Sunday, 10 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? As if on cue ...

Okay, I'll admit that there was a slight element of sarcasm in my previous post about ancient coins looted in Israel. Since, as has been noted, irony is not always recognised for what it is, I'll come clean: ancient coins ARE antiquities, they ARE looted (in huge numbers), and they ARE found in perfectly saleable condition at archaeological sites (even those not found in pristine condition are flogged off in huge bulk lots as "uncleaned").

Coincidentally, while in the midst of discussing my blog post on a discussion list, an Israeli dealer, apparently oblivious to that thread, posted his ad on the same list - almost as if on cue.

The dealer, Z.Z. Antiquities based in Jerusalem, advertised 50 kg of "bulk, uncleaned, unattributed ancient coins from the HolyLand". The coins are a mix of "Roman, Byzantine, Greek, Seleucid, Ptolemy, Judean, Islamic, Nabatean, Phoenician, Persian" and we are told that "there are approximately 350-400 coins per kg on average" - so 50 kg would be about 17,500-20,000 ancient coins.

Brandon Leon, the owner, seems a little edgy when his activities are highlighted - and I think we have to sympathise with anyone whose delinquent computer mouse is disconcertingly prone to bouts of Tourette's - but his ads do cause concern. This is not the first time that a connection between the rampant looting of ancient coins at archaeological sites in Israel and the enormous bulk lots of them offered by dealers such as Z.Z. Antiquities has been suggested. Although we are assured that "all of our antiquities come with Export Approval legal documentation from the Israel Antiquities Authority", one nevertheless has to question where 50 kg (that's over 110 lbs for those not used to metric) of ancient coins originated.

Israel passed an Antiquities Law in 1978 and dealers claim that the items they sell all come from inventories which predate that law. But it is hard to believe that the 100,000 artefacts that leave Israel each year all come from that source (Blum 2003). Rather, it is credible that the lax situation in Israel, where antiquities are openly sold, enables dealers there to source their stock not only from illegal excavations within Israel itself but also from those in neighbouring countries and territories.

An ACCG coin dealer on the discussion list refused to accept that looting is "driven by the existence of a collecting market in Europe and North America". Admittedly, the US dollar is an international currency and its use, together with the English language, in the ad by Z.Z. Antiquities cannot prove it was aimed largely at the American market. But "N. America" and "Europe" are listed first as regional targets for sales by the Israeli dealer and, despite protestations from the ACCG, I think it safe to say that those markets play a primary role in encouraging the looting of archaeological sites for ancient coins.

A few years ago, Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist, wrote about coins being smuggled out of Bulgaria. Among other things, he mentioned that one individual ALONE had shipped approximately one metric ton of ancient artefacts from Bulgaria to the United States within only a few months. That individual is a known supplier and dealer of ancient coins in the United States. To put those shipments into perspective, one metric ton would be about 350,000 ancient coins.

Where do we suppose that one metric ton of material came from? Legal excavations? The evidence is overwhelming that the three tongue-in-cheek statements bulleted in my previous post were actually total b@#*$%?&!!!

Oops, sorry about that last word; my computer mouse seems to be playing up again ...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? That can't be right!

"Israel Border Police on Thursday announced that they had arrested seven individuals for allegedly engaging in unauthorized excavations at a historical site. [...] Authorities said that the men had stolen ancient coins from the Roman and Byzantine periods [...] The men were found to have shovels and metal detectors." ("Police arrest alleged antiquities thieves for stealing 2,000-year-old coins", Jerusalem Post, 30 April 2015).

But wait, that can't be right! As many coin dealers of the ACCG persuasion will tell you:
  • a) Ancient coins are NOT antiquities. Yes, they are objects and they are old but they are round metal disks that were used as money so they cannot possibly be antiquities. They are sort of ... kind of ... in some way ... well ... different.
  • b) Ancient coins are NOT looted. They are all found in hoards far away from anything else ... so somehow that is not looting ... or scattered on the ground ... so somehow that is not looting either. They are never ever found at "historical sites" like antiquities are. And they are never ever dug out of those sites with shovels and metal detectors "causing irreparable damage". Because coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
  • c) Even if ancient coins were found at "historical sites" like antiquities are, NO ONE would loot them because they would all be in awful condition and unsaleable anyway. Unlike metal antiquities which may be found in superb condition at "historical sites", coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
But I can't help wondering if those dealers may be  ... sort of ... well ... completely wrong?


