Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Israel Requires On-Line Inventories

After losing a court challenge, Israeli antiquities dealers will be required to establish on-line inventories that will allow Israeli authorities to better track purchases, sales and exports.

In theory at least, this sounds reasonable, but CPO wonders whether the process will be a nightmare in practice, particularly for small, inexpensive items like oil lamps and coins.

And if this is such a great idea, why not require archaeologists and museums operating in Israel to establish on-line inventories as well?  Such on-line inventories would help deter insider theft and perhaps provide information that will be helpful to scholars.

Consider Helping Dick Stout

Dick Stout, a metal detectorist who runs a popular blog, lost his home to a tornado.  Friends have set up a way to donate money to help Dick and his family during this difficult time.  CPO hopes Dick, his wife and their community will bounce back from this tragedy.  Those who wish to help can do so here.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not as Clear as it May Seem

Actor Nicholas Cage has agreed to repatriate another Bataar skull back to Mongolia.  So, the goverment has won by default again, despite the fact that the government's case may not be as strong as it seems from press reports. Meanwhile, CPO has heard a rumor that Mongolia has quietly sold another repatriated Bataar to a wealthy individual in the Middle East.  If true, it would further undercut claims that have been made in the past to Courts and the public that Bataar Fossils have not been made available for sale.

Friday, December 18, 2015

But Who Will Hold US Government Officials into Account?

The US State Department and US Customs have held a ceremony to repatriate to the Chinese Government artifacts and a fossil forfeited from American citizens because of misrepresentations on customs documentation.  In each case, the small businessmen who made the misrepresentations also suffered criminal penalties.

But what about gross exaggerations concerning the value of ISIS antiquities made to the US Congress and the American public?

Is it just that small businessmen lose their property and suffer criminal convictions for misrepresentations on customs documentation while government officials can exaggerate values of stolen antiquities with impunity in order to justify new government regulations?

Witch Hunt to Follow?

The UN Security Council has voted to require member states to pursue ISIS funding sources. While this is well and good, it is unfortunate that once again a bogus $100 million figure for ISIS antiquities sales is apparently being used to justify the measure.  Now, we can only hope that there won't be a witch hunt in order to try to prove the claim that ISIS is dealing vast quantities of antiquities in Europe and the United States.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Debunking the ISIS Antiquities Funding Myth

Kate FitzGibbon writes on debunking the ISIS antiquities funding myth for the Committee for Cultural Policy website.  Hopefully, others as well will start calling the State Department and archaeological lobby into account for their ongoing efforts to exaggerate the value of ISIS looted antiquities.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Prominent Member of Archaeological Lobby Suggests US State Department Faking Link Between ISIS and the Antiquities Trade

Neil Brodie, a prominent member of the international archaeological lobby, has suggested that the US State Department has used forged documents to establish a link between ISIS and antiquity sales.  According to Brodie,

In September 2015, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Will such a reward be money well spent? What will be the benefit of disrupting the trade in Syria’s and Iraq’s archaeological heritage, and how financially damaging will it be for extremists? Answers to these questions are forthcoming from documents released into the public domain the same day by Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, at a meeting hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The documents had been seized in May 2015, during a US Special Forces raid on the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of ISIL’s antiquities division. They include a book of 11 receipts purporting to show profits made by ISIL though taxing the antiquities trade.

The authenticity of these receipts has been questioned. They seem to be too convenient, providing as they do for a US and indeed international audience clear, material confirmation of previously unfounded media reporting that ISIL is profiting significantly from taxing the antiquities trade in areas under its control. It is convenient, for example, that the sums of money received are expressed numerically using “European” Arabic numerals so that they are immediately comprehensible to an American or European reader rather than, as would be expected in a handwritten Arabic document, “Arabic” Arabic numerals. Why would ISIL do such a thing for internal accounting purposes? 

