Category Archives: News

The Missing Link: Subhash Kapoor’s Suppliers in India Are (Finally) Getting Rolled Up

In a series of aggressive police raids over the past month, Indian authorities have disrupted a large network of alleged thieves and smugglers that for decades has plundered ancient temples from Chennai to Mumbai to supply the international art market.

The raids started on May 31st with the arrest of three men  at a Chennai warehouse (or godown, in the Indian parlance). The men were employees of an 84-year old art dealer named Deena Dayalan, who has operated a Chennai art gallery since 1965. Indian and American authorities believe Dayalan has long been a major player in the theft and smuggling of antiquities from South India.

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Deena Dayalan, via Indian Express

Dayalan disappeared after the raid, but turned himself in a few days later. He is said to have confessed during an interrogation and listed his associates and storage facilities across India. Subsequent raids on his properties uncovered hundreds of artifacts, including 49 bronzes, 71 stone carvings and 96 paintings and hundreds of smaller objects including ivory and wood carvings, lamps, figurines and ornamental pillars.

As reported by Frontline, The Hindu newspaper’s weekly magazine, policemen entering Dayalan’s house were stunned by the scope of his haul:

“It looked like a temple,” one investigator told Frontline. “Besides the idols and artefacts, there were pamphlets and books on temple idols and archtecture. The pillars of his house could be from some old temples. There were wooden sculptures and two elephant heads at the entrance,” said an officer.

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The raid was not Dayalan’s first run-in with the law.  Frontline reported the dealer was accused of being behind the 2005 break-in at the ancient Sri Narum Poonathar Temple at Paluvoor village in Tirunelveli, where 13 bronze idols were stolen. After the theft, an accomplice was murdered in a dispute over efforts to extract gold from two-and-a-half-foot bronze Nataraja, which was sawn in half in the process. Dayalan was released on bail, and the case is on-going.

UPDATE 7/4/16: The Tamil Nadu Idol Wing has seized 200 objects from Lakshmi Narayanan, an associate of Dayalan. Authorities found 56 were metal idols, 103 stone idols, and 47 temple vahanas (decorative platforms used to carry the deity in processions), The Hindu reports. Narayanan was arrested and will face charges of idol theft.

NagasamyThe police raids have now spread beyond Tamil Nadu are likely to continue in the coming weeks that authorities unravel the smuggling network and sort through voluminous evidence. Authorities have identified the courier service that Dayalan used to transport objects within India and seized his laptop, a desktop computer and storage drives. He allegedly labeled his stolen artifacts as modern handicrafts before they were smuggled out of India through Mumbai, where an unnamed “boss” in the illicit trade remains at large.

The investigation promises to give investigators what one Indian paper called “a glimpse of the man’s murky business with several smuggling cartels across the globe.” As The Hindu noted in an editorial, “The meticulously organised nature of this shadowy business hints at the deep and vast network of idol thieves who have plied their trade across not only Tamil Nadu but numerous other Indian States and even broader territories of South and South East Asia.”

The Kapoor Link

subhash kapoorInvestigators are still looking for links between Dayalan and one of his prominent American clients: Subhash Kapoor, the Manhattan antiquities dealer now standing trial in India for selling stolen antiquities to museums around the world. “We have not got clinching evidence to prove [his] link with the international idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor,” one investigator told the Times of India.

We can help: The following document links Dhayalan to Kapoor and hints at the extensive business relationship they are believed to have had.

Deenadhayalan letter

The document records Dayalan’s 2007 request for a payment of USD $11,400 from Kapoor’s Nimbus Import & Export through Selva Export, one of the Chennai export companies they used to transport artifacts. It is still unclear whether that amount was paid, what object(s) were purchased for the sum, and where those objects are today.

220-2004s-339x605_q85 But authorities have already identified Dayalan as the source of one stolen Kapoor object that has already been returned to India: The Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ sculpture of Ardhanarishvara, whose origins we revealed in 2013.

The AGNSW purchased the sculpture for $300,000 after Kapoor provided documents claiming it had left India in the 1970s. But Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project identified images that showed the sculpture in situ at the Vriddhachalam temple at least four years after 1970. A subsequent police investigation concluded it had been stolen in 2002 by Dayalan and replaced by a knockoff that villagers continued to worship.

Dayalan is believed to have supplied Kapoor with a number of objects from South India.

As Michaela Boland reported Sunday in The Australian, Dayalan is believed to have supplied Kapoor with two other objects that landed in the National Gallery of Australia: an 1800-year-old limestone carving depicting a scene from the life of Buddha, and a 1000-year-old stone goddess Pratyangira, purchased together from Kapoor in 2005 for $1.5 million. b8652fac07e4a2314495006b340b84d6

Kapoor told the museum the sculpture of the Buddha’s life had been in a private Japanese collection until 1999. But this photo, found in Kapoor’s archives, shows the unrestored sculpture above soon after it was stolen by thieves:

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A similar tale emerges on the NGA’s Pratyangira. Kapoor claimed it had been in the collection of Selina Mohamed (his onetime girlfriend) since 1990. But photos and records found in Kapoor’s files show the Pratyangira was still in Mumbai, India in 2002.

Below at left we see the NGA’s Pratyangira as offered in a Kapoor catalog, and at right the same sculpture before it left India. Note the identical missing segments from the figure’s left elbow.

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Amaravati Objects

Investigators believe Dayalan may have been behind looting of material from Amaravati, an important archeological site in Andhra Pradesh, where Dayalan grew up. Items seized from his warehouses include Amaravati architectural fragments.

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Dayalan may well have been the source of Amaravati fragments that Kapoor sold to the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.

