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.

References

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.

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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 15.03.49

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!

Antiquities at auction (1)

The Art Newspaper is reporting that for the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s ‘Higher-volume, lower-priced business in the middle market could be the saleroom mantra for 2016’ as profits from the high-end market are squeezed. It reminds us that the auction houses are active commercial agents. They are not in business simply to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers – they are in business to make a profit. With that rather obvious fact in mind, it is illuminating to look back over Sotheby’s New York sales records for non-Islamic antiquities from 1985 to 2013. The following series of graphs shows quite clearly how Sotheby’s has played the market.

Auctions 1

This first graph (above) shows how starting in 2001 Sotheby’s began offering fewer lots for sale annually, until about 2009, when the figure averaged out at just under 200 per year. Before then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of lots offered for sale annually had fluctuated in the region of 600 to 800. (It is interesting that the number of lots offered annually did not increase appreciably after the cessation of Sotheby’s London antiquities sales in 1997). At the same time, catalogues began including more information about provenance. By 2008, some information was included for nearly every lot offered for auction. That is not to say that the information provided was always useful for tracing back the ownership history and thus legitimacy of the lot offered for sale. Quite often, the ‘provenance’ might consist only of a name or a date. These minimal provenances might be interpreted as an honest attempt by Sotheby’s to meet customer concerns about provenance, or looked upon more cynically as an example of creative compliance, creating the appearance of meeting customer concerns while in reality carrying on business as usual. Either way, they do offer some reassurance to customers mildly worried about provenance, and maybe that is the point. But while such limited information might be of little use for investigating the legitimacy of a lot, it should not be dismissed out of hand. A false provenance is a fraudulent provenance, and fraud is a criminal offence. So any increase in provenance information does increase risk for an auction house, and is a step in the right direction towards a transparent, legitimate market. The nature of this provenance information will be explored further in a future post.

Auctions 2

The second graph shows that as the number of lots offered annually has declined, the mean price per lot sold has increased in real terms (all monetary values are standardized to 2005). Perhaps Sotheby’s has been been selling a smaller number of better quality objects. That would make sense. It might also mean though that the objects themselves were increasing in value through time as the market was increasing in value. That would also make sense. These two alternatives will be investigated further in a future post. (The 2007 price ‘spike’ is due to the sale on 7 June of a Late Hellenistic/Early Roman Imperial bronze statue of Artemis and the Stag for $28,600,000 (lot 41) and on 5 December of the Elamite ‘Guennol Lioness’ for $57,161,000. The 2010 price ‘spike’ is due to the sale on 7 December of a Roman Imperial bust of Antinous for $23,826,500).

Auctions 3

The third graph is particularly interesting. It examines the relationship between pre-sale price estimates provided by Sotheby’s in its catalogues and actual achieved prices. If the estimates were unbiased, it would be expected that achieved prices would distribute normally around estimate prices. This does seem to have been the case until about 2001, when the number of lots offered annually begins to decline. After 2002, a progressively higher number of lots achieve prices higher than the estimate. It is hard to believe that this is happening by chance, or that Sotheby’s specialists are consistently and accidentally undervaluing material. It seems more likely that estimates are being intentionally kept low to draw in potential buyers. ‘Come-hither’ estimates are an old-established auction practice to drum up custom. Once the potential buyers are bidding of course, they pay little attention to the estimate. But why would Sotheby’s want to attract more buyers?

Auctions 4

Traditionally, auction houses made their money from charging a seller’s commission, effectively a service charge levied on a seller. In 1975, in addition to the seller’s commission, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s began charging a buyer’s premium – a service charge levied on a buyer. From 1975 to 1992 the buyer’s premium remained steady at 10%. From 1993, however, Sotheby’s (and Christie’s) began to increase it, and to charge proportionately more for lower-priced lots. By 2013, Sotheby’s was charging 25% on prices up to $50,000, 20% on prices between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12% on prices in excess of $1 million. The fourth graph shows the effect of the increasing buyer’s premium from 1985 to 2013 on two notional lots priced respectively at $10,000 and $500,000. The auction houses have been forced to increase the buyer’s premium because in a competitive marketplace they are vulnerable to potential consignors ‘shopping around’. With auction houses keen to secure business, consignors can negotiate a deal to reduce or even dispense with seller’s commission. Auction house costs then have to be recovered from the buyers, who are less willing or able to negotiate.

Auctions 5

Graph number five shows the increasing revenue to Sotheby’s derived from the buyer’s premium. Notice the linear trend line increasing from about $350,000 in 1985 to about $4 million in 2013 (standardized to 2005 values).

Auctions 6

Finally, the sixth graph shows that the increasing value through time of lots being sold is real, and not just a function of the increasing buyer’s premium. (All sales data analyzed are from auction house results sheets, which incorporate the buyer’s premium into published prices).

This series of graphs strongly suggests that the changing configuration of auction sales through time is an outcome of a deliberate commercial strategy on Sotheby’s part to increase profitability by (1) reducing the number of lots offered, thereby decreasing associated handling costs; (2) drawing in more buyers with better provenanced lots and come-hither estimates, probably to increase prices by more competitive bidding; and (3) charging buyers progressively higher premiums.

This pattern is indicative of Sotheby’s sales strategy more generally, which since 2002 has been to focus more on the high end of the market [1]. Between 2002 and 2007, across the company, it halved the number of auction transactions and shed staff. Over that period, in a broader reflection of the antiquities sales data discussed here, the mean price per lot sold for all categories of object increased from $35,000 to $50,000. If the Art Newspaper is to be believed, however, we might be about to see this trend put into reverse.

Scholars (such as myself) who would like to use time series auction data as a proxy measure of illicit trade or regulatory impact would do well to take full account of the fact that auction houses are active commercial agents and it might be their commercial agency that is primarily structuring the data.

Reference

  1. Thompson, Don, 2008. The $12 million Stuffed Shark. New York: Palgrave, at 100.