Despite the European Commission’s own report acknowledging that no evidence exists to show terrorist-related smuggling of cultural property within the European Union, it is pressing ahead with stringent new rules to tackle the issue
COMMENT: Following on from my last blog, the European Commission’s 199-page Deloitte report into tackling cultural property trafficking now confirms that there is no evidence at all that terrorism-related material is entering the EU.
It is even helpful enough to publish a bar chart showing this, which I reproduce above.
So where does that leave us?
To recap, the EC set about investigating this issue at the beginning of 2016, because it identified trade in cultural goods as a primary source of revenue for terrorists. It concluded that a common policy approach was the way to deal with this threat, but the first thing it wanted to do was to identify how big a threat this was within the EU.
More than a year later, and after extensive research, consultation and analysis, it has concluded that the evidence is “lacking”, or rather is non-existent.
So, does it also conclude that all the existing adopted measures – the Hague Convention, UNESCO Convention, emergency regulations covering Syria and Iraq and multiplicity of other legislation – are working in preventing crime in this way?
Apparently not; instead, it seems to conclude that the absolute lack of evidence points to the system not working, and so, of course, stringent new measures are needed. However, when you add in all the other initiatives undertaken to trace looted and trafficked material within the European Union – Operation Pandora among them – and the fact that nothing has ever been found, you have to start asking if the authorities will ever accept that maybe the problem lies elsewhere.
It is a little like the medieval trial by water for witches: if they sank and drowned, it showed that they were innocent, but if they escaped and floated to the surface they were guilty, and so burned at the stake. Either way, they were doomed. It’s the same for the art market: lack of evidence of wrongdoing is never taken as a sign of innocence and compliance, just as proof that scrutiny is not good enough and the rules need tightening.
It’s another case of flipping a coin on the basis of ‘Heads, I win; Tails, you lose’.
To show that this is, indeed, the thinking, take the following statement on page 127 of the Deloitte report: “Considering the qualitative and limited reliable quantitative data available, the relatively low level of seizures could indicate the weaknesses of the current import controls system, particularly with regard to the effectiveness of the measures in place.”
In other words, if they had found significant of evidence, it would have justified new measures, and the fact that they haven’t found anything means that the system must be at fault and so needs updating.
The options under consideration
Various proposals are under consideration in the report: declarations by importers/exporters of cultural objects accompanied by Object ID passports, import licences and exports certificates. All of this would be tied into some overarching international database, require a huge budget, enforced cross-border co-operation and access to often technologically incompatible national databases (good luck with that). That’s before you get each member state to upgrade the training and expertise of customs officials.
Is it really credible to make such an enormous commitment of resources, time and money to tackle a problem that your own detailed research shows doesn’t really exist?
Nonetheless the report continues to insist that the scale of the problem is huge, relying on dodgy stats, such as the utterly unsubstantiated April 2016 claim by the Russian ambassador to the UN that ISIS was making up to $200 million a year from looted antiquities – a claim completely at odds with reports from the World Customs Organisation, Europol, Interpol and other specialists in studying this area of crime.
Slightly more reassuring is what the report states on page 134: “Addressing the illicit trafficking in cultural goods cannot take place without engaging stakeholders in the art market and society at large, taking away ignorance or un-willingness to operate on the basis of agreed Codes of Ethics (UNESCO International Code of Ethics for Art Dealers).”
Well that’s great, but to engage with people, you need to relate to them properly, not ask them for evidence and then ignore it. What is being talked about here is not engagement but the handing down of orders in a dictatorial manner. There is ignorance, and even wilful ignorance here; however, it is not on the part of the trade, but those who refuse to accept the evidence that they have spent years collecting at great cost because it does not suit their agenda.
Where the report gets most interesting is in its analysis of the effectiveness of the options it proposes.
It recognises that certification could be difficult, for instance: “Especially in conflict areas, there is not always an authority available to issue a certificate; Especially in conflict areas, the third country authorities could be affected by negative influences, essentially resulting in the untrustworthiness of the certification.”
Certification also requires a pre-existing administrative cooperation agreement between the EU and the third country, which may not be in place.
