In new crackdown, antiquities authorities tighten noose around dealers, thieves
Regulatory agency mandates digital database, ‘closing the loopholes’ to prevent stolen artifacts reaching the Israeli market
The Arab villager wearing an Acadia National Park T-shirt is determined, pushing forward one last time and interrupting chitchat over coffee in a Jerusalem basement to try to sell a Byzantine coin and some newfound seals. The dealer isn’t interested, and says so firmly once again.
No amount of pleading will get him to buy.
The antiquities thief finally gives up and leaves, stepping out into the April air.
“It would be better for him to find a new means of livelihood,” the antiquities dealer tells this reporter.
The thief is likely not alone. A new requirement by the Israel Antiquities Authority requiring the country’s licensed antiquities dealers to register their artifacts in a digital database is aiming to shut down the blight of antiquities theft in Israel.
The requirement was introduced on March 28, following a last, desperate failed appeal by dealers to the High Court of Justice to halt the regulation.
As one antiquities dealer told The Times of Israel, the goal is to “close all the loopholes” through which some licensed dealers have interacted with Israel’s “very dark gray” antiquities market. Some dealers will drop out of the business as a result, he speculated.
The IAA attempted to introduce the system, called Antique-net, four years ago, but a handful of antiquities dealers sued, putting its implementation on hold. Now it is legally binding, and dealers must photograph, register and detail all items in their storerooms and upload them to the IAA’s network. All purchases and sales have to be placed through the registry for approval by the IAA; once cleared, an object is digitally transferred from a dealer’s inventory to the buyer’s.
This means it will become significantly harder for black market antiquities to make their way to a licensed dealer’s shop.
“Many of the artifacts for sale in the legal market have falsified records of ownership and archaeological findspot [where the object was discovered],” Morag Kersel of DePaul University explained in a 2011 article. “Looters illegally excavated items, which enter well-organized networks of trade allowing them to be laundered along the way, only to be sold to unsuspecting tourists and collectors with a clean bill of sale in a state-sanctioned shop.”
In theory, licensed dealers will now only be able to acquire items from other registered dealers, from abroad, or from a seller in Israel who clears the sale through the IAA. Dealers who don’t comply and register will be stripped of their licenses.
Israel first moved to halt illegal excavation and trade in antiquities in 1978, before which the antiquities trade was virtually unregulated. Archaeologists and thieves alike could dig up and sell ancient objects — such as the first manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls — with little legal oversight. With the 1978 Antiquities Law, all newly discovered artifacts more than 1,700 years old automatically became state property, and anything on the market before that year was legal for licensed dealers to sell.
In their failed court battle, the appellants contended that the new protocols were “another battle in the war aiming to eliminate the dealing in antiquities” and were “more stringent than those imposed upon dealers in arms, pharmaceuticals or dangerous substances,” according to a report in the economic daily Calcalist.
But the High Court of Justice was unmoved. It ruled against the appeal at the end of December 2015, and ordered that Antique-net’s regulations go into force on March 28.
Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s Robbery Prevention Division, said that as of the end of 2015 there were 57 licensed antiquities dealers who had uploaded their inventories to the system. Another 15 have started since the beginning of 2016. Several others have refused.
“I don’t think they’ll stop their operations, but we’ll work to carry out enforcement operations against them,” Ganor said firmly.
“We assume that over time the stocks of antiquities in the hands of dealers will dwindle,” he said, and with avenues for illegal artifact purchases blocked, theft should decrease, in theory, as well.
Other countries, Germany for one, are interested in adopting a system similar to the IAA’s as part of a broader international effort to quash illegal antiquities sales, Eitan Klein, Ganor’s deputy, said over the phone.
Give us more time
In Jerusalem’s Old City, a stretch of the Via Dolorosa is home to several Palestinian-run antiquities shops. The new regulations were met with mixed responses. One shopkeeper refused to discuss the matter. Another complained that since his store hadn’t yet been able to comply with the court order to computerize its inventory, sales were frozen and he was losing money.
Rami Baidun, a second-generation dealer in the Old City, however, said the digital database was a win-win situation for the dealers and antiquities authority, if “untraditional” in its approach and difficult for some old-timers in the business.
“It is definitely a good method of making the control of the antiquities business more efficient,” he argued. “As an antiquities dealer,” he said, leaning against a white marble leg of a Classical athlete he bought on auction in Europe, “I think it’s currently inconvenient and uncomfortable, but in the longer term its results, its consequences are supposed to be better for both.”
At the same time, Baidun said the IAA should have given dealers more than three months to change over to the new system. “They should have been more flexible,” he said. Three months wasn’t enough for many people to catalog and upload their inventories.
“But I think at some point everyone will do it,” he said.
The international black market for antiquities has drawn worldwide attention in recent years, in part because the Islamic State finances some of its operations by selling plundered artifacts from Iraq and Syria.
Ganor asserted that the antiquities black market is the third-most profitable, after drugs and guns — an oft-repeated claim that is hard to assess. According to Interpol, “it is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics.”
Antiquities theft experts say it’s virtually impossible to put a figure on the value of the legal antiquities market, let alone the illegal one.
A broader crackdown
The antiquities registry is part of a broader campaign by the IAA’s antiquities theft prevention unit to crack down on the black market and thwart looting of ancient sites.
In March, the IAA called on Israelis to volunteer a few hours a month to help protect Israel’s 30,000 archaeological sites from looters and vandals. In the month and a half since the initiative was made public, over 180 people have registered, Ganor said.
“We recognize that among the general public there are people who can help the operations of the IAA in protecting and preserving the country’s antiquities,” he said in his office at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.
‘Pretty much every other hill out there is an archaeological site’
“It’s no secret that there aren’t a lot of employees in the IAA,” he said. In all there are around 700 staffers nationwide to protect the country’s thousands of ancient sites. “Pretty much every other hill out there is an archaeological site.”
Ganor described his outfit as similar to a military unit, with boots-on-the-ground enforcers who track and arrest antiquities robbers in the act, high-tech equipment, — such as drones (he was reluctant to elaborate on what means were at the IAA’s disposal) — to monitor sites, and informants and undercover operatives.
For the time being, Ganor said the IAA is still trying to figure out what to do with the new volunteer recruits.
“If we can manage to harness the public to be our eyes in the field, we could better protect antiquities sites.”
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