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 AvijitLahiri 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.
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.
Lynch 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.
The 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
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 recentlyobserved, 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.
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.”
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:
A 1st Century red sandstone Kushan Relief valued at $100,000
An 8th Century limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati valued at $35,000
A 10th Century bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia valued at $850,000
Wiener 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 highprofile 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.
In 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.
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 anotherManhattan Asian art dealer, Carlton Rochell; the Swiss dealer/collector George Ortiz; andauction 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.
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:
does the object have a credible chain of ownership?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Artagreed 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:
On 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Stadtner 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.
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.
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.”
Foreign Policy’s source was Michael Danti, an assistant professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’sState 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.
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:
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
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?
Just 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 cottageindustry 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.
American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht died in February 2012 after six decades at the top of the trade in recently looted Classical antiquities.
I’ve recently learned that some of that infamous career will be recounted when Hecht’s memoir is privately published in the coming months. The book is based on Hecht’s handwritten memoir, seized by Italian authorities from his Paris apartment and used as evidence against him at his Italian criminal trial. (I have a copy of Hecht’s notes and can assure you that he names names!) That account will be supplemented and expanded upon by a series of interviews Hecht conducted with Geraldine Norman, a former art market correspondent for the Independent.
Hecht on trial in Rome, 2006
It’s not clear how widely available the book will be for sale, but Hecht’s account will almost certainly be incomplete. His trafficking network spread tens of thousands of looted ancient sculptures, coins and vases across museums and collectors around the world.
How should museums handle those Hecht objects in their collection today? That is the question I tackle in a forthcoming article in the alumni magazine for Haverford College, Hecht’s alma mater. Haverford’s current exhibition of Greek vases tied to Hecht serves as a good model for others museums wrestling with his sticky legacy.
Jenna McKinley has spent much of her life visiting museums. But it was only recently that she began thinking about how ancient objects had ended up in those museum vitrines.
The question arose while McKinley, a Haverford class of 2015 art history major and classics minor, was researching a collection of ancient Greek vases given to Haverford more than two decades ago by George and Ernest Allen, twin brothers who graduated from the college in 1940.
The Allen brothers acquired most of the ancient vases, McKinley learned, from Robert E. Hecht, Jr. ’41, a Latin major who went on to become one of the world’s leading—and most controversial—dealers in ancient art.
Over a storied six-decade career, Hecht sold tens of thousands of pieces of ancient art to leading museums and private collectors around the globe. Throughout, he was dogged by accusations that his wares had been recently—and illegally—excavated from tombs and ruins across the Mediterranean.
In the 1960s, Hecht was thrown out of Turkey and banned for life from Italy for allegedly trafficking in looted antiquities. In the 1970s, he sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art its famous “hot pot,” the Euphronios krater, whose $1 million price tag and mysterious origins immediately sparked claims that it had been looted. In the 1980s, Hecht was part of an alleged tax-fraud scheme involving the donation of hundreds of looted antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum near Los Angeles. And in 2005, he was criminally charged by Italy as the mastermind of an international looting and smuggling ring.
Hecht died in 2012, weeks after that Italian criminal case ended with no verdict, because the allotted time had expired. Despite a lifetime of allegations, he was never convicted of a crime.
As McKinley discovered in her research during the summer of 2013, the Allen collection, which became part of Magill Library’s Special Collections, was an artifact of Hecht’s long, colorful career. From the 1950s until the 1970s, George Allen worked as Hecht’s Philadelphia sales representative, publishing a biannual catalog of antiquities under the name Hesperia Art. Over the years, he arranged for his brother Ernest to purchase several vases from Hecht.
McKinley excavated this hidden history over the next year, poring through yellowing college records and dusty Hesperia catalogs and reading books about Hecht’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. Her findings, along with the 20 Greek vases that inspired them, went on display in October in the Sharpless Gallery in Magill Library. The exhibit, titled Putting the Pieces Together: Antiquities From the Allen Collection, runs through Jan. 2.
It is rare for the history of an antiquities collection to be discussed so openly. Museums, while dedicated to education, often reveal little about where and how they obtained their ancient art, something McKinley hopes her exhibition can help change.
“We display the objects themselves regardless of their cracks,” McKinley writes in the essay that accompanies the exhibit, “but too often we try to ignore the fragmented nature of their more recent histories.”
Terry Snyder, the librarian of the college, conceived of the project in the fall of 2012 during conversations with Associate Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan. Both recognized that revealing the history of the vases could invite a claim for their return by Italy, where they were likely found. But the opportunity for a valuable educational experience outweighed the risk, Snyder and Mulligan concluded.
“If you collect things and hide them away, the world loses,” says Snyder, who tapped McKinley to research and curate the exhibit. “These questions about the vases and other antiquities are big ones that really create an opportunity for learning. Each item has its own biography. What can these materials teach us? This exhibit is a great opportunity for our students to delve into these issues, to raise questions about cultural patrimony, and to see where they lead. Haverford students are not afraid of hard questions. That goes back to the College’s Quaker values and our educational values.”
