Art trafficking link to terrorism is spurious

The following is the original version of a letter sent by ADA chair Joanna van der Lande and published by the Art Newspaper on page 16 of their July/August 2020 issue

While Europol, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation are very good at grabbing headlines, experience tells us that subsequent requests for more detail on the major international operations cracking down on cultural heritage trafficking tend to fall on deaf ears.

The latest set of seizures and arrests across 103 countries as reported in the Art Newspaper on May 8 (International crackdown on art trafficking leads to 101 arrested and 19,000 artefacts recovered) gives rise to the same set of questions we and other trade associations have been asking for years now:

  • How much of this material is fake?
  • How much can be traced back to vulnerable archaeological sites?
  • Who has been arrested and how many of them are actually part of the art market as opposed to ordinary criminals or gangs?
  • How much can be traced back to terrorist groups?
  • How much of it qualifies as cultural property under the terms of the UNESCO Convention?

While the headlines sound impressive, the organisations involved continue in their failure to answer on-going questions about the true effectiveness of these operations. Previous investigations undertaken by the Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA) and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient art (IADAA), including direct consultation with the authorities, have exposed worrying gaps in intelligence gathering.

In February 2018, for instance, in responding to an IADAA request for confirmation about the number of countries involved in the original Operation ATHENA, as well as information regarding the volume, value and nature of major items seized during that operation, Europol’s Corporate Affairs Bureau told them: “Unfortunately we do not have such information at hand as we only have a fragmented picture: this operation was coordinated between three partners – us, INTERPOL and the WCO.”

This was a surprising response from one of the main players involved, especially as they had already issued a large number of detailed claims in a press release.

Publicity surrounding this latest operation, conducted in November 2019, focuses chiefly on antiquities and ancient art from around the globe, but does not attempt to distinguish between the genuine and the fake – a key factor in tackling crime, as St John Simpson of the British Museum, an adviser to UK law enforcement, has argued in other recent news reports linked to the seizure at Heathrow last year.

The authenticity of the unique and rare Tumaco gold mask, referred to among the Athena II highlights by Europol, for example, has been called into question by some well placed experts in the field. 

Previous operations gave the impression of having a major impact on antiquities trafficking and even the financing of terrorism, although closer inspection showed this not to be the case.

In November 2016, Operation Pandora involved a joint customs, Interpol and Europol operation across 18 European countries. Together they searched 48,588 people (81.6% of them in Bulgaria); 29,340 vehicles and 50 ships. This led to 75 arrests (65 of them in Bulgaria) and the seizure of 3,561 objects in total, comprising:

  • 1000 objects from a single seizure in Poland involving an illegal metal detectorist. These comprised spent bullet cartridges and rusted gun stocks from WW2, which qualify as cultural property under Polish law
  • 500 archaeological objects (mostly coins) in Murcia, Spain
  • 400 coins relating to online adverts
  • Of the remaining 1600 objects, Europol said that “several” were “of great cultural importance in the archaeological world, such as a marble Ottoman tombstone and a post-Byzantine icon depicting Saint George, along with two Byzantine artefacts”. None of these items was rare, valuable or culturally significant to the extent claimed. All were seized in Greece, another country that is not a war zone, nor did they appear to originate in war zones, although seizing such material was a main objective of the operation. This is not to say the looting of such cultural heritage is not of as much concern to members of the legitimate antiquities trade as it is to an archaeologist.

Notwithstanding this, if these comprised the highlights of the operation, as stated, where were the rare antiquities from war zones, or material associated with terrorism financing, whose intended seizure was the mainspring of this operation?

The tendency to count every coin in a seizure individually rather than as a single seizure also risks inflating the operation’s impact.

A similar pattern of claims accompanied by detailed statistical information released by Europol and the WCO arose for Operation Odysseus in June 2014 and the first Operation Athena in November 2017. However, the ADA and IADAA are not aware of any update on any of these operations, such as confirmation of how many of the arrests and investigations led to successful prosecutions, or whether any seizure at all has led back to trafficking from Syria or Iraq or the financing of terrorism, the twin lynchpins behind these operations. Surely such information constitutes the true measure of these operations’ success and should be made public?

The WCO Illicit Trade report 2017, published in December 2018, did reveal that the largest quantity of items of cultural property seized and reported through their network for that year was a consignment of around 3000 LPs being exported to Turkey from The Netherlands.

While Facebook and other social media platforms present a significant challenge in the fight against crime, it should be noted that Facebook has been proactive in seeking trade help in tackling the issue, having contacted us last year on this matter.

