New coins on the auction block (2): Arab-Byzantine gold

I have been looking at Arab-Byzantine gold coins. The term “Arab-Byzantine” is used to describe a series of gold and copper coin types issued in the former Byzantine territories of Syria after the Islamic conquests of the 630s but before the introduction of a properly Islamic coinage by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 696-697 AD. Although the terminology differs, three chronologically-successive coin types are recognised: (1) Pseudo-Byzantine (PB), (2) Umayyad Imperial Image (II), and (3) Standing Caliph. Most of the coins known today are copper, although some are gold. Gold coins are exceedingly rare and fetch correspondingly high prices when sold at auction.

Over the past 10 years, 12 previously unrecorded Pseudo-Byzantine and Imperial Image gold coins have appeared for auction. They are tabulated below. The prices are extraordinary, particularly for the Imperial Image coins. Arab-Byzantine gold coins were designed in imitation of contemporary Byzantine solidi, which typically sell at auction for prices under a thousand USD, orders of magnitude less than their Arab-Byzantine counterparts.

CoinAuction dateAuctionTypePrice (USD)
130 Nov 2010NGSA, 6, lot 285IINot known
225 Apr 2012Baldwin’s, Islamic 19, lot 7II177,283
226 Apr 2018Morton & Eden, 92, lot 12II184,406
322 Apr 2013Morton & Eden, 63, lot 6PB76,124
422 Apr 2013Morton & Eden, 63, lot 7PB60,899
59 May 2013Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 3999PB49,804
524 Nov 2014NGSA, 8, lot 226PBNot known
69 May 2013Baldwin’s, Islamic 24, lot 4000II249,019
710 Sep 2015Album, 23, lot 68PB50,000
810 Jan 2017CNG, Triton XX, lot 1137PB42,500
822 Oct 2020Morton & Eden, 107, lot 1PBNot sold
914 Jan 2018Baldwin’s, New York 14, lot 21PB95,000
108 Jan 2019CNG, Triton XXII, lot 1226PB110,000
118 Jan 2019NYS, XLV, lot 314PB65,000
1218 Nov 2019NGSA, 12, lot 158PB50,461

Provenance information is scant. The catalogue entries for the second sale of coins offered twice usually reference the first sale, but nothing before that. The catalogue description for the Imperial Image coin sold by NGSA in November 2010 states that it was the first such coin to appear for auction in 24 years, confirming the rarity of Imperial Image coins and explaining the high price achieved by the NGSA coin and two similar ones in 2012 and 2013. So, no coins for 24 years, and then 3 in a space of 4 years with nothing said about provenance. The two Pseudo-Byzantine coins sold in the Baldwin’s May 2013 Islamic Auction were said to be from the Horus Collection, “formed over the past 35 years”, but nothing more. Perhaps the coins had been acquired decades ago, or perhaps only months before the sale. There is no way of knowing. In January 2000, the Imperial Image coin sold as lot 4000 at the May 2013 Baldwin’s sale was exhibited in Abu Dhabi as part of a large private collection of Islamic coins.

Imperial Image coin

Arab-Byzantine gold coins are generally considered to have circulated in the area of what is today Syria and the immediately adjacent territories of neighbouring countries. None of the coins sold since 2010 has a recorded find spot, and for Arab-Byzantine gold coins generally only one has any kind of information about where it was found. It is a Pseudo-Byzantine coin acquired by Paul Bedoukian in 1965 as part of the “Daphne” hoard of Byzantine gold solidi said to have been found 5 km from Antakya (ancient Antioch) in what is today the southern extremity of Turkey (Miles 1967: 208; Metcalf 1980). This hoard was acquired on the market, however, so its integrity and locational information are inherently unreliable.

Let us remember what was happening in Syria while these unprovenanced coins were being sold. Heavy looting of archaeological sites started being reported in 2012 after the onset of civil conflict in 2011, with some of the proceeds going to support armed groups. By late 2015 at the latest, it was widely known that there was an illegal trade in ancient coins out of Syria and that it was an important source of revenue for Salafist-jihadist groups such as Da’esh. Thus, the provenance of any coin seemingly fresh to the market after 2011 should have been open to serious scrutiny before being offered for sale. Perhaps the coins were all researched, but if they were it is a shame that nothing was ever published. So, just where exactly did these new coins originate? A collector’s coin cabinet in Switzerland or a looter’s hole in the ground in Syria? Again, there is no way of knowing. But the fact that the coins did sell without any satisfactory account of provenance suggests that the buyers just didn’t care, which is disconcerting.