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As we wrote in 2014, Kapoor sold the ACM a 3rd Century limestone fragment from Amaravati in October 1997 for $22,500. His accompanying description suggests he had detailed knowledge of the find spot:

“Examples from the Amaravait stuppa are extremely rare to find,” he wrote. “This particular piece does not come from the stuppa proper, but from the outer rail copings that surrounded the stuppa. It is an exceptional example in both its size and in its illustrative qualities…The iconography of this fragment makes this a most interesting piece from the Amaravati area.”

Long Time Coming

The Indian raids are long overdue. Records show American authorities provided detailed evidence about Kapoor’s Indian suppliers as far back as 2014. India’s failure to act on those leads, despite repeated urging from American authorities and others, has been one of several troubling signs in the long delayed criminal trial of Kapoor.

As Kumar recounted in an article about the investigation by ICE U.S. Special Agent Brent Easter: “For too long the red tape of Indian Bureaucracy and the ill equipped custodians have sent him on wild goose chases – including multiple weeks in hot and sultry India, with promises of arrests of the bad guys. Frustrating, when he has done all the hard work and with irrefutable proof of the bad guys shipping documents, email exchanges and bank transfers to see the patchy attempts in delaying and letting the actual crooks off the hook.”

It is likely no coincidence that the Indian raids were launched just days before U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the return of 200 looted antiquities to India during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The returns, many of which had been seized from Kapoor or his clients, may have been used as leverage with India to ensure Kapoor’s suppliers were nabbed. (On the right below is the Toledo Ganesh, which Kumar first revealed as looted in a 2013 post.)

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The raids have also underscored the need to expand India’s domestic enforcement efforts. The country’s only dedicated art police is the Tamil Nadu idol wing, led by Inspector General A G Pon Manickavel, is now chasing leads across India and international borders. The country desperately needs to develop a national police force dedicated to protecting its oft-purloined cultural heritage.

Government agencies should also work more closely with civil society groups like Kumar’s India Pride Project, which has worked tirelessly over the past years to identify stolen antiquities and bring them home, often while cajoling government officials to do more.

The willingness of Indian officials to crack down on the illicit antiquities trade within their borders will be measured largely by the aggressiveness with which they chase the leads they have gathered from Deena Dhayalan.

 

 

 

 

The Lessons of Palmyra: Iconoclasm in the era of Clickbait

Breaking IconoclasmLast December I was invited to Harvard to participate in a round table on ISIS and iconoclasm. The event, organized by archaeologist Bastien Varoutsikos and sponsored by Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology, sparked a fascinating discussion of iconoclasm through the ages, putting the destructive impulse of the Islamic State into a context that I, for one, had been missing.

The speakers included Harvard’s James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, who offered a reminder that iconoclasm is a central strand in Western history. “This is not the other,” Simpson said. “This is us, we’ve been here.” Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, discussed iconoclasm in ancient Egypt and how 3D technology was allowing us to recreate the destroyed past. Joseph Greene, also at the Semitic Museum, surveyed the destruction of museums –  repositories of cultural icons – across Syria and Iraq. And Matthew Liebmann reviewed the smashing of church bells – icons of Spanish colonization – during the Pueblo Revolts of 17th Century New Mexico. Moderating with Bastien was Clare Gillis, whose intrepid reporting on the ground in the region with her friend James Foley is captured in the must-watch documentary about his life and death, Jim.

My contribution to the panel was “ISIS and the Media: Iconoclasm in the Era of Clickbait,” a review of how the media has covered the iconoclasm of ISIS. In short, I argued that ISIS iconoclasm was largely (not exclusively) a propaganda effort, and that many of us in the media and social media became complicit in their crimes by spreading those images as clickbait.

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With the fall of Palmyra to Assad forces this month, Bastien and I decided to revisit the subject in an essay for this week’s The Art Newspaper. What follows are excerpts of that essay with a few slides from my Harvard presentation.

The early assessments [of damage by ISIS] contain several important lessons for those of us who watched the destruction of Palmyra in horror last summer—and then shared it virally on social media.

First, they lend credibility to on-the-ground reports during the city’s harrowing occupation that the Islamic State’s destruction of historical monuments was motivated less by twisted ideology than a far simpler craving for attention.

“In-country sources… have overheard Isil commanders comment that attacking the ancient monuments ‘makes the whole world’ talk about them,” noted a September report fr om the American Schools for Oriental Research, an archaeological group tasked by the US State Department with monitoring heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq.

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Notably, the destruction of historical sites had started months earlier, after international media outlets had collectively decided to stop broadcasting gruesome images of Isil hostage beheadings.

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If media attention was indeed what Isil had wanted, the destruction of Palmyra was a coup.

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Respected international media outlets republished Isil’s carefully choreographed shots of the detonation of the iconic Baalshamin Temple on social media as if they were news photos, not the propaganda of a terrorist regime.

In Palmyra, we first witnessed the collision of iconoclasm and clickbait.

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Increasingly, modern media is funded by clickbait and the advertising revenue it generates.

This fact was not lost on Isil, whose sophisticated propaganda machine has created pre-packaged viral content—slick YouTube videos, Facebook posts and 140 character Tweets—designed to be spread on the web.

It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes.

You can read the complete essay here. My thanks to Bastien for his help with it.

 

UPDATED > Asia Week Arrest: Japanese Dealer Convicted Of Selling Stolen Art

Japanese antiquities dealer Tatsuzo Kaku was arrested at Asia Week and charged on March 14th with criminal possession of a looted 2nd Century Buddhapada sculpture valued at more than $1 million, court records show.

UPDATE: On March 24, Kaku plead guilty to criminal possession of stolen property in exchange for a $5,000 fine and a sentence of time-served. Prosecutors explained the light sentence by saying Kaku had cooperated with on-going investigations. “This is part of a larger, ongoing investigation and there were cases where Mr . Kaku actually provided information,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos told the court.

