antiquities dealers, Jaume Bagot Peix and Oriol Carreras Palomar, arrested on suspicion of jihadi terrorist financing by illicit antiquities dealing

On 26th March 2018, two 31-year-old antiquities dealers were arrested (detenido) and released on bail (puesto en libertad bajo fianza) in Barcelona, Spain. They were codenamed Mr. J.B.P. (or JBP) and Mr. O.C.P. (or OCP).

One is the Vice-President of the Professional Group of Antiquarians of the Royal Shipyard, Jaume Bagot Peix (and his business, J. Bagot Arqueología – Ancient Art), who was seemingly first publicly named by journalist Pilar Velasco in Cadena SER.

The other is his partner, the Secretary-General of the Board of Directors of the Professional Group of Antiquarians of the Royal Shipyard, Oriol Carreras Palomar, who was seemingly first publicly named by Pablo Muñoz and Cruz Morcillo at ABC.

A huge amount of the journalistic legwork has been done (and continues to be done) by Frédéric Loore at Paris Match Belgique.

There are several distinct parts to this story, so there are several distinct parts to this post. I have posted them together, though, for ease of use: caution; antiquities trafficking, terrorist financing and initial arrests; investigation; guarantees of authenticity and guarantees of legality; forensic archaeologist Morgan Belzic; funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica on the art market; Jaume Bagot Peix, Jacques Billen, trade associations and the antiquities market; denial; due diligence; hubris, hypocrisy and marketing(?); ‘the important thing in this profession is knowing how to buy’; (an aside on) jewellery; and (an aside on) significance.

Caution

Before discussing this case, it is helpful to consider another one, both for its striking similarities and for its cautionary conclusion. In May 2014, during Operation Hieratica, the Civil Guard in Spain intercepted 36 cultural objects (25 antiquities and 11 forgeries) from Egypt. It was a complex yet efficient operation. There was only one stage between the two traffickers who directed the looting and the dealer who sold the loot (or two stages, if the intermediary who received and delivered the stolen goods is distinguished from the three traffickers who directed the smuggling).

Reportedly, the Civil Guard variously “suspected”, “believed” or “were convinced” that the antiquities were being smuggled to finance jihadi terrorism. In November 2014, seven people were arrested: one Spanish antiquities dealer in Spain, four Egyptian antiquities traffickers in Spain and two Egyptian antiquities traffickers in Egypt. In April 2017, in Spain, while the three key traffickers who directed the smuggling were convicted, the dealer was not even prosecuted; and no-one was prosecuted for terrorist financing. So, no guilt should be presumed.

antiquities trafficking, terrorist financing and initial arrests

The Heritage Brigade in Spain judges that, since the start of the Libyan civil war in 2014, there has been an ‘increase in trafficking of art from Libya [aumento del tráfico de arte desde Libia]’; and it has ‘clear[ly] [clara]’ been a mode of ‘financing of terrorism [financiación del terrorismo]’.

In 2015, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) produced the Emergency Red List of Libyan Cultural Objects at Risk, to support the identification of suspect objects by law enforcement agents and cultural heritage professionals. Cultural heritage defenders in Libya fight against illicit trafficking, yet looting and theft persist.

Forensic investigations have documented that significant looting occurred while sites were under the control of the Islamic State (or, perhaps, at sites where the Islamic State was not controlled, where its cells and allies were active).

Loore clarified that the illicitly-handled antiquities had been ‘looted by the terrorist organisation Islamic State (I.S.) and other armed groups [pillés par l’organisation terroriste État islamique (E.I.) et d’autres groupes armés]’, while el Español reported that the looters and thieves were ‘linked to terrorist groups that use contraband [smuggling] to finance [vinculados a grupos terroristas que usan el contrabando para financiarse]’ their activities.

According to the Department of National Security for Spain, the arrested dealers ‘led a network [that was] dedicated to the illicit purchase of pieces from archaeological sites [that had been] plundered by groups [who were] related to the terrorist organization DAESH and whose sale allowed them to defray [the costs of] their activities [lideraban una red dedicada a la compra ilícita de piezas provenientes de yacimientos arqueológicos saqueados por grupos afines a la organización terrorista DAESH y cuya venta permitía sufragar sus actividades]’.

