Zombie Statistics and the Antiquities Dealers’ Association

BBC World Service, Business Daily: February 20: This 20-minute radio programme was prompted by a complaint from the Antiquities Dealers’ Association about a previous programme aired in September regarding illicit antiquities. It took three months before the BBC finally admitted bias and the failure to speak to the trade while giving prominence to a number of allegations that were unsubstantiated.

Having admitted the failure, the BBC did its utmost to redress the balance, even widening the debate on how what it refers to as Zombie Statistics are being used to drive propaganda across many fields of interest, including the antiquities debate.

ADA and IADAA adviser Ivan Macquisten is interviewed early on in the programme explaining how the failure to check sources for claims has led to an ingrained culture of disseminating fake news and this is affecting policy. This is aggravated by the fact that those to blame are sometimes influential international bodies whose standing lends unjustified authority to these statistics. These include UNESCO and Interpol, as he explains. The response from UNESCO’s Director for Culture and Emergencies, when challenged over the organisation’s use of zombie statistics to back its campaigns for greater restrictions is not to defend the statistics, but to argue that they don’t matter. As British statistics guru Dr Tim Harford counters, however, what also happens is that you often get ‘policy-based evidence’, where a body decides what it wants to do and then looks for the evidence to back it up. “If you think right is on your side, then you’re not going to be too careful in scrutinising claims that fit in with your preconceptions,” he says. “This is confirmation bias.”

Harford disagrees with the UNESCO official, arguing that it is important to take statistics seriously because they are essential for understanding the world. “If people start treating them in a very cavalier way, that spoils it for everybody, because then people start not trusting statistics.”

Latest World Customs Organisation report exposes the lies and propaganda peddled over illicit trade in antiquities

The World Customs Organisation published its latest report into illicit trade in December.

The size of any problem can be assessed under four variables: the number of cases, the number of seizures, the volume of seized material and the value of that material. As the ADA and IADAA have always argued, by any of these variables, Cultural Heritage – of which Antiquities form only a part – barely registers as a problem area among the risk categories listed.

IADAA has conducted its own potted analysis of the 205-page WCO report as a user-friendly guide to the findings, which includes a direct link to the original report for verification purposes.

As the analysis and the original report show, at one end of the scale Drugs-related cases make up 47.7% of global trafficking; at the other, Cultural Heritage represents 0.2%. Likewise, when it comes to the number of seizures, Drugs accounts for 42.8%, while Cultural Heritage covers 0.2%. The next smallest category in each of these measures is Environmental Products, which accounts for 2.7% and 2.3% respectively. Even these figures are, respectively, 16 times and 14 times larger than the Cultural Heritage measures.

All of the above also needs to be taken in the context of a more proficient international Customs operation that is better able to cope with Cultural Heritage than ever before, according to the WCO, with twice as many countries submitting data as the previous year (25 compared with 13). Despite this, the number of cases has slightly fallen, while the number of seizures has only risen from 158 to 167. Compare that to over 40,000 cases and over 43,000 seizures involving Drugs.

 

Comparative values

An exact assessment of values is not possible because the information is simply not available – although the report estimates the global illicit trade in Environmental Products to be worth between $91 billion and $250 billion. What is clear, however, is that, Cultural Heritage aside, the value of material seized in every other category must be worth at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars if not more.

When it comes to Cultural Heritage, although the number of cases has fallen and the number of seizures has only risen slightly, the number of items seized has increased from 9,931 to 14,754. These include all types of items across the range of categories covered by Cultural Heritage, from books & manuscripts and paintings to household items, jewellery, weapons, engravings and lithographs, as well as film and sound archives, the last of which makes up a very large number of items seized (3,169, according to the WCO report).

Antiquities make up 8725 items, a rise from 8005 in 2016.

It is reasonable to assume that the WCO will include images of its most important seizures in the report. If so, then the quality of what has been seized is generally very low grade indeed. Bizarrely, they include a haul of long playing records seized in transit from the Netherlands to Turkey. As it is not illegal to export LPs from the Netherlands, it is not clear why they were seized.

The overwhelming majority of Antiquities items pictured are broken potsherds and coins – items that would not be covered by the UNESCO Convention.

As the IADAA analysis points out: “The only items of significant value pictured in the report have nothing to do with customs work, nor were they seized, but voluntarily returned when their owners/holders discovered that they might be tainted, so it is misleading for them to have been included”.

In summary, although this is not a scientific assessment, if the images used to illustrate the quality of antiquities seizures in the WCO report are anything to go by, a generous over-estimate of the value of items seized would be around $500,000. To put that in context, that is around 0.001% of the value of the next smallest category at most.

 

How Interpol are adding to the problem

If Customs are much more efficient and twice the number of countries – from all regions – are submitting data, where is the massive haul of cases and seizures one should expect if Cultural Heritage trafficking is the problem that anti-trade campaigners, politicians and others would have it? As the WCO itself concluded in its 2016 report: “As Customs officers become increasingly proficient in seizing both large and small shipments of cultural objects, the data can suggest that illicit trade is on the rise when, in reality, levels of trafficking may be holding constant or even decreasing.”

This also gives the lie to Interpol’s claim (as published on its Works of Art Crime home page) that “The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods” – a claim it confusingly contradicts on the FAQs accessed via the same page. This is important because the European Commission and Parliament, among others, have used this headline claim by Interpol as evidence justifying the introduction of stringent new import licensing regulations in the EU.

IADAA was able to demonstrate during the consultation and negotiations over the import licensing proposals that even the European Commission’s own researches failed to find any problem at all, yet it insisted on pressing ahead with unnecessary and damaging legislation.

This summary analysis is being forwarded to those conducting the follow-up study commissioned by the European Commission after it expressed doubts about its original research. Hopefully these WCO statistics and other findings will make a difference.