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An image of the seized Buddhapada released by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office

Kaku, who owns Taiyo Ltd. in Tokyo, consigned the Kushan-period sculpture of the Buddha’s footprints to the Maitreya Inc. for sale at Asia Week.

Maitreya is owned by antiquities dealer Nayef Homzi, a prominent Manhattan dealer in Asian art who was previously director of the Doris Wiener Gallery, owned by the mother of Nancy Wiener, whose gallery was also raided this week. Homzi was the target of a federal investigation at last year’s Asia Week after he was caught trying to sell looted Indian sculptures valued at more than $500,000.

In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said, “The theft of antiquities has to be treated as the serious criminal matter it is. Our objective in these cases is to return the stolen item to the country where it was plundered from, and deter others from engaging in the illegal trade of cultural heritage.”

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Japanese antiquities dealer Tatsuzo Kaku

The story of the Buddhapada starts in 1982 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, when Kaku purchased the sculpture directly from smugglers, court records state. “When I saw the Buddhapada for the first time in Pakistan in 1982 they didn’t allow me to take photographs,” Kaku states in emails cited in the criminal complaint. “They didn’t tell me the exact place [where it was found.] As can be understood by the color of the stone, is an archaeological find from Swat.”

 

Kaku told authorities after his arrest this week that he knew it was illegal to purchase such material at the time, court records state. In 1975, Pakistan enacted the Antiquities Act, which bars the export of antiquities without state permission.

The sculpture was smuggled to Japan and sold to a private collector there. “After the collector passed away I sold it to Alexander Gotz in London in 2001. I bought it back from him in 2003 and sold it to another Japanese collector. In 2012 on request of the family of the collector who has gone on in years, the item has been entrusted with me…,” Kaku wrote in an email send in December 2015.

Kaku arranged to have the object shipped to New York City for its sale during Asia Week. He told authorities that he “knew it was illegal but that he loved antiquities so much and hated to see them destroyed,” court records state.

The sculpture was seized by authorities on March 14 and will be returned to Pakistan. Kaku was arraigned on March 14 and will next appear in a Manhattan court on March 25th.

At his March 24 sentencing, Kaku told the court through a translator that he believed was saving the looted objects he sold: “While I did stand to gain financially from the prospective sale of the Buddhapada, I was equally motivated by a life-long desire to preserve for posterity such works, which, if they were to remain in Pakistan, would, I believe, at best fall into disrepair and at worst be destroyed,” he said. “I now know, however, that it is not the right of any individual or institution to decide how the cultural patrimony of another country should be handled.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. had a different take on the case.

“Every year, fine art collectors from around the world flock to New York for Asia Week, where they spent a reported $360 million last year on Asian antiquities and art,” said  Vance. “With high demand from all corners of the globe, collectors must be certain of provenance before purchasing. I urge dealers and auction houses to take every necessary precaution to avoid facilitating the sale of cultural heritage stolen from other civilizations. If a provenance is in doubt, report it to law enforcement authorities.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asia Week Raids: New Details on the Christie’s Seizures

 

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This week, a series of five federal raids during New York’s Asia week led to the seizure of at least eight looted antiquities and the arrest of at least one dealer. This is the first of several posts that will discuss the alleged smuggling networks disrupted by those raids.

The Asia Week raids started on Friday at Christie’s, where federal agents seized two sculptures valued at $450,000 being offered as part of the private collection of London doctor Avijit Lahiri and his wife Bratatihis.

Court records reveal a link between the objects and a key supplier of Subhash Kapoor, the American antiquities dealer now on trial in India for his role in a global trafficking network.

Taken together, the Asia Week raids show that the 2012 seizure of Kapoor’s business records (as well as more than $100 million in looted antiquities he had in storage) have allowed investigators to identify looted antiquities being offered for sale on the American art market, much as the Medici, Becchina and Symes archives have done in recent years.

They also show that aggressive law enforcement investigations can have a meaningful effect disrupting those smuggling networks.

Rishabhanata

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It is not clear where Lahiri acquired the 10th century stele of Rishabhanata (shown above.) Based on its style, the piece was likely found in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, India. Christie’s stated it had been acquired in London by 1999. In 2006, Lahiri put it on consignment with the  London dealers Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd. Forge and Lynch stated it had been in London since 1989.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 5.40.50 PMLynch has had prior run-ins with the illicit antiquities trade in India. Court records filed this week quote a confidential informant telling authorities that Lynch “traveled to India roughly twice a year in the 1980’s while working for London Sotheby’s as the head of their Indian and Islamic Department in order to meet with Vaman Ghiya (an arrested antiquities dealer in India) to select recently looted artifacts for Sotheby’s auction.” Ghiya is a notorious convicted Indian antiquities smuggler who has been described as “the Indian Medici.” In 2007, he was profiled in the New Yorker story The Idol Thief. Lynch, who admitted hiding from Indian police in Ghiya’s house, left Sotheby’s after his dealings with Ghiya were exposed, but has continued to deal in Indian and other art since the 1990s.

In a statement, Forge and Lynch said they never sold the Rishabhanata: “In 2006, the Sandstone Stele of Rishabhanata was consigned to Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd by Dr. Lahiri, a London-based collector of Indian and Southeast Asian works of art. The sculpture was not sold and was returned to Dr. Lahiri. The sculpture was exhibited on asianart.com while on consignment with the firm. Prior to the consignment, Dr. Lahiri had informed Messrs. Forge and Lynch that the sculpture was purchased by him in London in 1989.The firm has never bought from or sold an object to Subash Kapoor.” We have asked Lynch for a comment on the Ghiya allegations and will post it when we receive one.

