Good luck with that

‘What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade?’ asks Christina Ruiz in the Art Newspaper, reporting that ‘Experts at London symposium warn against misinformation and lack of evidence’. About time too. Together with a small number of like-minded colleagues (they know who they are), I have spent the past 18 months trying to argue that same point, though to little avail. As I have written elsewhere, editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too. It has been hard to secure a hearing for more evidence-based and less sensationalist accounts of the problem.

The inflated claims of the importance of the antiquities trade to Daesh financing seem to have originated in a July 2014 Guardian article, which was widely understood to have reported that Daesh had made $36 million from antiquities trading in one area of Syria. That particular reading of the article has never been confirmed, but it triggered a series of sensationalising claims about the importance of the trade to Daesh. Egged on by some professional experts who should have known better, the media was quick to pick up and run with the story. By February 2015, one headline was reporting somewhat improbably on ‘The ISIS smugglers making up to $1million per item selling ancient antiquities looted from the rubble of Syria’, and in May 2015 it was unreliably reported to the UN that Daesh was earning ‘as much as $100 million annually from antiquities trading’.

But the real news is not misinformation about Daesh’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. That is old if unpopular news. The real news is that – hopefully – a new sense of reality is grabbing hold of news reporting. Perhaps in time it will prompt us to reflect upon what went before, and ask if the sensationalised claims made about Daesh and the antiquities trade played some part in encouraging the violent and declarative destructions of archaeological heritage that followed. Back in late 2013, before most people outside of Iraq had heard of Daesh, or ISIS for that matter, a forward-thinking member of the Iraqi culture ministry warned me of what was happening in western Iraq, and that the situation there was spinning out of control. How right he was. He also spoke of the threat Daesh posed to cultural heritage and believed that loud but ineffective denunciations would only encourage them to commit further acts of plunder and destruction. He counselled cool heads and calm response. ‘Good luck with that’, I might have replied. What we got instead was a cacophony of moral outrage, sometimes verging on hysteria, but very little constructive action.

eBaywatch (1)

This month on eBay.co.uk I have been watching Halaf terracotta figurines. And there are a lot of them. Halaf figurines were produced from the seventh through to sixth centuries BC in what is today the territory of Iraq and Syria and immediately adjacent areas of neighbouring countries. They take their name from the archaeological site of Tell Halaf in NE Syria where they were first discovered. They appear on ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

Between 27 November 2015 and 17 February 2016, seven sellers between them sold 60 figurines for the total sum of £6099. The highest priced figurine sold for £720, the lowest for £12. The average price was £102. Six of the sellers were based in the UK, all in England. One seller, selling only one figurine, was based in the USA. The breakdown for the English sellers was:

Seller 1 sold 29 figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.

Seller 2 sold 11 figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.

Seller 3 sold five figurines, described as ‘Indus Valley’, with a provenance of ‘UK reliable supplier’. The seller also noted that that ‘we support Eastern trade embargo unconditionally’.

Seller 4 sold one figurine, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.

Seller 5 sold six figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.

Seller 6 sold two figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.

Seller 7 sold five figurines, described as ‘British found’ (!).

Questions have been asked about the authenticity of Halaf figurines. Recent seizures in Lebanon have documented how genuine and fake objects from Syria are found mixed together [1] and the appearance of fake figurines on eBay would not be a surprise. As long ago as 2005, the on-line collectors’ community was aware of large numbers of Halaf figurines being sold on eBay, and believed that many if not most of them were fake.

So well before 2011, eBay was awash with material that might have originated in ancient or modern Syria. The figurines being sold on eBay last December and in January and February might have been in circulation for years, or passed out of Syria a few months earlier. Who is to know? That is the gray market we talk about. But it is a very dark gray one. Fake or genuine, at least one law will have been broken on a figurine’s journey to eBay, even if it was only the ‘Eastern trade embargo’. The police seem powerless to act. The sellers are located outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police’s specialised art and antiques squad. The low prices of the figurines (and other objects) being sold are probably not enough to warrant serious attention from increasingly stretched provincial police forces. Thus the figurines are being sold openly with knowing or unknowing impunity. There is no need here to postulate sinister hi-tech networks shifting material around the world on the Darknet. The suburban reality is one of open sale on eBay from the garages and attics of middle England.

What else do these eBay sales tell us? Well, for a start, the figurines are selling, and selling well. Customers quite clearly are either unaware of or unconcerned about their origins. Funding Daesh? Who knows or cares? Perhaps buyers honestly believe that the figurines have been out of Syria for decades. Perhaps they do not know that the figurines might originate in Syria or Iraq. After all, none of the sellers advertised the fact. Not one seller mentioned Syria as a possible country of origin. Perhaps buyers are unconcerned simply because the sums of money involved are so small. From what we know of the financial structure of the trade, for a £102 figurine only about £1-2 would end up in the hands of the person making or finding it. But aggregated, these small sums of money add up. Perhaps they are enough to make the trade worthwhile. Alternatively, perhaps these small and inexpensive objects are the residue of larger enterprises, separated off and sold downmarket while larger and more expensive pieces are sold elsewhere.

