Above: The UNESCO advert that sparked suspicion and led to the campaign being unmasked as fake.
In what must be one of the most stunningly cynical attacks on the international art market yet, UNESCO has been caught out promoting a fake campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of its 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention – not once but twice.
The trade first realised something was wrong in late October when UNESCO launched The Real Price of Art campaign using a bogus figure of $10 billion as the estimated annual value of illicit cultural property across the globe.
As noted in the last news report published here, the ensuing email exchange revealed UNESCO’s source, the fact that it did not support the claim at all and the further fact that no reliable alternative source existed at all for the claim.
Advising UNESCO that in the absence of a reliable source, it was promoting inaccurate information in what is a highly sensitive area, our fellow organisation, The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) asked that the error be corrected before it was disseminated any further than it already had been. This was followed by a letter from the art and antiques global trade federation CINOA also protesting about the figure.
The advice was ignored and UNESCO continued to promote the figure into November. It remains on the organisation’s website.
Then came another shocking revelation: the accompanying advertising campaign was almost entirely fraudulent. IADAA worked with CINOA and the ADA to expose this when suspicion arose about part of the content. Again, CINOA has written a letter to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay to complain formally.
Handled by Paris agency DDB and supervised by senior UNESCO officials Ernesto Ottone Ramirez and Lazare Eloundo Assomo, The Real Price of Art campaign featured posters showing a number of artworks presented as though in the contemporary settings of collectors’ homes. Importantly, they are also presented as looted from their source countries and sold via the art market.
However, the joint investigation revealed that the images had been taken from The Metropolitan Museum of New York and actually showed pieces that had been in the museum’s collection legally for decades or longer.
How the fake campaign was unveiled
Suspicions were initially raised by one of the images, shown here, which depicted a funerary relief from Palmyra, dated 50-150 AD. Under the headline ‘Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative’, the accompanying description read: This priceless antiquity was stolen in the National Museum of Palmyra by Islamic State militants during their occupation of the city, before being smuggled into the European art market. The trade in antiquities is one of the terror group’s main sources of funding.
The trade realised that such an important piece would have been widely reported in the media if looted by ISIS and later seized, but those investigating knew that it hadn’t been. This led to a Google search and within minutes the truth was uncovered: the relief is actually in the Met Collection, where it can be seen clearly on the museum’s website. It was acquired by the museum in 1901, as its provenance states.
Within another few minutes, the rest of the lie was also uncovered.
A Côte d’Ivoire Moon mask dating to around 1880 also featured in the UNESCO campaign. Also presented in a contemporary interior, it was captioned ‘How do you erase a whole culture? Piece by piece’ and was described as follows: Moon Mask Côte d’Ivoire, ca 1880 – This African art object was looted in Abidjan as fighting took place following the electoral crisis of 2010-2011. A rare testimony to the pre-colonial history of Côte d’Ivoire, its loss is irreplaceable.
Again, the mask actually appears in The Met’s current collection, where it is described as Moon Mask ca. 1880 of the Baule peoples. The listed provenance dates back to 1954, giving the names of various owners through whose hands it passed in Paris and New York. Sold at Christie’s in April 2003, it remained in a private New York collection until 2015, when it passed to The Met.
The head of a Buddha from Afghanistan, dating to the 5th-6th century AD, also featured in UNESCO’s advertising campaign. Shown resting on a sideboard among books, it featured under the headline ‘Terrorism is such a great curator’ and was captioned as follows: This antiquity belongs to the Kabul Museum. In 2001, a large part of its collections was smashed into pieces by the Taliban. As the group was overthrown later that year, this priceless item was looted by local dealers and smuggled into the US market.
Except it wasn’t. Instead, it too appears in The Met Collection. In this case, not only does the listed provenance show that it was excavated in Tibet or Turkestan during the 1927-28 Trinkler expedition and that it was sold to The Met in 1930, it also cites four Met exhibitions in which it has since appeared, in 1940, 1971, 2007 and 2012-13.