On page 158, the report does at least acknowledge that its proposals might make life difficult for legitimate business interests: “Finding the balance between the interests of traders and the interests of the authorities to combat trafficking in cultural goods is difficult, particularly with regard to this topic. Imposing a too heavy burden on traders could result in the impediment of licit trade, potentially even enhancing the trafficking in cultural goods.”
But then it spoils it by adding: “Nonetheless, considering the current state of play, the authorities are not adequately covered by a legal framework safeguarding the respect for currently existing rules and to effectively act against the trafficking in cultural goods.”
An odd way to address the current state of play
The “current state of play”. The report has just admitted that the current state of play is that there is no evidence of a problem. If that is the case, then the balance is pretty easy to find: stick with existing measures because they seem to be working.
Import declarations fare little better in the report’s analysis (although they are what it finally goes on to favour). On page 164, it declares: “The system will rely on the importer’s good faith. Moreover the information about the good that the importer will have at his/her disposal will come from the exporter to a large extent. The identification could still result in false information on the good. The importer would however bear the responsibility for such false statements. This declaration will create a burden on all EU importers who want to import goods that potentially fit in the definition of the cultural goods.”
So perhaps the answer is the fourth option, licensing. Apparently not, as the report argues on page 166: “Time necessary for receiving the license would slow down trade of antiquities and other artefacts… The cost for EU authorities to set up and operate such a system would be quite significant and the delays for imports could turn out to be prohibitive. The cost will be disproportionate for the authorities and for the market. It would also increase the price of the goods.”
It also recognises the drawback that “many third countries do not provide for such certification [which] would effectively mean that all imports of cultural goods from these countries would be blocked”. (page 167)
And where countries do provide for such export certification, but no arrangements for administrative co-operation exist between them and the EU, which would allow verification (cross-checking with the exporting country’s customs) of the certificates by EU customs, “imports would de facto also be blocked”.
Pretty unsatisfactory all round really, as the report itself concludes, but still the European Commission intends to press ahead.
Of course, one of the fundamental aspects of these proposals is the definition of “source countries”. Does the Commission mean exporting countries or countries of origin? The report doesn’t say, but this is something that really matters. If it means countries of origin, how would that work for items that left the country decades or even centuries ago? And what about countries that have no certification process? Would a French collector importing a scarab bought in a New York sale have to ask Egypt for an export licence? What would they need to show?
When you look at the list of information required under the ObjectID process, including photography, it is clear that it would quickly become uneconomic to trade in lower-value items, so a significant section of the legitimate market would be blighted anyway. And taking all of the above into consideration, while creating a considerable challenge for dealers and auction houses, it would be all but insurmountable for most collectors and private buyers and sellers.
All in all, this set of proposals is a bit of a mess, and it is all so unnecessary if you take into account the Commission’s own reasons for looking into this.
What we have here is not the proposal for urgent measures to tackle a real problem, but a bureaucratic tidying up exercise, which misses the point because it will not be replacing other measures but adding another unnecessary layer of red tape to them.
The Commission announced its proposals in July, having taken delivery of the Deloitte report in June. So why did it not publish that report until September? Could it be because it didn’t like what it had to say?
Cultural property trafficking survey appears to be little more than an exercise in complacency and cynicism as EC plans damaging new law
COMMENT: I have no idea how much it has cost the European Commission to conduct the latest survey into the illegal importation of cultural goods used to finance terrorism, but it is clearly a shocking waste of money, as its own conclusions show.
The failure to check facts or take note of detailed submissions from industry experts has been so dire in this case one can only assume that this ‘consultation’ was a window dressing exercise in cynicism or a masterpiece of incompetence. Either way, the last thing it should be used for is a template for new and damaging legislation.
To show you what I mean, let’s take the ‘Fact Sheet’ that the Commission published on July 13 to accompany its press release announcing the crackdown.
Although neither the EU nor the US has conducted a single successful prosecution or seized any material confirmed to be linked to ISIS and terrorism in Syria and Iraq, the release itself focused on how the Commission is taking action to cut off such sources of financing.