Both dealers have been charged with ‘financing of [jihadi] terrorism [financiación del terrorismo]’; ‘membership of a criminal organisation [pertenencia a organización criminal]’; ‘receiving [receptación]’ stolen goods, from Egypt as well as Libya; ‘smuggling [contrabando]’; and ‘falsification of documents [falsificación documental]’. Unsurprisingly, they have been prohibited from leaving the country and their passports have been confiscated.

The police believe that they can prove that the arrested dealers received six pieces, heads and torsos of sculptures (cabezas y torsos de esculturas), which were the proceeds of ‘theft and looting of works of art [that had been] perpetrated in 2015 by the Islamic State [robo y saqueo de obras de arte perpetrado en 2015 por el Estado Islámico]’ in Balagrae (in modern al-Bayda), Apollonia (in modern Marsa-Susa) and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cyrene (near modern Shahhat).

As journalist Jason Felch observed when he watched a video by LibertadDigital, ‘seized objects shown in video they suggest dealers had antiquities looted from several [other] regions’. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) counted ‘seven mosaics and [one] sarcophagus’, which had been confiscated in the course of five raids in Barcelona and Argentona. Kleine Zeitung noted the confiscation of ‘mosaics and [more than one] sarcophagi [Mosaike und Sarkophage]’. According to Cadena SER and Devoir d’Enquête, ‘tens [decenas]’ or ‘dozens [dizaines]’ of objects have been seized. Most are from Cyrenaica/Cyrene in eastern Libya, Tripolitania/Tripoli in northern Libya and Egypt. Almost all are from North Africa.

(The police have also seized ‘various computer equipment [diverso material informático]’.)

Investigation

It is often (wisely) cautioned that the surfacing of loot often takes years. In this case, pieces flowed from source to market ‘in record time [en tiempo récord]’, according to the chief of the Heritage Brigade (de la Brigada de Patrimonio), Fernando Porcel. Ones that were stolen from Libya in January 2015 had arrived in Spain by March 2015. Ones that were stolen from Libya in May 2015 had arrived in Spain by September 2015.

Yet the investigation itself took years. It began when the Carabinieri Headquarters for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale) in Italy asked the Civil Guard in Spain about a sarcophagus (sarcophage), a stone statuette (statuette en pierre) and a (manufactured) beard (barbe). They had been trafficked from Egypt in December 2015 through Spain to Belgium, where they were seized in October 2016. And they had passed through Bagot Peix’s hands.

Reviewing Bagot Peix’s import declarations to the Ministry of Culture, the police noticed that ‘many records [muchos expedientes]’ documented international transfer from countries that prohibit the export of antiquities, such as Libya and Egypt, and/or through countries that prohibit the export of antiquities, such as Egypt and Turkey.

The objects were primarily transported, by land and by sea, through Egypt and Jordan to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), then Germany, then Spain; other transit points included Turkey and Thailand. These winding routes were used to ‘impede their traceability [impedir su trazabilidad]’, ultimately to ‘erase the origin [borrar el origen]’. At least in Thailand, they received false documentation (documentación falsa).

According to journalists Pablo Muñoz and Cruz Morcillo at ABC, ‘Bagot also took advantage of the fact that for radical Muslims [Islamists], human figures [icons] are not worth anything, so he obtained pieces of enormous value at a moderate price [Bagot también se aprovechaba de que para los musulmanes radicales las figuras humanas no valen nada, de modo que conseguía piezas de un enorme valor a un precio moderado]’.

Bagot Peix has claimed that, if his supply chain involved terrorists, he did ‘not know that he [had] traded with terrorists [no saber que traficaba con terroristas]’. ‘Never in [his] life [Nunca en la vida]’ had he ‘bought any object from vendors in Iraq, Libya or Syria [comprado ningún objeto a vendedores de Irak, Libia o Siria]’, he specified.

In fact, the police believe that he ‘contacted the organisation through a Lebanese merchant and an Egyptian one who acted as liaisons [contactaba con la organización a través de un mercader libanés y uno egipcio que actuaban como enlaces]’ between the looters in Libya and the buyers in Spain.

