Monday, 28 March 2022

The Journalist, the Customs Official and the Dodgy Antiquities (part 1)


Longish. Wiser colleagues often say they’ll not work with journalists who expect them to provide them with material for free. Since I am somewhat of a “mission” here, I have always felt that that the disadvantages of this might be offset by the effect of “getting the message out there”. I am now more inclined to listen to them and thought I’d offer my recent experience with an award-winning foreign journalist as a cautionary tale.

I was contacted by a colleague asking whether I would be interested in supplying a (“very smart analytical”) journalist contact of theirs with an opinion on some artefacts that they had been loaned by a collector who’d bought them on the London market in connection with the creation of a documentary on the antiquities trade that the latter was putting together. They needed to establish with some level of certainty the likelihood that these objects were what they purport to be or otherwise (and that there was the possibility of conducting laboratory analyses to back that up). The colleague said she’d heard the production company was willing to pay a certain (rather modest) sum for it. I looked up the journalist, looked legit, had won some awards. OK. So I agreed.

I had a phone conversation (17th January) with the journalist. It seemed to go well. Unlike most of them, they seemed to understand what was involved in the antiquities trade before the conversation. A plus, most journalist setting out to tackle the topic have no clue at the time they contact me (and I’ll assume others). Somehow we talked for an hour we established that we’d stay in touch during the project and the subject of money never came up. Hmmm – quelle surprise, eh?

Anyway, the journalist was going to send me these artefacts that a collector had bought from a couple of dealers – two of whom I take a particular interest in. So the attraction for me was that I’d get to see some objects fresh off the antiquities trade and get the correspondence and paperwork that the buyer received.

The journalist was unable to give much of a description over the phone (“something that looks a bit like a beetle and some little animals and something made of plastic”). I got a whole packet of scanned documentation by cloud that evening... oh my... this collector had been binge-buying and I got all the document about several sets of purchases among which would be the selection of items that were that evening on their way to me. I’d get them, I was told, the day after next, by a well-known International courier firm. I was intrigued to see what I’d be getting.

The idea was I was supposed to film myself examining them, pointing out gaps in the paperwork the buyer had received (oh yes, gaping ones) and whether there are indications that some, or all (?) of the objects were fakes. That I was looking forward to. – the photos from the scanned catalogue and several the journalist had taken in their living room were very suggestive that there were a number of features about some of the objects I’d be getting to handle that (if the photos gave the correct picture) when I had the object in hand, would suggest they were not authentic. That’s the kind of antiquities I love the most. I was also told that I had also the approval of the collector to do tests on film on the objects if they would prove he’d been scammed.

So I waited. Got my hair cut and ironed a shirt. Two days after the delivery date, I got an email from the courier. The package was in Warsaw (after a three-day flight?) and now they were going to put it through customs (for which I as the recipient would pay a fee).

For this, I was informed, they needed from me a full description of what was in the package and a copy of the invoice translated into Polish. This was to take the form of a formal declaration with legal penalties for me supplying false information. This was a bit of a dilemma as all I knew was that there were seven (or eight?) objects in the package, but I had the documentation of the whole series of purchases from several dealers including these objects, but without knowing which of them the journalist had packed up. Or when it comes to value, which scarabs (“beetles”) for example, were in the package. I of course had no invoice of my own, not being the buyer.

Of course the value was important as it means how much duty the recipient (me) was going to pay for the privilege of examining a numpty’s artefacts before sending them back.

At the beginning of the process, I assumed that there was a way to sort this out, I had the phone number of the courier’s “specialist for customs procedure”, and phoned her up to explain to this lady (let’s call her Grażyna – not her real name) what the problem is and ask for advice how to proceed in these circumstances. I was mightly puzzled by the fact that she was telling me things about customs procedure that did not tally with what I know about Polish customs procedure, and seemed not to want to talk about how this ‘import’ relates to the new EU legislation on cultural property.

