The International Art Market as Cultural Bogeyman, Part 2

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Los Caprichos #43, c. 1799, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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This article appeared first on September 24, 2019 on the Cultural Property News website where you can also subscribe to their free newsletter.

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Formerly Editor of Antiques Trade Gazette, Ivan Macquisten is a writer, commentator, analyst, collector and campaigner in the international art market. His work includes advising the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) and International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), as well as trade organizations in other sectors and the UK government.

Who Opposes the Antiquities Trade and Why?

Opponents of the trade include academics, archaeologists, pressure groups, NGOs, some journalists and politicians. Their reasons are varied, ranging from the simple belief that trading in antiquities is immoral to fearing that the legitimate trade in antiquities acts as a cover for crime.

What we have learnt in undertaking this work is that the desire for money, power and political influence are as strong motivators for a few in the anti-trade camp as the desire to protect cultural heritage is for others. Poor research, media hype, and the habit of bureaucracies to reach for easy, uncomplicated answers is responsible for even more public misunderstanding.

Archaeologists believe that endowing antiquities with commercial value encourages looting which, in turn, destroys an antiquity’s historic and cultural value because it is removed from its place of discovery without a record of the circumstances being taken. Some politicians oppose the trade because they mistakenly believe that the scale of looting and trafficking is a huge global problem and one that can also finance terrorism. As countless official reports, including those commissioned to illustrate this problem, have shown, proof of criminal activity is hard to come by, but it is certain that the scale of illicit trade in antiquities is minute compared with other sectors of global trade such as alcohol, tobacco, weapons and environmental products.

While the media and public bodies insist on linking the antiquities trade with terrorism funding, there is no concrete evidence of this. Instead official reports set out speculation and rumour. For example, just published is the European Commission’s latest research into illicit trade, a study ordered to justify the EU’s new import licensing regulations. At its own estimation, even this failed to find any evidence to substantiate a connection between terrorist groups and the illicit trade in cultural goods, although having failed to do this, the report then indulges in speculation about how it might be happening anyhow.

It should also be understood that there is a lucrative industry in researching and campaigning against the trade, with well-endowed grants available, such as the €1.2m grant put up to fund Germany’s ILLICID study (see Annex, also Was ILLICID Report ‘Buried’ For Failing to Show Illegal Trade? Cultural Property News, July 14, 2019.) and the €1.5m grant awarded to anti-trade campaigner Donna Yates of Trafficking Culture (also co-author of the European Commission report mentioned above) in July 2018 by the European Research Council for a five-year study into transnational criminal networks.

Why Not Simply Shut Down the Trade?

Clearly, some would advocate that it should be shut down. For example, Donna Yates has gone on the record in the media to state that her ambition is to render the private ownership of antiquities “socially unacceptable”.

Despite officially sanctioning and granting licenses to trade in its own heritage for more than 100 years, Egypt now argues that its cultural property should not be commercially exploited by others and, as emphasised by an Egyptian TV reporter who has just interviewed me, the ordinary Egyptian in the street can’t understand why the sale of Egyptian artefacts is not illegal worldwide if their own government bans it at home. Other nations in Africa and the Middle East would also tend towards this view, as media reports indicate.

It is extremely complicated to unravel the various historic laws and their enforcement (or otherwise) of these countries, decades or centuries on, when little information is available about what happened at the time. The legal evolution within Europe of enforcing other countries’ laws has been a slow and complex process and this adds another layer of obfuscation to the process. Ultimately, the trade has been abiding by domestic and, more recently, EU law.

We also return to the vexed issue of destroying the rights of those who have bought and sold items legitimately and in good faith, whether as professional traders, specialist collectors or members of the public. In the UK, such a ban might come up against the United Nations Convention on Human Rights and rights founded in Magna Carta, while the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution enshrines property rights that some might argue would be violated by such a change.

The trade also acts as patron in the arts community, endowing museums and lending its expertise to public institutions. Additionally, removing monetary value from objects tends to make them vulnerable, as we are likely to see once the ban on trading antique ivory comes into force. Instead of being assets, such devalued objects effectively become ‘cost centres’ competing for resources with other objects that remain financial assets and can still be traded or de-accessioned and sold by institutions. In turn, this has a knock-on effect on scholarship as collectors abandon the field and no longer support research and the augmentation of public collections.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828) Aquellos polbos, Specks of Dust, Los Caprichos #23, 1797-1799, etching and aquatint, Museo del Prado.

Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding

An often overlooked consideration in assessing other nations’ attitudes to the antiquities trade is cross-cultural misunderstanding. Europeans and Americans tend to look at everything from a Western perspective; for instance, Near East, Middle East and Far East are regional names given from a Western perspective, whereas many people from the Middle East might refer to their region as the Levant. We should also remember that countries that have been conflict zones and therefore vulnerable to looting tend not to be democracies (Egypt, Syria, Iran, for example). Egypt outlawed the sale and export of its cultural heritage completely in 1983 via the Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities, superseding an earlier law, in 1835, that made it illegal to sell and export cultural heritage without permission. After 1983, the law made all archaeological discoveries automatically property of the state. Now, however, some leading opinion formers in Egypt appear to believe that the law also applies to all Egyptian antiquities discovered before that date, leading to demands for their return on ideological or moral grounds. A good example of this is the recent controversy over the Tutankhamun bust sold at Christie’s in London. Although the Egyptian authorities initially stated that they would demand its return if it could be proved that the head had been illegally trafficked, their stance soon changed to simply demanding its return, arguing that it was up to Christie’s to demonstrate that the head was not stolen, not for the Egyptians to show that it was. Meanwhile, Egypt’s former head of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, went further, arguing that the law did not matter and that the head should be returned simply on moral grounds. He also claimed that it had clearly been stolen from Karnak after 1970, but offered no evidence to support this. It appears that many people in Egypt expect foreign powers to implement the Egyptian Government’s demands because it does not occur to them that their government’s word is not law elsewhere. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same may be true in Syria under the Assad regime.

This confusion between legal, moral and ideological arguments is commonplace and was evident once again in the Mexican government’s objections to the sale of artefacts at Millon in Paris on September 18, 2019. Despite headlines claiming that the items were being sold illegally, it was clear that the Mexican government’s objections were based on ideological grounds. Bernardo Aguilar, general manager for Europe of Mexico’s Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference: “Reducing them to decorative objects undermines the integrity of cultures and therefore that of all humanity.”

That argument is part of an entirely separate debate, which nations are entitled to have, but if art source nations go down that route, there are far-reaching consequences of such a policy for their own culture, economy and population.

The Trade and the Media

The antiquities trade generally fights shy of the media because in the instances when it has co-operated, whether for newspaper articles, radio shows or TV documentaries, its views have largely been misrepresented and those interviewed have been made to look shifty and dishonest. Some dealers and auction houses also avoid media contact because they fear being targeted by anti-trade interest groups if they put their head above the parapet to comment on the issue.

In recent discussions I have had about this, one or two journalists have queried the trade’s media shyness, arguing that their reluctance to go before the cameras or be interviewed makes them seem shady, arrogant and uncaring, as though they have something to hide. They wanted to know why the art trade didn’t take a more active part in debates internationally at conferences and in forums like UNESCO and the EU. The journalists were surprised to learn that it wasn’t for the want of trying, but that the trade were almost always excluded from such events or permitted entry under tight restrictions that denied them any real platform for expressing their views. On the rare occasions that the trade is invited to take part – or manages to gain access to an NGO or government forum – the agenda is always one where the organisers have already decided that measures must be taken to restrain the market and it is up to the trade to say how it will answer those concerns. This was the case in May 2017, when IADAA successfully argued that it should be included in the two-day UNESCO conference, updating work on the UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Despite the fact that the focus was clearly on the trade in antiquities, as the head of the leading international association representing the antiquities trade, IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling was not allowed to speak from the podium, as others were, and was restricted to a speech of five minutes, cut to two minutes just before he was due to start. The level of engagement rarely goes beyond this, but it needs to if enduring resolutions are to result.

Public perception through media reporting of the trade and its lack of engagement is a conundrum and unfair, but the trade must think more carefully about how to overcome this perception and take a much more active role in engaging in public debate.

Data and Evidence

For some time now, the ADA and IADAA have undertaken research and analysis aimed at separating facts from propaganda and establishing a database of independently verifiable primary source information. This research has focused on checking and exposing false statistics, identifying the sources and causes of fake news, establishing, where possible, reliable figures relating to the antiquities trade and assessing how all of this relates to the development of policy and regulations. This research has proved invaluable in helping lawmakers and others make sound judgments as they consider the issues at hand.

We have also found that inaccurate information and fake news tends to come from three sources: the deliberate dissemination of false information, a failure to check facts and sources when creating media reports, and the misreading of accurate reporting.

When it comes to deliberate dissemination, Dr. Neil Brodie, an archaeologist, academic and campaigner for tighter antiquities trade restrictions, identified one of the risk areas in his 2015 article, Thinking on Policies, for the European Union National Institutes for Culture in Washington, arguing that, “There is an opinion within the archaeological community that highlighting the financial importance to ISIL of the antiquities trade will make it an issue of national security and ensure a strong government response. The danger with this line of reasoning is that the response might be an inappropriate one, aimed more at disabling ISIL and less at protecting archaeological heritage. This seems to be exactly what has happened.”