Kapoor’s files revealed the object’s earlier history: a photo (below) of the Rishabhanata was found in a folder labeled “Shantoo,” the nick name for an alleged Indian smuggler named Ranjeet Kanwat, court records state. The image showed the sculpture sitting on a bed of straw as it looked soon after being looted.

Rishabhanata2

vj poetryinstoneThe first to match the Shantoo image to the Lahiri stele was Vijay Kumar, an Indian art enthusiast and blogger in Singapore who has been quietly helping authorities track down Kapoor’s looted art.

Two years ago Kumar recognized the Rishabhanata offered by Lynch and Forge as the same one that Shantoo had offered to Kapoor. The problem: nobody knew where the piece was at the time.

When Kumar saw the Rishabhanata appear in the Christie’s catalog for its Asia Week sale, he alerted investigators, who organized the seizure.

Smugglers and dealers “are destroying destroying context, reducing our Gods to showcase curios and funding anti social elements,” Kumar said Friday when asked about his role. Countries of origin “must realise the value of what the USA is doing and support this with arrests and prosecutions.”

Revanta and his Entourage

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The second object seized from Christie’s, an 8th century panel showing Revanta and his Entourage (above), also appears to have originated with Shantoo, court records show.

Christie’s offered the piece, Lot 62, with a $300,000 estimate at its Asia Week sale, stating that it had been sold by Spink and Son auction house in London by 1999. Spink and Son has become a notorious name in recent years as the source of several looted objects, including the looted Khmer statue seized from Sotheby’s and returned to Cambodia in 2013. As Neil Brodie recently observed, Christie’s holds the original records of Spink’s Asian sales but has not released them publicly.

Kapoor’s files show the same Revanta relief was offered to him by “Shantoo” some time in the 1990s. The offer included this picture of the piece in the mud and surrounded by straw, suggesting it had recently been looted.

Revanta

Notably, several pieces missing from the relief in the Shantoo image are reunited with the sculpture by the time it is offered at Christie’s. In court records, authorities suggest that these “orphan” fragments may have been held back by looters to extract a higher price or to be sold separately.

On March 15, the Lahiri sale continued despite the embarrassing seizures. The auction netted nearly $2.4 million with the buyer’s premium.

In a statement Christie’s said it had no knowledge of the illicit origins of the sculptures. “Christie’s devotes considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects we offer for sale,” the statement read. “This is one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities, which is why Christie’s very much values building strong relationships with and between countries of origin, law enforcement, archeologists, and the collecting community.”

Busted: Asia Week Raids Reveal Scope of Illicit Trade in Asian Art

Federal agents raided the Nancy Wiener Gallery on Thursday, the latest move in an aggressive crack down on the trade in ancient Asian art that has targeted several leading dealers and auction houses and shaken up New York’s Asia Week art show.

Federal agents were given a court order to seize the following objects from the Wiener Gallery:

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A 1st Century red sandstone Kushan Relief valued at $100,000

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An 8th Century limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati valued at $35,000

 

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A 10th Century bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia valued at $850,000

Nancy WienerWiener is a second generation antiquities dealer who runs one of the country’s most prestigious Asian art galleries on Manhattan’s East 74th Street. Last year we revealed her role in the sale of a Kushan Buddha with a false ownership history to the National Gallery of Australia. Wiener agreed to refund the $1.08 million purchase price to the museum, which will soon return the sculpture to India.

Wiener is the latest target in a series of high profile Asia Week raids that were quietly orchestrated over the past year by special agent Brent Easter at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Hiddon Idol, began with Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India. As we’ve covered in a series of posts since 2012, authorities seized 2,622 objects valued at more than $100 million from Kapoor’s business and storage facilities. Perhaps more importantly, federal agents secured the cooperation of former Kapoor associates and seized decades of his business records, both of which have revealed a network of antiquities looters and smugglers across Asia whose objects Kapoor sold to museums and collectors around the globe.

subhash kapoorIn the years since the Kapoor seizures, Easter and Bogdanos have been investigating the collectors and museums who bought from Kapoor and the suppliers who smuggled looted antiquities for him. Easter’s work on the case is highlighted in this short documentary by director Jason Kohn.

This week’s raids at Asia Week netted 8 antiquities valued at more than $4 million seized in five separate raids. Taken together, they offer dramatic evidence that Kapoor’s corrupt suppliers were selling looted objects to other top dealers in Asian art.

We’ll have more details on the Asia Week seizures in the days ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crennan Report: The NGA’s Ex Post Facto Due Diligence Finds 22 “Questionable” Asian Antiquities

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In an unprecedented review of its Asian art collection, the National Gallery of Australia has determined that 22 of the 36 objects examined to date have “insufficient or questionable provenance documentation.”

Among the problematic objects are 14 that came from Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor’s Art of the Past, including the $5 million Dancing Shiva returned to India by Prime Minister Tony Abbott last year and several others we’ve highlighted in previous reports. Also highlighted in the report is the museum’s Kushan Buddha, which our report last year revealed had been sold the museum with a false ownership history by Manhattan dealer Nancy Wiener. Wiener agreed to refund the $1.08 million purchase price, and the NGA will return the sculpture to India this year.

Eight other questionable objects came through Wiener and another Manhattan Asian art dealerCarlton Rochell; the Swiss dealer/collector George Ortiz; and auction houses Spink and Son and Christie’s, among other familiar names. We’ll detail those objects in a subsequent report.

The ex post facto review is part of the museum’s Asian Art Provenance Project, which in the wake of an international looting scandal aims to assess and publish the collecting histories of all 5,000 art objects in the museum’s collection. It was sparked in part by our series of reports starting in June 2013 that revealed several of the museum’s prized Asian antiquities had been looted from Indian temples and sold by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor with false ownership histories.

