Germany is an international hotspot for trade in illegal antiques from places like Syria and Iraq, according to new reports which are burdensome.
Released by the German Federal Cultural Foundation in March, the investigation looked at more than 6,000 antiques from the Eastern Mediterranean offered for sale in Germany over a three-year period. It was found that only 2.1 percent proved to be a legitimate source. The numbers are very troubling because funds from the black market antiques often return to terrorist organizations.
The task force consists of researchers from various German institutions investigating this issue between 2015 and 2018 as part of “INVALID project, partly funded by the United Nations and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. During their research, experts found that objects from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus were sold even though the source could not be verified and there was no valid export documentation. Indeed, more than half (56.3 percent) of the artifacts analyzed could not be validated at all.
Speaking to Artnet News about this finding, Dutch art crime investigator Arthur Brand (sometimes called “the art world of Indiana Jones”) explains that Germany is a special nexus for the banned antique market for a number of reasons.
“To begin with is a very rich country, it has a long tradition of gathering, and is home to many immigrant groups with good ties to their home countries, some of whom are art smugglers,” Brand explained. “Another reason is that Germany has very strict laws to protect collectors. So it is very difficult to get things from the hands of German collectors. “
Markus Hilgert, chief “ILLICID“ the project and secretary general of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, said in a statement that it was “alarming” that nearly 40 percent of the archaeological cultural items investigated might come from Iraq and Syria “despite strict import, export and trade restrictions” imposed on countries by EU regulations, not to mention other laws prohibiting the export of archeological assets from these countries since 1869.
After examining 2,387 antiques that are very likely to originate in Iraq and Syria, the new report found only 0.4 percent of objects originating from Iraq and only 9.6 percent of objects originating from Syria were found on the German market legally . “Given the extensive destruction and looting of archaeological cultural assets in Iraq and Syria, this is a worrying finding,” Hilgert added.
Problems With Proof
Researchers from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences GESIS, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Safe Information Technology all took part in this project. Using publicly available information, they investigate objects traded on online platforms, in auction catalogs, and at trade shows. The aim is to recommend ways to protect consumers and act crimes.
Clear regulations will “strengthen providers as well as buyers, and thus Germany as a location for the art trade as a whole,” Hilgert said. This report makes a series of recommendations, including the initiation of a public awareness campaign, and expanding research and training in source research.
But Brand, who has handled a number of large cases involving banned antiquities in the past, didn’t think the problem was that simple.
“Proof research for antiques is very difficult,” Brand said. “While many works of art will appear in databases like List of Lost Art as stolen or fake, these are things that have been on the market or in the museum for a very long time. But with antiques, especially fresh antiques, you won’t find them because they have been on the ground for thousands of years. “
Brand says that even legal artifacts often do not have good sources. When it comes to antiques, it is very difficult to determine their true place of origin because the ancient empire stretched modern borders. Just because an artifact comes from the Roman empire, for example, does not mean it was excavated in Italy or that it really belongs to Rome. This is compounded by the number of antiques on the market, many of which have very vague source details that are difficult to verify.
“In the past I have carried out investigations, but even when you can prove that their origin is false, often nothing can be done,” said the art investigator. “In the absence of photographs or witnesses or other documents, you cannot prove that they have been looted or where they came from. In most countries, the police are not very enthusiastic, for that reason, to explore these stories. “
What can be done?
Among the report’s recommendations is the establishment of a forum for stakeholders in the market for cultural goods to agree on joint guidelines to protect their clients. But Brand says that the problem of forbidden antiques is often exacerbated by the attitude of some auction houses. “They know their collectors want it, so they sell it.”
The investigator added that there were also problems with corruption among the authorities who were accused of fighting illicit trafficking. There are a number of instances where confiscated booty returns to the black market, so calls to improve trade monitoring do not necessarily produce the desired results.
That said, the Brand recognizes that increasing resources for source research and transparency can be a good first step, and “ILLICID“ the report offers a number of ideas on how this can be done.
First, it shows that all trade publications after 1945 must be digitized for greater accessibility, and that any documentation available for objects offered for sale that shows their origin or exports is made public at the time of sale. It also recommends creating a database of cultural goods that are known or suspected to be fake.
Another recommended source is the “transparency list” which will record all archaeological cultural assets that can be traded legally, regardless of whether they are currently on the market. Such registers can function as a certification system for potentially legally traded goods, modeled after a system introduced to crack down on blood diamond trading.
It remains to be seen whether recommendations will be implemented in German law, and if so whether the problem will be a priority given all the more pressing events to shake the world today.
Many collectors buy in good faith and are dedicated to preserving ancient artifacts. However, the difficult problems relating to origins, and the black market’s relationship with terrorist financing, make many people raise serious questions: should private collectors be allowed to buy antiques at all?
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