Naturally, much of the money that is injected into the market is kept within the market end of the trade. It is difficult to infer the amount of money that is suspected to have been generated for terrorist financing. Nonetheless, As Belzic told Tom Sykes at the Daily Beast, sculptures from Cyrenaica are sold for between $4,000 and $400,000. Bagot Peix has sold heads for between €30,000 and €50,000, more complete sculptures and mosaics for €85,000, even more than €100,000.

As advocated by the CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), Lynda Albertson, at a UNESCO conference on Engaging the European Art Market in the Fight against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property,

The black market trade is hard to trace and quantify, and preventive and tracking measures especially need to be strengthened. “We need more dedicated public prosecutors and experts analyzing trafficking, we need standardization of documentation, especially for provenance, and we need harmonization of EU art crime laws.”

On the ARCA blog, Albertson has since detailed the difficulties of investigation and prosecution of suspected cultural property criminals and appealed for ‘mandated due diligence’ and ‘accountability’.

guarantees of authenticity and guarantees of legality

It is a standard complaint that cultural property dealers guarantee the authenticity, but not the legality, of their goods. Bagot Peix claims to be committed to ‘guaranteeing [goods’] authenticity and maximum quality while at the same time strictly complying with the laws of protection of national, foreign and UNESCO heritage’.

[His team] works with resources like the thermo luminescence test and Carbon 14 dating to be able to ensure the authenticity of pieces as concerns their description and dating. We also carry out exhaustive research into the provenance and previous ownership of the pieces. To this end we make use of the data base of stolen objects, [the] Art Loss Register [which is practically useless for looted objects, of which there is no record to register], as well as making use of publications, sworn statements, dated photographs, bills, customs documents and insurance policies.

Highlighting the unreliability of collecting histories, the €85,000 mosaic was advertised as having a collecting history that went back through an unnamed private collection in Asia to untrusted dealers, the Asfar brothers, in Lebanon in the 1960s.

When challenged by Paris Match Belgique and Devoir d’Enquête (Duty to Investigate), Bagot Peix not only declared the existence of an unnamed private collector in Europe, whose position in the supply chain he had previously withheld, if it existed. He not only used the alleged existence of the previously-omitted intermediary to excuse his ignorance of the private collection in Asia to which he had attributed his possession, even though it would demonstrate both a lack of due diligence and the withholding of information from potential clients. But he also stated that he would only observe due diligence and trace his supply chain if he was paid €1,000 ‘by way of an advance and in order to confirm [the] interest [en guise d’avance et afin de confirmer notre intérêt]’ of his prospective clients.

If Bagot Peix did conduct ‘exhaustive research’, he would have traced his supply chain already. If he was committed to guaranteeing the legality as well as the authenticity of his goods for his customers, he would have traced his supply chain already and he would have been willing to demonstrate it freely. After all, although the length of the collecting history does not determine the value of the object, although autoregulation does not work, there is a premium for paperwork. If he gave more paperwork, he would make more money.

On top of everything else, if the previously-omitted intermediary did exist, why had they been omitted from the public record of the biography of the object?

forensic archaeologist Morgan Belzic

It was, in fact, precisely this problem that provoked archaeologist and art historian Morgan Belzic to become a forensic archaeologist.

Contrary to initial reports, Belzic is not Belgian; he is French. He is a doctoral research student at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) and a member of the Centre de Recherche sur la Libye Antique.

As Belzic explained to Loore, he was conducting ordinary academic research when he was confronted with antiquities that were ‘reputed to come from private collections [that were] Belgian, Swiss, British, German, Asian, etc., from different periods, mostly from before 1970 [réputées provenir de collections privées belges, suisses, britanniques, allemandes, asiatiques, etc., de différentes époques d’avant 1970 pour la plupart]’.

Such artefacts were ‘very well documented [très bien documentés]’ until the 1960s, yet there was ‘no trace in the literature of [any] of those that were offered for sale [pas trace dans la littérature de toutes celles proposées à la vente]’. Moreover, they were ‘most often sold by lot [le plus souvent vendues par lot]’.