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While years late, the Australian review goes beyond what American musuems undertook in the wake of similar looting scandals a decade ago, and sets an important new standard for due diligence: independent review and complete transparency with provenance.

 

Notably, the NGA asked an outside lawyer, Former Justice of the High Court of Australia Susan Crennan, to independently review and publish the project’s initial conclusions. In her 89-page report, Crennan reviews the relevant international laws and treaties before adopting a clear standard of review:

  1. does the object have a credible chain of ownership?
  2. the object was outside its probable country of origin before 1970, or was legally exported from that country after 1970?

For 22 of the objects, her answer was no.

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On several occasions she cited (without credit) images first published here showing NGA objects the in process of being smuggled out of India to Kapoor. “Dr [Michael] Brand, who supervised the [Getty’s return of 40 looted objects], stated that such photos were the most convincing pieces of circumstantial evidence of theft,” Crennan noted.

Sprinkled throughout her report is commentary that serves as common sense advice to those conducting their own due diligence:

  • “Circumstantial evidence can be as compelling as direct evidence, especially when several pieces of circumstantial evidence all support a particular conclusion.”
  • Due diligence should include “direct contact with any living consignor, or previous owner, particularly to elicit the date and circumstances of the export of a work from a country of origin. The absence of such details increases the risk that the [acquirer] will not obtain good title from a vendor.”
  • Even “reputable” dealers should be treated with skepticism, and the word of a dealer should not be taken as fact unless it can be independently corroborated.
  • Buyers should “require revelation of the identity of any consignor, or previous owners of a work of art (which can be conveyed confidentially). They might also require direct contact with any consignor, or previous owner, so as to be satisfied of the date and circumstances of any export of an object from a country of origin.” Auction houses in particular should be pressed to reveal their consignors.
  • “Listing such objects on a dedicated website achieves several desirable aims:  it constitutes notice to the whole world (including any true owner) of a museum’s custody and possession of an object;  it encourages exchange of provenance information between museums, especially those with objects of shared provenance; and it invites holders of a relevant interest, or relevant information, to come forward with that information.”

Buyers of antiquities would be wise to learn from the National Gallery of Australia’s example and follow these procedures before buying ancient art, not years later.

A copy of Crennan’s complete report can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Antiquity: Prison for Antiquities Dealer Behind Looting and Tax Fraud Scheme

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum during an early morning raid in Santa Ana Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008.

UPDATE: My article on the case has been posted at The Art Newspaper here.

UPDATE: The Markells will return 337 antiquities to Thailand as part of their sentencing agreement. Details on the seized objects are linked below.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand. See below for details.

Antiquities dealers Jonathan and Cari Markell were sentenced by a federal judge on Monday for their roles in the smuggling and tax fraud scheme that triggered sweeping federal raids on California museums in 2008.

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Jonathan and Cari Markell with the Dalai Lama

On Jan 24th, 2008, some 500 federal agents served warrants on 13 locations that received objects tied to the smuggling network, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the home of Barry MacLean, a private collector in Chicago.

The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.

That changed on Monday, when Jonathan Markell, 70, was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by a year of supervised release for making false declarations while importing antiquities from South East Asia. Markell and his wife Cari, 68, were also sentenced to probation for their role in a related tax evasion scheme in which looted antiquities were donated to local museums in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

The couple was also ordered to pay $25,000 to cover the costs of repatriating hundreds of antiquities seized by federal agents in raids on their Los Angeles home and gallery, Silk Roads Gallery.

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Dr. Joyce White

Dr. Joyce White, a University of Pennsylvania expert on Ban Chiang culture who served as an expert for prosecutors on the case, said in a declaration that the 10,000 looted artifacts seized during the federal investigation represented as much as 175 times more material than what was recovered during scientific excavations of the site in the 1970s. The Markells were among the “key players” who developed a U.S. market for artifacts from the site, a demand that fueled rampant looting there.

In a Dec. 8 letter to federal judge Dean Pregerson, Jonathan Markell expressed remorse for his actions and pled for leniency in his wife’s sentencing. “My remorse over my dishonest actions will continue for the rest of my life, as my actions have put my family in jeopardy emotionally, socially, psychologically and financially for the past eight years,” wrote Markell, who graduated with an art history degree from UC Berkeley and got an MBA from Columbia University in arts administration. “I also owe an apology to the people whose heritage is the Ban Chiang civilization,” the world heritage site in Thailand where much of the material he sold was looted.

Operation Antiquity, the federal investigation of the Markells smuggling network, was one of the most aggressive government efforts to disrupt the illicit antiquities trade in history. For five years, Todd Swain, a federal agent with the National Park Service, operated undercover as an art collector to gather evidence against the Markells and their principal supplier, alleged smuggler Robert Olson. After several delays, Olson’s criminal trial is now scheduled for May 2016.

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Roxanna Brown

Roxanna Brown, a respected American expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, was caught up in the investigation and died in federal custody in 2008 after suffering a medical emergency after her arrest in Seattle. Court records show Brown provide falsified appraisals for the Markells and worked closely with Olsen to bring looted material into the United States. The federal government eventually settled a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.

In 2014, the Bowers Museum of Art agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. Other museums have waited for the outcome of the Markell’s criminal case before deciding what to do with objects from the couple and its network of donors.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand, according to a federal law enforcement official. The objects were among those targeted during federal raids on the museum in 2008. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment on the returns.

UPDATE: Jerry Coughlan, an attorney who represents the Mingei, confirmed the returns on Thursday, saying all 68 objects had been donated by the Markells. After the museum raids in 2008, the Mingei had offered to return the objects to Thailand and held them in storage while awaiting instructions from federal officials.

“Essentially, the government called and said it would not press charges against the Mingei but asked us to return items to Thailand,” Coughran said. “They were shipped in the last day or two and should be arriving soon.”

