Sunday, 10 May 2020

Museums get behind metal detectorists in their quest for treasure

With the byline 'Ancient antagonists build bridges as treasure finds mount up [...] detectorists are now belatedly recognised for adding significant jewels to the crown of our past', the Financial Times has a piece of anti-conservation churnalism (Liz Foreman, 'Museums get behind metal detectorists in their quest for treasure', May 9 2020). And because archaeology is so much like rocket science and sub-particulate physics, she's gone for the dumbdown and the whole emphasis is on 'ow much it is werf. Discussing the Shropshire Marches Bulla:
 “It was valued at £250,000. Most finds come in at under £500. In 18 years I’ve seen two or three cases worth more than £10,000. From the point of view of value, the majority of metal detectorists are going to find the best part of nothing.”
Awwwww. And of course the landowner sees very little of the overall value of the many thousands of artefacts that yearly enter private collections and the antiquities market. But some artefact hunters find some valuable stuff and the landowners will ("always"?) get their cut:
It is not only archaeology that has benefited from this development but also the jewellery world. “Between 60 and 70 per cent of treasure finds are jewellery,” says Michael Lewis, head of the PAS. Some of the sparkliest pieces go on show in museums while other items are preserved and kept in the nation’s homes. [...] Not everything can be acquired by museums. “If something is in wearable condition, it is massively more expensive to buy. Often museums can’t afford it.”
But then, the museums don't really want to have to look after it:
Eleanore Cox, the finds officer for Northamptonshire, says: “Not all jewellery pieces are acquired by museums because they can be hard to explain. Think of a ring with an inscription on the inside: it’s very hard for a museum to display.”
Oh, that's OK then. It's not about preserving the past at all, just ease of dumbdown (?). And the money of course. The FT reader learns:
The antiquities scheme divides jewellery into various categories. Mr Richardson of the British Museum says: “We have a category for an object type called jewellery on the PAS website but it is for things that can’t be described more specifically. “There are 160 finds on there called jewellery but we also have more than 10,000 finger-rings, 1,600 pendants and 46,000 brooches recorded on the database. [...]  Mr Lewis adds: “Jewellery is a category used when you don’t know what something is. We use the subsections more often on the antiquities scheme.”
It is unclear what it is, so you say what it is... logical. What's the difference between  'jewellery' and 'personal ornament'? Then they enthuse about the early medieval gold and garnet pendant, known as the Winfarthing Pendant, found by a metal detectorist in Norfolk.
Helen Geake, the county’s finds liaison officer who featured in Channel 4’s Time Team archaeology programme, was called in when a detectorist got a positive hit at the foot of a grave. “He called us and we excavated,” she says. “The pendant was bigger than anything that’s ever been found.” It was acquired two years ago by Norwich Castle Museum, and has been valued at £140,000. The quality and quantity of jewellery varies according to when it was made, says Ms Geake. “In the early Anglo-Saxon period, women were buried with their jewellery. The eighth century is full of quite dull alloy brooches but occasionally you find the most remarkable things. It is the same in the fifth century. There isn’t a lot that stands out but there are always a few to mess up the pattern. The 12th century is pretty slim pickings.”
so basically if you are an artefact hunter and collector or just out for the Treasure reward  your are looking for a cemetery of the sixth or seventh century if you want to hoik some corpse's jewellery to pocket of flog off? Yes, is that the message PAS? So the twelfth century is "slim pickings" from an acquisitive point of view, but a real archaeological outreach organisation would be making sure that the journalist wrote that this was not due to impoverishment of society at this time (because it was not) but changes in costume and (when we are talking of grave robbing) burial practices.

I bet it was Mike Lewis who made sure she instead wrote of his Helsinki mates:
Schemes similar to the PAS exist elsewhere in Europe and include Portable Antiquities Netherlands and Dime in Denmark, with FindSamp being set up in Finland. The situation in Belgium is unusual, with the MEDEA database and licensing covering only Flanders; metal detecting is more strictly controlled in the French-speaking part of the country. 
And in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and a whole lot of other places that the Vikings with their plunder ethos never got to.

Friday, 8 May 2020

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
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.