Provenance aside, the auction prices offer some important insights into the potential profitability of the coin trade for Da’esh and other armed non-state actors. Let us imagine a hypothetical Arab-Byzantine coin found late 2015 by looters in Syria and worth something like 100,000 USD on the European market. The looters might not recognise the coin for what it is, but the local dealer most probably would and be aware of its potential value. Say the local dealer manages to sell it for 25,000 USD and then pays 20 per cent tax on the transaction to Da’esh. That would be 5,000 USD for a single coin. If the dealer manages to sell it for more, the tax take would increase accordingly. A few more similar coins and the numbers start to add up …

References

Metcalf, William E. 1980. Three seventh-century Byzantine gold hoards, Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society) 25: 87-108.

Miles, George C. 1967. The earliest Arab gold coinage, Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society) 13: 205-229.

New coins on the auction block

In 2014, a previously unknown type of Byzantine hexagram appeared on the market. Hexagrams are silver coins introduced in 615 AD by the emperor Heraclius and continued to be struck through into the 680s towards the end of the reign of his great-grandson Constantine IV (668-685) (Grierson 1999: 13). Dating to the reign of Constans II (641-668), these newly recognised hexagrams carry a bust of Constans II on the obverse and three standing figures of his sons Tiberius, Constantine IV and Heraclius on the reverse. By the end of 2015, six examples had appeared, which could be divided stylistically into fine and crude groups (Woods 2015). No new examples have appeared since then. The six known examples are listed on the Sixbid Coin Collector’s Archive:

 Auction dateAuctionPrice (EUR)
121 October 2014
5 April 2015
Nomos, Auction 9, lot 320
Pecunem, Auction 30, lot 610
Not sold
4250
210 December 2014Rauch, Auction 96, lot 6473500
39 March 2015Gorny, Auction 228, lot 7563800
413 March 2015
27 June 2015
Kunker, Auction 262, lot 8474
Roma, E-sale 18, lot 1210
Not sold
4212
522 March 2015Roma, Auction IX, lot 9056892
627 September 2015Roma, Auction X, lot 9316532

The description provided for the first one of these coins to be offered for sale in October 2014 at Nomos stated that it was “Of the greatest rarity, one of apparently two known examples, and unpublished” and that it was “uncleaned as found”. Two months later in December 2014, Rauch stated the coin it was offering was the third known copy. And so it went on:

Roma, 22 March 2015: “The fourth known example of this interesting type”.

Roma, 27 June 2015: “The fifth known example of this interesting type”.

Roma, 27 September 2015: “the sixth and finest known example of the type”.

The coin sold at the March 2015 Roma sale was bought by Dumbarton Oaks (BZC.2015.003). On its website, it describes the coin as the “Fourth specimen known of this type, which is missing from reference books”.

Dumbarton Oaks BZC.2015.003

It has been argued that because the coins all appeared on the market at the same time they may have come from a single hoard (Woods 2015: 174, note 10). Although no hexagrams of this type are known to have been found in modern-day Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries, historical sources support the further argument that they were in circulation there (Woods 2015: 180). Thus in all probability they were found there.

Clearly, the buyers and sellers were all aware that the coins were new to the market. Their descriptions said as much. Whether or not they suspected a Syrian origin is not possible to say, but they should have done. Let’s remember what was happening back then. In September 2013, ICOM released its Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, which highlighted Achaemenid to Ottoman period coins. On 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, head of the Da’esh Diwan al Rikaz (Ministry of Natural Resources and Minerals, including its Antiquities Division), where they recovered ancient coins from Syria and Iraq and there were electronic images of more gold coins and jewellery on his computer. In November 2015, Yaya J. Fanusie and Alexander Joffe published a report on Daesh’s antiquities trafficking, claiming that “Coins and other metal objects have emerged as particularly attractive items for IS”. So, by late 2015 at the very latest, it was widely known that there was an illegal trade in ancient coins out of Syria and that it was an important source of revenue for Salafist-jihadist groups such as Da’esh. And legislators were paying attention. In December 2013, European Union (EU) Council Regulation no. 1332/2013 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects illegally removed from Syria on or after 9 May 2011. In February 2015, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects removed illegally from Syria after 15 March 2011.

