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Could the antiquities trade do more to combat looting?

28 September 2015

From the October issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

As the destruction of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq continues, what can dealers of legal antiquities do to end the trade in illegally obtained artefacts, and the looting it encourages?

James Ede

International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and Chairman of Charles Ede Ltd

The greatest crisis facing world heritage is the destruction taking place in Syria and Iraq. The major causes of this are the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of war, and the demolition of monuments by religious fanatics. Looting comes a poor third, although headlines continue to suggest that the funding of Isis through the sale of illicitly excavated antiquities is the foremost problem. As the recent catastrophe at Palmyra shows, this is clearly not the case.

There is widespread speculation that tens of millions, even sometimes billions, of pounds’ worth of antiquities are entering the market from Syria. It has also been suggested that dealers have objects stolen to order, to pass on to shadowy Dr No-style collectors who care nothing for legality. No one has ever produced any evidence to back up such assertions. We have no doubt that there is a lot of clandestine excavation, but there is no proof to date of any significant material surfacing on the market. In any event, the licit market is small and the vast majority of antiquities have relatively modest value. Best estimates show that the global annual turnover for all classical and pre-classical antiquities is less than €200m a year. Objects from Syria make up probably less than 10 per cent of this total, of which illicit material might amount to €5–€10 million – a lot of money, but not by art-market standards, and not much money to ISIS.

None of this is reason for complacency. The trade has not always had a good record in dealing with smuggled material, often turning a blind eye to the origin of objects turning up out of the blue. The founding of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), in 1993, recognised this: one of its prime objectives was to change attitudes among dealers. Largely as a result of its efforts, things have improved dramatically.

We have worked closely with the UK Government to address these issues. We also acknowledge that some of this changed attitude has been driven by our critics. Yet they should in turn acknowledge that in recent years we have made huge strides. No association has a more stringent code of ethics; no other area of the art market now prizes provenance more than we do. The proof of this lies in the high price fetched at auction by those objects with fine, demonstrable, ownership history. But however robust our rules regarding due diligence, information is rarely forthcoming from source countries. Even close to home, the Becchina archive (a record of works sold by the dealer Gianfranco Becchina), for example, is jealously guarded by the Italian authorities.

So can we help to salvage something from the disaster in Syria? There is no doubt that illicit material is being squirrelled away. This material will surface on the open market sooner or later – it could be years from now. The help of the trade is going to be vital in confronting this problem.

The technology now exists to record objects cheaply. We suggest that UNESCO should support vulnerable museums and off-site storage facilities in photographing all their holdings. Once an object is recorded, the chances of recovery improve enormously. The same applies to archaeological sites above ground. This is of course no help in the case of clandestine excavation, but it is a start.

The vast majority of legally owned objects, which are mostly of minor importance, have no definitive proof of provenance – in common with most other antiques. The IADAA is working on a project to record objects that are on the market, in perpetuity. This will also make life much more difficult for those who deal illegally. The success of this project will rely on goodwill from all sides, in particular from those who currently do little other than throw brickbats at the trade. That will have to stop.

The licit antiquities trade has no interest in the illegal traffic in stolen antiquities. The preservation of ancient heritage is vital to us.  At its best, the trade is a positive force, devoting large resources to conservation and research. The earliest roots of archaeology start with collectors; the first museums were founded by collectors. It is the job of museums to collect and conserve for the benefit of the public. This is impossible without a trade.

Mark Altaweel

Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London

The debate between those who support a legal antiquities trade, and those who are entirely against it, is too often focused only on ethical considerations: is it acceptable to buy and sell a country’s cultural heritage? And are antiquities dealers simply encouraging looting from archaeological sites by creating a market for the objects obtained from such sites?

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, however, requires us to take an entirely different look at both the legal and illegal antiquities trades. In regions where antiquities have become a major source of revenue for parties involved in violence, I believe that the legal antiquities market should support the prohibition of sales of all objects that have come from areas of ongoing conflict, at any given time. I also believe that a ban like this should be supported by national and international legislation. Archaeologists around the world, who are familiar with the relevant conflict regions, should help enforce such a ban by contributing to the creation of a list of objects that can potentially be looted. This list should be provided to border officials everywhere.

Finally, the legal antiquities trade should follow the example of the diamond business and actively create a greater stigma in the trade of conflict (or ‘blood’) antiquities to further dent the trade in such items.

I recently visited dealers selling antiquities in London, to look at what kind of objects from Syria and Iraq, if any, were being sold. With ancient artefacts, particularly those from prehistoric periods and the Bronze Age (c. 5000–1200 BC), one can often tell if an object is likely to have come from either Syria or Iraq, as stylistic variations for some types of objects are more limited, or more heavily concentrated in specific regions. I  soon realised that many objects that date to these periods had likely come from the conflict regions.

When I asked dealers about objects that seemed to belong to this category, it became increasingly clear that it is extremely difficult to determine when many objects left their countries of origin. Some dealerships did suggest that objects may have been obtained recently. Soon, the possession of such objects will be illegal. This June, the UK Government announced that it would finally sign up to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, which prohibits dealing in artefacts that have been removed from conflict zones during the conflict. However, the documentation regarding the provenance of artefacts from these regions can be vague, and the details are hard to verify; these objects could have been obtained from the source countries many decades ago.

The problem with looking at the trading of antiquities as a purely ethical issue is that this does nothing to address far more sinister developments in the Near East.

There is a strong suspicion that multiple armed groups on all sides are using ancient artefacts to fund their enterprises. The trade in antiquities from the region, legal or not, and the existence of a market for such objects, therefore perpetuates conflicts and leads to more refugees and more deaths. In fact, we see the consequences of warfare in the Near East, close to home as Europe deals with its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. It is true that we have no accurate figures for the extent to which the market for looted antiquities is funding any armed groups, but videos, photographs, and satellite imagery of recently looted sites suggests that it must be sizeable.

So how does this scenario affect the legal trade in antiquities? Given the evident and potential risks in purchasing antiquities, we should end all trading in ancient artefacts which come from conflict regions, no matter when the objects were obtained. The legal antiquities market should acknowledge that it is involved in a trade that has global consequences. Experts from the region often cannot tell if antiquities were obtained legally; how should we expect border officials, police, and others to do so? If the legal antiquities market begins to support legislation, then at least we have a potential framework for stemming the flow of objects that perpetuate conflict.

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