The Allen exhibit puts Haverford squarely in the middle of an international conversation about the role that museums and universities have played in the illicit antiquities trade, a global black market supplied by looters and smugglers and stoked by the art market’s demand for ancient relics.
As McKinley learned, the story of how ancient objects came to sit on the shelves has, until recently, been largely hidden. Over the past decade, however, those stories have begun to come to light, thanks to criminal investigations, probing journalists, and growing demands from foreign countries that their cultural relics be returned.
The ensuing controversy has shaken this corner of the art world to its roots.
On Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott will return two looted idols seized from Australian museums during a meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi.
Abbott will personally deliver the National Gallery of Australia‘s $5 million Dancing Shiva and the Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ $300,000 Ardhanarishvara to Modi as a “gesture of good will” at a state reception at the Indian presidential palace, the Australian’s Michaela Boland reported in Friday’s paper (front page seen above.)
As we firstrevealedhere a year ago, both objects were stolen from temples in India and later sold to the museums by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor, who, his gallery manager has admitted, created falsified ownership documents to hide their illicit origins.
The Australian returns mark the first major repatriations in the Kapoor case, but are unlikely to be the last. Dozens more Kapoor objects acquired by the Australian museums were sold with false ownership histories similar to those used with the returned objects. Several will likely play a prominent role in Kapoor’s criminal trial in Chennai, India, which has been on hold pending the return of the NGA’s looted Shiva. (below)
Meanwhile, Kapoor’s international network of looters and smugglers is still being mapped by authorities in the United States, who have already seized over $100 million in art from the dealer’s Manhattan gallery and storage facilities. Federal investigators in the United States are methodically working through mountains of evidence seized from Kapoor, probing his ties to a number of American and foreignmuseums that did business with the dealer. Indian authorities, meanwhile, are considering a broader campaign to reclaim stolen antiquities from foreign institutions.
Over the past two years, we’ve traced hundreds of suspect Kapoor objects to museums around the world. To date, the Kapoor case has received the most attention in Australia, whose National Gallery for months stonewalled press and government inquiries and dismissed mounting evidence before agreeing to take the stolen idol off display. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a slightly more proactive approach, releasing the ownership history that Kapoor supplied for its sculpture of Ardhanarishvara (left.) Soon after, Indian art blogger Vijay Kumaridentified the temple from which the sculpture was stolen.
The idols have been in the Australian government’s possession for months, but their fate remained unclear until today. The According to The Australian, Abbott decided during a July dinner with George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Arts Minister, to present the idols to Modi during his two-day state visit to India. “Brandis told him the issue was a potential problem in the relationship between the nations and Mr Abbott said returning the statues would be an important statement of goodwill towards the Indian Prime Minister, elected to office in May,” the newspaper reported.
Underscoring the diplomatic importance of the returns, Abbott reportedly wanted to have his presidential plane transport the objects directly but they were too heavy and were dispatched on Wednesday by jumbo jet instead.
Meanwhile, the National Gallery officials who played a key role in acquiring the Shiva – despite the warnings of their own attorney – are quietly exiting the scene. Curator Robyn Maxwell, who handled the negotiations with Kapoor, retired quietly last month, the Australian reported. Director Ronald Radford will retire this month, his legacy tarnished by his mishandling of the case. The Art Gallery NSW’s Michael Brand, who has taken a more open approach to looting investigations in Australia and previously at the Getty, has been mentioned as a possible successor.
Early Sunday morning, a Twitter account associated with ISIS posted a horrifying photo gallery documenting the group’s destruction of religious sites.
The images show the demolition of several shrines in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS forces on June 1oth. Similar pictures and videos, touted by ISIS and its supporters via social media, have in recent months galvanized the world’s outrage and inspired rebellion in the local population.
Those dramatic images obscure a far larger and more alarming pattern of destruction, experts say: the rampant pillaging of archaeological sites across the region, with proceeds going to fund all sides in the conflict. Most recently, experts say ISIS has encouraged systematic looting of major archaeological sites in northern Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the illicit trade under the Islamic principle of Al-Khums, the Arabic word for one-fifth.
“And know ye (O’ believers) that whatever of a thing ye acquire a fifth of it is for God, and for the Apostle and for the (Apostle’s) near relatives and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer …” (8:41)
In the Koran, Allah instructs his followers to pay him one-fifth of what they acquire. While the Shia interpret this as an annual tithe on their earnings, the Sunni tradition believes it applies only to war booty. ISIS has cited Al-Khuns in ordering locals to pay one-fifth of the proceeds of looting, which they have sanctioned and overseen across the archaeologically rich northern Iraq and Syria, experts say, citing local sources.
The income from this looting tax is hard to pin down. A report in the Guardian citing flash drives seized from ISIS leadership suggested the group may have brought in as much as USD$36 million from looting in al-Nabuk area, west of Damascus. This figure seems outlandish to many experts, and has not been independently verified. But local sources tell observers that ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income.
