Bad omens for Cornell?

In September 2019, US law enforcement agents seized the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is a cuneiform tablet whose text records part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. On 18 May 2020, the US Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York filed a civil action to forfeit the tablet, alleging it had originated in Iraq and entered the USA in contravention of US law. The forfeiture complaint makes for interesting reading. It claims that in March or April 2003, after first viewing the material prior to 2001, an unnamed US “Antiquities Dealer” bought a group of cuneiform tablets from the Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani in London. The “Antiquities Dealer” was accompanied by what the complaint terms a “Cuneiform Expert” (since suggested to be independent scholar Renee Kovacs). The Cuneiform Expert recognised that the tablets did not bear ordinary administrative texts but were instead “potentially of a literary nature”. The Antiquities Dealer paid $50,350 for the tablets, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet among them, and arranged shipment to the USA.

Once in the USA, the Cuneiform Expert arranged for Andrew George to study the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in 2005. His study was published in 2007 (George 2007). In his publication, George stated that the tablet was published with “the permission of the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous” (George 2007: 59). The owner was presumably the Antiquities Dealer. Importantly, George also noted that:

The tablet was reported to be part of a group of unpublished tablets that included omen and liturgical compositions, some mentioning Pešgaldaramaš (peš-gal-dàra-meš) and Ayadaragalamma (a-a-dàra-galam-ma), kings of the First Sealand Dynasty, and to share with them aspects of physical appearance and ductus. I was able to confirm this report from photographs of the tablets in question. In particular, the present piece closely resembles a tablet of lung omens dated to Pešgaldaramaš. Close resemblance is not an infallible criterion for attributing provenance, but it is enough to permit a provisional hypothesis that the tablet published here derives from the same source as the Sealand tablets (George 2007: 63).

So, someone, presumably the Cuneiform Expert, had reported to George that the Gilgamesh tablet had been (or was still) part of a group including omen and liturgical tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty and supplied photographs of them. George then commented upon the presence in the group of a lung omens tablet dated to Pešgaldarameš.

Tablets attributable to the First Sealand Dynasty were unknown before 1999 when Stephanie Dalley started studying 474 administrative tablets in the Schøyen Collection, subsequently published in 2009 (Dalley 2009). Kovacs was associated with the Schøyen Collection until 2005, when she handed over responsibility for publishing the collection’s cuneiform holdings to George. George had first met Schøyen in 2001 (George 2009: xi). So, presumably, both Kovacs and George would have been aware of the Sealand tablets in the Schøyen Collection – George definitely was (George 2007: 63). By 2005, if Kovacs was the Cuneiform Expert, she would have been able to recognize the Sealand kings from their names and advise George accordingly, which is what he indicated in his 2007 paper.

In 2013, George went on to publish 10 omen tablets dating to the First Sealand Dynasty from an anonymous private collection (George 2013: tablet nos 22-29, 31-32). In his introduction, he stated that he had studied the tablets sometime between the years 2005 and 2012 and that:

Images of most of the tablets in the anonymous collection were made at the Rosen Seminar, Cornell University, and are published here by generous leave of David I. Owen, Curator of the Tablet Collections (George 2013: xi).

The texts have been made available on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) database.

CDLI omen texts published by George (2013)

The entry for George’s tablet no. 28 (CDLI P431306) is particularly interesting. It describes the text as:

Lung omens, middle lobe; 1st Sealand period script, dated by colophon to Pešgaldarameš.

So, another Sealand lung omens text dated to the reign of Pešgaldarameš. A startling coincidence, especially remembering that no First Sealand Dynasty texts at all were known before the late 1990s. The CDLI lists 77 Old Babylonian omen texts, but none in private collections and none dating to the First Sealand Dynasty except those published by George.

What does it mean? There are two possible explanations. The first is that in 2003 the US Antiquities Dealer bought a group of First Sealand Dynasty tablets including the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, some omen tablets, and particularly a lung omens tablet. He sold the omen tablets and they were lost from view. Meanwhile, an unknown private collector had acquired a different group of First Sealand Dynasty omen tablets, including another lung omens, which George was subsequently able to study and publish. Stranger things have happened, but the second and more parsimonious explanation is that the tablets bought by the Antiquities Dealer and the tablets studied by George were in fact the same ones. They were bought by the Antiquities Dealer in 2003, sold to a private collector, and sometime later studied and published by George. (In his 2007 publication, George does not mention the Pešgaldarameš colophon on the lung omens tablet, but then perhaps it hadn’t been visible on the photographs supplied to him).

