Sunday, 4 March 2012

Greek Antiquities Bust and the No-Questions-Asked Antiquities Trade

The recent arrest of a number of people allegedly involved in an antiquity smuggling ring in Greece over the weekend allows us to see a little of the way the antiquities market works. It allows us to envisage the degree of denial represented by what antiquity dealers and collectors say about the connection between what they do and the looting of the archaeological record as a source of saleable collectables. It allows us to see a little of the route from antiquities in the ground to coins in a foreign collector's display cabinet.

There were 44 people (so far) arrested, aged between 25 and 74, including pensioners and municipal workers. The organization seems to have been focussed on a 66-year old "Mr X" (I cannot believe that fellow coin dealers have not recognized who exactly is involved from the relatively detailed information leaked to the press). Mr X is accused of being what in the literature is generally referred to as a "middleman". By that is meant somebody who goes out and encourages people to supply him with dugup antiquities, for which he gives them cash and then sells them on at a profit. He is of course nothing but an antiquity dealer like all the rest.

It is not clear whether the artefact hunters arrested with Mr X worked exclusively for him, or whether they sold their finds to collectors and other dealers in the region. Perhaps some of them were collectors themselves, selling the things surplus to their own needs like artefact hunting metal detectorists everywhere. Perhaps the material reaching Mr X's alleged smuggling 'ring' was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ascertaining the degree of damage possibly done by these folk.

"Mr X" reportedly ran what in US parlance would be seen as a "Mom-and-Pop business" (like those of the US coin dealers of the ACCG - who claim US regulations are hindering them). In southern Europe the notion of a "familia" involved in criminal activity has different connotations. Anyway, part of the alleged operation was apparently kept in family hands:
Kantouris adds that this man, "along with his two brothers, a daughter-in-law and another relative, formed the core of the group, while the other 39 would excavate in several places in northern and central Greece at the ringleader's request".
Not insignificant is Mr X's former occupation. As a customs officer, he would know the legal loopholes and smugglers' tricks, but also have a number of professional connections which could facilitate him to get items across Greek borders (at least) while his former colleagues 'turned a blind eye' (or were simply unsuspecting).

This material "was smuggled and sold abroad in small quantities". This had been going on before the investigation started, for six months during the investigations, and yet even after this, over 9000 allegedly looted coins and several hundred aretefacts were still in the gang's posession (4000 of them reportedly with one person - presumably Mr X or a runner).

Mr X has apparently made several trips abroad , sometimes twice a week, in the last six months alone - to Bulgaria, Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain and the U.S.. Who did he meet? Presumably the police will be able to determine this from his business correspondence, phone records and computer hard disc. As Police Officer Papoutsis said, "The case has a lot of depth. There are likely other persons involved, whom we will look for".

These alleged business trips are quite telling. No mention is made of Mr X offering his goods directly from Greece, that would attract attention, and would be illegal. It would seem that these reports suggest that we are observing 'laundering' in process. Bulgaria has its own looting problems, but it is notable that among the items which seem to have come onto the market through export from Bulgaria are a number of Greek coins, while many are 'Thracian' types, not all are. Rather than being the result of the "ancient trade" so frequently evoked by coineys, it would seem that to some extent they are the result of 'laundering' through the Bulgarian antiquities mafia. The latter benefit from the supply of fresh material , thus improving their own offerings both in terms of quantity and quality, while Mr X, by the simple expedient of driving the objects across the open border with fellow EU member Bulgaria washes his hands of the problem of getting them to a wider international clientele, leaving that in the hands of the Bulgarian dealers with all the connections they have. Just what kind of people did "Mr X" have in his network?

The same goes for Mr X's travels to the other European centres of the antiquities trade, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Did Mr X supply the big dealers of Munich and Leipzig? Let us hope the ongoing investigations can reveal whether that was the case (I am sure the present humiliations of the Greeks at the hands of the German financial institutions will make them look very closely at the German connection). With which Swiss dealers and collectors did Mr X do business? What about London? Who in London would be interested in buying freshly-dug ancient coins direct from a Greek source? Let us hope we all find out.