Now, much like forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, he works very quietly and, as Albertson observes, unpaid (on top of his ordinary day-to-day work), out of moral commitment. It must be recognised, this is not a sustainable method of regulating the international antiquities market.

Still, his diligent work has long been known to his colleagues, as he has identified suspect objects at auction and online. ICOM evidently “talent-spotted” Belzic and began collaborating with him early. Notably, in 2016, ICOM suspected ‘looting to order… especially of funerary busts from Cyrene’ and expected future seizures.

funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica on the art market

In an article in Libyan Studies, on funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica on the art market [les sculptures funéraires de Cyrénaïque sur le marché de l’art], Belzic has explained that there is high market demand for Cyrenaican funerary sculptures, so ‘they are victims of significant traffic [victimes d’un important trafic]’.

However, they are ‘sufficiently original, in their form and their style, to permit [someone] to identify the[ir] region of origin…. to objectively state the extent of illegal excavations [suffisamment originales, de par leur forme et leur style, pour permettre d’en identifier la région d’origine…. de constater objectivement l’ampleur des fouilles illégales]’.

From 1968, significant urbanisation and infrastructural development led to significant exposure and accessibility of sites. Yet, there was a ‘very precise inventory of [archaeological] sites [état des lieux très précis]’, ‘tight control [contrôle étroit]’ of those sites and only a ‘small number of works [that were] exported [faible nombre d’œuvres exporté]’ until 1970.

Worse in the 1980s than in the 1960s, even worse in the 2000s than in the 1980s, the situation has become yet worse with the crisis in the 2010s. ‘The amount of reported looting is constantly increasing and destruction is even more voluminous. [Le nombre de pillages signalés est en constante augmentation et les destructions se font plus nombreuses.]’

In collaboration with academics and institutions in Libya and abroad, Belzic has analysed the situation. ‘Very quick, simple searches on the internet [Très vite, de simples recherches sur internet]’ have found recent sales of unpublished antiquities in Europe and North America. As demonstrated by seizures in Damietta, Egypt in November 2015, ‘the sculptures are exported from the necropolises of Cyrene in lots, after regrouping, before being resold on the art market [les sculptures sont exportées depuis les nécropoles cyrénéennes par lots après regroupement avant d’être revendues sur le marché de l’art]’.

There is also ‘frequent exchange between galleries and auction houses, with sculptures from the same “collections” or the same sets sold by different societies, sometimes… over several months, sometimes [with]in just a few days [échange fréquent entre les galeries et les maisons de vente, avec des sculptures issues de mêmes “collections” ou de mêmes ensembles vendus par différentes sociétés, parfois… sur plusieurs mois, parfois en seulement quelques jours]’.

Intriguingly, Belzic notes that some collections to which suspect objects from Libya are attributed are also collections to which suspect objects from other crises are attributed, such as objects from Gandhara and Luristan, which were ‘victims of intense looting, following the conflicts in Afghanistan [victimes d’intenses pillages suite aux conflits en Afghanistan]’. And it was ‘hardly [possible] to prove the existence [guère pu ne serait-ce que prouver l’existence]’ of some collections.

Belzic is very cautious, noting that the evidence may have been distorted by the increased accessibility of data due to online sales and even due to the act of research itself, which established permanent records of temporary documents (such as adverts). Nonetheless, there has been ‘massive pillaging [pillage massif]’. The market has a value of ‘several millions of euros [plusieurs millions d’euros]’. And the market’s growth appears to have increased since 2007 and increased even more since 2015-2016.

Since the start of the crisis in 2011, seizures have spanned Egypt, France, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; suspect objects have been spotted in Germany, Israel and the United States as well. And, while those legal proceedings have been hitting the market, the market has been ‘reorganising itself [se réorganiser]’, re-routing its circulatory system.

With regard to funerary sculptures, which are exceptionally identifiable, ‘the works on the art market form between 15 and 20 per cent of funerary sculptures that are known [les œuvres du marché de l’art composent entre 15 et 20% des sculptures funéraires actuellement connues]’ and there are also works in the market that are unknown to the public. This body of knowledge, history and culture is ‘disappear[ing] forever [disparaître à tout jamais]’.

