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Antiquities and ISIS: Something Doesn’t Add Up

I care deeply about cultural heritage, and have spent much time over the last year agonizing about the destruction caused by ISIS in the Middle East. The last thing I want is for ISIS to make money on stolen antiquities or, worse in my opinion (though not of others), blow them up completely. The ultimate goals of these despicable fanatics, who want to destroy everything that does not reflect their ideology (scene of Palmyra, below), are one reason I visited Jordan this fall. Jordan, which has Petra and much else to see, may not be in danger now, but it will be unless ISIS is stopped.

So I read every word of the article in Sunday’s New York Times,  ‘Broken System’ Allows ISIS to Profit From Looted Antiquities, hoping for some new information that I might follow. Let me add here that I have very high regard for the reporting skills of the two people who wrote the piece, Steven Lee Myers and Nicholas Kulish. Another friend whom I respect, Margaret Brennan of CBS News, reported last fall that the State Department had records of black market transactions that were critical in funding ISIS.

But some things just don’t add up. I think too many of the sources contacted by journalists may be peddling opinion here, not fact.

I did a lot of reading and reporting on this subject last year in preparation for a presentation on the destruction of cultural heritage at the Kent Presents ideas festival. And believe me, I looked for something new to say, something with real substance, something to write about.

Afterwards, in the fall, I attended forums on the subject, with all kinds of experts–from museums, from the diplomatic ranks, from criminal investigation offices, from prosecutors’ offices, from the trade, from collectors, from academic archaeology departments, and so on. I talked with many of them, too–before or after.

What I discovered, for one thing, is that actual examples of ISIS-looted antiquities on the market are slim to none. True, it may be that objects looted now are being kept in warehouses, for later sale–but that doesn’t finance ISIS now. Also true. the goods may not be coming into the U.S. market. The antiquities dealers I spoke with said they had not seen anything on these shores from looted areas since ISIS began its jihad.

But, you say, of course they wouldn’t say so. That’s partly true–it’s not in their interest to admit it. But it’s not in their interest to see the trade shut down entirely either–and that is what may well happen if stolen goods are discovered here. What most experts say, and what today’s Times article also says, is that people are peddling fakes said to be from the ISIS-damaged sites–probably to gullible collectors who think they are getting a bargain. Is ISIS producing these fake goods? Hard to say.

It may also be true that the loot may all be going into other Middle Eastern countries, or Russia, as many have speculated. In which case, it’s a problem our museums, our dealers, our collectors, our prosecutors can’t do much about. Our investigators may be able to help there, though, and I say go to it.

Here too there’s a problem, though. Many sources, many articles seem to me to be exaggerating the stakes in trade. The Times piece says, in part:

Despite a near-universal outcry over the Islamic State’s actions, few countries have shown interest in imposing new restrictions to curb the booming trade in antiquities, estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year.

Boldface mine. Other articles, and sources, have also thrown around the b-word. But I cannot fathom where that number comes from. Contemporary art may sell billions a year (lately), but antiquities? No.

In 2015, Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined sales for antiquities (April, June and December sales) totaled less than $25 million. In 2014, the total was jut over $25 million. Add in other auction houses. Add in private dealers, whose books we never see. It is really hard to get to “billions” a year in this category. So what is the source of that number? Is it an exaggeration on purpose or from ignorance? If it’s real, I’d like to know how it was derived.

Clearly something is going on–I’m not suggesting that there’s no trade in illicit antiquities. It has happened in the past, and it’s likely happening now. Furthermore, satellite photos show destruction in ISIS-occupied territory, unquestionably. How much of that has been saved and designated for resale now on the world’s markets remains a mystery. To me, at least.

I would hope we are putting our resources where it can do the most good to save cultural heritage, rather than wasting them chasing a mirage.


  1. Gary Vikan says

    Hi JHD

    Well, you got that right!


    Gary Vikan

  2. I can tell you where the billion dollar figures come from because I have traced them back to source as part of my work advising trade associations. I am waiting for a response from the Executive Editor of the New York Times, Dean Paquet, about what appears to be a lack of fact and source checking in this article.
    I would also like to know how the claims higher up in the article, such as “looking for contraband that regularly traverses this country on the way to markets in Western Europe and America” and “For every seizure like the one here, many other pieces are believed to reach dealers and buyers in Vienna, Munich, London and New York. Dealers”, stack up with what they admit lower down: “Few objects have turned up so far that can be traced to the Islamic State’s plunder.”
    Two terms you often hear demanded of the antiquities trade: “Provenance” and “Due Diligence.”
    Isn’t it about time they were also applied to news reports and comment on the subject?
    The New York Times Public Editor says that the Syrian crisis and ISIS is the most important story in the world today. If that is so, there is an even greater duty of care for NY Times reporters to back what they say with clear evidence. Who are the ‘experts’ they keep referring to?

    • Thanks for your comment–but two things. It’s not just the NYTimes that has printed these numbers. Other news outlets are as well–and clearly some sources out there are citing them. Of course there is a duty to check, when possible, and cite the source.

      But if you know the source of the numbers, would you please share–either here in comments or, if you must, with me privately? My contact info in on this site.

  3. There is more going on here: See and

    It would be great if journalists talked to more diverse sources in the interests of getting the full story.

