the Apollo of Gaza: ‘nobody can say, “I didn’t know where it came from”‘

La Repubblica‘s Fabio Scuto (@scutof) has reported (in English and Italian) on the Apollo of Gaza, which may be sold illicitly in order to fund the activities of Hamas. (I learned of this via @keftiugal.) It raises quite a few serious issues – the ethics of selling antiquities to fund (state) activities, the ethics of buying antiquities to prevent their disappearance onto the black market, the practicalities of protecting the cultural heritage of an unrecognised state [and what has actually happened]…

The Apollo of Gaza

A fisherman called Mounir found a 2,500-year-old, 30-35kg, life-size statue of Apollo in Deir al Balah in the Gaza Strip. Mounir thought the statue might have been gold that, in ‘the desperate reality of Gaza‘, would have ‘multipl[ied] its value’. In fact, the statue was bronze, so Mounir thought it had ‘only… archaeological value’. However, it had market value too – of at least $20m. In every way a model ransom, because ‘no one [could] go around the Strip with a statue of the Hellenistic period in the trunk’ of their car, Mounir cut off one of Apollo’s fingers and showed it to connoisseurs to prove his possession of the treasure.

Selling antiquities to fund state(?) activities

Hamas heard about the find, arrested Mounir and confiscated the statue; but because Apollo is iconic and nude, he is un-Islamic and immodest, and therefore undisplayable. Unable to display the statue, unable to pay its own workers because it can no longer raise funds by smuggling or taxing the smuggling of goods (including antiquities) through the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt [since 80%+ of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza have been destroyed], Hamas has decided to sell the statue on the black market in order to fund its administration.

A ‘well[-]know[n] [i]nternational “mediator [dealer]“‘ is approaching buyers (including an unnamed ‘major American museum’) on behalf of Hamas. As Christopher Jones (@cwjones89) observed, ‘here’s an artifact ethics doozy: Can an American museum buy a bronze statue of Apollo from [US-categorised terrorist organisation] Hamas?’ It’s an especially interesting dilemma because Hamas is also an elected government with a civilian administration that provides social services such as healthcare and welfare.

Jones (probably correctly) expects that the statue will end up ‘on the illicit antiquities market since no one can send a US/EU designated terrorist org $20mil legally…. (Please note I’m not advocating paying Hamas for this statue. No statue is worth what Hamas would probably do with $20mil).’

In fact, about ‘90 percent‘ of Hamas’s spending is on ‘social, welfare, cultural and educational activities’, so it would probably spend any income from the Apollo on that. I would be wary of an international institution purchasing the statue because it would legitimate and incentivise antiquities dealing as a way of raising funds.

Beyond the inevitable consequent plunder, it would create an enormous moral hazard. Does the international community care more about statues lying in the Gaza Strip than people living in it? Is the international community extorting antiquities out of a community that it has denied a viable alternative economy (or even subsistence through aid)? If the economy of Gaza is crippled, and the administration of Gaza is crippled, and US/EU aid to Gaza is blocked, how should the people of Gaza generate an income or otherwise ensure access to their basic human rights?

Protecting and recovering the cultural property of an unrecognised state

Ignoring those issues, how should the people of Gaza protect or recover their cultural heritage from the illicit antiquities market? The Palestinian antiquities department is trying to rescue the statue for the partially-recognised State of Palestine. Yet, as noted by the Director-General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, even if the statue (re)surfaces on the international art market, it will be impossible to recover through law enforcement, because Palestine has ‘not yet been allowed’ to become a member of Interpol. Director-General Hamdan Taha implores,

The only way to save Gaza’s Apollo is to tell its story, to let its images circulate, so that nobody can say, “I didn’t know where it came from”.


21 Responses to “the Apollo of Gaza: ‘nobody can say, “I didn’t know where it came from”‘”

  1. Besides the issues treated above, there may be another one: do we know the statue is not a fake? The state of preservation is not what one expects of a statue just out of the sea, the place it is supposed to have been found (in shallow water near the coast in an area where one would not expect 4th century Greek scupture in the first place) seems strange, and the statue is stylistically odd and inconsistent (the head has some unusual features and looks much older than the body). I would not be surprised if the whole thing turns out to be a scam. In any case, some research on the actual statue is needed.


    • I don’t know whether they have a good reason or not, but the Palestinian antiquities department seems to believe that the statue is genuine. Still, I do agree with you that it could be a scam and they need to analyse the statue. We can only hope that they get the chance!


  2. I think the ethical issue at play here is larger than what is being directly funded with the majority of the money. Much of Hamas’ spending on education and welfare activities is designed to create a power base for Hamas in order to prop up its own repressive, anti-democratic regime. See for instance the research of Matthew Levitt into Hamas’ support structure and social work: (

    According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report (, in Gaza “The internal security service of the Interior Ministry and Hamas police in Gaza allegedly tortured 102 people as of September, according to complaints received by the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), a Palestinian rights body. In April Hamas authorities arrested ‘Adel Razeq, 52, without a warrant, denied his family access to him in detention, and allegedly tortured him to death. The ICHR received 163 complaints of arbitrary arrest by Hamas security forces.” In addition “Hamas police and internal security forces assaulted, arbitrarily detained, and allegedly tortured civil society activists and peaceful protesters who had sought to demonstrate in solidarity with Egyptian and Syrian protesters and had called for an end to the political split between Hamas and its rival, Fatah.”