Affirmed by the evidence from legal proceedings, Belzic concludes that ‘most of these sculptures have left Libyan territory illegally then been resold under false names or false [attributions to] original collections [la majeure partie de ces sculptures a été sortie du territoire libyen illégalement puis revendue sous de fausses appellations ou de fausses mentions de collections originelles]’.

Jaume Bagot Peix, Jacques Billen, trade associations and the antiquities market

With regard to Bagot Peix specifically, at least once, Belzic has found the same object reappear in a different sale, ‘under a different name[d collection] and without mention of the alleged collection of origin [sous une autre appellation et sans mention de sa prétendue collection d’origine]’.

As Belzic observes to Loore, unlike some more discreet dealers, Bagot has ‘the astonishing peculiarity of attesting to the Libyan origin of the works [la particularité étonnante d’attester de l’origine libyenne des œuvres]’. Like those dealers, though, he ‘disguises their pedigrees [maquiller leur pedigree]’ and ‘invents [invente]’ their routes.

In his report: a Libyan funerary bust sold by J. Bagot Gallery and Safani Gallery from Spain to London (rapport: ventes de sculptures funéraires de Cyrénaïque (Libye) par J. Bagot et F. Cervera à Barcelone), Belzic has documented how, from 2013, ‘two galleries in Spain sold at least ten ancient [Greek and Roman] sculptures from Cyrenaica in Libya. We suspect that they come from recent illegal excavations.’

Specifically, a ‘marble Cyrenaican Funerary Bust from the Greek Period, also called [a] “funerary goddess”, crafted in accordance with a well-attested tradition from Cyrene, a major ancient Greek city in Libya, was identified on exhibit with Safani Gallery, Inc, (a New York, NY based dealer) in the United Kingdom during the 2017 edition of «Masterpiece London» which was held from June 29[th] until July 5th.’

Meanwhile, Bagot Peix was implicated in the handling of illicit antiquities, ones which had been ‘stolen [volés]’ from Egypt in December 2015, which were seized from the Harmakhis Gallery of Jacques Billen in Belgium by October 2016.

Billen is on the Board of Directors of the Belgian Royal Chamber of Antiques and Art Dealers (Chambre Royale des Antiquaires de Belgique). The Chamber is the organisational founder of the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair or Brussels Art Fair (BRAFA) and a founder-member of the International Federation of Dealer Associations (Confederation Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art (CINOA)). Billen is also a member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA).

As Loore revealed before, in 2011, a serpentine statue was stolen from the storeroom of the American archaeological mission to Memphis and a limestone statue was stolen from a safe in a museum in Cairo. By 2014, both were in Billen’s hands in Brussels. He was not prosecuted. When he was confronted by the conservator/curator who had tipped off Belgium’s police to no avail, he ‘claimed to [have been] hold[ing] the objects on behalf of an unknown third party [prétendant détenir ces objets pour le compte d’un tiers inconnu]’. The serpentine statue was then immediately repatriated in 2014. After he was questioned by the police, the limestone statue was repatriated in March 2016.

When he was questioned about the objects that had passed through Bagot’s hands, Billen claimed that he did not have a ‘certificate of provenance [certificat de provenance]’ for any of the objects, because he was holding the assets as a ‘deposit [dépôt]’ – on consignment (en consignation) – by Bagot. A case was opened by Brussels’ public prosecutor’s office, yet ‘surprisingly dismissed [étonnamment classé sans suites]’.

Bagot, too, is a member of CINOA, as well as the Spanish Federation of Antiquarians (la Federación Española de Anticuarios). As noted, he is the Vice-President of the Professional Group of Antiquarians of the (Barcelona) Royal Shipyard (Agrupación Profesional de Anticuarios de las Reales Atarazanas) or Association of Antiquarians of (Barcelona) Royal Shipyard (Asociación de Anticuarios de las Reales Atarazanas).