  4. The incessant calls for “provenance” and “due diligence” alluded to by Ivan Macquisten above are merely stalking horses for the professional archaeological community. They are not based on law, they are based on epistemologically induced compulsive fabrication of facts. Their real target is eliminination of all trade in cultural property and several archaeologists have proudly said as much in public, as a statement of their ideology. The opponents of cultural property trade (a 600+ year-old legal enterprise) are screaming for law enforcement and bureaucratic intervention in a perfectly legal activity. They obviously are blinded to the fact that it is counter-productive to limit legitimate trade in all items of a general class as a remedy for black market trade in the theft of certain items from that class. If law were to take this approach seriouslly, the sale of automobiles, jewelry, purses, prescription drugs and myriad other objects would need to be halted for the protection of society. Archaeologists would do far better for themselves and all of society if they would focus on deterring genuine cultural property crime rather than trying to convince the world that their ideological definition of “illicit” supercedes existing law. It does not, it merely highlights their biased opinion. There are laws in place and there are agencies charged with enforcing the law. We should let our government do its job without all the academic proselytizing and media posturing.

    • Well, to my mind, provenance research, with due diligence, are necessary aspects of conducting a fair trade in antiquities, just as they are in any other category of the art market.

      • Below what dollar value does provenance research and due diligence apply in the art market? I have to imagine it is quite high. Is it expected to have a list of previous owners for a $1,000 painting? A $10,000 painting? A $100,000 painting? The antiquity anti-collectors seem to think a $50 oil lamp should have documented provenance. I don’t know the art market but frankly I doubt you know a damn thing about it either.

        • Your comment would have been more effective if you had left off the ad hominem attack on me and identified yourself as a coin dealer. If you want to post comments here in the future, please observe my comment policy.

  5. The billions figure is almost certainly overstated. So are figures for human trafficking and drugs. Estimating the size of black markets is extremely difficult. But as you point out at the end of the article, there is no doubt that massive looting of archaeological sites is occurring, and that is happening because those paying the diggers believe that they will be able to sell the looted artifacts, sooner or later (and probably later, since past experience indicates that material is quite often held for a decade or more before seeping into the market). In the meantime, it is worth remembering that when perfectly licit antiquities with ironclad provenance are sold for eye-popping prices, looters take note and looting spikes (as it did in Iraq following the Erlenmeyer Collection auctions).

    Does any of this mean the licit antiquities trade should be shut down? Not necessarily — and in any case, there is zero chance of that happening globally. But it needs to be regulated in ways that take account of the social costs of the trade, costs clearly registered by the number of holes showing up in satellite photos in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other countries.

  6. Emma Cunliffe says

    Dear Judith
    It’s great to see such a well-written, logical article. Thank you.

    Re: the figures:- the most often quoted figure, which has become influential in the numbers-quoting game, is $2 billion, which was published in an FBI report [1]. They got the figure from, I believe, the no-longer-in-existence MacDonald Institute’s work from 1993 (I asked them), so it was not considered to be an up-to-date figure, but the only information available. This was then (deliberately or accidentally) applied just to Syrian looting, causing some confusion for a while. New figures have since sprouted with regularity, but there is no evidence for the scale of looting to back them up, although several projects, particularly one at the Oriental Institute of Chicago, are doing some important work to examine it.
    The only published evidence for the scale of income from looting by Da’esh comes from the State Department release in September, which is very well summarised and analysed in this report [2].
    There is also confusion amongst journalists who confuse the end sale price of an object with the amount that ‘must’ be made by Da’esh. Objects make significantly less at the looting end (for the finder), and Da’esh tax that. The middle man then sells the item on for significantly more, and this is usually what journalists are offered in their undercover work. Some of the middle men may work for Da’esh, giving them income, but we don’t know much about it yet. However, I wonder if it is right to compare items sold at the ‘best’ auction houses to the general trade. Are most site finds suitable for sale there – I doubt it – but they probably are saleable? Certainly all the ones I’ve seen offered for illegal sale anyway (on a Facebook group that I had closed) don’t seem ‘good’ enough for the high end market, but they are offered for sale? What is happening to them?

    Also, if you haven’t seen it, you may find this article about the internet trafficking of antiquities of interest [3].

    Good article, thanks


  7. Emma Cunliffe says

    ^Sorry, the University of Chicago, not the Oriental Institute

  8. A few points. As for provenance, the fact is most minor antiquities and coins don’t have much. It has far more to do with their typical low values than anything else and the fact that provenance was not considered important until very recently. For such items, the best bet is to only purchase from trustworthy sources.

    I would not assume as the NY Times does that artifacts necessarily leave the region. In fact, there are plenty of collectors in places like Turkey and Lebanon. And indeed, before the war ancient coins and minor antiquities were openly sold in shops in the modern town in Palmyra.

    As to provable values of what has been looted by ISIS, see my blog posted above. The best estimates appear to be a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million– a drop in the bucket compared to ISIS’ estimated annual budget of about $1 billion.