    This of course could apply to buying antiquities from many repressive governments around the world. Money is fungible, and the possibility of providing support to repressive governments through antiquties purchases is definitely an angle that I think needs to be considered in archaeological ethics.


    • I completely agree that the possibility of funding repressive regimes is an essential consideration. It’s the same as concern with the possibility that the antiquities trade might fund paramilitaries. And I’m not defending Hamas’s violence or even its administration. Nonetheless, the same could be said of many states that are not commonly (self-)defined as repressive, including ones that have supported action that violated the human rights (and democratic freedoms) of Palestinians. (Beyond states themselves, their proxies’ and allies’ activities in multiple conflicts have been funded or supplemented by illicit business, whether that trade is in arms or drugs or antiquities.)

      My most fundamental concern is what a civilian community that endures repressive rule should do.

      Amnesty International judged: “Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and food price rises caused by shortages have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. As a form of collective punishment [deliberately designed ‘to keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse‘], Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza is a flagrant violation of international law…. Rather than targeting armed groups, the blockade mainly hits the most vulnerable, such as children (who make up more than half of the population in Gaza), the elderly, the sick and the Gaza Strip’s large refugee population.”

      The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur judged: “Israel’s calculated strangulation of the Gaza Strip has stunted the economy and has kept most Gazans in a state of perpetual poverty and aid dependency…., the destructive designs of blockade have been felt by every single household in Gaza. It is especially felt by Palestinian families separated by the blockade…. The people of Gaza have endured the unendurable and suffered what is insufferable for six years. Israel’s collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza must end.”

      Obviously, the cutting of aid has made that terrible situation even worse. Their extreme poverty is deliberately and illegally imposed upon them. They lack (adequate) access to food, water, shelter, medicine… We cannot violate their human rights in order to undo their government. And we cannot simultaneously deny their civilian administration access to the most basic goods and be surprised that they are seeking alternative means of accessing those goods (let alone try to block those too). If we didn’t deny the people of Gaza their most basic rights, Hamas would have no excuse to compound their suffering by selling off their cultural heritage.


  3. This statue recently showed up on eBay. The asking price is $500,000 US. Much better photos are provided on the eBay page.


    • This very much looks like a sick joke or provocation (seller based in Canada previously only dealing in DVD’s, date and size wrongly listed), but it might not be…

      In any case, I don’t think this is allowed within Ebay standards, even leaving aside international rules and ethics.


      • Yeah, it is a hoax and a violation of eBay rules (and everything else). I believe it’s already been reported. I just approved the comment so that I could include it in a follow-up post tomorrow (hopefully).


        • The worrying bit though is that the seller seems to have images which I haven’t seen elsewhere (but perhaps I did not search enough). They show that not one but several fingers have been cut/sawn off. The right hand seems very clumsy and stylistically odd -though perhaps the image distortion is a factor there, and I am also amazed by the copper red colour of parts of the surface, I would expect a more yellow/gold alloy. As far as one can trust the somewhat vague photographs, it also seems that the head and the body were made separately (there appears to be a straight seam where they are attached). This may help explaining the difference in stylistic date between body and head. My suspicions are only growing…


  4. The photos are intriguing. Oddly, they’re not displayed in the English/Italian-language articles (and I haven’t seen them elsewhere either), but they do have addresses, so I think they are from the Repubblica website…

    I don’t know where to begin!


    • And the seller has withdrawn the statue…

      Photos indeed seem to come from Repubblica, but do not seem to be traceable online.


      • The statue might very well be genuine; the archaizing style of the head and the body (including the characteristic pose) coincide, so the statue may likely be a Roman work (e.g. a lampadophoros or something similar) dating from the 1st century BC or 1st century AD. The head is obviously a replica – the first one that comes to be known – of the archaizing herm bust of a youth from the so-called Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (inv. 5608), to be dated roughly into the early Augustan period.


  5. I add to the foregoing: by looking at the photo on flickr, it seems that the so-called Apollo from Gaza is not a lamp-bearer, but rather a tray-bearing statue (or rather: statuette, when considering the size of the guys fumbling with the bronze on the flickr photo). Although the Gaza Apollo seems indeed to be a replica of the fore-mentioned bust Naples 5608, his pose, gesture and, generally, the archaizing habitus may be compared with the statuette of a tray-bearer from the House of C. Iulius Polybius (IX 13, 1-3) in Pompeii and with his ‘twin’, the Apollo of Piombino in the Louvre. All of these statuettes most likely date from the 1st century BC.


  6. The possibility that this is a Roman statue would indeed solve many of the stylistic problems. I still wonder about the hands though, on the few images they are well visible they look really clumsy. And perhaps Pompeji and the Apollo of Piombino, plus the Delphi Charioteer and (considering the date proposed initially) possibly even the Cleveland Apollo are some of the most obvious place a forger would start looking for inspiration.

    In any case, even assuming the statue itself is genuine, I still find the provenance story problematic. The Gaza coast is not an obvious place for a shipwreck with a 1st century BC-1st century AD statue, and the statue does not have the typical traces of a bronze found on the sea bottom. On the other hand, smuggling a statue from (let’s say) Syria or Egypt (or even the Naples area) into Gaza does not seem to be a very obvious thing to do.

    Let’s hope the statue resurfaces in an official context and can be examined properly!



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