Byzantine coins and the price of gold

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

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

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

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

Solidus advertised on Telegram in 2018

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

Fluctuating gold price (goldprice.org)

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

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

Reference

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

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.

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.

References

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.

Licensed for sale?

Phoenix Ancient Art is currently offering for sale two previously unpublished Palmyran funerary reliefs, one depicting a noblewoman and child (no. 6767), the other a woman with her mother (no. 19103). Each relief has the provenance ‘Ex-private collection, Lebanon, collected in the 1960’s’. Nothing is offered to verify this provenance, but if true it gives both pieces a clean bill of health as regards United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199, which prohibits the trade of cultural objects that left Syria after 15 March 2011. Questions of title might arise from the date of export from Syria, which established state ownership of cultural objects in October 1963, but that was a long time ago and presumably since then the ownership trails of the reliefs have been confounded by one or more good faith transactions so that now their private ownership is secure.

Unusually, for one piece, the noblewoman and child (no. 6767), Phoenix has made available pdfs of some relevant provenance documents. They comprise a UK export licence dated July 1997, a translation of the relief’s inscription dated July 2000, an Art Loss Register certificate dated December 2004, and an e-mail from UNESCO dated June 2015 confirming that sale of the relief would not be in contravention of UNSCR 2199. Thus the earliest verified date of the relief’s presence outside Syria is provided by the July 1997 UK export licence, and nothing is offered to support its presence in Lebanon in the 1960s. But leaving Lebanon to one side, the interesting thing about the documentation is what it tells us about the history of trafficking out of Syria and the failure of regulatory measures to exert any kind of control.

The July 1997 UK export licence was issued in compliance with Council Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 of 9 December 1992. But close inspection shows the licence to be a flimsy piece of evidence, as there is nothing to associate it definitively with the relief. The licence describes a ‘Palmyran stone bust of a woman 2nd century AD’, which may or may not be the noblewoman and child, and the descriptive fields provided for object identification have been left blank. Now I am not an expert in customs law, but is an incomplete licence a valid one? Not the fault of Phoenix of course, and in any case the other documents are enough to prove that the noblewoman and child was out of Syria before 2011. The licence does, however, call into question the rigour of the UK licensing authority (which back then was the Department of National Heritage, now Department of Culture, Media and Sport), and perhaps also raises questions about the UK’s concern to fulfil the material intention rather than simply satisfy the appearance of export control.

The presence of the two previously unknown reliefs on the market shows that Palmyra was suffering from theft and trafficking before the outbreak of conflict in 2011, maybe as long ago as the 1960s. The Phoenix reliefs are not alone. In December 2016, Swiss authorities announced the seizure of several objects in Geneva Freeport, including two Palmyra reliefs. The material was said to have reached Switzerland from Qatar sometime between 2009 and 2010. The Art Newspaper reported that a criminal investigation into their import had closed with no convictions. No information was revealed about the identities of the Swiss importer or Qatari exporter. (There is nothing to connect this case with Phoenix Ancient Art).

The provenance documents accompanying the noblewoman and child also throw disturbing light upon the utility of UNSCR 2199 – asking is it fit for purpose? UNSCR 2199 was passed on 12 February 2015, condemning ‘unambiguously the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria’, and prohibiting cross-border trade in objects removed from Syria since 15 March 2011 (the date generally recognised to have marked the start of the civil uprising in Syria that ultimately led to war). This threshold date of March 2011 ignores the fact that Syrian ownership of cultural objects found on its territory was established by its Legislative Decree #222 (the ‘Antiquities Law’) of 26 October 1963. It is anybody’s guess why UNSCR 2199 did not adopt that earlier 1963 date as the appropriate threshold for prohibition, but worries about the unsettling effect of retroactivity upon material already outside Syria and in private ownership cannot be the answer as the specified 2011 date is retroactive in itself. Whatever the reason, UNSCR 2199 cannot be called upon to control the trade of objects that left Syria before October 2011. More worrying is that UNSCR 2199 might actually be used to ‘launder’ objects taken out of Syria between 23 October 1963 and 15 March 2011 by creating the mistaken impression among market participants that such objects are legally in circulation, when in fact lawful ownership would depend upon transactional and jurisdictional histories and would probably need to be established on a case by case basis for each piece.

Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.

References

  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.

 

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:

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!

Public policy and the media

On his blog Gates of Nineveh, Christopher Jones has asked critically whether media coverage is encouraging archaeological looting in Syria. He concludes not. He argues convincingly that looting was well entrenched before increased media reporting through 2013 and particularly 2014.

Another question might involve the relationship between media coverage and the implementation of policy initiatives. To look at that question, I have adopted and extended Christopher’s methodology, collecting a dataset of articles from the first 60 pages of search results on Google News for keywords ‘archaeology looting Syria’ through to the end of 2015. The results are shown on the histogram. I have also indicated by means of red markers the dates of major policy actions. The actions are:

UntitledSeptember 2013: ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

December 2013: EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013.

March 2014: UNESCO/EU Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project.

August 2014: ASOR/US DoS Syria Cultural Heritage Initiative.

February 2015: United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199.

September 2015: ASOR/US DoS Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

It is clear that policy actions have become more frequent as media coverage has increased. To some extent, this must be because media reporting of policy actions increases the overall coverage. But there is also the possibility that policy is responding to media concerns rather than to what is actually happening on the ground. This is worrying because media reporting is known to be unreliable – biased by the commercial and political interests of proprietors, editors and other opinion formers. Fact checking is in short supply and there is a lot of secondhand reporting. Sam Hardy on his blog Conflict Antiquities has also spoken critically of this debilitating ‘churnalism’. If policy is reacting to the unreliable perspective of media reporting instead of to actual facts on the ground, we should not be surprised when it struggles to make any kind of impact. This short study cannot definitively prove that policy is media-driven, but it does suggest the possibility deserves more rigorous consideration.

 

 

A tale of two news reports

What can be learned from two recent news reports about looting in Syria?

On 12 January, Business Insider took a look at Daesh. The article was reporting second-hand on how Daesh makes millions of dollars from looting archaeological sites, money which it then uses to fund its ongoing campaign of terror. One day earlier, on 11 January, the Syrian DGAM had reported the presence of ‘terrorists and smuggling rings’ excavating illegally in Quneitra province. The ‘terrorists’ are almost certainly not members of Daesh as the area in question is under the control of non-jihadi opposition forces. One country, two stories. What are we to make of them?

There is the obvious question of bias. Both reports are selective in their coverage. That is not to say though that one or other of them is false. Let us assume they are both true. They simply confirm what Jesse Casana has already demonstrated by careful analysis of satellite imagery. While Daesh is the most aggressive looter of archaeological heritage, it is certainly not the only one. Thus policy initiatives that focus only on Daesh, such as the US Department of State’s offered reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting Daesh, are not likely to offer much in the way of long-term protection to archaeological heritage so long as the conflict continues. As Daesh is forced back, the traumatised communities of the liberated territories and their resurgent militias will continue to seek financial rewards from archaeological sites.

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.