The ADA makes final call over EU import licensing proposals

The ADA has been working closely with IADAA to contribute important last-minute contributions to the Trilogue negotiations in Brussels on the import licensing issue.

The talks must settle on a proposal that compromises between proposals and amendments from the European Commission, Council of the European Union and committees within the European Parliament.

We still have significant concerns over compromise amendments being put forward for the final vote and so have joined with IADAA, CINOA and the European art Market Coalition (EAMC) to present a series of comments and objections for the art market to the office of Daniel Dalton MEP, rapporteur of the proposals, at his request, for consideration.

Key areas of concern included potential human rights breaches occasioned by proposals to restrict how owners may keep antiquities; further rights breaches based on proposals to reverse the burden of proof in showing an item to be untainted; inconsistencies with the application of the UNESCO Convention; value thresholds for qualifying works; delays in processing of licence applications and importer statements; and concerns over possible enforcement prior to a compulsory electronic system being fully operational.

A number of important questions remain on top of this, such as who will provide the necessary expertise for customs and how valuations will be conducted and confirmed. At present, the proposals are so complex and confusing that in places they contradict each other, which will not aid compliance. We have asked for any final proposals to be made simple, clear and user-friendly.

New twist to Swiss saga over Aboutaam property

According to Le Temps, the Geneva Public Ministry has ordered the escrow to be lifted from nearly 5,000 antiques belonging to art dealer Ali Aboutaam. Almost all of the objects, suspected of illicit provenance, had been seized last year. A further 6,000 objects remain in custody.

The saga began in 2015, when the Public Ministry seized three sarcophagi. The courts have now decided to return two, while the third was the subject of an appeal by Aboutaam to the Federal Court. However, he withdrew the appeal after his wife was released from custody after 15 days, having been arrested on suspicion of criminal activity following her removal of artworks from one place of storage to another, the paper reports. The third sarcophagus will now be returned to Turkey.

The authorities suspect Aboutaam of holding art looted in Syria and Iraq, charges the dealer has always fiercely denied.

The saga took a bizarre turn in May, when 23 seized objects with a market value of around 4 million Swiss francs were stolen from the custody of the prosecution authorities. They remain at large.

Aboutaam’s lawyer, Didier Bottge, has been highly critical of the authorities for seizing the objects without being able to show illicit provenance. He added that among the seized items were coins whose existence and presence in Switzerland was clearly documented in anticipation of the entry into force of the Law on the Transfer of Cultural Property (LTBC) in 2005.

Despite the objects being inventoried by a bailiff, the public prosecutor has cautioned that this does not prove they are legally held by Aboutaam. The prosecutor would not comment on whether the release of the 5,000 items was an admission by the state that they were above suspicion.

The release may, in part, have been prompted by legal action from a Colorado couple whose 18 Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities were among the seized items. They had consigned them to Aboutam for sale. Suing the Swiss government, the couple claimed that, “neither the Federal Office of Culture nor the Federal Customs Administration has invoked an appropriate legal basis for the seizure of their property”, and they claimed compensation of $24 million. Despite this, their possessions are not among the 5,000 released items.

As a postscript, it has emerged that in their eagerness to seize the objects, the authorities also seized a terracotta sculpture of an animal that they listed as a Mesopotamian object… until it was released a few weeks later, having been identified as the creation of Aboutaam’s 11-year-old daughter, labelled “With love, for Daddy”.

WCO report reveals the true picture about antiquities trafficking

For some time now, anti-trade campaigners, NGOs, politicians and even international law enforcement agencies have stated that trafficked antiquities are the third largest source of terrorist financing after trafficked drugs and weapons. These claims have always been unsubstantiated and although Interpol quotes a similar claim on its Art Crime page (“The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods”), it then contradicts this in detail in the Frequently Asked Questions on the same page.

Now, however, the World Customs Organisation has included figures for trafficked cultural property, including antiquities, in its annual report for the first time and this gives us a clearer picture of what the situation really is. In summary, this is what it says:

Number of Seizures

Drugs: c.45,000

Weapons and ammunition: c.4500

Cultural property: 146

Of which antiquities (mostly coins, seals and jewels): c.70

So in terms of the number of seizures across these three areas, drugs account for 90.6% of seizures, weapons and ammunition 9.1%, cultural property 0.3%, of which antiquities account for 0.14%.

Volumes

Although there is no direct correlation between the three areas in terms of volumes seized, summary totals give some indication of comparative scale:

Drugs: c.1.5 million kilos

Weapons and ammunition: c.2.5 million pieces

Cultural property: 8483 items

Of which Antiquities: c.6600 items (including coins)

Details:

  • Drugs: 1 million kilos of cannabis, 180,773 kilos of cocaine, 99,000 kilos of khat, approx. 200,000 kilos of opiates, psychotropic and other substances. Total c.1.5 million kilos. Number of seizures: c.45,000.
  • Weapons & ammunition: number of pieces seized c.2.5 million. Number of seizures: c.4500.
  • Cultural Property: 8483 objects seized (Of which Antiquities c.6600). Number of seizures: 146. (Of which Antiquities c.70)

Also included in the report are figures for seizures linked to environmental (i.e. animal and plant) products. Again, exact comparisons are not easy, but the number of seized items alone rises towards the 750,000 mark, while the total number of seizures reported was 2225.

Art businesses ill-prepared for GDPR, new EU data protection law

ADA adviser Ivan Macquisten has written a detailed analysis on the upcoming changes in data protection regulations for the EU for The Art Newspaper. This includes the Information Commissioner’s Office advice on what steps for businesses to take now. These changes will affect all businesses operating in the market to some degree. You can read Ivan’s article at this link.