    One of the frustrations here (seen in Wayne’s and Joe’s comments above) is that dealers and collectors feel marginalized in this debate. For example, the NY Times article discussed above appears to be solely sourced to academics and State Department officials. These groups have their own interests. Archaeologists depend on excavation permits issued by cultural bureaucracies like that of the Assad Regime. Hence, there is very little open discussion of looting conducted by Assad’s forces as well as the purposeful destruction of cultural sites by barrel bombs and artillery. The State Department also sees this as a way to “project soft power” so it is loath to criticize source countries as well.

    Any proposed “solution” to looting will need to take into account that source countries and archaeologists have some responsibility. One of the major problems is that local people are disengaged because they have come to associate ancient artifacts with hated Middle Eastern dictatorships. Why? These dictatorships have declared anything “old” state property and have confiscatory laws that allow for seizure of objects found on private land without compensation. For example, museums have been looted in Iraq and Egypt because they were associated with Saddam Hussein and the Egypt’s Military dictatorship. And, I would note there would seem to be no local backlash against ISIS for its own purposeful destruction of ancient historic site. Of course, part of this may be fear, but one suspects at least some locals share ISIS’ iconoclastic views and lack of reverence for ancient artifacts associated with Assad and Iraq’s sectarian government.

    As for archaeologists, one suspects there would be less looting of archaeological sites (outside of times of conflict) if the locals they hire were paid a fair, living wage and there was proper site security when no archaeologists are on site to monitor things. (Keep in mind most sites are just worked a few months a year.) One could easily imagine underpaid diggers conducting unauthorized digging in the “off season” to help put food on the table. How about at least investing in some cameras so sites can be monitored remotely?

    • I agree with and am no stranger to most of what you say here. However, while it’s true that there are collectors in places like Lebanon and Turkey, those countries–for that very reason–were used to create false provenance documents for antiquities that have been looted and sold to collectors.

      But we are getting very far from the subject of my post: the numbers and some of the “facts” in articles about looting/sales by ISIS are not credible. And they are, unfortunately, framing policy decisions–and leading to a misappropriation of resources.

  9. James McAndrew says


    Thank you for your article. I have qualified information about the creative information international law enforcement incorrectly spew into the mainstream press knowing their appetite and vulnerabilities for the new “hot” story. Many scholarly organizations like ASOR, Antiquities Coalition, and the better known bloggers eat it up just as much if not more. Truth being said, there is more inaccurate information circulating around the globe through these channels than there is accurate information.

    In 2010 I built, created, and developed the United States Department of Homeland Security’s International Art and Antiquity Investigations Division. I personally created DHS’s training program originally titled “Fighting iIlicit traffic of Cultural Property at U.S. Ports of Entry”. The training was first hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and was moved to the Smithsonian Museum. I was a Senior Special Agent and Subject matter expert in cultural property investigations. My task was to train DHS ICE special agents from across the country and those stationed at U.S. Embassies around the world. I was a member of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational Affairs, Cultural Property Task Force and the Interpol Iraqi Tracking Task Force. I was poised and ready to save the worlds cultural property.

    From the beginning, I recall being at Conference hosted by Interpol in Lyon France and the infamous claim that looting amounts to a 6 Billion dollar business. I was flabbergasted and didn’t believe it, so I set out to find the source of such nonsense. In my research I found out that during an ICOM Conference in Europe (possibly Austria, The Hague) in the late 1980’S, some European official made such statement not in fact but to make a point about the breadth of looting around the world. It was never presented as a statistic.

    Source countries as well as U.S. law enforcement jumped on the opportunity to mimic that sound-bite and it took on a life of its own. Even the FBI, who didn’t start an Art Crime Team until 2004 (after all the success my program at legacy U.S. Customs and DHS) recite and attempt to claim ownership of the 6 billion dollar claim when in fact they were never even in the game.

    All of the sudden a frenzy of source country claims inundated my desk. Claims for select objects in U.S. collections, at U.S. auctions, in U.S. museums, spread like wild fire; most of which never included the requisite evidence that such object was their possession or was even excavated from within their boundaries to begin with let alone did the claimant country establish provenience for the object.

    U.S. Law enforcement used the power of the press to “embarrass” collectors and institutions into “voluntarily surrendering” object(s) knowing that such claims would never pass muster if challenged in a court of law. A gamble at best!

    Italy, Greece, Egypt, Peru, and many other countries, jumped on the band wagon because they recognized the ease of which to make a simple claim and the likelihood of such claim not being contested, it was a sure win. This environment continues today.

    Under my reign at DHS I counseled source countries on what U.S. law required of them in order to accept a claim for investigation. I denied many requests; I pushed back for more information that they knew they couldn’t provide; and I even vacated seizure warrants that I felt were inappropriate. I insisted on balance and the letter of the law. Since my retirement, it’s been a free-for-all.

    Yes, there is horrific looting and archaeological site destruction ( I witnessed first hand). And yes, the international community must come together to find way to stop it. With that said, source countries still remain slow in taking action and issuing internal changes to their laws and policies to protect their own cultural property. Source countries still have problems with corruption and cultural issues that permit such activity.

    Regional conflicts and the death and destruction caused by them are mostly ignored by neighboring countries. Yet, countries completely removed and mostly helpless to stop the looting propose laws, host conferences, make bold political statements, to no avail.

