The thorough investigative work of the Carabinieri and the Italian prosecutorial authorities has revealed all too clearly the links that sometime exist between museums and the trade in illicit antiquities. For too long, many museums have been enthusiastic acquirers of smuggled and stolen antiquities, and as such have set an example that private collectors have emulated. It is no exaggeration to say that museums have underpinned demand. But in this paper I want to look at another cultural institution, one that facilitates the trade in stolen antiquities, but one that until now has generally avoided censure. I am talking about universities, or at least about university-based academics. Not all academics, by any means, but the small number of academics who collaborate with collectors and dealers in such a way as to facilitate the trade. There are at least three ways in which this might happen: academic participation in price formation by object identification; academic promotion of market confidence by object authentication; and academic obstruction of criminal investigation by provenance denial. I will consider each of these activities in turn, before going on to discuss them further in the context of some material case studies.
Academics are repositories of expert knowledge, and their expertise is often indispensable when it comes to identifying and describing unprovenanced antiquities. Object identification is important for the trade because it establishes such things as rarity and historical or artistic importance. To a large extent, rarity and importance determine price, and so, in effect, identification determines price. This monetary consequence is probably enhanced when identification is accomplished in association with the scholarly monograph or the lavish exhibition catalogue, which then become distinguished entries on object provenances. An efficient market cannot exist without a mechanism of value assignment and price formation, and identifications and scholarly descriptions made by academics fulfill this role.
The authentication of an object promotes customer confidence. The ultimate guarantor of object authenticity is a properly excavated and well-documented archaeological context. The overwhelming majority of antiquities appearing on the market, however, have no such context, and so the antiquities market offers an ideal environment for the reception and incorporation of forgeries. The antiquities market is believed to be badly infiltrated by forgeries, and this belief has a direct and negative impact on profitability as customers are alienated by the fear of being duped. Again, academic expertise is invaluable. An assurance of authenticity from an accredited academic is generally considered more trustworthy and more reliable than one from a dealer who is trying to sell the piece.
Most often, antiquities offered for sale on the market are “unprovenanced”, in that they are not accompanied by any details of findspot or ownership history. “Unprovenanced”, however, really means “no public provenance”, as, clearly, every antiquity does have a provenance, though it is often an illegal one that is deliberately kept secret. Academics might choose not to enquire too closely about the provenance of an object under study, so as to avoid any legal or ethical entanglements that knowledge of illegal provenance might entail. Worse perhaps, they might investigate provenance for the benefit of their research, but not disclose what they learn. By keeping their knowledge or even suspicions secret, and not notifying law enforcement authorities, they impede criminal investigation and passively condone the illicit trade. There appears to be no understanding within the academic community that it is a civic duty to report suspicion or knowledge of a crime to a law enforcement authority. Academic privilege seems to encourage a belief that academic practice is immune from the mundane or even profane concerns of normal society. This belief is a mistaken one.
Academics are involved with all kinds of antiquities trade, but their involvement seems particularly prominent in the case of ancient manuscripts or other written materials, probably because of the exotic language requirements. Thus the case studies I will use to illustrate academic facilitation of the antiquities trade all involve written materials: inscribed Biblical objects from Israel; the Gospel of Judas from Egypt; and cuneiform tablets and cylinders seals from Iraq.
Inscribed Biblical artifacts
Over the past thirty years, several unprovenanced inscribed artifacts of great historical importance have appeared on the market in Israel. Foremost among them are an inscribed ivory pomegranate and the James Ossuary (Burleigh 2008; Gatehouse 2005; Shanks 2005). The Israel Antiquities Authority actually believes these pieces to be fake, though expert opinions are divided, but I want here to focus on the actions of academic André Lemaire of the University of Paris who identified them both. Lemaire believes them to be genuine.
The ivory pomegranate is said to be the only surviving artifact from the First Temple of Solomon, carrying the inscription “Holy to the priests, belonging to the T[emple of Yahwe]h”. Lemaire discovered the pomegranate in an antiquities dealer’s shop in Jerusalem in 1979, when he recognized the possible significance of its inscription. The pomegranate was sold soon after Lemaire had seen it for something like $3000. Lemaire published his identification in 1981 in a French academic journal, but in 1983 offered a more accessible account in the popular Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). By then, the pomegranate had been smuggled out of Israel and was in the hands of a French private collector. In 1987, an anonymous donor allowed the Israel Museum to buy it back from the collector for $550,000. This prodigious increase in price over a period of seven or eight years and the collector’s equally prodigious profit from transacting a smuggled artifact were entirely due to Lemaire’s assessment of the pomegranate as a genuine piece of Biblical history.
