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The “Broken System” That Allows Antiquities Trafficking

March 22, 2018

In Part I, we recapped the details of the Nancy Wiener case so far. Part II offers an overview of the legitimate and illicit art markets, and the difficulty of separating the two when it comes to the sale and purchase of antiquities.

The Nancy Wiener case exposes several of the systemic flaws plaguing the art market when it comes to antiquities trafficking. The constellation of players and networks involved in this case alone illustrates the stunning scope and reach of the illicit antiquities trade, stretching from the artifacts’ countries of origin (often war-torn or post-conflict societies) to the most prestigious institutions of the art world.  

Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.
Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.

The Wiener case demonstrates the extent to which the boundary between the legitimate and illicit art markets can be blurred. Due to the nature of the antiquities trade, the antiquities market is characterized as a “grey market.” As put forward by the researcher Donna Yates, in this context, the grey market refers to the fact that the legitimate market is “empirically a mix of legality and illegality at the demand end of the supply chain.” Put simply, illegality exists in each stage of the antiquities market, from archaeological looting at the source, to cross-border trafficking in transit, to trade at the international marketplace. Illegal points of contact are invariably mixed in with the legal, above-ground trade within auction houses, collectors, and museums.

Sam Hardy compares the lack of regulatory checks and balances in the antiquities trade — even for million-dollar items —  unfavorably to the regulation imposed on low-cost commodities such as eggs. While eggs might be subject to strict supply-chain transparency standards, the antiquities market provides little public information about the source of its holdings. The environment of secrecy allows for buyers and sellers to close one eye and proceed with their business. According to Hardy, if people do not ask the right questions or keep records, anyone in the chain can say, “I had no reason to believe that this was looted.”

As Simon Mackenzie points out, there are numerous challenges to accurately estimating the scope of the illicit antiquities trade. However, the Wiener investigation provides an illuminating snapshot of its massive profitability. Wiener acquired a stolen bronze statue originating from Thailand or Cambodia depicting Buddha seated on a throne of Naga (a great cobra) for $500,000. Following restoration, the Naga Buddha statue was displayed at Wiener’s gallery, offered at  $1,500,000 — three times the price she paid for it. In another instance, Wiener bought a statue of a Baphuon Shiva from a supplier for $250,000 before consigning it to Sotheby’s, where it sold for $578,000 — again, more than twice the price she paid.

These numbers indicate another thread in the narrative of antiquities trafficking that is growing in significance: laundering. Looted antiquities often “start dirty but end clean” through the laundering process. To illustrate  Yates’ definition of the antiquities grey market, an artifact might be illegally excavated at an archaeological site before being sold to an in-country middle man, who physically moves the artifact away from its illicit origins, and  provides import/export paperwork supporting the impression of legitimacy. The artifact then passes into the market through the hands of dealers like Wiener, who give the artifact false provenance through straw purchases at auctions, false documentation in art volumes, or restoration to hide any physical signs of looting.

Returning to the example of the Naga Buddha statue, Wiener allegedly conspired with Douglas Latchford and Emma Bunker, then-recognised experts in Southeast Asian antiquities, to hide the statue’s illegal origins by falsifying its ownership history. Bunker wrote a provenance letter claiming to have seen the Naga Buddha statue in Latchford’s London flat in the early 1970s, leveraging her position as a trusted voice in the field. This example highlights the regulatory shortcomings of a market reliant on someone’s good name as the basis for verification – without doing any additional due diligence. 

Thus, it is critical to keep in mind the basic principle of “Buyer Beware” when purchasing any antiquity. Especially with the prevalence of online sales platforms and limited policing, collectors could end up buying looted antiquities, unaware of their illicit origins.

As detailed in the complaint, Wiener had utilized several criminal networks to obtain and smuggle the cultural artifacts into the United States before consigning them to major auction houses or selling them to museums and private collections. Thus, in considering the factors that allowed Wiener to successfully conduct business for so many years in the antiquities grey market, one cannot avoid the question of institutional failure on the part of these auction houses and museums, which will be explored in further detail in the next blog post.

Read Part III here.

This is a guest post by our intern Nicole Ong. Nicole is currently a student at Georgetown University, earning a degree in International Relations. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email