In 2017, Bagot Peix displayed the proceeds of ‘Libyan traffic [trafic libyen]’ at BRAFA (where he regularly has – or, perhaps, had a stand), including ‘portraits and Cyrenaican deities [portraits et des divinités cyrénaïques]’. During the investigation by Loore, the head of the Belgian archaeological mission to Apamea, archaeologist Didier Viviers, saw an alleged Syrian mosaic. Viviers observed that, ‘if it is genuine, the probability that it comes from looting is very high [s’il est authentique, la probabilité qu’il provienne d’un pillage est alors très élevée]’. An unnamed French archaeologist and an unnamed German archaeologist agreed.

Denial

As highlighted from the start and as observed by bibliophile Incunabula, it is ‘important to note that Jaume Bagot denies knowing the source of the antiquities. But the charges allege not just that he falsified import documentation, but also [that he] actually knew the source, or at least the ultimate beneficiary -Daesh. Shocking if true.’ “JBP” has issued a forceful denial, in an interview with Laura Fàbregas for el Español. At the time of publication, he had ‘not [had] access to the [legal] summary [No tengo acceso al sumario]’. Obviously, I have not either.

Incunabula commented, J. Bagot Arqueología is (or, perhaps, was) a ‘top-tier, internationally respected dealer’; so, this is ‘absolutely shocking news’. ‘This will rock the antiquities trade. J. Bagot are… longstanding exhibitors at BRAFA, and widely liked. It’s astonishing that they would – if the charges are true – be directly involved in buying looted antiquities from a conflict zone.’

According to Bagot Peix, ‘not one [ningún]’ of ‘the invoices are false [las facturas son falsas]’; the Ministry of Culture, the Civil Guard and/or the National Police have misunderstood the technicalities of the declaration of the country of origin on customs documents. That seems improbable.

Due diligence

Bagot Peix highlights one piece, which has been seized and which may yet be released. He bought it at a public auction (subasta pública) by Bonhams in the United Kingdom on 21st February 2018. It was ‘published for the first time at Bonhams, which is one of the most important auction houses [publicó por primera vez en Bonhams, que es una de las casas de subastas más importantes]’. As Bagot Peix complains,

When I buy it, they give me this information. I am not a police officer and I cannot look inside these people’s files, [to see] if it is really like that or not. However, when you buy at a major auction house, you must also believe in the good faith of this house….

I do not have access to the documents, I do not know if they are stolen or not. I must suppose that [they are] not.

[Cuando yo la compro me dan esta información. Yo no soy policía y no puedo mirar dentro de los archivos de esta gente si es realmente así o no. Pero cuando compras en una casa de subastas importante has de creer también en la buena fe de esta casa….

Yo no tengo acceso a los documentos, no sé si son robados o no. Debo suponer que no.]

Bonhams has not yet commented.

I would not trust vague documentation for an ancient sculpture from Libya, which had recently surfaced at auction in the United Kingdom, at a time of chaotic violence and looting in Libya. In fact, according to Bagot Peix, neither would he. Did he conduct ‘exhaustive research’ into this piece? Did he demand ‘publications, sworn statements, dated photographs, bills, customs documents and insurance policies’? Due diligence does not consist of assumed trust.

There is no indication that this piece is a focus of the investigation into conflict antiquities. Nevertheless, Bagot Peix does make a good point. While he should have observed due diligence as a buyer, so Bonhams should have observed due diligence as a handler and the seller should have observed due diligence when they were the buyer. If Bonhams had good documentation, why did it not provide that documentation to Bagot Peix? If Bonhams did not have good documentation, why did it handle the object?

And, while the market will decide whether to defend or to abandon Bagot and Carreras (possibly to do both, one after the other), if they are guilty, this case cannot be reduced to the conduct of two people. Conflict antiquities appear to have been surfaced and laundered through the top end of the international antiquities market. If conflict antiquities traffickers can launder assets through the top end of the market, because participants in the market invest trust in each other rather than earn trust from each other, who can trust the market?

Moreover, it is difficult to believe pleas of ignorance from an established dealer. After all, soil is an internationally-recognised indicator of looting. Yet, according to journalists Pablo Muñoz and Cruz Morcillo at ABC, ‘one of the pieces still held soil from the place where it was extracted [Una de las piezas aún tenía tierra del lugar donde fue extraída]’.