CDLI entry for lung omens text

But there is more. When George published the tablets in 2013 he stated that they were with an anonymous private collector. Today, on the CDLI database, they are listed as the property of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Has the private collector sold or donated them to Cornell? Remembering that George acknowledged publishing the tablets with the permission of David Owen, who is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cornell, it seems a likely eventuality

To some extent, this is all speculation. I cannot prove that the tablets sold by Rihani to the Dealer in 2003 are the ones published by George in 2013 or that they are now in the possession of Cornell. I don’t know for sure. Cornell might though.

References

Dalley, Stephanie. 2009. Babylonian Tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.

George, Andrew. 2007. The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: An unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš epic, Revue d’Assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 101: 59-80.

George, Andrew. 2009. Babylonian Literary Texts in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.   George, Andrew. 2013. Babylonian Divinatory Texts Chiefly in the Schøyen Collection. Bethesda: CDL.

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.

The Rihani ‘provenance’

In May 2016, I wrote about objects with a Rihani provenance being sold by TimeLine Auctions of London. I have now had time to look more closely at other Rihani objects sold at past TimeLine sales, and the results are unsettling, though hardly surprising.

Ghassan Rihani was a Jordanian citizen and resident who died in 2001. At some point in time, he exported a large collection of antiquities to his daughter who was then resident in London. The official Jordanian authorisation for this export, written in Arabic, is dated 19 September 1988, though the English translation is dated 12 October 1992, so it is thought likely that the export took place sometime after the date of the English translation. As I wrote last May, this export authorisation ‘legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries’, though the Rihani provenance is routinely applied to objects that most likely originated in Iraq, Syria or other neighbouring countries. At best in such cases, it would provide a terminus ante quem – a date before which an object was out of its country of origin. For Iraq, it would post-date United Nations Security Council Resolution of 6 August 1990 which prohibited the trade of illegally-exported Iraqi objects. Thus a Rihani provenance, even if genuine, does not necessarily legitimise an object.

As can be seen, the Jordanian document authorizes the export of 2000 ‘pottery utensils’ and 50 ‘various stone pieces’ as shown in ‘attached pictures’. The attached pictures have never been made public, assuming they actually existed, so it is not possible to compare objects authorized for export with those now sold in London with a Rihani provenance. From its own records, over the past few years TimeLine has offered for sale 84 objects with a Rihani provenance, including 34 stone cylinder seals, a further 18 stone objects, 6 small metal figurines, 17 pots, and an assortment of other small ceramic objects. So that is a total of 52 stone objects and 6 metal objects. More cylinder seals and metal objects have been sold by Artemission and Ancient and Oriental. The Jordanian authorisation makes no mention of metal objects, and so when the Rihani provenance is attached to a metal object it is demonstrably false. The cylinder seals are problematical too. Yes, they are made of stone, but it is strange that cylinder seals are not specified on the authorisation. In any case, even if it is assumed that every single stone object of the 50 authorised for export was a cylinder seal, it still leaves more than two cylinder seals with a fictitious provenance. In reality, it is probably the case that the Rihani provenance for most if not all of the cylinder seals is false, attached to disguise the sale of material that has most likely been moved illegally out of Iraq or perhaps Syria.

TimeLine itself is not inventing these provenances, nor is it accepting any responsibility for them. As I pointed out last time, its terms and conditions of business include the following small-print statement:

The Buyer is obligated to make all and any enquiries he wishes as to the accuracy and authenticity of any sale description and the principle of caveat emptor applies except where expressly excluded by operation of law. TimeLine does not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere

So the Rihani provenances are being attached to objects before being offered by Timeline, but by whom and at which point in the trading chain? Attaching a false provenance to an illegally-exported object constitutes fraud, an offence which as the Metropolitan Police have shown us is easier to prosecute than theft.

Rihani might be the least of TimeLine’s problems. In its 21 February 2017 sale my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis identified three objects which had passed through the hands of known traffickers, all described with the same provenance as ‘Property of a London gentleman; acquired from a major Mayfair gallery; acquired on the London art market before 2000’. Christos sourced two of the objects to Robin Symes and one to Giacomo Medici.

I pointed last May to the endorsement logos lined up at the bottom of the TimeLine homepage: the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Harwich Port Authority, and the Art Loss Register (ALR). These days, the CBI and the Harwich Port Authority have been replaced by Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. The AIAD is still there. Among other things, the AIAD’s code of conduct specifies that:

2) The Member agrees to conduct his business at all times with due regard to all pertinent current legislation and with utmost good faith. The Member further agrees to establish the identity of the vendor, that the vendor has legal title to the material and (where applicable) that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws.