The Met was not the only source for images falsely represented in the UNESCO campaign.
Under the headline ‘Art knows no frontiers. Neither does organized crime’, it pictured what was described as a Vessel with head Neck Peru, 4th-6th century A.D. – Before standing here, this piece of pre-Columbian art was looted in an illegal excavation by ‘subsistence diggers’. It passed through two middlemen, crossed Costa Rica and Florida before being sold to an art dealer in Europe, who sold it himself through an auction house.
The problem is that none of this is true. Instead it is a stock image from Alamy available for marketing use for around £180.00.
UNESCO’s ‘clarification’ after being caught out
After the Art Newspaper (see https://bit.ly/3pF7c5S) published the revelations, UNESCO eventually took down the images and replaced them with others, adding the following ‘clarification’:
“In an initial version of UNESCO’s campaign, the ‘Real Price of Art’, some posters displayed items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) database, which is in the public domain. UNESCO’s intention was to alert the general public by depicting objects of high cultural value, which should be on display in museums, presented in luxurious private interiors. UNESCO had no intention of questioning the provenance of items in the MET collection.
After discussions with the MET, who is a valuable partner to UNESCO, and in order to avoid any misunderstanding, UNESCO decided to remove all pictures of items from the MET collection. Only three magazines had already been printed. The digital versions of these publications were modified.
The rationale of the campaign is to capture the attention the general public with a view to encouraging them to exercise due diligence when purchasing cultural property. The campaign has been widely spread and original posters are shown above.
UNESCO regrets the use of MET images that caused any misunderstanding.”
Despite the assurances that what had already been published via other internet sources had been modified, this was not the case. Indeed, even now the offending material is still clearly present on the web, as a simple Google search reveals (see, for example, https://bit.ly/365awiP).
UNESCO may well regret the embarrassment, but it doesn’t seem to have learned from it as the two hastily inserted replacement photos for the campaign testify. One, which retains the original caption almost in its entirety, shows another tribal mask, which UNESCO claims was looted in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire after the 2010 crisis. However, it wasn’t, as confirmed via email by the Director of the museum where it remains.
The other replacement advert shows an alabaster figure of a woman wearing polos headwear and an accompanying caption (under the headline Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative) that tells us: “This priceless antiquity was stolen from the National Museum of Aleppo when the fighting was at its peak in 2014, before being smuggled into the European market…”
Again, not true. Following the earlier debacle in which the Peruvian pottery image was lifted from Alamy Stock Photos, this one comes from one of a series of digital photo archives, such as Getty Images (see https://bit.ly/364gVL5). It has been reversed for the purposes of this advert. In addition, the actual statuette itself remains in the Aleppo Museum, appearing on display in a video to celebrate the re-opening of the museum at the end of last year. (See https://bit.ly/33ecPy6 1.24 mins in). Another video features Khaled Al-Masri, Director of Aleppo Museums and Antiquities, who states that despite the museum being attacked during the conflict, its collection was entirely saved. (See https://bit.ly/369XErv).
“During the crisis the museums was under a fierce attack of armed gangs which directly targeted the museum with different types of mortars and missiles,” he says. “The museum infrastructure was massively affects [sic], nevertheless, its entire antiquities were saved thanks to the Syrian Arab Army efforts along with the museum’s employees who kept such antiquities safe.”
UNESCO effectively admitted the error by once again altering the advert of the Woman with polos so that it now reads: “A priceless antiquity similar to this was stolen from Syria…”. In other words, not only does it acknowledge that the statuette pictured was not stolen, but it also removes any mention of the National Museum of Aleppo, which had been held up as a beacon for others to follow because of the outstanding manner in which its collection had been protected from looting.
To be caught out once misleading the public like this is bad enough, but to embark immediately on a replacement campaign that is also fabricated beggars belief. Is UNESCO really not going to take responsibility here and do something serious about it?
If the evidence exists, why not publish it?
UNESCO keeps claiming that evidence of trafficking involving the art market is so widespread and clear. If so, why persist in publishing false information and go to such lengths to do so? Why not simply publish the real evidence instead?