To illustrate the scope of the problem, the ‘Fact Sheet’ asks the following question:
What is the value of the cultural goods that are imported illegally to the EU?
It then sets out the following answer:
‘The value of the illegal trade in cultural goods is difficult to assess, since it is a criminal activity.
‘Reliable data and instruments for measuring illicit commerce are scarce. According to Interpol, however, the black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods. Some estimates suggest that in 80-90% of sales of antiquities, the goods have illicit origins. Another study suggests that the total financial value of the illegal antiquities and art trade is larger than any other area of international crime except arms trafficking and narcotics and has been estimated at €2.5 – €5 billion yearly.
‘UNESCO has also stated that, together with the drugs and armaments trades, the black market in antiquities and culture constitutes one of the most firmly rooted illicit trades in the world.’
This seems credible enough until you check what Interpol actually says and where the Commission has sourced the other figures it quotes. Let’s take these in turn:
In quoting Interpol, the ‘Fact Sheet’ helpfully includes a link to the relevant page on the Interpol website. However, on clicking through to that link, although it makes the statement as reported, Interpol then contradicts this in its Frequently Asked Questions section on the same page. Click the link and it states the following:
Is it true that trafficking in cultural property is the third most common form of trafficking, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking?
‘We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media.
‘In fact, 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. National statistics are often based on the circumstances of the theft (petty theft, theft by breaking and entering or armed robbery), rather than the type of object stolen.
‘An enhanced information exchange could assist INTERPOL in determining the importance as well as the trends and patterns of this type of crime.’
This is followed by:
What is the cost of trafficking in cultural property?
‘It is not possible to put a figure on this type of crime, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because the value of an item of cultural property is not always the same in the country in which it was stolen and the destination country. Also, thefts of such property are sometimes not reported to the police because the money used to purchase them had not been declared for tax reasons or because it was the proceeds of criminal activity.
‘It is also impossible to assess the financial extent of the losses caused by clandestine archaeological excavations. Such excavations often only come to light when looted items appear on the international market. Illegal excavations destroy the scientific context of the single finds and seriously jeopardize future archeological research of the sites.
‘Even without considering the economic impact behind the illicit traffic of cultural goods, it is important to consider the damage caused by this type of crime to civilizations and their history. The cultural heritage of a country constitutes its identity. A country that is deprived of its cultural heritage because it is being looted or stolen is a country that is losing its identity and every component that is linked to it: national belonging, patriotism or national pride.’
And this is followed by:
Which countries are most affected by this type of crime and which objects are most frequently stolen?
‘Due to the lack of reliable and internationally harmonized statistics on cultural property thefts, it is impossible to identify one country being more affected than the others.
‘However, it is obvious that the following regions are particularly affected by this type of crime:
- Latin America,
- Middle East,
- North and Sub-Saharan Africa,
- South East Asia.
‘The majority of thefts are carried out from private homes. Museums and places of worship are also among the common targets.
‘The type of objects stolen varies from country to country. Generally speaking, paintings, sculptures and statues, and religious items are very sought after by thieves.
‘However, no category is spared, including such diverse items as archaeological pieces, antiquarian books, antique furniture, coins, weapons and firearms or ancient gold and silverware.’
Conflicting claims on trafficking of illicit cultural property that don’t add up
This detailed advice leads me to ask Interpol why on the page it links from it states: “The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods.” By its own admission, it can’t possibly know this, and so neither can the Commission.
As noted, the Commission further states: “Some estimates suggest that in 80-90% of sales of antiquities, the goods have illicit origins. Another study suggests that the total financial value of the illegal antiquities and art trade is larger than any other area of international crime except arms trafficking and narcotics and has been estimated at €2.5 – €5 billion yearly.”
Although it does not say where these estimates and study come from, it immediately goes on to quote UNESCO, stating: “UNESCO has also stated that, together with the drugs and armaments trades, the black market in antiquities and culture constitutes one of the most firmly rooted illicit trades in the world.”
Again, it gives a helpful link through to a UNESCO report (The fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects the 1970 convention: past and future), which does identify the study and estimates.
