UNESCO marks 50th anniversary of 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention with fake campaign

UNESCO marks 50th anniversary of 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention with fake campaign

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?

Time for UNESCO to stop using bogus figures about cultural property

In the latest of a string of baseless claims, UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in cultural property is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion a year. It’s a handy figure to use as a headline to launch its 1970 Convention’s 50th anniversary conference and accompanying campaign. However, it gives no source for this claim. “As shown by The Real Price of Art campaign, in some cases, the looting of archaeological sites, which fuels this traffic, is highly organized and constitutes a major source of financing for criminal and terrorist organizations,” the article on its website continues.
Launched on October 20, the campaign has included the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property on November 14 and an international conference (November 16-18) organised in partnership with the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
Having asked the UNESCO author for the source of the $10 billion claim, our fellow trade association, IADAA, was sent a copy of the French version of the 2018 Joint European Commission-UNESCO Project report, Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, by Professor Marc-Andre Renold with the message that the evidence was in section C.
It isn’t.
As we pointed out to the author, the Renold study doesn’t mention a $10 billion figure anywhere. The closest it comes is in quoting an estimated figure of $6 billion to $8 billion from page 50 of the 2011 study by Frank Wehringer listed in the footnotes. However, Wehringer did not give it as his estimate but as a figure “regularly given” without providing any real source for it. He also said that “according to widespread statements, [this] makes it the third largest illegal market after drugs and weapons (according to estimates by UNESCO and FBI according to Anton 2010a: 2)”. In fact, this supposition is not true, as confirmed by Interpol and the WCO Illicit Trade Reports (the latest published in June), which yet again put the number of cases being investigated and seizures made in cultural property at 0.2% of the global total reported through the Customs Enforcement Network, whereas for drugs it was 35%/30% and for weapons 8%/8% – other risk categories were much higher than for cultural property, which was by far the smallest category).
In addition, the Renold study itself states: “There are no comprehensive and reliable statistics that would allow us to capture the true scale of illicit trafficking or monetary value of the black market in cultural goods.” This is a view adopted by Interpol, which has also stated that it never expects to have any reliable figures, as well as by the RAND Corporation report, studying open source data, published in May 2020.
As the ADA and IADAA pointed out to UNESCO, this is important because in recent years so many misguided policy decisions have been made on the back of false information, with the result that funding and other resources have been diverted away from where they are really needed in the fight against crime, including trafficking.
We then pointed out that in the absence of a reliable source for the $10 billion claim, UNESCO is currently promoting inaccurate information in what is a highly sensitive area. This being the case, we asked the author to correct the error before it was disseminated any further in the wider media than it already had been. As yet, we have received no further reply and the article remains unchanged on UNESCO’s website.

