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 and poor policy in tackling the problem. The illicit trade in antiquities is much smaller, opportunistic rather than organised, and more widely dispersed than previously thought, it concludes.
“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. 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.
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.
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, 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”.
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, policy and argument “has been dominated by speculation and hypotheses”, while almost no trafficking of antiquities is taking place via the dark web.
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”.
“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.
The report concludes that current efforts to tackle trafficking are misguided, ineffective, costly and unrealistic, partially because they are based on inaccurate assumptions.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 Summary, page xi
 See Policy Responses Based on Findings, page xiii and Directions for Future Research, page 97
 See Findings, page xi to xii
 See Introduction, page 3, and Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 10
 See Antiquities Trafficking Using Telegram, page 49-50
 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
 See Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market’s Relationship to Terrorist Funding, page 11
 See Footnote, page 43
 See Findings, page xii
 See Findings, page xii
 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
 See Antiquities Trafficking on Arabic-Language Facebook Groups, page 54
 See Policy Responses Based on Findings, page xiii and Responding to Illicit Networks, page 96
The European Union passed its proposals for the import licensing of cultural property on April 9, confirming the decision in its official statement and publication of the new regulations on April 17. What was eventually passed remains highly controversial and will undoubtedly cause problems. This is because despite more workable and reasonable measures being agreed on as recently as February following consultation with Member States and their legal advisers, the adopted version appears to have ignored their wishes and reverted to an earlier set of proposals instead.
What are the salient points of what has been adopted?
Importers of any archaeological artefacts aged over 250 years originating from outside of the EU will have to provide paperwork showing legal export from the source country under the laws of that country at the time of export regardless of the items’ value. It should be remembered that this does not just apply to artefacts from the Levant or North Africa, but also to Asian art, Islamic art and Tribal art of all types, from the Oceanic art of the Pacific to the native tribal art of North and South America, as well as Australia.
In many (if not most) cases it is likely to prove impossible to provide such proof because of how far back in time the original export might have taken place, the difficulty in identifying when that was, the likelihood that no information exists on what relevant laws applied at the time and the almost certain lack of paperwork. Where this is the case and either a valid export licence from the source country or other paperwork establishing legal export are not present, the regulations allow for a derogation in two very limited exceptional circumstances as long as it can be shown that an item was legally exported from the last country where it had been located for an unbroken period of more than five years. The first is where the source country cannot be reliably identified, while the second is where it can be shown that the item in question was exported from its source country before April 24, 1972, the original enforcement date of the UNESCO Convention. This latter condition ignores the fact that the accession dates of respective countries to the Convention were all years, if not decades, later, and so introduces more restrictive measures than the source countries themselves have ever agreed to. It is likely that most of these countries are not aware of this EU decision.
What this appears to mean, in effect, is that anything legally exported from source countries after April 24, 1972 would not be recognised as licit for the purposes of import to the EU unless it is actually accompanied by a valid export licence.
Take, for example, Egypt, which continued to export artefacts legally until 1983. Under the new regulations, an item legally exported from Egypt in 1978 accompanied by reasonable paperwork showing this, but not an actual export licence, might still be deemed illicit for the purposes of import to the EU because it was later than April 24, 1972.
Sting in the tail of importer statements
Paragraph 7 of the new regulations make it clear that the definition of cultural property they adopt are based on the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. However, while the UNESCO Convention only addresses items of importance, the terms of the new EU regulations are far wider ranging, encompassing all archaeological artefacts regardless of value. This will render the import of many licit items uneconomic, while the extensive customs processing period of several months will also prove a problem for dealers standing at fairs or both dealers and auctioneers selling on to clients.
For everything else, from paintings and drawings to sculpture, historical items, flora and fauna and so on, importers will need to provide importer statements warranting legal export from the source country – backed by the relevant documentation – if the item in question originated outside the EU, is more than 200 years old and valued at more than €18,000. Again, this is likely to have implications for dealers, auctioneers and collectors for the reasons given above.