‘Just write what you know’ she said. That was her specialist advice. So I did. Made a formal declaration, under pain of legal sanction on what the situation is, what I was told was in the package, what probably is in the package, and expressing my willingness to come in (the other blooming side of the city, mind you) and the packet can be opened and I’ll help them sort out their paperwork (masked, triple vaccinated, social distance bla la). A few hours later, got an email, the packet is still being processed.

The next morning, I got another. The packet “cannot be processed” until I supply more information. So I politely wrote back to Ms Grażyna and say that is all the information I have and they can scan the package to see what is in it (Grażyna lied saying they have no scanning equipment in the customs office in the main Warsaw airport, they jolly well have as I’ve seen it), or I can come in...

The next morning I got another message saying that until I supply the missing information, they cannot process the packet... I contacted the sender, the journalist, asking them whether they can supply more information (like a photo of the particular objects concerned before they were sent). Then it turns out that the journalist was not really much help, as they did not know how to name what was in the packet. They also told me that the atrocious description on the customs declaration accompanying the parcel on its journey from the UK which was part of the problem was done by the representative of the courier when the parcel was consigned. It read: “Full description of goods: 1 adult metal ring, 3 child clay figure, 4 adult metal figure” and the declared total value was GBP 82.50. And in Poland the courier’s specialist wanted me to pay duty (c. 20% of the value) even though I was not the owner/buyer and was going to send them back. Bear in mind that the package in fact contained eight [or nine?] antiquities and at least some were of stone.

What I also found out is that specialist Ms Grażyna has a linkedIn page where one learns that she trained in a local agricultural college (in "the care of small domestic animals") had had a number of different jobs in the past few years, and before she was appointed as a specialist had worked in a coffee bar for a year or so and had been in this post just six months.

Perhaps then not surprising that she was unable to talk with me about EU legislation concerning cultural property entering the EU from outside (the UK brexited).

To cut a tediously long story short (I made a folder in my inbox for correspondence, it contains 125 mails I sent out related to this between 16th Jan 2022 and 15 Feb 2022) after both the sender and I contacted other members of staff in the Customs department... well over a fortnight after the courier was supposed to deliver these objects to my door, the package was in fact sent back without doing more than begin to go through the customs process, because the time limit had expired within which the courier could charge me/us for their “handling” (I use the term loosely) the case. I also found out that in her files Ms Grażyna had lied about daily attempting to contact me by phone and being unsuccessful... Patently untrue.

Three things shocked me about this. 

First of all, the law itself. Although I’d written about the new EU legislation, on being faced with me having to deal with it in this situation (i.e., not as a buyer who’d purchased artefacts from a dealer, paid for them and had them delivered), it turns out to have some holes in it and be very cumbersome to find your way around.

Secondly when it started going through Customs, and despite having from me a very detailed breakdown with links to the articles involved of how these items relate to EU cultural property law to speed things up, it turns out that Polish Customs were somehow going to totally bypass that legislation and treat these artefacts as “collectables” like stamps, postcards, or collectable thimbles and spoons etc. What? I must admit I’ve not done it yet, but am planning to do a FOI to judge how often this happens with antiquities at the Polish borders.

Thirdly, and most upsetting... the journalist was completely unable to tell me which specific items had gone into the packet and as I have said, the only description we had was the declaration of contents and value that had been sent with it. In making my own declaration therefore, this was the only information available to me. What I did not know until after the event was that the journalist had not only made what could be seen as a deliberately obtuse description of the packet’s contents (a not uncommon tactic in antiquities smuggling) but above all severely undervalued the contents. This means that had I indeed been called to be present when the packet was opened and bring the documents, it would be look like MY declaration of contents and value had been falsified and I could as a consequence be in serious trouble with Polish authorities.

That is quite apart from the enormous amount of time I wasted trying to sort out the mess that one assumes nobody would be in if the sender had taken more care about filling in the declaration of contents. Quite ironic really in the case of a journalist currently engaged in producing a documentary about antiquities smuggling! It hardly places this person in a position to judge others about the way they move artefacts across borders... It gets worse (Part two).

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