’s valuations can be used as proxy price indicators, which allows the calculation of several more potential price mark-ups.

In 2005, Kapoor visited Pakistan where he purchased two objects. The first was a second–third-century marble Buddha head (Monumental Buddha Head), which he valued at approximately $4.5 million. On 5 January 2012, DHS-HSI agents seized the Buddha Head from storage in New York. The second was a first–third-century, schist Herakles-Vajrapani holding a sword (Herakles with Sword), which he valued at approximately $1.75 million. On 26 July 2012, DHS-HSI agents seized the Herakles from storage in New York. According to informant testimony, Kapoor paid $500,000 for a batch of antiquities including these two pieces. Even if the cost of other purchased antiquities is excluded, the combined valuation of $6.25 million represents a potential mark-up from cost price of 1,150 per cent. Allowing for the cost of the other three antiquities in the $500,000 cost price, the real percentage mark-up would be higher still.

In April 2006, Kapoor visited Pakistan where he purchased from Rawaiee Al Lotus a number of antiquities, including five eighteenth–nineteenth-century glazed Quranic wall tiles (Quranic Wall Tiles). He valued them in total at $445,000. A fax from Rawaiee Al Lotus shows Kapoor paid $20,000 for the tiles, a potential mark-up from cost price of 2,125 per cent.

On the same April 2006 buying trip, Kapoor bought a second–fourth-century schist statue of Herakles as Vajrapani (Monumental Herakles), which he valued at $950,000. He also bought a second–fourth-century Seated Buddha on Lotus (Seated Buddha), which he valued at $650,000. On 26 July 2012, DHS-HSI agents seized both pieces from storage in New York. Kapoor bought the Herakles and Buddha as part of a lot containing three other objects. A fax from Rawaiee Al Lotus shows that Kapoor paid $200,000 for the lot. Even if the cost of the other three antiquities in the lot is excluded, the combined selling price of $1.6 million for the Herakles and the Buddha represents a mark-up from cost price of 700 per cent. Allowing for the cost of the other three antiquities, the real percentage mark-up for the two pieces would be higher still.

In 2005, Kapoor purchased a twelfth-century sandstone sculpture of the monkey god Hanuman from an Indian dealer in New York, which he valued at approximately $225,000. On 26 July 2012, DHS-HSI agents seized the Hanuman from storage in New York. An informant states that Kapoor paid $30-40,000 for the Hanuman, a mark-up from cost price to selling price of approximately 543 per cent.

Object Mark-up (per cent)
Worshippers Relief 736
Pratyangira and Ardhanari 1,985
Monumental Buddha Head and Herakles with
Quranic Wall Tiles 2,125
Monumental Herakles and Seated Buddha 700
Hanuman 543

Again, averaging out at about 1,200 per cent, the magnitude of these mark-ups is remarkable, though they do not constitute profit. Kapoor would have needed to deduct associated business costs for such things as staffing, conservation and storage, not to mention tax. Not least is the fact that many of the objects remained unsold at the time of the DHS-HSI raids and the potential mark-ups had yet to be realised. It is interesting that the lowest mark-up is for the Hanuman, which Kapoor bought once it was already in the USA. He bought the other objects abroad and imported them, thereby running the risk they might be seized by customs. Perhaps the element of risk was lower for Kapoor when buying the Hanuman, with the lower mark-up reflecting a higher price paid to his supplier who was the one accepting the risk of financial loss or worse associated with importing the piece. The complaint reckons that at the very least there are 39 stolen objects worth nearly $36 million unaccounted for, which probably means they have been sold. That would be something like $33 million for Kapoor before tax and expenses. Was it worth it? He can’t spend the money in prison.

Arlt, Robert and Lucie Folan, 2018. Research and restitution: the National Gallery of Australia’s repatriation of a sculpture from the Buddhist site of Chandavaram, Journal of Art Market Studies 2: 1-17.

