Samuel Andrew Hardy: archaeomafias traffic antiquities as well as drugs

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Samuel Andrew Hardy
29 March 2016

Cultural heritage is under threat around the world and antiquities trafficking encompasses organised crime and conflict financing. “There is a market for every commodity and a venue for every market, including archaeological human remains”, Samuel Andrew Hardy says, adding that “most antiquities trading is now online trading”. He draws our attention to the critical need of supply chain due diligence and market transparency.

Samuel Andrew Hardy participates at a round table on the art market and the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, held at UNESCO Headquarters on 30 March 2016. 

Cultural property criminals loot antiquities from archaeological sites and ancient monuments, as they have from 80% or 90% of sites in Mali; 80% of sites in Bulgaria; and, at least in some regions, 90% of sites in Turkey. Looters target cultural heritage that is underwater as well as underground. Plunder of underwater cultural heritage is a serious problem from the Baltic Sea, to the Indian Ocean, to the South China Sea, but it is exceptionally difficult to identify and prosecute.

Thieves steal architecture from historic buildings and artefacts from excavation stores, galleries, libraries, archives, museums or collections elsewhere. Such theft tends to be a sporadic problem, which is easy to downplay, but the Congolese civil wars of 1997-2003 left many museums ‘nearly empty’.    

Where is targeted?

There are now more than 47,000 records in Interpol’s database of stolen works of art, according to which, nearly 74% of them were stolen in Europe, more than 3% in the region of Asia-Pacific, and less that 1% in Sub-Saharan Africa. These statistics reflect exceptional under-documentation in countries with low capacity, as well as “standard” under-documentation by countries with high capacity. They do not account for the vast number of undocumented antiquities, such as those that have been looted from tombs in China. Yet archaeology professors Wei Zheng and Lei Xingshan believe that looting has wrecked perhaps 90% or 95% of those tombs.

Furthermore, Interpol’s statistics do not reflect the pre-crisis trade in antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, let alone the trend of trafficking, which has been ‘increasing’ through the crisis

It is also possible to measure the level of cultural property crimes by the number of cases in which illegally-exported antiquities have been repatriated. Between 2006 and 2015, over 80% of the objects were repatriated to Europe; almost 10% to the Middle East and North Africa; 3.85% to Asia Pacific; and 0.14% to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Due to one great success in recovering coins from Bulgaria, these numbers may be misleading, though they certainly reflect the exceptional success of the Carabinieri in Italy.

What is targeted?

According to Data Processing Unit Commander Captain Luigi Spadari (2015), between 1970 and 2014, Italy’s Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage recovered 1,826,289 cultural goods that had been looted or stolen. Among them, 1,087,411 were archaeological objects.

Katherine Kiel and Katharine Tedesco’s (Stealing History, 2011) statistical analyses of Sotheby’s auctions since 2001 demonstrate that the market values Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities more highly than other ancient societies’ cultural goods. Sculpture is worth more than mosaics and jewellery, which are worth more than ceramics. According to numismatist Nathan Elkins’ calculations, each year, more than a million ancient coins are sold through eBay USA alone; they are ‘fundamental and lucrative’ for the trade.

Nonetheless, there is a market for every commodity and a venue for every market, including archaeological human remains. Bioarchaeologist Damien Huffer and digital archaeologist Shawn Graham have identified ‘a whole community of buyers and sellers' of remains on the social media platform Instagram, who operate so freely that they publicly list their full names, phone numbers and online (eBay) trading account details; there were 9,517 posts about the trade on Instagram in December 2015 alone.

How do looters and thieves operate?

“Subsistence digging”, to survive and access basic goods, has been documented in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Beyond that, there is poverty-driven digging, by individuals and teams of looters, who may have metal detectors and even bulldozers, yet who lack protective equipment and safe working practices.

Profit-driven looters and thieves may operate as entrepreneurs, individually or within cooperative yet competitive groups, like some metal detectorists in the Czech Republic. Such looters commonly have local knowledge, official records or an amateur understanding of sites and landscapes, which they apply in places that are poorly monitored or to acquire objects that are poorly regulated; they target anywhere from prehistoric villages to modern battlefields. Even thieves who sell stolen goods by weight, because they do not know the value of the objects that they sell, may supply traffickers who serve the international market for antiquities from, for instance, India.

At any level, in Honduras, the UK, Sweden, Belarus, Iraq or across the Sahara that spans the Western Sahara in Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Egypt and Sudan, profit-driven looters and thieves use academic publications, state registers, popular publications and satellite-based navigation systems to target archaeological sites.

More structured networks, like some gangs in the Republic of Ireland, display greater investment and organisation in their activity. Eamonn Kelly explained in 1993 that, there, looters went overseas to secretly learn how to dive, so that they could plunder underwater sites; they even used rope grids, to increase the thoroughness of their plunder. And they blackmailed and threatened those who interfered with their business.

