Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Antiquities, Fakes and Dead Babies cross the Syrian Border

'sarcophagus' half-buried
- see where grass is
As a followup to the earlier article here (which I discuss here), Mike Giglio and Munzer al-Awad reporting from Istanbul, have published '13 Exclusive Photos Of Looted (And Fake) Syrian Artifacts For Sale' (Buzzfeed Aug. 5, 2015).

People participating in the black market that helps to fund Syria’s civil war pass around photos of artefacts from smartphone to smartphone as dealers and middlemen work to line up buyers and hope  to make a sale.
One such middleman on the border gave BuzzFeed News a cache of photos from his Android phone. The objects in the photos had been dug up in ISIS and rebel territory alike, he said. He requested anonymity to protect his safety and avoid arrest.
I was able to obtain a copy of these images (photos and videos), courtesy of Mr Giglio and they were extremely revealing from a number of points of view. It is worth stressing that the middleman did not have these artefacts - just knew where they were to be had and it is clear that the pictures he had stored on his phone when met by Mr Giglio were from a number of different sources.

There was a very interesting group of Islamic coins (real and fake) and many ancient coins, mostly fake, some bad fakes. There was some nice glass, from tombs probably - probably all real. Some very showy gold jewellery, about the authenticity of which I personally have ambivalent feelings, the intaglios included examples which were I am pretty sure modern. If the jewellery itself is fake, its a good quality of fake.  There was a small fake stone sarcophagus (miniaturised to make smuggling easier and artfully reburied in a sand dune - not very convincingly), a hanging lamp from a church, and some more (at least four) of those manuscripts that we have seen before, browning a brittle with faded writing and pictures that do not really make much sense, looking very much like a pastiche [but I'd love to know how the ageing was done]. There was a mosaic, and three small stone reliefs, one was the 'Hercules stele' shown in the Buzzfeed article but there was another piece showing Hercules which I feel was not real, and a Sumerian wall plaque which certainly was a really bad fake.

There also were photos of two mummified babies. They are being marketed as antiquities, but just as easily could be the remains of an infanticide just a few decades ago. Sick.

Mr Giglio stresses that most of his sources seemed to be pretty savvy about what is fake and what is real on the market and were the ones that first warned him about the forgeries. An experienced dealer actually said he thinks that in the black market of the middlemen on the Turkish borderlands there may even be  twice as many fakes on offer as real ones. It is probable that "the more experienced guys use this kind of knowledge to keep a leg up on all the amateurs the war has inspired to get into the field". Certainly the middleman who gave Mr Giglio these files had been unlucky in his contacts and apparently did not really know all that much about antiquities. This does not of course mean that this is typical of what is on the market - the more canny dealers probably would not show the contents of their phone to a reporter...

A second batch of photos was rather more worrying. It mostly contained utter junk artefacts, worse than the other batch. But among them were four which made me think. the first shows a hand holding a number of mineral specimens - perhaps they are being touted as semi-precious stones. Among them I saw specimens that were probably pyrite, obsidian and fluorspar.  I have no idea what minerals one can pick up in the Syrian desert, but specimen fluorspar on the market is generally from western Europe or China. This really looks like part of a kid's mineral collection.  We know when they take an area ISIL (and probably the other men with guns too)  have been raiding people's homes for valuables. Is this where these came from? The same applies to the only photo showing real artefacts, a group of worn coins from the princely states of India (Jaipur, Navanager I think plus at least one other) - again looking for all the world like they come from a private collection. Then two groups of the most execrable 'tourist fake' coins - did they come from the looted house of an individual who in peacetime made a living hanging around just outside an ancient site and conning tourists into believing they'd been found "over there - shhh" pointing to the middle of the ancient site?

[Before a coiney points it out, one of the Islamic coins in the article that somebody said was 'probably real'  looks for all the world like a cast fake].

I was talking to Mr Giglio this afternoon by phone and he pointed out something that had not really occurred to me.  I was moaning that most reporters who deal with this topic and come back with what they think is a 'scoop' in fact end up showing photos of amateurish fakes. Giglio points out that there are two groups of people involved on the ground, the person who thinks that this is a great new business opportunity, but in fact has no knowledge - who end up getting foisted off with fakes. Then there are the professionals, who will not immediately show real antiquities to a stranger because they do not know that this is not a sting. It reminded me of the dealers in Egypt who would lay out some 'artefacts' and then judge who is across the other side of the table by which ones they pick up and express an interest in. If the potential customer picks one of the mass of junk fakes and asks the price, it is sold to him at a vastly-inflated price. If the customer picks up the sole authentic item, then the first batch is cleared away, and out come another type of artefact entirely (at which point my advice is to get out of the shop straight away as it might be a sting - with you as the victim).  This may be how the various news stories that have appeared in the past about the Turkish market for Syrian antiquities have been illustrated almost exclusively by fake artefacts. 


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