Reassessing the balance of antiquities and forgeries in Abu Sayyaf’s stash

Someone kindly prompted me to reconsider the balance of antiquities and fakes in Abu Sayyaf’s stash and I thought it might be worth trying to count some of the sets of objects on display. I didn’t want to do it before, because I don’t trust my eye for this material, but the fakes here appear to be so poor that they largely distinguish themselves.

I fear that unguided journalists’ professional effort to capture the variety of objects may have incidentally foregrounded the fakes, of which there is a far greater variety than there is of coins and beads. And archaeologists and criminologists (myself included), then, focused on the outliers instead of the the overwhelming majority of objects. It appears that most of Abu Sayyaf’s illicit antiquities were ancient coins.

[I’m working on a huge update based on the U.S. State Department Cultural Heritage Center’s summary and photo gallery of the ISIL leader’s loot.]

In this revision of my original post on ‘first material proof‘ that Islamic State is trafficking antiquities and my update-summarising follow-up post, I’ve drawn on photos and video frames from Amir Musawy, Thaier al-Sudani, Vivian Salama, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse (AFP). These aren’t all of the objects and I can’t see all of the objects in these images, but it’s a start.

In this video frame, I think that there are at least 176 coins: 16 (A); 30 (B); 26 (C, though I think that’s an under-count even of the visible ones); 22 coins (D, though that is definitely an under-count, as I cannot distinguish between the coins in the spilled stack); 24 coins (E, though the pile is partly off-camera); 6 coins (F); 38 coins (G, though the pile is partly off-camera); 3 (H); 4 (I); and 7 (J).

Kultur kommt zürück (c) Amir Musawy, Mittagsmagazin, Das Erste, 15. Juli 2015

Kultur kommt zürück
(c) Amir Musawy, Mittagsmagazin, Das Erste, 15. Juli 2015

In this photograph, there are at least 86 assorted objects in the central group (K, excluding all of the out-of-focus objects in the foreground and background of the photo, even those that are individually distinguishable). I have recounted, using a tool that I explain below, and still found at least 86.

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State (c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State
(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015

Iraq receives artifacts found by US Special Forces in Syria (c) Thaier al-Sudani, the Associated Press (AP), 15th July 2015 b via ImageJ

Iraq receives artifacts found by US Special Forces in Syria
(c) Thaier al-Sudani, the Associated Press (AP), 15th July 2015 b via ImageJ

In this photograph, there are 1 vase (L, in maybe 24 fragments); 14 – forged? – bracelets (M); and 8 other assorted objects (N), at least some of which – such as the pair of mint condition metal bracelets – do not appear to be antiquities.

Iraq receives artifacts found by US Special Forces in Syria (c) Vivian Salama, the Associated Press (AP), 15th July 2015

Iraq receives artifacts found by US Special Forces in Syria
(c) Vivian Salama, the Associated Press (AP), 15th July 2015

In this video frame, there are 36 assorted objects and fragments of objects (O); and 20 other assorted objects (P), at least some of which – such as the metal-smelting crucible – are not antiquities.

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State (c) Reuters, 15th July 2015

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State
(c) Reuters, 15th July 2015

However, my brother – who works on medical technology and biomedical engineering – saw me laboriously adding numbers to an image in Paint and showed me how to use the Cell Counter plug-in to ImageJ. (It’s still manual, but it’s far quicker and easier and more aesthetically pleasing.) In just one photograph where three sets of coins were laid out individually, where a significant number of coins were out of shot, there were at least 173 early Islamic coins; in another, there were at least another 63; thus, in total, there were at least 236.

(For the avoidance of doubt, these may include sets that were shown in piles in the first photo.)

Considering the fact that coins were excluded or obscured in the photos of these sets, and that other sets of coins were excluded from these photos and not displayed individually elsewhere, the early Islamic coins alone must have constituted the majority of the antiquities in Abu Sayyaf’s stash.