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

Timeline’s description on the AIAD website is:

TimeLine Originals offers a selection of genuine ancient coins and antiquities as collectibles and works of art. We supply all periods of ancient coins, antiquities, related accessories and books. We are one of Britain’s leading web-based coin and ancient art galleries. All items are fully researched, guaranteed genuine and sold with an illustrated certificate of authenticity. Absolute discretion and confidentiality assured.

So what is the truth of the matter? Are all objects ‘fully researched’ by TimeLine, as the AIAD description claims, or does in fact TimeLine undertake ‘no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine’, as its own terms and conditions state. Are all objects ‘guaranteed genuine’ as the AIAD would lead us to believe, or does TimeLine ‘not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price’. This contradictory information is confusing, more so given that TimeLine’s director is also a director of AIAD, so you would think he would be able to get his story straight. It is a mess.

It is disappointing to find the ALR still openly endorsing TimeLine. Openly endorsing a clearly stated policy of caveat emptor, the sale of poorly-researched material with demonstrably fraudulent use of the Rihani provenance, and the sale of material that has passed through the hands on known traffickers. By allowing its logo to be openly displayed on the TimeLine website, the ALR creates for the nervous customer a mistaken reassurance that everything is above board, when in fact it is a mess. By continuing to associate itself with a mess, the ALR will increasingly come to look like a mess itself.

Last week, the Art Loss Register was endorsing …

Paul Barford has just drawn our attention to TimeLine Auctions, and especially to the small print of their terms and conditions. I have been looking at the small print myself, and more besides.

TimeLine Auctions holds regular auction sales of antiquities and ancient coins from around the world. Bidding can be done electronically on their own or associated websites, or in person on the day at their hall in London. They hold about four auctions a year, each of a few days duration. Most recently, 2,729 lots were auctioned over four days from 24 to 27 May.

The May auction included many small antiquities originally found in Iraq, Syria or a neighbouring country. As usual, it was not possible to make specific determinations, or to count how many were from Syria and how many were from Iraq. It seems obvious though that many of the objects offered in the category Western Asiatic Antiquities would have been found in one of those countries, and probably a good proportion too of those in Byzantine, Islamic, and even Roman, Greek and Christian. I took the time to look more closely at what is going on at TimeLine by tabulating information about lots offered in the Byzantine, Western Asiatic and Islamic categories (antiquities only, not coins).

Altogether in these three categories, 399 lots were offered and 191 lots (48%) were sold. Each lot could comprise one or more objects. The total sales revenue (including buyer’s premium) was £93,389, with a mean price of £489 per lot, a high price of £8,680 and a low price of £6. TimeLine charges a buyer’s premium of 24% and a seller’s commission of 18%, so that from the total of £93,389, the company would have taken £31,632. The breakdown by category is shown in the table below. Within individual categories, there was some variation. Thus within Western Asiatic, for example, 38 out of 47 (81%) cylinder seals sold, many of which must have been found in Iraq, though the equivalent figure for ceramic containers was only 2 out of 27 (7%).

Timeline table

Most lots were offered for auction with a provenance, though the ‘provenance’ rarely comprised more than a year or range of years, by which time the lot was said to have been in London, the UK, or wherever. Out of its country of origin at least. Most dates were from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The range is shown in the histogram below.

Timeline

Thus most of the lots offered for sale did not have a provenance date placing them outside their country of origin when laws were first passed vesting ownership of newly found antiquities in the state: 1963 in Syria and 1936 in Iraq. The dates do seem to place most lots outside their country of origin before the August 1990 date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which embargoed trade with Iraq, and which was recognized in the UK retrospectively by the June 2003 Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 (SI 2000/1519).

Sometimes a name was provided in the provenance description. Thus 25 lots were said to be from the ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’. The Rihani collection is actually quite a well-known provenance. The collection (if it was indeed a collection) belonged to Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian citizen resident in Amman who died in 2001. He is said to have maintained several storage facilities in London. The Jordanian export licence (in Arabic) authorizing his export of material is dated 19 September 1988, but the English translation is dated 12 October 1992. So the actual export of material to which the licence applies might have been in 1988, but seems more likely to have happened in or after 1992, when the English version would have been available for viewing by customs officers not able to read Arabic. In any event, the issuing date of an export licence is not the same thing as a date of export. So a provenance ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’ is not quite as secure as it sounds. It might hide material from Iraq, for example, smuggled out of Iraq after the August 1990 date of UNSCR 661, and imported into the UK sometime later.

There is a lot more to be said about the Rihani provenance. The export licence legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries. Lots 1515 to 1518 in the May sale, for example, were described as ‘Western Asiatic Tell Brak eye idols’, with a footnote explaining that ‘Hundreds of these figurines were found in a monumental building known as the ‘Eye Temple’ in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria’. Eye idols such as these are listed on the ICOM Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. When the TimeLine examples moved out of Syria and into Jordan is not stated. Almost certainly before the February 2015 imposition of trade controls by UNSCR 2199, but there is nothing to say that it was not after 1963, the date of the Syrian vesting legislation. Clearly, a Jordanian export licence does not and cannot legitimize their earlier export from Syria, no matter when that was.