It is disturbing that in her official press release, Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director, resurrects the now discredited link between antiquities and trafficking in weapons and drugs. It took years for Interpol to remove misleading claims of a similar nature from its website where, at the same time, it admitted that it had never had any information to show that cultural property trafficking was as significant as that in drugs and weapons, nor was ever likely to have such information. The latest WCO Illicit Trade Report, covering 2018 and seizures reported through its network, showed that while drugs accounted for 32% of all trafficking seizures globally and weapons for 3.6%, cultural heritage – including all art, antiques and collectables, not just antiquities – accounted for 0.08%.

If international law enforcement is so keen to promote its work on these operations, then it should be equally eager to publish their ultimate results in terms of successful prosecutions and evidence clearly demonstrating links to terrorism funding.

Such follow-ups are important because the successes claimed by these operations have been used frequently in the media and by politicians in the EU, as well as elsewhere, to support demands for further restrictive legislation controlling the international art market. If the market is to pay the price, it has a right to know why.

Joanna van der Lande
Antiquities Dealer’s Association
15 May 2020


RAND Corporation report demolishes current thinking on antiquities trafficking

Most widely held assumptions are wrong,
it argues, and this has led to poor policy in tackling the problem

Report names and shames key figures involved
in creating hype and speculation, as well as bloggers and journalists

A major report by one of the most respected independent research organisations in the United States claims that current thinking on the trafficking of antiquities is mostly wrong.

Its findings have prompted it to propose a radical change in direction in the search for solutions.

The RAND Corporation argues that a lack of reliable evidence leads to wild speculation over trafficking[1] and poor policy in tackling the problem[2]. The illicit trade in antiquities is much smaller, opportunistic rather than organised, and more widely dispersed than previously thought, it concludes.[3]

“Our aggregate data suggest that the market for all antiquities, both licit and illicit, is on the order of, at most, a few hundred million dollars annually rather than the billions of dollars claimed in some other estimates … We believe that, going forward, scholars arguing that the illicit market is larger than we suggest here will need to more clearly articulate the means through which these goods are sold.”

Titled Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open-Source Data, the report published on May 12 blames bloggers, journalists and advocacy groups for exaggerating – sometime ‘grossly exaggerating’ – the problem to attract headlines, funding and to effect policy change[4]. And it singles out one of the highest profile crusaders against trafficking, New York Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, stating that the widely held but inaccurate belief that antiquities trafficking is linked to trafficking in drugs and weapons can mostly be traced back to him as the source.[5]

The report’s findings on this point go directly counter to the claim made by Europol Executive Director Catherine de Bolle in her official statement on the recent Athena II operation.[6]

The report also cites figures of $2 billion for Syria and $3 billion to $10 billion for Egypt quoted by Antiquities Coalition Founder and CEO Deborah Lehr in a Wall Street Journal article as misleading[7], while former AC Chief of Staff Katie Paul, who now heads the Athar Project, is accused of obtaining data and screenshots “with a RAND login to a third-party data provider that were published without consultation or permission”, an action deemed “ethically dubious”.[8]

Major findings in the RAND Corporation report

Major findings in the report, researched with the RAND Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center and partially funded though it work for the US Department of Defense, show that contrary to popular belief, illicit trade in antiquities is largely ad hoc rather than organised and a much smaller problem than previously thought. End markets are global, rather than focused on the West[9], policy and argument “has been dominated by speculation and hypotheses”, while almost no trafficking of antiquities is taking place via the dark web.[10]

It also notes that relatively low sell-through rates of legitimate antiquities at auction and through galleries, combined with the challenges of selling antiquities at all because of compliance, show muted demand, suggesting “that auctions could act only as a limited conduit for illicit sales”.[11]

“This reality that antiquities auctions represent a small market that is not always able to find buyers in well-advertised sales is at odds with the media’s assumption that there is a booming unmet demand for these goods that is capable of supporting a billion-dollar black market,” it concludes.

The report also finds that although fakes are a major issue in general, apparent attempts to traffic illicit items on Facebook are largely illusory, because a large number of the images posted have actually been lifted from recycled news articles or museum websites.[12]

The report concludes that current efforts to tackle trafficking are misguided, ineffective, costly and unrealistic, partially because they are based on inaccurate assumptions.[13]

Referring to transnational policing operations targeting traffickers, like Athena and Pandora, the report states: “For high-value goods and key nodes in the network, efforts by police and customs officials can successfully identify and prosecute criminal actors. However, these enforcement actions are time consuming, costly, and often require significant cross-border cooperation by law-enforcement agencies, which can often be difficult to organize. Instead, a broader-based approach aimed at undermining the trust among illicit actors and in the technologies they rely on could disrupt the illicit market more broadly and cheaply.”