Mashberg, Tom, 2015. New York authorities seek custody of stolen artifacts worth over $100 million, New York Times, 14 April.

NGA, 2016. National Gallery of Australia returns two sculptures to India, press release, 19 September.

The Bourne acquisition

On 4 June 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted new guidelines for the acquisition of archaeological and ancient art objects. Going forward, it recommended that a member museum should only acquire an object when there is evidence to show that it was out of its country of modern discovery before 17 November 1970, or exported legally after that date. The AAMD recognised that there are likely to be objects in circulation that were out of their countries of modern discovery before 1970, but without validating provenance. In such cases, the AAMD recommended that if after appropriate due diligence a member museum concludes that an object was likely to have been out of its country of discovery before 17 November 1970, the object could be acquired but a record of the acquisition should be posted on a new web-based Object Registry. The posting on the Object Registry would constitute a public record of the acquisition, allowing any dispossessed owner to identify the object and make a recovery claim to the museum concerned. On 23 January 2013, the AAMD amended its 2008 guidelines, allowing the acquisition by gift or bequest of objects without the necessary pre-1970 provenance provided a promissory agreement had been reached before the 4 June date of the 2008 guidelines.

By March 2018, the Object Registry listed entries for 1,117 objects in 28 museums. The largest aggregate entry for a single institution comprised 358 objects in the collection of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, many of them previously owned by John Bourne. They reflect the museum’s accession in 2009 of 301 objects from the Bourne collection. Aspects of the acquisition have been discussed by Roger Atwood and Donna Yates. Bourne had been assembling his collection since the 1940s, but as the histogram shows, he bought most of his objects after 1970.

As the above example shows, the individual Walters’ Object Registry entries for the Bourne objects state that they were acquired because ‘Communications between the Walters Art Museum and the donor of this gift began in April 2005’. This entry justifies the acquisition by making reference to the amended 2013 AAMD guidelines. Gary Vikan, however, who was director of the Walters at the time of the Bourne acquisition, seemingly contradicts these statements on the Object Registry when he reveals that he first heard about the possible availability of the Bourne Collection ‘near the end of 2008’ [1] – in other words, a few months after the 4 June date of the 2008 guidelines. Before then, in 2000 when he first met Bourne, his hope had been that Bourne might lend the Walters ‘a piece or two’ [2]. At that time, Bourne had promised his collection to the College of Santa Fe.

Vikan defended the acquisition of the Bourne collection by reference to the ‘Vikan Doctrine’ of due diligence, transparency and good faith engagement:

… the acquisition of a work or art would be conducted with full and rigorous investigation and documentation of the work’s history, whether it be a proposed purchase, a promised gift, or a possible long-term loan. If acquired or accepted as a gift or loan, it would then be promptly published on the Walters’ website and on the Object Registry of the Association of Art Museum Directors … the Walters would promptly and openly respond to any plausible claim for repatriation of the work from a possible source country [3].

The confusion over the date of the acquisition agreement does little to foster confidence in the transparency component of the Vikan Doctrine, but what about due diligence, the ‘full and rigorous investigation and documentation of the work’s history’? The only provenance information provided for the overwhelming majority of Bourne objects on the Walters’ website is the date of Bourne’s purchase and the name of the vendor. There are hardly any indications of provenance dating back to before the date of Bourne’s purchase, and while it is always possible that the objects had been in circulation since before 1970, from what is published they might equally have been fresh out of the ground and new on the market. Accepting material with such flimsy documentation of provenance surely runs counter to the Vikan Doctrine and indeed to the ethical principles of the AAMD guidelines.

In the exhibition catalogue of the collection, Vikan mentions that the acquisition was accompanied by a ‘bequest of $4 million for the research, conservation, display, and teaching of the arts of the ancient Americas’ [4]. It would be hard for any museum to refuse a bequest of that size. Perhaps hard enough for the Walters to have suspended Vikan’s Doctrine and evaded the AAMD’s guidelines.