    Market countries like Western Europe and the U.S. seemed to get blamed for it all. Everyone seems to be anticipating the containers full of looted artifacts to arrive on the U.S. shores, like Christopher Columbus did. Personally, developed nations and the scholarly community need to find some better way to spend their time. They, above all, should know better. It’s time to change the rhetoric and focus on the crisis at hand and address it in its region. Shy that, and the blame game will continue while the archaeological site destruction, looting and innocent loss of life will too.

    • Remind me again how much the antiquities found in Kapoor’s New York warehouse were worth?

      • I certainly cannot answer this question. The articles I’ve seen use numbers like $8 million in one place, $5 million for one item, $150 million at one point–but not a single one that I have seen cites attribution.

        • This article gives prices for some of the individual artifacts sold totalling $7,130,000 just for those identified sales, but those are not by any means all the sales, and it would require an appraiser to go through the warehouse to come up with an estimate for what had not yet been sold.

  10. I think you have a professional obligation to disclose here that you are a paid consultant to the Leon Levy Foundation, headed by his widow, antiquities collector Shelby White.

    • I have no problem disclosing that, along with the fact that my consulting activities have nothing to do with my journalism, that each is managed separately and that the Foundation has nothing to do with the collection of Leon Levy & Shelby White.

  11. Further to my comments at the top of this thread, here is a link to the blog I wrote in July, having looked into the origin of the $3 billion claims. (

    In short, they confirm what Emma Cunliffe says above regarding the FBI, although in my researches they appear to have come by a different route. I did manage to get hold of the documents in question, as this and the blog explain.

    I suspect that the rise of news aggregation sites and embedded hyperlinks explains how the influence of a single source can mushroom. It also means that once a mistake is made it is hard to put right as it spreads across the web.

    This is a very slight update on from the relevant part of my July blog, but you can look at the original at the link above:

    In recent weeks, for instance, I have noticed a number of mentions of the figure of $3 billion as the estimated value of the global antiquities market.
    As far as I can see, not one report among those published gives a source for this figure. The Toronto Star publishes it in the sub heading to its report Islamic State cashes in by peddling art loot on eBay, Facebook, and lists it again in the body of the report without attribution. Many of the other articles appear to have been inspired by, or even acknowledge, Bloomberg’s report titled Islamic State is selling looted art online for needed cash.
    Bloomberg also quotes the $3 billion figure but again gives no source for it. Artnet news, which aggregates other news sources, put the figure in its headline while quoting Bloomberg.
    In fact Bloomberg seems to have sourced its article from The Economist’s June 13 online report Save our stones, which makes no mention of the value of the global art market at all, but does mention the figure of $3 billion. However, it refers to this figure as being the estimated value of Egyptian antiquities lost since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, according to Deborah Lehr of American association the Antiquities Coalition.
    Have later reports, starting with Bloomberg, confused these figures? I don’t know, but I do know that no one I have consulted has any idea of where the $3 billion figure came from in referring to the value of the global antiquities trade. Antiquities dealers I have spoken to believe the trade is worth far less.
    Just to confuse matters further, another online article titled Plundering the past, by David Johnson, states that “A recently released report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge, England, states that up to $3 billion in art and artifacts are stolen each year around the world.”
    The Institute’s report is titled Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, says Johnson.
    The Johnson article is undated, but ranked at number 3 of the articles on the first page for a Google search under the term ‘$3 billion antiquities’ in July when I conducted this exercise.
    Since then it has fallen down the rankings considerably, presumably as a result of the widespread dissemination of the $3 billion claim.
    A search through the McDonald Institute’s online archive under the report’s title as given by Johnson reveals that it was published in June 2000 and is now out of print. Further research reveals two of the authors to be Peter Watson and Neil Brodie, the latter of whom remains one of the foremost academics campaigning for more restrictive controls on the antiquities trade, but who also wrote an important recent paper debunking the hundreds of millions of dollars claims for looted Syrian artefacts (see
    Eventually, I managed to secure a pdf of the report and in paragraph 1.9 it gives a value for the illicit global trade in antiquities as $2 billion, attributing the figure as an estimate by Geraldine Norman and qualifying the claim further by adding: “other estimates have ranged down to $150 million. As already pointed out, because the trade is clandestine, reliable data is hard to find.”
    So recently turns out to be 2000 and when checking the report’s own reference to the Geraldine Norman estimate, that came from an article she wrote for The Independent titled Great sale of the century, dated 24 November 1990.
    Just to recap then, Johnson had an article ranked 3 on the home page of the relevant section of Google quoting the $3 billion figure as applying to the illicit trade in antiquities and giving the institute’s report as the authoritative source. The institute’s report turns out to be 15 years old and quotes the different figure of $2 billion, which it attributes to a newspaper report by then already ten years old, noting that it was one person’s estimate. It also admits that other estimates put the illicit trade at less than a tenth of that figure and effectively further admits that none of this can be relied on because “reliable data is hard to find”.
    We are now left with two claims: that the global trade in antiquities is worth $3 billion and that the global trade in illicit antiquities is worth $3 billion (or $2 billion if, as it seems, Johnson has misquoted the McDonald Institute report).