Furthermore, there are criminal enterprises that rival legitimate transnational businesses in their complexity, capacity and profitability. At least 175 traffickers formed ten interconnected, hi-tech gangs in China. Each specialised in one trafficking process, from excavation to sale. They were caught with 1,168 antiquities, which were worth ¥500 million or $80 million (Beijing Times, 2015).


Beijing police officers exam stolen relics in December 2013. Photo: CFP

Such operations can also take a far greater share of the profits than the 1% or 2% that looters and source-end dealers normally get. One of the gangs’ archaeologists embezzled a jade coiled pig dragon from an excavation, sold it through an intermediary to a private collector for ¥3,200,000 (US$515,840) and took 67% of the price (New York Times, 2015)

Main routes and destinations

The main destination countries are fundamentally the most economically powerful countries. According to the TEFAF Art Market Report 2015, 83% of the wealth in the market was exchanged in the USA (39%), China (22%) and the UK (22%). The commodities, the sellers and the buyers may be from – and indeed may be – elsewhere.

It is also possible to identify significant transit countries: Pakistan and the post-Soviet states for material from Central and South Asia, Turkey for material from West Asia and North Africa, Lebanon for material from West Asia, and Belgium for material from West Africa. However, routes do not reflect the anti-trafficking efforts of transit countries such as Lebanon and Turkey.

Routes also expand, contract and change with circumstances. The disorder in Egypt has facilitated organised trafficking of antiquities that have been looted during the chaos in Libya.

Trafficking structures, trafficking routes and collecting countries may develop for historical, cultural, social and geographical as well as economic reasons. Orthodox Christian icons are stolen from churches in Bulgaria to supply the regional market in Greece as well as the global market in Western Europe and North America. Markets’ supply chains can be very long. Coins from Bulgaria tend to flow from looters, through source-end dealers, to local numismatic exchanges, to local collectors and/or the regional market; and from the regional market, through organised criminal networks, to the international market in Western Europe and North America. Such supply chains can also be very short. In 1992, a Luvale mask was offered for auction at the Mon Stayaert Gallery in Belgium ‘weeks’ after it had been stolen from the Livingstone Museum in Zambia.

Whether from West Africa through North Africa or from West Asia through South-Eastern Europe, cultural property trafficking is being conducted along routes of human trafficking and people smuggling.

Online trafficking

Illicit cultural property is still sold through newspaper adverts, flea markets, antique shops and auction houses from Germany to Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is also sold through national, regional and international online platforms such as eBay. Between 2007 and 2012, the National Heritage Board of Poland identified 3,000 ‘suspicious auctions’ through one Polish-language platform. Yet, as Emily Fay calculated, eBay UK and eBay US alone handle more than 600,000 listings for antiquities auctions every year.

Online trafficking greatly eases direct transactions between thieves and collectors. Around the world, looters sell online to market-end dealers and collectors. Still, since the colonial era, illicit dealers have moved countries in order to maintain their existing businesses or to increase their share of the profits. Just as around 30-50 illicit dealers from Bulgaria have opened antique shops in the UK and the USA, so an illicit dealer in Turkey is currently planning to move to a market country in the West.

Often little, if any, documentation is provided in the ostensibly legal trade, so it is easy for illicit antiquities to penetrate the market. There can be a 100% increase in the value of objects with the ‘very best provenance’. Nonetheless, Katharyn Hanson (2011) has shown, Mesopotamian antiquities that are sold online with any paperwork achieve a 74% increase.

Organised crime

While much looting and trafficking is conducted by entrepreneurs and networks, a significant amount benefits profit-driven gangs and politically-motivated armed groups. Even state-organised, transnational trafficking to supply the private antiquities market has existed for more than a century.

There is no regular connection between the trafficking of antiquities and the trafficking of other commodities. Still, France is currently prosecuting an online dealer who was caught trafficking antiquities, ivory and (the preserved bodies of) endangered wildlife from Africa to Europe. From Nigeria to Bulgaria to Turkey to Burma/Myanmar, there are “archaeomafias” that traffic antiquities as well as drugs. Those gangs sometimes follow the same routes as people smugglers and use antiquities along those routes to launder money.

Europol believes that online trafficking of cultural goods by organised criminals is a ‘marginal phenomenon’. However, much if not most antiquities trading is now online trading, including by armed groups in Syria’s civil war. There is evidence of looting-to-order and other private online trading with encrypted communications and currencies. Europol’s opinion necessarily reflects the limited research into organised cultural property crime worldwide, not necessarily the limited extent of organised cultural property crime online.

Fake provenance documentation 

There are forms of false provenance, which are a joke amongst looters and collectors as well as cultural heritage professionals, but which are still used, such as the “grandfather clause” that an object was inherited from a dead relative or bought from the collection of an “anonymous gentleman” before unscientific excavation or unlicensed export was criminalised in the country of origin.