Pandora IV/ Athena II More Puzzling Details

More on these much-hyped raids (Sam Jones, 'Police seize 19,000 stolen artefacts in international art trafficking crackdown' Guardian Thu 7 May 2020). Again we hear of two huge international police operations targeting the trade in stolen artworks and archaeological artefacts, the arrest of 101 people and the recovery of more than 19,000 items in a series of joint initiatives (Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and many national police forces) and that "details of the two concurrent investigations carried out last autumn are emerging only now for operational reasons". The Guardian went for the gold:
 Police officers in Spain recovered several rare pre-Columbian objects at Madrid’s Barajas airport, including a unique Tumaco gold mask, gold figurines and pieces of ancient jewellery. All had been illegally acquired by looting in Colombia. Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, while Colombian police carried out a series of searches in Bogotá, resulting in the confiscation of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects – the largest such seizure in the country’s history.
I think we've seen this mask before. It's said to be from the La Tolita culture of the Tumaco–Esmeraldas region on the Pacific coast of South America. It was seized in October last year  (see here and here in English)

Spanish police recovered a unique Tumaco gold mask. Photograph: Interpol
It did not look all that authentic the first time round. There is a whole thread here by Donna Yates who raises a lot of questions ("I'd be getting an authenticity evaluation ASAP", did they in the intervening six months before they made this announcement?). And back overseas:

Colombian authorities retrieved 242 objects. Photograph: Interpol
 and then:
Afghan customs officials at Kabul confiscated 971 cultural objects bound for Istanbul.
Here they are:

 The similar looking glazed flasks with the incised lines and the same surface 'patina' don't impress me. I'm not sure how many collectors they'd charm. Now admittedly I do not know what Afghan folk pottery looks like, but these do not look very much like ancient objects to me (I stand to be corrected). The weird-looking tripod (?) vessel at the back with the antelope horns is not very enticing either. There's also a (quite attractive but I suspect chemically patinated) rhyton, a cylinder seal and pre-Columbian seated figure there.

The Guardian has a photo of some (probably real) objects "Cultural objects seized in Italy. Photograph: Interpol" but it is not clear if they were part of this operation, other sources do not mention them. The stories of the late eighteenth century codex and the Austro-Hungarian coin also illustrated in the article as having been seized are not explained. 

A telling slip of the tongue here, methinks:
“Organised crime has many faces,” said its executive director, Catherine de Bolle. “The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money.”

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Europol Seizes 108 Metal Detectors "looting in Europe is still an ongoing business"

In what has been described as a 'coordinated crackdown', 101 people have been arrested, 300 investigations opened, and 19,000 stolen artefacts recovered as part of a global operation spanning 103 countries and focusing on the dismantlement of international networks of art and antiquities traffickers (Interpol press release: '101 arrested and 19,000 stolen artefacts recovered in international crackdown on art trafficking', 6 May 2020
The criminal networks handled archaeological goods and artwork looted from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and archaeological sites. Seizures include coins from different periods, archaeological objects, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings and fossils. Facilitating objects, such as metal detectors were also seized. These results were achieved during the global Operation Athena II, led by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and INTERPOL, which was carried out in synchronization with the Europe-focused Operation Pandora IV coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and Europol in the framework of EMPACT. Details of both Operations, which ran in the autumn of 2019, can only be released now due to operational reasons.
This is very unclear, this is a conflation of two separate actions, Operation Athena and Operation Pandora IV (the Pandora Operations tend to be carried out in Autumn, but only announced much later on in the following year - for 'operational reasons'). The problem is it is not clear which organizstion was responsible for which part of the results summarised in this press release.  But then to which of the two does this other action belong? Since a huge amount of antiquities trading goes on online, law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites:
During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during this international crackdown.
The operational highlights show the wide scope of the investigation, but also how widespread this type of activity is. But then do these belong to Pandora IV, Athena II or something else entirely?
Afghan Customs seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport just as the objects were about to depart for Istanbul, Turkey.
The Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional), working together with the Colombian Police (Policia Nacional de Colombia), recovered at Barajas airport in Madrid some very rare pre-Columbian objects illegally acquired through looting in Colombia, including a unique Tumaco gold mask and several gold figurines and items of ancient jewellery. Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, and the Colombian authorities carried out house searches in Bogota, resulting in the seizure of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects, the largest ever seizure in the country’s history.
The investigation of a single case of online sale led to the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins by the Argentinian Federal Police Force (Policia Federal Argentina), the largest seizure for this category of items, while the second largest seizure was made by Latvian State Police (Latvijas Valsts Policija) for a total of 1,375 coins.
Six European Police forces reported the seizure of a hundred and eight metal detectors, demonstrating that looting in Europe is still an ongoing business.
Remember the British Museum guy pandering to the antiquities dealers advocate who said that there were "not many [coins] actually" in the illicit trade? Another thing he was misreporting - but why? Down the corridor is the Portable Antiquities Scheme, partnering metal detectorists, and they'd never call their friends "looters", either.  Something very wrong in Bloomsbury.