The James Ossuary is a limestone ossuary from the 1st century BC bearing the Aramaic inscription “James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus”. Lemaire first inspected the Ossuary in May 2002 when it was in the hands of an Israeli antiquities dealer. He recognized the possible historical significance of the inscription, and announced the Ossuary as an authentic artifact in an “exclusive” article in the November/December 2002 issue of the BAR. The BAR’s editor, Hershel Shanks, realised its commercial potential. In October 2002, Shanks joined with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in arranging an exhibition of the Ossuary, which lasted for six weeks from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003, and attracted 95,000 visitors. The ROM announced it had made a $270,000 profit, of which $28,000 went to Shanks. Shanks also published a book about the Ossuary and sold the television rights. A television documentary programme was screened on Easter Sunday 2003 in USA and altogether shown in 80 countries. It was released on DVD in 2004. Again, these commercial projects were enabled by Lemaire’s work.
The Gospel of Judas
The Gospel of Judas is a third or fourth century AD Coptic translation on papyrus of an original Greek text composed in the second century AD (Krosney 2006; Brodie 2006). The manuscript was taken out of Egypt as part of a papyrus codex without the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities sometime around 1981, and remained on the market until April 2000, when the Swiss dealer Frieda Tchacos bought it for $300,000. At the time of her purchase, the Coptic text had still not been translated, and so neither Tchacos nor the vendor was aware of its importance. She left it with Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for identification and authentication. By August 2000, the Beinecke had identified it as the Gospel of Judas. After some commercial interchange with another dealer, Bruce Ferrini, in 2001, Tchacos sold the Gospel to the Maecenas Foundation of Switzerland for $1.5 million and half of any proceeds that might accrue from commercial exploitation. Maecenas subsequently sold the publication rights to National Geographic. Full details of the financial arrangement have not been made public, though it is reported that Maecenas received at least $1 million and royalties from any future book sales. Already, like the James Ossuary, there have been commercial products. The National Geographic website lists a DVD of a National Geographic Channel TV special, three books, and an issue of National Geographic magazine. Amazon lists at least three more books.
Between 1981 and 2000, when it arrived at the Beinecke, the still unrecognized Gospel of Judas was seen by something like six academics, and by more again after its identification but before it was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation. Most of these academics seem to have suspected that the papyrus had been taken out of Egypt illegally. The Beinecke, for example, declined the opportunity to acquire it because there “were questions about its history and ownership” (Krosney 2006: 177). But no one appears to have communicated their suspicions to either the Egyptian authorities or an appropriate law enforcement agency. The Maecenas Foundation has now arranged that in due course the Gospel will be returned to Egypt, which on the face of it is a positive outcome, but neither Maecenas nor the National Geographic have commented on what money if any will be made available to Egypt to pay for the Gospel’s long term curation, or what commercial rights will accrue to Egypt with its return. There is a danger here that both organisations will draw profit from an illegally-traded artifact to the material detriment of the Egyptian state. If that happens, the Beinecke must bear part of the blame for failing to notify an appropriate authority while the Gospel was in its possession.
Finally, I want to look at the activities of Wilfrid Lambert. Lambert is Emeritus Professor of Assyriology at Birmingham University in England, and a Fellow of the British Academy (Brodie 2009; Farchakh Bajjaly 2008). He identifies and authenticates cylinder seals from Iraq for the trade, and translates cuneiform tablets. In September 2008, I counted 142 unprovenanced cylinder seals for sale on the Internet, of which 32 had been described by Lambert. I also counted 332 unprovenanced cuneiform tablets, of which 211 had been translated by Lambert. Given the large scale looting of archaeological sites in Iraq over the past twenty years, there is every reason to believe that “unprovenanced” Iraqi pieces are looted pieces, unless there is definite evidence to prove otherwise. If, as it appears, Lambert is responsible for identifying and authenticating about 50% of the pieces appearing on the market, he must be exerting a significant positive effect on its profitability, and thus on its persistence.