If as numismatic opinion suggests these new coins really were found in Syria, what were they doing being sold in Europe in apparent contravention of EU Regulation no. 1332/2013? Did anybody report the coins to the police? It appears not. When faced with unevidenced claims that unprovenanced antiquities are illicit in some way, dealers are always quick to claim they must be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is a good sound bite, but unfortunately very far from the mark. They would have us believe that the legitimacy of an unprovenanced antiquity is subject to the same burden of proof as the guilt of a person. But it is not. Civil disputes over ownership are decided on the balance of probabilities, not upon demonstration of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Applying this standard, the appearance of a small hoard of previously unattested silver coins of a type known to have been circulating in Syria or its neighbouring countries at a time when there was also known to be active large scale looting and trafficking of ancient coins out of Syria might suggest, on balance, that the coins really were from Syria. Not that this probable conclusion concerned their buyers and sellers.

Mind you, they might have good reason for their apparent unconcern. EU Regulation 1332/2013 states that it applies to “Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI”. Unfortunately, Annex XI does not specifically list ancient coins, except as category 13(b) “Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. But close inspection of Annex XI reveals the listing to be problematical. Category 13, based upon Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) 9705.00 lists:

13(a) Collections and specimens from zoological, botanical, mineralogical or anatomical collections;

13(b) Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest.

The same listings appear as Category 13 in Annex 1 of the 2008 EU Council Regulation no. 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods. So, while Category 13(a) of these annexes includes “collections and specimens”, Category 13(b) includes only “collections”. These definitions are at variance with the WCO listings of 9705.00, which include “Collections and collectors’ pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. As the WCO developed the list, it is presumably the authoritative version. Thus, while the WCO explicitly includes “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”, the EC Regulations don’t. It might be a drafting error. But it might also lead reasonable people to believe that the omission is deliberate, and that neither Regulation 1332/2013 nor Regulation 116/2009 is intended to apply to “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”. In other words, the trade of individual coins is not subject to legal control.

Or maybe it is. In both Regulations, the term “collections” in Category 13(b) is qualified by the following footnote:

As defined by the Court of Justice in its judgment in Case 252/84 as follows: “Collectors’ pieces within the meaning of heading No 97.05 of the Common Customs Tariff are articles which possess the requisite characteristics for inclusion in a collection, that is to say, articles which are relatively rare, are not normally used for their original purpose, are the subject of special transactions outside the normal trade in similar utility articles and are of high value”.

In defining “collectors’ pieces”, the footnote implies that Category 13(b) should indeed include “collectors’ pieces”, so perhaps their omission is more by accident than by design. But the footnote raises further unfortunate ambiguities. What exactly does it mean by “relatively rare” and “high value”? Neither Regulation offers any guidance. The hexagrams are obviously rare. There are only six of them known. But what about value? The Sixbid Archive registers 182 Byzantine hexagrams sold between 2011 and 2019 for 61,888 EUR in total at an average (mean) price of 340 EUR and a median price of 181 EUR. The cheapest was 45 EUR and the most expensive was 3,752 EUR. So, for a hexagram, the new type might be considered high value, though not when compared to other coins, contemporary gold solidi, for example. And the prices achieved at auction in Europe would be higher than those declared on import documents. But more guidance is offered by the March 2019 EU Regulation 2019/880 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods. This Regulation establishes in its Annex that it applies to “antiquities, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals”, but seemingly judging rarity by value, it applies only to objects valued at more than 18,000 EUR. That is a far higher price than anything achieved by these new (or any) hexagrams.

So, the import and trade of these previously unknown Constans II hexagrams would appear to be in accord with the letter if not the spirit of the law. They were probably found in Syria, but possibly not. Their trade may be subject to legal control, but almost certainly not. If the purpose of regulatory instruments is to control illicit trade, they need to be much clearer about just what it is exactly they are trying to control. The law needs tightening, to say the least. And in the absence of legal clarity, there is no point trying to raise awareness about the harmful consequences of the trade in ancient coins, and particularly coins from Syria where evidence suggests that the trade is profiting Salafist-jihadist groups. There is no point either in making appeals for more ethical business practices when the perception will be that the appeals are asking legitimate businesses to go above and beyond what is strictly required of them by law. With profits at stake, that will not happen.

References

Grierson, Philip, 1999. Byzantine Coinage. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Woods, David, 2015. Muʽāwiyah, Constans II and coins without crosses, Israel Numismatic Research 10: 169-182.

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.