See below for the Europol video.

Pandora Film (Part I - What is Going on?)

There are at least two videos online to illustrate the news item about the 'Pandora IV' cultural property raids (see above). The first (here) is an edited version of the main one, which is the one I want to discuss:


The EUROPOLtube video actually is quite weird and the first part of it raises quite a few questions, not least - what on earth are we viewing? It is cobbled together from at least ten scenes and there is no soundtrack to explain what's going on. I want to take a closer look at this (you might like to slow it down until you get to the divers, the speed has been manipulated). The last three scenes are not really all that interesting, so I'll split them off to a separate post to shorten this one (see here). Here's what we see:
1) 0:09 to  0:30 a) white cloth on table in cluttered office, in foreground, jewellers' anvils back left handtools, foreground left  pressblech matrices [metal plates for sinking embossed designs], some objects, centre back two plastic bags of coins into which an officer THROWS two more. b) Closeup of these coins... all same size and shape, soapy look, several duplicates. These are all surely fakes. c) (0:15) two figures hurriedly open shallow drawers in cluttered office revealing corroded metal objects on grey felt. Is that a gas torch hanging on wall? d) part of the same table, at 0:19 top right, fake Koson coin (?) further to the right several fake white metal 'ancient' coins, bottom left, dies for pressing fake coins and other objects. To the right I am not sure, but they could be the outer casings reinforcing an inner investment mould, for thin flat items (coins probably). There's a Spanish coin book, and some other objects that might be ancient - or not. As the camera pans to the side we see the edges of the anvils, the dies and matrices, some rather nasty looking 'gold coins', a heap of stringed beads. The film then (e) abruptly switches (0:24) to shots of cruddy bronze fragments on  cotton wool (!! not the best idea) in a shallow wooden tray. Then (f) we see some officer packing these (or similar) objects  in more cotton wool, not particularly expertly handling them.
This is odd, this is supposed to be an antiquities bust, but what I think we see here is a faker's workshop. The tools and so on. On a wall at the end of the room is a bank of shallow wooden drawers which I think contain metal detected items (that's what's on the cotton wool). My interpretation is this is that a seller would make up batches of items that would contain the fakes and bulk them out with actual antiquities to make them look more believable. I'm going to guess that the shallow drawers are to allow the seller to select certain items to put on top of the pile in the photo of the sales offer. If that is a Koson coin, that's interesting. Made in Spain? 
2) a) The scene changes to a garage. Two officers manhandle some panels of mosaic reset into plaster - a car and a tractor are seen in the background (0:30  to 0:38 ). b) is this the same raid in the same place? A plastic container with some carved stone architectural details, in the background other stonework and an amphora (?). On left wooden beam wall visible. c) A wooden building with amphoras lying on the floor - not all are ancient (?), one has marine encrustations on it. One of them  has a 'Guardia' label already on it, so is this a thieves' storeroom, or a police storeroom we are seeing? If the latter, why are so few of these items labelled in any way we can see? 
Is this an antiquities seller or an architectural salvage trader (the amphoras to use as garden ornaments)?
3) a) A whole lot of stuff laid out (0:44 to 52) as trophies on the floor in an office (we presume Guardia HQ):
What is this about? Not a single piece of this 'evidence in a criminal case' is labelled, they are jumbled on the floor in areas divided by tapes, some stand on sheets of paper. This is no way to maintain the integrity of evidence. There's all sorts here, rows of small groups of metal detected finds at the front, a painting at the back, at least one large Chinese bronze vessel at the back too, there's Greek painted pots here, a 'rhyton', trays of coins. This is a typical range of what collectors like and dealers deal, rows of flagons, few other forms apart from a few small cups and beakers, surgical implements, terracotta figurine, nice black-burnished bucchero ware (?) at the back. We cant see any of them close enough to determine authenticity... but there are a large group of lamps, those lower right all similar colour (already suspicious) but look at the white things on the right towards the back. These are the plaster moulds for making copies of lamps (only the lower half, where's the rest?). I'm going to guess that the number of authentic lamps here is minimal. 
This seems to show several dealer's/collectors' assemblages. Are the taped off areas individual suspects' stuff?  All those lamps (and moulds) are from a dealer and/or faker. 