The market involvements of university academics seem to be motivated by differing amalgams of public service and self interest. The staff of the Beinecke clearly thought they were acting in the public service when they identified the Gospel of Judas, and it wasn’t their fault perhaps that Tchacos went on to profit from their identification in the way that she did. They do not seem to have profited themselves either professionally or monetarily. Their failure to notify law enforcement might be explained away as a regrettable though not unusual shortcoming of academic practice. Lemaire’s position is not so clear cut. He does not seem to have made much money out of his identifications, despite their commercial outcomes, though by securing publication rights he has drawn academic credit for his work, which might be construed as contributing towards his professional and ultimately personal advancement. Lambert’s actions, however, seem largely self-centered. He must be benefiting from offering what is in effect a commercial identification and authentication service, if only by receiving preferential access to potentially important scholarly material, which would further enhance his scholarly reputation.
The individual cases discussed in this paper are illustrative of a broader phenomenon. Many academics identify and authenticate material of unknown provenance because they believe that in so doing they are rescuing knowledge for the public benefit. Of course, fortuitously perhaps, when identification and authentication are combined with academic publication, their argument aligns the public benefit with their own professional advantage. I am not sure if any of these academics are doing anything illegal, absence of provenance is not the same thing as illicit provenance, and suspicion is not knowledge. But if academics are routinely involved with dealers who are acquiring and selling stolen material, is seems possible that they could be charged with criminal conspiracy. They should be aware, too, of the United Nations 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which is aimed a small groups of people (three or more) collaborating over a period of time to commit serious transnational crimes that directly or indirectly have a financial or other material benefit. Yet academics seem unconcerned that they might be supporting an illegal enterprise, and perhaps even putting themselves in danger of criminal prosecution. In June 2009, for example, University College London launched a new “Cultural Property Policy”, which among other things is intended to advise staff of the risks involved when working with cultural property. It alerts staff and students to the “reputational risk” of working with cultural property, but has nothing to say about the risk of criminal involvement. Presumably those responsible for the report were unaware of the risk themselves. Universities and their employees seem poorly informed in general about this possibility, and ways should be found of raising their awareness of the nature and imminence of the dangers involved.
There is one simple reason for the persistence of the illicit antiquities trade – people make good money from it. The large sums of money generated by the James Ossuary and the Gospel of Judas are unusual, but dangerous nevertheless. At source, they can encourage destructive digging for similar, if elusive or even illusory ‘treasures’. But although the Ossuary and the Gospel are extreme examples, they illustrate how even innocent academic interventions can generate large profits for the “gray” antiquities market. The same mechanisms are in play for less significant artifacts, and even though the profits generated are much smaller, on aggregate, they can still be enough to make the trade worthwhile. In 2008, for example, on the international market, cuneiform tablets were selling for something in the region of $500 each, while it was reliably reported in 2003 that at source looters were being paid $50 for a cuneiform tablet. It remains to be determined how much the identifications and authentications of Lambert and his like minded colleagues contributed to the erstwhile $450 mark-up per tablet, but it seems certain that if their support was withdrawn, profitability would decline and the market would contract. Academics are not innocent bystanders of the trade; intentionally or unintentionally, scholarly work has profound commercial consequences.
2009: Brodie, N., “The market in Iraqi antiquities 1980-2008”, in Manacorda, S. (ed.), Organised Crime in Art and Antiquities, International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations, Milan, 63-74.
2009: University College London, “Cultural Property Policy”, University College London, London.
2008: Burleigh, N., Unholy Business. A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land, HarperCollins, New York, NY.
2008: Farchakh Bajjaly, J., “Will Mesopotamia survive the war? The continuous destruction of Iraq’s archaeological sites”, in Stone, P.G. and Farchakh Bajjaly, J. (eds), The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Woodbridge, Boydell.
2006: Brodie, N., “The lost, found, lost again and found again Gospel of Judas”, Culture Without Context no. 19, 17-27.
2006: Krosney, H., The Lost Gospel, National Geographic, Washington DC.
2005: Gatehouse, J., “Cashbox”, Maclean’s, March 28, 26-36
2005: Shanks, H., “Update. Finds or Fakes?”, Biblical Archaeology Review 31(2): 58-69.