Live, laugh, loot: the trafficking of antiquities during a pandemic

Published by Florence McCrae on July 5th 2020, 1:01pm

At the height of Covid-19, online shopping increased by some 129 per cent. From the latest pair of Nikes to a bulk lot of Tunnock’s wafers, it seems that in 2020 any whim can be satisfied in a matter of clicks. Unfortunately, the ability to purchase whatever we want extends to the things we should not be able to – including the acquisition of stolen artefacts.

The illegal acquisition of artefacts is nothing new. Indeed, it is a tale with as much history and intrigue as many of the looted pieces themselves. Of late, however, the provenance of pieces has been subject to increasing discussion, part of what seems to be an effort to make the art world and its market more transparent. Unfortunately, the debate is often reduced to the poster boy of repatriationthe Elgin Marbles, which fails to consider just how pervasive the problem actually is.

As we operate in an increasingly technologically advanced world, the retail of looted artefacts has become easier. Thanks to platforms such as Facebook marketplace, it is now possible to acquire classical coins, mosaics, and, most concerningly of all, entire sarcophagi, with a few very illegal clicks of a button. While most of the world has been rendered inactive by the pandemic, looters, it would seem, are having something of a field day.

Katie Paul, an expert in archaeology at times of unrest, demands change. In a piece for Medium, she writes: “For years, Facebook has served as a massive outlet for antiquities looters and traffickers as they seek to feed material into a widening global network of buyers — all at the click of a button.” Thanks to the pandemic, looting has become considerably easier with sites across the world provided with more lax security than usual.

There is a skill to looting such as this. Looters will often film their activities, at times even asking for advice in the comments section to ensure pieces are safely removed from their former resting place. Later in the process, photographs of artefacts in situ are even used to prove the provenance of items. First timers use Facebook to ask where is best to dig, while more seasoned looters use it as “the middleman’s middleman”, selling pieces across the world, ultimately sealing the deal on an encrypted app.

The illegal sale of artefacts has been a cause for concern for some time. A BBC expose broadcast last year also examined the way in which artefacts made their way from Iraq and Syria into Turkey in spite of police clampdowns and tighter border restrictions. For looters, sites such as Facebook enable them to reach a global consumer base, often with no repercussions.

For Paul, the problems caused by Covid-19 have been a long time coming. As the co-director of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research project, or Athar for short, she has dedicated years to the studying and surveying of the illegal sale of artefacts online.

As of 2019, the project tracked 95 different groups, and the actions of almost two million users. The statistics demonstrate that Covid-19 has magnified interest in the trade of stolen antiquities – this time last year the largest group held some 150,000 members – it has now grown to over 437,000 people. The pandemic, reasons Paul, has only exacerbated the problems which were already there.

Indeed, this is by no means the first time looting has been aided by global events. Similar patterns of increased looting occurred during the Arab Spring uprisings, and at other such times when sites were at their most vulnerable. The exploitation of cultural vulnerability has been seen in similar spheres, with a Van Gogh stolen from the Singer Laren museum earlier this year as a result of more lax security amid the pandemic.

In theory, the rules to prevent looting already exist. Indeed, Facebook has a detailed list of items which cannot be sold on their platform, including human remains, yet there is neither sufficient action nor moderation at present to prevent this. “Even during periods of national stability, Facebook fails to enforce its own Community Standards” says Paul. The pandemic and the platform are working together, quite by accident it would seem, to create something of a perfect storm.

In late June of this year, Facebook sought to respond to the claims that their site had become “a bazaar for the sale of looted Middle Eastern antiquities.” The site formally announced that they would no longer stand for any content “that attempts to buy, sell or trade in historical artefacts.” The list of said artefacts now includes “rare items of significant historical, cultural, or scientific value.” While the rules are tightening up, it is unclear whether or not the sanctions will too.

For the public policy manager at Facebook, Greg Mandel, the rules were already in place. However, he notes: “To keep these artefacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today, we now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artefacts on Facebook and Instagram.”

He went on to say that the artefacts for sale are oft imbued with “significant personal and cultural value for communities across the globe, but their sale often results in harmful behaviour.” Mandel made no reference to the impact of Covid-19 on the sale of artefacts on the platform. The specific sanctions for those who breach the platform’s new rules were also unclear.

For Athar’s co-director, Amr al-Azm, it is not enough for Facebook to remove the sale of items, they must also preserve the existing pages as something of a digital archive. He notes: “The photos and videos of artefacts we see posted on Facebook, often while still in the ground, may be the only evidence of that object’s existence.” Too many pieces have already been lost for the platform to remove every last trace of them, reasons al-Azm.

The site’s recent actions bode well, but al-Azm wants more. “Relying on user reports and Artificial Intelligence is simply not enough,” he says, “This is also a black market that funds criminal organisations, warlords, and radical extremists, and it’s happening on the same site in the same digital space that you welcome into your home and share photos of your children.” For al-Azm, there is room for improvement on both the platform and in public policy.