  12. Thank you for your voice of reason. Such unsubstantiated claims have gained remarkable traction over the past few years despite the heavily scrutinized and regulated antiquities trade being among the most financially insignificant sectors of the art market. Reporting a multi-billion dollar illicit antiquities trade is both ludicrous and particularly dangerous for it only motivates the ignorant to loot archaeological sites in the hope of untold riches. Such lazy journalism has been encouraged by archaeological hardliners claiming ISIS financing to further an anti-trade agenda. Whereas, in reality, antiquity objects without a collection history (provenance) are rejected by dealers, collectors, and auction houses alike as a bad investment.
    It is time to stop blaming art collectors and museums who have been major benefactors of excavation, scholarship, and preservation of ancient sites across the globe and focus on the real targets that are funding these monocultural fanatics.

    • I am intrigued by the claim that the antiquities trade is “heavily scrutinized and regulated”. Could you provide us with some details about exactly what regulations exist? Many other industries have reporting requirements, registration and certification rules, user fees and taxes.

  13. Within U.S. Legislation there is the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, the Pre-Columbian Monumental and Architectural Sculpture and Murals Statute, the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004, Iraqi Sanctions Regulations, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and the National Stolen Property Act.

    The US is party to the following International conventions concerning Cultural Property: 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague Convention), the 1970 Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the 1972 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the 1981 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Peru for the Recovery and Return of Stolen Archaeological, Historical, and Cultural Properties, the 1984 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Guatemala for the Recovery and Return of Stolen Archaeological, Historical, and Cultural Properties.

    Furthermore, the US has Bilateral Agreements with 16 countries that covers emergency actions, agreements, and a Designated Lists of objects subject to import restrictions, as well as amendments and extensions. These countries include: Belize, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Cyprus, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mali, Nicaragua, and Peru. Iraq and Syria are addressed with the Iraq 2004 Emergency Protection Act and the Iraq 2008 Emergency Restriction and Designated List and the Syria Cultural Heritage Initiative. Other related regulations include: European Union Directive on the Return of Cultural Objects and the European Union Regulation (#3911/92) on the Export of Cultural Goods.

    In the past, the trade has not always had a good record in dealing with illicit material but over the past 15 years this has changed dramatically and continues to do so: Auction houses implement the highest standards of due diligence. The Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art (ADCAEA) have published comprehensive Due Diligence Guidelines (see: as has the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) (see: Both organizations maintain a strict Code of Conduct and utilize resources such as the Art Loss Register, the Getty Object Identification System, the ICOM red list database, and ICE HSI Cultural property, Art and Antiquities Investigations (as discussed by James McAndrew above).

    As for registration, in Europe it is called VAT, in the US we have State Sales Tax and Small Business Licensing laws whereby we must keep a record of every object purchased, from whom purchased, how we paid and to whom it was sold, and, let’s face it, the tax department is far more onerous than any association.

    The legal trade is not the enemy: we fully support practical measures to eliminate the illegal removal of cultural material from a country of origin. Practices must be introduced to stem the tide of illicit excavation within the country of origin; by the time such material reaches foreign shores, the damage has been done.

    Finally, please keep in mind the efforts of private collectors is vital to the preservation of many archaeological objects and promotes further scientific, cultural and educational study of our inherit cultural history. In their paper, “Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Public Benefit” (January, 2007) the Association of Art Museum Directors state “More than 90% of the art collections held in public trust by America’s art museums were donated by private individuals”.

    Demonizing the trade will not protect Syrian antiquities or archaeological sites, it is only by working together can our shared cultural heritage be protected.

  14. Randall HIxenbaugh says

    I can provide details about scrutiny and regulation. For instance, one of the last pieces that I acquired at auction in Europe was a Roman bronze key. It is a commonplace object that can be found in any Roman city or town from the Middle East to Scotland. It is not of a type on the Designated List of import restricted items from Italy as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security. The object is not of “Cultural Significance,” as stated in the UNESCO agreement. Nonetheless, it required export license from Germany, which took months to obtain and additional cost. When it arrived in the US it was detained at US customs who asked for further information in English. So six months later I received the Roman key, the cost of export, brokerage and import nearly exceeded the value (a few hundred dollars) of the object and the accompanying paperwork was more substantial in size than the object itself. This is how the day to day business of the ‘unregulated’ antiquities trade goes, do we need additional taxes and user fees?

    • This article has elicited some excellent and insightful responses—especially the first hand observations and comments by James McAndrews. I have just one final comment regarding provenance. Congressional hearings during formulation of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) carefully weighed the concerns of various parties—including the trade in ancient coins. See: Hearing Before The Subcommittee on Trade of the Committee on Ways and Means, H.R. 3403, September 27, 1979. The U.S. State Department spokesperson at these hearings, Mark Feldman, was briefed by Chairman Vanik about the concerns of ancient coin dealers and collectors. His response to the committee was: “In most cases, it is impossible to establish the provenance of a particular coin or hoard of coins. Therefore, there would be no reason for the United States, in most cases, to list coins as one of the categories of objects of archaeological or ethnological interest that would be included in the agreement.” The law was eventually agreed upon and passed with this understanding and other accords. It included specific conditions under which import restrictions might be imposed—only when first found in and subject to export control of the state party with whom that particular agreement (MOU) was being negotiated. In further testimony, Mr. Feldman very clearly confirmed that the burden of proof in any claimed import violation was vested in the government. The State Department’s position may have changed since that time, but the law has not. The issue of provenance being mandatory for importation of any object on the designated list of an MOU is not a valid condition under CCPIA and never has been. Any alternative rule making is contrary to the letter and intent of law, and may itself be considered a violation. It is incumbent upon CBP to prove that an object in question was illegally exported from a State Party covered by an MOU, not just that it was initially manufactured in that country centuries ago. In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that I am an ancient coin dealer and have been for more than 50 years. I am also the founder and Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.