The Facts and Figures listed on page 2 of the UNESCO report include references to values for illicit trafficking ranging from $2 billion to $6 billion. The footnotes attribute the $2 billion figure to the November 24, 1990 Independent newspaper article Great Sale of the Century by Geraldine Norman. However, for two reasons it is clear that UNESCO has never checked this source – and neither has the Commission. The first is that the article, which you can read here, includes no figure whatsoever, and the second is that in referring to it, UNESCO made the same mistake that Brodie, Doole & Watson made in referring to it in their 2000 report, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material. On page 23 of that report, it states: ‘Geraldine Norman has estimated that the illicit trade in antiquities, world-wide, may be as much as $2 billion a year’. On page 60 of the report, under the relevant footnote, it gives the source as follows: Norman G., Great sale of the century. Independent, 24 November 1990 – exactly the same reference as UNESCO gives, which the Commission then quotes. However, the article itself is actually titled Great sale of the centuries, which indicates that in conducting the research for the Commission Deloittes have simply lifted the UNESCO report without checking its sources, while UNESCO, in turn, lifted the claim from the Brodie, Doole & Watson report without ever checking the Norman article.
No need for this as correct information was already available
What makes this all so unnecessary is that I personally supplied UNESCO with all the relevant information correcting these and other mistakes in March last year on behalf of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), with all the relevant links for independent verification, and it was posted on the UNESCO website, where it is still available.
So what we actually have presented as ‘Facts’ by the Commission to justify its position is an unchecked quote based on a 17-year-old report, which inaccurately bases its claims on a newspaper article that was already ten years old at the time and which says nothing of the sort anyway.
What Geraldine Norman’s 27-year-old article does state is her unsubstantiated opinion that “80 per cent of all antiquities that come on the market have been illegally excavated and smuggled from their countries of origin” – hence the additional figures quoted by the Commission.
The $6 billion figure quoted by the Commission also comes from the UNESCO report, but here things get even more confused. UNESCO states that the figure comes from “Research conducted by the United Kingdom’s House of Commons on [sic] July 2000”. However, the footnote referencing this quotes a 2009 report in Italian by F. Isman of Milan and deals only with Italian archaeology. Again, this source has clearly not been checked.
There are another two possible sources for the $5-6 billion figure. According to James McAndrew, the former FBI agent who set up the US Department of Homeland Security Antiquities Division in 2010, the first is an unsubstantiated claim made by an official at an ICOM conference in the 1980s. The other is a misreading of the estimate of global art crime – in other words all crime associated with the entire art market, from fraud and burglary to forgery and theft, not antiquities at all – as estimated by the Art Crime Team of the FBI, although they do not say how they arrived at this figure and have now downgraded it to $4 billion to $6 billion as the video from this link confirms.
Reports show that neither Interpol nor the World Customs Organisation back the EC’s position
Section 6 of The World Customs Organisation 2015 report covered the illicit trade in cultural objects for the first time. It noted nothing linked to ISIS, but page 147 does state that one of its largest ongoing cases, Hidden Idol, has resulted in the seizure of $100 million of stolen and looted artefacts from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia.
This means that neither Interpol nor the WCO recognise the unsubstantiated figures adopted wholesale, without checking, by the European Commission in setting out its ‘Fact Sheet’ to justify the new measures.
Now look at the Commission’s reasons for introducing new measures. According to its ‘Fact Sheet’, “Recent reports have also shown that valuable artworks, sculptures and archaeological artefacts are being sold and imported into the EU from certain non-EU countries, with those profits potentially used to finance terrorist activities. For example, two Syrian friezes that may have been intended for criminal gain were seized at Roissy airport, France last year.”
Note the wording: Even here there is no claim that these had any link to ISIS, terrorism or even any crime at all, just that they ‘may’ have been intended for criminal gain with profits ‘potentially’ used to finance terrorism.
