Following the workshop on Radiocarbon Dating and Protection of Cultural Heritage, I thought it might help to summarise evidence of markets for conflict antiquities and fake conflict antiquities that are trafficked from or through Turkey, alongside evidence from elsewhere in the region.
Marketing of forged manuscripts in Turkey and around the world
Recently, the Times of Israel reported that security forces in Turkey had arrested four illicit dealers who were trying to sell a supposedly 700-year-old, gazelle-leather Torah manuscript (codex) for $1,900,000 in the south-western province of Muğla. It reminded the ToI of a case from 2012, when police forces in Turkey arrested four illicit dealers who were trying to sell a supposedly 2,000-year-old, calf(?)-leather Torah scroll in the southern city of Adana. Inevitably, the recently seized “Torah” was a yet another fake. Such law enforcement operations are everyday occurrences. They supply a seemingly inexhaustible demand for biblical antiquities.
Rare book collector Incunabula observed that the fake codex had been ‘Google-translated from Arabic’. Elad Versa agreed and presented the “published” text with its back-translation into Arabic. Incunabula, as well as biblical scholar Jim West, also noted that it had been held ‘upside down‘, which demonstrated that the traders could not read what was written.
Since this was probably not the forgers’ first (nor their last) effort, it suggests that their customers cannot tell that their texts are not fluent Hebrew, either. In turn, this suggests that their customers are Christian collectors, who want to possess relics from the Holy Land (or “investors”, who expect to turn a profit by selling relics on to such collectors).
As shown by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), ancient historian Roberta Mazza and biblical scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden (amongst others), evangelical fervour drives a mass market for relics, which absorbs illicit antiquities and forgeries. The buyers span a low-end market and some of ‘the most significant and powerful religious forces’ in the United States.
Manufacturing of forged antiquities in Turkey
Antiquities are forged and flow across the region and beyond. There is a long-standing cottage industry of Judeo-Christian antiquities forgery in southern Turkey and northern Iraq. In the 2000s, when the Syriac Christian community was being displaced and dispossessed in south-eastern Turkey, the forgers manufactured Syriac Christian objects. They supplied a demand for the cultural property that was being stolen from the community, in the middle of a campaign of persecution (and as a part of that campaign of persecution).
Since expropriation of other assets was conducted by the perpetrators of the violence, and theft of cultural property and iconoclasm of religious relics were committed in the same operations, it is safe to say that the thieves included the perpetrators of the violence. And the violence persisted down the supply line. At least one law enforcement agent was killed in the murky events that followed an operation against one of these trafficking networks in Cyprus. Notably, that case concerned a forged antiquity, so ignorant consumers cannot reassure themselves that they are not incentivising or financing organised crime and violence.
Manufacturing of forged antiquities across the region
The fake codex’s country of origin is unknown. As archaeologist Assaad Seif has noted, there are ‘lots of specialised workshops [beaucoup d’ateliers spécialisés]’ in Syria, who have been forging antiquities, including ‘fake manuscripts [faux manuscrits]’ (and, as journalist Patrick Cockburn and archaeologist Maamoun Abdulkarim have specified, fake bibles), ‘for a very long time [depuis longtemps]’. There are ‘a large number of fake [and] counterfeit’ objects on the market in Lebanon. As museum curator Anne Marie Afeiche has observed, Lebanon has ‘a lot of difficulties with fakes’, ‘especially’ due to ‘very good…. workshops’ in Syria. Wherever they are produced, fake artefacts are a problem in Jordan, too.
Journalist Umut Erdem reports that there is now a ‘glut of fake antiquities [Sahte tarihi eser furyası]’ in Turkey. These include ‘some alleged antiquities [that] are coming from Syria, [or] Iraq, [and] are being marketed as “found in Turkey” [Suriye’den Irak’tan geliyor, “Türkiye’de bulundu” diye birtakım sözde tarihi eserler pazarlanmaya çalışılıyor]’, possibly to reduce suspicion of their (in)authenticity, possibly to reduce their visibility in the market. As Cockburn notes, such forgeries are ‘flooding’ Western antiquities markets, which are ‘full of unwary or unscrupulous buyers’, who are trying to buy antiquities that have been ‘looted… in the midst of the chaos and war’.
This market for crisis antiquities and/or conflict antiquities, and its consequences, can be seen in other ways, too. As journalist Adam Blitz and Heritage for Peace have highlighted, the sale of Judaica from Syria has been accompanied by ‘sensationalist news coverage’ and advertising that exploits the rarity value of cultural objects from conflict zones. This has ‘hik[ed] prices of Syrian artifacts’, such as those that are allegedly from the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue of Jobar. (Journalist Josh Rogin relayed that the building was later destroyed by the Assad regime.) This, in turn, has further incentivised their plunder and the extortion of victimised communities.
When cultural objects are extracted from places that are under the control of armed groups, those groups will get something in return. Yet such perceived (or professed) “rescue” of cultural property is now discussed quite openly.
With regard to Judaica, some “smuggling” is orchestrated by organisations outside, who remove ‘valuable [Jewish] artifacts’ from Syria to the United States (as they “smuggled” a historic Torah from Yemen through Jordan to Israel, which led to the detention and torture of alleged facilitators). Some trafficking is ‘approved’ by the states in which the “rescuers” operate. According to an illicit dealer, Israel accepts the ‘purchase of ancient Hebrew inscriptions whatever their provenance’.
This creates yet more opportunities for criminals. Some trafficking exploits markets that comprise victimised communities, who are willing to become complicit in the trafficking of cultural property in an attempt to prevent and defy destruction of cultural property. These communities’ emotional vulnerability renders them particularly vulnerable to the marketing of fake antiquities, otherwise fraudulently-represented objects, even cultural goods that have been stolen from other communities.
Whether reckless buyers are selfless or zealous, they need to recognise the consequences of their actions and to refrain from increasing the risk of harm to others.