  15. Neil Brodie says

    Yes, I had hoped back in 2000 to have refuted the claim for a multi-billion dollar antiquities trade, but sadly not. I have tried since too, but it is not good copy.

    Monetary value is not really the point. The point is holes in the ground. And boy are there a lot of them.

    • Monetary value is the not the point, per se, but the inflated values create false impressions. I think many people believe that if we stop the illicit trading of antiquities by ISIS, we will have substantially weakened their finances and from all the available evidence that’s just not true.

      These comments strayed very far from my original post, which is fine, but let’s not lose sight of my original point.

  16. Thank you Judith and everyone else for your contributions to this debate. I would especially like to thank Neil Brodie for his honesty, Peter Tompa for correctly identifying one of the key problems, the marginalization of the trade in the debate (please, conference and seminar organisers, as well as journalists, take note), Randall Hixenbaugh for being one of the very few dealers who has managed to take the platform, however briefly, in public to argue the trade’s cause and James McAndrew for his extraordinarily helpful insight. I have seen more solid, useful information come out of this thread than from just about all of the high-profile conferences and seminars put together.
    In my work trying to help us all find a constructive solution to this issue, I have been struck by how much all sides of the debate actually agree on. There are clear points of contention, some which will be extremely hard to resolve, but this does not mean we should not try. There is an enemy out there, so let’s be clear who it really is. What does not help is the time wasted on disputes based on false or mistaken premises, which is why open lines of communication such as this excellent thread really count.

  17. Can I suggest that you have overlooked academic research into what is happening in London? I discuss the observations here with links to the sources:

    Incidentally, I have been charting the sales of antiquities at auction in New York for some years, most recently in December 2015:

  18. I wanted to second Ivan Macquisten’s point that this comments thread has been extremely illuminating, and also to give everyone a heads-up that the Past for Sale initiative at the University of Chicago is organizing a conference to be held this May 19-20 designed, we hope, to provide an opportunity for dealers, auction house officials, museum directors, and the collecting community more broadly to air their views about what policy measures could (and presumably also should not) be taken to better protect archaeological sites — not just in wartorn regions like Syria, but more generally — from looting.

  19. David Gill makes some interesting points and his graph of New York sales is very useful. I have not had the opportunity to hear his radio broadcast, but I did scrutinise The Guardian article very closely when it first appeared. Its most salient feature is that nothing in the article supports the headline: ‘Looted in Syria – and sold in London: the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by ISIS.’
    The journalist shadows archaeologist Mark Altaweel as he poses as a collector touring unidentified antiquities shops in London. The article reveals that ‘Altaweel doesn’t much like antiquities collectors – or rather, the very concept of the trade itself: antiquities, he feels, “shouldn’t be bought and sold in private collections”.’ This immediately calls into question how much we can rely on the impartial judgment of the comments he then goes on to make.
    I return to my point at the top of this thread regarding Provenance and Due Diligence. The standard applied to the ‘evidence’ put forward in this article would not pass muster with the trade’s critics if applied to objects a dealer offers for sale, as the article itself makes abundantly clear.
    The first piece of evidence put forward in the article regarding objects found in London is as follows, and I quote Altaweel directly, that they are: ‘“very likely to be coming from conflict regions” in Iraq and Syria. Continuing in this vein, here is the rest of the evidence supplied in the article, again, quote by quote:-
    • ‘Altaweel says they are so distinctive that they could only have come from a particular part of the region: the part now controlled by the so-called Islamic State. That we were able to find such items openly sold in London “tells you the scale – we’re just seeing the tail end of it,” he says.
    • Some media reports suggest this income stream is the “second-largest source of revenue” for the group (after oil sales), but in reality it’s impossible to tell.
    • London, one of the world’s largest antiquities markets, is considered a natural destination for looted goods.
    • “This is all Indian,” one trader says. “I think it’s probably near-eastern,” Altaweel quietly corrects. “These items are from the Islamic period,” another offers. “Unlikely,” Altaweel states.
    • Every time Altaweel zones in on something that seems likely to be from an area now controlled by Isis, the dealer we’re talking to grows vague about the item’s origin.
    • One seller says that some objects, almost certainly Syrian and from the area that Isis declared as its caliphate, were brought in a few months ago, by a private seller who said the goods had come from a family collection. Another suggests that a small statue – for which Altaweel says every type site is either in Iraq or Syria – was bought at an auction. There is never any paperwork.
    • Altaweel tells me: “It’s obviously not Jordanian, so my suspicion is that it’s coming out of Syria.” The piece he shows us – a fragment of a cup or glass container, selling for £250 – is, he adds, highly distinctive of the area. “It’s very early glass and is concentrated in very few areas,” he says.
    • ‘These European destinations, says Tsirogiannis, are where illicit goods were typically laundered – changing hands, passing between dealer and conservator in order to create a paper trail that would then be used to sell objects on to auction houses in London and New York. Today, other experts assume that similar routes are being used for looted goods coming out of Syria and Iraq. “It’s just the way the market works,” says David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk. Looted goods are “coming out through Turkey and Beirut and then containered to who knows where”. By the time an object gets to London, he says, it “has paperwork, internally, within Europe”. (This a possible scenario for higher-value objects for which a paper trail is more desirable, but undocumented items still turn up in European markets.)’