In October last year, 18 EU countries co-operated in Operation Pandora, a Europol-led exercise to find and seize trafficked cultural property funding terrorism. The authorities searched nearly 50,000 people, nearly 30,000 vehicles and 50 ships. They arrested 75 people and seized just over 3500 pieces of cultural property, 1000 of which turned out to have come from a single seizure from an illicit metal detectorist in Poland and largely consisted of spent rifle cartridges and rusted rifle stocks from the Second World War. Now Europol has confirmed that despite this operation targeting terrorism financing, not one item seized came from a conflict zone. So what it actually showed was what a good job existing laws are doing in keeping this stuff out of Europe – precisely the arguments that the trade had made during the consultation period, which the Commission has chosen to ignore completely.
The Commission’s conclusions airily brush aside serious trade concerns
The ‘Fact Sheet’ also airily brushes aside any concerns that dealers might have about the impact of the new law on legitimate trade, again utterly ignoring the serious concerns detailed during the consultation process.
This whole consultation process appears to be little more than a box-ticking exercise that barely nods in the direction of democracy. It smacks of the Commission deciding what it was going to do before any of this started and acknowledging that it had to be seen to go through a consultation process, which it has then gone on to dismiss out of hand.
The first indication of this cynical approach came at the very beginning.
Instead of consulting the trade on the future of the art market in Europe, the Commission consulted the Arts Council, one of the most ineffectual UK quangos around, and which has nothing to do with the art market.
Then there was the matter of timing. The decision to consult the market was taken on January 28, 2016, with a deadline for responses of May 28, and yet no one found out about the consultation until May 22, with some relevant trade associations never being approached at all.
The Commission’s own Regulatory Scrutiny Board (RSB) failed the first draft Impact Assessment submitted for the new proposals, criticising it for not clearly circumscribing the problem nor substantiating its magnitude, nor providing an adequate evaluation of the associated costs. The revised Impact Assessment, which was eventually passed, still did not give an accurate description of the relative size of the illicit market (as shown above), despite this being a significant demand by the RSB, nor did it provide the other relevant statistical information the RSB asked for, nor a clear view of the magnitude of the problem. So one wonders how the revised Impact Assessment passed at all.
Stringent and effective rules already exist within the EU governing material from Syria and Iraq, while other regulations already address illicit material from anywhere else in the world. Why do we need yet more and inappropriate legislation that will only serve to hamstring the legitimate market?
How can we have confidence in the EU’s leading governing body if this is the way it conducts itself?
COMMENT: A perceived lack of regulation, the rise of art as an alternative asset class and conflict in the Middle East present a triple whammy for an unprepared art market. What has happened to the market? And what must happen now?
Antiques Trade Gazette’s current report on how the trade is fighting back against misperceptions and propaganda.
The international trade in antiquities has been the focus of sustained criticism over the past few years as a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Anti-trade campaigners – academics, archaeologists, politicians and others – who have been trying to shut down the legitimate trade for years, have seized this opportunity to lobby hard for new regulation, ever-tighter restrictions on trade and more draconian punishments for even slight infringements. There have been calls for the private ownership of antiquities to be made socially unacceptable.
The dissemination of biased or badly conducted research and questionable relationships with the media, much of which appears complicit, or at least complacent, has not helped. This is part of the widely recognised ‘fake news’ issue, as 24-hour rolling reporting combined with declining resources within the media – particularly in the press – rob journalists of the opportunity to investigate in any depth or check facts. This makes them increasingly vulnerable to unscrupulous interests that want to present propaganda as news. Outlandish figures relating to the size of the problem of looted material coming out of Syria, for instance, have been widely accepted as utterly unfounded by all sides in the debate for some time now, yet continue to be peddled by a number of quite prominent sources.
This has led to criticism from anti-trade campaigners themselves. Dr Neil Brodie’s article for the European Union National Institutes for Culture, says the propagandists exaggerate the problem to attract government attention and more funding. This leads to inappropriate policy, which in turn damages the very nations and cultural heritage institutions they seek to protect.
Even government research and publications, in the US, Germany and elsewhere fall short of the standards that should be expected. Recently, Homeland Security Today, the news and views website for the eponymous US department, published my critique of Homeland Security’s report last October, Cash to Chaos, dismantling ISIS’ financial infrastructure.