(UPDATE: For those who may have missed the mild sarcasm.)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Seizures of antiquities: a glance at the law behind them

Seizures of antiquities by government agents are a recurring theme in the United States - and sometimes the seizures seem to be carried out on only the flimsiest of evidence that the items may be contravening the law. Outraged dealers and collectors typically cry that the frequently successful outcomes of such actions where evidence is relatively weak are a flagrant breach of a legal principle enshrined in national law: surely, they protest, something must be "innocent until proven guilty".

Well actually, that principle still holds true in such cases - the seized items are indeed "innocent until proven guilty" (much like a person being arrested) - but the clue is in the word "proven". "Proof" is not a universal paradigm in law; what may be demanded as proof in one type of legal action may not necessarily be required as proof in another.

A Canadian coin dealer recently suggested that the prevalence of seizures in the United States as opposed to Canada or Britain was the result of a difference in legal systems: whereas Canada and Britain are governed by "common law", the US has no such protection. In fact, he was quite wrong. The legal systems of Britain, Canada and the United States are all largely based on "common law" (a system originating in England and grounded on judicial precedent as opposed to "civil law" grounded on statutes, etc.). The legal systems vary between those nations in the way in which they are implemented and by other factors but their systems are all founded on common law.

The differences in what counts as proof arise from differences in the type of legal action - between "criminal cases" and "civil cases" - and that distinction exists in both Britain and the United States. Most of the American cases of antiquities confiscation come under the heading of "civil forfeiture" (more commonly known as "civil recovery" in Britain), more specifically "in rem". Whereas in a criminal action, the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt"; in a civil action in rem, the government sues the property itself (in rem) and all it needs is a "preponderance of the evidence" ("balance of probabilities" in Britain), a far lower burden of proof.

That may explain why American seizures of antiquities are seldom accompanied by a conviction of the people involved. A civil action in rem is far easier than a criminal action (or indeed a civil action in personam) and far more likely to be successful. Even if the artefacts are licit, the cost of legal defence is often not financially viable, especially in the absence of documentation. Cynically, it might be said that the US government gains the political kudos of repatriating antiquities to their countries of origin and the favourable publicity of proactively being seen to do the "right thing" with the minimum of effort. Whether the seizure was truly justified or not seems almost irrelevant from that perspective.

However, political motivations aside, such seizures do serve as a warning that dealers and collectors of antiquities would do well to heed. Insisting on documentation of items considered for acquisition is not only a responsible means of stemming the flow of recently looted artefacts, keeping and preserving records is a vital precaution in increasing the chances of holding on to those licit items they already own.

Cases of civil forfeiture seem to have become almost an epidemic in the United States and far commoner than in Britain. Their prevalence has been deeply controversial and an absolute nightmare for some. "America - Land of the Free"? Perhaps more like "America - Land of Litigation" (and a carnival for lawyers). But also a timely reminder for those buying and owning antiquities to take their responsibility seriously.


Many thanks to Derek Fincham for glancing through my draft before posting. Any errors are my own.

Artwork is my own - with a little help from James Montgomery Flagg.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A flash of candour or just wishful thinking?

I just glanced at the title of a blog post by trade lobbyist Peter Tompa ("Let’s facilitate Lawful Trade and the Appreciation of Italian Culture it Brings", 8 April 2015) and literally misread it for a second as "Let’s facilitate Awful Trade and the Appropriation of Italian Culture it Brings". Is it just me subconsciously hoping the coin trade has finally brazenly admitted the effects its approach may have on conservation or is his blog sending a subliminal message of contrition?

Nah, back to reality ...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Artemission: too many fakes for comfort?

Let's be clear: the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes and some of them can be difficult to spot. Dealers in antiquities may handle hundreds or thousands of items over a long career and it is inevitable that even the most expert and honest dealer among them will inadvertently offer an occasional fake now and then. Even major museums can be fooled sometimes. But when common low-grade fakes or replicas that should not fool a myopic tourist persistently occur with tedious regularity among a dealer's stock, a line has been crossed. When that dealer has been in business for a very long time and we can reasonably expect them to have acquired a great deal of experience, we have to question not only the dealer's expertise but the honesty of their intentions.

Such a dealer is Artemission, based in London and owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD). I mentioned in a comment to my earlier blog post that the three fake bronze lamps featured in that post were "only the tip of a problem that has persisted for years". Here is just a very small selection of other examples of that problem (items sold as fakes or openly as replicas on eBay or other venues by other sellers are on the left, the equivalent items offered by Artemission are on the right) ...