4) Presumably another part of the same display (0:53-57), a table top with green covering, camera pans across. The lion and 'senatorial bust' are, I think, fakes (is that a brass Bodhisattva to the left?) , then there are - literally - heaps of coins, some spilling out of an envelope. Possibly/probably these are real metal detected items.  c) the camera runs along the same table, showing an earlier stage of laying out the 'evidence/trophies'. Face pot, flagon, you'd have to see a better photo/them in the hand to see what they really were, but those bronzes, the large fibulae with intact pins.... I am sceptical about them. The silver ring at the back too. On the right end of the table, somebody frantically moving about little UNLABELLED polybags with things in them
Again, there are an awful lot of small portable antiquities here that I suspect are really fakes. There are others that may not be (pots, coins). 
5) This is weird (1:07- 11). a) round wooden table, boxes in background, yellow tape across table, green form lying half under some scales. Lots of little UNLABELLED polybags (as in the previous scene), somebody frantically counting and weighing coins - probably ancient, but nastily chemically cleaned. b) Probably the same table top (same tape). UNLABELLED polybags lying around, some with artefacts tipped out. There's an early medieval openwork mount and other metal detected items, though not all are ancient, I'd say. 
It is not clear whether 4 and 5 are related and how. One shows a lot of 'Bazaar archaeology' fakes, the other seems to show actual metal detected stuff. One of the officers is wearing a similar blouse to the 'bedroom\'' scene that follows it - possibly what we are seeing i
os the documenting of the items they are taking away so this scene is teh aftermath to the search scenes that follow it. 
6) The scene shifts, we are back in a cluttered room (the same place as in the first group of scenes?) and two hands in nitrile gloves proffer for our inspection two 'Roman oil lamps' (1:13 to 1:14). What's that junk on the green plastic shelves behind him by the door? Note the maroon bedspread in bottom right corner. 
The lamps are fake, if I'd seen them on ebay, I'd automatically attach the adjective 'Bulgarian' to them, because that's where a lot of the ones looking like this - and much worse - do come from, but are these 'made in Spain'?
7) The same green plastic shelves are seen on the edge of the rest of the 'red bedspread' sequence (1:14 to 1:25). One of the officers is wearing a top with the same coloured sleeves as in the coin-counting scene. This appears to be a cramped cluttered bedroom, there's a big bed in the centre of the room, boxes behind the headboard, officers have strewn various items and boxes of items all over it, I see some flaky ironwork, some odd-looking bronzes, some tattered old books. the officers are handling the items very roughly, I see no documentation going on (photo scales are lying on the bed though). Some of those pots don't look very convincing to me.
Is this part of a dealer/faker's storeroom (and maybe somebody sleeps there at night to keep an eye on it), or is this a metal detectorist's bedroom?   

What I find interesting is the emphasis placed in the press release on antiquities seized, not a word on the fakery. The antiquities market is full of fakes, this video seems full of fakes, but there is little kudos in capturing fakers instead of smugglers. I wonder what charges we will see pressed for those "109 arrested people".

Read on for Part two

Pandora IV Film (Part II)

This is part two of my discussion of the implications of the Pandora IV video EUROPOLtube  (the first part is above here).  It is cobbled together from at least ten scenes and there is no soundtrack to explain what's going on. This just discusses the last three scenes for completeness. 
Scene 8) A complete change of scene. a) Some heroic and photogenic diving going on... (1:26 to 2:03). Three police divers are measuring something, groping around on the seabed, writing something down. b) we see some storage buildings some Guardia guys go in, handle some sophisticated equipment, take some out, c) we see a cannon (?) being loaded into a van (2:16 to 2:28), and then some lifting bags and other equipment
This looks like a raid on underwater looters. 
Scene 9) The next sequence is a bit of a puzzle. We've heard this story from another angle. It was Arthur Brand who (at least that's what the newspapers say) traced these Visigothic panels in January 2019 - before 'Pandora IV'. We see them being packed up and flown somewhere. (2:29 to 3:03). It's not entirely clear what the relevance is. 
This scene is pretty boring. Note the attempt to use white cotton gloves. Why in the earlier sequence were the faces of the officers obscured, and here we see them? What's the difference?
Scene 10) Some guys get taken away in police cars (3:03 to 3:15) b) are fingerprinted and c) put into a holding cell (the lady closing the door seems to be the same one as in the scene of searching the diver's storeroom). 
and probably we will never hear what the outcome of any court case was, if there was one.

As is the case with all of the other raids.

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