It is exceedingly rare for antiquities investigations to end in criminal convictions, and federal prosecutors hope the Markell convictions will act as a deterrent to the market.

“By holding US-based antiquities marketers fully accountable for their role in promoting the antiquities market and thereby stimulating the global destruction of irreplaceable heritage resources, this court has a special opportunity to dampen the trade and encourage others conducting similar enterprises to change their behavior and choices,” White testified.

Here are links to recent court records from the Markell case:

Here is a list of objects seized from the Markell’s home and gallery:

Markell seizures

Here is my past coverage of the Operation Antiquity case:

Here is Joyce White’s presentation on the case, “Hot Pots, Museum Raids and the Race to Uncover Asia’s Archaeological Past.”

 

Ball State’s Kapoor Return Reveals New False Provenance

M4930On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recovered a Chola period bronze from Ball State University’s Owsley Museum, marking yet another trail in the path of stolen Indian artifacts sold by dealer Subhash Kapoor.

In April 2005, the Indiana museum bought the Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati from Kapoor for $100,000, records show. Kapoor presented paperwork showing it had been in a private collection since 1969.

But images seized from Kapoor show he only acquired the bronze in 2004. At the time, it was covered in dirt and missing several pieces, as shown in the photo below.

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Questions about the bronze were first raised by our friend Vijay Kumar, who wrote about the sculpture in the Times of India  in July 2015.

The temple it was stolen from has yet to be identified. As Kumar noted,  that the base of the statue has an inscription in Tamil that reads: “Thipampaapuram Sivigai Naayagar.”

“There are a few temples in Tamil Nadu that have names such as Thirupampuram, Thipamburam and so on…It was sold in 2005, the same time when Sripuranthan and Suthamalli were looted. With the help of the public, the authorities including the police should take all efforts to bring home this statue.”

After museum officials were informed about Kumar’s article, they contacted the Indian Consulate in Chicago and cooperated with federal agents during their investigation. “Homeland Security Investigations has presented convincing evidence that the work was stolen and its documentation falsified,” said museum director Robert La France.

As we’ve reported, Kapoor and his staff often used the name of his girlfriend and other acquaintances to create a false ownership for recently stolen antiquities. The Ball State case reveals a new name used by Kapoor: Leo Figiel, a collector of Indian art who died in 2013 2004. The Peabody Essex Museum, which recently returned a Kapoor object, acquired Figiel’s collection of antique Indian bronzes in 2006.

Figiel provided Kapoor with this false letter claiming he acquired the bronze from “a European collection in 1969.” It was not the only Kapoor object for which Figiel provided a false provenance, as we’ll show in the coming weeks.

 

050413 Chola Shiva Parvati

The Kushan Buddhas: Nancy Wiener, Douglas Latchford and New Questions about Ancient Buddhas

NGA Seated Buddha

In 2005, Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum was offered a rare sculpture of a Seated Buddha carved from red sandstone in the second century. It was from India’s ancient city of Mathura, the second capital of the Kushan empire, and one of only a handful of such sculptures to have appeared on the market in recent years.

Nancy WienerThe dealer selling the sculpture was Nancy Wiener, whose eponymous Manhattan gallery has been a leading seller of Asian art for years. Her clients include the Metropolitan Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Asia Society and prominent private collectors. Wiener’s mother Doris was a renowned Asian art dealer who Christies’ called “one of the most distinguished tastemakers in this collecting category.”

The Royal Ontario was keen to buy the Seated Buddha – until curator Deepali Dewan called the expert who had authenticated the sculpture for Wiener. Donald Stadtner, an authority in Indian art, told Dewan that he believed the statue had been illegally exported from India and given a phony ownership history to cover its tracks.

urlAfter talking to Stadtner, the Royal Ontario Museum decided pass on the sculpture, Dewan confirmed in a recent email. Months later, Wiener offered it to the National Gallery of Australia for USD$1.2 million.

No Questions Asked at the National Gallery of Australia 

Wiener told NGA officials she had purchased the sculpture in 2000, museum records show. Previously, Wiener said, the sculpture had belonged to an Englishman named Ian Donaldson, who claimed to have purchased it while posted in Hong Kong between 1964 and 1966. She provided the museum with a 1985 Certificate of Ownership signed by Donaldson. It was the only record of sculpture’s ownership history, but the museum did not attempt to contact Donaldson.

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In July 2007, Wiener sent an invoice to the NGA for the discounted price of USD$1,080,000 and a signed guarantee offering to reimburse the museum if the provenance were ever proven false.

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Two months later, as preparations for the Buddha’s acquisition were under way, the National Gallery of Australia received a search certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects. Such declarations are largely useless for looted antiquities – as the certificate notes, “the database does not contain information on illegally exported artifacts unless they have been reported to us as stolen.”

Yet this was the extent of the museum’s due diligence. Museum officials never contacted Stadtner, whose authentication report for the Seated Buddha was among the paperwork provided by Wiener. The funds for the purchase were provided in part by Ros Packer, wife of the late media tycoon Kerry Packer and one of Australia’s most prominent philanthropists.

An Anonymous Tip

In 2012, I got an anonymous tip that the sculpture’s ownership history had been fabricated. The source identified the dealer as Nancy Wiener, and suggested the sculptures had been illegally exported from India. I shared the tip with Michaela Boland at The Australian, and in May 2013 we requested the sculpture’s ownership history from the NGA. The museum claimed the information was secret: “We do not provide details of this nature regarding acquisitions from the national art collection for clear commercial in confidence reasons,” museum spokesman David Edhill wrote.

Boland filed a Freedom of Information request for the records. In the fall of 2014, the Australian courts ruled in our favor and released copies of the NGA’s records – with the name of the dealer and former owner redacted. In November, we co-wrote a story in Australian about the case, linking the anonymous tip to the account in the museum records.