I emphasise again: none of these items are high-class fakes; they are all low-grade replicas, tourist tat and other rubbish of the kind sold on venues such as eBay. They are not the kind of thing that should fool an experienced dealer in antiquities even for a second.

It is tempting to suggest that the name of the business should be 'Artefission' - the art of dividing punters from their money. Certainly, the problem at Artemission is not helping the image of the antiquities trade. Yet Karawani is not only a member of the AIAD - an association proudly displaying the slogans "Purchase with Confidence, Trustworthy & Transparent Trading, Dependable Dealership, Reliability & Good Faith" - he is on the Executive Committee.

There is also the matter of well-known reproductions of Ancient Greek pottery that have appeared, curiously distressed, artificially aged and presented as genuine, on the website of Artemission but I will examine those at a future date.


Note: Although made merely as a reproduction or tourist souvenir, an item becomes "fake" when deceptively offered as the real thing.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Margaret Rule CBE

Very sad to learn that Margaret Rule CBE passed away on Thursday, 9 April. Her passion for archaeology was highly infectious and I fondly remember her warm and enthusiastic support for my own research. 

She is perhaps best known for her work on the Mary Rose and I offer a link to this BBC video from two years ago as a tribute.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Now that's what I call a mark-up!

Authentic lamp (Christie's)
Ancient lamps made from "bronze" (or to be more technically accurate, copper alloy) can fetch a good price on the antiquities market but real examples that allow the trade a reasonable profit margin can be hard to come by. However, one "leading" antiquities dealer in London - Artemission, owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD) - seems to have chanced on a remarkable supply. It must be a pretty large and pretty old supply because they have been selling a substantial quantity of their distinctive bronze lamps with a curiously uniform 'patina' for some years. Unfortunately for their customers, there is a slight hitch  ...

The Bulgarians have been making fake Roman bronze lamps for years. At first, they tried selling them as the real thing on eBay and other outlets - but most of them are blindingly obvious rubbish, buyers eventually got wise to them, and many are nowadays openly sold as "replicas" (though of course for much lower prices than real ones).

They are very recognisable. Here's one of them, sold for $24.99 in 2011 ...

An amazingly similar lamp turns up in Artemission's magic supply. All they have to do is plunk it on their posh website selling "Antiquities and Ancient Art", describe it as "Roman Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and ask their customers for $1,800 ...

Not bad - but Artemission can do better than that. Here's another Bulgarian bronze lamp on eBay - sold openly as "modern" ...

And here's another one (though this one was mistakenly offered as genuine and crazily priced) ...

The eBay example failed to attract any bids at $99. But not to worry, Artemission come across a more refined version (the Bulgarian repertoire offers slight variations) in their legendary supply. Okay, it's still got big unarticulated eyes, tiny pointed ears, and that silly meaningless* lug on its forehead - so still pretty obvious it's rubbish - but it's got a nicer base. Add a little elbow grease and the fake patina is much prettier too. Just plunk it on the posh website, describe it as "Roman Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and for this one, ask your customers for $2,500 ...

Hey, that's not bad at all. Assuming Artemission bought them at the going rate - or maybe a bit cheaper with trade discount - so far that's a profit margin of about 97% or over $4,100 profit on just two lamps alone.

Sadly, life is not always so good and sometimes the dealer has to be less ambitious. Well, let's be honest, this Bulgarian monstrosity (below) is even less convincing than the first two and even a punter with one glass eye and a patch over the good eye ain't going to be fooled by it. Even the Bulgarian sellers ask only around $25 for this sort of grade. But Artemission innocently grab one from the uglier part of their supply, plunk it on eBay instead of their website, describe it as "Byzantine Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.6th-8th Century A.D." and ask a mere $500 ...

I'm not vindictive but I do get tired of seeing this rubbish from them year after year. We have to be charitable and assume either that despite his "over 40 years" in the business, Karawani is astonishingly naive or that his eyesight is no longer what it used to be. Of course, there is a possibility that if his customers ever find out he sold them fakes at high prices and suspect he actually knew very well what he was doing, they may take a somewhat dimmer view.


* The lugs on real lamps are meant for hanging chains from; thus they tend to be flat and of course pierced. The central protrusion on the hair of the genuine lamp shown at top left is in fact a lidded filling-hole, so not a lug at all in this case.

Note: Apart from the first lamp shown at top left, ALL the lamps illustrating this post are demonstrably modern. 



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