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?
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.
Eagle-eyed IADAA member Costas Paraskevaides has been doing his bit for the restitution cause in this case of an ancient Cypriot vase. Pictured here, the 6cm high Bichrome ware vase dates from 750-600 BC and had been looted and illegally exported following the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.
Costas, who owns Art Ancient, based in Chelsea, spotted the vase on the London market and organised its repatriation through the Cypriot High Commission and the Metropolitan Police.
The secretary general of the largest trade federation for art and antiques dealers hits back at what she regards as “zombie statistics.”
When the entire German art and antiques trade is at stake, it is important to get the facts right.
A recent study into the illicit trade of antiquities has recommended that the German government clamp down even harder on the beleaguered German art market. But shockingly, the study’s conclusions are based more on suspicion and prejudice than scientific research.
Amid concern that Germany was a hub for international cultural property crimes, the country’s Federal Ministry of Research began the ILLICID study in April 2015. The €1.2 million project was carried out over three years. The resulting 50-page report, published last month, identified no trafficked items or any evidence whatsoever that the sale of antiquities helped finance terrorism.
But, I would argue, the German ministry that commissioned it has manipulated the results to support an anti-trade agenda. As the secretary general of CINOA, the largest trade federation for art and antiques dealers, who has been campaigning on their behalf in the European Union and elsewhere for years, I have seen firsthand how statistics can be manipulated to suit political agendas and are often accepted without being checked.
Not a Multi-Billion-Dollar Business
Before we get into the specific flaws of the report, it is important to acknowledge that even its motivation is built on a false premise. Over the years, there have been repeated claims from officials that the illicit trade in antiquities is a multi-billion-dollar industry. But after much debate, trade and anti-trade campaigners alike have concluded that these estimates are not only unfounded, but clearly wrong, and part of the trend now dubbed “zombie statistics”—that is, pieces of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality.
There have been various attempts to trace where this mistaken belief about the value of the illicit trade in antiquities originated, and sources invariably lead back to several media reports from the early ’90s that cited it as a “belief” held by some experts—but gave no evidence to support that belief.
The authors of the ILLICID report weren’t the only ones taken in by faulty reasoning, which leads to faulty counting. The international criminal police organization, Interpol, removed similar claims from its website just last year, acknowledging the lack of evidence to support them—but not before they had informed some European policies.
So what numbers can we count on? The FBI valued all cultural property crime at around $4 billion in 2013, including crimes relating to everything from contemporary art to antique furniture. This figure was largely made up of domestic burglary and crimes such as fraud and vandalism.
The most reliable figures relating specifically to illicit trade currently available come from the World Customs Organization, whose latest Illicit Trade Report, published in December 2019 and covering 2018, stated that cultural property (including all art and antiques, not just antiquities) accounted for 0.08 percent of trafficking seizures reported through its network. In 2018, a total of 314 trafficked archaeological items were seized globally and reported via the network, down from 703 in 2017.
Unrealizable Provenance Requirements
The ILLICID report examined more than 300,000 items and valued the objects it studied (note: not illegal objects, but all objects) in Germany at around €850,000 per year for the course of the study. A lack of access to criminal evidence means that the report does not even mention illegal excavations, looting, or terrorist financing.
The authors identified a total of four suspicious transactions, but concluded that “potential money-laundering cannot be excluded, however neither is it inevitable.” In one of these cases, it appears that the object in question was a “sleeper,” as in, a misattributed masterpiece whose true significance was simply not recognized by the German auction house that catalogued it.
But perhaps the most sensational figure, widely repeated in media headlines, was that around 98 percent of Eastern Mediterranean antiquities sold in Germany were of questionable origin. This, however, is a skewed interpretation of the facts.
Fewer than two percent of the items studied—a total of 6,133 objects—“potentially” came from regions of interest around the Middle East, and it was 98 percent of that slice deemed to be of questionable origin. So the conclusion might be more accurately framed as: just under 0.02 percent of all of the items studied are of “questionable origin.”
The suspicion about origin is largely based on what the researchers see as incomplete provenance history, including the absence of previous owners’ names, despite the fact that data protection rules prevent this in many cases. The absence of full documentation for antiquities that have been circulating in the market for years is not only commonplace, but the norm.
Countries of origin often had no export licensing system when items were exported originally and, even where they did, detailed invoices were rarely required. Family heirlooms often do not come with paperwork that pinpoints their trade histories. None of these scenarios gives rise to suspicion of crime, yet the ILLICID report—and the ministry recommendations arising from it—act as though it does.
A German law introduced to protect cultural assets, passed in August 2016, ignores these reasonable factors and instead demands proof of legal export from a country of origin before it will allow import. But this is impossible in the majority of cases. Believe me—dealers would love to have an unbroken provenance for everything they sell. It would not only make their lives much easier, but would also add to the value of what they trade in.
If ILLICID deems such objects as failing to meet the requirements of the law, then it simply shows how misguided that law is and how little those in power understand the market or even care to do so. In the end, absence of evidence is not proof of guilt.
Even with all of this, ILLICID notes that only 10.9 percent of the objects it studied lacked any provenance at all. The remaining 87 percent have information, but the study does not consider it sufficient.
No Terrorist Financing
This is not the study’s only flaw. There is also a lack of evidence to support its claim that antiquities sales significantly finance terrorism and, principally, the activities of IS. The recommendations offered assume that IS control of any given region, and the increasing vulnerability of cultural heritage amid the political instability, means that it financed itself significantly through the looting of antiquities.
But the UN Security Council’s monitoring team reported in 2019 that the IS had not systematically used cultural assets as a source of funding. A 2017 study by Deloitte ordered by the EU Commission to justify stringent new import licensing regulations found that none of the 28 EU member states could identify the financing of terrorism through cultural property at all. King’s College, London concluded its research in the same year with the view that financing terrorism via the antiquities trade is unlikely.
Grasping at straws for evidence to back its recommendations, the ministry called on a 2005 article in the German magazine DerSpiegelthat claimed the lead terrorist in the 9/11 attacks financed the operation by selling looted Afghan artifacts. But in reality, while Mohamed Atta had asked a professor where such pieces might be marketed, and was referred to Sotheby’s, nothing ever came of this.
A suffocating bureaucracy
It is quite frankly scandalous that despite the failure of the ILLICID study back up its initial assumptions with hard evidence, the Federal Ministry of Research appears now to have manipulated the results to pursue its original agenda.
I am shocked by the recommendations for numerous measures to be taken against a market already brought to its knees by earlier misconceived legislation, which itself was imposed as a result of political ideology rather than to solve a proven problem.
This time, the recommendations include a transparency register in which all archaeological cultural assets that can be legally traded must be recorded. But this inflicts more work on dealers while failing to acknowledge the impossibility of the task. If accepted, the recommendations will also mean yet another database being set up for known or allegedly counterfeit cultural goods. It also recommends digitizing all trade publications after 1945, but fails to provide any budget by which already struggling dealers could do so.
The list of regulations already in place or proposed covers every eventuality already. These include—but are not limited to—the new EU import licensing laws, which also cover export licenses from source countries; UN sanctions specifically targeted at Syria and Iraq; and, perhaps most importantly, the EU’s fifth anti-money laundering directive, which explicitly targets the art market and comes into full force at the beginning of 2021, with severe penalties for those who break the rules.
Germany has little more than a handful of antiquities dealers these days, and most are micro-businesses. How are they going to cope if this latest set of ridiculous measures is adopted? And what are the implications for the rest of the market? It is a suffocating bureaucracy that is undermining an already vulnerable trade.
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.
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.