Brodie also concedes that given what we know, antiquities must be a minor source for ISIS and that it's more likely that the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army are profiting from antiquities sales:

IThe 11 receipts together show that between December 2014 and March 2015, ISIL collected $265,000 through a 20% tax, suggesting a total monetary value for the taxed antiquities trade of approximately $1.3 million for four months. Multiplying up, that would be $4 million per annum. $4 million in Syria would pay for a lot of antiquities, yet very few have been identified on the destination market. Perhaps, as is sometimes claimed, they are being warehoused in Syria or abroad, but if that is the case, some people are paying out millions of dollars (the money taxed by ISIL) for commodities that can only be stockpiled in warehouses in the hope of a profit in an uncertain commercial future. Regardless, it could be they really are arriving on the destination market, filtering through it and being sold with falsified paperwork and invented provenances. After all, who is really looking?

Would disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade save archaeological sites from further depredation? The receipts illustrated by Keller in his presentation all relate to Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, about 18% of the country’s total land area. Deir az-Zor province has been largely under ISIL control since July 2014. According to the US Department of State’s map of Syrian archaeological heritage sites at risk, Deir az-Zor is one of the archaeologically-poorer areas of Syria. The more archaeologically-rich western areas of the country remain under the control of forces loyal to Assad or of the non-jihadi opposition. Media reports, now backed up by Jesse Casana’s careful analysis of satellite imagery recently published in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology (vol. 78, no. 3, 2015), demonstrate that both of these groups have also engaged in and profited from archaeological looting. It appears to not be as damaging as that conducted by ISIL, but is damaging nevertheless. Geography alone would suggest that material flowing through Lebanon is derived from those sources. Thus both Assad and the non-jihadi opposition are also likely to be profiting from the antiquities trade. Eliminating ISIL from the trade would still leave the most archaeologically-rich areas of Syria vulnerable to looting, and when ISIL is rolled back from Deir az-Zor by its opponents, looting there will most likely be ameliorated but not eliminated.

How important for ISIL is the money derived from taxing the antiquities trade? On October 5th, 2015, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi published on the website Jihadology some ISIL documentation recording its financial ministry’s accounting of Deir az-Zor province for one month within the period covered by the tax receipts. (And notice that these ISIL records do utilize “Arabic” Arabic numerals). The total income for one month was recorded as $8,438,000. The receipts record a monthly tax revenue from antiquities sales of approximately $66,000. Thus the receipts suggest that the antiquities tax accounts for only a small proportion (0.8%) of ISIL’s total income. This figure accords well with the US Department of the Treasury’s seemingly low estimation of the antiquities trade’s financial importance, behind oil, kidnapping and general extortion. Eliminating this income stream would therefore do little to degrade ISIL’s operational capacity.

Nonetheless, Brodie, staying true to his anti-trade bias, remains all for "suppressing demand for antiquities" in order to save archaeological context.  Like many hard-liners, he's loath to consider possibility that the real problem may be that the "State Owns Everything Old" model only associates antiquities with hated Middle Eastern dictators and devalues them so thoroughly that they are smuggled or even destroyed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hocus Pocus: Is all the Hype About Looted Antiquities Meant to take the Focus Off Hot Oil?

A cynic might think so after reading this from a well-known and controversial political operative.   In any event, it is indisputable that activists with an ax to grind against the antiquities trade continue to exaggerate the value of looted antiquities even though what hard information that is actually available suggests that  ISIS' take from antiquities sales and related taxation must in fact be a very minor part of the terror group's portfolio of about $1 bn.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

UNESCO Eggs Panama On to Break Deal with Treasure Hunter

UNESCO has evidently egged on Panama to renege on an agreement with an American treasure salvor to share the proceeds of a Spanish wreck in Panamanian territorial waters.  Recovering treasure from  wrecks is an expensive and time consuming process that will only happen if nation states are willing to share the proceeds.  There is a middle ground where wrecks are surveyed by archaeologists employed by treasure hunters and a representative sample of what is found is put on display on a museum.  To leave wrecks in situ is to allow valuable knowledge and objects to be lost to the vagaries of the sea.