Thursday 7 May 2020

The British Museum on Fakes on Antiquities Market

Bahrain, factory or transit? (DW)
The British Museum, London, has warned of growing market in fake antiquities after UK customs seized some goods being sent to a British buyer from Bahrain and they were asked to take a look at them (Jonathan Knott, 'Seized fakes reveal 'emerging market' in counterfeit antiquities'  Museums Association 6th May 2020).  This is a really weird article. Either a British Museum curator is being serially misquoted by everyone who has been writing about him recently, or he really is saying some odd things. This article is about the Heathrow antiquities seizure that I reported earlier on in the week.
The British Museum, London, has warned of growing market in fake antiquities after customs officials seized two trunks of counterfeits at Heathrow airport.[...] Without interception, they would likely have been be sold to a private collector for thousands of pounds. The fakes appeared to have been manufactured using a previously unknown technique, indicating that “this is a new production line aimed at a fresh gullible market”.  St John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum, said this incident appeared to be part of a wider trend. There is a growing market for fakes as governments move to block the black market in genuine antiquities [...].
The market, of course, is not for fakes, the market is for freshly looted stuff and the dealers sell the greedy unscrupulous and careless buyers fakes. Because they can.

Look like my wife's family coming to visit
The market for fakes is not "growing" (present continuous). Anybody who knows [and that MUST include Mr Simpson], can easily see that large sectors (the largest sector) of the antiquities market in the UK and globally) is already fully saturated with fakes. That this shipment from Bahrain is suspected to be a new factory really is without much real significance as I am sure the numbers of countries in which fake antiquities of varying degrees of deceptiveness are not being created is already pretty minimal (and if we extend it to antiques and ethnographic stuff, possibly Antarctica and Greenland would not be crowded out by too many contenders).

Is the "been manufactured using a previously unknown technique" what somebody has actually said, or is it made up by the journalist? The photos just show hand-modelled items like many already on the market. There is nothing "new" about the ones shown in the photos. And perhaps that's the thing, if a collector (or another dealer) sees day after day, week after week, antiquities sold by "reputable" (and other) dealers that all have a certain "look" about them, then that is what they will think these antiquities look like. One that does not look like them would be "suspect".

The next bit is just an odd thing for Mr Simpson to say, especially given what he was saying just last week about stuff from old looting surfacing now:
 “Countries like Iraq in particular have clamped down very heavily on the looting of archaeological sites and as a result, there is less material coming on to the illicit market,” said Simpson. He said that while a museum would immediately identify the seized objects as fakes, “you can easily imagine the uninformed new collector who sees a couple of pictures on a phone and is sold a dud”. “Auction house trade is well policed and is a transparent process, but where trade is in the hands of private dealers and private individuals, then it is much more opaque. I think these objects fall into the latter category,” said Simpson. 
Cunies, assorted shapes and sizes
“Auction house trade is well policed and is a transparent process", that's a laugh. I think he's having the journalists on - or is pals with somebody in one of the London auction houses. I'd say the next quote attributed to him is equally controversial
He added that museums have an important role to play in educating the public and organisations about the difference between real and fake antiquities, and to provide independent advice for law enforcement and private individuals.
Educating buyers, Mr Simpson? I would suggest that is not - and has never been - the function of a public museum. The British Museum however has a rather nebulous relationship with antiquities collectors, and perhaps this is something that needs tightening up.

More odd statements, this time from law enforcement:
Richard Nixon, a senior officer at Border Force Heathrow, said: “Organised crime gangs are usually the drivers behind the counterfeit trade and by making this seizure, our experienced officers have taken a substantial amount of money out of the hands of criminals. “The links we have forged with experts at the British Museum were a vital part of this case and we will continue to work closely with them, as well as law enforcement partners, to stop counterfeit goods.” Border Force passes evidence of potential criminal activity it finds to law enforcement agencies, who then decide on what next steps to take.
pat-a-cake cunies, would
not fool many, I am sure
It would be interesting to see what British laws on counterfeit goods have to say about the antiquities trade. There is an awful lot of fake stuff on open sale in the UK. So when are those laws going to be applied, and why are they not when they are not being applied? I have in mind the period when the BM was "monitoring eBay" for illegal Treasure items, when they WOULD have come acrioss the fakes that are openly sold alongside them. What action was taken about this? Was any of it reported by the BM staff to UK law enforcement? A British antiquities dealer for example, now sitting in prison for his part in the Lenborough Hoard scandal, a lot of the items he traded were quite clearly not what he said they were, why was he never 'done' under these laws?

As for "our experienced officers have taken a substantial amount of money out of the hands of criminals" that depends whether the items were sent on commission or not. Because if they were paid for before they are sent, the money has been taken from the hands of the buyer - a collector. Is Nixon suggesting collectors are criminals in UK law?

A lot of questions, superficial news coverage again fails to scratch below the feelgood surface when it comes to the antiquities trade.

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