How officialdom’s zombie statistics and bogus data continue to plague the art market and antiquities

How officialdom’s zombie statistics and bogus data continue to plague the art market and antiquities

In February 2019, the ADA took part in a BBC radio programme entitled Zombie Statistics. It investigated the problem of fake news and misuse of data to promote propaganda, notably against the international art market.

Journalist Ed Butler took UNESCO to task for its manipulation of statistics to suit its policies, while the celebrated statistics guru Dr Tim Harford explained why confirmation bias – the disinclination to check the validity of information that supports your case – feeds into the misuse of data and fake news.

“If you think right is on your side, then you are not going to be too careful checking the claims that fit nicely in your world view,” he concluded.

Harford went on to explain how the publishing of false data by a respected institution or official body gets repeated “ad nauseam” by others and the media until it becomes the truth.

“What’s alarming is that this is affecting policy,” he warned, as instead of creating policy from reliable evidence, you get “policy affected evidence”.

This problem is rampant when it comes to the art market, particularly with antiquities.

The ADA and IADAA have conducted extensive research into this phenomenon and have long exercised a policy of insisting on providing clear primary sources for data, complete with a weblink, where possible, as well as advising anyone who looks at the data to check the sources to satisfy themselves that they are accurate.

This is the only way to reassure an audience that what you are telling them is true. Never ask them to take your word for it.

Taking all of this into account, it is worth reflecting on how a current example of the misuse of data is being used to influence policy makers.

In 2011, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report entitled Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes. On page 36 it gave a value range of $3.4 billion to $6.3 billion* as the GFI estimates of the global proceeds of crime for art and cultural property, stating this estimate was based on information from Interpol and the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme.

Apart from the broad range of these values and the fact that they are estimates, at least one of the quoted sources, Interpol, has declared that it has never had any figures – nor is ever likely to obtain any – that could allow it to make such a judgment on the level of art crime. Nor do these figures relate to trafficking, but to all art and cultural property related crime. That’s an awful lot of ifs and buts.

$6 billion to $8 billion

The UNODC report states that its Interpol and UN-related figures come from the February 2011 Global Financial Integrity (GFI) report by Jeremy Hakin, Transnational crime in the Developing World, and World Bank indicators (for current GDP). As can be seen from page 47 of that report, it actually quotes three sets of figures, $300 million to $6 billion, $4 billion to $5 billion and $6 billion to $8 billion. It gives, as its source for the first, page 221 of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, by Roger Atwood from 2004. For the second it gives the September 19, 1999 article from The Atlanta Journal Constitution by Mike Toner, The Past in Peril; Buying, Selling, Stealing History. For the third, it gives page 52 of the 2010 report International Report on Crime Prevention and Community Safety: Trends and Perspectives, from the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, by Idriss, Manar, Manon Jendly, Jacqui Karn, and Massimiliano Mulone.

Crucially, Hakin then states: “This report creates a range by taking the average of the low estimates and the average of the high estimates reported above. The result is an annual value of $3.4 to $6.3 billion.”*

Checking the sources of these sources we come up with the following:

–      $300 million to $6 billion: Currently unavailable

–      $4 billion to $5 billion: Currently unavailable

–      $6 billion to $8 billion: International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme. ISPAC (2009). Organized crime in Art and Antiquities. Selected Papers from the international conference held at Courtmayeur, Italy 12-14th December 2008. Milan: ISPAC.

While the ADA and IADAA intend to research these sources further, it is worth pointing out that they date back, at least, to 2004, 1999 and 2008, and possibly further, so, like the UNODC report itself, hardly relevant for 2023.

While the figures above refer to the 2011 GFI report, page 35 of the same GFI report from 2017 (six years later) puts the estimated value of “the global revenue generated from the illicit trade in cultural property” at “approximately US$1.2 billion to $1.6 billion”. It extrapolates this from the 2008 ISPAC global art crime estimate of $6 billion to $8 billion (see above), based on the assumption that 80% of such crime is fraud-based. In turn, it takes this estimate from two sources: John Powers’ February 2016 article for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Fakes, Forgeries and Dirty Deals: Global Fight against Amorphous Art Fraud, and Kris Hollington’s July 22, 2014 Newsweek article, After Drugs and Guns, Art Theft Is the Biggest Criminal Enterprise in the World, a claim now known to be wrong and without foundation.

Powers’ article is no longer available via the web, but Hollington attributes the $6 billion to $8 billion figure to the FBI, without giving a specific source, but would seem to be ISPAC, as shown above.

However, In 2013, the FBI art crime unit estimated all art crime globally concerning everything from Contemporary art to stamps, at around $4 billion to $6 billion. That included crimes such as domestic burglary (the largest single contributor to the figures), vandalism, fraud and so on.

A failure to check Hansard

Another UNODC report, from 2016, repeats two claims:

• The Museums Association has estimated that profits from the illicit antiquities trade range from $225 million and $3 billion per year.


• The organized Crime Group of the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police and INTERPOL has calculated that profits from the illicit antiquities trade amounted to between $300 million and $6 billion per year.