TimeLine might not have seen the relevant export licence, but I have. It authorizes the export of 2000 ‘pottery utensils’ and 50 ‘various stone pieces’ as shown in ‘attached pictures’. The attached pictures have never been made public, assuming they actually existed, so it is not possible to compare objects now said to have been in the Rihani collection with those authorized for export. The descriptions themselves are vague. What comprises ‘pottery utensils’ and ‘stone pieces’? Would eye idols have been considered as ‘utensils’? Maybe. Maybe not. But what of other types of object? Of the lots offered with the Rihani provenance, 14 were cylinder seals, many most likely from Iraq. The licence makes no mention of cylinder seals. Perhaps cylinder seals were included among the 50 ‘various stone pieces’? In the May sale, two other stone pieces were sold with a Rihani provenance. In its 2015 auctions, TimeLine sold a further nine cylinder seals and five other stone objects with a Rihani provenance. So over the past couple of years, TimeLine has sold 30 stone objects with a Rihani provenance. That would be 30 out of the original 50 stone objects licensed for export, assuming of course that cylinder seals should be included in that number, an assumption I personally find hard to make. In September 2015, TimeLine sold two bronze figures with a Rihani provenance. There is no mention of bronze objects on the export licence. To me, the name Rihani is more of a red flag than a provenance, a provenance of convenience perhaps, signalling buyer beware. It seems equally clear, however, that buyers are not always aware of that fact, or at least do not share my opinion.

Moving on from Rihani, how reliable are all the other provenance dates offered? Can they be trusted? How diligent is TimeLine in verifying them? Paul Barford advises us to look closely at the small print. And well he might. TimeLine is not breaking any law that I am aware of, but its business model certainly leaves something to be desired. This is what the small print says:

The Buyer is obligated to make all and any enquiries he wishes as to the accuracy and authenticity of any sale description and the principle of caveat emptor applies except where expressly excluded by operation of law. TimeLine does not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.

So, in actual fact, are the provenance dates pretty meaningless? TimeLine offers no guarantee or duty of care as regards provenance. Caveat emptor it says. Buyer beware. (Though buyers are still expected to pay the 24% buyer’s premium). Does TimeLine simply repeat what a seller tells it without any attempt at independent verification? It certainly seems that way. So how can we we trust that everything said to be in circulation before 1990 really was in circulation? And yet despite TimeLine’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards provenance (and, let us note, authenticity), the buyers continue to buy. Why is that?

In uncertain markets of this kind, customers look for reassurance and support to the advice and approval of independent experts, or at least to the sign of expert advice and approval. That is why there are endorsement logos lined up at the bottom of the TimeLine homepage: the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) (!), something in blue I can’t make out that looks like the Harwich Port Authority (unlikely, I know), and the Art Loss Register (ALR).

It is surprising to find the ALR’s logo there. The ALR is probably the world’s leading private sector stolen art search and recovery organisation. It maintains a large database of stolen art, and will for a fee search its database to check an art object’s legitimacy prior to sale or purchase, issuing a certificate stating the result of the search. Antiquities are tricky for the ALR though. There is no prior photographic documentation of most stolen or illegally traded antiquities, so they are not likely to appear on the ALR’s database. The ALR is aware of that fact, and makes clear on its certificates that they do not constitute a clean bill of health. Fair enough. But something different is happening here. The ALR logo by itself, without any qualification or reservation, presents an unconditional seal of approval to all material being offered at auction. Lots offered with provenance dates that do not establish legal export from country of origin? OK for the ALR. A sketchy and perhaps non-existent policy of due diligence as regards provenance verification? OK for the ALR. In fact, what the ALR is actually endorsing is TimeLine’s principle and practice of caveat emptor. Is that really what the world leader in stolen art recovery wants to be doing? Surely its founding rationale was to help eradicate such business practices.

TimeLine is not forcing people to buy antiquities at auction. The customers are choosing to buy them. Presumably, many of the customers are well meaning, and given the right information would choose not to buy objects of uncertain and therefore dubious provenance. If TimeLine labelled every lot honestly and accurately as ‘provenance unknown to us but possibly tainted’, would they sell as well? Intentionally or not, the ALR’s endorsement of TimeLine with its small print warning of caveat emptor is helping create a sales context that frustrates customer participation in a more transparent and ethically compliant market. The ALR should either persuade TimeLine to up its game or else stop the endorsement.