Dealers and collectors can simply ‘obscure’ suspect collecting histories by withholding evidence. However, criminals can also physically produce all sorts of fake provenance documentation, from falsely reassuring labels, which attribute objects to certain cultures or guarantee authenticity but do not guarantee legality, to false declarations on customs documents.

Indeed, Subhash Kapoor’s antiquities trading empire, which had more than 110 million dollars’ worth of assets when it was interrupted in 2011, was dependent upon false documentation that was ‘not terribly sophisticated’. Kapoor either instructed his employees to supply ‘false documents through false letter heads and forging false signatures’, which attributed objects to members of his family or collectors who were unknown or uncontactable, or he elicited false declarations in handwritten notes from acquaintances (read more). 

In 2008, Hassan Fazeli Trading LLC exported a limestone head of Assyrian king Sargon II from the United Arab 

Emirates (UAE) to the United States of America (USA). It was from Iraq and worth $1,200,000. In order to circumvent the ban on trading in undocumented antiquities from Iraq, Fazeli declared that the object was from Turkey and worth $6,500 (read more).

Since the USA identified the declaration as false, it seized the object and eventually repatriated it in 2015. However, it should be noted that Turkey has had strict export laws since its foundation in 1923; indeed, it inherited strict export laws that had been in place across the Ottoman Empire since 1869. Hence, if the head had been from Turkey, its unlicensed export would have been illegal.

In 2011, Fazeli exported a statue of Persephone from Libya through the UAE to the UK, where it was held under bond by Connoisseur International, until it was found by Customs in 2013. Amongst confusing and contradictory statements about the collecting history by Hassan Fazeli, Riad Al Qassas and Farhan Yaghi, the statue was alleged to be 100 years old, worth £60,000-£75,000 and from Turkey. In fact, it was more than 2,000 years old, was worth $1,500,000-£2,000,000 and was from Libya.

As archaeologists testified, it had obviously been looted from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cyrene; it still had a coating of soil. The statue was repatriated, but no party was prosecuted. Again, the statue was seized due to the false declaration, but if it had been from Turkey, its unlicensed export would have been illegal.

That case emerged from the case of a Kudurru, which had been exported from the UAE to the UK by Fazeli in 2012. It was alleged to be worth $330 and, yet again, from Turkey. It was worth $70,000-$140,000 and from Iraq. When Customs checked the trading history, they identified other suspect goods, including the statue of Persephone from Libya.

Still, there are examples of model behaviour. In 2013, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, inherited a Nok figurine that had been bought from the owner of Galerie Walu in Switzerland; it was accompanied by a waiver of ownership from the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in Nigeria. When provenance curator Victoria Reed doubted the documentation, the NCMM confirmed that the waiver had been forged and that the figurine had been stolen from Oron Museum. The MFA returned that figurine and other antiquities to Nigeria in 2014 (read more).

Self-regulation does not work

It is possible to warn potential buyers of the risk of being defrauded, within the public displays and media campaigns that educate them about national and international cultural property law. Nonetheless, it is evident that the best-informed, most-exposed buyers regularly and persistently ignore professional ethics and obstruct independent assessment. Ultimately, “autoregulation” and self-regulation do not work.

The international market for Egyptian antiquities is a telling example. Within a larger criminal network, UK-based restorer Jonathan Tokeley-Parry disguised Egyptian antiquities as touristic souvenirs, to facilitate their transport; and he forged documentation from the non-existent Thomas Alcock collection, to facilitate their sale by USA-based Frederick Schultz. When Tokeley-Parry was convicted of dishonest handling of antiquities and Schultz was convicted of conspiring to receive, possess and sell stolen property, it was alleged that the convictions would ‘blight’ the trade and ‘threat[en] the viability’ of the market. 

Yet sales of Egyptian antiquities at Sotheby’s New York auction house actually increased after Tokeley-Parry’s conviction in 1997, and the American market for Egyptian antiquities increased greatly through the global economic crisis and even through the total crisis since the Arab Spring.

They are measured first in the value of Sotheby’s New York sales between 1998 and 2010 (read: Egyptian antiquities on the market) and second in the value of imports of artworks, antiques and archaeological objects from Egypt to the USA between 2011 and 2013. These increases were sustained despite the evidence of massive looting in Egypt, the predominant lack of secure collecting histories for the objects that were auctioned in the USA, and the instructive lessons of simultaneous repatriations of illicit antiquities from the USA to Egypt.

Effective legislation and effective law enforcement are necessary, but supply chain due diligence and market transparency are critical.

Samuel Andrew Hardy

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Dr. S. A. Hardy (UK) from the American University of Rome, is Research Associate at the University College London. He specialized in the trade in illicit antiquities and the destruction of community and cultural property.

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