Questions remain about which objects were accompanied by thirty-year-old sales receipts, whether the forgeries had been manufactured or knowingly acquired by Islamic State traffickers or whether they had been unthinkingly looted from institutional stores…

But these counts show that most of Abu Sayyaf’s stash consisted of genuine, highly-portable antiquities (which could have been transported both by the Islamic State and by U.S. commandos in one small container). Once these coins had been uploaded to eBay or VCoins or Facebook, or laid out in a dealership in Istanbul or London or New York, how would dealers and collectors have distinguished them from so many others?

Iraqi women stand next to some of the returned artefacts (c) Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Australian, 16th July 2015

Iraqi women stand next to some of the returned artefacts
(c) Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Australian, 16th July 2015

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State (c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015 via ImageJ

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State
(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015 d via ImageJ

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State (c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015 via ImageJ

U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State
(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015 e via ImageJ

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20 Responses to “Reassessing the balance of antiquities and forgeries in Abu Sayyaf’s stash”

  1. How can you be sure that the coins are genuine? Visitors to Baalbek are bombarded with fake ancient coins, it is an industry around tourist sites. I am not saying the coins are fake, but asking how you can be certain they are genuine from such unfocused photos.

    • I can’t be sure, I’m not certain. As I said, I was reluctant even to begin to try to count, because I’m not a specialist, and the photos don’t help either.

      • You’re assuming it, though, by saying “But these counts show that most of Abu Sayyaf’s stash consisted of genuine, highly-portable antiquities”.

      • Apart from the fact that some of the modern material – such as the touristic Nefertiti and the crucible – seems to distinguish itself, I understand that the coins have been checked.

        Is the shaving brush business suffering or booming with the unstoppable rise of the carefully-coiffed hipster?

  2. That hasn’t been made clear in the material cited. The only visible checking in the photographs is that someone has arranged them by size and color. The baggies just say “Asst coins” – not very hard ID to make!!

    It still seems hard to believe that if experts checked the coins they didn’t spot the fakes among the other classes of objects. And if there is a metal crucible, what happened to the metal that might have been melted in it? That could point to metal forgery.

    Better photos would help before we rush to judgment.

    • Yes, as Paul Barford and I have observed, the crucible could point to forgery of metal objects or melting down for bullion or scrap. The operation may involve a complicated range of activities. However, there is nothing to suggest that the experts didn’t identify the fakes. Indeed, recently-made objects – the plaques(?), the Nefertiti, the crucible, etc. – appear to have been gathered together.

      • The captions in Arabic do not support the idea that much expert selection took place. The objects with Nefertitti are captioned ‘carved stones’. From right to left next to them they read ‘terracottas’ and ‘cylinder seals’. The coins are captioned ‘coins’. It doesn’t take a mastermind to make this sort of breakdown.

        Better photographs would help, but on the basis of what we have, I don’t see why anyone can confidently claim the authenticity of the coins, especially when they are keeping such bad company. In other reports you have been careful to say that there is no evidence for ISIS / whoever having demolished (yet) certain sites on the basis of the reports we have at present. Why the rush to judgment here?

      • The captions are just categories and may reflect low expectations of the media and the public. We would all prefer that they had provided far more detail – I would have liked a complete inventory. Evidently, the press briefing was more about the raid than the antiquities.

        There has been no rush to judgement here. Both Paul Barford and I have highlighted the presence of modern material and a potential tool for forgery. I am still looking into it.

  3. Several points that should be considered: (1) it should be no big surprise coins comprise most of the group– coins are amongst the most common ancient artifacts; (2) these coins and antiquities may be portable, but they certainly don’t appear very valuable from the looks of them– certainly the quanity, quality and value of the group falls far short of what has been speculated to be held in those fabled warehouses; and (3) what may be most interesting is what’s missing– no Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins with their images of gods, goddesses and rulers– this is speculation to be sure, but perhaps ISIS’ iconoclasm and the presence of a crucible gives a clue to an unfortunate fate.

  4. I should now note your friend Mr. Barford has found a State Department press release that says some Byzantine and Roman Provincial Bronze coins were also in the group. http://eca.state.gov/cultural-heritage-center/iraq-cultural-heritage-initiative/isil-leaders-loot It’s unclear whether they were found with metal detectors as is implied or taken from a local collector or museum.

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