A citation by Nathan T. Elkin lead me to "From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Trade in Illegal Antiquities" by Morag M. Kersel (in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (2006)).
My main interest in the paper is how dealers avoid registries. I've been trying to design a registry and need to understand common attacks.
Background: Israeli antiquities dealers are allowed to buy and sell antiquities registered before 1978. Antiquities not in the registry are the property of the state of Israel.
Kersel claims that dealers re-use the same registration for similar antiquities, using the example of a Herodian oil lamp, 'registry #147'. When the lamp is sold the buyer receives a certificate of authenticity (CoA) from the dealer and perhaps an export license 'issued by the [Israel Antiquities Authority]'. A description and registry number appear on the export license. Kersel claims that if the buyer doesn't ask for the license the dealer can continue using the registry number without fear of detection.
A request to my readers. If any of you have bought a coin in Israel and obtained either the certificate of authenticity or the export license I'd like a scan (and English translation). If any of you have bought a coin by mail from Israel I'd be curious to know if the export license arrived with the coin and if you had to ask for it.
Kersel doesn't say if the CoA includes or excludes the registry number. It must not because if it did a police detective could easily buy similar items from the same shop a month apart and receive proof of the scam. Yet I would think a knowledgeable Israeli collector would insist on receiving the registry number for coins he planned on keeping in Israel, if only to be assured of the legal status and to have the possibility of one day selling or donating to a foreign museum.
The attack Kersel documents makes use of the non-specificity of the registry descriptions. A registry including photographs would be much harder to scam, or one recording weights down to the tenth of a gram (noting that items do gain and lose a bit of weight due to moisture or poorly calibrated scales.)
Kersel includes a colorful story of a shoeshine who moonlights as an illicit antiquities dealer. Kersel claims that Palestinian female herb growers in Hebron find coins while gardening and sell them to the shoeshine for less than 2% of retail. The shoeshine sells them to dealers for 20% of retail.
It should be easy to detect this! A detective could photograph a legally excavated coin and drop it in a Hebron herb garden. If it was a scarce coin it would soon appear in the trays of the dealers who patronize the shoeshine. The detective could then buy it with the bogus registration number.
I don't know how many antiquities, specifically ancient coins, appear in the pre-1978 registry. I'd be very curious to know! Ten-thousand? A million? Detecting suspicious activity on large and small registries have different problems.
It would also be interesting to know if the export license database is kept digitally. If so, it should be easy to check for re-use of numbers. This wouldn't detect clever dealers but should foil the clumsy or inattentive.
The scam Kersel documents, though somewhat clever, seems easy to unmask. Perhaps Israel's police detectives lack the time or the will. Kersel admits the Antiquities Authority is understaffed and illegal antiquities are a low priority. That's valid. However, Kersel quotes O'Keefe (Trade in Antiquities (1997)) saying that the effectiveness of licensing dealers and having registries is questionable. I think that's unfair. When the pro-collecting community suggests licensing and registries for countries with looting problems we mean ones with enforcement — a least spot checking. We don't mean the paperwork itself solves the problem!
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