The report’s small section on antiquities was riddled with inaccuracies, the footnotes quoting out-of-date and long-discredited media articles as primary sources of evidence to support the claims. In some cases, the reports mentioned in the footnotes did not contain any of the evidence referred to at all. If this can happen with Homeland Security, whose report was leapt on by campaigners as further proof of the antiquities problem, who else can be trusted?
Many of those who want to see an end to any trade, legitimate or not, dedicate most of their working lives to this cause. They tend to be very well funded and organised, and have the ear of governments, law enforcement and NGOs, which do not appear to appreciate the distinction between those who trade lawfully and those who do not.
The effectiveness of these campaigners is not to be underestimated, especially as the antiquities sector in particular and the art market in general have been woefully unprepared to tackle such unrelenting criticism.
All of this is not helped by the perception that the wider art market is fairly lawless. True, it is not directly regulated in the way that finance, health, insurance and the law are, but there is direct regulation, and plenty of it (see the British Art Market Federation’s list of regulation. A dealer’s liability under the new Cultural Property [Armed Conflicts] Bill is a case in point: potentially, they can be jailed for up to seven years for even unintentionally breaking the law.
How it all changed in 2008
What the art market has failed to understand until quite recently is that everything changed in 2008. When the markets crashed and pulled the rug out from under gilts and bonds, those traditional safe havens of wealth, the relative risk of art as a store of value diminished, making it much more attractive as an alternative asset class. The banks and wealth managers started to advise clients to diversify their portfolios.
Where money heads, attention follows – and not just from investors. Regulators, governments and criminals also turned their gaze on the art market as a significant influx of cash created the potential for money laundering, market manipulation and other undesirable activities. Transparency became the buzzword of any discussion about the market, but transparency is just the outward manifestation of the real problem: lack of trust.
The market generally was unused to such scrutiny and ill equipped for what it would mean: media attacks, tighter controls, new laws and wider attempts at regulation. Many continue to bury their heads in the sand, but others have realised they must act now to build confidence with the authorities and public before it is too late.
Despite this, most have still not accepted that such a programme requires a significant investment of money and time, the sort of commitment on which the other side in the debate has long been able to rely.
Against this background, and the emerging Syrian conflict, the antiquities trade found itself in the front line. What makes life even harder for the trade is the role antiquities now play in international diplomacy. Nation states are using cultural property or heritage as a political tool in negotiations, to curry favour with other countries or to burnish their credentials as virtuous campaigners for the greater good.
The trade fights back
Around two years ago, the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in the UK and then the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) recognised that they needed to fight back. As such, they realised they must revisit their own codes of conduct and improve procedures and methods of communication, whether via their websites, direct mail, PR and media opportunities or their relationships with the various authorities.
They have been very effective in doing so, leading the way in raising wider art market standards – as parliament has recognised – and shaping debate with lawmakers, law enforcement and the media at national and international levels.
Their success can be attributed in part to their thorough research and presentation of arguments supported by independently verifiable evidence, in part to the dedication of their representatives, and in part to the fact that the anti-trade campaigners have not been used to having their propaganda challenged and so are sometimes inattentive when it comes to detail.
Nonetheless, rich and powerful anti-trade interests – supported by countries such as Egypt that wish to reclaim their cultural property, regardless of whether it now rightly belongs to others – have persuaded governments to introduce major changes in the law in Germany, the UK and the United States, laws introduced as a result of mistaken views of where problems lie.
The rather less well-funded antiquities trade is fighting an effective rear-guard action, but very much against the odds. What the trade does have is a network of knowledgeable experts, a sophisticated strategy and a wealth of evidence and data to support its case; it is also getting better organised, with disparate groups in the USA coming together to fight for better understanding and a fairer deal. It needs better financial and strategic support as the trade improves its own relationships with decision-makers further and continues to fight for recognition in national and international debate.
Trade organisations have already tried to engage with their fiercest critics, but the signs so far are that campaigners have no intention of giving any ground. I can understand this: they have had unrivalled success so far and can’t see any reason to compromise. It is clear that many simply believe that any trade whatsoever means providing cover for the crooks. What may surprise them is that legitimate trade is the arch-enemy of the crooks, as criminal activity damages the reputation of those who trade lawfully.
