Was the plaque in Finland sold on the French market with an accurate description and estimate, then resold into the Russian market with an inaccurate description and estimate?

[Original title: Were the antiquities going to Russia from Syria or Iran or France?]

On the 5th of June, it was reported that ‘Isis-looted treasures’ had been ‘seized en route to Russia’, then that an ‘”Isis looted” Syrian Ottoman ceramic bound for Russia’ had been ‘seized in Finland‘. Unfortunately, the speech marks in the second headline were supposed to undermine the first, but sounded like confirmation. More troublingly, every piece of information about the ceramic in both reports appears to have been wrong.

Boring note

It is not entirely clear which piece of information came from which source, so I will not attribute them here (yet), but pieces appear to have come from the National Board of Antiquities and the National Board of Customs in Finland or officials of those agencies.

It is clear that the National Board of Antiquities and the National Board of Customs are not equipped to deal with this problem. That is not their fault. Under-preparedness is a problem around the world. [Everything that the customs agents could do, when they found the shipment, they did well.] Cultural heritage agencies and law enforcement agencies need to be given the capacity to act [more effectively].

They need to have an evidence base with which to design strategies and on which to build cases. They need to have access to experts who can guide their investigations. (They also need the power to prevent the movement of antiquities for which there is no evidence of legal handling from source to market, but, regardless of that…) Informed investigation of the illicit trade in cultural property should not be dependent on blog posts and tweets and Facebook comments.

Smuggling through Finland to Russia

The first report, in Yle Uutiset, stated that the shipment was ‘on its way to a collector in Russia’; in the second report, Customs told the International Business Times’ Umberto Bacchi that they knew ‘the identity of the sender‘ but neither confirmed nor denied that they knew the identity of the receiver. If knowledge of the identity of the receiver was leaked by an official on the case, it is possible that they also gave the impression that the piece had been looted by the Islamic State.

Smuggling from where by whom?

There is no evidence for the claim in the first report that the Islamic State looted (and/or smuggled) the piece. The National Board of Customs has explicitly stated that they have ‘no evidence‘ that the piece was trafficked by the Islamic State.

Still, while no-one should infer the involvement of the Islamic State without evidence, it is not surprising that it happens, when much of the discussion is myopically focused on the Islamic State and gives the impression that, if something has been trafficked out of Syria, it has been trafficked by the Islamic State. Yet the tile may not even have been smuggled out of Syria. [It was not smuggled out of Syria.]

A description of one of the smuggled antiquities

According to the first report, the plaque is fifteenth-century Ottoman decorative art, which was ‘looted’ from ‘a Syrian shrine’, ‘a shrine in Syria’; according to the second, it is a mid-fifteenth-century (around 650-year-old) ‘Ottoman ceramic plaque from Syria’.

Certainly, much of the information is far too specific for it to have been guessed or fabricated by a cop or a hack. And, unless Customs seized two ceramic plaques that depicted hunting scenes, the described object and the displayed object were not mismatched by the reporters either.

[Update (8th June 2015): Inexplicably, none of the other reports mentioned this. Seemingly only MTV reported that antiquities curator Jouni Kuurne had explained that the ‘papers of the plaque labelled it “Syrian”‘. They listed the object’s country of purchase as France, but its country of origin as Syria.]

A question about one of the images

Was the right hand photoshopped?

'A Customs officer showing one of the seized artworks. The 15th century Ottoman period piece was looted from a shrine in Syria.' (c) Yle Uutiset, 5th June 2015

‘A Customs officer showing one of the seized artworks. The 15th century Ottoman period piece was looted from a shrine in Syria.’
(c) Yle Uutiset, 5th June 2015

An accurate description of one of the antiquities

Although war reporter Aris Roussinos quickly publicly observed that ‘it looks Persian and a lot more recent‘, art historian Stephennie Mulder was kind enough to post a summary of an expert discussion on the Facebook page of UT Antiquities Action:

This 15th century Ottoman tile, supposedly looted by ISIS in Syria and “identified” by Finnish customs, is in fact a 19th-century Qajar Persian tile – dated clearly at the bottom to 1312/1894-95 as Yasser Tabbaa, Christy Gruber, and Margaret Graves have pointed out. What say you Moxa Carex? Quoting Brian Daniels, right now everything’s looted by ISIS even when it’s not.