The Latchford Connection

In October 2014, as the records were released, the NGA began investigating the ownership history of the sculpture. It was only then that an NGA curator contacted Stadtner and asked him for any information he had about the sculpture’s origins.

In a Nov. 5th email to museum officials, Stadtner explained his long-held suspicions about the sculpture. The NGA’s was the second Kushan Buddha that Stadtner had examined for Wiener, he explained. The first he had studied in 1999 before it was sold to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum.

ACM seated buddha

Some time after, on a visit to Bangkok, Stadtner said he met with the Bangkok-based British collector Douglas Latchford. The main topic of conversation was Latchford’s role in the sale of fake Burmese bronzes, Stadtner said, one of which had been sold to the ACM in Singapore in 2000. While there, however, the two men discussed the ACM’s Seated Buddha.

“During the course of a long conversation (and boasting) Latchford said, en passant, that he found Nancy a provenance for the Buddha which by then was in Singapore,” Stadtner told  NGA officials in the email. “I recall that he said that he found ‘an old India hand’ in ‘Hong Kong’. By an old India hand I interpreted this to mean an older English gentlemen who had served in India but who was based then in Hong Kong.”

latchford.jpbStadtner was convinced the NGA’s Seated Buddha, sold several years later, had been offered with the same false story. “I strongly suspect that the ‘old India hand’ in H.K. will appear in the paperwork for both Buddhas, if my memory was correct and indeed he found this fellow in H.K. to provide the bogus certificates to Nancy for at least the Singapore Buddha.”

The NGA’s records, which Stadtner had not seen, appear to support his story: Wiener told the museum that the Buddha had belonged to a British ex-pat living in Hong Kong. Did Donaldson own the statues? What is his connection to Latchford? It is difficult to know: Andrew Ian Donaldson, listed at the same Hong Kong address supplied by Wiener, died in 2001, records show.

Latchford, whose alleged role in the Seated Buddha transactions has not been previously reported, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His London attorney, however, was in touch. “Our client does not know Mr Stadtner, nor has he ever met him,” wrote Amber Melville-Brown of Withers LLP. “He is completely at a loss as to why Mr Stadtner would make such false assertions.”

Stadtner told me he has very specific memories of his visit to Latchford’s Bangkok apartment. I asked to interview Latchford to clarify the confusion. “My client is, as I have already pointed out, a frail, elderly gentleman in poor health,” wrote Melville-Brown. “Accordingly, it would be quite inappropriate for him to be interviewed by you about this matter and he is unable to do so.”

In 2012, Latchford was identified in federal court records as a middleman in the trafficking of looted antiquities from Southeast Asia. Authorities allege Latchford knowingly purchased two looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network” and conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for them. The case was a civil lawsuit, and Latchford was not charged with a crime. But after a lengthy legal battle, Sotheby’s agreed to return its sculpture to Cambodia. Soon after, the Norton Simon Museum, Christie’s auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all returned sculptures tied to Latchford. UPDATE: The Cleveland Museum returned another looted Khmer sculpture linked to Latchford in May 2015.

Melville-Brown,Latchford’s attorney, has previously asked me to remove our past coverage of Latchford’s role in the Sotheby’s case. I have declined, noting that the account is based on federal court records protected under U.S. law.

Stonewalling in Singapore

The Asian Civilizations Museum has refused to release the ownership history for its Seated Buddha. When pressed repeatedly, a spokesperson for the museum said, “The Kushana Buddha was purchased from a respected international dealer in the year 2000, who had purchased it from a private collector who had owned the piece since the 1960s.” Is that private collector Ian Donaldson? The museum won’t say.

Last fall, I went by Nancy Wiener’s Manhattan gallery to see if she could clarify the history of the Seated Buddha sculptures. Her gallery manager refused me entry and claimed he did not know how to put me in touch with Wiener. She has not responded to emails.

In January, the Times of India reported that Australian authorities had concluded that the NGA’s Seated Buddha was stolen from an archaeological site and agreed to return it to India. National Gallery spokeswoman Alison Wright would neither confirm nor refute that account, but acknowledged that the museum “commenced legal discussions” with Wiener in November. “Those discussions have not yet concluded and therefore we are not able to comment further,” she said.

Danti’s Inference: The Known Unknowns Of ISIS and Antiquities Looting

Over the last month, a new meme has spread like a sandstorm across the internet: Looting of antiquities, we’re told, has become “the second largest source of revenue” for the hated terror group ISIS.

The claim is almost certainly false, as I explain below. Its provenance can be traced to a State Department-funded archaeologist who is now leading U.S. efforts to protect heritage sites in Syria.

The first reference to it came on October 17 in the magazine Foreign Policy, which published a provocative report on the role that antiquities looting plays in funding the Islamic State terror group.Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 9.40.48 AM

The terror group’s profits from antiquities looting “are second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales,” the article stated. “So understanding the Islamic State’s approach to the fate of ancient artifacts actually could be key to stopping its advance.” The article’s headline went even further: “Degrading and destroying ISIS could take place in the halls of auction houses, not the Pentagon.”

mdantiForeign Policy’s source was Michael Danti, an assistant professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s State Department-funded campaign to track cultural heritage destruction in Syria. In August, the State Department gave ASOR $600,000 to launch the Syria Heritage Initiative. The project is doing important work documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites in the country, primarily through the use of satellite imagery. Weeks before a week after the Foreign Policy article appeared, Sec. of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum calling Danti and his ASOR colleagues “literally the gold standard” for information on the issue. (Danti and his ASOR colleagues will give a public presentation on their work in San Diego on Nov. 23rd.)

