How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

Beatrice KellyCommentary, Report9 Comments

Say Yes to Egypt's Heritage. Our Heritage

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses


Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4

Bones left behind as looters uncover graves

abu sir el malaq 3

A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters

abu sir el malaq 2

Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq

abu sir el malaq 1

The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes


There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong – looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

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Beatrice Kelly is a summer intern for SAFE. She is currently studying History of Art with Archaeology at University College London where she also volunteers at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide. Kelly's research interests include cultural heritage loss (and the prevention thereof), the protection of heritage during times of conflict, and the legal issues surrounding restitution and repatriation.

9 Comments on “How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?”

  1. Larry Rothfield

    Excellent post. I would only add that there are at least two additional reasons why we are not seeing increases in the number of Syrian and Egyptian items offered at auction. First, it is extremely likely that pieces which might raise red flags at auction are being sold direct to collectors by dealers, so they will not show up in any auction records (a reason why it is crucial moving forward to change the law so that all purchases by American citizens – and by citizens in other countries of course as well if that could be achieved — of antiquities above a certain dollar threshold need to be registered). Second, it is extremely likely that much of the material from the Middle East is being sold regionally to the many millionaires in the region who are drawn to collecting what they understand to be their own cultural patrimony.

    1. Beatrice Kelly

      These are very interesting points, thank you for your comment! There is a definite need for transparency within all parts of the art and antiquities market, and it’s easy to talk about auction houses because they graciously make much of their information available online and in libraries! Hopefully we’ll see more transparency in the future.

  2. James McAndrew

    Larry Rothfield is right on point. In addition, I will suggest that Ms. Kelly and others taking an academic approach to look beyond the “auction houses” as the benchmark. They are easy targets, sometimes unfairly, since private sales, regional distribution, and lack of source country efforts to identify, “register”, and even protect their cultural heritage is as much a problem. When one considers the link from looter to “auction house”, the auction house is at the far end of the spectrum. Alienation, like bullying, doesn’t correct anything. Wonderful organization such as SAFE, cultural property bloggers, and others, could better expose the problem of theft and looting by equally exposing the mistakes and missed opportunities by those responsible for museum and archaeological site protection. The civil unrest in Egypt and Syria didn’t happen over night!

    1. Beatrice Kelly

      This is a great point! There is a definite need for a comprehensive project researching the entire spectrum of looting, and Trafficking Culture is doing a great job of starting. It is far too easy to pick on auction houses, but I do feel that they are incredibly privileged institutions that should be doing every last bit they can to ensure they aren’t selling looted artifacts. I think that a long-term strategy for dealing with looting must deal with the source countries, but it would be great to know that the other end of the spectrum is airtight.

  3. Damien

    Larry raises a good point regarding how much of the illicit trade (private, galleries, and auction houses) is now being fueled by the upper class, and rising middle class, within the country or region of origin of these antiquities? It’s not just the Middle East for which one can ask these questions. This is a new and important angle of research all around the world.

  4. Keith Amery

    Many Egyptian antiquities at auction have good provenance, Just because the author doesn’t have access to the requisite dealer/auction catalogues does not make them suspect. This is a typical knee-jerk reaction and an ill-informed article by someone without the requisite resources or know-how to adequately comment. The fact that prices for Egyptian art are increasing ever skywards (witness the Isis statue recently sold by Christie’s only goes to show that antiquities with good provenance are becoming increasingly rare on the market, whilst the number of collectors (and let’s not forget acquisitive museums) continues to grow. I have in mind one work from a collection sold at Parke-Bernet in 1937 and currently being offered for sale by a licit antiquities dealer in Paris. What the ‘Arab Spring’ has taught us, if anything, is that looting and destruction of archaeological sites is driven mainly by the iconoclastic frenzy of Islamist groups, witness the building of a Muslim cemetery on the Middle Kingdom pyramid site of Dahshur, rather than feeding an illicit market in antiquities. Ultimately, if there are no records of sites/museums, source countries only have themselves to blame for abolishing the system of partage that served both source and market countries in being able to share information when it come’s to protecting cultural heritage sites.

    1. Beatrice Kelly

      Thank you for your comment! I agree that there are many Egyptian antiquities with good provenance, as I saw when I went through the last four years of antiquities auction catalogues. I wanted to take some time to reflect on why it is that we don’t expect every single antiquity auctioned to have adequate provenance, because there still remain quite a few with questionable provenance.

      I would definitely be interested in seeing some research into how a growing number of collectors may be impacting the market. Increased demand may certainly be driving prices higher, but I think that it might be too optimistic to say that it is not also driving looting.

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