As she and her colleagues point out, the date of the object is written on it. Considering that its supposed age according to the Gregorian calendar roughly corresponds to its actual age according to the Islamic calendar, was it half-read and then miscommunicated?

A question about another of the images

The image is date-stamped as the 14th of April 2015. Was that an image that was recovered from the traffickers? Or was that the date of the recovery (and processing) of the antiquities? [It was recovered then.]

'An Ottoman ceramic plaque from Syria that was being smuggled to Russia via Finland (Tulli [Customs])' (c) Umberto Bacchi, the International Business Times, 5th June 2015

‘An Ottoman ceramic plaque from Syria that was being smuggled to Russia via Finland (Tulli [Customs])’
(c) Umberto Bacchi, the International Business Times, 5th June 2015

Smuggled?

Was the paperwork definitely false? [Apparently, yes.] Were the other objects in the shipment definitely from Syria? [Evidently, they were definitely not.] Was the piece not looted from a shrine in Syria, but looted from a museum or collection in Syria? [Evidently, no.]

Problematically, the public explanation implies that it was suspected to have false documentation because it was suspected to have come from Syria. If it did not come from Syria, is there any evidence that it did not come from France? [Evidently, it had false paperwork that claimed that it had come from Syria via France.] I have contacted Finnish Customs and reiterate here that there are people who can and will help.

Updates

Rick Bonnie @rickbonnie kindly pointed out and summarised a Finnish-language report by Antti Ämmälä for Helsingin Sanomat, which reinforces some points and clarifies others. The ‘export permits for the seized load were not in order [takavarikoidun kuorman vientiluvat eivät olleet kunnossa]’. As well as saying that the plaque was from France, they declared that its value was €1,000, which Finnish Customs believed was an under-estimate.

As I learned via Sanna Aro-Valjus @AroValjus, antiquities collector Antti Kuusisto recognised the plaque (and told Tiia-Maria Taponen at Iltalehti), because a “similar/parallel (vastaavanlainen)” one had been in an internet auction through Audap et Mirabaud in Paris on or around the 21st of November 2014. It appears identical. Is it the same object or is it a copy? (Instead of the Islamic calendar, the auctioneers converted the date according to the Persian calendar and therefore dated the piece to 1933 C.E.)

The auction itself was notable. ‘Estimate: €300/€500… Sold for €350. [Estimation: 300 € / 500 €… Adjugé à 350 €.]’ So was it a copy of a lower value or was the value declared to Finnish Customs an over-estimate?

Aro-Valjus has confirmed that the ‘rest of the shipment was “modern” antiquities & art, typical objects for Russian market’ (which, again, was seemingly only reported by MTV).

Lot 130. IRAN. - Carreau à la scène de chasse. Audap et Mirabaud, Paris, France, 21e novembre 2014.

Lot 130. IRAN. – Carreau à la scène de chasse. Audap et Mirabaud, Paris, France, 21e novembre 2014.

A plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel?

Yet again through Aro-Valjus (from MTV), I learned that the object’s documentation recorded that it was from Syria.

It is necessary to phrase this very carefully, but it is surely possible to pose questions. Was the plaque sold into the French market with an accurate description of the object and an accurate estimate of its value, then sold into the Russian market with an inaccurate description of the object and an inaccurate estimate of its value? Are many objects sold into the Russian market at triple the market value or do Syrian objects achieve a premium price?

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7 Responses to “Was the plaque in Finland sold on the French market with an accurate description and estimate, then resold into the Russian market with an inaccurate description and estimate?”

  1. Hi Sam, great investigative work! There is another report by Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper, on the same case (but in Finnish): http://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/a1433483407286. As far as I can understand (but my Finnish is far from perfect yet), the Finnish customs’ spokes person says there that they deny (contra Yle’s reporting) that the tile is known to have originated from a Syrian shrine. They also deny to know that it was looted and smuggled by ISIS. Apparently, as far as I understood it, they are still investigating these matters. So, it seems that Yle perhaps was a bit too quick in judging the matter…

  2. But if anyone in the middle east wants to send me artifacts for safekeeping in the south of France 😀 I have a very large basement! And a bit of Palmyra would look lovely in the garden 😛

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