Wednesday 11 April 2012

Sawn Off Iraqi Antiquities and Legitimate Questions about Jerusalem Antiquity Trade

Let's get this up front again. Here's a slightly edited version of an old post  from Feb 2010  about ZZ Antiquities, whose proprietor imagines he can now threaten me by disrespectful, aggressive and abusive emails. Yes, that's the preferred approach of the dealers, collectors, metal detectorists, but that does not make the problems go away:
I have mentioned here before the Jerusalem firm "ZZAntiquities" (Brandon Leon) in connection with the sale of what seem to be previously undocumented objects coming from Iraqi sites. The dealer has recently announced another Mesopotamian object for sale which comes with full legal Export Approval legal documentation from the Israel Antiquities Authority. This he describes as "an Inscribed Clay Brick of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon Dated to: 604 - 560 BC. Height: 22 cm, Width: 14.5 cm, Excellent condition". The object is inscribed in cuneiform: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, provisioner of Esagil and Ezida, prime son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, am I. Ebabbaca, the temple of Shamash in Larsa I restored as it was before, for Shamash, my lord." ZA's selling point is that:
This piece is a very serious collector's item because it proves the existence of the Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in the Bible.
Whoopee, as if such "proof" was needed to a "serious collector". What he is really doing of course is saying that if you buy this brick and keep it in your house, you'll own an object related to a bloke mentioned in the Bible. It cannot fail to escape the notice of the visitors to the firm's website that Mr Leon is a Christian.
One might legitimately wonder where this brick actually came from (ZZAntiquities does not say). In his sales spiel Leon writes the object is "very rare". Actually, they are not so "very rare" these days. Informed collectors will be aware of Neil Brodie's recent text " "The market in Iraqi antiquities 1980-2008" The ZZ brick has the very same inscription as a series of bricks of the same ruler from the same town discussed in that text as having recently appearing on the market. Leon's photo and the published dimensions also show that the Jerusalem brick has been "trimmed" in the way Brodie describes (noting that "circular saws are not tools of archaeologists"). Brodie notes that "there are at least eight examples of this inscription that have been in circulation since 2003, and that do not seem to have been documented before that date".

On the collectors forums where he persists in peddling his wares, Mr Leon has on a number of occasions been asked (including by the present writer) to explain the physical state and appearance of some objects he offers which do not tally with his description (the inference being that potentially some are misdescribed - in other words, not as old as they are made out to be) and the origin of certain others where the careful buyer might suspect an illicit origin might be involved (the Isin cones which I discussed earlier being an example). The previous reactions have ranged from outright ignoral of the question to extreme unchristian aggression (Search "ZZAntiquities" in the archives of the Yahoo Ancient Artifacts forum for examples). Based on past experience of the reactions that such perfectly legitimate questions on a collectors' forum have aroused from this dealer, my bet is that if the collecting community asked Mr Leon, he will avoid answering the question of whether ZZAntiquities can provide any documentation to the buyer of such a sawn-off brick verifying it left Iraq before 2003 (or maybe before 1991 when the site guard was killed when the looting at Larsa started). Given the fact that this specific artefact type has been identified in discussions of the illicit trade as a potentially problematic one, such a question is perfectly legitimate.

In its sales offer, ZZAntiquities announced (as if this was not normal practice in retail anyway):
In order to be fair to all clients, we honor a first-come, first-served policy.
["Hurry 'urry, get yer dubyous 'raqi artefact 'ere'! Come on gents, don't miss yer chance, here today gone t'morrow!"] "Honour", eh? I would not think ethical and informed collectors will be flooding in to buy this one at least without a firmly documented legitimate provenance.....
"Serious collectors, please contact us directly via
private e-mail or telephone+972-545-391-222
Maybe the IAA and the Iraqi Antiquities Service (or at least Embassy) could actually get in contact with them at that number too and ascertain how Mr Leon came by this object and what else he obtained from this source?

What I would like to know is whether the Israel Antiquities Authority would be issuing a "full legal Export Approval legal documentation" for such an object from the state of Israel without ascertaining that the object was legally imported into the state of Israel. Surely failing to do this would just make Israel one of the potential avenues by which looted artefacts from Iraqi sites would be reaching foreign markets, and all with the veneer of "legitimacy". If it is not carrying out stringent checks (and I would like to think that this is not the case but know how understaffed they are for such a task), by what right would the IAA be making any such sale legal if at its basis was an illicit transaction? Israel of course has not ratified the international agreements regulating the flow of stolen antiquities (notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention which more than 118 states have ratified). I was informed back in 2008 by a representative of the IAA that "ZZAntiquities" was not a licenced antiquities dealer known to them, and they would be "looking into" their case (I gave them full details at the time), but as we see ZZAntquities is still trading from their Jerusalem address a few dozen minutes walk away from the seat of the IAA. Last time I asked, Mr Leon refused to say whether he is now a dealer in antiquities licenced by the IAA.

ZZAntiquities sells bulk ("dealer") lots of metal detected coins "from the Holy Land" in kilogramme lots. Where do they come from? Israeli territory? They sell bulk lots of scarabs and scaraboids which a series of You Tube videos (check them out) shows displayed in heaps on the floor. While I personally have my strong doubts about the authenticity of some of the "ZZ" scarabs, two respected US dealers have gone on record saying they all look authentic to them. So where do they come from? Where are they being dug up, who is collecting them together and supplying them to ZZAntiquities? Which foreign dealers are buying these things from the wholesaler in Jerusalem and then reselling them abroad, assuring customers that they had been obtained with "full legal Export Approval legal documentation from the Israel Antiquities Authority"? Any kind of collaboration with the antiquities market is fraught with ethical stumbling blocks for the professional archaeologist. What steps is the IAA taking to ensure that they are not unwittingly the kingpin in the international market in illicitly-obtained antiquities from places like Iraq?
Since I wrote that, the brick has disappeared from the ZZAntiquities website, presumably sold to somebody who thinks an Israeli export licence makes it a legitimate artefact - well, until he tries to sell it...

Readers might like to consider what happened to visiting US tour guide Dr John Lund not long ago, and what he was alleged by the Israelis to be selling. Then they might like to consider (take a good long look here , here and here for example) at what Mr Leon is selling and in what quantities right under the noses of the IAA and has been without any interference for the last few years. Then consider how he has the audacity to threaten me for talking about it.

Vignette: A sawn-off brick like Mr Leon's

1 comment:

Dorothy King said...

You might be interested to know that one of the good antiquities dealers in Israel has for decades bought the antiquities he sell at auction in London so that there are no looting / export issues ...

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