These now-famous satellite images of Apamea, Syria hint at the scale of destruction:
Apamea on July 2011
Apamea, April 2012
While less photogenic than the demolition of shrines, experts say this wave of illicit excavations will have a more lasting impact not just on our understanding of human history, but on ISIS finances and the ability of local communities to find common ground after the conflict. In a region where ancient history is underfoot every day, the archaeological record provides one of the few glues that hold multi-ethic societies together.
MONITORING AND PROTECTION EFFORTS
The situation has intensified efforts by governments, NGOs and foreign and local archaeologists to assess the damage and prevent further destruction to cultural heritage in the region.
In late May, UNESCO hosted an emergency experts meeting with representatives from 22 countries, including Assad’s regime and Syrian opposition groups, to discuss ways to protect heritage sites and prevent illicit trafficking. While much of the destruction in Syrian can be attributed to the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on historically important sites, participants said the focus was on the less contentious issue of looting, which has been conducted by all sides in the conflict. At the conclusion of the meeting, UNESCO agreed to establish an observatory to monitor “monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” It is unclear in the months since the meeting if progress toward the Observatory has been made. According to one participant, “No one has a plan to reach people inside of Syria.”
On the ground in Syria, groups like Association for the Protection of Syrian (APSA) are risking their lives to document the damage to cultural heritage. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center have been working with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey to train local archaeologists and museum officials to protect high-risk collections and sites, such as the Ma’arra Museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics.
The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) has signed a $600,000 agreement with the Department of State to “to comprehensively document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.” The effort will include the use of Cold-War era satellite imagery to record previously unknown archaeological sites in the region and track any subsequent destruction.
The Syria Campaign, funded by non-political Syrian expats, has gathered more than 9,000 signatures as part of a social media effort to ask the UN to ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. Heritage for Peace, based on Girona, Spain, has received funding from the Dutch government for a variety of protects to protect cultural heritage in Syria.
There are many similar efforts afoot. Please provide links to others in the comments section below.
THREE TYPES OF THREATS
I recently spoke with Dr. Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University who is involved in several of the above efforts and is in frequent touch with Syrians who are monitoring the situation on the ground. Here’s an edited version of our discussion:
Jason Felch: What are the current threats to cultural heritage in Syria?
Amr Al-Azm: Generally speaking we can identify three types of threats.
First is intentional damage due to it being a war zone. Monuments become part of the war zone. For example, the regime air force dropping bombs on Crac de Chavealier, a world heritage site, because opposition had taken up residence in then. In Aleppo, itself a world heritage site, the regime takes up residence and the opposition tunnels underneath the building they’re in and blows up the entire building. We’ve seen severe damage to monuments like the minaret at the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, which was brought down by the regime because it was a high point. That’s one type of casualty.
Then there’s punitive damage, such as what was done to the souks in Aleppo. The burning of the souks was entirely a punitive act by the regime who had told the citizens that if they allowed their citizens to fall prey to the uprising, “we’ll destroy your livelihood.” It was one of the oldest covered bazaars in the world. Now its gone. Also punitive is ISIS blowing up shrines in Iraq and Syria. They’re trying to destroy the identity of one side or the other.
The third type is the most serious and by far the most common: archaeological looting. Its happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land. That’s the most dangerous, destructive and most widespread.
JF: What is driving the looting?
AA: First, there is an established historical knowledge that there is wealth to be found under the ground. In times when there is a breakdown of law and order and no authority, combined with extreme poverty, people will reach into their collective memory and someone will remember their great grandfather dug up a tomb and found a pot of silver and was able to survive the winter.
Another reason: Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it?
JF: Why do you say the looting is worse that the destruction of monuments or holy sites?
AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.
Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.
JF: What evidence is there to support this?
AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.
JF: What are the trafficking networks that move the objects out of the country to the market?
AA: My sources tell me a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back. One of the main centers for the illicit trade is Tell Abiab, on the Syrian side, across the border from Urfa. There is also lots of smuggling in Kilis, some of it archaeology. From there, I don’t know where it goes.
There is also evidence of some looting to order by wealthy private collectors. For example, in Palmyra, which is under regime control, there is a famous Roman tomb called the Brothers Tomb. I’ve been told the Tomb of the Three Brothers has been looted and sold off. My suspicion is that it’s looting to order for a collector. Something that well known and important won’t show up on the market.
JF: What are you and others doing to stop the trade?
AA: There’s now a concerted campaign to try to talk to the main auction houses and the art dealers to persuade them not to deal with these antiquities. We’ve had fairly good progress on that front. Another thing we’re working on is setting up and training locals who are no longer employed in museums or archaeological sites because they’re not in regime areas. We’re getting them working again in a semi-formal function to protect sites and document damage. And we’re working with local activists who are out there with their cameras. One of the problems we have is revealing our sources because they’re working in a very dangerous state. So for now, much of the information they collect can’t be shared.
JF: Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?
AA: This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides.
ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated.
The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas as was a catastrophe, but it didn’t destroy the history of Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, we focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas and forget the rest. There are no big statues coming out of those sites, so we don’t see the damage. But in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence ton an industrial scale.