Relying on so-called ‘experts’ also has its risks. Much has been made of a Live Science report concerning the provenance of the Tutankhamun head sold at Christie’s recently. Great weight has been ascribed to statements apparently made by the extended family of Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, listed as a previous owner, who say he never owned it. However, what the claims amount to is hearsay based on memories dating back several decades that can be neither proved nor disproved because they are based on establishing a negative.

Just how much of a reliable scientific publication Live Science can claim to be is illustrated by another article it published by the same author, Owen Jarus, on June 5, 2019 under the headline ‘Blood Antiquities’ looted from war-torn Yemen bring in $1 million at auction’ – a very serious claim indeed. Read the article, however, and not only does it not provide any evidence of this, but it does not even make the headline’s claim in the article itself. Live Science posted the article on June 5, 2019; as I write more than three months later, no attempt has been made to correct it.

Misreading of information or failure to check ‘evidence’ can be the result from “confirmation bias” (viz Dr Tim Harford in the BBC programme Zombie Statistics), where people, groups or institutions form an opinion and then look for the evidence to support it, failing to test its robustness when they think they have found it. We have found much evidence of this in our researches and perhaps the most shocking aspect of this is that the guilty parties are sometimes bodies of international standing on whose probity governments, the media and the public have come to rely. Such failings have already resulted in the development and enforcement of ill-advised new legislation in more than one country.

Fortunately, (pace the Atlantic Council and the ICE) even most of those who oppose the trade have finally accepted that claims of illicit trading in antiquities being worth billions of dollars on a global scale are wrong. In fact, some of the trade’s arch critics have openly admitted that they have no evidence of terrorism funding coming from an illicit trade in antiquities despite bodies like the European Commission repeatedly claiming that the problem is so great it justifies the highly restrictive regulations just introduced in the EU.

The Annex below includes a series of statistics, reports and analysis (or links to them) that illustrates the points made here. All give primary source references and web links for independent verification purposes.


The pursuit of the international art market as the cultural bogeyman is the result of a number of factors.

First, when it comes to antiquities, many people believe that these should not be traded at all and so are using the terrorism crisis and Middle Eastern conflicts as a convenient excuse to clamp down on the legitimate market.

Second, criminals work in the shadows and are not easily identifiable, so difficult to pursue. The art market, on the other hand, as a legitimate entity, operates in the open and action against it is easy. Such action conveys an illusion of success in the fight against cultural heritage crime. It’s an illusion because although the action may be decisive, the target is wrong and so the problem continues, while trust between the art market and those who oppose it erodes further.

Viewing art collecting and archaeology as in opposition is a mistake, firstly because while the infighting continues between entities that actually have a common cause, the real culprits remain free to develop their criminal networks.

When it comes to antiquities and archaeological artefacts, the protection of cultural property can be addressed in two ways: (a) via the protection of cultural heritage sites and (b) via measures to safeguard cultural property once it has been removed from those sites.

Huge complications hinder the success of option (b). Lack of documentation proving legal sale and export from the source country is just the start. Recovering stolen property after it has been trafficked is another. The logistics and cost of applying effective methods globally to tackle this issue are all but insurmountable. This is one of the reasons why resources and attention need to focus more on option (a) and on building secure documentation systems from the start.

By protecting cultural heritage sites more effectively and neutralising the causes of looting, the authorities are likely to have a far greater positive impact on trafficking. In prioritising this approach, nations will also be better able to fulfil their obligations under Article 5 (d) of the UNESCO Convention, in which they are committed to “organizing the supervision of archaeological excavations, ensuring the preservation ‘in situ’ of certain cultural property, and protecting certain areas reserved for future archaeological research.”


Sources of Statistics

A number of statistics recur frequently in the media concerning the scope and value of illicit trade in antiquities, including trade associated with terrorism financing. Almost all are groundless. Some have simply been made up; others have acquired ‘official’ status through repetition in the media while originally being the unsubstantiated opinion of nameless ‘experts’ or others; finally, others have been deliberately or accidentally misrepresented as referring to antiquities when they actually refer to something else.

The ADA and IADAA have numerous examples of all of the above. As argued above, the problem with inaccurate statistics is that the more they are reported the more they become embedded as ‘fact’ – to the extent that they are even adopted by internationally trusted bodies like Interpol, Europol, UNESCO and the European Commission – and then go on to influence policy. The ADA and IADAA have developed a policy of researching these statistics and tracing them back to their origins to find out how reliable or not they are.

The following links give a taste of some of the issues at hand:

You can read the first part of this article here: The international art market as cultural bogeyman, Part 1: How confusion, complacency and politics play their part.

Earlier this year, the IADAA evaluated the 2017 WCO report.

CoinsWeekly has been publishing about the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art’s work on a regular basis. You can find all relevant articles in our archive.