As for Paul, she believes that Facebook’s change in policy is indicative of “an important shift in their position on the trade in cultural heritage and demonstrates that they recognize that this is an illegal and harmful activity that is occurring on their platform” but she believes that, “a policy is only as good as its enforcement.” One hopes that Paul’s words serve as a warning for the platform and that they do not fall back into their old habits.

Indeed, the latest policy introduced by Facebook could easily come with the very same issues faced by its predecessors – a lack of enforcement from the platform itself. While Facebook claims to have removed some 50 different artefact trafficking groups last year, there are still many more to tackle. Coupled with the spread of false Covid-19 information across the site, it seems that the social media platform may have its work cut out for it.

The sale of artefacts obtained by dubious means is in no way restricted to Facebook. Indeed, rather more official platforms face the self-same accusations. Earlier this week, Christie’s auction house came under fire for retailing a duo of sacred Nigerian statues, the origin of which is as unclear as the auction house’s justification to sell them.

According to critics, the pair in question were looted at the height of the Biarfran war in the late 1960s. Protests from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments went unheeded, with the auction house choosing not to acknowledge claims that the sale illustrated a misappropriation of “black culture, identity and especially art”.

Babatunde Adebiyi, an adviser for the commission, said that: “Christie's ought not to be dealing in Nigerian antiquities that were probably taken out at a time of conflict, contrary to the Hague Convention of 1954.”

The Hague convention, to which Adebiyi refers, came at a critical point, “in the wake of massive destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War.” It was the very first “international treaty with a world-wide vocation focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict”, which renders it applicable to the pair of statues. It is likely the action of Christie’s, if proven unlawful, also fails to act in accordance with the 1970 convention, in which illicit international trading of artefacts was also made illegal.

The most recent dispute also involved the attempted sale of a plaque from the collection of Benin Bronzes, which were looted in 1897. The plaque failed to meet its reserve price, and as a result remains unsold.

For Adebiyi, the sale was not only a legal issue, it was also a cultural one. He continued: "There is never going to be a universal principle that says something made by my forebears belongs to you in perpetuity because you bought it in an auction house. African antiquities will always be African, just like a Da Vinci will always be European." The pair, described by Christie’s as “among the greatest sculptures of African art,” sold for $238,000 considerably below the presale estimate of €250,000 to €350,000. It is unclear whether the scandal surrounding them impacted this.

In a statement issued to The Associated Press prior to the sale, the auction house defended their decision, saying that: "these objects are being lawfully sold having been publicly exhibited and previously sold over the last decades prior to Christie's involvement." They maintain they only sell: “objects where we are confident in the ownership and the provenance”.

The Christie’s auction came at a particularly controversial time for the French art market as a whole, with continuing claims that Paris is an international hub for the trade of illegal artefacts. A wide-ranging inquiry into the sale of looted antiquities is ongoing, with at least five members of the art elite embroiled in the scandal.

Expert in Mediterranean archaeology, Christophe Kunicki, is among the cohort who have been quizzed by officers from the Central Office for the Fight against the Trafficking of Cultural Goods. Officers from the Central Office for the Fight Against Major Financial Crime have also been involved in the case.

Those who have been interviewed by the police are accused of aiding the selling of millions of euros worth of looted Middle Eastern artefacts. Annie Caubet, former curator at the Louvre, an unnamed Paris gallery owner, and David Ghezelbash have been among those questioned, though the latter was released without charges last week. It is also believed that the chair of Pierre Bergé & Associés is among those who have been arrested, though the house declined to comment.

It is believed that the experts concealed the origin of the pieces which they have sold on, with buyers including the Louvre’s outpost in Abu Dhabi and even the Met. The US museum returned a golden-sheathed coffin to Egypt last year which it had bought in Paris for €3.5 million. While the Met believed the item to have been obtained and bought legally, a closer inspection indicates that the export licence had, in fact, been forged.

A judicial source has said that the current investigation continues to examine “the trafficking of antiquities from countries that are politically unstable or at war”, with specific reference to the pillaging of sites since the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. It would seem that times of conflict, both past and present, lend themselves to the illegal acquisition and sale of artefacts.

British art historian, Jack Ogden, notes that: “It is extremely difficult to stop illicit trade, all the more so because the falsification of documents is very sophisticated now”, he continued that: “I’ve invented my own rule to detect falsified documents, which proves to work in 80 per cent of cases: always assume they’re fakes.” Perhaps both those within and those out with the art world could learn a great deal from such a way of thinking. An increasingly sophisticated black market demands an increasingly sophisticated investigative clout.

For an industry that relies upon attention to detail more than most, the range of forged paperwork and questionable origins of pieces is somewhat surprising. While the full impact of Covid-19 on the trafficking of artefacts is unclear, current research does not bode well. Observation of the law is fundamental to the industry’s future, lest we risk selling both ourselves and our pieces short.

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Authored By

Florence McCrae
Literary Editor
July 5th 2020, 1:01pm

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