Almost 98 Percent of ‘Eastern Mediterranean’ Antiquities Sold in Germany Are of Questionable Origin, a New Report Has Found

A damning report spells out the problem. The solution might not be that straightforward.

Artefacts looted from Baghdad museum after the US-led invasion of 2003. Photo by AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images.

Germany is an international hotspot for trafficking illegal antiquities from places like Syria and Iraq, according to a damning new report.

Released by the German Federal Cultural Foundation in March, the investigation looked at the more than 6,000 antiquities from the Eastern Mediterranean offered for sale in Germany over a three-year period. It found that a mere 2.1 percent had proven legal provenance. The numbers are particularly troubling as the funds from black market antiquities often make their way back to terrorist organizations.

A task force made up of researchers from different German institutions investigated the issue between 2015 and 2018 as part of the ILLICID project, funded in part by the UN and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. During the course of their research, the experts found objects from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Cyprus were on sale despite unverifiable provenance and the absence of legal export documentation. Indeed, more than half (56.3 percent) of the artifacts analyzed could not be authenticated at all.

Speaking to Artnet News about the findings, Dutch art crime investigator Arthur Brand (sometimes called “the art world’s Indiana Jones”) explains that Germany is a particular nexus for the market in illicit antiquities for a number of reasons.

“To begin with it is a very rich country, it has a long tradition of collecting, and it is home to a lot of immigrant groups with good ties to their countries of origin, some of whom are art smugglers,” Brand explains. “Another reason is that Germany has very strict laws for protecting collectors. So it’s very hard to get something out of the hands of German collectors.”

Markus Hilgert, head of the “ILLICID project and general secretary of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, says in a statement that it is “alarming” that almost 40 percent of the archeological cultural goods that were investigated likely came from Iraq and Syria “despite the strict import, export and trade restrictions” imposed on those countries by EU regulations, not to mention other laws that have prohibited the export of archeological assets from those states since 1869.

After examining 2,387 antiquities highly likely to have originated in Iraq and Syria, the new report discovered only 0.4 percent of the objects originating from Iraq and only 9.6 percent of the objects originating from Syria were found to be on the German market legally. “In view of the ongoing, extensive destruction and looting of archeological cultural assets in Iraq and Syria, this is an alarming finding,” Hilgert adds.


The Problem With Provenance

Researchers from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the GESIS Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology all took part in the project. Using publicly available information, they investigated objects being traded on online platforms, in auction catalogues, and at trade fairs. The goal was recommending ways to protect consumers and crack down on crime.

Clear regulations will “strengthen providers as well as buyers, and thus Germany as an art trading location as a whole,” Hilgert says. The report makes a series of recommendations, including the initiation of public awareness campaigns, as well as expanding research and training in provenance research.

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images.

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand. Photo: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images.

But Brand, who has worked on a number of high-profile cases involving illicit antiquities in the past, does not think the matter is that simple.

“Provenance research for antiquities is very hard,” says Brand. “While many artworks will show up on databases like the Art Loss Register as stolen or fake, these are things that have been on the market or in museums for a long, long time. But with antiquities, especially fresh antiquities, you will not find them because these pieces have been in the ground for thousands of years.”

Brand says that even the artifacts that are legal often do not have good provenance. When it comes to antiquities, it is very difficult to determine their correct place of origin because ancient empires spanned modern day borders. Just because an artifact originated in the Roman empire, for example, does not mean it was unearthed in Italy or that it properly belongs in Rome. This is compounded by the sheer number of antiquities on the market, many of which have very vague provenance details that are difficult to verify.

“In the past I have done investigations, but even when you can prove a provenance is fake, often nothing can be done,” the art investigator says. “In the absence of photographs or witnesses or other documents, you can’t prove that it has been looted or where it has come from. In most countries, the police are not very eager, for those reasons, to dig into these stories.”


What Can Be Done?

Among the report’s recommendations is the establishment of a forum for stakeholders in the marketplace for cultural goods to agree on mutual guidelines to protect their clients. But Brand says that the problem of illicit antiquities is often exacerbated by the attitudes of some auction houses. “They know their collectors want it, so they sell it.” 

The investigator adds that there is also a problem with corruption among the authorities charged with fighting illicit trade. There have been instances in which confiscated loot has found its way back onto the black market, so calls for increased monitoring of trade will not necessarily yield the desired results.

That said, Brand acknowledges that improving the resources for provenance research and transparency could be a good first step, and the “ILLICID report offers a number of ideas for how this could be done.

First, it suggests that all trade publications after 1945 should be digitized for wider accessibility, and that any existing documentation about objects offered for sale that demonstrates their legal provenance or export is made public at the time of sale. It also recommends setting up a database of known or allegedly counterfeited cultural goods.

Another resource that it suggests is a “transparency register” that would record all archeological cultural assets that can be legally traded, regardless of whether they are currently on the market. Such a register could function as a certification system for potentially legally tradable goods, modeled after the system that was introduced to crack down on the trade in blood diamonds.

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be implemented in German law, and if so whether the issue will be a priority given all the more urgent events rattling the world right now.

Many collectors buy in good faith and are dedicated to conserving ancient artifacts. Nevertheless, the difficult issues relating to provenance, and the connection of the black market to terrorist financing, is leading many to ask the serious question: should private collectors be allowed to buy antiquities at all?

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