Importer statements may seem like a softer option, but the risk in using them could actually be greater. This is because the declarer takes on legal responsibility for the statement they issue and the status of the item being imported. This means that where an importer acts in good faith, providing the relevant paperwork to support the statement, they could still be held liable under the new regulations if it is later discovered that the item had been stolen or illegally exported at an earlier time, before it came into their possession. The authorities have made it clear that sanctions for those who breach the new regulations will be severe.
The stated purpose of these regulations is to prevent items that might have funded terrorism from entering the EU. Given that no member state, nor the European Commission’s own research for the purpose of drawing up these regulations has found any evidence at all of this happening, the measures fail to meet the EU’s own standards of proportionality when taking the possible ensuing damage to the international art market into account. Bearing in mind that existing stringent sanctions relating to Syria and Iraq already apply within the EU for this purpose, it would have been much simpler and cost-effective to extend them to cover Libya, Yemen and any other source country identified as being at risk.
Our fellow association, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), intends to continue working with stakeholders – including undertaking a legal review of the adopted terms – to ensure that the measures are adapted to a more workable formula prior to enforcement, which cannot take place until the European Commission has introduced a fully operational electronic system to manage the process, and this is not expected to happen for another five or six years. It will be at least two years before the EU confirms whether funding for the electronic system will even be in place. The money will only be forthcoming if it is deemed a priority in the EU’s 2021-27 budget.
COMMENT: A perceived lack of regulation, the rise of art as an alternative asset class and conflict in the Middle East present a triple whammy for an unprepared art market. What has happened to the market? And what must happen now? asks Ivan Macquisten
Antiques Trade Gazette’s current report on how the trade is fighting back against misperceptions and propaganda.
The international trade in antiquities has been the focus of sustained criticism over the past few years as a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Anti-trade campaigners – academics, archaeologists, politicians and others – who have been trying to shut down the legitimate trade for years, have seized this opportunity to lobby hard for new regulation, ever-tighter restrictions on trade and more draconian punishments for even slight infringements. There have been calls for the private ownership of antiquities to be made socially unacceptable.
The dissemination of biased or badly conducted research and questionable relationships with the media, much of which appears complicit, or at least complacent, has not helped. This is part of the widely recognised ‘fake news’ issue, as 24-hour rolling reporting combined with declining resources within the media – particularly in the press – rob journalists of the opportunity to investigate in any depth or check facts. This makes them increasingly vulnerable to unscrupulous interests that want to present propaganda as news. Outlandish figures relating to the size of the problem of looted material coming out of Syria, for instance, have been widely accepted as utterly unfounded by all sides in the debate for some time now, yet continue to be peddled by a number of quite prominent sources.
This has led to criticism from anti-trade campaigners themselves. Dr Neil Brodie’s article for the European Union National Institutes for Culture, says the propagandists exaggerate the problem to attract government attention and more funding. This leads to inappropriate policy, which in turn damages the very nations and cultural heritage institutions they seek to protect.
Even government research and publications, in the US, Germany and elsewhere fall short of the standards that should be expected. Recently, Homeland Security Today, the news and views website for the eponymous US department, published my critique of Homeland Security’s report last October, Cash to Chaos, dismantling ISIS’ financial infrastructure.
The report’s small section on antiquities was riddled with inaccuracies, the footnotes quoting out-of-date and long-discredited media articles as primary sources of evidence to support the claims. In some cases, the reports mentioned in the footnotes did not contain any of the evidence referred to at all. If this can happen with Homeland Security, whose report was leapt on by campaigners as further proof of the antiquities problem, who else can be trusted?
Many of those who want to see an end to any trade, legitimate or not, dedicate most of their working lives to this cause. They tend to be very well funded and organised, and have the ear of governments, law enforcement and NGOs, which do not appear to appreciate the distinction between those who trade lawfully and those who do not.
