Financial investment in the antiquities market: a premium price for looted antiquities?

Just in case readers did not see last month’s updates to the story of the six-century-old “Syrian” tile trafficked from a shrine in Syria, which was in fact a twelve-decade-old Persian tile transported from a seller in France, I thought I would highlight them in the light of a few other stories about the market-end of the antiquities trade, because they hint at something that may be quite significant.

The market in the UK for antiquities from Syria

On the 17th of February, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a File on 4 on the illicit trade in antiquities from Syria and Iraq. It was an extensively researched documentary, which included interviews with law enforcement agents, cultural heritage professionals and cultural property criminals in Lebanon, Turkey and the UK. In it, Prof. David Gill visited antiquities dealerships in London and found antiquities from Syria for sale – one dealership pointed out that unlabelled glasswork was ‘from Syria’.

Recalling my previous post on soil, saw marks and undocumented antiquities on the open market, Gill noted ‘earth’, ‘mud’ deposits on objects, which suggested that they were ‘relatively fresh out of the ground’. In fact, a colleague who has recently visited south-eastern Turkey observed that the most often heard description of an object was “fresh“. He noted that ‘Syria/Iraq/Daesh [had] become a perverse selling point’.

In an interview with the Times on the 24th, Gill detailed that a gallery representative had advertised the fact that they had ‘just got this [object] straight out of Syria‘ and another ‘more interesting’ piece had ‘just come from Iraq’. As Gill concluded, ‘it’s quite open’.

Following another careful investigation, the Guardian reported Dr. Mark Altaweel’s findings. Altaweel saw a range of material at a number of antiquities shops, for which there was ‘never any paperwork’, and about which dealers often identified false sources, which we must assume were originally identified by the dealers’ suppliers, for which the dealers evidently did not perform due diligence checks.

The market in Russia for antiquities from Syria

And then there was the peculiar case in Finland, where the papers of the object from Iran listed its country of purchase as France, but its country of origin as Syria; and where the object’s papers listed its value as €1,000, though antiquities collector Antti Kuusisto identified a “similar” – or identical – one that had been sold with accurate papers for €350. (Archaeologist Sanna Aro-Valjus relayed that the ‘rest of the shipment’ with the Persian tile ‘was “modern” antiquities & art, typical objects for Russian market’. )

Financial investment in the antiquities market: a premium price for looted antiquities?

Altogether, the evidence suggests that some dealers and collectors are recklessly ignorant, wilfully ignorant or disingenuously ignorant of the sources of their assets; and, despite international sanctions and the risk of paramilitary/terrorist financing, some sellers advertise the fact that they are selling undocumented antiquities from war zones.

(As well as collectors who can and will pay over the odds for an object to display their connoisseurship, connections and power…) The evidence also suggests that some buyers will take the risk of paying a premium price for (what they believe are) antiquities from war zones, in order to secure an even higher price when the market for ostensibly licit antiquities reverts to being even more open than it is at the moment. As Del Boy would have said, “you’ve got to speculate to accumulate”…

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