    The article then goes on to detail how a BBC Skype interview with a go-between in Southern Turkey, who displays items he says have been recently dug up in ISIS-controlled eastern Syria, reveals the man saying “that the objects were destined for western Europe: “Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe,” he said. “They call them, send pictures … people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away.”
    The BBC talk to another dealer in Beirut “who said he had access to genuine Byzantine and Hellenic mosaics, which most likely would have been looted from Syria. This dealer, the Turkish go-between and the head of Lebanon’s bureau of international theft all told the BBC that Europe was the main market for looted antiquities from the region”.
    Next we are told: “Meanwhile, an undercover investigation by the Sunday Times in 2013 found archaeological treasures from the ancient Roman city of Palmyra (recently taken over by Isis) sold on the black market in Lebanon.”
    Then the article finally admits what everything else above has shown: “But it’s impossible to know precisely what is being smuggled, to where – or how. It’s likely that looted goods are being sold online, or though established connections with private collectors.”
    If this is true, how come The Guardian headline?
    It does at least go on to quote Christopher Marinello, director of Art Recovery International, as saying: ‘ “that, partly due to recent media attention, dealers now increasingly view objects from Syria as suspect: “Reputable dealers and auction houses are doing the right thing and asking the right questions”, when they come across antiquities with questionable provenance.’
    The first piece of actual evidence follows now: ‘Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit says it has three live investigations into stolen antiquities from Syria. It adds: “In two of these investigations, restrictions have been placed on the articles in question. There have been no arrests to date.” So suspicion (and I hope enough evidence) to investigate, but no result so far.
    And that is it.
    The anti-looting campaigners quoted in this article, largely dedicated archaeologists and academics who have given years of their lives to fighting illicit trade, face the uphill struggle of actually proving anything at all beyond surmise, or qualified opinion given as part of their professional judgment.
    This article does them no favours. It makes for a good headline – and it has certainly been quoted as source material by other media reports to show London as a centre for looted Syrian antiquities – but there is far too much nudge nudge, wink wink here, which simply undermines their cause in the absence of anything concrete at all. And the reporter’s language is too loaded (“Do I need to wear gloves?” he asks the first dealer. He doesn’t; the market, unlike the field of archaeology, really isn’t bothered), which itself does not make for an impartial approach, nor do loose attributions such as “Some media reports suggest…”.
    Additionally, no distinction is made between the responsible, legitimate trade and the crooks. This is a misguided tactic because the legitimate trade is just as keen to see the crooks taken out of the market and is highly vocal in saying so. Honest dealers and auction house specialists would rather spend their time on historical and archaeological research in the context of the artefacts they handle, not fending off brickbats and having their reputations tainted by unfair association.
    Don’t take my word for it. Have a look at The Guardian article yourselves and see what hard evidence you can extract from it. The link is:
    As Peter Tompa wisely counsels, it is time to include the trade in the debate and you may be surprised at how constructive they can be. As I note higher up the thread, there are serious points of contention that have no obvious solution, but that is what should inform the debate, not stifle it.

    • Please do listen to the BBC broadcast.

      Please can I also make a plea? Why is the (obsolete) word “provenance” still used? Surely we are talking about documented collecting histories. Do have a look at this:

    • Factoids and often wildly exaggerated figures are what is to be expected in any discussion of globalized black markets: the drug trade, human trafficking, you name it, all involve guesstimates of how much is actually being sold by whom, where, and at what prices. So asking for more precision from the non-academics dealing with the black market in antiquities is a bit unfair.

      Moreover, while the figures being bandied about are certainly too high, it is important to recognize the basic fact, supported by satellite imagery analysis: massive looting of archaeological sites is occurring in ISiS-controlled (as well as opposition and Syrian-government-controlled) territory. As Emma Cunliffe notes, a team at the University of Chicago is attempting to build on that factual base to develop estimates of the value of marketable material likely to have been present in those looted areas. That will still be just an estimate, but more accurate, hopefully, than what we have now.

      Whatever the monetary estimate arrived at, however, it will not include any recognition of the value of the archaeological material destroyed in the industrial digging that produces the marketable artifact. We are trying to also develop a way of putting a price on that loss of priceless information, but that loss should really matter — though not as much as the killing of human beings made possible by ANY steady stream of revenue from antiquities sales going back to ISIS.

      And make no mistake: even though it is certainly nowhere near the inflated level bandied about, ISIS is making money from the looting and trafficking of antiquities, enough to have established licensing systems and revenue collecting mechanisms, enough so that a senior ISiS official killed in a US raid had artifacts in his house, enough to warrant torturing the former head of Palmyra to try to get him to reveal where lucrative items might have been hidden. This is serious business. And as oil prices plummet and ISIS’ oil trucks and facilities increasingly are targeted, the hard currency to be made from antiquities trafficking will only become more important. Caviling over the figures won’t change these basic realities.