Recognising that “legal standards can be troublesome because a plethora of various laws exist between and within countries, meaning that the correct legal standard that must be met can vary from object to object”, RAND recommends better targeting of clearly identified problem areas.

“…if the market is instead made up of ad hoc opportunists, then there are few centralized nodes that can be targeted to disrupt the whole market,” it argues. “Moreover, expensive and resource-intensive investigations may be inefficient in a market comprising small-scale dealers. In such cases, broader-based disruption tactics, which highlight the risks involved or publicize the damages that looting causes, might be more effective by reshaping the decisions of the individual actors involved.”

It recommends turning to disinformation campaigns: “Messaging campaigns conducted online—for example, through Facebook groups that are used by illicit actors along the supply chain (as discussed in Chapter Four)— would allow destabilizing information to be injected into trafficking networks.”

[1] See Summary, page xi

[2] See Policy Responses Based on Findings, page xiii and Directions for Future Research, page 97

[3] See Findings, page xi to xii

[4] See Introduction, page 3, and Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 10

[5] See Antiquities Trafficking Using Telegram, page 49-50

[6] See press release quote issued May 6, 2020 in relation to Operation Athena II:

See also Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities

Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 10 and Summary page 41

[7] See Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 11

[8] See Footnote, page 43

[9] See Findings, page xii

[10] See Findings, page xii

[11] See Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 12, and Measuring the international trade in antiquities, page 73, and Summary page 84 and 85

[12] See Antiquities Trafficking on Arabic-Language Facebook Groups, page 54

[13] See Policy Responses Based on Findings, page xiii and Responding to Illicit Networks, page 96

A new report says Germany is a hotspot for the Illegal antiquities market. Here’s why that’s wrong—and dangerous

The secretary general of the largest trade federation for art and antiques dealers hits back at what she regards as “zombie statistics.”

When the entire German art and antiques trade is at stake, it is important to get the facts right.

recent study into the illicit trade of antiquities has recommended that the German government clamp down even harder on the beleaguered German art market. But shockingly, the study’s conclusions are based more on suspicion and prejudice than scientific research.

Amid concern that Germany was a hub for international cultural property crimes, the country’s Federal Ministry of Research began the ILLICID study in April 2015. The €1.2 million project was carried out over three years. The resulting 50-page report, published last month, identified no trafficked items or any evidence whatsoever that the sale of antiquities helped finance terrorism. 

But, I would argue, the German ministry that commissioned it has manipulated the results to support an anti-trade agenda. As the secretary general of CINOA, the largest trade federation for art and antiques dealers, who has been campaigning on their behalf in the European Union and elsewhere for years, I have seen firsthand how statistics can be manipulated to suit political agendas and are often accepted without being checked. 

Not a Multi-Billion-Dollar Business

Before we get into the specific flaws of the report, it is important to acknowledge that even its motivation is built on a false premise. Over the years, there have been repeated claims from officials that the illicit trade in antiquities is a multi-billion-dollar industry. But after much debate, trade and anti-trade campaigners alike have concluded that these estimates are not only unfounded, but clearly wrong, and part of the trend now dubbed “zombie statistics”—that is, pieces of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality.

There have been various attempts to trace where this mistaken belief about the value of the illicit trade in antiquities originated, and sources invariably lead back to several media reports from the early ’90s that cited it as a “belief” held by some experts—but gave no evidence to support that belief. 

The authors of the ILLICID report weren’t the only ones taken in by faulty reasoning, which leads to faulty counting. The international criminal police organization, Interpol, removed similar claims from its website just last year, acknowledging the lack of evidence to support them—but not before they had informed some European policies. 

So what numbers can we count on? The FBI valued all cultural property crime at around $4 billion in 2013, including crimes relating to everything from contemporary art to antique furniture. This figure was largely made up of domestic burglary and crimes such as fraud and vandalism. 

The most reliable figures relating specifically to illicit trade currently available come from the World Customs Organization, whose latest Illicit Trade Report, published in December 2019 and covering 2018, stated that cultural property (including all art and antiques, not just antiquities) accounted for 0.08 percent of trafficking seizures reported through its network. In 2018, a total of 314 trafficked archaeological items were seized globally and reported via the network, down from 703 in 2017.

Unrealizable Provenance Requirements

The ILLICID report examined more than 300,000 items and valued the objects it studied (note: not illegal objects, but all objects) in Germany at around €850,000 per year for the course of the study. A lack of access to criminal evidence means that the report does not even mention illegal excavations, looting, or terrorist financing.