UNESCO risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate

Bearing in mind that the express aim of the international communication campaign to which this article is linked is to “make the general public and art lovers aware of the devastation of the history and identity of peoples wreaked by the illicit trade in cultural goods”, it seems reasonable to expect UNESCO to get its facts right and to correct mistakes when they are brought to its attention. Otherwise it risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate.
However, as was later reported, almost the entire advertising campaign devised by UNESCO surrounding this has been exposed as fraudulent.
If only this were an isolated incident, but unfortunately it’s all too commonplace within UNESCO itself, as the autumn 2020 editorial in The UNESCO Courier demonstrates.
Written by Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO, it states as fact (“The figures prove it”) that the attraction of illicit antiquities has never been greater, and attempts to justify this using the bogus claim that “The illicit flow of cultural goods is now believed to be the third-largest in terms of volume, after drugs and arms”.
As shown above, this is not true. (See the WCO Illicit Trade Reports 2017-2019), plus all the evidence on the IADAA website, all of which is independently verifiable through the links and references supplied.
Meanwhile Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of Culture and Emergencies for UNESCO’s Culture Sector, was interviewed on “Antiquités du sang”, quand pillage et pandémie font bon ménage! on Radio France Culture on October 24, during which (7 mins in) he claimed that estimates put the value of the global trade in illicit antiquities at around $64 billion. Bearing in mind that the world’s leading art market report, the Art Basel Report, estimated in 2019 that the value of the entire global art market was $67.4 billion, and the legitimate market in MENA antiquities is around 0.5% of this, it would be interesting to learn his source for the claim. During another radio interview, broadcast as part of the BBC World Services’ Business Daily special Zombie Statistics on February 20, 2019 (5 mins 20 secs in), Assomo was challenged over the inaccuracy of the figures UNESCO had been promoting since 2011. His response: “I don’t think we should enter into a debate about whether these figures are right or not right.” Whilst stating that “today we do not consider it any more important to concentrate on figures”, he claims that looting has increased, a claim immediately challenged by the interviewer, who says: “How do you know… you don’t have a global figure and you don’t support the 2011 [UNESCO report] figure?”
Dismissing the importance of figures is an odd position to take when you headline your campaign with an inaccurate but persuasive $10 billion figure.
Statistics guru Dr Tim Harford’s response to this on the same radio programme was 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… Listing where a claim came from and how it was arrived at is a very important starting point.” It’s time UNESCO followed this advice.
If, as both Ramírez and Assomo keep claiming, the evidence is there and clear, why don’t they produce it, especially when directly challenged to do so by organisations like the BBC? The Ramírez article mentioned above was an ideal opportunity to set the record straight on this front, yet it did not do so. If the evidence is so clear, why the need to rely on bogus figures instead?
For an organisation like UNESCO, with its reputation and influence, to behave in the sort of cavalier way Dr Harford describes over such a sensitive subject is not only highly irresponsible and damaging, but also contemptuous of the public interest it pledges to serve.

ADA to the fore at UNIDROIT’s 25th anniversary conference

Joanna van der Lande, who chairs the Antiquities Dealers Association, was invited to present an extended article and speak at the conference to mark 25 years of the UNIDROIT Convention on October 8 and 9.

Also invited to speak was Martin Wilson, General Counsel to the auctioneers Phillips.

Joanna’s presentation, titled The Antiquities Trade: A reflection on the past 25 years, touched on the nature of collecting and the trade, on-going challenges between the trade, academia and other stakeholders, and how best to address some of the seemingly intractable problems we face in the future.

While welcoming her invitation to speak, she highlighted the continuing exclusion of market professionals from serious debate about antiquities at most of the major forums. Dwelling on a number of issues, she focused ultimately on the matter of orphan works, just and fair compensation, as set out in the UNESCO Convention, and meaningful engagement with the trade in the debate over how to protect archaeological sites, tackle crime and the future of collecting.

She told delegates: “The time has come to remove the trade from the sidelines – we are integral to any solution but issues of fundamental difficulty for the antiquities market do need to be tackled in order for us to really be able to move in the same direction. This would be a real legacy for UNIDROIT at 25 years.”

Mr Wilson considered existing legislation to regulate the trade and how this has built over recent years, culminating in the new EU import licensing regulations and the impending anti-money laundering enforcement.

He also emphasised the need for more effective partnerships, saying: “I realise that if you feel strongly about the repatriation of cultural property it may be very difficult to regard those who sell antiquities as potential partners rather than opponents  in the fight against the illicit trade. But the reality is that those involved in the fight against the illicit trade can only win that fight by engaging to a greater extent with the legitimate art market. And by engagement, I mean forming trusted partnerships.”

He proposed a joint forum under UNIDROIT and UNESCO “…in which the art market, law enforcement and stakeholders are able to share information  and develop effective ways of working together in the fight against the illicit trade. An initiative of this kind would, I think bring about real change and build upon the aspirations and spirit of the UNESCO and UNIDROIT conventions.”

The ADA welcomes the efforts made by UNIDROIT in engaging the industry in this way, with especial thanks to Marina Schneider of the UNIDROIT secretariat.

UNIDROIT plans to publish the speakers’ full papers in due course.

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: 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.