  1. Vikan, Gary, 2016. Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director. New York: SelectBooks, at page 269.
  2. Ibid, at page 269.
  3. Ibid, at page 270.
  4. Vikan, Gary, 2012. Foreword, in Dorie Reents-Budet (ed.), Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection. Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum.

Lost secrets of Rihani

It is frequently speculated that there are large stores of looted antiquities and other cultural objects maintained in various Middle Eastern countries, with their owners waiting for the market to cool down before selling them on. But although these stores are often talked about, none has been revealed, until perhaps now.

In November 2014, the Yesterday TV channel aired The Lost Secrets of Petra in series two of its Forbidden History strand. The presenter discussed the assembly in Jordan of large collections of undeclared objects, which he said were destined for onwards sale in Europe or the United States. He visited the Rihani family collection in Amman, where there was a tremendous quantity of material on view. The collection was stored in several rooms, and although it seemingly comprised mainly Jordanian material, there were recognisable pieces from Egypt and probably Iraq, including the incantation bowl pictured below. I have reproduced several still images taken from the programme without comment. I think they speak for themselves. As I have noted before, objects said to be from the Rihani collection are often offered for sale in the United Kingdom. Whether they really are from the Rihani collection is a matter for speculation.

It is well worthwhile watching this programme next time it is screened, or searching it out on-line.

Nice work if you can get it

Howard Swains has just published a useful piece on Robin Symes containing informative commentary by my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis. Symes was a major international antiquities dealer through the 1980s and 1990s. With Italian and Greek police hot on his trail, he was driven into bankruptcy in 2003 and after serving a short prison sentence for contempt of court in 2005 he disappeared from view. His present whereabouts remain unknown. Swains tells Symes’s story in all its sordid detail and it is well worth a read.

Just by chance, Symes figures in another news article covering the Lebanese claim for the return of a fourth-century BC marble bull’s head from the possession of US collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes. In 1981, armed Christian militia stole the bulls head from storage in Byblos – it is a conflict antiquity. By 1996, the head was in the possession of Symes, who sold it to the Beierwaltes for $1.2 million. This sale makes Symes a purveyor of conflict antiquities.

Before his disappearance, Symes claimed to possess 17,000 objects in 29 warehouses, most of them antiquities, with a total value of $250 million [1]. It remains to be seen how many conflict antiquities are included in this total. In 2016, Roman, Etruscan and Greek South Italian antiquities from one of his storage facilities in Geneva were returned to Italy. His remaining stock is in the hands of liquidators, but its composition, value and fate remain subjects for speculation. Greek and Italian investigators suspect part and perhaps many of the objects were illegally acquired and would like full access in order to study them further and recover anything that might be stolen property. But his antiquities are being sold without such study taking place.

Until now, the location of Symes’s residual stock has been something of a mystery. Swains points out that in 2015 Companies House made the reports of Symes’s liquidators available on-line for public viewing, and interesting viewing they make too. Each year, major payments from the USD($) account are being made to a New York based storage company with a warehouse in Brooklyn. Perhaps Homeland Security Investigations would like to take a look. Similarly large payments from the GBP(£) account are being made to a separate company for storage in west London.

As Swains notes, the Companies House reports also record the ongoing unpublicised sale of unvetted material (including, presumably, some conflict antiquities) to UK dealers. He reports the concern of Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri that the sales are being conducted to recover tax for the UK government, but the reality is if anything more shameful. As the intermittent sale of material drags on year after year, any proceeds are being eaten up by storage and insurance costs and legal and other sundry fees and expenses. Everyone is making money it seems except for the creditors. No one seems worried about the probable existence of stolen or conflict antiquities. Nice work if you can get it – and if your moral compass is pointing firmly astern.


  1. Watson, Peter, 2006. Convicted dealers: what we can learn, in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, edited by Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, at 94.

Incident at Bodrum Airport

On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.

Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.

Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.