The UNODC gave as its source for the claims the UK House of Commons Culture Select Committee hearings in Cultural property: Return and Illicit Trade, seventh report, volumes 1, 2 and 3, in the year 2000.

What the UNODC clearly did not do was to check that House of Commons source, still available today in Hansard, the official parliamentary record. If it had, it would have found that neither claim stood up.

In the case of the Museums Association, Hansard (Chapter II The problem of illicit trade, The nature and scale of illicit trade paragraph 9) reports: 

“The scale of the illicit trade taken is said to be very considerable. According to the Museums Association, ‘as an underground, secretive activity, it is impossible to attach a firm financial value to the illicit trade in cultural material. Estimates of its worldwide extent vary from £150 million up to £2 billion per year.”

The Museums Association talks about “cultural material”, i.e. all art and antiques, not antiquities, gives a range of figures from £150 million to £2 billion a year and attributes it to Geraldine Norman’s Independent article, Sale of the Centuries, from November 24, 1990, which shows no such figures, leading to the conclusion that they have actually taken them from page 23 of the Brodie, Doole and Watson report Stealing History, 2000, which wrongly attributes the figure to Norman. Again, the Museums Association appears not to have checked its primary source.

With regard to the Met Police calculation, Hansard reports the following:

“(Detective Chief Superintendent Coles of the Met Police) I anticipated a question along these lines before I came here. I conducted some research, going back over 10 years, to try and find out where figures that have been bandied around about this subject emanated from. One of the figures is $3 billion. I have found reports going back 10 years where there is an estimate as high as $6 billion. At the other extreme of the scale the suggestion is that it could be as low as $300 million. To try and put some definitive figure upon this scale, my colleague, Miss Stevenson, has conducted some research in the last few days, and it might be better if she explained her research to you.”

“(Detective Constable StevensonI think what we have to actually state from the start is that the cases are really anecdotal. There are no statistics kept. We have to bear in mind that the whole trade, whether illicit or legal, actually encompasses jewellery, works of art and antiquities, and as there is no actual Home Office information that is kept we have had to turn to the insurance companies and the insurance industry to get the figures we have.

“A loss adjuster I spoke to estimated that this trade is costing the public between £300-£500 million per year in the United Kingdom alone. I can break that down to where he got those figures from. The Association of British Insurers on average record losses by theft in both domestic and commercial as being somewhere in the region of about £600 million per year. Out of that figure they assume that roughly half relates to domestic theft. So, leaving aside your office break-ins or something like that and computer thefts, they would say that approximately £300 million goes on domestic burglaries, and out of the domestic thefts, roughly, in the settlement, two thirds of the items in that category are jewellery, silver, collectibles and fine art. That accounts for the first £200 million of insured losses.

“Secondly, they state that Lloyds is excluded from the total and, of course, the majority of very high value fine art and antiques are insured through Lloyds. We do know that worldwide Lloyds pay out in the region of about £100 million into the fine art and jewellery category. So, it is possible to estimate that between 40 and 50 per cent of that is attributable to the United Kingdom. That takes the figure to roughly £250 million. Then they looked at the area of uninsured loss, which is extremely difficult to estimate. This would include properties such as National Trust properties, English Heritage and churches, but they reckon that is somewhere in the region of £75 million per annum. Then there are those losses which go entirely unreported, which, of course, you can only guess at, but they arrive somewhere in the region of £300, £400 or £500 million per year.”

As this evidence shows, the $300 million to $6 billion figure is no more than hearsay, which is immediately corrected by the better informed officer, who retorts that no such information or statistics are available. Instead, she reports figures estimated by insurance companies based on losses that are chiefly the result of domestic burglaries – nothing to do with the art market at all, let alone antiquities or trafficking.

As the 2016 report and our research lead us to believe, the UK House of Commons investigation from 2000 is a highly credible candidate as the source of the $6 billion figure later used by the FBI and others.

Remember, it was dismissed hearsay with sources stretching as far back as 1990.

Dubious data from decades ago used to push 2023 report

Now move forward to 2023 and the Financial Action Task Force report, entitled Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in the Art and Antiquities Market, and the $6.3 billion figure arises once again in paragraph 3 of the Introduction on page 5. The FATF burnishes that figure by stating that it is a UNODC estimate, which its own source (the 2011 report) shows is not true. In reality, it is a figure quoted by the UNODC from other uncertain and much older sources, as shown above.

So, a report by the FATF published in February 2023, aimed at influencing current international policy, quotes a highly dubious (at best) 12-year-old estimate based on much earlier estimates as the key statistic relating to global art crime to make its point.

Add to all of this the poorly funded and trained media’s failure to check sources as it takes officialdom at its word – and social media’s tendency to share their stories – and you have all the ingredients for the perfect global viral disinformation campaign.

It would be interesting to hear what Ed Butler and @timharford have to say about all this.

Remember, this is just one example of how unreliable claims and data have been reworked through multiple sources over the decades. As the Bogus Information about the Art Market document published by international trade federation CINOA shows, many other examples now blight official reports issued by authorities on a global scale.