The National Police also noted that some ‘pieces also showed imperfections, bumps and marks that indicated they underwent a violent extraction from the subsoil, without the use of adequate archaeological techniques’. In other words, the pieces showed marks that indicated unscientific, illicit excavation, which would have been as much of a sign to the buyers as it was to the investigators. At least some ‘restoration work’ was done in Spain, perhaps ‘to disguise the damage’, perhaps simply to improve the aesthetics.

Furthermore, the police have evidence of ‘cash payments [pagos en efectivo]’ and ‘the issuance of false invoices to intermediaries for the works of art [la emisión de facturas falsas a intermediarios por las obras de arte]’.

Plus, the police have apparently successfully investigated not only ‘the intermediaries [los intermediarios]’, but also ‘their contacts in the [countries] of origin of the works [los contactos de éstos en las zonas de origen de las obras]’.

Hubris, hypocrisy and marketing(?)

As noted by museum visitor advocate Ines Fialho Brandao, Bagot Peix’s alleged behaviour would be an extreme act of ‘hubris’. Yet, considering the rate of investigations, let alone prosecutions, let alone convictions, perhaps it would merely be an everyday act of complacency.

The AFP also reported that the police had stated that ‘one of the men appeared regularly on TV to discuss ancient art and even took part in several academic conferences that discussed the destruction of historical sites by IS‘. It should be noted that, if he is guilty, apart from the hypocrisy, this would have constituted a marketing strategy as well as a deflection of suspicion. By highlighting the destruction and increasing rarity of the goods, he would have been pushing the idea of “rescue”-by-purchase and increasing the prices of those purchases.

‘The important thing in this profession is knowing how to buy’

As Bagot Peix said, in an interview from three years ago, which I saw via Vozmediano, ‘more than knowing how to sell, the important thing in this profession is knowing how to buy [Más que saber vender, lo importante en esta profesión es saber comprar]’.

‘The important objects are increasingly difficult to find [Los objetos importantes resultan cada vez más difíciles de encontrar]’ because, since 1985, ‘every new find [in Spain has been] property of the State, a norm that is replicated in the rest of the world [todo nuevo hallazgo es propiedad del Estado, normativa que se replica en el resto del mundo].’

The recent acts of barbarism [that have been] committed by ISIS at the museum of Mosul and the Assyrian site of Nimrud, where it has destroyed authentic jewels of Iraqi artistic heritage, discourage Jaume Bagot, as does the recent news about the illegal trade that has been unleashed with the robbery and pillage of archaeological pieces both in the Middle East and in North Africa.

Alarms have sounded because it is believed that they are financing Islamic extremism, but the gallerist warns that “the pieces [that are] taken during the war never reach the legal market. A serious and reputable dealer want to sell anything [that has been] taken from Mosul, since the collector obviously does not want to possess it either. They are hot pieces and cause serious problems: the smuggling of antiquities is a serious crime.”

[Los recientes actos de barbarie cometidos por el ISIS en el museo de Mosul y el yacimiento asirio de Nimrud, donde ha destruido auténticas joyas del patrimonio artístico iraquí, descorazonan a Jaume Bagot, así como las recientes noticias sobre el comercio ilegal que se ha desatado con los robos y pillajes de piezas arqueológicas tanto en Oriente Medio como en el norte de África.

Han saltado las alarmas porque se cree que están financiando al extremismo islámico, pero el galerista advierte que “las piezas extraídas en plena guerra nunca llegan al mercado legal. Un comerciante reputado y serio no quiere vender nada sacado de Mosul, pues el coleccionista obviamente tampoco quiere poseerlo. Son piezas calientes y causan graves problemas: el contrabando de antigüedades es un delito serio.”]

This is an utterly bizarre claim. By that logic, no illegal antiquities would ever reach the legal market. That is far from reality. It would be an equally bizarre claim if the logic was that illegal antiquities from safe zones reached the legal market, yet illegal antiquities from conflict zones did not. Then, the consumption of illegal antiquities from safe zones would disprove the claim that collectors and dealers were unwilling to commit serious crimes. This would thereby demonstrate that they were willing to commit serious crimes by consuming illegal antiquities from conflict zones.