The fact is that despite all of the claims over the past few years, very little evidence indeed has come to light linking the legitimate market in Mediterranean Classical civilisation, Middle Eastern and North African artefacts to looting and trafficking. The only evidence we are aware of at all of terrorism financing links is that from the documents linked to the Abu Sayyaf raid in 2015, and that showed that funds raised projected across a specific 12-month period from trafficking in antiquities, precious metals and minerals combined would be around the $4 million mark. Note that this is also not connected to the legitimate market in any way.
What this means is that a) the legitimate art market, including collectors, is being targeted and harassed by UNESCO and others in an entirely unreasonable manner that breaches their human rights and b) precious time and resources that should be spent on the priority of protecting vulnerable sites, stemming the growing tide of internet crime and carrying out effective research are being wasted on creating confected scenarios to explain politically driven campaigns for which there is no justification. This has potentially dangerous consequences for the poor and vulnerable in source countries. How does this fit with UNESCO’s UN mandate?
The UNESCO advertising campaign is a case in point. During his speech to the Latvia-sponsored conference Opportunities and Challenges of Art and Antiques Market Management in late November, UNESCO’s Director of Culture and Emergencies, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, stated that the art market claims trafficking is decreasing and has never financed terrorism. The art market does not argue either of these points. Instead it simply states that no evidence has been presented to support the levels of trafficking claimed by anti-trade campaigners and that the only clearly demonstrated link to terrorism financing so far shown is that stated above. This is what available data shows. Independently, the RAND Corporation report, published in May 2020 and based on open source data, also concluded that the claims over trafficking are exaggerated (See https://bit.ly/3fFnaIt).
Dismissing criticism of UNESCO’s The Real Price of Art campaign, Director Assomo said it had been “largely applauded” by all member states – presumably because they were not aware that it had been faked. It will be interesting to see how they react when they find out how their money has been spent.
Calling for more co-operation between the market and other stakeholders and the overcoming of division, he also stated that he wanted to make a clear distinction between the legitimate art market and traffickers. Readers will judge for themselves whether UNESCO’s campaign does this, especially bearing in mind that three of the confected stories in the adverts – those relating to the funerary relief, Buddha head and Peruvian vessel – all specifically accuse the art market of direct involvement in crime, including the funding of terrorism. We reproduce the offending adverts and the originals here to allow for a transparent comparison. While UNESCO’s online ‘clarification’ regrets any ‘misunderstanding’, it stops short of claiming that it did not intend to mislead. Director Assomo expressed his confidence in the success of the campaign, which he helped to supervise, during his Latvian conference speech. Others are far less sanguine about its intentions and consequences because the messages it gave out were clear and unambiguous, leading to a series of questions:
- How did the UNESCO supervisors supervise this campaign?
- Who decided to use the Met images in this way?
- Who knew about it and signed off the campaign and the replacement campaign?
- What is UNESCO doing about it?
- What measures are UNESCO taking to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and that those responsible are held to account?
- How does UNESCO rebuild public trust and confidence after this?
- How satisfied is UNESCO that it has followed ethical practice here?
Either the UNESCO officials – including its Director of Communications – knowingly deceived the public via this campaign or they were astonishingly incompetent and dangerously unaware of its likely impact. Neither scenario is reassuring.
Let’s not forget that UNESCO gave as its source for the $10 billion figure the Renold study, a joint venture with the European Commission. Setting aside Renold’s own denial that the figure could have come from him, surely any joint project should also abide by the Commission’s guiding principles.
In November last year, incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, set out six guiding principles. One, relating to Interinstitutional relations and better policy making, states: “Proposals must be evidence based, widely consulted upon, subject to an impact assessment and reviewed by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board… A stronger relationship with citizens starts with building trust and confidence. I will insist on the highest levels of transparency and ethics[her emphasis] for the college as a whole. There can be no room for doubt about our behaviour or our integrity.”
So what does the European Commission President think about its partner, UNESCO’s campaign?