The wider art market needs to wake up fully to its challenges, as demonstrated so clearly already in the microcosm of the antiquities market. That means better self-regulation in the form of codes of conduct, ethical behaviour and transparency, as well as a more effective public charm offensive, with the trade associations taking a prominent role.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of the RICS property Journal
COMMENT: I have serious concerns about the new report published by the University of Portsmouth’s School of Law on the UK’s antique trade in ivory.
The Elephant in the Sale Room, as it is titled, is an exercise in futility. The real ‘Elephant in the Room’ here is the study’s vast shortcomings, rendering any solid conclusions at best misguided, at worst dangerous.
First, let’s take the statistics. There are two measures to consider here: margin of error and confidence in accurate results.
Statistically, to be 95% confident that the answers were an accurate reflection of the whole population – in this case the UK art and antiques market – while allowing for a margin of error of plus or minus 4% in the spread of answers – the standard for such studies – the sample size for a population of 20,000 should be just under 600, or 3% of the population.
The sample size given here – 80 – is approximately 0.4% of the estimated population. Taken as a percentage of the Antiques Trade Gazette readership of 35,000, which I would see as a more accurate reading of the size of the market, that falls to 0.23% of the population, or just 7.5% of the minimum sample size needed to be confident of reasonably accurate results within a reasonable margin of error.
The sample size used in this case leaves a margin of error that allows you to drive two London buses through side by side.
Now add the fact that only around half of the sample actually answered a number of important questions and it gets worse.
For example, question 13 asked: How many of the following goods, either containing or made entirely from ivory, did you sell in 2015? This garnered a total of 39 replies, or 0.19% of the estimated population, rendering the response all but meaningless.
Questions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21 met a similar level of response.
The researchers are struck by the fact that “none of the organisations that we researched had any specific advice on their websites regarding the laws and regulations on the sale of ivory”. The implication of this is that they are complacent or incompetent. However, at this point the report fails to acknowledge that the Government had removed its own advice from the internet because it was so confusing and misleading. If the Government can’t give accurate advice, how are the associations expected to?
The report does finally acknowledge the problem on page 42, where one of the 12 interviews supplementing the survey notes how “confusing” and “unhelpful” DEFRA’s website is on this.
Additional efforts, such as the 2016 CITES panel at the Art Business Conference, and Antiques Trade Gazette’s recent conference, which could have been added as a late footnote, are ignored entirely.
Perhaps most surprising and disturbing was the assumption made on page 25 of the report that the low response rate to the survey pointed to dishonesty among the trade, with dealers being “sometimes secretive regarding [their] commercial activities”, followed by a reference to Stuart Henry’s The Hidden Economy and “illegality” taking place in settings “which (on the surface) seem completely legal and this, in turn, makes participants disinclined to be open about their activities”.
This is staggering in its arrogance and complacency, blaming the failure of this poorly composed exercise on the “dodgy” trade, rather than looking to its own structure, methodology and execution for the true shortcomings.
How is anyone supposed to trust the authors as dispassionate and unbiased in this light?
At least, on the same page, the report goes on to admit: “with such a small sample it is difficult to make strong assumptions about the universe of the antiques trade”. Nevertheless, the report does just that, and unhelpfully too.
Turn to the next page, for instance, and immediately we are told: “The survey results show that some respondents failed to answer all of the survey questions [a huge understatement] suggesting that some questions were maybe too sensitive…”.
Page 32 makes the ‘astonishing’ discovery that auctioneers tend to sell more pieces than dealers, but this is hardly true of just ivory. If even a small-time auctioneer with only a monthly sale of 500 items and a 70% sell-through rate turns over 4200 lots a year, how many dealers could match that?
So does the report meet its three stated objectives?
- To evaluate types of ivory objects being sold in the UK, their source and the buyer’s demographic? (A: To a degree, no and no).