Bagot Peix publicises that he specialises in Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern antiquities. As Lynda Albertson observes on the ARCA blog, there is ‘[no] mention of Libyan cultural objects… in his BRAFA profile’.

Does that reflect strategic discretion or commercial opportunism? As noted by journalist Alicia Huerta in Voz Libre,

The [antiquities] market was not going to miss [the opportunity], just as there was no lack of customers to buy oil cheaply from the wells with which they were making their way. Without money, there is no war, but the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate managed to have its coffers full, because there are always those who get rich precisely at the cost of wars.

[Mercado no iba a faltar, igual que tampoco faltaron nunca clientes para comprar barato el petróleo de los pozos con los que fueron haciéndose a su paso. Sin dinero no hay guerra, pero el autoproclamado califato islámico logró tener las arcas llenas porque siempre hay quien se hace rico precisamente a costa de las guerras.]

jewellery

Amongst other objects, that interview displayed a photograph of pendants (pendientes). ‘Dating to Roman Empire; 4.4 cm long, made of gold and carnelian. Value: 5,400 euros. (Datan del Imperio Romano; de 4,4 cm de largo están fabricados en oro y cornalina. Precio: 5.400 euros.)’

El niño prodigio del arte antiguo [the child prodigy of ancient art]. Jaume Bagot y Txema Ybarra, Fuera de Serie, 29th March 2015.

El niño prodigio del arte antiguo [the child prodigy of ancient art]. Jaume Bagot y Txema Ybarra, Fuera de Serie, 29th March 2015.

To my untrained eye, the style of those pendants is strikingly similar to the style of jewellery that was broadcast on CNN on 11th December 2015, after it had been advertised for sale online, on social media.

Michael Danti, interviewed by Drew Griffin, for CNN. 2015: Anderson Cooper: 360 Degrees. CNN, 11th December.

CNN, 11th December 2015

significance

Obviously, conflict antiquities have been reaching the international art market for more than a century. Still, in the context of the current crisis across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and in the face of persistent denialism in the marketplace, Antiquities Coalition chairwoman Deborah Lehr told the Wall Street Journal that, if proved, this case would be the ‘smoking gun that “blood antiquities” are reaching the international art market’.

I would quibble with reports that the police operation is ‘the first in the world to be developed against the theft of art in territories [that are] besieged by terrorist groups [la primera del mundo que se desarrolla contra el robo de arte en territorios asediados por grupos terroristas]’.

Law enforcement agencies (as well as security forces and armed forces) in and around conflict zones have long conducted such operations. Law enforcement agencies elsewhere have at least tried to prosecute conflict antiquities traffickers.

It may have been a mistaken paraphrasing. According to another report, the police stated that it was ‘the first [operation] on an international level to be developed against the theft of art in territories [that are] besieged by terrorist groups [la primera a nivel internacional que se desarrolla contra el robo de obras de arte en territorios asediados por grupos terroristas]’.

As reported by journalist Georgi Kantchev in the Wall Street Journal, the arrests are ‘the first publicly announced detentions by Western authorities [who are] working to dismantle the [Islamic State] terrorist group’s trade in plundered art’.

It may also be true for police and experts to say that this is ‘the first time authorities anywhere have [publicly] detained alleged traders of Islamic State-linked antiquities’. Though, that may reflect a strategy of cultural property criminals at or near the source, who claim that they are lone operators, in order to reduce the risk of prosecution for terrorist financing and/or assassination by their partners-in-crime.

Still, whether it results in convictions or not, as a police operation in a market country, which recognises and confronts the reality of conflict antiquities trafficking, it is certainly exceptional.

As Devoir d’Enquête pointedly recalled, the Art and Antiquities Unit (Art et Antiquités) of the Directorate for the Fight against Property Crime (la Direction de la lutte contre la criminalité contre les biens) of the Federal Police was ‘dissolved [dissoute‘ (or, technically, ‘cut to just one person’) in January 2017.

Unfortunately, Belgium is not alone. Hopefully, this case will finally prompt an urgent international reassessment of policing of illicit antiquities trafficking in general and conflict antiquities trafficking in particular.

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