Where’s the corporate responsibility for blood antiquities?

Alabaster ‘Eye Idols’, Eye Temple (Tell Brak), 3200 BC, 4 x 2.6 x 0.5 cm. © Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, Damascus. Courtesy of ICOM Red List

Annis Turner, an independent expert specialising in the trafficking of cultural objects with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia, who has formerly worked at the Art Loss Register

A combination of political pressure, supply chain transparency regulations and consumer demand has caused an explosion of ethical supply chain initiatives over the last 15 years for everything from palm oil and coffee, gold and diamonds to cotton, clothing and shoes.  Until very recently the antiquities market has been largely left out of these discussions. With recent accounts hitting the headlines of the systemised looting of archaeological sites and museums throughout Iraq and Syria, and the threat of the looted artifacts appearing on the art market, people are slowly starting to take notice. Then why is there still a visible lack of pressure on collectors, dealers and auction houses within this market to prove that the acquisition and sale of their antiquities is responsible as we expect for almost everything else?

Looting antiquities and the limitations of existing counter-measures

The current antiquities trade is a murky business consisting of the movement of licitly and illicitly obtained objects. The conflict in Syria and Iraq has, quite rightly, earned a lot of political and media attention recently. However, the issue is not unique to these two countries. Not only are lootings concurrently taking place during the internal conflicts of Yemen, Mali, Libya and Afghanistan, but the pillaging of cultural heritage has been occurring worldwide for centuries. In the past fifty years alone, items have been looted from Egypt, Greece, Peru, India, Ethiopia and Cambodia, to name just a few. Beyond thousands of years’ worth of history being lost, citizens are also being deprived of their cultural heritage, and in the case of past and current conflicts, the money earned from this destruction enables terrorist organisations to continue their campaigns of murder, kidnappings and terror.

Despite a multitude of international treaties aimed at stopping the looting and trade of cultural objects, illicit antiquities are still emerging on the art market with few signs of this flow being stemmed. There have been various reports by archaeologists of recently acquired small, portable objects originating from Syria and Iraq ending up in London antique dealerships. The dealers claim they originate from Jordan or India, while the archaeologists say otherwise. And a simple search for “cylinder seals” (small engraved cylinders used in ancient times in the Near East) on eBay results in 5 items with origins from modern day Syria or Iraq. It is not certain that they have been looted, just that their provenance is unknown. How would any buyer know whether their acquisition was legal or whether its sale benefited ISIL and helped fund their war? eBay and other sites should do the due diligence needed to let us know.

The existing approach of relying only on government enforcement by way of international treaties and import controls is failing. Without improvements to border controls, customs enforcement capacity and the implementation of existing legislation, the effect of these treaties will remain moral rather than material. It is time that the antiquities trade shifted towards a more complementary approach that has been emerging in the last fifteen years calling on the private sector to check their supply chains and publicly report on their ethics.

Corporate responsibilities – International standards for responsible business already apply to the antiquities market

International, government-backed standards adopted by the UN as well as the OECD already outline a clear responsibility for companies in all sectors of the economy to undertake due diligence in their supply chains, in order to prevent human rights, labour and environmental impacts, as well as bribery, illicit trade and a multitude of other issues. The OECD even has detailed due diligence provisions for corporate supply chains on minerals and precious metals from conflict areas ensuring companies procure their supplies responsibly and avoid contributing to conflict and human rights abuses. Yet, despite the significant pressure on electronics companies and jewelers to address the issue of blood diamonds or conflict minerals in their global supply chains, the escalating lootings of antiquities has so far seen minimal pressure on the companies in the antiquities market to check theirs.

A patchwork of private sector responses and tools to address these issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade has emerged over the last 20 years. The Art Loss Register together with Interpol provide databases of lost and stolen art. Searching these databases is often one of the sole measures of due diligence that dealers and auction houses undertake to prove an object has been lawfully obtained. Yet all this means is that the object was never registered on the database as lost or stolen. What about all the objects that haven’t been, or simply could never be, registered? If an object has been pillaged from an archaeological site in Syria or hacked off a temple in Cambodia, there will have been no opportunity for it to be documented and listed. In spite of the successes in thwarting art theft, a database search is, quite frankly not sufficient for antiquities.

A significant concern of the illicit antiquities trade is the multifaceted movement of the objects. The global supply chains of antiquities are very complex structures where it is normal for objects to move between 3 or 4 countries before finding a final destination. The transport and warehousing of art, auction houses and dealers are all part of this chain. They claim that information on the chain of custody, export certificates and documents declaring legal title of objects are often non-existent, and even when they are, they are likely to be forged. However, the concept of due diligence is not simply about ticking documents off a list, but about understanding risk – in this case the risk of obtaining looted objects – and applying more scrutiny to inspect and understand the likelihood of this risk associated with an object or supplier.  The International Council of Museums (ICOM) publishes “Red Lists” that offer detailed descriptions of objects from countries that may be or have been at risk of looting, so that art market professionals, museums, and customs and law enforcement officials can better identify endangered antiquities and archaeological material. Whether the art market actually uses this resource is unknown, since there there is zero transparency and zero due diligence reporting on such matters.

Under international standards set by the UN and OECD, all entities in the antiquities supply chain have their own responsibility to look at the chain and ensure responsible sources. Companies should observe international standards of due diligence, using resources like the ICOM Red Lists to detect and prevent buying looted objects. They should then report on their due diligence efforts, outlining at risk transactions and describing the enhanced measures taken to assure the provenance is legitimate, or in cases where objects were not accepted, report any suspicious transactions. This should then be made available to the public assuring them of the market’s responsible practices in turn diminishing the adopted secrecy surrounding the antiquities trade.

Accountability for offenders?

Dealers associations and auction houses often have their own code of ethics to prevent the sale of illicitly obtained objects. However, there is no public reporting on how the codes are implemented or enforced and with illicit material still appearing on the market, it is clear they are either ineffective or not always followed. If a stakeholder needs to raise an issue about an abuse of ethics, or if an object is suspected of having been looted, there are currently no public mechanisms available other than to report such issues to law enforcement agencies. Once reported however, it is very rare to bring a successful legal case unless there are clear, demonstrated links to money laundering, terrorist financing or tax evasion. And with regards to the repatriation of looted objects to their countries of origin, these are few and far between. At a UNESCO conference in March on the movement of cultural property, Qahtan Al Abeed, the director of the Basra Museum stated that Iraq is still waiting for the return of over one thousand looted objects from Europe and the US.

An integral part of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises is that they oblige countries to set up a grievance mechanism – the so-called “National Contact Points” (NCPs) – to help resolve complaints received from any interested party about specific instances of alleged non-observance by enterprises. The NCP’s could provide a unique mechanism to hold the art market to account for the acquisition practices and the human rights abuses and other impacts arising from the illicit trade in antiquities. They could even provide a platform to assist in repatriation cases. All this would shed a new light on the supply chain, forcing the art market to be more transparent and thereby act with an increased level of responsibility. This is a necessary measure in an industry where there is absolutely no public reporting on sourcing practices by the overwhelming majority of companies in the antiquities supply chain, which in turn, allows the antiquities market to remain opaque.

It is time this changed, once and for all. The antiquities trade should adhere to international standards on supply chain responsibility and take proactive measures to set up an industry-wide program to certify and publish their due diligence and acquisition practices. Only when there is no place for illicit objects on the antiquities market will there be any hope of the prevention of future lootings.

Useful links

10th Forum on responsible mineral supply chains, 10-12 May 2016, OECD,Paris

4th Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct 8-9 June, OECD, Paris

Articles on due diligence on OECD Insights

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