Monday, July 26, 2021

Putting a Price on the Priceless: Measuring the Illicit Antiquities Trade in Data and Dollars

On July 26, 2021, the Antiquities Coalition and George Mason University Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TrrACC) conducted an on-line discussion about measuring the illicit trade in antiquities.

 The participants included Louis Shelly (LS) (TrrACC), Neil Brodie (NB) (Oxford), Layla Hashemi (LH) (TrrACC), and Ute Wartenberg-Kagan (UWK) (American Numismatic Society).  Patrick Costello (PC) (Council on Foreign Relations) served as the moderator.

 LS explained the discussion is part of a “big data analysis” performed by TrrACC under a State Department contract.  It looked at both the low end and high-end markets using methods including advanced technologies developed by DARPA to review the Dark Web. 

 Their findings evidently will be published in a book by Rutledge.

 In 2013, NB valued the antiquities market at $64-300 million.  The coin market is valued at $56-$300 million.  RAND’s study did not value the coin market.

 UWK indicates that the coin market comprises of a low-end and a high-end market.  The low-end market found on eBay is huge with over 2 million pieces offered valued at $40-$100 million.  The low-end market represents a significant problem that collectors, archaeologists and the trade should address.

 NB says valuing the trade is a fool’s errand and we should instead focus on the damage the trade causes.  There are ways to estimate the values of artifacts extracted from archaeological sites. 

 LH indicates one must also assess tangible and intangible impacts to cultural heritage, links to terrorism, and funding conflicts.  Technology lowers the barriers to entry into the market meaning gray market participants can act with impunity.

 There is some discussion of free ports.  However, coin traders do not appear to use free ports.

 LH indicates the total illicit trade of all goods (not just antiquities and coins) is $2-$3 trillion.

 NB indicates looting during conflicts does not only harm cultural heritage directly, but the conflicts also drive qualified academics out of countries where they could assess the damage.

 UWK indicates that it is difficult to explain to villagers why it is not a good idea to loot.  In places like Turkey this is even more difficult because those who work the land often do so for absentee landlords.

 UWK indicates the coin trade still purchases fresh coins where it believes it is legal to do so under U.S. law.  She also indicates there are disagreements whether the proper date to assess the provenance for a coin should be the 1970 date of the UNESCO Convention or the date of a Memorandum of Understanding with a source country.  She indicates the focus should be to keeping coins that have been illicitly excavated recently off the market.

 LS indicates that the antiquities trade will soon be subject to Anti-Money laundering regulations, but the art and coin trade should also be subject to such regulations. 

 NB indicates that he is doubtful that established antiquities dealers sell recently looted artifacts, but he indicates that they regularly sell artifacts looted decades ago.

 LH indicates that much of the low-end market is sold on Facebook despite rules against selling antiquities on that platform.

 There are not many antiquities on the Dark Web, but that is because they are sold openly on other platforms. If there is a crackdown on these platforms, it is possible business will move onto the Dark Web.

 There also is some use of crypto currency to purchase antiquities which may raise some issues.

 NB indicates it is hard to get people motivated to protect sites unless tourist dollars are at issue.  Farmers typically aren’t interested in preserving sites.  It is difficult enough to convince people not to loot, but impossible when there is a conflict and people are desperate.

 Prosecutions are helpful to disincentivize unlawful activity.  There are members of DHS law enforcement on the zoom call. 

 NB believes training the military about cultural heritage is a waste of resources. 

 UWK indicates a major problem is the lack of resources directed at enforcement.  She is pessimistic eBay or Facebook can be convinced to stop allowing their platforms to sell coins.

 NB believes antiquities sales should be taxed with the funds going to enforcement.

 LS again states her belief that art in addition to antiquities should be subject to anti-money laundering regulations. 

 LH states her belief that there are some unsavory actors behind the trade on Facebook.

 UWK indicates that Covid has made it harder to move illicit goods. 

 NB does not believe the Portable Antiquities Scheme or Treasure Act is an answer.  He maintains that finds in the UK are grossly underreported, and that the PAS encourages looting.

 Comment:  Very little new information came out of this presentation.  All the participants except for UWK seemed generally hostile to collecting.  LH seemed to be reading Antiquities Coalition talking points throughout much of the presentation.  The content of this seminar should raise fundamental questions about how studies with inputs solely from activists are prepared.  Additionally, one suspects funding considerations may also impact how problems are viewed.  Here, all the focus on discouraging demand for antiquities and coins is not surprising because a holistic approach focused primarily on addressing the causes for looting at the source would require an acknowledgement that source country practices are often a major part of the problem.  No wonder TraCCC came up with a series of excuses why its staff could not to meet with representatives of the coin trade to discuss these issues from a different perspective while its study was ongoing.


Ed S said...

I'm curious about Louis Shelly's wish to apply anti-money laundering regulations to the coin industry. I don't know anything about such regulations. Is he talking about coins with values in excess of $10,000 only?

I believe Ute Wartenberg-Kagan has a large dataset representing online coin transactions. I would be curious to know what precent of coin transactions would trigger anti-money laundering requirements, either in Shelly's view or your view.

Cultural Property Observer said...

We'll find out more when FINCEN takes comments for its upcoming AML regulations for antiquities dealers, however that might be defined. We have advocated for high thresholds, but who knows what they will propose.