The effectiveness of these campaigners is not to be underestimated, especially as the antiquities sector in particular and the art market in general have been woefully unprepared to tackle such unrelenting criticism.
All of this is not helped by the perception that the wider art market is fairly lawless. True, it is not directly regulated in the way that finance, health, insurance and the law are, but there is direct regulation, and plenty of it (see the British Art Market Federation’s list of regulation. A dealer’s liability under the new Cultural Property [Armed Conflicts] Bill is a case in point: potentially, they can be jailed for up to seven years for even unintentionally breaking the law.
How it all changed in 2008
What the art market has failed to understand until quite recently is that everything changed in 2008. When the markets crashed and pulled the rug out from under gilts and bonds, those traditional safe havens of wealth, the relative risk of art as a store of value diminished, making it much more attractive as an alternative asset class. The banks and wealth managers started to advise clients to diversify their portfolios.
Where money heads, attention follows – and not just from investors. Regulators, governments and criminals also turned their gaze on the art market as a significant influx of cash created the potential for money laundering, market manipulation and other undesirable activities. Transparency became the buzzword of any discussion about the market, but transparency is just the outward manifestation of the real problem: lack of trust.
The market generally was unused to such scrutiny and ill equipped for what it would mean: media attacks, tighter controls, new laws and wider attempts at regulation. Many continue to bury their heads in the sand, but others have realised they must act now to build confidence with the authorities and public before it is too late.
Despite this, most have still not accepted that such a programme requires a significant investment of money and time, the sort of commitment on which the other side in the debate has long been able to rely.
Against this background, and the emerging Syrian conflict, the antiquities trade found itself in the front line. What makes life even harder for the trade is the role antiquities now play in international diplomacy. Nation states are using cultural property or heritage as a political tool in negotiations, to curry favour with other countries or to burnish their credentials as virtuous campaigners for the greater good.
The trade fights back
Around two years ago, the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in the UK and then the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) recognised that they needed to fight back. As such, they realised they must revisit their own codes of conduct and improve procedures and methods of communication, whether via their websites, direct mail, PR and media opportunities or their relationships with the various authorities.
They have been very effective in doing so, leading the way in raising wider art market standards – as parliament has recognised – and shaping debate with lawmakers, law enforcement and the media at national and international levels.
Their success can be attributed in part to their thorough research and presentation of arguments supported by independently verifiable evidence, in part to the dedication of their representatives, and in part to the fact that the anti-trade campaigners have not been used to having their propaganda challenged and so are sometimes inattentive when it comes to detail.
Nonetheless, rich and powerful anti-trade interests – supported by countries such as Egypt that wish to reclaim their cultural property, regardless of whether it now rightly belongs to others – have persuaded governments to introduce major changes in the law in Germany, the UK and the United States, laws introduced as a result of mistaken views of where problems lie.
The rather less well-funded antiquities trade is fighting an effective rear-guard action, but very much against the odds. What the trade does have is a network of knowledgeable experts, a sophisticated strategy and a wealth of evidence and data to support its case; it is also getting better organised, with disparate groups in the USA coming together to fight for better understanding and a fairer deal. It needs better financial and strategic support as the trade improves its own relationships with decision-makers further and continues to fight for recognition in national and international debate.
Trade organisations have already tried to engage with their fiercest critics, but the signs so far are that campaigners have no intention of giving any ground. I can understand this: they have had unrivalled success so far and can’t see any reason to compromise. It is clear that many simply believe that any trade whatsoever means providing cover for the crooks. What may surprise them is that legitimate trade is the arch-enemy of the crooks, as criminal activity damages the reputation of those who trade lawfully.
The wider art market needs to wake up fully to its challenges, as demonstrated so clearly already in the microcosm of the antiquities market. That means better self-regulation in the form of codes of conduct, ethical behaviour and transparency, as well as a more effective public charm offensive, with the trade associations taking a prominent role.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of the RICS property Journal
See also www.imacq.com