This is important, because US dealers make much of the fact that it is (allegedly) "not illegal" for Greek coins to travel between EU member states without relevant documentation (and on this basis they claim US dealers are discriminated against when required to obtain export documentation). Furthermore dealers have claimed (for example on the Unidroit-L forum, see here too) that ancient Greek (for example) coins bought (even if no-questions-asked) in "auctions" (for example in Munich or Leipzig and Switzerland) are - by the very fact that they are in Munich or Leipzig and Switzerland somehow "legal". In other words, they accept that it obviously would be illegal for them to buy freshly dugup Greek coins and antiquities directly from Mr X at source in Greece, but perfectly acceptable a couple of days or weeks later to buy the same coins and antiquities from a guy who'd done the dirty deed and bought them. In some way dealers consider these coins "clean" and perfectly "legitimate". That seems to me a definition of the "legitimate trade in antiquities' that only a coin dealer and no-questions-asking collector would accept. The rest of us are appalled. The reports say that "officers are working to identify items already sold abroad". Good, let us see who bought what. Name them and shame them.

The photographs of the seized antiquities show several features of what is involved. The bags of metal detected metal artefacts and 'partifacts' show that the coins destined for foreign markets were not derived from "isolated hoards" as coin dealers and collectors so frequently insist. The coins are clearly in part or wholly separated out from the metal assemblages created by metal detecting ancient sites (the ones in Thessaly and Macedonia the 39 artefact hunters - unless they themselves were collectors - were looting so they could sell stuff to Mr X).

The picture of the bags of coins on the table would be familiar no doubt to any English FLO. This is how most metal detected finds come to them, in grubby polybags. These certainly do not create the impression of being from the much-vaunted "old collections" which we are asked naively to believe are the source of all the undocumented coins freshly "surfacing" ("from underground"?) on the no-questions-asked market. These look like the products of site plundering, pure and simple. The little statuettes (if real, see below) could be votive offerings from a cult site, the gold jewellery from the callous looting of graves for profit perhaps.

But then we come to the next aspect of this dishonest trade in stolen cultural property. Look at the statuary, the "Cycladic" figures for example. You can see from a mile off that the one on the left was made with an abrasive disc (probably tungsten carbide cutting disc on an ordinary electric drill). These quite obviously fake objects (the "cupid face" has apparently been burnt, a manner of distressing very popular in Egyptian fake-making too) are a puzzle. Two explanations are possible. Among the arrested folk may be several collectors and these items would be 'bought-on-eBay' elements of their personal artefact collections which the police took for examination. Alternatively these items were (or destined to be) part of the stock of Mr X, either produced locally - though one has to ask whether some could be imports from Bulgaria where it is reported Mr X had business dealings and the notorious fake antiquity factories there.

One of the problems for fake makers is how to insert their products onto the market. This is especially the case if what they make does not look quite right - like this one. One option however is to do a deal with somebody who supplies real dugups to get rid of them for them. There are three advantages to this. The first is the faker has no direct dealings with the client, and therefore cannot so easily be traced should the fake be discovered. Secondly a dugup 'middleman' is not necessarily going to be dealing directly with the art connoisseurs who would spot a nasty fake when they see one straight away. He might be selling coins to a coin dealer who might be tempted by a "bargain" Cycladic piece which is well outside their own expertise, but they see an opportunity to sell on at a profit (claiming of course its from that mythical anonymous "old XXXX collection"). Thirdly a dugup-dealing supplier has street cred - if the person to whom it is offered is suspicious, the 'middleman' can always claim to be offended by this 'lack of trust' ("why, I have forty people back in Greece digging this stuff up for me, why would I need to sell fakes?"), and the dealer eager to get his hands on more dugups to expand his business learns not to question.

Thus it is that all manner of dodgyness is going on behind the facade of the "legitimate antiquity trade". Stolen and looted (not to mention smuggled) items are passed onto the market masquerading as legitimate material. Utter - and worthless - fakes are passed off as kosher artefacts alongside them. All this is because both dealers and collectors are neglecting to ask the right questions, that is:

1) Where has this material ultimately come from, and how good is the actual documentation of legitimate origins?

2) Can the seller document his title to sell these items in a form I can pass on to the person who buys them from me when my custodianship of them is over?
Basically until dealers and collectors start asking and giving attention to the answers to these questions, the notion of a "legitimate antiquities market" will continue largely to be nothing but a facade behind which criminal middlemen and dealers will facilitate the passage of looted, smuggled, stolen and fake artefacts onto the market and into the stockrooms of dealers, the homes of collectors (and the schools of the ACE).

How anyone can claim that this is a 'legitimate' way to do business in this kind of material beats me.

UPDATE 5 March 2012: I see Peter Tompa is trying to brush this whole story off as a "diversion".

AFP, 'Greek police recover ancient coins, smash smuggling network', Google News, 4.03.12

Angelike Koutanou, 'Greek police arrest suspected smugglers, seize treasures', Yahoo news 5.03.12

Costas Kantouris, '44 arrested in Greece for antiquities trafficking', Miami Herald 4the March 2012.

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