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
Chair
Antiquities Dealer’s Association
15 May 2020

adagreen

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: https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/101-arrested-and-19000-stolen-artefacts-recovered-in-international-crackdown-art-trafficking

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

Appeal ruling: US court does not have jurisdiction in Sotheby’s case against Greece

Appeal ruling: US court does not have jurisdiction in Sotheby’s case against Greece

A US court has ruled that Sotheby’s cannot sue Greece for damages after the country expressed doubts about the provenance of an important ancient bronze artefact the auction house was due to sell in 2018.

The judgment was made on the grounds of jurisdiction, with the appeal court ruling that the lower court did not have the power to authorise the pursuit of the case by Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s had launched the suit by arguing that the intervention by Greece demanding that the ancient bronze horse pictured here (image courtesy of Sotheby’s) be withdrawn from the catalogue – but without supplying evidence to support its case – effectively ruined the sale, forcing the withdrawal.

The US appeal court ruling came down in Greece’s favour because the country was not acting out of commercial interests in its pursuit of the bronze horse, which meant that the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

Lawyers involved in the case argued that the ruling meant countries would remain free to challenge sales elsewhere without having to provide evidence of illicit activity.

Although the Greek government and media chose to interpret the ruling as a victory for Greece in claiming the bronze horse, saying the government would now seek its repatriation, Sotheby’s were quick to point out that it had no bearing on the horse’s legal status and that no evidence had been forthcoming to show that it had either been stolen or illegally exported.

RAND Corporation report demolishes current thinking on antiquities trafficking

RAND Corporation report demolishes current thinking on antiquities trafficking

Most widely held assumptions are wrong, it says, leading to poor policy in tackling 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 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 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 show size and nature of problem contrary to popular belief

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.”

“ADA chairman Joanna van der Lande said: “As with so many of my colleagues and fellow association members, I am delighted that this report, from arguably the most respected independent research organisation in the US, confirms what we have been saying for years.

“In exposing the propaganda and misinformation, the RAND Corporation also highlights how major international policy has been shaped by dishonest agendas rather than solid evidence, and this is truly shocking when one considers the cost not only to the legitimate art market, but also to cultural heritage protection. Those responsible need to be honest about their motives and be held to account in future if they continue to manipulate and misappropriate the evidence.”

See https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2706.html


[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: https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/101-arrested-and-19000-stolen-artefacts-recovered-in-international-crackdown-art-trafficking

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


WCO report reveals true picture of cultural property crime

WCO report reveals true picture of cultural property crime

2018 Illicit Trade Report lists Cultural Property as just 0.08% of global illicit trade compared to other risk sectors

The World Customs Organisation’s latest Illicit Trade Report covers 2018, shows a decline in Cultural Property crime, while also demonstrating how it is dwarfed by other sectors of trafficking, such as drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods, accounting for just 0.08% of all reported cases and seizures.

Cultural Property crime includes at least 12 categories of Cultural Property, ranging from household goods to jewellery, books and manuscripts and even flora and fauna. Antiquities form a small part of this category and the WCO does not even record separate figures for them, but does do so for archaeological items.

In summary, the number of reported cases globally in 2018 was 98, down from 155 in 2017. Reported seizures globally fell from 193 to 123, while items seized fell from 15,865 to 15,689. Although currency items seized rose from 9,431 to 13,391, archaeological items seized fell by more than half from 703 to 314.

Spread of cases and seizures

In all, Cultural Property accounted for 0.08% of all cases and seizures across all categories of trafficking. By contrast, Drugs accounted for 39% of case and 32% of seizures, with other categories accounting for shares as follows: Counterfeit Goods (29%/39%); Alcohol & Tobacco (22.5%/20%); Medical Products (4.3%/3.7%); Weapons and Ammunition (2.4%/3.6%) and Environmental Products (2.1%/1.8%).

Published in December 2019, the report records cases and seizures reported through the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) in in its statistical analysis, although it also includes case studies of other crimes. However, some of these are years old – one dates to 2002, for example.

Analysis of the report by the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) includes graphics to show the vast difference in sector risks.

With detailed WCO figures for several years running now available, it is clear just how inaccurate claims are of a multi-billion dollar international trafficking network in antiquities, despite such claims driving forward policy and restrictive new laws such as the new EU import licensing regulations.

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.”