The authors identified a total of four suspicious transactions, but concluded that “potential money-laundering cannot be excluded, however neither is it inevitable.” In one of these cases, it appears that the object in question was a “sleeper,” as in, a misattributed masterpiece whose true significance was simply not recognized by the German auction house that catalogued it.

But perhaps the most sensational figure, widely repeated in media headlines, was that around 98 percent of Eastern Mediterranean antiquities sold in Germany were of questionable origin. This, however, is a skewed interpretation of the facts.

Fewer than two percent of the items studied—a total of 6,133 objects—“potentially” came from regions of interest around the Middle East, and it was 98 percent of that slice deemed to be of questionable origin. So the conclusion might be more accurately framed as: just under 0.02 percent of all of the items studied are of “questionable origin.”

The suspicion about origin is largely based on what the researchers see as incomplete provenance history, including the absence of previous owners’ names, despite the fact that data protection rules prevent this in many cases. The absence of full documentation for antiquities that have been circulating in the market for years is not only commonplace, but the norm.

Countries of origin often had no export licensing system when items were exported originally and, even where they did, detailed invoices were rarely required. Family heirlooms often do not come with paperwork that pinpoints their trade histories. None of these scenarios gives rise to suspicion of crime, yet the ILLICID report—and the ministry recommendations arising from it—act as though it does.

A German law introduced to protect cultural assets, passed in August 2016, ignores these reasonable factors and instead demands proof of legal export from a country of origin before it will allow import. But this is impossible in the majority of cases. Believe me—dealers would love to have an unbroken provenance for everything they sell. It would not only make their lives much easier, but would also add to the value of what they trade in.

If ILLICID deems such objects as failing to meet the requirements of the law, then it simply shows how misguided that law is and how little those in power understand the market or even care to do so. In the end, absence of evidence is not proof of guilt.

Even with all of this, ILLICID notes that only 10.9 percent of the objects it studied lacked any provenance at all. The remaining 87 percent have information, but the study does not consider it sufficient. 

No Terrorist Financing

This is not the study’s only flaw. There is also a lack of evidence to support its claim that antiquities sales significantly finance terrorism and, principally, the activities of IS. The recommendations offered assume that IS control of any given region, and the increasing vulnerability of cultural heritage amid the political instability, means that it financed itself significantly through the looting of antiquities.

But the UN Security Council’s monitoring team reported in 2019 that the IS had not systematically used cultural assets as a source of funding. A 2017 study by Deloitte ordered by the EU Commission to justify stringent new import licensing regulations found that none of the 28 EU member states could identify the financing of terrorism through cultural property at all. King’s College, London concluded its research in the same year with the view that financing terrorism via the antiquities trade is unlikely.

Grasping at straws for evidence to back its recommendations, the ministry called on a 2005 article in the German magazine Der Spiegelthat claimed the lead terrorist in the 9/11 attacks financed the operation by selling looted Afghan artifacts. But in reality, while Mohamed Atta had asked a professor where such pieces might be marketed, and was referred to Sotheby’s, nothing ever came of this.

A suffocating bureaucracy

It is quite frankly scandalous that despite the failure of the ILLICID study back up its initial assumptions with hard evidence, the Federal Ministry of Research appears now to have manipulated the results to pursue its original agenda.

I am shocked by the recommendations for numerous measures to be taken against a market already brought to its knees by earlier misconceived legislation, which itself was imposed as a result of political ideology rather than to solve a proven problem.

This time, the recommendations include a transparency register in which all archaeological cultural assets that can be legally traded must be recorded. But this inflicts more work on dealers while failing to acknowledge the impossibility of the task. If accepted, the recommendations will also mean yet another database being set up for known or allegedly counterfeit cultural goods. It also recommends digitizing all trade publications after 1945, but fails to provide any budget by which already struggling dealers could do so.

The list of regulations already in place or proposed covers every eventuality already. These include—but are not limited to—the new EU import licensing laws, which also cover export licenses from source countries; UN sanctions specifically targeted at Syria and Iraq; and, perhaps most importantly, the EU’s fifth anti-money laundering directive, which explicitly targets the art market and comes into full force at the beginning of 2021, with severe penalties for those who break the rules.

Germany has little more than a handful of antiquities dealers these days, and most are micro-businesses. How are they going to cope if this latest set of ridiculous measures is adopted? And what are the implications for the rest of the market? It is a suffocating bureaucracy that is undermining an already vulnerable trade.

This commentary piece first appeared in Artnet News