Danti’s claim was surprising for those of us who have followed the looting in Syria. The scale of looting is devastating, undeniable and relatively well documented in satellite imagery. But to date, very little reliable evidence has come to light about where those looted objects are being sold, much less the profitability for sponsors of the plunder. I’m not aware of a single object offered for sale in auction houses having been reliably traced back to the conflict so far. And past research shows that the biggest profits in the illicit antiquities trade happen far upstream from the excavators, who take a paltry share of profits compared to middlemen and dealers.

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Curious about his sourcing, I asked Danti for more information in an exchange on Twitter. Initially, Danti said the claim was based on “in-country sources.” Danti has dug in Syria for years, but did his Syrian sources really have access to ISIS accounting records? When pressed, he referred to “analogies with AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] finances,” and pointed me to a 2010 RAND study, Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The study is based on data from Iraq’s Al Anbar province dating to 2005 – 2006.

Of course, ISIS did not exist in 2010, much less 2005, and there is ample evidence that, while structurally similar to its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS enjoys different funding streams. Further, the RAND study Danti cited makes no mention — zero — of antiquities looting. The only reference to “looting” in the entire paper is this chart:

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In context, its clear that this “looting” refers more broadly to the spoils of war — seized cars and other commercial goods. “The provincial administration collected revenue mostly from the sale of stolen commercial goods and did not collect much revenue from black market fuel sales, large-scale extortion, or direct taxation,” the report states. “The financing of the western sector was similar, where AQI funded itself through the sale of cars and lesser-valued commercial goods.”

In short, the study sheds no light on contemporary archaeological looting in Syria by ISIS or any other group, something Danti has conceded only half-heartedly: “Needt to know more on how these estimates are made. In Syria/Iraq ‘ghanima’ is used for all looting/theft.”

I called Danti last week for more thoughts on the issue. After a lengthy discussion, he asked not to be quoted, saying he would need to clear any comments with the Department of State. (He hasn’t taken that stance in dozens of other interviews.) In essence, Danti said he stands by his claim while acknowledging there is little public evidence to support it. He also noted that as a “dirt” archaeologist, he is unaccustomed to the media attention his recent role has given him, and says he may have been misquoted.

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

There is no question that looting of archaeological sites has exploded across Syria in recent years, and the satellite evidence is unmistakable. I and others have argued that the various groups involved in looting on the ground — ISIS, al Nusra, Syrian opposition groups, the Assad regime, criminal groups and desperate civilians — would be unlikely to engage in such vast, laborious mining efforts if they weren’t paying off in some way. So, who’s to say Danti’s claim may not be right?

330px-David_S._CohenJust a week after Danti’s Foreign Policy article, David S. Cohen, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, gave a talk at the Carnegie Endowment describing the U.S. government’s best assessment of the Islamic States’ sources of funding. The assessment is based on intelligence sharing between Treasury, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, law enforcement and foreign governments.

In order, Cohen said ISIS’ primary funding sources are:

1.  The sale of oil from seized fields and refineries, estimated to generate $1 million a day.

2. The kidnap of civilians to profit from ransoms. With ISIS making “at least 20 million” in ransom in 2014 alone, Cohen described it as “one of the most significant terrorist financing threats today.”

3. Sophisticated extortion rackets, which bring in “up to several million dollars per month,” Cohen said.

4. Criminal activity, including bank robberies, stealing livestock and crops from farmers and, yes, looting antiquities.

Cohen’s testimony did little to stop the spread of Danti’s “second biggest source” meme. On Oct 27th, the claim was repeated by the U.S. Naval Institute in a article written by a retired brigadier general and two terrorism finance researchers at the Monterrey Institute (“How ISIS Funds Terror Through Black Market Antiquities Trade.” Soon after, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Stephennie Mulder, an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, repeated the claim. (She had it removed from the article after Danti’s sourcing was brought to her attention by other experts.) On Nov. 6th, Newsweek reported it again.

By Nov 13th, the claim was being repeated by Congressmen during a hearing on terror financing on Capitol Hill:

Danti is hardly the first to speak beyond the available evidence. I have spoken with imprecision about the link between terrorism and the antiquities trade. UNESCO officials frequently cite a $7 billion dollar figure for the global illicit antiquities trade that has a very shaky foundation. The Antiquities Coalition has referred to $3 – $5 billion generated by looting in Egypt alone since 2011 (or in some instances, per year), but the research supporting that claim has yet to be published. Rajendra Abhyankar, a professor at Indiana University and former Indian Ambassador to Syria, declared in the Huffington Post earlier this month that “thirty to fifty percent” of ISIS income comes from the theft and looting of antiquities. When asked for a source, he told me it was based on notes he had taken while reading articles that he could no longer find. (I’m now told Abhyankar relied in part on this story in Al-Monitor, which states, “Some even say the looting of historical artifacts has become the Islamic State’s main source of revenue…”) The problem is significant enough that Dr. Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities has made a cottage industry of debunking such claims.

The truth is we have very little reliable data on the global revenue generated by the illicit antiquities trade, and even less on the role it plays in funding terror groups. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown: we know it happens, but not much more. Claiming otherwise may in the short term bring  attention to the issue of looting, but ultimately saps it of credibility – and the urgency to answer those important questions with well-documented research. It can also taint important policy decisions, as Patty Gerstenblith, chair of the State Departments Cultural Property Advisory Committee, noted in response to Danti and similar claims: “Commentators and scholars should avoid sensationalism…Exaggerated [or] baseless claims hinder rational policies to restrict trade in illegal antiquities.”

This is particularly true, and troubling, when baseless claims come from a highly respected academic group being paid — and held out as the gold standard — by the State Department. When John Kerry gives a speech about looting at the Met, he is using the issue to help justify the escalating U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In that context, it is more important than ever to stick to the known knowns.