On 19 February, the English sellers between them had on offer 1257 lots, including many small objects and coins that could have been found in Syria. Also on 19 February, there were 12 Halaf figurines on offer, one from Seller 2, five from Seller 3, three from Seller 1, two from a seller based in Cyprus and one from a seller based in the USA.

What does eBay itself have to say about it all? A long click-distance away from the sale pages, we are directed through the small print heading ‘eBay responsible practices’ to the main eBay.com site where we find the eBay policy on prohibited and restricted items. Here is what it says:

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The Halaf figurines are on an ICOM Red List, are widely believed to include forgeries among their number, and the sellers do not include any evidence of provenance or legal sale. And yet eBay does nothing. In January 2016, the UK government announced that it had established a £30 million Cultural Protection Fund for projects aimed at protecting cultural heritage overseas. Let us hope that some of the money is spent on cleaning up the government’s own backyard, starting with eBay.

Reference

Seif, Assad, 2015. Illicit traffic in cultural property in Lebanon. In France Desmarais (ed.), Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods. Paris: ICOM: 65-82.

 

What will I be watching next on eBay? Will eBay be watching me? To find out more, join me next month for … eBaywatch!

Market of mass destruction: the policy omnishambles

I have been prompted to start this blog by the omnishambles of international public policy as it struggles but fails to achieve some kind of grip on the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Since 1990, a series of international, proxy and civil wars together with associated episodes of civil disturbance throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have triggered wave after wave of damaging attacks on cultural heritage. Cultural sites have been ruined for motives or pretexts of cultural cleansing and iconoclasm, damaged deliberately or accidentally by the actions of armed forces, or simply overwhelmed by the more peaceful though still destructive processes of urban expansion and agricultural improvement. Through all of this, however, a major cause of damage has been and continues to be the looting of archaeological and cultural sites to feed the illicit trade in cultural objects. Certainly, sitting here in the United Kingdom, it looks to be the most regrettable cause of damage, as it is the most preventable one. The trade exists to feed the collecting mania of destination countries far removed from the MENA region itself, and thus within easier reach of policy countermeasures. Or so it would seem. As the cultural heritage of country after country has fallen victim to looting and illicit trade, however, the international community has looked on despairingly but with little to offer in the way of effective amelioration. The looting and trade continues, seemingly unabated.

The shambolic nature of policy is reflected in the confusing terminology used to describe initiatives aimed at preventing damage. Sometimes it looks as though policy-makers do not have access to a dictionary. In October 2015, for example, the UK government announced a ‘New scheme to protect cultural sites from destruction’. Notice the headline use of the word ‘protect’. Protection was promised against the ‘destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists’. The scheme in question is the Iraqi Emergency Heritage Management Project. £3 million was granted to the British Museum to ‘create a team of local experts to assess, document and stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and help begin the process of reconstruction and preservation of some of the world’s most precious cultural artefacts’. So, despite headlining the need for protection, in reality the project has nothing to do with protection. It is all about documentation and reconstruction, things that are needed when protection has failed. Nothing wrong with that in principle, it is nice to see some money going to support initiatives aimed at restoring damaged cultural sites, but it is hardly protection, so why headline it as such? And furthermore, having discounted the protective agency of documentation and reconstruction, what exactly is being done to protect sites?

And just in case readers in the United States are feeling smug, something similar has been going on there. Between August 2014 and September 2015 the US Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) secured $1.5 million of federal funding for what is now called Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI). The stated aim of ASOR CHI is to implement ‘cultural property protection’ by: (1) documenting damage; (2) promoting global awareness; and (3) planning emergency and post-war responses. Again, the headline is ‘protection’, but the reality is more about documentation and reconstruction. Most of ASOR CHI’s operational effort is directed towards producing weekly reports of damage caused to cultural heritage in Syria and north Iraq. There is a real need for this kind of work, and the reports comprise a singular resource of undoubted value. But again, it is not protection.

ASOR CHI has produced a nice infographic describing its work. At one point, the infographic states that ‘Priceless artifacts have been looted & sold on the black market’. Quite. Probably sold on the not-so-black and nearly-white markets too. It is a pity then that ASOR CHI is not tackling the black market head on, by designing and implementing strategies aimed at reducing the demand for looted objects or interrupting their flow to destination countries. Preventing the illicit trade would be a sure route to protecting cultural sites, and yet it is a route not followed. Perhaps it is time that it was. Prevention offers protection in a way that documentation and reconstruction do not.