      Judith’s original claim was that the bad numbers were leading to misallocation of resources, presumably because we are paying too much attention to a problem that is not really much of one. I disagree, not just about whether a mere million or ten million in hard currency going to ISIS is much of a problem — that can buy plenty of weapons — but also about the more basic public policy assumption that sensationalistic numbers always lead to misallocation of resources. That is not always the case. It depends on where in the policymaking process the numbers are introduced into discussion, what the numbers say or don’t say about what is to be done, and what kinds of resources are available to be allocated or misallocated. In the case of the numbers we are talking about here, they were introduced at the beginning of a policy debate, and had the effect of getting people to pay attention to a problem that had almost no resources directed toward it beforehand because no one cared very much at all about it, even where laws and regulations existed. (The environmental movement evolved similarly, by the way.) As Mr Macquisten has pointed out on his blog (, financing has long been missing to give laws and regulations teeth. The bad numbers have caused some resources to begin to flow, but nowhere near the level of resources one might have expected had that billion-dollar figure been taken utterly seriously in public-policy cost-benefit analyses.

      Let me be clear: I would much prefer that crazy numbers not be cited in any public policy debate, and I devoutedly hope that heritage policy can evolve into a field that is like environmental policy, much more informed by solid data and rigorous academic research. Of course, for that to happen, the antiquities trade would have to become transparent so that academics could obtain the basic data that would make it possible for us to establish and track the size, price composition, and structure of the market. It would be marvelous if the dealers who rightly complain about the ridiculousness of the billion dollar figure agreed to open up their extraordinarily secretive industry to the kind of transparency needed to make clear what the right figure is.

      • Thanks, but a clarification: In my post, I did not “claim” that bad numbers always lead to a misallocation of resources. However, what I did say was based on my conversations with people in law enforcement/prosecutorial ranks. They feel–and this may not be universal among them–that the stress placed on ISIS loot was a response by politicians to “do something” about ISIS and that resources were better spent fighting other crimes. I have no reason to doubt them on this point.

        Further, they felt–and here I agree–that stopping this one revenue source would do little to nothing to curtail ISIS activities. And so, from the terror-fighting standpoint, it’s more theater than anything else. It gives the populace a false sense that we and the rest of the west, have the answer to the ISIS problem.

        This is not to say that I don’t care about looting–of course, I want it stopped. But by design my post made no mention of the other issues involved here. They are, as the comments show, very emotional and very tangled.

        • It is possible to disagree on how much of an effect curbing looting would have on ISIS, and yes, the smaller the size of the trade the less an effect. How much is too little is another question. Is “only” a million dollars in hard currency going to ISIS too little?

          On the theatre question, I don’t think the impact is to give a false sense of reassurance. Rather, I think it is to harden public attitudes against ISIS and solidify support for a full-court press. Whether that is a good or bad ideological objective is a separate issue.

          Lastly, I would take with a grain of salt the opinions of prosecutors and law enforcement about which crimes should be focused on. They have incentives of their own to focus on crimes that get them ahead in their careers — easily prosecuted crimes that give them high conviction rates. Antiquities crimes are difficult to prosecute, which is why we have high-profile seizures and restitutions, each of which can be seen as the cheap and dirty alternative to criminal prosecutions that would have instead flipped those caught and would have led to the taking down of smuggling networks.

          Until the basic calculus of cost-to-likelihood-of-successful-prosecution is changed — by reversing the burden of proof, or by imposing transparency requirements on the trade to make it cheaper to monitor it, or by taxing the trade to provide dedicated financial resources to pay for the costs of policing and prosecuting criminal activity — I do not think prosecutors or police are going to shift their behavior much.

    • Neil Brodie says

      I was interviewed by both the BBC and the Guardian for the pieces you analyse, but they were not interested in anything I had to say about the difficulty of spotting recently looted objects in London and the reasons for that difficulty. In my experience, the media come with the story ready-made and cast around for a few quotes to support it. Often the quotes are taken out of context. It is not objective reporting and it does not accurately reflect the views of ‘anti-looting campaigners’.

      The reason no distinction is made between the legitimate trade and the crooks is that no one is sure how to make it. Most identications of stolen or suspicious objects are made in the sales catalogues of the major auction houses. Are they then the crooks? Should they be sidelined from the discussion?

  20. Thanks Neil, Very important points. Sadly, having been a journalist for 30 years myself, I have found that while there are many honest writers out there, there are also far too many who behave in the way you describe or are under so much pressure with depleting resources that they simply do not check their facts. My own blog ( highlights this. It is the main reason I became involved in this debate. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the work now being done by leading members of the legitimate trade to radically tighten due diligence and enforcement. It’s work in progress but should prove evidence of honest intent. They are as keen as you are to be able to make a clear distinction between those acting with probity and those who do not. As mentioned above, I am sure serious areas of contention will remain, but a willingness to address them has to be a good start.

    • Two points:
      a. The BBC journalists (as we would expect) were checking their facts and did travel to specific points in the ME as became v clear in their report.
      b, I am unconvinced that the due diligence process is as strict as it needs to be,

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