- To understand how traders appraise an item before sale to satisfy themselves whether or not it complies with the law (A: Partially, although until the conclusion on page 52, the report utterly ignores the crucial matter of the costs and time delay of carbon dating tests – recently estimated in parliament as averaging between £500 and £1000 per item).
- To evaluate the effect a total ban on the sale of ivory would have on the British antiques trade (A: Not even close, based on the sample size, response level and demonstrable lack of understanding of key considerations).
The report does make some sound recommendations – not least those to DEFRA – but none that has not already been mooted by the industry without having to resort to the time and expense of this exercise.
It at least acknowledges its own limitations under the first concluding recommendation: “The study highlighted the difficulties in obtaining information from the antiques trade about the nature of their practices regarding the sale of ivory. We would therefore recommend further research…”
Again the trade is blamed, whereas, in my view, the pointlessness of this study as executed is the real cause for complaint. How much did it cost? How could the money have been better spent?
What do the customs figures say?
UK exports of art and antiques fell by 13.6% to £4.95 billion in 2016, while imports declined by 37% to £2.23 billion.
Having just completed my annual analysis of the trade figures, which I compile from from raw customs data, I noted significant drop-offs in values for the first half of 2016, with additional significant falls in fine art imports and exports between July and December.
Sterling declined an average of 5.9% year on year for the first six months of 2016, but the six-month year-on-year average post-referendum fell by 16.3%. So to get a true picture of how the market has changed you have to take this into account.
Although customs returns fell across the board for the last half of 2016, the two areas where this appeared to be significant were in exports and imports of fine art beyond European Union borders – down 24.2% to £1.68 billion and down 55.2% to £524.5m respectively.
Movement within EU borders is assessed differently by HMRC because of the single market, but its figures showed a widening trade gap for fine art, with twice as many works by value heading across the channel from the UK as in the same period for 2015, while the value of works entering the UK from the EU from July to December 2016 fell by more than 60%. However, the figures are comparatively small in the context of the global market.
This year I conducted additional research to see if any Brexit effect could be detected in the second-half figures, but the picture is not clear.
On the basis of what I have seen so far, I would say that the jury is still out. The fine art side shows significant weakening beyond exchange rate issues, but the global art market contracted in 2016 anyway, so you would expect to see cross-border trade decline.
Frieze Week sales boosted confidence
However, Frieze Week sales at the beginning of October underpinned confidence in the UK market, with Christie’s alone netting over £90 million for Post-War and Contemporary Art, including 19 artist auction records.
With an exchange rate of $1.27 to the pound then – compared to around $1.53 at this time in 2015 – this series would have been a very attractive prospect to overseas buyers. It also shows London’s ability to attract great works for sale.
Having said that, fine art imports to the UK for the second half of the year fell by more than 50% in value on the same period in 2015, possibly reflecting not just the weakness in sterling but also the likelihood that this would make London a less attractive place for consignors in the short term.
Nonetheless, all of this needs to be taken in the context of the long-term trend upwards, and we will have to wait to see how the next two years pan out to see if our changing relationship with the European Union will alter the UK’s global market status.
Drilling down to the detail, not much has changed in the structure of the UK’s trading relationships.
The United States remains the most significant partner (see table above), but the figures show significant market shrinkage: the UK’s fine art exports to the US were down by 20% at £1.85 billion, while imports fell 40% to £552.3m. Exports of antiques to the US dropped by 24% to £431.1m, and imports declined by over 30% to £224.5m.
Fine art exports to Hong Kong remain stable amid global decline
The two great entrepots who dominate trade relations with the UK art market after the US, Switzerland and Hong Kong, also saw dramatic change, with fine art exports to and imports from the former down nearly 40% at £584.6m and £507.8m respectively, while fine art imports from Hong Kong crashed by almost three quarters. However, fine exports there remained very stable at £81.3m, showing an overall healthier trade gap for the UK with the former British territory.
One of the most significant changes in trading partnerships came with South Korea, now acknowledged as an increasingly strong buying base: exports of pictures there rose by more than £450% to nearly £90m.
It is important to remember that the trade figures measure the value of goods crossing UK borders rather than actual sales, but they tend to mirror much of the market’s trends and spheres of influence.