Wednesday 10 February 2010

Afghanistan: Blood Antiquities

According to a post just now on the Undroit-L discussion list, the Belgian documentary "Blood Antiques" is doing the rounds again. I've discussed it here before, but just watched it again, I'd forgotten just how damning it was. Worth a second look. Louise Shelley comments on the Link TV webpage: "The lack of morality of the dealers and buyers and their complicity in terrorist financing needs a broad audience". Here is the first five minutes of the film from YouTube:

The whole film can be seen at

Here's the summary: "The European art trade, synonymous with wealth and glamour, has always involved a degree of stolen and smuggled art. Now, Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is financing terrorism and the Taliban. From Afghans scrabbling in the sand for treasures, to the dazzling show rooms of unscrupulous dealers and private collectors – 'Blood Antiques’ uncovers one of the most outrageous illegal trades since blood diamonds".
The film features journalist Arthur Brand (2 mins 45 seconds) and some telling hidden camera work. There are many quotable quotes, it would be nice to be able to find a transcript on the Internet.

Equally interesting is the comment by Californian part-time coin dealer Dave Welsh which appeared on the Unidroit-L immediately after the original post:
As Unidroit-L Listowner, I approved this post because I believe it to be on topic and of interest to the list. As a professional numismatist however, I do not believe that the picture this documentary paints is in any way representative of what takes place in the numismatic trade. I also don't believe that it paints a fair picture of the overall standard of ethics in the art trade. Those dealers in ancient art with whom I am personally familiar, Malter Galleries for example, go to considerable trouble to ensure that they are not involved in acquisition of anything likely to have recently been excavated (as I do in acquiring coins). Dave Welsh
Who is he trying to kid? In what way is the Belgian antiquities market different from (say) the US one? I find it very significant that the very factors which the film indicates make Belgium a place where the no-questions-asked market in illicit artefacts flourishes are already in place in the US, and what is more they are the very things in which groups like the ACCG (of which Welsh is a board member) are campaigning to resist change.

In the circumstances, Welsh's choice of the Malter Galleries in California as the example of due diligence and paradigm of ethical behavior was not a clever one. Welsh should know that the late Joel Malter was arrested in the late 1990s after trying to buy antiquities that he knew to be smuggled from an undercover agent (see here and here) . Welsh himself wrote about this here:
" Joel Malter, on June 19, 1998 incautiously bought a group of smuggled Turkish antiquities officially valued at “less than $5,000” (actually much less, according to Malter) from an undercover Customs agent. This transaction would have been legal before McClain. Considering the distaste (and outright contempt)dealers have long felt for the inefficiently and corruptly administered antiquities laws of nations such as Turkey and Egypt, it is understandable that Joel felt no ethical concerns. He bought the lot, just as he had lawfully bought other similar lots in the normal course of business over many years."
Yeah, right. Perhaps Mr Welsh might like to reiterate the "considerable trouble" he goes through to ensure that he is "not involved in acquisition of anything likely to have recently been excavated (as I do in acquiring coins)". Like those Parthian coins he has been selling which he says were bought "in Spain". What "considerable trouble" does he and his coin dealing mates go to to determine how the coins and other artefacts they buy actually got to the European markets where they buy them?

(Nathan Elkins helped with the two references to the Malter arrest - thanks)


ESC said...

Maybe a bit late now but the transcript for 'Blood Antiquities' can be found at
I have been in contact with Peter Brems (the director and writer of Blood Antiquities) and am currently working on a UK based project along similar lines. This topic cannot have enough exposure!

Paul Barford said...

Wow, thanks, I had to look twice on the webpage to find it, but just the thing. That's great. I look forward to seeing the results of your work in the UK on similar lines.

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